July 26th, 2009
I know it’s depressing to think about, but it won’t be too long before we start thinking about taking the sweaters out of the closet and putting the swimsuits in their place. While the weather is still nice, though, it’s a perfect time to identify and fix those pesky energy-sucking leaks around windows, electrical outlets, and anywhere else where the insulation behind your wall or ceiling isn’t quite perfect.
Fortunately, there’s a new tool out there from Black & Decker called the Thermal Leak Detector that will make this task much more accurate than guesswork or incense sticks and much less expensive than a full-blown energy audit. We mentioned it back in December, but it’s now widely available and can be found at LIL’s partner Energy Federation and at Amazon. (note: if your heating or cooling bills are high and your home is > 10 years old, a professional audit is most likely the best way to go. They’ll be able to do a much more comprehensive job than you will, and can help to identify which fixes are most important. We have a great list of auditors near you on Low Impact Living).
The Black & Decker Thermal Leak Detector is very easy to use and pretty accurate. Simply scan it across a wall or other surface and a light emitted by the device will change from red to blue as you scan over zones that are hotter or colder than a reference temperature you select. Try to pick a day when the difference between inside and outside temperatures is high and scan away!
Popularity: 4% [?]
May 18th, 2009
You can’t read a green-focused blog or periodical these days without seeing something about smart grids. Smart transmission grids from wind farms to cities, smart distribution grids from our local utilities, or even smart energy networks at home. The advertised benefits are many - the ability to move renewable energy from remote sources to urban areas, less energy waste in transmission, and the ability of utilities to optimize energy consumption across their grids all the way down to (and into) your home. To make this last leg work, utilities will need to be able to talk to your appliances, climate control systems, and other home energy devices in order to manage their energy production in a smart and low-carbon way. (For an entertaining and informative if optimistic description of how this might work some day, check out Chapter Ten of Thomas Friedman’s great book Hot, Flat and Crowded).
Enter ZigBee, a relatively new wireless technology that is a frontrunner in the race to network and control all of your home environmental systems. Now, if you’re like me, your first question might be whether we really need another wireless technology. As if WiFi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, CDMA, GSM, and the many other protocols out there aren’t enough already! But ZigBee has several major attributes that DO make it an important piece of the puzzle. The ZigBee protocol is optimized to pass relatively small amounts of data between devices efficiently - not great for streaming real-time voice conversations or music, but perfect for sending a thermostat setpoint or refrigerator temperature to the smart meter outside your home. The key benefits are that ZigBee transmitters are very simple and inexpensive to build AND they require very little power. They cost fractions of what a Bluetooth connection would cost, and can be powered for months or years on the smallest of batteries. This is the key advantage - they can be integrated into almost any point of home energy use (switches, outlets, lights, appliances) without requiring a significant power source and without driving up the price.
A home full of ZigBee-networked devices could be the termination point for the developing smart grid. All of your home energy users would be networked to a centralized controller or your PC, and you could see and change energy usage throughout your home from your office or cell phone. You could program lights and outlets to turn off if a room is unoccupied, or if electricity prices increased during a hot day. You could turn on your heating system and lights before arriving home on a cold winter’s night. And your utility could shut down or delay certain systems (with your pre-approval, of course) if it faced a day of peak demand across your local electricity grid.
So, if you consider yourself an early adopter of green technology, can you get your hands on any worthwhile ZigBee-powered devices? Unfortunately, there aren’t that many consumer-oriented ZigBee products available yet, but that’s likely to change. Utilities are already beginning to install ZigBee-enabled smart electricity meters on homes and apartments throughout the country, so expect to see products that communicate with them soon. Keep your eyes open for products from these leading ZigBee-related companies:
- Tendril. Tendril is a Boulder-based smart grid company that is launching a full line of residential products, including the Vantage Internet portal, the Insight home energy monitor, the Set Point thermostat and Volt wall outlets. They’re not available at retail yet, but they might be available through your utility if they happen to have a smart grid pilot program.
- Cisco Systems. Cisco is the world’s largest networking hardware company, and just today they announced the outlines of their plans to enter the smart grid market. They stated the intention to enter the residential market without mentioning any specific plans. But Cisco’s successful forays into the small business and residential networking markets after initially focusing on corporate markets (via big steps like acquiring Linksys) suggests they’ll launch major initiatives soon.
- Greenbox. Greenbox will provide a web-based solution that allows you to manage your home’s energy usage and environmental footprint from one place.
- GE and other major appliance manufacturers. The major electronics companies haven’t announced many residential smart grid plans yet, but they’re clearly a big piece of the overall puzzle. Look for ZigBee in a refrigerator or washing machine near you soon.
Popularity: 2% [?]
February 17th, 2009
Knowledge is power, right? We’ve written before about our belief (from our own personal experiences) that one of the best motivators for going green is simply knowing what your impact is. Knowing how much energy you use, carbon you spew, or trash you generate inevitably leads to the desire to cut back (unless you’re one of those carbon-neutral zero-energy composting machines who’s already pegged out at zero. Or a Hummer driver and you just don’t care). Well, the folks at Google announced a potentially important step on the path to real-time insight recently: development of the Google Powermeter.
What is it? Well, it’s another example of Google doing what Google does best: compiling information from a multitude of sources and displaying it in an easy-to-use, intuitive format on the web. For free. In this case, it’s your electricity usage. Before you get online and try to add the Powermeter to your iGoogle page, there’s a catch. You’ll need a Google-compatible smart meter or electricity monitoring device at your home in order to collect your energy usage information the Powermeter needs. Because it is still in testing, Google hasn’t announced yet who the device partners will be. Most of us don’t have the right devices yet, but we will soon, either courtesy of our local utilities or because we’ve gone out and purchased some of the inexpensive DIY devices that are popping up.
This is pretty exciting, for we haven’t found too many examples of Google offering something that doesn’t make our lives easier … that is, as long as you don’t dwell too long on the privacy implications of all that data they have access to! While we wait anxiously for the details, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to Google (bold, I know) that might make the Powermeter a useful new part of our daily web routines.
- Make sure that the Powermeter relies on open data standards. Google is at its best when it takes a previously propietary technology platform or source of information and opens it up to all of us. The Google Android mobile phone platform could revolutionize the smart phone market, and it’s open to any who want to develop on it. Google Analytics brings unprecendented insights about websites to all of us out there running web businesses, and it’s free too. Google Maps? Anyone can create their own custom map and share it with the world - once again, for free. We hope that Google uses its incredible market power for good in this case. They mention making the Powermeter display available to all, but we hope that they also enforce transparency on the makers of smart meters and metering devices. If the meter-makers are forced to follow an open data format, then none of us will be tied into buying some propietary (and expensive) device. And we won’t be tied to the meters our utilities might (or might not) put in our homes.
- Use the usage patterns of millions of consumers to reduce our environmental impact. Once launched, we doubt it will take long for the Powermeter to spread like wildfire. That’s what getting several hundred million visits a month gets you! We hope that Google uses this database to identify trends or anomalies that suggest energy conservation opportunities. Is your home using more energy than similar ones in the summer time? That should bring a polite but helpful reminder that you might want to check your AC unit or insulation levels. Or even better, show you what the payback period will be by upgrading your air conditioner. Or is your power usage very high even when you’re not at home? Perhaps Google can suggest replacing your refrigerator or buying a power-sensing power strip to shut down that plasma TV while you’re away. There are some major privacy concerns here, but Google navigates those very day.
- Don’t stop at electricity. Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity usage represent about 70% of total emissions from residences (excluding transportation fuel), but that means that nearly 30% come from other sources. The main non-electricity culprit is natural gas, which contributes about 20% of residential CO2 emissions. And in certain parts of the country (like the Pacific states, where electricity is very clean), household natural gas usage is THE main source of CO2. We hope that Google extends the Powermeter to cover natural gas usage as well. And what about water usage? I’d really like to see an integrated Google Environmental Dashboard that shows electricity, natural gas, carbon emissions, water, sewage, perhaps even transportation fuel, all in one place.
Any other suggestions? Leave them here … perhaps someone important will “Google” us and take our proposals into consideration!
Popularity: 2% [?]