There are many new household meters, monitors, and sensors, or smart energy devices, that can help you manage your energy use. Some of them can also help you manage your hot water, heating, and air conditioning.

Managing your energy use has far-reaching effects. Did you know that the cost of electricity to your utility company changes constantly throughout the day, depending on supply and demand? Prices go up when electricity demand is high and down when it is low. You may not see these price changes if your utility charges you a fixed rate for electricity. This is good, because it spares you from paying exorbitant bills when prices spike. But it’s bad, too, and here’s why.

Several times each year, your utility reaches what we call peak power (also called peak demand or peak load). These are the times when we place the most demand on the electrical grid—the system of wires and poles and power plants that deliver electricity to you—and it usually occurs during the hottest part of summer when we run our A/Cs or during the coldest part of winter when we use our heating systems the most. To prevent blackouts at these times, extra power plants must be available. But for most of the rest of the year, we don’t need them. Those very expensive power plants sit idle—and we’re paying for them. If we didn’t need them, the cost of electricity would go down—and we’d have less air pollution, too.

Smart Meters

Inventors have come up with an array of new technologies to help us reduce electricity use during periods of peak demand. That’s where the smart meter comes in. A smart meter is a high-tech replacement for the old-fashioned meter that your utility company put on your house to measure your electricity use. With this digital device, you can track your electricity use in real time, often via the web. It also allows your utility company to charge you something close to the actual price of electricity. During off-peak times, that price will be lower than the price you now pay; during peak times, you’ll pay more than you now pay per kilowatt hour (kWh).

The smart meter makes it easier to change your habits to save money. If you see that electricity costs the most at 2 pm, you can choose to do your laundry at night. You save yourself and your community money by shaving the peak, which reduces the need for more power plants and allows your utility to purchase less of the more expensive fuels used during peak times.

Because a smart meter measures energy use in shorter intervals, it can help you ferret out the big energy users in your house far better than an ordinary meter can. For example, if your meter shows a sudden spike in electricity use every time you watch your plasma screen TV, try keeping your television off one night. Then compare how much electricity you use with and without the TV on. You’ll be able to pinpoint just how much watching TV costs you.

Are Smart Meters Safe?

Some consumers are concerned that smart meters may be unsafe because they emit low-level microwave radio frequency radiation. As a result, several state utility commissions have opened investigations into the health effects of smart meters, and in some cases now let consumers refuse to have one installed. However, industry research to date has not identified health problems related to smart meters. In fact, smart meters create far less exposure to wireless signals than do cell phones.

Beyond Smart Meters

Other smart energy management devices help us make the most of our smart meters, or even to manage our energy use without them:

  • In-home display monitors. Typically small boxes that you can set on a countertop or hold in your hand. The screen shows your home’s energy use and what it costs. Some monitors are easy to add to your meter or circuit box; others must be installed by an electrician. Monitors are a popular choice, because you can put them inside your home for quick access (unlike your smart meter, which is outside), and they are typically easy to read and understand. Some eliminate numbers altogether and just glow different colors to show how much energy you are using.
  • Online analytics. Programs for your computer, tablet computer, or cell phonethat analyze smart-meter data. Many of these programs recommend ways to save more energy.
  • Cell phone and computer apps. Programs that monitor your smart-meter data remotely via your cell phone or computer, or control your thermostat or appliances from afar.
  • Smart appliances. Washers, dryers, refrigerators, ovens, and A/Cs that communicate directly with your utility. No need for you to watch the meter; these appliances will find the cheapest time to operate. You can override the program, though, whenever you like. Smart appliances are still under development; field tests have been conducted, but these appliances are not yet generally available.
  • Data loggers. Devices that keep a record of the output from an instrument. In a home, data loggers might be used to record output from instruments that measure humidity, energy use, and temperature. A favorite among engineers and techie homeowners.

Before you choose an energy management device, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your household motivated to reduce energy use or to meet a carbon emissions goal?
  • What does your utility offer free of charge?
  • Are the monitoring and display devices you want compatible with your meter? (Ask the vendor or your utility company.)
  • How much time do you have to manage your energy use?
  • Are you tech savvy, or not?

But I’m Already So Busy!

If your time is tight, or energy management doesn’t interest you, see if your utility offers demand response programs for homeowners. With these programs, your utility does most of the work by remotely curtailing an appliance’s energy use when electricity prices are high. Often this involves having the utility company put a special electronic device on your water heater or A/C. Many utilities compensate customers for participating in these programs.

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