Don’t Waste What You Can’t Measure: Three Ways to Manage Home Electricity Use

Don’t Waste What You Can’t Measure: Three Ways to Manage Home Electricity Use

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A Mere 12 Data Points per Year

Somewhere deep down we know it: we waste energy. And increasingly, we realize that this waste affects even more than the extra money we spend. It impacts the air we breathe and the planet we inhabit. Wasted energy can also be a sign of improperly operating or failing equipment in our homes. But so far, only limited options exist to help us measure and manage how we use energy. And therefore, we uneasily accept inefficiency and waste.

Month after countless month, we pay the electric bill from our utility.  Some months we pay more, some months less.  Sometimes the utility tells us how our use compares to that of our “neighbors,” though this term lacks definition.  Perhaps we receive a flyer or email suggesting methods to decrease our bill, though these methods lack specificity to our own use of energy.  As a result, for the most part, we receive a mere 12 data points per year — and no custom insight on which to act.  Pretty sparse.

So the reality remains: few of us have a strong sense of how much electricity we consume at any given moment.  And without that knowledge, we are poorly positioned to make changes in our usage. Simply put, we cannot measure and manage our energy use.

An Odd Consumer Response

Typically, we don’t accept paying for something with little or no idea about our rate of consumption or its cost. Further, we prefer control in our spending choices.  But somehow, we’ve become OK with this model for utilities.  Hmmm….

Perhaps we accept this model because, well, we are pretty spoiled in the US.  Though we may sometimes gripe about utilities, we are all used to highly reliable, relatively inexpensive electricity.  The following table gives current perspective regarding where the US stacks up with regards to electricity prices.

This table provides average 2018 electricity rates in US cents per kilowatt-hour for a group of 33 selected countries.  Germany tops the list with an average cost of 23 cents per kilowatt-hour.  China and India are at the bottom of pricing on this list, tied at 8 cents per kilowatt-hour.  The United States is also in the bottom third of the list, at number 16 with an average cost of 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.  The data for this table derives from Statista.
Average 2018 electricity rates for selected countries. kWh = kilowatt-hours. Table adapted from data provided by Statista.

This backdrop for energy pricing helps us understand why we typically accept meager access to data and an odd “pay-as-you-went” model.  In other words, we haven’t yet worked very hard to measure or manage our energy. Many of us just haven’t felt it worth the effort or cost.

However, change is on the horizon – and it will merit our paying attention!

Why We Should Up Our Game

The Transition

Whether aware or not, we stand at the fore of a significant energy transition that will affect our relationship with electric utilities.  As with every other aspect of our lives, technology is rapidly changing traditional economic patterns.  And electricity supply is no exception.

The last decade in particular has witnessed brisk innovation around wind and solar resources, as well as batteries for storage.  This innovation has led to notable cost decreases. As a result, in many markets, utilities increasingly deploy capital towards renewables rather than fossil fuels.  And as these resources become less pricey, more of us will choose to deploy them in our homes, taking “pressure” off central grids.  From this perspective, the future looks seamless for moving to non-polluting sources of power!

But, hold on. 

The Disruption

This transition will prove disruptive on many levels, most notably for the reliability we all expect from our electrical supply.  In brief, our communities will still require backup from utilities for times when the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine, and storage becomes depleted.  For this reason, we will expect utilities to maintain infrastructure and their ability to dispatch power centrally.  Since upkeep costs money, utilities reasonably will look to cover costs. Also, they will seek to devise methods for avoiding rapid “duck-curve” spikes in demand.  And even now, many of us face time-of-use and demand charges on utility bills over which we still have little control. 

Simply put, you can’t manage energy that you can’t measure

For this reason, we should grow into savvy consumers, able to reap the benefits of real-time data.  And once again, technology will drive rapid change. Timely and frequent delivery of electricity usage information will become the norm for consumers. As a consequence, we will all gain insight to drive smart choices around energy use.  

Even now, several tools already exist to help measure and manage energy.  And more are on the way!

Tools That Measure

There are two basic methods for measuring electricity.  Each approach entails differing expense and effort for the consumer. But, both costs and complexity are trending downwards. Simply put, continued development around the internet-of-things (IoT) and connected “smart” homes has made tech more available to all.

Method #1: Using the Utility Meter

Optical Output

Of course, hardware mounted outside our homes already provides near-time information – albeit in an inconvenient location and format. Utility meters just aren’t a part of our domestic lives!  To get over this, devices exist to read optical output from the meter and to deliver it to in-home displays.  However, most utilities do not permit — and will remove — anything attached to their meter.  Further, these devices require batteries and obviously are located on the exterior where theft may present a problem.

Radio Frequency

AMR Meters

Alternatively, it is possible to read output already broadcast from meters for billing purposes.  These signals come from two types of meters: one-way (also called “AMR”) and two-way (also called “AMI” or “smart”).  AMR signals transmit over the 900-MHz range and can be read by anyone with the right radio receiver.  Such systems need no equipment out-of-doors, but typically do require programming skills to format data for homeowners.  Further, many of these now-legacy AMR meters are approaching their end of life. In response, utilities are increasingly swapping out AMR units in favor of AMI ones

AMI Meters

Currently, the US has installed nearly 80 million AMI meters. That figure represents more than 50% of the estimated 150 million electricity devices deployed in the US. In contrast to AMR, AMI meters do not broadcast to a general audience, but rather only to the utility.  That said, in certain markets, these meters can be equipped with a ZigBee transmitter readable by consumer devices once authorized by the utility

Multiple devices exist in this category. Many of these devices can send data either to an in-home display or to a Wi-Fi bridge to provide mobile access.  Like an AMR receiver, these devices remain safely indoors. The only real downside is found in hardware cost and reliance upon the utility for commissioning.  Nevertheless, after an initial surge of new entrants in the mid 2000s, many companies have exited the ZigBee energy space.  The incumbent leader in the group of remaining companies is probably Rainforest Automation.

As a further complication, not all AMI meters provide the wireless transmission option to consumers. Which leads to discussion of the second set of available tools…

Method #2: Using Your Breaker Panel

Them or Us

Each device in the set of tools for Method #1 above requires direct interface with the utility meter. Consequently, we more appropriately should think of that hardware as linking to “the Utility’s meter.”  Not so much for us as for them.  Of course, this makes perfect sense. Recall that the main purpose for these meters remains the same as it ever was: billing. 

Measure and Manage Energy Behind the Meter

A far more consumer-focused approach involves working behind the meter – at our breaker panels.  Of course, these panels belong to us and can be modified within local code requirements.  Such panels receive two “main feed” input wires directly from the utility meter.  Their output consists of wires from each breaker to provide electricity for individual circuits throughout our homes.   These circuits can supply power to sub-panels, single rooms, or even single appliances.

It is possible to measure the amount of electricity passing through any of these wires, whether for main feeds or individual circuits.  Flow of electrons is determined by clamping a current transformer (CT) around the wires to be measured.  The analog signal from these CT devices can then be converted into digital format and transmitted wirelessly via Wi-Fi

CT Solutions

Several different flavors of these devices exist.  Some units only measure the main feeds. Others break out readings for individual circuits.  Some can be installed inside the panel, protected from the elements in the event of location outdoors.  Others, may require components outside the panel or battery power.  Some provide near continuous readings while others limit sending data to six times per minute. 

And of course, each solution has its own price point and requires different levels of effort for installation.  Finally, each solution has a unique user experience for delivering real-time data.  This last point is of course critical in the context delivering value to consumers. Simply put, ease and pleasure-of-use are critical in engaging people to measure and manage energy where few have before done so.

The comprehensive table below compares legacy devices on the market. Each of these devices relies upon CT-based current measurement while also boasting a mobile app, solar expansion ability, and insight into savings and efficiency. These were the “table stakes” for evaluation in the matrix.

Of these, Sense may be the most recognized brand, offering relative ease of installation, real-time data, artificial intelligence (AI), and a mature app.  However, at nearly $300 the price point is relatively high. Further, many reviews point to continuing difficulties in identifying individual appliances with AI.  Towards the other end of the price spectrum, at about $160, Efergy offers a battery-powered unit with data provided semi-continuously at 10-second intervals. 

The Bottom Line

Looking at the last row of this table, one notes a low-priced recent entrant to the market from Emporia Energy. This entrant combines many of the features available from legacy devices on the market — as well as the ability to interface with AMI meters. This last feature will be particularly attractive to certain users in California, where many meters cannot accommodate CT clamps on main-wire feeds. The rest of this post explores the capabilities of Emporia’s new platform, the Vue.

Method #3: A Better Way to Measure and Manage Energy Use

Our Experience at Emporia Energy

Emporia Energy spent most of 2018 researching and developing a new solution for Smart Home Energy. During this time, Emporia purchased and tested the devices listed in the table above.  From the beginning, we focused on helping consumers save money, resources, and carbon — all while protecting their most important appliances. As we together move further into the energy transition discussed above, Emporia has not wavered. We remain convinced that exceptional customer experience through mobile technology provides the key to unlocking large-scale efficiencies and value to users.

As we launched, we anticipated that most efforts would revolve around developing back-end and app software.  In other words, we felt certain that the hardware to measure and manage energy in real-time existed in the market. Further, we believed we could find this hardware at prices supporting widespread adoption.  However, the more we looked and the more we sampled available solutions, the more we failed to find them. Such devices as we envisioned had yet to be developed.

For this reason, we chose to take on the additional task of building hardware for our intended platform.  In the process, we elected to develop two hardware devices: one for each of the data-collection methods described above.  We believe that offering two devices promotes consumer choice and fosters wider adoption.

The Emporia Vue: Two Solutions

Behind Your Panel

For most users, we offer a CT-based system to transmit data to Wi-Fi and cloud services. Interestingly, this device may even be used in the so-called ZigBee markets described below. Consequently, we consider this hardware configuration to be “universal.” It is also a great choice for those who may wish to avoid working through a utility to gain data access. That said, like other analog solutions described in Method #2 above, it requires installation behind the breaker panel. 

Coming Soon: The Vue Expansion Module!

In addition to the two larger, 200A CT clamps for measuring main electrical feeds, the Vue expands to accommodate additional circuits. Each Vue expansion module can accept discrete input from up to eight smaller, 50-amp CT clamps. In this manner, the Vue can be used directly to monitor individual appliances, rooms, or sections of a home as desired. The Vue Expansion Module will be available by the fall of 2019.

Through the Utility’s Wireless Connection

Where utilities offer ZigBee wireless AMI connectivity, Emporia is also developing a device that merely requires plugging into a home power outlet. This device bridges the ZigBee signal data through Wi-Fi to the Emporia cloud services. By our best estimation, this option will work for somewhere between 20 and 40 million consumers in the US.  Also likely to be available by fall 2019, this device will deliver relative ease of physical installation, but does require interfacing with the utility for on-boarding.  However, data will only stream every 5 – 8 seconds, compared to continuous data for the CT solution above. That said, the ZigBee-based Vue will also operate with the Vue Expansion Module — thereby delivering added flexibility and choice to consumers.

Benefit to Consumers

The Emporia Vue differs markedly from current devices in many ways. Distinctive features revolve around improvements to cost, performance, and user experience.  Specifically:

  • At less than $150, the Vue clearly enhances consumer value and achieves a rapid payback on savings
  • Options around measurement principal (CT or ZigBee) as well as expansion ensure great versatility for users
  • Co-branding opportunities for Emporia partners and providers of home services
  • A convenient means for offsetting pollution impact for the energy that we unavoidably must use on a daily basis
  • And finally, the real-time app interface allows users to select their time increment as well as the units for comparison
Photograph of a consumer using Emporia Energy's mobile app to measure and manage energy use.
Emporia’s app to measure and manage energy use.

With respect to this last point, recall that hardware only represents one part of Emporia’s platform. The other component, software, further distinguishes this system from the current market. Briefly, Emporia’s app is easy to use and attractive. Further, it recommends how best to save money and resources. To meet this objective, Emporia monitors not only demand-side usage, but with time will also consider supply-side costs and sources for energy.  No other system considers both sides of the energy equation. All in the interest of saving consumers money and reducing carbon.

In three easy steps, consumers can gain control of their energy spending:

  1. Download Emporia’s app
  2. Purchase and install the Emporia Vue
  3. Follow Emporia’s recommendations for saving money and pollution

Prepare for the Transition in Three Easy Steps!

We at Emporia seek to partner with consumers during this latest US energy transition. The goal is better to measure and manage energy use. Along the way, we also pledge to provide insight and savings. We are a young company, eager to share what we have developed so far! We are further motivated to receive feedback on what we have already built.

Here’s How to Manage What You Measure

Step 1: Try Emporia’s Software

Download Emporia’s app on either the App Store or Google Play. Any user can sample a demo version of this app and provide feedback. But the app becomes so much more powerful when used in concert with Vue hardware! So be sure to complete the second step below, either before or after downloading the Emporia app.

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Step 2: Purchase Emporia Vue Hardware

Installed behind your home’s main breaker box, the Vue works in any market. Though homeowners can often complete this installation in 15-20 minutes, Emporia nonetheless recommends hiring a qualified electrician. However, as a reward for installation, the Vue provides highly granular data and the ability to monitor individual circuits.

Click here to choose your Vue! Note that for convenience and choice, we also provide Amazon links where available for the other energy monitors discussed in this article or presented in the comparison table above.

Step 3: Reap the Rewards of Success

Simply put, Emporia seeks to put consumers in control of their energy data. By viewing this data in real time, consumers can expect to save between 3% and 13% through awareness and simple conservation. However, Emporia has established the bold goal of saving consumers up to 50% on energy spending over time. Consumers will achieve this level of savings through a combination of app-recommended strategies that will compound over time. Better yet, these opportunities for savings will only increase as utilities proceed further into the renewable-energy transition.

Think about it:

  • Extra money in your pocket — month after month
  • 24/7 monitoring of your home’s energy demand
  • The future ability to monitor individual circuits — and even large appliances
  • No more nagging concerns about wasting money and energy
  • Comfort in knowing that your benefits also help the planet

Emporia sees this confluence of interests as the ultimate win-win — and hopes you will as well. Please join us!


Seth Terry

Seth is Head of Customer Experience at Emporia Energy. A Colorado native, Seth has devoted his career to working in the water-food-energy nexus and remains deeply committed to meeting the challenge of climate change.

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