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Conservation Gadgetry: The Scoop on Whole-House Energy-Use Detectors

Here’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Why? Because I am a conservation and gadget addict. Whole house energy monitors allow me to indulge both passions and help me operate my home more efficiently. And today it is easier than ever for anyone with similar interests to do the same.

These systems provide you with the near real time energy use of your home. I say “near real time” because there is a few second delay between sensing use and getting it to your display. The typical system has a sensor to pick up energy use, a transmitter and a display to show you the use and other statistics.

Whole house monitors come in two variants. One uses a sensor that is attached to the electric meter. As utilities, we don’t recommend these. First of all, they are hard to align properly, especially as electric meters go digital. Secondly, they interfere with our techs being able to service the meters. They have to be removed to work on the meter. More than one has arrived on my desk from the meter techs asking what they should do with them.

The second uses clips called current transducers (CTs) that fit around the power lines inside your electric panel. The advantage of this approach is that it is all inside your home. If taking the electric panel’s cover off to install the CTs makes you nervous, get a contractor or an acquaintance who is competent in such matters to lend a hand. I have done it several times without incident.

Once your system is operational, it is time to put it to use. The first thing to do is determine a “base load” for your home. This is the minimum amount of energy needed for things like the refrigerator and freezer. The best time to determine this is after everyone has gone to bed. My current home’s base load is about 400 watts.

Put your monitor where everyone can see it. Turn on different appliances and systems, one at a time, so you can see their impact on your electric use. Eventually you will be able to tell exactly what is running. This is a terrific tool for teaching kids about how much electricity things like game consoles and PCs use. It also shows them the impact of turning stuff off when they are not using it.

Diagnosing issues is another benefit. If your electric bill seems higher than you expected and you can’t correlate it with weather or a large family gathering, use the monitor. One evening my system showed an unexpected increase in use. I was home alone working on my PC, so I started eliminating suspects. Off went the PC. Nope, not it. Checked the water heater. Not running. Pulled the plug on my chest freezer. Not it. Finally it occurred to me that it might be the defrost cycle on my refrigerator. I looked up the information online and sure enough, that was the culprit.

You might find out that a compressor on your refrigerator has hung up and is drawing way too much power or a well pump is always running. Whatever the cause, having the ability to sleuth around is invaluable. Over time you can trim the fat from your energy use and instill lifelong conservation habits in everyone.

This is a great tool and to help you select one for your home, I have put together a small table of systems that strike my fancy. I use the Envi and have been well pleased. Give one a try and see if it doesn’t help you reduce your electric bill.