Thinking Tech

Color-coded smart monitors can cut home energy costs

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To encourage the adoption of smart energy metering in more homes, power companies are taking a look at a new, user-friendlier energy monitor design that functions using the same concept as traffic lights.

Despite the hefty financial investments being poured into smart grid technology, home owners have not exactly been clamoring for it. So to encourage the adoption of smart energy metering in more homes, power companies are taking a look at a new, user-friendlier energy monitor design that functions using the same concept as traffic lights.

On paper, a smart meter monitor offer a host of potential benefits. The device, which provides users with a thorough and accurate breakdown of energy usage, allows homeowners to better manage their utilities in ways that can significantly cut energy costs. But many of the products out on the market either dazzle with graphs and charts or simply displays raw wattage information. Either way, making the most of these monitors can feel a bit complicated for some people.

Now, utility companies like the Texas-based Oncor, are test piloting new monitors with displays that not only provide real-time energy costs but also changes color as energy usage reaches a specified range. This type of color scheme works similarly to the way traffic light signals communicate simple instructions to drivers. For instance, a red display indicates high energy usage, which means you should probably find some energy-sucking appliances to switch off.

One of the products being tested is the Landis+Gyr Ecometer, which has a display that essentially mimics a traffic light by changing from green to yellow to red as power usage rises and falls. Tendril also offers an energy metering dashboard called Insight that features a red-green-blue color coding. Both products operate on the ZigBee protocol, which allows for two-way communication between a network of instruments, appliances and an outdoor smart meter.

Catherine Cuellar, an Oncor spokeswoman who has been testing the monitor out in her home, tells MSNBC.com that the monitor has helped her develop energy-efficient habits.

She has personally been testing the Landis+Gyr Ecometer, which has a screen that changes from green to yellow to red depending on how much energy is being consumed. She said it's been effective in getting her to take note of her energy use and even changed her behavior.

In one instance, she came home and the monitor was red. Her heat wasn't on and she couldn't figure out what was using so much juice. Then she realized her freezer door wasn't closed all the way. When she shut it, the monitor turned from red back to green.

This winter, the readings indicated higher energy consumption as temperatures dipped, prompting her to wear more layers, and to cuddle up with a blanket instead of cranking up the heat.

"That's the kind of instant awareness and conscientious and common-sense conservation that we believe this information will empower users to adopt," she said.

While making home energy management a real no-brainer is already a strong selling point, companies can also offer the monitors at a lower cost than some of the higher-end devices on the market, according to VentureBeat.com.

In this SmartPlanet segment, learn about the various strategies companies hope will increase the adoption of smart metering:

Related on SmartPlanet:

Photo: Schneider Wiser Energy Monitor

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure