Experience with new energy monitoring tools such as Curb, Sense, Nerio and Smapee

I have been trying to get feedback from people's experience with these breaker box monitoring tools. Do any of them work and provide useful data. I frequently get called by people who want me to audit their homes to tell them exactly where all their power/energy is being used and why their bills are so high. In a one day audit, one can't really do that without knowing a detailed breakdown of the energy usage over time, though one can make some educated guesses based on HVAC quality, but that is not a complete picture. The typical question: "where is all my energy going?"

Thanks. 

Tags: energy, house, monitoring, whole

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I’ll be watching to see what people say...

the only whole house monitor I’ve used was purchased about 5 years ago.  It was the TED Energy Detective (or something like that).  Very accurate - always within a few KWh of the utility bill.  But it’s ability to discern individual appliance usage was terrible.  I tired many times and it failed always to recognize any single appliance.  I hope and expect newer units would be better at this.

I've had my Sense for over a year now.  If you have a driven person that wants to engage with the App, it can be useful as the Sense 'finds' new devices.  Because you still need to hunt down which device the Sense has found and name it (Refrigerator, Garage Door, etc.).  And it does take time for the machine learning algorithms to 'find' those new devices.  It can be a bit of a commitment to use it in the traditional sense.

The Sense does struggle with solid state devices/inverted loads.  Resistant loads (think toaster) and inductive motors are pretty easy for it to see.  But if there is a power brick involved it doesn't seem to differentiate those loads.  I've been plugging in my EV for over a year, and the Sense doesn't have a clue.  Rather it does, but there is a category of 'Unknown' that captures the usage of everything it can't label.

What is handy for more short term applications is to hook it up, then walk around the house turning appliances on and off.  The real time chart option helps show the change in electric consumption.  Which can be handy when one of our members insists that that Amish made space heater can't be costing them that much...

I watched a guys small business continually grow year after year. Ourcoolhouse is his web sight. Its a great starting place to learn about Ethernet monitoring and what an internet bridge is. Not a portable gig but has potential.

re: Scott's comment about The Energy Detective monitoring individual appliances... TED uses a very crude method to recognize specific appliances, all done in software based on changing in power. As Scott said, it's terrible (I would have used a different word).

OTOH, TED does have the ability to directly monitor individual circuits such as an air conditioning condenser, heat pump, or electric or heat pump water heater. It involves installing an extra set of CT's (current transducers) per circuit at the breaker panel.

I believe the Sense monitor uses a more sophisticated method of 'non-invasive load monitoring' (NILM) to identify and track individual loads. NILM typically involves looking at factors in addition to power, such as phase angle. But as Dan noted, this is far from perfect.

Non-invasive monitors have very limited use in an energy audit, since it takes time and a lot of tweaking to properly track individual loads, best done by the homeowner.

For a professional energy audit, you want something you can hook up and get reliable data from within a short time frame, such as a week. The only way to do that is with a CT-based system such as TED (although I don't recommend TED, for different reasons: see this discussion from the Home Performance Forum archives: http://homeenergypros.org/hpforum-archive#/discussion/11595/).

Brultech makes a relatively inexpensive CT-based monitoring system (http://www.brultech.com/greeneye/)

Like Dan I've had my Sense installed for about a year and so far it has not lived up to the company's claims of identifying all the devices in my home.

I've been following this field for about 10 years and had hoped Sense's fine-grained monitoring (4 MHz!) combined with advanced machine learning would finally solve the NILM challenge for residential homes. But as Dan noted it doesn't even attempt to identify devices that make up your standby load (nearly 300 watts in my home), nor has it identified any of my biggest loads (pool pump & charging two EVs). Granted, I've got a complex home: we probably have over 200 distinct electric devices. Sense has so far only identified 23 -- most of which are labelled as "Unnamed device" or "Unnamed motor".

Maybe it does better on simpler homes.

It is getting better at identifying certain devices (garage doors, fridges, incandescent lights, TVs) and I know that list will continue to grow as their algorithms improve, but it is useless at identifying all those less common energy hogs -- the "long tail" of plug loads -- and sadly those are the ones we're all most interested in finding and measuring.

So while I expect this field to continue to mature, I don't think "automated device detection" is ready for prime time as an audit tool, and may not be for years to come. My preferred alternative for any home with a smart meter is the $70 EMU-2 listed here.

Steve, my understanding from having followed NILM research in years past is that the monitoring system would need to have a manual mode whereby you could turn on a specific appliance (plug load or otherwise) and identify it to the system. Presumably you would first kill other loads so as to avoid confusion. Does Sense not have a manual ID mode?

@David: No, it does not have this feature. Apparently machine learning doesn't work that way.

For professionals making a single visit to the home, any device that requires installing CTs on a breaker panel won't help much in that short time frame, and can be time-consuming to get connected and delivering data.

What I hear from customers is that they want coaching on how to reduce their bills, alerts to tell them when their electricity consumption is high, etc. "Actionable insights" is the current buzzword. Research by SeventhWave.org (and others) shows that just providing customers with a way to view their electricity use in real time isn't enough to achieve significant savings in most cases.

My employer, Madison Gas and Electric, just started piloting the Sense with about 10 participants. Seventh Wave (formerly the Energy Center of Wis.) will evaluate it.

@Steve Schmidt: It's interesting that Sense has problems identifying pool pumps and EV charging. When I talked with Bidgely a few years ago, they said that those were the two easiest loads for their disaggregation software to identify. On a side note, your company, HEA is doing pioneering work in this field. I first heard of HEA when I co-presented with your wife Lisa, (and Jeannette LeZaks of Seventh Wave) at the ACI Home Performance Conference in 2013.

For customers who are willing to measure anything with a standard plug, but don't want to buy a Kill-a-Watt or similar monitor, some public libraries loan them out. Madison Gas and Electric gave dozens of Watts Up portable meters to area libraries 20+ years ago, and Alan Meier popularized the idea with an editorial in the May/June 1997 Home Energy Magazine that asked, "Why Doesn't Every Library Lend kWh Meters?.

Thanks to Laura Martel for prompting me to submit feedback. ;)

Similar to Dan Phillips, I installed Smappee unit on my home in Sept 2016 as part of an effort to pilot the capability of this kind of technology to be leveraged for state and utility EE programs in Maine.

Like the Sense, the Smappee is able to identify different appliances by their electric draw profile, and provides a means to label them for tracking and viewing by electrical usage and daily, monthly and annual cost.  The intuitive dashboard can be accessed by phone and computer interface, although I tend to use the mobile app. There are graphics for time of use overall and by appliance, even seasonally. The unit came with one remote plug and has the ability to turn it on and off with different kinds of event settings. I use mine to control my outdoor holiday lights with time triggers, but triggers can be set up based on geo-location, threshold consumption, sunrise/sunset, and solar PV export level. Like Dan's experience on variable load devices, the Smappee has similar issues. I use a ductless heat pump for most of my heating demand. The heat pump registers as dozens of appliances making it laborious to combine them or differentiate its total draw, one of my highest curiosities in testing a Smappee-like device. I am likely to move the clips to just the heat pump for a while to monitor power levels under different outdoor conditions over the course of this winter.

Because these systems require clip installation on the individual main lines coming into the house, a job for an electrician, these devices become an expensive prospect for EE programs to use broadly or for mass adoption by all but highly geek-out motivated homeowners. I can imagine an energy auditor getting a great deal of information on what is going on in a house from using one of these devices in a clients home for a few months, but unless they have an electrician on staff or are otherwise qualified to work inside of a panel, it becomes a pretty expensive audit component even to to install temporarily.

I agree that it can be a challenge to use as a part of a regular energy audit.  The co-op that is using the the most in a temporary manner for our members has all the safety gear & training to get into the home's service panel to install the device (compared to some of the voltages they typically work with, a home's 220 panel is pretty tame).  But it is definitely time consuming enough that it is mostly reserved for member education if that member is questioning why they have "high bills".  Having a third party app show, in real time, various appliances kWh usage can be helpful both to diffuse an upset member, but also provide a chance to engage & educate them while they are in a mental space to learn.

I think anyone who does energy audits or otherwise advises homeowners on energy reduction should invest in circuit-level energy monitoring for their own home.

On my previous all-electric home, I installed the Brultech ECM-1240 with six 240-volt channels (heat pump, air handler, water heater, clothes dryer, range and PV system) in addition to the main feed. I use a Kill-A-Watt to monitor plug loads such as kitchen appliances, A/V gear, washing machine, and computer & networking components. It's amazing how much one can learn!

The only way to monitor individual gas appliances is to install a gas meter per appliance. Refurbished gas meters are available from Vision Metering for $40. Dial type meters can be integrate with an energy dashboard app. Brultech's energy monitors have at least one pulse counter channel but I'm not sure if they sell the pulse generator that fits over the dial.

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