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Sniffing out energy hogs: The EcoDog energy monitor

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

EcoDog energy monitor next to electrical service panel"I was bleeding energy out," fellow solar homeowner Paul Proctor told me. "I needed to find out how, and why, and where." I can relate. Even though I’ve worked hard to seal up my house and drive a stake through electricity vampires, I still can’t bear to open my monthly utility bill. So I continue to seek out energy forensics tools to ferret out where energy is going and what I can do to stop it from going there. Proctor has been trying out the FIDO Home Energy Monitoring System from EcoDog and he related his experiences to me last week.

In past posts, I’ve raved about the Kill-a-Watt, a module you plug into a wall outlet to display the power draw of the appliance using that outlet, and The Energy Detective (TED), a coil of wire that clamps around the power cables coming into your house to record your total consumption. Both devices have spawned imitators, and fellow energy blogger Chris Kaiser keeps a excellent list. A study in northern Ontario in 2006 found that TED-like monitors encouraged families to reduce their electricity consumption by an average of 6.5 percent.

But the TED tells you only how much and when, not where the energy is going. It’s a pain to go around the house plugging and unplugging the Kill-a-Watt to track down the culprits. I’ve longed for something that combines the automatic data-gathering of a whole-house monitor with the appliance-level detail of a plug-in module. So I was intrigued last year when two products came out that promised to do exactly that: the EcoDog device and the eMonitor from Powerhouse Dynamics.

Proctor, who lives with his wife and daughter in San Diego, was one of EcoDog’s first customers. He said he became aware he had a serious energy problem when he got to talking with his neighbors about their electric bills. (I guess in San Diego, you can’t make small talk complaining about the weather.) Most were $100 a month or so. His was twice that. (In general, I think we could all learn a lot by sharing our energy experiences, both offline and on. Microsoft Hohm is one way you can do this.)

Detail of circuit transformers inside electrical service panelFIDO works much like TED. Its main innovation is that you clamp a coil of wire around each circuit in your breaker box rather than just the main cables (see photo at left). This coil, known as a current transformer, magnetically registers the current flowing through the circuit. It is attached to a monitoring device that takes readings at regular intervals and transmits them to a USB computer interface. Like TED, the EcoDog device uses the household electric wiring for its transmissions. Proctor said the transmission has been completely reliable, but I suspect that someone running electronic devices that also transmit over the power line, such as home automation equipment, would run into trouble and might need to install noise filters, as I had to do with TED.

The computer app (Windows-only, alas, though a Mac version is planned for later this year) shows a floor plan of the house with all the data arrayed around it. The way Proctor described it, it’s an energy geek’s dream. You can study your patterns of electricity use and find places to cut back. Proctor’s biggest power sink turned out to be a water pump for a decorative pond in his backyard—it accounted for fully half his total electric bill. "I certainly shocked my family when I showed them how much energy was being burned," he told me.

Another use, EcoDog’s president Ron Pitt told me, is to watch for changes in appliances’ power draw as an early warning sign they need fixing. A third application, as my colleague Larry Greenemeier wrote about yesterday, will be to monitor electric-car charging. Proctor has ordered a Nissan Leaf, and FIDO will let him break out the charging costs from the rest of his household power consumption.

On the downside, the EcoDog system, unlike TED, doesn’t interface with Google Powermeter, so you can’t watch your household consumption remotely—say, from your office. The biggest shock, however, is the price tag. Proctor said he paid $1,800 for 16 circuits. You can get the system for $1,300, but that doesn’t include installation if you don’t feel up to it yourself (and you shouldn’t, if you don’t have experience with electrical service panels). The eMonitor is nearly the same price ($1,200) for a roughly comparable system. Depending on the state of your household wiring, you might incur other costs. In an old house like mine, there’s very little logic to how the outlets, lamps, and appliances are grouped together. If I wanted to break down my usage room by room or appliance by appliance, I’d need to shift some outlets from one circuit to another.

Few homeowners can justify these systems based solely on the expected savings, unless, like Proctor, they can slay a serious hog. For now, these monitors are in the realm of fun gadget.

A basic issue is that lamps and most appliances use a piddling amount of energy compared to heating and cooling, at least for those of us who live in climates less blessed than San Diego’s. What would really justify spending money on is an energy monitor for heating and cooling. Surprisingly, none yet exists. It would take a sensor to monitor gas or electric use, a few strategically placed thermometers, and a computerized thermal model of the house. Such a system would conduct an ongoing energy audit of your home. For instance, you might find that some areas are systematically colder, suggesting a need for better insulation. Temperature differences between rooms might signal problems with the air ducts or radiator venting. Temperature differences between upstairs and downstairs might indicate that the house suffers from a chimney effect and would benefit from air sealing in the basement and attic.

I bet a $1,000 thermal-monitoring system could pay for itself within a single season. With that data, you could also see whether super-expensive steps such as deep energy retrofits or geothermal heat pumps would justify themselves. Until someone develops such a system, though, I think you’d still benefit from one of the cheaper power monitors.

Photos courtesy of EcoDog

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  1. 1. ormondotvos 4:31 pm 02/2/2011

    Sounds to me like you’ve abandoned common sense and become infatuated with gadgetry. How many Kill-a-watts can you buy for $1200!?

    You’re too lazy to put up with the "pain" of transferring a wall plug, and you’re giving us advice? People like you are the problem.

    Your friend with the yard pump could have plugged it into a Kill-a-watt without spending the huge amount of money.

    Is your lazy attitude making you miss the easy ones because you might need to take a thermometer on a ladder?

    Link to this
  2. 2. poweringanation 3:37 pm 02/3/2011

    Interesting, albeit pricy!

    There are plenty of free, online resources to help you reduce energy consumption. Map a Watt, for example, is an excellent blog.

    We also developed a simple, interactive checklist to cut your energy bill:

    Luca Semprini

    Link to this
  3. 3. psmapawatt 6:53 pm 02/3/2011

    Great post. I found a nice tool for tracking wall outlets to their corresponding circuit breaker. It’s called a Circuit Detective. You plug one part of the tool into the outlet and scan the breakers in the circuit panel with the receiver. Here’s a link to a blog post about it:


    Link to this
  4. 4. alvdh1 2:44 pm 02/4/2011

    Perhaps a better solution would be to unplug the devices you are not using and turn out the lights you are not using. I have cut my electric utility bill by 2/3′s by turning stuff off and replacing all of my lights with super efficient LED’s. When all of my living room, dining room and kitchen lights are turned on, I am using a whopping 101 watts of electricity. The LED’s are 2700k with a total lumen output of 5,600.

    I replaced my refrigerator with a properly sized energy star unit for $545 and my LED’s cost me about $1,200 for the entire house. I have an electric stove and oven that will be replaced this year with a induction oven and stove for further savings.

    At any rate, my electric consumption without the changes averaged about 1,200 Kwh per month. With the changes and turning stuff off, I average about 430 Kwh per month. My November bill was 299 Kwh. For your information, I am never afraid to open my electric utility bill.

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  5. 5. jzftiger6 1:44 pm 02/5/2011

    Agree – turn off the lights in rooms not being used; close the refrigerator door and a tad bit more insulation. You’ll be surprised at the energy savings.

    Link to this
  6. 6. sconnell 2:04 pm 02/7/2011

    A note from the manufacturer: This article does a nice job of discussing the EcoDog FIDO hardware. Unfortunately, the author did not have an opportunity to review the software which is the real key to maximizing energy savings and solar system optimization.

    While basic monitoring devices like Kill-A-Watt are great for measuring individual devices, EcoDog’s FIDO Energy Advisor software couples real-time monitoring of each circuit with your actual tiered or time of use utility costs, sophisticated analytics and proactive messaging to let you know how to maximize savings on an ongoing basis. In addition, FIDO provides real-time solar net metering in KWHr and cost based on your utility feed-in tarrifs. Where utilities have a selection of tariffs from which to chose, the software includes a unique feature that shows users what the most cost effective rate structure would be based on their actual usage. Because our software overlays energy use on a home’s floorplan, FIDO helps you find the energy hogs you haven’t thought of, like the dehumidifier in the basement, the backyard pond, or the fridge in the garage that used to run efficiently, but has become home to a colony of dust bunnies.

    Also, our increased production volumes have enabled us to reduce the base MSRP to under $1000. For those who would like comprehensive monitoring on an ongoing basis, complete with real-time costs, usage graphs, and net metering for solar, EcoDog offers a fast, user-friendly option that will pay for itself in reduced energy costs and smaller solar system requirements. You can see screen shots of some of these features at:

    Link to this
  7. 7. ckmapawatt 6:44 pm 02/15/2011

    ormondotvos, you have no clue what you are talking about. Answer me this: How do you use a wall plug to figure out how much your dryer is costing you per year? Or your AC units? Or any of your ceiling lighting? What about your solar panels? Any novice can use a plug-in meter to do the very basic, but those of us really interested in saving energy need more advanced tools.

    Link to this
  8. 8. SteveOrRote 1:32 am 02/16/2011

    The prices I have seen are $200-400 (unless you drop the cost of a central monitor console, which loses the point I think); isolation for sense loops is cheap! Microcontroller (sivaplug, etc.) fans with the patience for city and national electrical codes are less squeezed on monitor line count, too. Then again I might want help running ground wires and swapping out 50 y.o. outlets and switches.

    Hey, who has replaced their nice clear globe ceiling fan lamps with an HID system?

    Link to this
  9. 9. PGreenlee 2:04 pm 02/23/2011

    "In an old house like mine, there’s very little logic to how the outlets, lamps, and appliances are grouped together. If I wanted to break down my usage room by room or appliance by appliance, I’d need to shift some outlets from one circuit to another."

    The Electrical Codes most common, to most jurisdictions, require at least two separate circuits to most rooms. If you combine those circuits, you may be in violation of Code, which could void your Homeowner’s Insurance.

    If you’re not thoroughly educated on your local Code, as well as the appropriate safety practices, I strongly recommend that you not move or change wires or otherwise "fiddle with" your electrical boxes.
    (FYI: I’m a local official. I have no financial or other interest in any Electrical Contractor or product.)

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  11. 11. martincrony 1:38 am 07/1/2011

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  12. 12. paul_wilson 4:35 am 06/2/2012

    This is very great thing you have shared with us. Now I found enough resources by your tips about this issue, Thank you.

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  13. 13. efergy 2:02 am 01/17/2013

    I keep thinking that energy displays (In-home displays) are simpler to install, setup and use. Really convenient for homes, due to its simplicity and price affordability.

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