Meet the Simple Device That Can Save You Money on Energy Bills

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Every item in your home that uses electricity has a unique energy signature. If you graph these out, it looks like an EKG, with spikes and pulses and plateaus of activity that spell out the energy use in your home. These pulses of energy create physical patterns: your spark ignition furnace looks like a thick block followed by a peak and then a plateau, your washing machine’s agitator cycle looks like tiny hills and valleys. And because these energy signatures are predictable across each appliance and system, problems can be identified when those signatures become irregular.  

Understanding how our homes use energy down to the fraction of a second unlocks a multitude of information about how our money, time, and energy is being spent. Mike Phillips, formerly an engineer in speech recognition, founded Sense—a tech company whose single product is a simple orange box—to unlock this kind of information about what goes on in our homes. This small, bright orange device, which is installed in a home’s electrical panel with simple CT clamps, measures the pulses in a very powerful way. The box connects to a home’s Wi-Fi communicates with the Sense app to give users a detailed look at what your home is doing at all times.

“When many appliances and electronics are running in your house, it’s like a noisy orchestra,” says Rhoda Ullmann, VP of marketing and consumer sales at Sense. “Some of the biggest energy wasters are obvious ones, like refrigerators, stoves, electric space heaters, dehumidifiers, and air conditioners. Others, like home electronics and radon fans, use less electricity but stay on all the time—adding up to about a quarter of the average home’s electricity.”

If you can identify these always-on energy users, you could save hundreds on energy every year by unplugging when not in use or even switching to devices with better energy ratings. “Many consumers don’t think about energy ratings when they buy consumer electronics, but they should,” says Ullmann. “We’ve discovered, for instance, that cable DVRs use a lot of energy all the time.”

It’s estimated that Americans spend more than $100 billion every year on wasted energy (that’s about $1,000 per home), and that the average American home spends just shy of $2,000 on utility bills every year. A pilot program for Sense revealed that users saved an average of 8% on their energy costs. For those keeping track, that’s $160 every year.

The Sense app displays power use by device in bubbles sized to relative energy consumption to give you a real sense of just how much power your oven is pulling on. Sense keeps a log of energy use as well, so you can know how much energy you expend running the dishwasher or watching TV over time.

Always-on home monitoring

One of the most appealing features of the Sense monitoring system is its ability to alert you in real time to what’s happening in your home. You can set an alert to let you know when the garage door opens, when the dryer is finished, and how long the TV has been on. And—this may take the cake—you’ll no longer have to rush back home to make sure you’ve turned off the oven or a flatiron—Sense will tell you.

The Sense monitor can also be used a tool for identifying and predicting problems in your home. If your fridge is using more energy than normal, Sense can alert you to a potential coolant leak. If your spark ignition furnace is having to fire more than once to start, Sense will tell you so you can turn a mid-winter heating system failure into a routine service visit. Ullmann explains, “Some of our customers report having saved quite a bit, from a few hundred dollars each year by shutting off a 500 watt attic fan that was always running, to a customer who saved a freezer full of food when the freezer got unplugged accidentally and they noticed in their Sense app.”

The Sense monitor is $299 for traditionally powered homes and $349 for solar-powered homes.

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