The Power Monitor: Top Tools for Watching Your Home Energy Use

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You can reduce electricity use by 15 percent without trying. Sound too good to be true? It isn't. For those consumers using power monitors, these are typical reductions. Just by being aware of where and when electricity is used, you're far more likely to turn off a few devices or flip a few light switches that might have been left on before and can make a big dent in their energy consumption.

IBM just solidified this statistic with its recent smart meter pilot program, and those households who really put in the effort showed as much as a 40% reduction in energy use. When looking at ways to monitor the energy consumption in a home, power monitors fit in three big buckets: checking the consumption of single devices or appliances, monitoring the energy use of a whole house, and online dashboards that link up with utility companies as part of a smart grid.

The steady advance of smart grid technologies will bring more and more user-friendly options to the table. But for now, here are the three umbrella categories and a few of the top tools under each that are helping people shrink the amount of electricity they use.

Plug Load Power Monitors

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Kill A Watt is a classic example of a plug load monitor. These are power monitors that plug into a wall outlet, and then the device is plugged into them. They monitor how much energy the device is sucking up. They're a great way to know which devices are power sippers, and which need to be unplugged. Other examples are the Watts Up Pro, which is similar to, but bulkier than the Kill A Watt; and the Brultech ECM-1220, which can monitor not only plug-in devices but also things that are wired into the home or the plug isn't accessible (like dishwashers or ceiling fans) thanks to a current sensor that clamps onto the cord of the device.

The price range is significant, from about $35 for a Kill A Watt to about $120 for a Watts Up, to about $250 for a Brultech ECM-1120. So your investment can vary, and really depends on how involved you need your basic plug load monitor to be.

Whole House Power Monitors

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A whole-house power monitor tracks electricity use for the entire home by attaching to the home's electricity meter. A sensor is installed near the meter, and a monitor goes into the house. A user can see how much energy is being consumed and when - and with some monitors, by what appliances or devices. They can track their use history, and see what their monthly bill will look like in real-time. These devices don't usually link up with utilities, so with some, you need to program in the information about your electricity pricing so that it can calculate your savings. But they do track whole house use with varying degrees of specificity.

WattsOn is a familiar face in this category. Black & Decker has the Power Monitor, a relatively basic monitoring system. Similarly, The Energy Detective (TED) monitors the energy use for the whole house in real-time and also has software that allows users to access their energy use data via any computer. And Onzo is a newer one we mentioned back in February that has become popular.

These systems can get much more detailed, however. Agilewaves is a highly personalized power monitor and user dashboard that can break down energy use to specific rooms, appliances, or even light switches. The detail provided with this tool is great for larger homes and homes that have a solar array or wind turbine, as Agilewaves can track the incoming energy as well as what is consumed by the home.

Prices for these systems range greatly. The Power Monitor is about $100 whereas complex dashboards like Agilewaves require contacting the company for pricing based on your specific needs.