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Straight Talk Articles

Get Smart! Energy-Saving Apps and Devices
June, 2019

Dear Pat: It seems like I’m always hearing about some new device or app that will save a bunch of energy, but I wonder if they're worth the time and money. I just want simple ways to I can use my phone or my computer to save energy. Any ideas where I should start looking? – Lily

 

Dear Keeley:

Every new piece of technology seems to come with a lot of promise, doesn’t it? Then we have to find out for ourselves if it lives up to the hype. Here are a few products we recommend, and one that we don’t think is quite ready yet.

 

SMART PHONE APPS

There are a huge number of energy apps out there, but two stand out. They’re free, easy to use, effective and available for both android and iOS.

 

  • JouleBug is a fun way to save energy. You collect points for each energy-efficient move you make inside the home, on your daily commute, and in daily life. The app helps you make one-time changes and build ongoing habits. It’s designed as a competition among friends, and can help you and your family create an energy-saving household together. It also contains fun educational videos and links to articles.

 

  • Energy Cost Calculators: There are several energy cost calculator apps that help you figure out where you use the energy you’re paying for every month. You enter how many hours a day you use each appliance or electric-powered item (some have a dropdown of typical household items) and the rate you’re paying for power (from your power bill), and the app creates a total operating cost for that device.

 

How much is that chandelier in the hallway costing you every month, and how much would you save by turning it off for an hour more a day? How about that second freezer or the big-screen TV? The answers aren’t exact, but they will give you a better picture of your overall energy use and help you focus your efforts on the opportunities that will save the most energy.

 

Be sure to check your co-op’s website to see what kind of online tools they may have to help you better understand and manage your energy use.

 

SMART THERMOSTATS

A smart thermostat connects to the internet and your home computer or smart phone via your home wi-fi system(1) and could shave $50 off your power bill every year.(2)  Most fall within the $100 - $250 range. If the price for a feature-rich model is more than you’re comfortable spending, ask yourself if it’s worth buying a lower-cost model, or if your current thermostat is doing the job.

 

Some features to look for include:

  • Learning – a learning thermostat will figure out your habits and adapt – this is probably the best way to make the most of a smart thermostat’s energy-saving potential

  • Geofencing – will detect when you leave home and return and move the temperature up or down so energy isn’t being wasted

  • Other features include remote room sensors and voice control

 

Before you buy, learn what you can about the user-friendliness of the app you will access through your smart phone.  And take a look at how easy it is to program the thermostat unit directly.  Finally, consider the installation.  Some models are more difficult to install and may require re-wiring.

 

SMART POWER PLUGS AND SWITCHES

It seems like outlets and light switches you could program and monitor from your smart phone would be the perfect marriage of convenience and efficiency, right? Unfortunately, most of the technology we’ve seen doesn’t seem to be quite ready yet. A survey of online purchaser reviews of smart outlets and switches found that while some models work well most of the time, every model we found was rated poor by at least 10% of users because of chronic unsolvable problems.

 

The only exceptions were hub-based systems like the Currant Dual Smart Outlet and Philips Hue light systems, which cost $200 or more for 8-10 smart outlets or light switches. That’s a pretty big investment to control what is likely a small portion of your energy use.  You can use an Energy Cost Calculator app to decide if it’s worth the investment.

 

I hope you find some new technology to help you.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on energy efficient apps and devices, please visit the June 2019 more information page.

 

Footnotes

(1) Source: https://www.pcmag.com/article/356755/the-best-smart-thermostats

(2) Source: https://www.energystar.gov/about/content/energy_star_ends_thermostat_wars_introducing_first_ever_smart_thermostat_specification

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Cell phones and other devices make it easier than ever to get a handle on home energy use. Photo: Kaboompics.com from Pexels