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'Smart' plugs ready to quash office stand-by power

ThinkEco starts shipping its "smart outlet" which creates a mesh network and lets people schedule when to cut stand-by power to electronic gear.

It may not look like much, but a little white electric outlet with a networking chip in it can save a bunch of money, according to ThinkEco.

The New York-based start-up today said its "modlet," or modern outlet, is now available. It also released results from a pilot project which showed that a company reduced its power bill by $65,000 per year using the networked outlets in its office.

ThinkEco's modlet connects to a PC application to schedule when to turn off stand-by power to electronic gear.
ThinkEco's modlet connects to a PC application to schedule when to turn off stand-by power to electronic gear. Martin LaMonica/CNET

ThinkEco is one of a handful of companies making these smart plugs to lower the wasted energy from plug loads, which is a growing portion of businesses' and consumers' electricity bills.

These smart plugs fit over traditional outlets and allow a person to control the supply of juice to the outlets. In the case of ThinkEco, it uses Zigbee to create a mesh network and it offers a PC application for administrators to schedule when to turn electronic gear off.

An office, for example, can place these smart outlets on copier machines and PC workstations and then schedule when to cut stand-by power. Over time, the trickle of electricity from keeping equipment on stand-by (or not turned off) adds up. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the U.S. estimates that standby power alone is upward of 10 percent of electricity bills.

ThinkEco said the modlets can cut power consumption by 35 percent to 80 percent per device, and up to 10 percent in an office with no changes to the people inside.

The company said that results vary depending on the number of modlets used. But it has been testing the modlet with 75 organizations and that the payback period is typically under six months.

There are a number of other companies that plan to offer smart plugs as part of a home energy management system. For example, U.K.-based AlertMe and GreenWave, have plugs that connect into a central controller. But these home energy management systems, which are typically offered through utilities, are designed to connect to home thermostats and control an entire home, rather than just the plug load.

ThinkEco plans to introduce a consumer product in the spring of 2011 with an expected retail price of $40.