Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

January 23, 2009

Measuring It All — Beyond Electricity

Category: Climate Change,Conservation,Household,Save Electricity,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 7:58 pm

When I installed our real-time PowerCost Monitor, we were able to measure our total electrical usage and see how what we did used electricity. It has had an incredible effect on our behavior. Likewise, the real-time mileage display in our Toyota Prius had a similar effect.

So, now I want real-time energy measurements for several other aspects of our house and life. And I want the data to be aggregated. In an iPhone application (and a web page, of course). And also a display that sits on our kitchen counter-top, like the power cost monitor with a readout. It seems so simple … well, sort of.

Energy Data, Wherefore art Thou?

I think the actual data is obtainable. We use gas to heat our house and to make hot water, as well as for cooking — it’s all carefully metered, but only read and recorded every month. We record all of our expenses for food, and gasoline, taxes, and everything else in Quicken, and most stuff we buy is on a credit card.

Natural Gas

The gas usage is a big one, since no doubt heating and hot water are likely to be the biggest energy consumers in the house. But I cannot currently tell how much gas is used for hot water versus for heat. A friend suggested I get inline meters and install them on the water heater and gas burner. Sounds hard. But even something that measured the number of hours the burner or hot water heater was on (e,g, with temperature) would be enough, since the appliances have BTU/Hour ratings. Grumble — this seems too hard, too. And even if I can figure out how long the water heater or burner have been on, I still need to get that data to some place where I can do something with it.

(Any electrical engineers out there who want to make a prototype wireless thingy for me? I have a lead on the person behind the Tweet-a-Watt, so we’ll see where that goes)

Real-time feedback, and hourly, daily and weekly information would be great. Real-time data was the key with electricity and in my car, but probably daily or weekly is what I need for heat — it has to be normalized for our house size, and for “degree-days” since one expects to use more heat when it’s cold outside. Hot water is tricky. I am interested in how much water I heat, but also how much of that hot water I use. The heating and usage tend to happen at different times, since I have a tank water heater. Hmmm.


There’s a site called Fuelly that I signed up for. But it doesn’t seem like much more than a way for me to record how much gasoline I use after each fill-up. I want the fuel companies to tell me, or maybe my car should have a little transmitter on it? Fuelly is nice, but I want automation, damn it!


Food is tricky. It would have to be an estimate. But that’s ok, for now. It would be nice if your grocery store would give you a year-end report — they have all the data, especially if you use a discount card. Someone has to be doing analysis of food embedded energy — e.g. Pepsi is measuring the carbon footprint of some products.

Other travel, purchases, and all the other things we do that consume energy should really be counted.

Just Gimme the Data, I’ll Do the Rest

Presenting the information in a usable way is all totally doable … if I could only get at the data. All the rest is a little math, some external data like weather and date, some algorithms to convert to the right units, and database and a web-application to store and display — that’s what I do for work. I just need to be able to get at the data.

I spent a good amount of time searching for ways to measure usage. It’s not readily available, for sure.

Until energy data is readily available, at the right level of granularity, and accessible via standard published data protocols, there’s going to be a lot of really bad estimating going on out there. If you make a change and see a result, you can do something about it then and there. If you have to wait, then the data is muddy or in the wrong form, only the most intrepid souls will try to figure out what works.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Tom,

    Fuelly sounds interesting, and I’ve signed up for it. I agree it’s not ideal for real-time tracking of mileage, but for inspiring people to improve by looking over each other’s shoulders it may be a good thing. I’ve been recording my own mileage for a year now, and was wondering how to make good use of the data, this sounds like it might just be the ticket.

    Comment by Tony — January 24, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

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