We have seen it before in the movies—machines so smart they start to talk to each other and think for themselves, to the point where they even turn against 
the humans who 
created them.

If this is starting to sound a little too much like “The Terminator,” have no fear. So far, the machines haven’t risen with malicious intent.


On the other hand, technology has become so sophisticated that the buzzword commonly associated with it, “smart,” barely seems adequate. By now, we’ve all heard about the merits and the necessities of the smart grid, which is giving utility companies the unprecedented ability to manage energy distribution, transmission and consumption.


Now, the other half of that equation, energy use in the home, is reaching similar levels of science fiction-like intelligence. In contrast to the killer cyborg scenario, one of the greatest benefits of this evolution is the ability of the human to control it. This gives consumers an equally unprecedented ability to manage and conserve power usage.


The Internet of things


To be sure, a big part of this transformation to a more energy-efficient home environment is the ability of a wide array of devices to communicate with one another. For the most part, that communication occurs over a wireless network, operating on a particular standard such as ZigBee or Z-Wave.


Bob Heile is the chairman of the Zigbee Alliance, an association of more than 400 companies worldwide that have helped develop the standard and have incorporated it into their products. He refers to the network that is created by these talking devices, only somewhat facetiously, as “the Internet of things.”


According to Heile, a Zigbee in-home network can consist of as many as 50 to 70 device-embedded radios. The communication among them occurs over a low data rate of transmission and uses a minimal amount of power. The Zigbee standard stipulates that devices have a battery life equal to the shelf life of a typical battery, i.e., seven to 10 years.


One of the other distinguishing features of Zigbee-enabled devices is the user interface. The information from the device must be “as transparent and useful as possible” and “simple and intuitive,” Heile said, adding that the devices must be self-organizing and self-maintaining. “You can’t have something that requires a lot of operator setup.” 


The result of all of this, Heile said, is a different kind of smart.


He offered several examples of how Zigbee devices can help the average energy user conserve. In one, a freezer can be programmed to dip below the target temperatures when rates are lowest, then ease off and coast at just the right temperature when rates are higher. In another example, a homeowner can program his dishwasher to run when the electricity rates are cheapest. In a third example, a clothes dryer keeps a history of use and rates and predicts how much it will cost to dry a load of clothes at a particular time, based on prior usage.


Granted, some of this is still ahead of us, as not all of these features are on the market yet. On the other hand, it is closing in.


Smart meters


One place where the technology is being applied now is outside the home. The first point of entry, if we are looking at the intersection of the smart grid and the energy-efficient home, is the meter. A well-versed and determined user has always been able to get a snapshot of their energy use by going outside and reading the meter.


Even the concept of a smart meter is not entirely new. According to Paul Moreno, a spokesperson for the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility in California, time-of-use meters have been around since the 1980s. The feature that most prominently differentiates the contemporary smart meter from its predecessor is the presence of a 1-watt radio transmitter. This tiny transmitter opens a world of possibilities to both utility companies and the consumer.


One of the greatest advantages of the smart meter is better outage detection for the utility, Moreno said, adding that the device benefits consumers, too.


When armed with a smart meter, consumers are able to analyze energy consumption in ways never before possible with a monthly printed statement. After logging into an online account, they can see total household consumption, usually 24 hours later. They can compare as how their energy use varied with the weather or how much electricity they used compared to gas.


Smart meters are most effective when coupled with variable rate structures because, as Moreno said, “You don’t always know what causes energy use in the home.” To facilitate this, the utility can send a text or email when it is about to, or has moved to, the next tier of rates. This enables consumers to target their conservation toward certain time periods when they stand to gain the most from avoiding higher rates.


Smart meters are being installed across the country. According to Moreno, PG&E has installed more than 9 million smart meters in California and plans to install another half-million this year to reach its projected total of 9.6 million.


The big picture


Consumers may not always track energy use in the home, but the information is within their reach. While the smart meter may seem like the perfect example of digital technology that enables consumers to micromanage their home energy conservation, it has its limitations. Real-time reads is one of the biggest.


Any consumer who is not happy with a next-day read can get even more timely information. The EM-52 whole-house energy meter by Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based Residential Control Systems (RCS) is a submetering device that allows users to gather and analyze their home’s energy consumption in real time. Michael Kuhlmann, president of the company, sees it as an improvement over smart meters.


He added that, while whole-house data is important to help users conserve, the next step is to look at the details of that information. More specifically, a user needs to know where the power is being used and be able to control it.


To complete that picture, RCS has created a suite of products. In addition to the whole-house meter, the suite also includes power monitoring and control modules, communicating thermostats, and tabletop in-home displays. Power monitoring modules measure instantaneous and accumulated consumption for plug-in 120-volt alternating current electrical loads, such as refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines. A similar device measures and controls larger loads such as pool/spa pumps and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.


Learning thermostats


On the subject of climate control, one item on the market is designed to make saving energy not only simple, but also stylishly cool. The Nest thermostat gives new meaning to the word “programmable.”


Thermostats with time-of-day and day-of-the-week scheduling capability have been around for a long time. Furthermore, those with Wi-Fi connectivity also are not entirely original. The Nest is undeterred.


According to Kate Brinks, director of communications for Nest, the design is distinctive when her company’s singular product is compared to its competitors, the design distinguishes itself. But what really sets it apart, she said, is the learning aspect.


Created by a team of experts in the field of machine learners and robotic arms (and led by the designer of the original iPod), the thermostat employs algorithm technology to detect patterns in a home’s energy use. After a few days of manual adjustments, the thermostat begins to learn the user’s patterns and will start to make adjustments on its own. These adjustments include seasonally raising or lowering temperatures at night when everyone is asleep and during the day or on weekends when the house is empty. It is fitted with motion sensors to detect when someone is home, and it will take a read of the local weather and factor that information into its adjustments.


The Nest will also incorporate into its algorithms heating and cooling times depending on the home’s central system. It sends monthly energy reports and even notifies the user with a leaf icon when they are saving energy.


The Nest heavily promotes itself as a DIY installation product, but it also has a certified installer program. Certified installers can purchase the Nest at a discount and install it for their clients. Installers can find out more about the Nest Certification program at https://certified.nest.com.


Phantom power


If robots weren’t scary enough, now we have to deal with vampires. No discussion of energy efficiency in the home would be complete without mentioning the power-sucking qualities of chargers, plugs and idle devices. Sometimes referred to as “phantom” or “vampire” power, this often-overlooked power consumption can accumulate and add significantly to a home’s energy costs.


According to Bill Green, president of 360 Electrical, “Standby power is a slow trickle; it’s not a massive shift in power.”


Along with such companies as Belkin and Tripp Lite, 360 has developed products to address this. Mostly, these products consist of smart surge-protecting power strips that turn off power to plugged in devices when it’s not needed. Typically promoted with such catchy monikers as “green,” “eco” or “conserve,” the larger surge protectors feature an always-on outlet for devices such as a cable or satellite box. Another plug is reserved for a lead device such as an HDTV or a laptop computer. When that device is turned off, ancillary devices—such as DVD players and game consoles or printers and monitors—will also power off, saving considerably on idle power.


Some devices allow the user to turn off each outlet separately, and many feature remote control. Kevin Ashton, general manager at Belkin Conserve International, stated the obvious in describing phantom power.


“Anything that emits heat, noise or light uses energy,” he said. With that in mind, the Belkin WeMo switch adds another layer of sophistication, combining motion sensors to allow users to control outlets from their phones and create rules, such as turning off the device when no one is home.


Enter the EC


All of this is fun and fascinating if you are a control or gadget freak. Where does it leave the professional installer?


While some of the items mentioned above were manufactured and are heavily promoted for their ease of installation and use, ECs should not dismiss a product simply because it does not require the pulling of wires.


Many home energy-efficiency products are being installed in new construction, but new homes are not the only market for this technology. As efficiency catches on, more homeowners will retrofit specifically to save energy. Even something as small as a single outlet plug-in strip with an on/off switch can be seen as the kind of device that will encourage even the most timid adapter to take that first step. And, a first step almost always leads to a second, and a third, and so on.