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At home in a not-so-smart home

Home automation equipment can help people save energy by cutting down on waste. But CNET's Martin LaMonica finds that if you're already an energy miser, technology doesn't necessarily buy you much.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

The future, we are told, is smart homes able to remotely control appliances, secure us from intruders, and use energy superefficiently. As I sit here with a box full of barely used equipment, I feel like an unconvinced Luddite.

A few months ago, a representative from the Z-Wave Alliance offered to loan me some wireless home automation equipment to check out. Given that CNET has a tech-savvy audience, I've written extensively about home energy management systems designed to give consumers more control over how and when they use energy. I've been giving it a try in fits and starts but still don't have much to show for it.

It's not that I think home automation is a bad idea. Using an iPhone to remotely control your thermostat or lights can be useful, and technology can certainly improve home efficiency for many people. If you know you are wasting electricity somewhere at home, there's a good case for investing time and effort in better energy management. But at this point, I feel like my low-tech ways of keeping power in check trump the gadgetry.

The gateway (center) communicates with different Z-Wave modules and connects to the Internet.
The gateway (center) communicates with different Z-Wave modules and connects to the Internet. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The tech industry has been promoting the notion of the futuristic "smart home" for years, and it's actually starting to take shape. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, for example, we saw connected appliances and home security systems, operated from an iPad or touch-screen device, that control home security, lights, and the thermostat. Many utilities have smart-grid programs to give consumers more insight into energy usage, but home automation is another promising avenue for improving home energy efficiency.

The equipment I received is what you could consider a bare-bones setup made up of a few Z-Wave controllers and a network gateway. Z-Wave is a wireless protocol that allows door locks, thermostats, lighting fixtures, security cameras, or appliances to be controlled from a central point. The main alternative is Zigbee, a low-power, standards-based wireless protocol. Some home-area network equipment may use Wi-Fi as well.

The Z-Wave controllers are small boxes or dongles that plug into regular outlets and communicate back to the gateway. Once your lights or appliances are plugged in, you can control and schedule them from a Web-based application. You could, for example, put a motion sensor on the wall to light up a hallway or program your thermostat from a PC or smart phone. (Even though programmable thermostats have been around for years, apparently few people actually program them.)

The company making this equipment, called MiCasaVerde, has new modules that will track energy use as well. I thought I'd give those a try to get a feel for home automation and see if I could shave down my home power use.

It certainly is cool to be able to turn a light on or off from your PC or smartphone. But for me, the novelty wore off fast. And when it came to energy efficiency, I realized that my power-thrifty behavior made it tough for the automation to improve matters.

The core premise behind many smart-grid companies is that information and technology, accessible on a home area network, will help consumers save energy and help utilities cut peak power. Early trials show that's the case. But it doesn't necessarily work for everyone. What I realized is that I'm part of one customer segment--the hyper energy-conscious type--that's going to be tough to please on the merits of efficiency alone.

Smart switches
What about the home automation bit? Well, it works and it's fun, though I wouldn't say this product is the easiest software app I've ever used.

The home gateway, which retails for $249, is just that: a gateway between your Wi-Fi connection to the Internet and the Z-Wave home area network. To set things up, you have to manually connect the different controllers to the gateway, which isn't difficult and worked as it should.

Then there's a software application called Mios, from which you manage everything. You can add devices and set up "scenes" for when things turn on and off, including adding timers. With the SmartSwitches, which cost $59.95, you can see how much power appliances use in real time and over time. I managed to make the software work with a couple of these smart switches and set up some timers for testing purposes. But the charts on energy use were clunky compared with the slicker home energy dashboards I've seen.

The Mios software lets you manage connected appliances by setting up scenes such as using motion sensors to turn on lights or putting appliances on a timer. Screenshot by Martin LaMonica/CNET

I initially thought I could kill some standby power from the home entertainment center. But as I was connecting the dongles and chords, I realized that a "smart" power strip would do the trick better, without consuming power itself. Smart power strips, which cost about $25, have plugs where one device, like the PC, is always "hot," but peripheral devices go in plugs where the standby power cuts to zero.

In practice, I don't even need the smart strip. The members of my household are well trained to just flick off a regular power strip after using the TV, which cuts the standby power to zero. Same story with the PC and printer. As I looked around, I realized there wasn't anything else that we always leave on, beyond equipment for Internet and phone. If you studiously shut stuff off (can you hear your mother nagging you about the lights?), use power management on your PC, and buy efficient appliances and lights, then there's not much else to cut.

To be clear, I think that home automation or some other intelligent gadgetry can be worthwhile. One feature I'd particularly like would be remote access to the thermostat so that when you were driving home from vacation, you could have the heat turned on before you got home. One person I know with a home automation system said he loves being able to turn off the air conditioner from a small touch-screen dashboard as he leaves home in the morning. If he forgets, he can also do it from his smartphone later.

I suspect people who have hefty electricity bills could benefit from monitoring and automating just to find out where the big energy consumers are and to turn off plugged-in equipment on a schedule. For example, people get used to leaving their computers on during the day and night. If one could see how much that always-on PC costs, and the environmental footprint, there would be an added motivation to turn it off when unused or use power management.

As for me, I still haven't given up. I'm looking at whole house power monitoring systems that will work with my solar panels. They may not save me oodles of money right away, but at least I'll have a clue how I'm using power from day to day or season to season. I'm also eyeing smart plugs that will let me schedule when things go on and off and monitor the savings, hopefully in a way that's cheap and easy.

It's become cliche to say that efficiency is the "low hanging fruit" because so much energy is wasted and efficiency is far cheaper than investing in new energy sources. Technology opens up great possibilities for energy efficiency, but my little test was a reminder that behavior counts as much as technology.