Photo: Oakley Originals/Flickr)" />

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.

Tom Fowler

14 Responses

  1. Energy Moron says:


    This is probably the most important thread in the history of the Chronicle.

    I am truly sorry if you cannot appreciate this.

    Tom is brilliant in that he has introduced this with humor. Yah, humor is important.

    What else can one do but laugh?

  2. Energy Moron says:

    It’s known as the Bakersfield effect

    Do have some investment analyst support for my position (no, not for my personal home solar panels but when one puts their skin in the game Texas law assumes you are running a business… which the HOA would have never approved the stuff had they known, showing how devious the interpretation of “net metering” really was in Texas).

    Best quote

    “The investment in smart meters and energy management programs is useless unless utilities transition to dynamic pricing to redesign rates to create the incentive to change energy use patterns in order to avoid higher energy costs. Rates will still go up—way up, but customers who believe they can control some of that rising cost by improving energy efficiency, demand response or just using less energy overall will be less likely to revolt—so goes the theory.”

    believe… yah… the smart meter has become a religious object. It is either satan or the saviour

    Typical American consumerism. Heck, besides consuming my family produces!

  3. Energy Moron says:

    Howdy Neighbor:

    My bad, these are a Republican idea

    With Al Gore and somebody in the Energy Department heavily invested in this, and stimulus funding for the project, I wrongly assumed that it was the Democrats.

    2005 Energy Policy Act. It was left up to the states whether to require them and Texas chose to requiret the smart meter.

    Section 134 of the bill is interesting. Judging from the goals set forth in that section the bill was a failure.

    1) Energy intensity did not change in four years
    2) Energy consumption has not been reduced over peak periods
    3) Lower energy costs mean jobs (they are still higher)
    4) A) maintaining ducts… I found this BAD in my house but how many folks have checked this?
    B) Weatherization
    C) Appliances (this is at least doing well)
    D) Filing tires

    Point D is the most interesting because the Republicans rediculed Obama then for suggesting something in their own bill!

    Sigh… Perry claims to be promoting renewables but here is what happened to the Texas definition of net metering… it will kill residential solar

    From section 1251 of the 2005 Republican bill

    NET METERING.—Each electric utility shall make available upon request net metering service to any electric consumer that the electric utility serves. For purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘net metering service’ means service to an electric consumer under which electric energy generated by that electric consumer from an eligible on-site generating facility and delivered to the local distribution facilities may be used to offset electric energy provided by the electric utility to the electric consumer during the applicable billing period.

    Here is how this is implemented in Texas. Each one of us little homeowners is treated as a business that gets to haggle about rates with the supplier (the rule was invented by the supplier).

    Green Mountain is fine (although the specifics of this month are such that I will probably exceed my 500 kWH putting back into the grid allowed). But if they go away we are up a creek.

    Oh well, directly opposite to what the 2005 bill wants, I guess I am going to have to find ways to use the energy generated during peak hours that right now have very low use in the house.

    Well, I guess like all politicians this is chosing the lesser of two evils… I’m going to vote for Perry anyway but LIAR, LIAR PANTS ON FIRE wrt renewables.

    If you don’t want to promote residential solar at least be honest and say so.

  4. FrankHtown says:


    Being the “host,” the remark you made to rts was uncalled for. Yes, it was quasi-personal, but being the author, you need to be bigger than that. Throwing the “I get paid to do it.” is a pretty cheap shot.

    Unfortunately, the “smart meter” will not have as big an impact on most’s budgets, as much as their rate/kw-hour will.

  5. cpa says:

    i was offered one two days ago from TXU–after all the “benefits” of this knowledge, i asked how much it was. $4.99 per month, for this device.. Forget it.

  6. rts says:

    I think you need a life if this is what you do with your time.

    • Tom Fowler says:

      Actually I get paid to do it. Is anyone paying you to comment on this at 10:19 on a Saturday night?

  7. Notanenergyfreak says:

    I’m wondering what they have to hide that I can’t get one of these except through the energy companies. I’ve tried to purchase one and even offered to do so through Centerpoint and my energy company with no luck.

  8. houtexanfan says:

    I just got my meter installed last week, I am curious to see how well it works. I, like you Tom, and very interested in being able to see how much some appliance or electronic device in my house is using. With more efficiencies in the system, it would seem that prices would fall. But I just read where Centerpoint is wanting to raise rates again, so what gives?

  9. FrankHtown says:

    Let me make a prediction. My power usage will be higher in the summer than in the winter. Give me back my $3.95 per month, which I’ve paid for over a year, and still do not have a smart meter. I can see why they call them smart meters. I’m paying for something I don’t even have yet, and will probably be of limited use when it is installed. “Smarter planet” Yeah, I wish I had thought of this scam.

  10. Energy Moron says:


    The point is not about the usefulness of the technology but the fact that I am being forced to pay for something I have no use for myself.

    The is corporate welfare at its very worse paid for ny TARP.

    The Democratic party platform says

    We will modernize our power grid, which will help conservation and spur the development and distribution of clean energy.

    Well, since the public utilities have managed to mangle the legislative words “net meter” in a way that only benefits them (read, the corporate welfare recipients), these smart meters are making payout of solar even longer.

    This is the way Al Gore is going to promote solar… penalizing the first customers!

    That is the real issue here.

    I don’t want one.

  11. Josh Burdick says:

    I for one am very excited about this technology. The ability to see how much electricity I’m using in real-time (in plain understandable English, no calculations needed with a pencil and paper) is amazing.

    My question is how far away can these monitors be from the smart meter to work? I live in a 3rd floor condo and our smart meters (installed six months ago) are down in the garage.

    Also, I’ve noticed that all of these monitors can only be provided via your electric company. You can’t walk into Home Depot or Walmart and buy one. Big Fail on that one!

    • Tom Fowler says:

      CenterPoint and Reliant (and likely TXU and Direct) are doing pilots with these devices to test stuff like how well they work at certain distances and in certain structures. A stucco house (i.e. wire mesh wrapped around building) vs. all wood will likely impact the structure.

      So far most of the companies that make the in-home devices are either testing them out via electric retailers or only offering them via utility programs (I think the City of Austin’s electric utility has some of these devices at work in homes). The plan is eventually they will be something you get at BestBuy/HomeDepot, but it’s still a bit early in the smart meter rollout.

  12. Energy Moron says:

    Howdy Neighbor

    Here is a website that has a calculator that can do the same thing

    Costs a heck of a lot less.

    Doesn’t seem like there are any measurement errors with the smart meter in your case.

    Was your coffee maker in standby only heating the pot or making coffee at the time? And was the toaster fully toasting? The 5.8 cents seems slightly low….

    Your 50 cents for the AC is about right.

    Check out the dryer sometime. I’ve replaced mine with natural gas (without even having a smart meter… the above website and some natural gas calculators are enough).

    6 cents an hour might not seem like a lot… but when you are trying to beat energy champions like our German neighbor this gets to be very important… 5.8 cents an hour adds up to 42 dollars a month… our German neighbor has bills in that range.

    Good luck being the Energy King (we are all just morons compared to him).

    He has recommended to me the final interview of Hermann Scheer, the “father” of the German renewable energy movement

    Now, is a smart meter from the community?