The smarter home: utilities need to catch up

With the abundance of new “internet of things” connected home devices. one thing hasn’t changed: the surprise many feel upon opening their monthly utility bill. Customers feel no connection between a shower taken, an appliance used, or a heater turned on and the final bill. Even the Nest thermostat, whose goal is to save energy by keeping a smart schedule, does not focus on real-time usage statistics. Some, albeit very few, users have even said that the Nest has increased their bills by providing more comfort while using more energy, even while keeping to a more accurate schedule. When talking about their savings, Nest users mentioned tracking their energy usage change in their monthly billing statements, not in real time.

The Amphiro A1 monitoring water temperature, total water used for this shower and ice metling under a cute bear. Source: Amphiro

The Amphiro A1 monitors water temperature, total water used for this shower and ice melting under a cute bear to motivate shorter showers.
Source: Amphiro

Which is why I really like the new shower monitoring device by Amphiro. Designed to plug into the handheld shower head, the device measures, in real time, how much water has been used since the tap was turned on (for the current shower) and at what temperature. This data is displayed on the Amphiro’s screen so that bathers can adjust their shower time accordingly. It also shows a cute polar bear standing on an iceberg that starts melting as the shower starts. The longer the shower, and the hotter the water, the faster the iceberg will melt. If saving money doesn’t motivate the bather to save water, perhaps a distressed polar bear will. The bather also gets a grade for water and energy consumption after each shower, from a great A+ down to a G-. This real-time monitoring is a much better motivator for shorter showers than a high monthly bill that just tells users what happened, but does little to promote conservation in the following month.

The Amphiro also connects to a web site (for the Amphiro A1) and via an app (the Amphiro B2) that allows users to track overall water and energy (used to heat the water) used per shower or over a period of time. It also allows households to track how much water each bather wastes. The only drawback is the price. Currently the Amphiro A1 is priced at $89 but claims to save “on average 440 kWh of heat energy and 8,500 liter of drinking water and wastewater per year.” Looking at my monthly rate, 440 kWh would cost me around $45 and 8500 liters (around 3CCF) would cost me $15. If that estimate is correct, it would take my household 2 years to pay back the cost of one Amphiro A1. Your mileage could vary.

Another article about utility use caught my eye this weekend, this one about smart meters. “The meters can record use by the hour, changing the price as the market changes and telling the customer – or maybe even the appliances themselves – the best time to buy energy.” Their growing deployment was supposed to help utilities price electricity according to area-wide demand and to prompt their customers to turn on energy-hogging appliances during off-peak hours when overall demand was lower and energy prices cheaper, thus saving them money. In reality this real-time smart use isn’t materializing as “most customers… are simply not ready for the change to what is known as dynamic pricing.”

The article goes on to add that the appliances need to be smarter, taking their cues from the smart meter as to when to operate. “But the dishwashers, air-conditioners, water heaters and other electric appliances that would automatically take signals from the meter are still to come, leaving consumers to manually manage their energy consumption.” This seems to be true. From what I’ve read about smart thermostats, most cater to the customer’s schedule and do not take off-peak energy prices into consideration.

But are there apps that do this? That perhaps read information from the smart meters and nudge customers to turn on devices during those times? They could notify users in the morning that the best time to turn on a dishwasher that day will be in the evening, and a laundry machine in the morning, creating a daily forecast of best times according to previous patterns and adjust that when conditions change. The user could enter their major appliances energy uses statistics for different cycles and the app can factor those into its recommendations.

One final thing to note for any utility apps: the development cycles for smartphones, tablets and laptops are much faster than development cycles for appliances. It might be wiser to put the smart analytics and recommendations into an app as opposed to an appliance, which users might change every 10 years.  The bottom line is, though, like the Amphiro, usage statistics visible in real time and are easy to track will drive actual savings.

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