New gadgets help save power and money
One technology that hasn't kept up with the times is the power meter outside your house. Now new devices can help you track minute to minute how much you use.
They say knowledge is power, but Microsoft and a partner are betting more knowledge means less power. The computer software giant has teamed with Blue Line Innovations and created a device that charts your home's electricity consumption -- and cost -- every 30 seconds, and displays it on a handheld device or your computer.
"You're getting real-time data so you can take real-time action," says Troy Batterberry, product unit manager for Microsoft Hohm -- Microsoft's energy-saving website. (Microsoft publishes MSN Money.) "The Blue Line PowerCost Monitor and WiFi Gateway provide updates every 30 seconds .... It's kind of like online banking for your energy bill, offering 24/7 access to your usage."
Check out this recent news story, then meet me on the other side for more.
As you saw in the video above, the Blue Line monitor/WiFi Gateway are several pieces of technology working together. The first is a power monitor that slips onto the power meter outside your house. It sends information to a handheld device that displays your energy usage. By adding a Wi-Fi component, you can also display power usage on your computer screen and chart your energy use over time.
The result: On either your computer screen or a small handheld unit, you see how much electricity you consume when, say, you turn on the microwave or the air conditioning kicks on -- even when you leave the light on in the closet. Knowing your exact usage all the time reminds you to conserve energy. It also allows you to experiment by trying things like turning off the power strip that controls a home entertainment center, or changing a light bulb from incandescent to compact fluorescent.
Microsoft's collaboration with Blue Line is the first device partnership for Microsoft Hohm, but the company says its ultimate goal is to connect to smart plugs, thermostats, HVAC systems, electric vehicles and other devices so that consumers have as much information as possible to help them understand and reduce their energy consumption.
The Blue Line monitor doesn't come cheap: With Microsoft's Wi-Fi gateway, the suggested retail is $249. For just the Blue Line monitor and handheld device, the price drops to $99.
Another option is a fairly recent entrant to the field -- currently in public beta -- called Wattvision. While it comes with the same type of monitoring device for the outside power meter, it has no handheld unit. You check your power consumption on your computer or smart phone.
Because details on the pricing are sketchy on Wattvision's website, I called the company and spoke to its founder, Savraj Singh. He told me the monitoring hardware (the gadget that attaches to your power meter and W-Fi device) is $199. They're also going to have a monthly fee for advanced tracking and information storage -- that's not established yet -- but Singh assures me they'll always have a free basic plan. (The Microsoft/Blue Line monitor has no ongoing fee.)
Then there's Google's PowerMeter. No charge to see your power consumption online, but unless you're the customer of a very small list of utilities, you'll need to buy a device ($129 and up) to work with the software and display the data. You'll also need a digital power meter -- one with a digital readout and not the spinning metal disc.
I've been using the Microsoft/Blue Line monitor at home for a couple of weeks now. (As I write this, I'm spending 63 cents an hour on electricity.) It's really a handy device -- if you don't gradually forget about it and allow it to get lost among the dozens of devices vying for your attention.
My prediction: In the not-too-distant future, this kind of real-time data will be widespread. It's important, the technology isn't overly complex, and it's information people should want to know. And speaking of information people should want to know: Be sure to check out our articles on saving energy around the house, including our most recent, "13 cool tips for lower energy bills."
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