Measuring Energy used with TED 5000 and Kill-A-Watt

You can improve a lot of things about your energy consumption by following a few rules of thumb, but at one point or another you’ll need to measure your use to know where to place your efforts. Your utility bill is a great tool, and it gives you a high-level overview of trends, but it won’t help you change your behavior in real-time, pinpoint problem areas, or dispel assumptions.

By tracking things better you can also decide where it may be worth it to install some smart control (a timed switch or outlet, a presence sensor, etc), or if upgrading an appliance is worth it energetically. In this post I will share some some of the approaches to measurement I’ve taken for electricity use.

  • TED 5000 for house-level usage and overall patterns
  • Kill-a-watt EZ for appliance and outlet-level analysis.

TED 5000

The TED 5000 (http://www.theenergydetective.com/)is a small simple device that installs in your main electricity junction box and measures current and voltage in real-time. This allows it to compute power used and keep track of it over time.

You install the measurement unit (which they call “MTU”) in the junction box, and then it sends out the measured data to a box plugged elsewhere in the house which is called a “Gateway”. This gateway has a network cable interface and you can plug it into your ethernet. The Gateway exposes a web page which you can see in your browser, which shows real-time and aggregate information.

The TED 5000 Dashboard, accessible by browsing to your TED Gateway’s IP Address

I have found TED 5000 (TED is an acronym for “The Energy Detective” and a not-subtle resemblance to the TED talks logo) to be useful for:

  • Real-time checking of how much appliances are using when they are on or an average over time.
  • Good for real-time tracking that allows me to hunt down phantom/vampire/leech devices that eat up more energy than I thought
  • Seeing how my hourly & weekly electricity usage patterns can be changed.
  • Getting really annoyed at appliances that I can’t turn off e.g. refrigerator.

I have not found it useful for:

  • An appliance-by-appliance analysis of my usage, because of the way it measures and tracks electricity, and also because it’s appliance “Load Profile” scheme seems to mix up my house appliances a lot.
  • Everyday behavior adjustment based on usage and projections – I am finding external apps are more likely to do this for me.
The TED 5000

Mobile Apps for the TED 5000

The information can be seen in a bunch of mobile apps which connect directly to your TED 5000 Gateway, amongst which Mirawatt T5K (http://ted.mirawatt.com/)is the one I liked the most (I use an iPhone, there are similar apps for Android and possibly Windows Phones). It is only worth the $4.99 price because it has no competition as far as user experience goes. (It is not spectacular, however. It is just the least bad of the bunch). Others I didn’t like as much were TED-O-Meter or iTED. These are free, so yay & kudos for the efforts to those developers. To access the information outside your home via your mobile network you will need to configure your internet router to expose the TED Gateway IP address directly on the internet.

Cloud Services & Mobile Apps

PeoplePower (http://peoplepowerco.com/)is a relatively new effort that provides an internet service and a mobile app to access your data. The TED 5000 Gateway stores some usage data, but PeoplePower promises to save your data for a longer time on a real server and its mobile app has more features around projecting and setting goals for your electricity use. It’s headed in a promising direction, and they are also making some steps in gameifying environmental behaviors.

You configure the service by telling your TED device to “post” data to their website. Just follow the instructions you get when you sign up. If you run into any issues or the TED configuration is acting up on you, just email them- I can attest their technical support is excellent.

Kill-A-Watt EZ

The Kill-A-Watt EZ is a great little device. It tracks the energy usage over time and displays real-time or accumulated information. It can show Watts, KWH, or $ (you have too tell it your electricity rates).

I have found it useful for:

  • Measuring the overall electricity used of a device that has complicated use patterns (e.g. my workstation, where I have multiple monitors, and I use it more of it some days than others)
  • Keeping ongoing track of devices that have “spikes” of use. For example, knowing how many watts my microwave oven uses when it’s on is less interesting than knowing how much energy I am using in it over a month.
  • Measuring specific outlets I want to track for other purposes like the charger outlet to the battery of my car, which runs off a standard 120V outlet. I want to track if my battery recharging becomes less efficient over time, and have concrete data for EV naysayers who say it uses more electricity than it’s worth it in gas.

I have tried other devices like the “Belkin Conserve Insight Energy-Use monitor”. It has a nicer physical design but it’s almost a waste of money when it comes to measurements, because of the way Belkin chose to aggregate and display the data. I’ll stick with the Kill-a-watt.

I have a couple of Kill-A-Watt unit (one fixed for the car charger and one that ‘roams’ around the house as I make week-long measurements). The next obvious evolution is to have these meters transmit data via wireless to services such as PeoplePower’s. I’m sure an enterprising soul with a Kill-A-Watt, some micro controller  knowledge or a new ElectricImp and time to invest in a cool project could take the output of the former and beam it via wireless provided by the latter. Sounds worthy of a Maker Faire project.

Note that none of the above help measure electricity used by built-in lamps or lighting systems that you turn on and off via a wall switch (unless you wire things yourself). Maybe one day soon light switches and outlets that automatically measure, store , and forward usage patterns will become economically viable. Some smart digesting of the ensuing data deluge could provide actionable and personalized tips to do more with less.


Use Less with Smarter Controls

In general, to reduce the footprint of a resource I look at the following strategies:

Smarter control is really a means to reduce demand or increase efficiency, but I like calling it out as it forces me to think of new areas of improvement. Smart controls avoid the use of resources when they are not needed because of real-time environmental conditions, they allow remote or automatic control, give you more fine-grained options on how to use a resource, and can even learn your behaviors and nudge you into less demand. The difference between a control and just a sensor/meter is that it does stuff.

Examples of some controls I have installed:

Gas & Electricity: Nest Programmable Thermostat

Nest Controllable Thermostat

Nest Thermostat

This is the energetic rockstar of my house, and a design beacon for the growing industry of smart controllers. Based on my data, I can attribute an approximate 20% on heating gas savings this last winter to this device alone. It has been the item with the highest energetic ROI-per-dollar in my house since. The Nest thermostat allows me to control my heating remotely via my phone, learns common patterns, turns of unnecessary heating, and nudges my behavior via little ‘green leaf’ icons and monthly points I can accumulate, gamefying my energy conservation. It’s worked so well it will get a bunch of blog posts on its own.
Nest’s website

See the Nest thermostat and reviews on Amazon.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving Outlet

Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving OutletThis smart power strip senses if a ‘master’ outlet is being used, and if not, shuts off the power to most other outlets. I use this strip  to reduce “phantom draw” from peripheral devices around my computer, for example. USB Hubs, speakers, and other accessories are all plugged into the secondary/slave plugs. When I take my laptop away or it is not drawing power from the source, all these devices loose their source power within a few seconds.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Outlet with Timer

This small plug adapter from Belkin has a built-in timer that can be set to 1/2, 3 or 6 hours. Press the button, and the outlet will deliver power for that long. It’s that simple. I use this for:

  • My external monitors. In addition to the power strip above, it just turns all of them off every 3 hours. If I’m in the middle of something I just click them back on. The timer also takes care of external monitors when the computers’ driver for some reason or other forgets putting them to sleep
  • A power strip that feeds to electronics I rarely use but for some reason tend to stay on like printers.
  • Our home theater assembly. After 3 hours, it turns all the gear off (except a network switch and a Roku, which are fanless solid-state devices that draw a few watts combined combined). I also plugged the Xbox is also on a non-timed outlet, for long downloads to continue independently, but the Xbox is pretty good about turning itself off when it should.

Water: Timed/Regulated Watering

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation.

I’m on the fence on this one, but I’ll include it as it touches upon using smarter controls for water conservation.

I am not a fan of using mains water for irrigation and I believe automated timers have done more harm than good in conserving water (I haven’t seen data either way, but it’s a strong hunch), even with the growing popularity of drip irrigation. Anyways, I recently wired some solenoids (water taps that can be controlled via electricity, in this case 24v) on a couple of irrigation lines and hooked them up to a timer device. It stays off and we use it as a manually activated timer on seldom occasions. If I could hook it up to soil humidity sensors I would feel better about leaving them in automatic. I guess this “Smart control” isn’t so smart yet. Maybe it will be an Arduino project for a rainy weekend to improve this. It rains so often here that capturing some of that would make the most sense.

Another example of a smart control for water conservation would be those simple toilet-flushing buttons that give you two options to use more or less water based on what needs to be flushed. It’s simple but I haven’t installed these yet.

Conclusion

Smart controls can help us reduce consumption and increase efficiency. Sometimes they may seem expensive but if you make sure to  keep measuring your gains you may be surprised! There are many other ways to reduce, reuse and conserve resources that don’t require you to buy anything, but these controls are an example of technology playing a good role in helping improve our lives and the planet.


Why reduce your footprint at all?

Why reduce our footprint? What is the need or the drive? Does it matter? What does it change? Who cares?

I have found that in trying to answer these questions I bounce between three perspectives.

Planet-as-spaceship: A study on the physical/chemical conditions that make (human) life possible on Earth

Ecosystem-of-life: A study on how communities of humans can coexist with nature in sustainable systems.

Spiritual-community: A spiritual perspective on doing what’s right for the sake of yourself and others.

Whimsically, these three frames are typically represented  using wheels, so yay.

Planet-as-spaceship

The earth is a closed system (as far as we know: except for the sunlight, radiation, and chunks of space stuff coming in; and radiation, heat and gases and spaceships going out). For life as we know it  to exist in this planet (and specifically, human life) there are certain physical characteristics that need to be maintained. Scientists are making progress in determining what are the metrics within which we can live on the planet, defining what is called a ‘habitable envelope’.  If environmental measurements go outside the envelope, species survival is at risk.

The best attempt at determining the key boundaries of this habitable envelope has been published by Nature in their Planetary Boundaries special issue:

http://www.nature.com/news/specials/planetaryboundaries/index.html

Here you can download the actual paper “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity“. Bad news is that we’ve blown three boundaries, and still can’t get a grasp on how to measure two others. Good news is that we are starting to think about, measure and track these boundaries. The worse situation we can be in is one in which we don’t even know what they are – which accurately describes the state of affairs for most of humanity’s history.

If you make lifestyle changes that help rope these 10 boundaries in, you are helping save all life.

Planetary Boundaries as published in Nature

Ecosystem-of-life

Permaculture is an area of research that takes a dynamic-systems perspective at sustainable living. The system encompasses ethics and design principles, Health & Spiritual Well-being, Finances & Economics, Resource Governance & Stewardship, Building, Technology, Education and Culture.

The core tenets of permaculture are (from wikipedia):

  • Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
  • Care of People: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Setting Limits to Population and Consumption: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.

While suburban high-income environments are FAR away from a permaculture ideal, every time you help make incremental progress towards the principles outlined in the discipline you are helping in your bit. For example, you may not be involved in agricultural land stewardship, but you can decide to stop using artificial pesticides on your lawn, or replace a patch of your grassy garden with some cool vegetables and local plants. The spiral around the flower underscores the incremental nature of effort.

Permaculture Flower

Spiritual-Community

We should not discount that there are ways of life and decisions we take that make us feel better because they are right. Buddhism has developed the eightfold path “to develop insight into the true nature of phenomena (or reality) and to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion” It is typically represented as a wheel, too. When we do things that are good for our mind, body, community, other living beings, and the planet, we feel a sense of well-being that is strong yet humble and ego-less.

The Dharma wheel, often used to represent the Noble Eightfold Path (wikipedia)

Division Eightfold Path factors
Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā) 1. Right view Try to look at life, nature, and the world as they really are.
2. Right intention Aspire to rid yourself of whatever qualities you know to be wrong and immoral.
Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla) 3. Right speech Make best use of your words.
4. Right action Avoid harm to yourself or to others
5. Right livelihood Do not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings.
Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi) 6. Right effort Make an effort to abandon all the wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds.
7. Right mindfulness Keep your mind alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind.
8. Right concentration Meditate to supress desire, anger, sloth, restleness, and doubt.

Conclusion – How to use the wheels

Try these wheels out when explaining to yourself or others why you want to reduce your footprint.

In different occasions, you may find it resonates more to rely on the shock of the cold realities of the physics that make life possible life, on the appeal of living integrated to our ecosystem, or the wellbeing from doing what is good for yourself and others.


Cheap & Simple Tracking of Your Energy Consumption

Coming up with measurable goals is essential to achieving most sorts of things. It is even better when you can measure partial progress towards your goals, as in “you are 10% closer” – as opposed to “you made it” or “you haven’t” measures.

Fortunately in measuring your energy footprint you have simple ways to get important measurements. Specifically, you can treat your gas and electricity bill as a meter that tells you how closer or farther away you are from your footprint goals. Water bills are also good, if they measure your individual consumption. Other bills (such as the quantity & quality of your trash) are harder to use as good “meters” to set goals against as large utilities charge “by the bin” or flat rates.

My utility bill is full of useful information such as the following.

My utility is courteous enough to include a trend graph for consumption for the year; and a comparison to last year’s data if available.

Data in the bill is very raw- it does not take into account things like:

  • Changes in my patterns – for example, did I travel out of town for work? Maybe I had out-of-town visitors that stayed at home for some weeks?
  • Environmental changes – Especially the outside temperature and average duration of the day have a huge impact. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the longest day of the year is 16 hours long… and the shortest is 8h 2o min. That makes a huge difference on how long my lights are on or off, making it harder to compare one month against next.
  • Accidents – did I leave the lights on? Maybe I forgot to close a window or a door and your heater strived to warm the Great Outdoors for a full winter day ? One bad day can throw your monthly average off.
What I do is every time I get a bill I just copy the information from the key boxes and the overall price into a spreadsheet. This allows me to get some pretty charts and graphs like the following:
Electricity, Gas and Water over time

Charting your utility bills gives you critical feedback in reducing your footprint. The y-axis units are % of max to be able to compare different values. The latest upswing in electricity (red) has me puzzled, but I think I know what caused it.

I think utilities should expose an API or let you download your data in some easy to process format, like a CSV or spreadsheet that can then be imported into Excel or Google Spreadsheets. Of course, the use of Smart Meters that report their data realtime would be great, but a lot of efforts in that direction are still not doing great. In the meantime, periodic data entry, and appliances that report their own consumption will do.

Try doing this with your own utilities, you may learn something new!


More Details on PSE Green Power

I got a great piece of feedback from Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager, about how the extra cost of the Puget Sound Energy Green Power program is applied to help the financing of new stations. She says:

The extra cost is used to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which represent 1 MWH of actual energy production. RECs place a monetary value on the environmental attributes associated with renewable energy generation, thus making it easier for the developer to get the necessary funding to build their project. So in that sense, RECs do make it easier to get the startup capital needed, which does help to encourage the creation of more small & renewable generation stations.

– Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager

What is a REC?

After researching the good and bad side of the REC system, I came to the conclusion that it is just a token-based market for “green Megawatt-hours”. Trying to put it simply:

  • If I put up a wind generator, and I generate 1 megawatt for 1 hour, I have two things I can sell – a megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity, and a REC, which is worth some cash (I estimate around $10 per REC).
  • PSE sells electricity to people. They want more of it. So PSE buys my megawatt.
  • Some people want “green power” so they also “buy” RECs from PSE which are worth a bit of cash.
  • PSE has to buy a REC from my mini-utility to meet these people’s demand, or fail audits.
  • By using the RECs (and the associated auditing that comes with this ‘virtual good”), the consumers can say “I want renewable electricity” – and have to put their money where their mouth is – and PSE has to get them from somewhere.
This great diagram from BEF explains the flow:
How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works (by B-E-F.org)

How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works. See the great explanation at http://www.b-e-f.org/business/products/recs/

Common misconceptions

Some folks claim this distorts the market. That is true. But the market is already VERY distorted as it is: with externalized costs (which every non-renewable generator has tons of), large R&D and supply-chain subsidies (which large nuclear, hydro, etc. projects have), and a central controlling distribution entity consumers can’t choose (which almost every utility company is). With RECs I have a way to express my demand, so for me it removes some net distortion.

I also see claims that purchasing RECs are a way to offset your carbon footprint. RECs are not carbon-reduction tokens. They are a token of demand of renewable electricity, and I believe you can’t buy RECs beyond the amount of Megawatt-hour you consume. In addition, some renewable energy sources are still carbon positive (that is, they still throw some previously captured carbon into the atmosphere, even if at lesser rates and from smarter sources than, say, coal). Therefore buying RECs won’t offset the emissions of your car.

Sign up!

I know this sounds like an ad – it is not- but there are few things that you can do that are as smart, cheap and easy to reduce your energy footprint as signing up for the PSE Green Power energy.

Just log in here: http://pse.com/savingsandenergycenter/GreenPower/Pages/For-Homes.aspx#form

and choose 100 percent. If you don’t do it, I would love to understand why, and how you feel about it.


Practicalities of testing your LED bulbs

Here are my tips for the logistics of testing many LED bulbs as you find the light that works for you:

Purchasing & Returning LED lights

  • Plan to test many bulbs. Return the losers, keep the winners. Don’t feel shy about returning items you don’t want. LEDs in bulk can be an investment, and everyone would rather get a return of 1 or 3 bulbs one week after, not 30 a month later.
  • Easy returns implies getting them from a brick-and-mortar store nearby, if possible. Try to re-use trips to the store and back.
  • Buy many bulbs of the same type you are trying to replace, and test them shortly one after the other. It’s hard to remember “what something looked like a week ago”. Buy some with a bit of variation – for example, buy a bulb that is slightly brighter and another one slightly dimmer than the one you are trying to replace.
  • Keep the boxes and packaging materials of all the bulbs you are testing – even when committing to one particular brand or model, I kept the box around for a few days just in case. You don’t want to be stuck with $25 items you don’t want.
  • Likewise, keep the receipts if needed. Home Depot will allow you to return items by just swiping the same credit card you used to buy them.

Testing LED lights at home

  • Test in the actual location where you want to see the bulbs work – e.g. in your living room ceiling, not in a bulb receptacle at eye level in the garage.
  • Keep the new bulbs installed for a couple of days. Test at day and night, so you get to the point when you are not thinking about it or looking at it on purpose.
  • Check in with your spouse and family about the conclusions. They may feel differently about what’s better.

Changing your sources of electricity

Changing your source of electricity is one of the simplest and cheapest things you can do to reduce your footprint. Many utilities are offering “Green Power” options where a part of the electricity you use is purchased from more sustainable sources, for less than the price of a monthly LED bulb.

We live in the Pacific Northwest, and our power company here (Puget Sound Energy) offers a Green Power program where you pay a bit extra, in order to get a % of your electricity purchased from farm, biogas, and small hydro.

Why does it cost extra?

The extra cost is used as startup capital to encourage the creation of more small & renewable generation stations. In other words, your money will go into creating new independent businesses that will provide more renewable generation capacity in the region.

How do you know it is “your” electricity that is being generated?

There is no way to differentiate an electron from another. Technically, you are not buying their electrons, you are instructing your utility to buy more generation from them, proportional to your use, and place it in the grid.

Update. This was such a frequently asked question I made this other post:  More Details on PSE Green Power.

How much difference does it make?

Power sources differ by region, but here in the Northwest the PSE “basic” offering comes from a pathetic combination of sources (the proportions are for 2011 data I could find)

  • Large Hydro: 36%. Large hydro creates flood areas, change water tables, and disrupt natural flow of organisms along rivers.
  • Coal: 32%.  Burning coal pumps CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Earth requires less CO2 in the air to sustain humanity.
  • Natural Gas: 30%  Natural gas, another fossil fuel, pumps large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Nuclear & Other: 2% While nuclear is potentially a good “bridge” technology for a carbon crisis on earth, or super-specialized uses like biomedical and space exploration, it requires adult handling and our civilization is too immature yet to meet the long-term safety standards required by this technology.
Compare this to the “Green Power” option, that despite the individual shortcomings of some generation methods, is way more smart and sustainable:
  • Wind Power: 50%. There are many generating farms in the region, especially towards the East where it’s windier.
  • Landfill gas: 24%. I’m not a fan of this as it increases the profit margin of landfills, but if it’s there, you may as well use it.
  • Low impact Hydro: 10%. Small hydro generation doesn’t require the big government subsidies, decades-long maintenance contracts, and large flood valley areas of large hydro.
  • Biomass & Wood Waste: 7%. Burning wood waste instead of creating an acidifying pollutant by dumping chips. It’s popping back some CO2 into the atmosphere, but it’s from carbon that was captured in our geologic era.
  • Livestock & Methane: 7%. Cows & their manure are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Capturing the methane for burning and producing power is smarter than farting it into the wind. I’m not a fan of supporting livestock industries, so increasing their profit margin is something I wouldn’t choose to do.
  • Solar Power: 2%. The pacific northwest has high latitudes and a large part of it has a constant cloud cover, getting less than 150 Watts per square meter. The eastern region has higher solar exposure, however.
 Ideally, PSE would allow me to select where my extra money will go. I don’t want it going to a landfill generator… but I most certainly prefer that to a coal or gas generator.

Is this the best I can do?

No, probably the best you can do is live on a farm or plant enough crops on your house or roof to then create alcohol that you feed into simple thermal generators or burn in lamps made of clay from your own garden. This would be a resilient, carbon-neutral, zero-supply-chain solution (except for the generator, if you buy it). It won’t run your microwave oven, however. Do what you can.

How do I do it?

1) Go to PSE.COM, log in or create your account.

3) Visit this page http://pse.com/savingsandenergycenter/GreenPower/Pages/For-Homes.aspx#form

4) Fill the form in and leave the “100 percent” option.There is NO rationale to choose less:

There is NO LOGICAL REASON NOT TO DO THIS!