Smartphone apps bringing energy management home

As smartphones continue to take over almost every part of our lives, managing our energy use at home may be the next thing coming.

At least that's what four Canadian academics are projecting. A paper recently published in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy looks at how smartphones could significantly accelerate home energy audits for greater energy conservation over traditional methods, like having trained energy auditors driving from house to house to look at heating and cooling systems once every year.

Their study analyzed 157,000 homes in Southeastern Ontario and found it would take 55 years to complete an energy audit of every house using the tremendously inefficient traditional method. With smartphones at every house, however, this same task could be completed all at once.

The usefulness of smartphones may come as no surprise, but energy management gadgets have yet to catch on in homes at the same rate as commercial real estate. It seems energy savings, while great if you're a business with high-energy needs, aren't as compelling for homeowners. Most energy management systems are too complicated, and the savings aren't big enough to justify effort on the part of the homeowner.

Nevertheless, there are lots of startups and big companies out there trying to solve this problem -- and crack this market. Technology research firm ON World predicts that by 2016, global revenue for home energy management will surpass $4 billion. Market researcher Pike Research makes a more conservative estimate with $2 billion in global revenue by 2020. Either way, there's lots of money to go around.

So the interest -- and opportunity -- is there, but the question remains, how do you make energy management more accessible for the homeowner? Smartphones may be the answer. After all, according to research from 2011 by IT consulting firm Accenture, 50 percent of 18 to 24 year olds and 44 percent of 25 to 34 years old were interested in smartphone apps that allow them to measure their energy consumption.

Jonathan Collins, principal analyst at market research firm ABI Research, said smartphone apps are one major factor behind the current growth in home automation -- 1.5 million home automation systems were installed this year, and many include energy management.

"Mobile devices increase awareness, as they [make it] easy to share with someone that you have home automation," he said.

Image of assorted smartphones provided by ALT1040 from Blogosfera via Wikimedia Commons     

Smartphone apps make it easier to add a social element to energy management. That's important because, as GreenBiz contributor Heather Clancy pointed out, "People tend not to manage their energy consumption proactively -- unless they think someone else on their block is doing a better job."

Companies are taking notice. The Pinterest page for useful energy iPhone/iPad apps currently boasts 101 apps -- with everything ranging from a social game to compete with friends on energy savings to an energy analysis that breaks down the cost estimates for retrofits.

That's certainly a lot to choose from. Here is a quick look at some of the more interesting efforts:

Nest

Co-founded by former Apple executive Tony Fadell, the much talked about startup has developed a "learning thermostat." You can link this snazzy device to your smartphone using an app that allows users to adjust their home thermostat from anywhere in the world.

Photo credit: iTunes

Visible Energy

Visible Energy's smartphone app provides users feedback on energy consumption of the company's "smart products" -- smart meaning items like the company's power strip come equipped with Wi-Fi to tell you how much energy is being used -- and lets them turn it off with their phones.

Photo credit: iTunes

Tendril

Tendril's mobile app provides detailed, up-to-date energy consumption data for homeowners. You can set personalized saving goals and then have your progress tracked. Along the way, you receive recommendation and expert advice on how to reach those goals. A social component is included with leaderboards and community support.

Photo credit: iTunes

PassivSystems

PassivSystems has developed a home energy management system that communicates with temperature sensors and heating and hot water controls -- as well as a solar generation system, if installed. With the company's iPhone app, users can change their home heating and water from anywhere. Users can also schedule in when they think they'll be home so their home will be the ideal temperature as soon as they get home.

Photo credit: iTunes

WattzOn

WattzOn's smartphone app lets consumers know the true costs of appliances. By taking into account the energy costs of appliances, the WattzOn Appliance Advisor can tell you if buying, say, a refrigerator for a few hundred dollars less really makes sense.

Photo credit: WattzOn

Opower

Opower and Honeywell have teamed up to create an app that allows homeowners to control their thermostats from anywhere. Opower is also well known for taking full advantage of Facebook's one billion plus members for more engaging energy management. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, OPower lets you compete with your Facebook friends for lower energy use.

Photo credit: iTunes

Department of Energy's Apps for Energy

The federal government wants to jump on board, too. The Apps for Energy contest, started by Department of Energy, offered $100,000 to software developers who came up with the best apps for helping utility customers make the most of electricity consumption data using Green Button -- a standardized format for energy usage data. Winning the "Peak Energy Usage Award," one app called the DRIVE System gives homeowners incentives to reduce power consumption during peak energy times. The incentives come in the form of points or airline miles.

Photo credit: Department of Energy, Apps for Energy

Tags: