— 23rd October 2009
We recently were given an electricity monitor for a trial period from my wife's work. In case you’ve not seen them they come in two parts; one attaches to a wire between your electricity meter and your fuse box (under the stairs!), the other sits on your TV and is a small (3 x 4") LCD screen with a few buttons. The part under the stairs can tell how much electricity you're using and it tells the LCD screen part wirelessly (ooooh).
It’s all very exciting and a doddle to set up - although I did spend a good ten minutes in confusion because I thought it said 'press down the button' (but which button, which!?!?) when it actually said 'press the down button' (aaah the one pointing down). Before you know it you're away and you’ve got a little reading of what you're current using in Watts. Per second? Per hour? I'm not actually sure but it’s a number, it goes up, it goes down, that’s what really matters here right?
First you run around turning things off and on. That’s fun for a while and quite interesting when you realise which appliances use the most electricity and which use less. You may already feel like you’ve got a sense of what’s what but I guarantee there'll be something which you didn't quite expect (or more to the point hadn't really spent any time really thinking about).
For me it was the kettle. Our monitor had sat around the 2-300 Watts and went up and down a little based on lights and the computer screen then we stuck the kettle on for a brew and the damn thing shot up to 2500 Watts (that’s 2 Kilowatts to you scientists). Man alive! That’s like ten times as much! (I said). I always had a vague idea that heat and light were the biggest users (as opposed to ... well computers and stereos) but I never realised how great the difference.
It really does make you think about just flicking the thing back on to reboil some water you know has boiled 5 mins before.
The next thing was the kitchen lights. We’ve got a load of little halogen ones which sit under the units and shine down on the surfaces in a most pleasing manner. They're bright and well placed give the kitchen a cool kind of feel. There's also a single 60 watt bulb in the centre of the room on a separate switch. This isn't that bright and it’s permanently behind your head so you're always casting a shadow on everything you're doing. Guess which of these two lighting options I always, always choose and guess which also uses about 10 times as much electricity.
There's a few things I'd change about the monitor. Firstly the Watts number (the only one that matters) is relegated to a small position within the screen, competing for attention with the time (why?), the current temperature (really? I heat the house with gas), and a couple of info type things telling you how much electricity you used yesterday (a bar chart for night, day and evening) and per day average. It also tries to tell you how much it'd cost you if you continued to use at this level for a day or a month. This is pretty pointless because the level is always changing so it doesn't really tell me anything more meaningful than the Watts (which as I’ve said is just really a number to me but is also, strangely, enough).
Better I think just to stick the Watts amount in bigger numbers bold and central. Get rid of the time and temp (I have a clock on the wall, don't you know) and as for the graphs and extra info there's not enough space to do it properly so don't bother. The Watts is everything really. Even though it’s just a number and I have no way really interpret it meaningfully that’s fine. It’s like a computer game, it’s your score. It goes up and down and that’s all you need to know.
My suggestion would be to use the funky wirelessness and send this data to your computer (or straight to the web) at which point all the daily, monthly usage stuff (and costs) could be presented in wonderful technicolour an those who wished to could leap in.
The reason I think this is because after the initial fun and games and the first phase of learning what’s happened is a settling down in the way I use it. It’s faded into the background a bit and is less interesting. What I do though is check it. Every so often as I wander through the room or if I'm just about to leave the house I'll give it a quick glance to see what it’s on. And sure enough if it looks high I'll have a quick scoot around to check I’ve turned everything off. More often than not I’ve left a light on somewhere or perhaps the video (ahem PVR!) is on standby and not entirely off so I flick 'em off and watch the level settle back down to normal. I’ve got only vague idea of what that normal is but it’s enough.
In short the best use for something like this is very much like the clock on the wall. It needs to be something you can simply glance at. Not something that needs a lot of attention or thought. Just a quick indicator.
It’s hasn't stopped me using the kettle or my wonderful kitchen lights but I'm sure it just being there has reduced the amount of electricity we’ve used and for the environment and my bank balance that’s got to be a good thing.