Large commercial, industrial and institutional building owners have been tracking their energy use for years, knowing that even the smallest efficiency improvements can make a big bottom-line difference in facilities of their scale. Now the same energy auditing and monitoring capabilities are being developed for owners of individual buildings and homes, and these new tools also provide opportunities for electrical contractors seeking to diversify their service offerings during an economic downturn.

The new products are a mixture of software packages and installed equipment that, in general, fall into one of two major categories: those that help owners compare their building’s performance to peer structures in their region and those that provide ongoing, near-real-time energy monitoring. While several of these products are simple enough for home or business owners to implement themselves, savvy electrical contractors can add value to the results with knowledge that can help owners prioritize efficiency improvements for maximum return on investment.

New smart meters are aiding development of some of these auditing and monitoring tools. Advanced meters provide greater information about when and where buildings are consuming energy, giving those electric-utility customers—who may never have had access to time-of-day usage data—valuable insight into where their energy dollars are going. Though it may be a decade or more before such meters are fully deployed, such information-technology powerhouses as Microsoft and Google, along with electrical-products manufacturer Schneider Electric and a few new upstarts, already see big potential in the smart meter environment.

“Smart meter technology improves accessibility of data by customers in a real-time mode,” said Joel Hoiland, chief executive officer of Utilimetrics, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based association focused on the smart meter industry. “In the past, the amount of data provided to consumers has been minimal.”

Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, developed its PowerMeter software as a way to graphically display the usage data smart meters now offer. PowerMeter is being rolled out in test versions through utilities that have begun deploying smart meters in larger pilot programs, including San Diego Gas & Electric and TXU Energy. The software is free and allows users access to real-time and historical use information and enables comparisons against typical regional usage.

Developers at The Energy Detective (TED), a small Charleston, S.C.-based company, have adapted Google’s software for use in homes with less sophisticated meters, even older “spinning dial” models. They have created a series of small devices, the TED 5000 Series, that connects to a homeowner’s breaker board and wirelessly transmits usage data to a receiver station up to 300 feet away. This station has an IP address, just like any Internet-connected computer, and provides password-protected access to all the data Google’s PowerMeter provides through a Web browser, from any computer with Internet access.

The TED 5000 has become a hit with energy-conscious consumers—in fact, the unit was on a three- to six-week backorder in early December, just two months after its partnership with Google was announced. The company’s promotional materials suggest that savvy homeowners can install the device themselves, but the process requires removing the breaker box’s front panel, so many—if not most—should opt for help from an electrical professional, according to the company’s marketing director, Melissa Lacas.

The device also can track solar- and wind-energy production, creating a tie for contractors exploring renewable-installation services.

“It takes an electrician about five minutes to install,” Lacas said. “And we find that a lot of contractors installing solar systems throw this in as an extra.”

TED is currently only available for installation in residential, single-phase systems. However, Lacas said the company hopes to have a three-phase model available by summer 2010.

Google’s nemesis Microsoft also is getting into the home-energy market with its new Hohm software, hosted online at Microsoft-hohm.com. Now available in a beta version, this product gives homeowners (and their electrical contractors) a new way to understand how their home’s energy usage compares to that of similar homes in the area and provides broad cost-benefit analyses on a range of potential improvements.

Like Google, Microsoft is working on utility pilot partnerships—in this case, with Seattle City Light and Xcel Energy, among others—to provide users with real-time usage data. But Hohm also can be used as an audit-only tool by any homeowner. Users provide the system with data on their location and how their homes are constructed; then, the users start getting information on regional usage benchmarks and potential energy-saving improvements. Results are based on a database developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The system also encourages users to enter historical energy-use information from their energy bills for more detailed recommendations.

“Anyone can receive personalized home energy-saving recommendations by simply completing a set of core questions,” said Troy Batterberry, Hohm’s product unit manager. “Using our database and algorithms, we can then calculate potential cost savings for the consumer. The more information the consumer provides, the more accurate Hohm’s personalized home-improvement recommendations will be.”

While Hohm is designed for do-it-yourselfers, electrical contractors also could offer Hohm report preparation as an added-value service. By combining their product and systems knowledge with Hohm-generated data, contractors could provide important direction for homeowners seeking efficiency solutions they can live with and afford.

Electrical manufacturers are also developing software tools. For example, Schneider Electric’s Energy Savings Advisor also draws on DOE data—the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey—to help retailers understand their building’s performance compared to other similar retail structures, whether theirs is a big-box behemoth or a mom-and-pop bodega. Like Hohm, Schneider Electric’s offering is strictly current-use oriented, in that it doesn’t offer ongoing monitoring, but developers of the free system see value in both approaches.

“For someone who’s just beginning, this can help give a snapshot,” said Pankaj Lal, Schneider Electric’s retail building segment manager for its North American Operating Division. “Then they can go into more real-time monitoring—both are helpful. There are 8,400 retail chains in the U.S., and not all of them are Wal-Marts.”

For some chain retailers, the savings identified by the Energy Savings Advisor could have a multiplier effect, since many have built their stores according to prototype plans, Lal said. Time spent to identify opportunities in a single retail outlet could repay itself many times over as those strategies are implemented throughout an entire chain.

As the parent company of Square D, among other electrical brands, Schneider Electric also sees value in the Energy Savings Advisor for the electrical contractors who specify and purchase the company’s products.

“There’s a cross-section of the electrical contracting community that realizes they have to build their business,” Lal said, noting the opportunity the company’s new electronic tool offers to business-hungry contractors. “If they portray themselves as [efficiency] evangelists, this is one of the tools they can use to help their customers. A contractor who has a relationship with the owner can translate the results into recommendations and priorities.”

Owners of multitenant buildings, such as commercial office and apartment buildings, long have recognized the need for detailed energy-use information to aid in their own conservation efforts. In fact, Utilimetrics’ Hoiland said that these owners often buy their own smart meters to help them track tenants’ time-of-use data. A new product from Langhorne, Pa.-based meter manufacturer E-Mon is designed to help owners make sense of data from multiple meters.

Called “Web-Mon,” the device is somewhat similar to the residential-designed TED. It’s connected to a meter—or meters—not the breaker box, using an RS-485 connection, and then, through Ethernet cable to the building’s Internet connection. Password-protected data is presented in a dashboard format and can be accessed using any Web browser. Available data includes current use in kilowatts and historical data in kilowatt-hours, along with power factor, volts and amps.

Released in June 2009, Web-Mon already appears to be gaining traction in larger facilities where submetering is critical to managing operational expenses.

“Interest has been very strong,” said Don Millstein, E-Mon president and CEO, who noted that applications have ranged from a major airport to universities and data centers. “We’ve sold it to 40 different territories throughout the U.S.”

An added draw for environmentally committed owners is Web-Mon’s presentation of carbon-footprint data. Using DOE figures of 1.37 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted for every kilowatt-hour used, the software calculates a facility’s carbon emissions, along with kilowatt-hour usage. Of course, it’s important to remember that this figure is an average—it could be irrelevant if, for example, a building was operating primarily off of site-generated renewable resources.

Millstein said his company now is looking at ways to expand Web-Mon’s current energy-monitoring capabilities to enable submetered, time-of-use billing, too. E-Mon developers also are exploring ways to connect the system into larger building-management systems using Modbus and BACnet protocols. And E-Mon also is investigating new ways for the Web-Mon to interact with smart-meter data.

“The Web-Mon is a great way to display some of the information from smart meters and tie it into some controls,” Millstein said. “That’s the next step.”

Tying controls into smart meter data likely will become a next step for a number of these tools’ developers, because time-of-use pricing is likely to become a more common utility business strategy in the next few years. Currently, only the biggest energy users benefit from moving their electricity demands into lower-cost time periods, but the intelligence being added to new meters, and the grid as a whole, make such capabilities possible for even individual single-family homes.

Such advances make energy-management services an even bigger opportunity for electrical contractors who pursue this work. Tools like these can give such pros a foot in the door and a means for developing an ongoing relationship with interested building owners.

“There’s an opportunity to engage throughout the lifecycle of the building,” said Schneider Electric’s Lal. “It’s the kind of thing you could revisit each year with that customer.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.