Smart Home Devices that Save Money & Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Stephen Lewis

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Photo credit: Flickr-Chris Potter

As they say, home is where the hearth is, but as bright and warm as that may be, it is also a big source of carbon emissions.  The fact is, the electricity we use in our daily life is still predominantly based on fossil fuel generation and the heating of our home is also typically based on oil or natural gas, too.  Until we can cost-effectively switch those sources to clean and renewable energy, we are left with trying to minimize the impact of the fossil fuels we do consume. So what can we do to economize and cut back on the use of polluting energy?  The answer is to embrace the smart home revolution.

 

To start with, the most cost-effective way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is to use less of them. Conducting a home energy audit of your home first can identify ways to better insulate and seal your home to keep it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, while using less fuel or electricity.  You can sign-up for a home energy audit at EnergizeCT.  These audits pay for themselves in lower energy bills and definitely reduce your carbon footprint.

 

In addition to energy efficiencies in the home structure such as insulation and sealing, or the use of LED bulbs and Energy-Star Appliances, you can now also start to buy and install smart devices in your home that will monitor and control energy usage and help you find further saving opportunities.  These products will save you money, essentially paying for themselves in savings. What follows is a quick tour of three different smart home devices that everyone should consider using.

 

What is a smart home device?  Typically we are talking about a device that works with your home electrical system and appliances or works with your heating and cooling systems. These devices monitor and control parts of your energy-using devices and connect conveniently to smart-phone apps through your home wi-fi network.  Here we will provide an overview of four such devices to provide a flavor of the many hundreds that are now available on the market.

 

For anyone wishing to understand where their electricity is going and whether it is efficiently used or not, you would have a hard time getting a complete picture. Yes, your refrigerator, clothes dryer, and other major appliances are the heavy uses.  But how much is your always-on phantom load of plugged in appliances using every day and how does that compare to the average home? If you can cut that down you can save a lot of money over time. Could you also save money by getting rid of a ten-year old refrigerator and buy a new Energy-Star model?  If your home is already getting more modern you would want to know even more – like how much solar power are you generating and how much electricity does it take to charge my electric car? What is that worth at current electric rates? The answer to these questions can come from a device and app called Sense. 

 

Sense is a device that you can purchase and have professionally installed in your electrical circuit breaker box.  It connects to home wi-fi and monitors the electrical signature of each device that draws electricity in your home.  Using machine learning, it can identify each device you have plugged in and somewhat accurately determine what kind of device it is.  It will identify refrigerators, dryers, ovens, microwaves, garage door openers, electric cars, lights, vacuums and countless other devices.  Once identified it provides detailed reports on the usage of each of those devices and gives an overall home report on a real-time basis and trended over time. If you have Solar on your house it also shows how much energy your solar panels are producing.  

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Sense can tell you when you forgot that you left something on or when something like your dryer turns off and it is time to get the dry clothes.  Devices like Sense can’t turn anything on or off, but they do tell you what you are using, any notable trends and if you are an outlier in your community.  This can help you find more ways to save. 

 

In addition to monitoring devices like Sense, there are smart-home control devices that allow you to set timers on things and remotely control those devices.  First among these is the smart home thermostat Nest. Nest provides a whole suite of smart-home devices, but chief among them is their 3rd generation learning thermostat. The Nest Learning Thermostat is a wi-fi connected thermostat that controls your heating and cooling.  

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The Nest Thermostat uses machine learning to understand your schedule and lifestyle and finds ways to save you money on heating and cooling. Nest has motion sensors in it that can detect when you are home and awake and learns your schedule and preferences.  You can easily set a schedule of your own for turning your heat and cooling up or down if you are away at work or asleep. Nest can also be monitored and controlled from a smartphone app and sends you a monthly report that can tell you your trends.

 

Nest is owned by Google and is integrated into the Google Home app and can be controlled from there, along with most other smart home devices.  This gives you voice control over any and all smart home devices in one place. 

Beyond smart thermostats is a range of smart plugs and switches and sensors that can be remotely controlled from a smartphone app and can be put on schedules.  One of these is WeMo which makes Wi-Fi enabled light switches and plugs.

 

WeMo switches can be wired to replace existing light switches and then those can be remotely controlled and also put on timed schedules.  The plugs work in the same way and only need to be plugged into a wall outlet and then the appliance or light is plugged into it. The set up through WiFi and the downloaded smart app to your smartphone is easy and reliable.  From the app you can determine what is on or off and you can switch them from anywhere. In addition, the WeMo devices also easily integrate with Google Home and can be voice controlled.

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The plugs are particularly good to use behind phantom electric users like your television and electronics. The plug can then be turned on prior to using those devices.  This can often save on significant electrical loss due to phantom load. Phantom load is the electricity is being used even when a device is turned off or in standby mode.  For outside lights that are wired to a wall switch, the WeMo wall switch can add both security and cost savings by being set to a schedule. WeMo can turn on any light or device on a set schedule or from sunrise and sunset at your location.  

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The smart home revolution is underway and evolving quickly.  As our appliances get smarter and more efficient, homes will save far more energy than they do today. In the meantime, monitoring, scheduling, and strategically identifying and replacing energy waste in your home is possible and affordable with the devices outlined here.  They can provide you savings, convenient remote control, security, and flexibility. In addition, they can help you reduce your carbon footprint and help you think more about reducing waste. Now those are smart solutions.

Stephen Lewis is a Sierra Club member and serves on the Legislative and CTFA committees of Sierra Club Connecticut.