Saving energy – and cutting energy bills – is on everybody's mind these days. Some are concerned about peak oil and climate change, while others are more worried about the monthly utility bill.
Whether you're a tree-hugger, a penny-pincher or both, there's an app for that. Several apps, in fact.
Mobile energy monitoring and management apps promise to help reduce energy use by allowing you to monitor your consumption wherever you are – in some cases, they let you control devices remotely. Some also spot the biggest energy hogs in your home, or measure energy use against your own goals or your neighbourhood's averages.
The following are some stand-alone electricity-management apps that anyone with the right mobile device can use:
Kill-O-Watts : This iPhone app lets you calculate energy use and predict bills. You input power consumption data for individual devices (this information is usually supplied with new appliances, computers, etc.) or pick typical devices from a database that comes with the app. Then specify how many hours a day each is used. Finally, you enter your utility's rates. Kill-O-Watts can then tell you every device's monthly usage and cost. The app can't handle time-of-day pricing yet, says Mauricio Franco, its developer. Cost: 99 cents. Developer: Arca de la Alianza, Inc.
Meter Readings: This one is an iPhone and iPad app for recording readings from electricity, gas and water meters. Based on manually entered data, it displays graphs and tables of weekly and monthly costs and year-to-year comparisons, predicts your next bill and helps check bill accuracy. The app can handle multiple meters. Cost: $1.99. Developer: Graham Haley.
MeterRead: Another meter-reading tool, for iPhone or iPod Touch. Its twist is that rather than requiring you to interpret old-style meters with multiple dials, it displays dials that you set to match your meter. It shows you what you've used since your last reading and predicts your monthly bill based on usage to date. Cost: $2.99. Developer: Zerogate.
Watts Plus: Calculates approximately how much one appliance costs to run when you enter information about its power consumption, hours of use and your utility's rates. The developer says you'll get the most accurate results by using a measurement device to check the appliance's actual usage. The app doesn't deal with time-of-day pricing. The same developer offers a cheaper but less precise version called Wattulator. Cost: Watts Plus $1.99, Wattulator 99 cents. Developer: David Holzer.
While these apps stand alone, others come as part of a package with energy monitoring and control devices.
Ecobee Inc.: This Toronto-based outfit sells a Smart Thermostat – a programmable thermostat with added remote-control capabilities and ease-of-use features. Stuart Lombard, president and chief executive of Ecobee, says the ability to adjust the thermostat remotely lets people cut back on heating or air conditioning while nobody is home, then adjust the thermostat shortly before returning.
Ecobee has free apps for iPhone and Android, and Mr. Lombard says a BlackBerry version is due for release by year-end. The Smart Thermostat is available through heating and air conditioning contractors for around $500 installed.
UFO Power Center: This product's key component is a "smart" power strip with outlets that can be turned on and off according to a pre-programmed schedule or by remote control. Marco Graziano, founder and chief executive of Visible Energy, Inc., the Palo Alto, Calif.-based developer, says it is often used for cutting power to equipment like televisions, stereos and computers that consume electricity even when turned off .
The mobile app that comes with UFO Power Center can change schedules and switch outlets on remotely. It can also show usage data from a utility's smart meters, but so far that only works in California, Mr. Graziano says. Visible Energy sells the power strips for $99.99 each, and the mobile app is free.
Tendril Inc.: This company, based in Boulder, CO., offers an app for iPhone and Android as part of Tendril Connect, a platform that shows consumers energy-use information, lets them control devices remotely and provides tips on managing energy. Tendril Connect and its mobile apps are only available through utilities. Mike Bukhin, senior director and architect for Tendril's consumer products group, says the company has signed up about 30 utilities, though so far, none are in Canada.
But do they work?
The big question about these apps is how much energy they really save?
Actually turning things on and off remotely opens up some energy-saving opportunities. If you can turn the heat or air conditioning off when you leave the house, and turn it on by remote control before heading home, you can cut costs without coming home to a freezing or sweltering house. Turning on lights remotely when coming home late at night might save leaving them on for hours.
But does simply knowing how much power different devices in your house use actually help you conserve? Anyone concerned about energy use probably already knows what equipment – air conditioner, water heater, oven – uses most power.
Mr. Franco likens energy monitoring to calorie-counting. "If you want to get slim you have to count your calories," he says. "This is like a calorie-counter for the power."
Mr. Bukhin says the key is giving people "actionable information." Just reporting usage merely saves a trip to the meter, he says, but information combined with immediate control and the ability to set goals gets results. Tendril allows consumers to set energy-savings goals, then shows them how they're doing.
In an energy-monitoring trial by Massachusetts-based Cape Light Compact last year, participating consumers cut their energy use by 9.3 per cent.
Anyone really determined to cut energy usage could probably do it without mobile apps, but remote controls make some energy-saving measures more convenient. And monitoring apps could at least make your efforts more interesting, at little cost.