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Home electricity monitor hits retail at Lowe's

The PowerCost Monitor, a whole-house monitor available directly to consumers, will now be sold at retail stores, with the data available online through Google or Microsoft.

The PowerCost Monitor, one of the few energy-tracking gadgets sold directly to consumers, will now be available at Lowe's hardware stores.

The monitor's maker, BlueLine Innovations, said today that the PowerCost Monitor and WiFi Gateway will be available at 319 Lowe's stores in California, Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. The product has been available for sale online but this is its first big-box retail distributor.

There are dozens of companies making electricity monitors, with many being trialed through utilities' smart-grid programs geared at reducing energy use during peak time or reducing customers' overall power consumption.

The PowerCost Monitor is not as sophisticated as some of the more advanced home energy management systems, but it's a good option for people who want to better understand their overall electricity usage. It doesn't require professional installation.

The manufacturer's core technology is optical sensors that can read an electricity meter and transmit that information either to a small monitor, about the size of a home cordless phone, or to the Web via an optional Wi-Fi gateway. Once online, people can use either Microsoft's Hohm or Google's PowerMeter Web application to view real-time or historical power consumption information.

People need to attach a clamp with a sensor onto a meter. The Wi-Fi gateway receives information from the sensor and uses a home broadband connection to send meter data to the Web. The full retail price for monitor alone is $109, and it's an additional $159 for the WiFi Gateway.

Since it's a whole-house monitor, the system won't give you details on how much energy specific appliances or rooms use, but it does help you understand your "baseline" power usage. To better understand how much power individual appliances use, you can use a handheld power meter, such as the Kill a Watt, which lets you manually test power by plug load.