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Apps: Improving home energy efficiency in 2013

VELObill lets users view where they are spending money on electricity, natural gas and water.

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A sample report from www.energysavvy.com rating home energy efficiency and offering suggestions for improvements.

Credit: 

Screen capture from www.energysavvy.com/estimate

‘Tis the season for making New Year’s resolutions. We here at EARTH probably can’t offer much assistance when it comes to diet and exercise tips to help burn off unwanted pounds. But if your goals for 2013 involve understanding your family’s energy consumption patterns and possibly reducing your power bills, you’ve come to the right place.

Numerous home energy and carbon footprint calculators are available, including many through utility company websites, so getting a start on achieving your goal may be as easy as going online. However, some sites are overly simplified and don’t actually offer much practical insight, whereas others are overly complicated and overwhelming. And with so many options, sometimes it’s tough to pick a good place to begin. To help out, we’ve pulled together a list of websites and applications that offer consumers useful and user-friendly ways to explore, understand and alter their own energy consumption routines. Some can be used across platforms — on your home computer, tablet or smartphone — and some link to social media sites to further expand their functionality.

So, hop online, pick the app that’s best for you and start saving!

Apps Using Green Button Data

An industry-led effort, in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, initiated the Green Button program (www.greenbuttondata.org/) in 2012. Green Button allows electricity customers to securely download and view data detailing their home usage at their own leisure, thus offering consumers much more information than traditional monthly statements.

A handful of large utility companies have voluntarily enacted the program, with many more committed to joining in, so you may or may not have access to Green Button data yet depending on who provides your power. In response, a bevy of Web-based applications has been developed — many through last year’s Department of Energy-sponsored “Apps for Energy” competition — to allow users to get an even clearer picture of how and when they use power. Here are a few:

VELObill (http://greenbutton.sit.zfp.ca:8080/): Developed by a group called zerofootprint, VELObill offers a straightforward, colorful and user-friendly interface with which consumers can view how and where they are spending money on electricity, natural gas and water in their utility bills. With just a few clicks, you can see how your usage changes over time and how it compares to other customers in your area. The app also allows you to set and track goals for change, and offers tips on how to achieve those goals.

Leafully (https://leafully.com/): Leafully offers many of the same features as VELObill in another clean and visually appealing interface. Graphs showing daily, weekly and monthly usage are easily plotted and can be set to show total usage, usage during peak times or “sleeping usage” by always-on appliances. For consumers not versed in the oft-confusing nomenclature of units like kilowatt-hours, Leafully also allows you to view power consumption in terms of the number of trees needed to offset the pollution resulting from your consumption.

WOTZ (http://wotz.ps.uci.edu):Created by students and researchers at the University of California at Irvine, the name WOTZ is a play on the developers’ question of “What’s a kilowatt?” This app plots usage as a visually appealing land- and seascape with always-on usage as the ocean and peaks in usage depicted as mountains. It offers useful and amusing equivalents for your power use, such as how many cheeseburgers could be produced with the power you consumed during a day. You can also play Tetris- and Asteroids-like games to further understand the data, and set up challenges to help you reduce consumption.

Other Energy Calculators

For those who don’t have access to Green Button or would prefer other options, here are some calculators to check out:

Home Energy Saver (http://homeenergysaver.lbl.gov/consumer/): Created by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Department of Energy, this site offers users the chance to input differing levels of detail (up to extremely detailed descriptions of your insulation and windows, for example) about the condition of your home and the appliances you use that contribute to your electricity bills. The interface is functional if not flashy, and in the end, you’ll get a similarly detailed summary of how you’re consuming power — down to the dollar, kilowatt-hour and pound of carbon dioxide. The site also offers suggestions of specific improvements to make and even estimates how long it’ll take before those improvements pay for themselves.

EnergySavvy (www.energysavvy.com/estimate): For a simpler glance at how you can alter energy habits in your home, this online tool offers a friendly interface with nice graphics. Just answer a series of straightforward questions about your home’s condition, heating, cooling and energy consumption patterns, and you’ll get an overall score rating your home’s energy efficiency. The site also provides a description of how your score was calculated and gives customized ideas for improving your score based on where you live and your answers to the questions.

iViro (www.envirolytics.ca): Developed by Canadian software company Envirolytics, iViro  allows you to input specifics about your home and your energy usage. It even takes local weather into account before outputting a customized energy audit and offering useful solutions. The telltale lower case “i” at the beginning of its name indicates that this one is built specifically for Mac people and their iPhones and iPads, and the graphics and interface are as snappy as those we’ve come to expect from other “i” apps.

uMeter (http://www.umeter.me): For those with both a smartphone and a smart meter — a power meter that records hourly usage information and communicates the data remotely — at home, you may want to try uMeter. With a sleek bright green and black layout, uMeter will plot up-to-the-minute consumption data provided by a smart meter, thus allowing users to identify exactly when and how they’re using power and to make desired adjustments. The app is available for most smartphone operating systems, and can also be used on home computers and tablets.

This is hardly a complete list, and there are many more useful tools out there. If you know of one that works well for you, let us know!

Timothy Oleson
Saturday, January 5, 2013