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Switching on intelligent energy tracking at the CNET Smart Home

We give the green light to computerized electricity tracking by installing a smart energy monitor at the CNET Smart Home.

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If you've ever gotten slammed by an electric bill that was shockingly high, you know it's an unpleasant experience. A litany of what-ifs and whys flash through your head: Was the air conditioner running too long? Are we using the toaster oven too much? Perhaps that old fridge in the garage is the culprit?

Thankfully, digital technology trades wild guessing for fact-based data. Welcome to the era of smart energy monitors, which track home power consumption in real time and are capable of pinpointing what appliances are power hogs and which are power misers. And in a place like the CNET Smart Home -- which is packed with tons of high-tech gear -- keeping tabs on electrical use isn't just a good idea, it's critical for a stable test environment and spotting any power usage problems before they happen.

That's why we decided to take the plunge and hook up an intelligent energy monitor to the CNET Smart Home's electrical system.

Making sense of smart home energy

Do you need smart energy monitoring in your home? If you want to know the details behind your monthly electrical bill, that's a big yes. While utility tallies are usually presented in one or two cryptic charges -- and only once a month -- home energy monitors break everything down into understandable bits of data that are available in real time.

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A smart energy monitor should provide lots of data.

Screenshot by Megan Wollerton/CNET

How specific are we talking? Very. A brainy home monitor worth its silicon should be able to tease out the electrical use of individual big appliances and devices either as they operate or as they perform over time. Armed with this data, homeowners have the tools to highlight unexplainable energy spikes and eliminate their causes before they snowball into costly snafus.

Keeping an electronic eye on home energy use will probably push you to be more efficient. Seeing in lurid detail just how much cash flies out the door has a way of doing that. And knowing your home's specific electrical usage will certainly come in handy if you ever decide to augment your power system with solar panels or even ditch the grid entirely.

Neurio Intelligent Home Monitor: Our smart energy choice (for now)

Smart energy tracking within the home is seriously cutting-edge technology. In fact, there are only a handful of companies that have announced plans to enter this young product category, let alone actually sell devices. At the moment, there are two legitimate players in this arena that have brought their products to market: Neurio and Smappee.

The $249 Smappee is a compelling offering. In addition to tracking your home's total power usage, it's designed to be intelligent enough to detect the electrical signatures of individual appliances.

Smappee even has its own IFTTT (if this then that) automation channel, so you can add simple "programs" to its docket, along with compatibility with other IFTTT devices. For example, when the Smappee gathers that your coffee maker has begun its prescheduled morning brew, it can trigger your Philips Hue lights to crank up -- rise and shine! Likewise, there are IFTTT recipes that cause the Smappee to send emails or other alerts when particular appliances become active or shut down.

At the end of the day, however, we decided to go with the tried and true $249 Neurio Intelligent Home Monitor instead. One big advantage of the Neurio, for us, was that we were familiar with its operation and installation procedure. This may sound trivial, but when it comes to smart energy monitors it's a major factor to consider. We can't stress enough that getting these products up and running is not your typical simple DIY project.

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Installing a Neurio takes guts and skill.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

To be clear: if you're not a qualified electrician, hooking up either a Neurio or Smappee is not something you should attempt. Both devices require you to dive into the innards of your main breaker panel. And even if you switch off the main breakers in your home, there will still be a potentially lethal level of live juice present. (You also need to have your electrical utility shut down the power feed from the grid to your house.) For a deep dive into life with the Neurio, be sure to read our full review .

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The Neurio unit connects directly to your breaker panel.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Our other issue with Smappee is that you must plug the device into a standard AC outlet in addition to connecting it to your breaker box. It's an annoyance that will likely force you to leave your breaker panel open, with a long extension cord to the box. This reality and the fact that we haven't confirmed personally how well Smappee works helped tipped the balance in favor of Neurio, at least for now. And while the Neurio doesn't yet offer a way to send alerts and notifications to its users, the company has said it will provide this feature soon.

Still wondering why we're implementing the Neurio when we only awarded it a less-than-enthusiastic 3 stars out of 5? Good question. The answer is that the CNET Smart Home is all about experimentation -- we're testing the latest smart home tech in the real world so you don't have to! And, to be clear, the Neurio is the best option we've found in this still-nascent area.

Smart power engaged

From the moment the Neurio was installed, live stats for our electrical usage at the CNET Smart Home began to roll in. We could see power being consumed in real time within all the main sections of the house. This includes areas such as the kitchen, living room and dining room. So far it seems that our typical daily power consumption fluctuates between 0.5 and 2.5 kW.

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Add, track, and manage power use of specific appliances.

Brian Bennett/CNET


I also was able to train the Neurio sensor and companion Android mobile application to recognize the unique power signatures of household appliances like microwave ovens, conventional ovens and electric ranges. That said, don't expect to get info on light bulbs, TVs or most household electronics: the Neurio can't detect gadgets that draw less than 400 watts. (a skill Smappee apparently does have.)

In our particular case, the feedback the Neurio provided is just part of the story. Electricity is actually fed to our house via a pair of services, each with a separate breaker panel (not a main and sub panel). As a result of this odd arrangement, we can only monitor electrical activity on one panel.

Still, since we are in the initial phase of our Smart Home appliance rollout, the unmonitored breaker panel supplies power to sparsely populated areas of the house, specifically a lightly furnished basement with infrequently occupied rooms. This will change quickly as well fill out the rest of space -- especially when we add a smart washer and dryer.

We've got the power; now what?

This is merely the beginning of our quest to bring intelligent power to the CNET Smart Home. The next logical step is to hook up an additional Neurio unit to our second breaker panel. Another option would be to attach a Smappee device to this panel instead, since neither system can keep tabs on two separate electrical services (each using distinct breaker boxes) and combine their respective data.

We'd also like to delve into the promised smart functions of these products and see firsthand how reliable they are at performing timely and relevant alerts, not to mention predicting actual electric bills. And if we ever get the gumption to outfit our test abode with solar panels, it would an excellent opportunity to see if these gadgets prove useful for managing power consumption when supply is low.

Follow CNET -- and the CNET Smart Home on Twitter -- for updates.