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Monitors empower customers on their electricity use
[July 27, 2011]

Monitors empower customers on their electricity use

Jul 27, 2011 (Houston Chronicle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Real-time information about the cost of electricity use can change consumers' behavior significantly, according to a study by local power grid operator CenterPoint Energy.

The study of 300 Houston-area homes where residents were given devices that provided minute-by-minute power use information showed that more than 75 percent of the participants cut back their power usage once they were aware of its costs, according to the study.

The in-home devices -- roughly the size of a cell phone and meant to sit on a kitchen counter, bedside table or other surface in plain view -- communicate wirelessly with smart meters that CenterPoint has rolled out to some 1.5 million Houston-area customers.

The devices can tell users how much power they're consuming at any given moment in kilowatt hours or price per hour.

The results of the pilot, which CenterPoint released Tuesday, were gathered over a three-month period earlier this year.

Eighty-three percent of customers in the pilot program said the monitors made them more conscientious about turning off lights when they left a room or went to bed.

Fifty-one percent said they adjusted their thermostats to make the heating or air conditioning run less frequently; 34 percent switched to energy-saving light bulbs; 15 percent installed programmable thermostats; 12 percent sealed air leaks in their homes; 10 percent unplugged electronic equipment when it wasn't in use; and 8 percent installed insulation.

While use of the devices tended to drop off after a few weeks, 84 percent of the people in the pilot said they would definitely continue to use them and 42 percent would definitely recommend them to family, friends or colleagues.

CenterPoint's results are largely in line with similar pilots done by utilities throughout North America in recent years, although CenterPoint did not measure whether users actually reduced their electric bills. That will come in a future study.

Previous studies indicate the monitors can reduce bills. A study done by the Florida Solar Energy Center for the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 found in-home power monitors could reduce home energy costs by 5 percent to 15 percent, depending on the user.

"Interest and motivation were large factors in whether having the feedback device made a difference in energy use," according to the study. "Thus, consumers worried about high bills or otherwise interested in really lowering their energy use could be the best candidates for using the technology." Ruth Diorio, a retiree in Houston's Westchase area who took part in the pilot program, said she and her husband have cut about $500 from this year's electric bills through June by changing their power use.

"That's like being off the grid for two months out of the year for us," Diorio said. "So I'm not just helping myself but the environment." Diorio said it took just a few minutes for her to synchronize her in-home monitor with her smart meter. She and her daughter learned a lot about how much devices and appliances in the house used by hitting switches and watching the changes on the monitor. For example, they discovered the microwave was an energy hog and that a night light left on in a guest room used the same amount of power as a night table lamp.

Diorio said most of the savings came through small changes in habits, with the exception of her thermostat setting. She went from keeping her 2,000-foot-home at 74 degrees during the day to 77 -- a change that saves her about $10 per week. That's money she and her husband would rather use for going out or buying other things.

"I didn't become addicted but I did become more conscious," Diodio said.

Dan Wallach, an associate professor of computer science at Rice University, also received an energy monitor as part of a broader pilot by CenterPoint Energy. Wallach said the information he gathered from the device led him to replace a number of halogen ceiling light fixtures in his home with more efficient -- though more expensive -- LED lighting.

The LEDs last longer, use about one-sixth the power of the halogen bulbs and generate much less heat, thus saving on air conditioning costs. He predicts the payoff on the pricier bulbs will be about 3.5 years based on his 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour electricity plan.

"Another simple thing that saved 100 watts or so was having my computer go to sleep when I'm not using it," Wallach said.

Bellaire Mayor Pro Tem Phillip Nauert also participated in the broader study. After just a few hours he discovered a lot about his home energy use.

"I was particularly surprised at what a power hog my old big screen CRT technology television was compared to a new 32-inch LCD flat screen," Nauert said.

The device also has helped him show his children the impact of their power use.

"I could preach to my kids all day and night, and to them it's just Dad on one of his many rants," Nauert said. "With the power meter I can invoke an impartial third-party presence and they actually listen." But has it lowered the Nauert family electric bills? "I can't tell. With the triple-digit heat we have had lately, I have run the AC continuously," Nauert said. "But I have to believe that we have been better as a family then we were doing in cutting unnecessary use." Editor's note: Reporter Tom Fowler tested a power monitor at home in CenterPoint's pilot program, but was not surveyed for the report on the program. He will return the device to CenterPoint. To see more of the Houston Chronicle, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, Houston Chronicle Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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