Microsoft opens Hohm to energy monitoring

Can a slick Web application give you decent advice on cutting your home energy use? Based on a first look at Microsoft Hohm, CNET News' Martin LaMonica says yes.

Microsoft opened up its Hohm Web application on Monday to U.S. users, a site that gives people a starting point for cutting home energy use.

The launch of Hohm, still in beta, was marred at least for some people, including me, by a DNS problem on Microsoft's side, according to the Hohm product development team . An hour or two after the launch, a few other consumers on Twitter complained of sign-in problems that lasted a few hours.

Once that glitch was cleared up, I was able to finish creating a profile in Hohm for my old New England house. Overall, I'd say it's a useful service that meets its goal of being easy to use.

The "brains" behind Hohm's energy-efficiency recommendations is an existing database that Microsoft licensed from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy. That means much of the basic information on how to save money on energy bills has been available for some time from the Energy Department and other sources, if in a disjointed and less attractive form.

Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

I was able to create a nearly complete profile because I've been chipping away at my home energy use for years. (How many of you know what your home's air leakage rate is?) I also did some on-the-spot estimating, which I would expect most people would need to do.

In fact, some of the questions are incredibly detailed, such as what's the capacity of your refrigerator expressed in cubic feet? Rather than pretend that I'd be able to find the manual, I went online and got an idea of what a fridge like mine typically holds.

There are also some places where inevitably there will be gaps and guesses. For instance, I have radiators so I couldn't say where my ducts are located (in conditioned space or not) and being very precise about say, programmable thermostat settings, can be tricky. Also, there are a lot of questions which will no doubt scare some people away.

That said, it's a worthwhile exercise to run through the roughly 200 questions, even if you can't answer them. Why? It offers strong clues as to what matters most when it comes to cutting your energy bills. Whether your PC and monitor uses power-management features is significant enough for Hohm to care.

Man versus machine
But on your first visit, it's really the energy report that you're after. Although Hohm's recommendations perplexed me a few times, on balance it provided solid information.

Put another way, I'd say Hohm echoed the advice of the three energy auditors who have traipsed through my house over the past few years. It also features a "library" with generic recommendations to help people get ready for the summer and there are tips sprinkled on the News section.

Not surprisingly, the recommendations are extremely unglamorous : replace (more) incandescent bulbs, insulate boiler pipes, lower the temperature on the water heater, and so on.

A few things threw me off. Get a high-efficiency boiler for $1,000? Not where I live. But when I clicked on that recommendation, Hohm notes that's the do-it-yourself price and offers a ballpark cost ($8,000) for a professional job.

Hohm doesn't quite measure up to a knowledgeable human being. I paid for an energy audit , complete with a blower door test, this past winter and the recommendations were specific to my situation and very detailed.

But that's OK. Most people just want some good ideas on greening their home and Hohm does that. What I like most is that it creates a list, from which you can develop a plan. Because let's face it, nobody's going to weatherize their home in one weekend.

Where to start? Hohm gives you a starting point for making a home energy-efficiency plan. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

How does this compare to Google's PowerMeter or other home energy-monitoring tools?

Monitoring products tend to focus on providing a real-time read-out of energy use. In its first beta version, Google's PowerMeter, for example, surfaces information on how much electricity individual appliances consume and provides daily charts.

Down the road, both Microsoft and Google are interested in expanding their products so consumers can participate in demand-response programs, where a utility can remotely adjust appliances to save energy during peak times. In the meantime, though, many smart-grid products are just trying to give consumers more detailed information than a monthly bill.

Because my utilities aren't providing a data feed to Microsoft, I wasn't able to view my electric and natural gas use without manually entering the data. If a feed were available, I think I would use it to get a better feel for seasonal changes and improvements I've made.

Actual consumption data would also create a far more accurate profile for my home, particularly when comparing to others. For example, I had solar panels installed on my house last year, which has slashed my overall consumption but that's not reflected in the model Hohm creates.

If there were a feature that I'd like to have, on first blush I'd say it's the ability to add my own items to the recommendations so I could treat Hohm like my to-do list.

The community site is bare bones at this point though I could see that being useful and fun. But in the meantime, it's nice to see that, according to my profile, I'm no slacker on cutting energy compared to my neighbors

 

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