In recent years, the technology of our cars has advanced at a more rapid rate than the technology of our homes. A new car’s dashboard has gauges that display all kinds of information, including the amount of fuel in the car’s tank, the oil pressure, the electrical system voltage, and sometimes the tire pressure. Many new cars even have a real-time fuel-efficiency gauge that displays miles per gallon.
If you’re interested in comparable information about your home, you’ll probably have to go down to the basement and look at the float gauge on the top of your fuel oil tank. Then you can go outside and read the gauge at the top of your propane tank. Next, stick the prongs of a multimeter into an outlet to verify your electrical system voltage. And if you want electrical use data, you can wait until you get your utility bill at the end of the month.
It will probably be many decades before most homes have such car-like features as electrically operated windows or dashboards that indicate whether the doors are latched. But technology-savvy homeowners can already install a real-time whole-house electricity meter with a display for the kitchen or living room wall. Often referred to as “energy dashboards,” such monitors are available for less than $200.
You can even buy a more sophisticated dashboard that displays electricity, natural gas, and water use — although the cost of the required monitoring equipment rises steeply with these added features, into the thousands of dollars.
Documented energy savings
Studies have repeatedly shown that homeowners do a better job of conserving energy if they get real-time energy-use feedback.
If you can see how many kilowatts your house is consuming, you’re more likely to check whether you accidently left the basement lights on.
These are good numbers
It’s hard to think of any other $200 device capable of reducing a home’s total electricity use by 6.5% to 7.4%. Occupant decisions are responsible for huge variations in energy use from house to house — even when the houses being compared have similar specifications. These energy monitors help homeowners see (and reduce) their energy use as it happens.
I’ve been living with a whole-house electricity meter for at least 16 years. (Since my house is off-grid, I use a meter.) There’s nothing like real-time feedback to encourage conservation. Every now and then, I notice an anomaly. I’ll mutter, “Holy smokes, that’s a lot of amps!” and scurry around the house trying to figure out what’s been plugged in.
For those looking for green points, the National Lakesideca Standard (ICC 700) provides up to 4 points for the installation of a residential energy dashboard (see sections 703.4.9 and 705.1).
The cost-effectiveness question
If a homeowner pays $100 a month for electricity, the installation of a $200 electricity dashboard that helps the owner reduce electricity use by 5% will pay for itself in less than 3 1/2 years. That’s a fairly fast payback.
The payback for more sophisticated monitoring systems — especially those that monitor electricity, water, and natural gas — is likely to be more elusive. According to a by Jeffrey Lee, “Proving a return on investment is still an obstacle. … AgileWaves’ typical whole-house gas and electric monitoring system with details on seven circuits retails for $7,500, and prices can range higher or lower depending on capabilities.”
Choosing an electricity-use monitor
The two most prominent electricity-use dashboards are The Energy Detective and the PowerCost Monitor from Blue Line Innovations.
The Energy Detective is a whole-house monitor that displays real-time electricity use in kilowatt-hours (kWh) or dollars per hour. It also shows how much electricity has been used since the beginning of the billing period.
The Energy Detective has two components: a transmitting unit mounted in the electrical service panel, and a receiving/display unit installed in a convenient location, such as the kitchen or living room. The transmitting unit sends data to the display unit through the home’s AC wiring.
To provide power to the transmitting unit, two leads must be connected inside the electrical service panel; the black lead goes to a 15-amp or 20-amp circuit breaker, and the white lead goes to the neutral bus bar. The unit also has two clothespin-like current transformers that need to be clamped onto the main cables entering the service panel from the meter.
The Energy Detective computes power draw in kW every second. The display shows both instantaneous power use and cumulative energy use for the month. Model 1001 — the basic model, designed to handle 200-amp residential service — can be ordered from for $120.
The PowerCost Monitor
consists of two battery-powered units: a sensor/transmitter unit and a display unit. The transmitter attaches to the outside of an ordinary cylindrical utility electricity meter by means of a ring clamp, while the display unit is installed indoors. (Homeowners can easily install the transmitter without the help of an electrician.) Information is transmitted between the two units by radio waves.
The PowerCost monitor works with both electromechanical and digital utility meters. The monitor displays electricity use information in either kilowatt-hours (kWh) or dollars; it can be programmed to accommodate two-tier rate structures. Various display options are possible, including real-time consumption in dollars per hour or kilowatts, as well as total dollars or kWh consumed since the “clear” button was last pushed.
Unlike the Energy Detective monitor, the PowerCost monitor requires batteries for both the transmitting unit and the display unit. (Each unit requires two AA batteries.) sells the PowerCost monitor for $109.
More electricity-use dashboards
Several other manufacturers offer electricity-use dashboards that compete with the Energy Detective and the PowerCost monitor:
- The ECM 1220 Energy Monitor is manufactured by in Saint Catharines, Ontario.
- The Insight energy monitor is manufactured by in Boulder, Colo.
- is manufactured by Black & Decker.
- is manufactured by Grossman Innovations of Spokane, Wash.
- is manufactured by Energy Monitoring Technologies in Miami, Fla.
- is manufactured by EnergyHub in New York City.
- is manufactured by BreezePlay in Charlotte, N.C.
Measuring water use
If you want a residential energy dashboard that measures both electricity and water use, the cost of the monitoring equipment goes up.
- The EcoConcierge from is a Web-connected monitor that can be configured to display real-time electricity and water use.
- General Electric manufactures the — referred to in some GE literature as the Smart Panel or SmartCommand Dashboard. This device can be configured to monitor both electricity use and water use.
Web-based or software-based monitoring systems
While all of the above-listed manufacturers provide homeowners with physical display units to install on the living-room wall, other monitoring systems are Web-based or software-based. These systems live mostly on the Web, so they require homeowners to turn on their computers to find out how much energy the house is using. The systems depend on Web-enabled hardware from a variety of manufacturers to collect relevant data.
- The Google PowerMeter is a Web-based service to help homeowners monitor electricity use. The service will only work in homes equipped with certain utility-installed “smart” meters or with specific brands of whole-house electricity meters. For more information, see a recent GBA news article, or visit .
- is a software-based electricity management program. Greenbox Technology was recently acquired by Silver Spring Networks.
- displays data collected by monitoring devices from a variety of manufacturers. Unlike the other monitoring systems mentioned, AgileWave can keep track of natural gas use as well as water and electricity use — as long as the necessary (and expensive) Web-enabled monitoring units have been installed.
Monitoring systems for commercial and institutional buildings
The owners of large commercial or institutional buildings can often afford more elaborate energy-monitoring equipment than the typical homeowner. Systems designed for commercial buildings include:
A more complete list of energy dashboard manufacturers can be found at on the MapAWatt Web site.
Last week’s blog: “The Uncertain Future of Phoenix and Las Vegas.”