Networked 'smart plug' gets energy info flowing

Software company Zerofootprint has developed TalkingPlug, a network-enabled plug replacement that can gather energy usage data and control appliances.

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
2 min read

What if you could better control home appliance energy use by making your wall socket more clever?

That's the idea behind TalkingPlug from Toronto-based Zerofootprint, a company that makes software for measuring and monitoring corporate carbon emissions.

TalkingPlug is a plug that fits on top of existing electrical outlets. But it's equipped with componentry to make it a controllable node on a network, including an RFID chip, microprocessor, and wireless networking. The company plans to introduce the product next week.

Zerofooprint's wireless plug, coupled with hosted software, is designed to let people view energy use and program appliances. Zerofootprint

The "smart plugs" will be able to give detailed information on how much electricity individual appliances are using. Because it's programmable, people can also control appliances. For example, a person could have a TV set-top box turn off at midnight and turn on again at 7 in the morning.

A set of plugs create a mesh network and can send information via a home or office building router to Zerofootprint. The company's software processes and analyzes the data, showing people how the energy use compares to others.

"It will completely transform our world when plugs talk to each other and interact with each other," said Ron Dembo, the CEO of Zerofootprint.

For residential customers, it makes most sense to use plugs for areas that draw a lot of power, such entertainment centers and home computers, Dembo said. He estimated the cost is about $50 now but he expects that price would drop significantly if made at larger scale.

The company has built early versions of the product and is seeking companies willing to test it out, such as utilities or appliance makers looking for a way to get information on products.

There are many companies developing energy-management software and devices aimed at helping people reduce wasted electricity use. One of the main technical challenges is getting information from appliances.

For example, IBM and utility Consert are running a trial smart-grid program where large appliances, such as HVAC systems and hot water heaters, are equipped with controllers that can feed data to a meter with two-way communications. Data is collected using a home's Internet connection, and the consumer can view energy data and control appliances from a Web page.

Google's energy-monitoring application PowerMetercan get detailed data using either a smart meter or a home energy display, typically installed by an electrician. Zerofootprint's Dembo said that the TalkingPlug approach, where monitoring and control is placed at the point of use, can be cheaper than existing methods once products are made at large scale.