My new smart meter and me

As a general rule I’m not an early adopter, preferring to let others beta test expensive new inventions while I buy the 2nd generation technology at half the price.  With energy, though, I’m a bit more passionate, so two months ago I proudly had a new digital smart meter installed at my home.  How progressive, I thought, and I’m at the forefront of Texas utility customers just by having one!  This is the first step to being a part of a whole new smart grid system (see pic below) that could eliminate inefficiencies in the T&D business and potentially help me reduce my energy consumption by allowing me accurate, real-time feedback and information access concerning my energy use.  

Smart Grid as envisioned by Oncor

Visions of the future danced in my head.  I would now be able to monitor the energy hogs in my house and adjust my behaviors accordingly.   Maybe the surge protector for that plasma TV, DVD player, cable box, and surround sound system could get shut off in the morning when I leave the house- how much would that save?  Do I really need to unplug my cell phone charger when I’m not using it, or is that just a hyper-conservationist myth?  After all, I use it every day.  What about the treadmill and electronics in my guest bedroom?  Surely those could get powered down and I’d conserve lots of energy and save a bundle on my electric bill.  Maybe I could create a tracking mechanism to monitor my progress in reducing consumption and establish benchmarks prior to any big changes or purchases so that I would really know the impacts of changing behaviors or buying new power hungry toys.

60 days in, the reality of the situation is a bit different.  The meter is installed on the back corner of my house, so even a cursory glance at it requires putting on shoes, walking outside, and leaning over the holly bushes while trying not to scratch myself up.  Once there, I have to sit through multiple cycles of nonsensical data displays before it will show me the two pieces of information that are actually of any use to me: my real-time power draw, and my cumulative usage thus far in the billing cycle.  If I want to calculate the impact of a specific appliance, I have to control for all other variables (i.e. turn off variable draw tools like dishwashers and dryers) while ensuring my wife doesn’t do anything that might require electricity (unlikely).  Once that’s done I can turn off appliance X, run outside to check the instantaneous power draw, then run back inside to turn it on, then run back outside to check the draw again and find the difference.  It really couldn’t be easier…

The bottom line lesson learned from my experience is that the universal installation of smart meters on homes may not be the conservation panacea that we’ve been looking for.  My household energy consumption remains very small, but that owes to the fact that my wife and I are conservationists who believe in minimizing our usage anyway, not because of the fancy gray box hanging off the back of the house.  That’s certainly not to say that there’s no value in it- the efficiencies gained by the utility provider should make justifying new rate cases a bit more difficult, thereby benefiting consumers indirectly.  However, the idea that the average American is going to get off the couch and pay attention to energy consumption when monitoring it’s as difficult as it is in my house is optimistic at best.  I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the new digital smart meters will continue to run unnoticed just as the old 5 dial meters did for the last six or so decades.  I guess until something easier comes along, we’ll just have to make the best of what we’ve got.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go out back and see how much this post just cost me.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “My new smart meter and me

  1. bhgully

    Great first hand experience – the harsh truths of reality!

  2. eemc2

    Back in the day, I was very concerned about the consumption of my window A/C unit. I used my multimeter and a suicide cord (relatively fitting name) to measure the amps the unit drew. I survived to write this comment – the amps varied depending on the compressor being turned on/off. Knowing the amps and standard plug voltage (115VAC), P=V[V]*I[A].

    This would give you a good idea of your power consumption at a single point. I can imagine a very simple plug-like device (similar to travel adapters) with a small display allowing one to get the three important numbers: current power draw, time averaged power draw and overall energy consumed within a push of a button.

    Apparently many such devices exist (just google power meter plug), and maybe for a curious engineer and conservationist as yourself, they are not too expensive to test out. I myself may get (or even better, build) one.

    Oh, and the small, 5.5kBtu A/C window unit consumed about 700W when on and I think less than 100W when just circulating the air.

    On your post, I also really enjoyed how you point out the factor that many of us might forget – even if it is measured, how easy is it to access the energy information from a smart meter.

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