An underrated piece of tech you can't live without

Your circuit breaker may seem like an afterthought, but this energy-regulating device actually has a ton of hidden potential.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
5 min read
Enlarge Image
If your circuit breaker could talk. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

This is an ode to the humble circuit breaker, your home's electricity gatekeeper, a jumble of wires housed in a utilitarian metal panel that powers everything from your fridge to your phone charger. Given our daily reliance on and love of technology, you'd think that the circuit breaker -- aka the central nervous system for all of the gadgets and gizmos in your house -- would be held in high regard.

But that just isn't the case. Circuit breakers are typically relegated to the bowels of a home -- a cobweb-filled corner of the basement, perhaps, that frightens kids and adults alike. They are rarely visited and when they are, it's usually because of a power outage or some other problem.

Until recently, circuit breakers barely blipped my radar. But I've developed something of a fascination with this hunk of old-school tech and now firmly believe that they're an untapped resource. They're a barometer for your whole home that you can use not only to see if your local electric company over-charged you last month, but also to better understand where your energy comes from and how you can use it smarter every single day.

Enlarge Image

Click here for more stories in CNET's Most Exciting Tech series.


There's the rub

There's a small problem though. Although your circuit breaker is bursting with information to share, it can't do it alone. It needs help from a third-party device, something that can translate your breaker's electrical currents into usable information. And that's where existing devices like Neurio (pictured above) and upcoming products like Ecoisme and Belkin's Echo technology come into play.

Neurio is a small, completely boring-looking gadget I reviewed in July that connects to your circuit breaker's main switch. Steve Conaway, one of CNET's technical editors, installed it because it's a fairly complex setup that requires a high level of competency with electrical wiring, especially since you have to remove the circuit breaker panel (which has a number of hidden hazards). But, after the initial installation is over and the breaker panel is replaced, your circuit breaker is suddenly transformed into a smart, Wi-Fi-and-app-enabled nexus of knowledge that delivers real-time energy usage stats to your phone 24/7.

With Neurio set up in my home, I was able to walk from room to room, turning various devices on and off just to see the immediate impact on my power consumption. The fan in the bathroom -- 200 watts (W); running the vacuum -- 1,000W; the desk lamp in the office -- 125W; the air conditioning kicking on -- 1,300W; and so on.

I also had time to study standby usage, otherwise known as vampire power. You know, all of those things that we leave plugged in, even when they aren't actually charging our devices. For me specifically, it's the multitude of phone, tablet and laptop adapters that are attached to various power strips peppered throughout my house.

When I made an effort to turn off and unplug everything (because you have to do both), including my unnecessarily large collection of power strips, my baseline consumption dropped from over 1,000W down into the 40W range (large appliances, like my oven and fridge, were still connected to power). If I hadn't seen it for myself, I wouldn't have believed that making such a small tweak to my daily routine could have such an impact. Turns out that simply unplugging all my unused cords is one thing that could actually save me a good chunk of change in the long term -- and also ease the strain on the natural resources we rely on for energy, however small.

After we uninstalled Neurio at my house, we set up the same unit at the CNET Smart Home, our new spot in rural Kentucky for testing out all sorts of connected gadgets. While our smart home is more than five times the size of my condo and has two separate breaker panels instead of one, Neurio performed exactly the same. We were still able to track consumption by device and optimize energy savings -- even though it has far more appliances and gadgets to monitor.

Beyond Neurio

That Neurio gadget was useful, but it didn't exactly maximize my circuit breaker's potential. It was supposed to give me an itemized breakdown of usage by appliance so I could see the exact amount of energy it took to power my stove, space heater, toaster and beyond.

Neurio was unfortunately only able to achieve this with devices over 400W (meaning it excludes stuff like lights, gaming consoles, TVs and even low-wattage large appliances, like refrigerators). And even over the 400W mark, it often confused my aircon and my stove, since both operate in the 1,200-1,400W range.

Neurio makes your circuit breaker smart (pictures)

See all photos

Even so, this type of product has a lot of potential and other devices are en route that promise to improve upon Neurio's model. Not only are they supposed to show you what your high-consumption heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system is up to, but also how much energy your MacBook Air is using versus your roommate's Dell XPS 13. Indiegogo-funded startup Ecoisme, for instance, claims to be able to differentiate between different types of appliances, as well as different brands within the same product category.

Related products, such as "smart vents," are also popping up on the smart-home scene. Ecovent, Keen and Linq are all startups that want to replace your existing HVAC vents with connected versions. Each brand varies slightly, but they are all supposed to route your heat and air conditioning by room so your system isn't pumping a bunch of air into unoccupied spaces. Given how expensive heating and cooling a home can be, this sounds like a great extension of smart thermostats such as Nest and whole-home energy managers like Neurio.

While standalone energy stats for a single appliance might not be incredibly useful (as with Belkin's WeMo Insight Switch), having an energy sentry for your entire home could pay for itself several times over. At $250 for the Intelligent Home Monitor and $180 for the Home Energy Monitor, Neurio devices aren't cheap, and smart vent systems can cost as much as $200 per room, but you stand to save a lot more than that over time.

We plan to add even more energy-related devices to the CNET Smart Home in the future -- from whole-home energy monitors designed to compete with Neurio to smart blinds and maybe even solar panels -- so be sure to stay tuned for updates.

Testing these kinds of whole-home devices has definitely made me rethink the way I draw power, which may not exactly be a scarce resource, but it's clearly an expensive one. It was also the catalyst for my newfound circuit breaker appreciation. Do I really need that impressive-and-yet-oh-so-embarrassing assortment of power strips and chargers that wind up spending more time drawing vampire power than they do actually charging my devices? No. No, I don't. And most likely, neither do you.

Editors' note (December 29, 2015): This article has been updated since it was originally published on August 5, 2015.