Tag Archives: Energy

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.

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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!