Microsoft Hohm connects to home power monitor

Microsoft inks a deal with home energy monitor maker to let people get detailed information on home electricity use without the need for a smart meter.

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

If you're cranking the air conditioner a lot this summer, a product bundle using Microsoft Hohm will tell you a lot about your upcoming energy bills--maybe even more than you want to know.

Microsoft on Tuesday announced that it has tied its Hohm Web home energy-efficiency application to an electricity monitor called PowerCost Monitor. The combination, which uses a home broadband connection, lets people view home electricity from the Web or from the tabletop electricity monitor.

Whole-home electricity monitors show you how much electricity a house is using at a given moment and how much it's costing you--sort of like a dashboard with a home speedometer and cost per mile.

Microsoft Hohm connects to home electricity monitor (photos)

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Linking Hohm to the monitor allows people to see that same real-time information from a Web-enabled device, such as a PC or smartphone. Significantly, it lets people dig a little deeper in the data to track electricity use for the whole day, or compare one period to another.

For Microsoft, it's the first deal it has struck to bring energy data via an electricity monitor into Hohm, the company's foray into consumer energy efficiency. Microsoft hopes to have Hohm act as a software hub for managing everything from home efficiency improvements to scheduling electric-vehicle charging. Google, too, has already signed on a couple of device makers to connect its PowerMeter application to home electricity monitors.

For consumers eager to get more than just a monthly utility bill, it's a sign that some of the benefits touted by smart-grid advocates, namely more detailed information to drive efficiency, can be achieved without having utilities install smart meters.

Riding broadband train
A smart meter has two-way communications that allow it to send electricity information into a home for viewing by utility customers. A number of smart-grid companies are seeking to tap into that data stream with in-home energy displays which give consumers more visibility into home energy.

By contrast, Hohm collects electricity data using Wi-Fi and a home's broadband connection. Blue Line Innovations, which makes the PowerCost Monitor, built a small circular hub which acts as a gateway to send information to Hohm using Wi-Fi and a router.

Having that regular feedback on electricity prompts people to conserve, according to studies. Since 2004, Blue Line Innovations has worked with 110 utilities on how PowerCost Monitor affects households and it found that families can save up to 18 percent on electricity.

Adding the historical data that Hohm brings gives people more information to play with and examine, said Peter Porteous, the CEO of Blue Line Innovations. He projects people can cut electricity at least 5 percent using the products.

"The immediate return on investment is reducing that idle zone--that's the waste which is happening but we don't have enough information to do something about," he said. "The combination of data trending online and using the monitor to wander around the home and experiment can absolutely reduce the baseline."

In his own home, Porteous was able to shave another 300 watts, or about $175 a year, from the "idle" status, or when the home is simply keeping major appliances on, such as the refrigerator, but without any other major energy-intensive jobs going on.

Microsoft expects that Hohm combined with Wi-Fi gateways will allow consumers to both view electricity consumption and potentially control appliances. For example, a person could control heating and cooling from the Web or have dishwashers and dryers take advantage of off-peak rates.

"We're riding the coattails of the Internet connection going into the home," said Troy Battenberry, the general manager of Hohm. "It makes far more economic sense and it's much more future-proofed than meter networks built by utilities."

Microsoft is pursuing similar deals with other home electricity monitor makers.

Juice chez LaMonica
Microsoft provided me with the components of the PowerCost Monitor WiFi bundle so that I could play with the tools for a few days. The retail cost is $249. Buying the monitor alone without the link to Hohm is about $100.

I found that have having the monitor--a handheld display a little bit bigger than my home phone--made me more curious about electricity. Sunday night I glanced at it and saw that we were consuming 1.1 kilowatts. But it was only 0.4 kilowatts a little while ago--what turned on?

Having Hohm to look at the graph of my home electricity was fun now and again. But I think the greater value will be viewing trends over time and seeing the cost savings of changes we make.

Installing the PowerCost Monitor is not trivial but doable in under an hour. Installing the Wi-Fi component and connecting it to Hohm was simpler and took a bit more than the time it takes to install a new application on your PC.

The trick to installing the monitor is getting the sensor to fit on to your electricity meter. You need to see what kind of meter you have and then align the optical reader just right onto the meter so it can read the data. Then you need to fix it by tightening a metal strap that fits around the meter glass.

That battery-powered sensor, which is really the heart of the setup, sends data over a radio frequency to the PowerCost Monitor and to the Wi-Fi gateway, which can support other wireless protocols such as Zigbee or Z-Wave, said Porteous. Data transmissions are encrypted, he said.

After I first installed the PowerCost Monitor, I turned on a couple of energy hogs--the air conditioner and the dehumidifier--and I was alarmed to see how our "baseline" went up. I ended up doing this a few times after the initial installation: I walked around the house, turning things on and off to see the impact. (The sensor reads every 30 seconds so there is some delay.) It's easier than using a portable power meter like the Kill-A-Watt where you need to plug each device into it.

As an energy and efficiency geek, I've already tried to ratchet down the baseline quite a bit. But having an unobtrusive monitor is a good reminder to check out the data and see what else I can do or learn.

Using Hohm on my iPod Touch, I learned, for example, that something cycles on and off at regular intervals during the night, which is the sort of thing which leads to questions: Is that the fridge or the dehumidifier? Maybe I can turn off the dehumidifier at night? What's the difference between using a couple of fans instead of air conditioning on a hot night?

If you have a big house with a large plug load, this sort of thing will probably pay for itself quickly simply by reducing waste. If your baseline is at 3 kilowatts and it's normally at 2 kilowatts, you know something is probably left on that doesn't need to be.

People who already are electricity misers will have a tougher time justifying the cost, although Microsoft makes the data available on the Web for free. Having the data via a broadband connection, rather than a smart meter, won't necessarily change people's behavior toward efficiency, but it certainly helps set energy data free.