Tech Tools for Energy Efficiency

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by Sense/David Butler

If you’re a homeowner headed toward off-grid living, you can begin your journey by examining your energy habits and those of your home. One of your first goals should be to make your dwelling more efficient so that your hard-earned renewable energy doesn’t go to waste. And if you’re grid-tied, making your home more energy-efficient will still help you save every possible cent. Common sense can probably assist you in pinpointing a few inefficiencies, but as our technology gets smarter, so can we, by gaining new ways to reduce waste and adjust our energy budgets. The following apps and gadgets will enable you to track and reduce your usage, as well as communicate with your energy and utility systems to help your home hum efficiently.

Energy Apps

Apps are available for almost every energy-related aspiration, from calculating your carbon footprint to adjusting your thermostat from afar. Many programs can help you assess your usage and power down energy hogs. You can also use apps to track and change your usage when they’re linked with whole-house systems (see “Whole-House Systems”). The following apps offer distinct services that will get you off to a good energy-saving start. To access other resources, see “Resources for Raising Your Energy Awareness.”

Energy Consumption Analyzer (Android)/Energy Cost Calculator (Apple). Measuring your energy use is a necessary step toward reducing it. These two free apps can calculate and graph your energy consumption rates over time. Energy Consumption Analyzer monitors overall energy usage via meter readings, and generates graphs of hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly consumption rates. You can add annotations, as well as color-code periods of high and low energy usage to gain a better understanding of your energy spending.

Energy Cost Calculator requires just a bit of input (an item’s energy use per hour; the number of hours it’s used daily; and the cost you pay per watt) to track the energy consumption and operating costs of specific electric appliances per day, per week, per month, and per year. Based on the resulting data of these apps, you can choose to make adjustments to your energy patterns or update inefficient equipment.

Light Bulb Finder. With this free web-based app, accessible on computers, smartphones, and tablets, you can view CFL and LED light bulb options that are categorized based on appearance, light quality, payback, and more. The app, which stays up to date on U.S. efficiency standards, can help you locate local light bulb retailers, alert you to available rebates, and tell you how much you’re saving — in dollars and wattage — based on the type of bulb you’re replacing.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, switching from incandescent bulbs to Energy Star models can save you up to $75 per year — and this app will help you tap into those savings while staying true to your unique lighting and financial requirements. Through the app, you can print your bulb shopping list and room-by-room replacement guide. You can also download the app’s Printable Bulb Measurement Tool to take the guesswork out of identifying your current bulbs and bulb bases.

Powerful Products

After you’ve used apps to identify which bulbs and appliances are eating up more than their fair share of energy, you can start to replace them — but you don’t have to upgrade your whole house at once. Instead, tackle inefficiencies little by little. Using the “Resources” below and the data from your energy-monitoring efforts, identify which upgrades will offer you the biggest payback over time.

The following categories have low barriers to entry and noticeable energy benefits.

Batteries. A quick sweep of your house will probably reveal batteries inside multiple cordless devices and tucked into the corners of every junk drawer. According to the EPA, Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries every year to power their portable electronic products. About 20 percent of those are rechargeable, and each rechargeable battery, over its useful life, can substitute for hundreds of single-use batteries. After recouping your initial investment in reusable batteries and a charger, you’ll start to save money — if you’re keeping track, you’ll notice a slow start to savings, but rechargeables will steadily win out over time if you live in a household with heavy battery usage. Panasonic’s Eneloop line of batteries (about $11.50 for a 4-pack of AA batteries) can be recharged up to 2,100 times. And some AA batteries, such as those from Survival Frog ($29.97 for a 4-pack), can be plugged into a USB port to power up after they’re drained.

Lighting. Sustainable lighting doesn’t have to end with better bulbs. You can add switches to control luminosity; link light bulbs to your smartphone to turn on, dim, or turn off lights at will; or pair the lights to other smart devices, such as sensors, so they turn on and off automatically based on whether someone is present in the room. The Lutron Maestro Room Occupancy Sensor (from $21) detects motion up to 30 feet away (for up to 900 square feet of coverage), and offers a low-effort way to save energy. You can install it yourself or hire an electrician. As for bulbs, Cree’s dimmable 60W Replacement LED (about $6 for a 2-pack) can last up to 20 years.

Showerheads. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, and heating that water eats up a big slice of a home’s energy-spending pie. You can chip away at your usage by switching to low-flow showerheads, such as the High Sierra Classic PLUS Showerhead ($39.95), which, at 1.5 gallons per minute, uses half the amount of water as a standard showerhead. When shopping for a low-flow showerhead, look for the WaterSense label, which a product can display only if it uses no more than 2 gallons per minute.

Sockets. Instead of having to remember to power down and unplug your devices, you can rely on advanced sockets, strips, and switches to eliminate phantom electrical loads, which can add up to $200 per year in energy costs, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Belkin Conserve Socket ($9.99) turns off power to appliances after the amount of time you specify. The Belkin Conserve switch ($39.99) is a power strip you can control via remote, and it has two outlets that stay on for devices that need continuous power. Plugging your computer setup into an energy-saving socket or strip will help you break even and start saving in a matter of months.

Whole-House Systems

So, you’ve worked through the rooms of your house, tracking energy usage and making replacements. Now, you can consider the following whole-house systems, which can link to your smartphone and appliances to give you further control over your energy flow and finances.

Energy monitors. If you’re ready for your tracking to move beyond the capabilities of an app, you can invest in monitors that offer big-picture insight after they’re installed by an electrician. The Sense Energy Monitor (from $299) tracks real-time energy usage, and it can also learn to recognize your appliances. It can connect to your Wi-Fi and integrate with mobile apps so you can gauge your electricity use from any device. It can also be linked to solar panels to measure how much energy they’re producing. The Smappee Energy Monitor (from $249) and the Neurio Home Energy Monitor ($219.99) each perform a similar service. The Smappee Gas and Water Monitor ($149) tracks gas and water consumption. It can sense abnormal consumption and leaks, and it’s compatible with the most common analog meters. And Tank Utility ($199) works like an energy monitor, but for a propane tank, so you can see when you’re running low on fuel and use the app to view your consumption rates and bill.

Smart thermostats. Unlike traditional thermostats, smart thermostats can connect to your devices for wireless access and more control over your home’s day-to-day behavior. Most claim savings of 10 to 15 percent on energy bills. According to Energy Star, the average consumer can save more than 8 percent of their heating and cooling energy by using a smart thermostat, amounting to approximately $50 annually. Nest ($249) is the first Energy Star certified thermostat. It can connect to other smart products — for example, you could link it to a smart washer and dryer so it can run your next load of laundry when energy demand is low. Ecobee ($249) is another popular option. According to Nick Liberati, communication manager at EnergySage, Ecobee’s distinguishing feature is that sensors can be used in different rooms to set individual climate settings. When choosing a smart thermostat, Liberati recommends looking for the following features: wireless access via mobile devices; smart hub integration capability; adaptive technology, or “advanced learning,” which allows a device to remember your behavior and adjust the temperature accordingly; and geofencing technology, which can sense whether you’re home and can turn the temperature down when you leave.

If being more energy efficient feels out of reach to you, just focus on one project at a time. You’ll need to add elbow grease and research to your technological options, but with access to a few helpful energy efficiency tools, you can cut your energy consumption watt by watt, and lessen your carbon footprint along the way.

Resources for Raising Your Energy Awareness

The following resources can guide you as you consider which purchases will be worth it for your household.

EnergySage. Several of the products listed in this article come recommended by online solar marketplace EnergySage; to see its full list of independent product reviews and considerations, go to its Smart Home Gadgets & Energy Products page. And EnergySage’s Nick Liberati says a home energy audit will help you make sure you’re being as efficient as possible in your energy spending: “An energy auditor can assess where a home is losing the most energy, and then recommend improvements to help you save energy — and reduce utility bills.” Learn more by searching for “EnergySage energy audit” with your preferred search engine.

Energy Star. Find information on energy-efficient products. Many states and utilities offer rebates on CFL bulbs and Energy Star products, so check with yours for the potential to save even more.

Green Energy Efficient Homes. Search for “home energy-saving devices” on the site to find a detailed list of items that will help you measure and modify energy use in your home.

Home Power. This website’s digital archive provides comprehensive coverage on renewable energy and building efficiency.

U.S. Department of Energy. You can calculate the costs and savings of specific Energy Star appliances and products by searching for “energy- and cost-savings calculators.” The site also has a directory of energy-efficient products and an energy-saver guide. Plus, the department’s Home Energy Saver website has a wealth of information and recommendations on home upgrades and adjustments that are geared toward reducing energy usage and saving money.

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