My smart meter gets a new friend

As I mentioned previously, CenterPoint Energy has installed the new digital smart meters on homes in my neighborhood.

Earlier this week I found out what this means right now when it comes to my electric bill (essentially there are two plans I can sign up for).

Today, I started finding out what the smart meter can tell me every-second-of-every-day about my electricity use with a new in-home energy monitor.

Essentially it’s a device that communicates wirelessly with my smart meter to tell me how much power I’m using at any given moment. By plugging in how much I’m paying per kilowatt hour, I can put a dollar figure on my usage.

The devices are about the size of a digital alarm clock (see my lame camera phone shot) and have a very simple display. They’re not currently available for sale, but a number of companies are developing them and running pilot programs with electric retailers (like Reliant Energy and TXU Energy) to fine-tune the devices.

CenterPoint showed me a cool iPad-like device that will allow you to set budgets for power use and control zigbee-enabled devices like thermostats and lights remotely. (Interesting to note the device had a DirectEnergy logo embedded in it… hmmmm).

Rainforest's in-home energy monitor tells me how much power I'm using -- in kWh and dollars/cents -- at any given moment.

CenterPoint dropped off the device today as part of a pilot program with the permission of the Texas Public Utility Commission to gain widespread acceptance of smart grid technology. Of the 500 they can distribute, 50 have gone to employees and 50 to friends and family of employees, so they can learn about how best to use and manage the devices.

The next 200 are going to “key stakeholders,” such as politicians and -– gasp! -– reporters. In other words, they want me to write nice things about the “wonders of the smart grid.” Yeah, we’ll see.

The next 200 will be given out to Houston-area residents that live in a variety of home types and environments so the company can test the effectiveness in all settings.

So, how’d it go today?

Installation was simple. Nothing to plug in or hook up. But the very first device the tech guy tried to sync with my meter (made by LS Research) didn’t want to work properly. (A little embarrassing, but not nearly as bad as I felt when I dropped my notebook into my pool in the backyard in front of the CenterPoint people).

The second device, by Rainforest, fired up just fine.

We punched in my current electric rate (a not-so-hot 11.4 cents per kWh) and immediately determined with one three-CFL bulb light on, a desktop PC (with router/wireless hub), toaster, coffee maker and three digital clocks on (fridge was cycled off) I was burning about 5.4 cents per hour of power.

My central air conditioner kicked on and it went up to 58 cents per hour. The pool filter pump came on (high speed on two-speed pump) and I was up to 72 cents per hour.

The device is pretty basic, but already I can see a couple of uses.

I can use it to identify the consumption of all the devices in my home, to give me a better sense of what it really means to leave a light on when we go out for the afternoon. I plan to try nailing down that data in the next week.

I could also use it as a double check as I’m leaving the house to see if we left something on. If I know my steady-state is, say 4 cents per hour, anything more would tell me there are lights left on.

The big question: Will this just be a fun novelty for a few months or will the awareness really change our power usage?

I’ll be back with more updates as I explore the device.