I Use This Simple Device to Hack My Home Energy Consumption. (It's Less Than $30 Right Now)
Odds are that your devices are wasting more energy and costing you more money than you're aware. A simple tool called a Kill a Watt meter can help find the offenders in your outlets.
Eric MackContributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is firstname.lastname@example.org.
ExpertiseSolar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/Credentials
Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Relying almost exclusively on solar energy to power your home comes with clear downsides when that bright power plant in the sky becomes scarce. Back-up sources can be expensive and less than green; fortunately I've found a cheap tool to stretch the sun's valuable rays even farther.
When my family moved off grid in 2021, we found that short winter days were leaving us short on electricity. Of course, there are a number of ways to address our seasonal electron shortage. A generator is one strategy, as is adding more solar panels or batteries to our system. These options are not exactly cheap, simple or convenient, however.
Another approach is to tighten up our energy consumption habits. It's easily accomplished with a small, inexpensive tool called a Kill A Watt that I ordered from Amazon for under $40.
The punny name is an obvious play on "kilowatt." It's a basic energy monitor that tells you how much energy a particular device or appliance is consuming.
Using a Kill A Watt is a great way to identify gadgets that are inefficient, flaws in your electrical system and other problems, like a refrigerator that may need to be replaced, for example.
How do I use a Kill A Watt meter?
The tool is dead simple: Plug it into an outlet and then plug any appliance into the Kill A Watt, which has an LED display to tell you how much energy the device is consuming. You can flip through different real-time measurements including wattage, voltage and line frequency. It's also possible to use Kill A Watt to calculate a device's energy usage and extrapolate how much it consumes on a daily, weekly, monthly or yearly basis.
My Kill A Watt helped me identify some places where I had some loose wiring when the voltage level showed lower than it should have been. That was a helpful, but unexpected benefit of using it to do an inventory of the energy consumption rates of all the electrical appliances in my home.
Mainly, I was interested in using the tool to reduce our household's overall energy consumption. I was able to determine which lamps and light bulbs were most efficient, how much energy we saved using a battery-powered robot vacuum over the traditional type, and the big chunk of charge our pellet stove was drawing from our battery bank each time it went through its ignition phase.
The biggest discovery was that the "sleep mode" on our television is pure nonsense and consumes nearly as much power as when the screen is on. We now often physically unplug the TV when our batteries are low.
The importance of energy efficiency
The high desert of the American southwest should be the ideal place to live off grid, as my family and I have for over three years now -- and most of the time it is. On average the region receives an extra thousand or more hours of sunshine every year compared to the northeastern US, perfect for our solar panel array.
But the majority of those sunny hours come on long spring and summer days when we're also spending more time outdoors. In winter we're hit with a triple whammy: fewer daily hours of sunlight, more hours spent inside consuming electricity, and reduced efficiency of our energy system. The "high" part of high desert means occasional multiple-day snowstorms eliminate the already reduced energy potential of those short winter days.
Our first winter off grid found us with an energy shortfall almost daily, forcing us to run a loud gas generator, sometimes late at night or early in the morning. Starting the generator required me walking outside and around the house in the dark and the cold. (We've since upgraded to a generator with a remote start.) Learning to be more efficient has helped stretch our battery bank's charge.
More granular knowledge of your personal power consumption is valuable, even if you're on the grid as well.
"You can start to think about what the implications might be of upgrading those appliances and improving the energy behavior of your appliances," Matt Bramson, the executive vice president of marketing and sales for the solar company Elevation, told me. Elevation offers a home energy efficiency system with sensors similar to a Kill A Watt.
Bramson said their system typically increases a home's efficiency usage by 10 to 20 percent, which is roughly in line with my experience using a Kill A Watt.
The power of energy monitoring tools like the Kill A Watt is the ability to reduce wasted energy and thereby lessen your overall footprint. On or off the grid, efficiency matters. Reducing enough demand on the grid -- more than 10% of one household, to be sure -- can keep utilities from starting up peaker power plants that often burn dirtier fuels. Wasting any of our energy collected from the sun can bring my family closer to having to start up a fossil fuel-powered generator or buying more solar panels and batteries, the production of which also comes at a cost to the environment.