Thursday, August 03, 2006

Personal Utility Meters

I believe that people benefit when they have good information at hand. I think they make better decisions. On the other hand, if they have little information, they can't be expected to make good decisions.

With that said, I'd like to talk about something that's been bothering me for a couple of years now. There are 3 utilities that virtually all of us use in our homes: gas, electric and water. For all 3 of these resources we pay our utility company on a monthly basis for the amount we use. On our bill is the usage and that usage is measured via a meter that is usually hidden in our basement or outside of our house somewhere.

We all agree that using less of these resources is a good thing. It's good for the environment and more importantly, it's good for our wallets. I would argue that having monthly reports on past usage of these resources is an almost useless practice. For one, we have no way to be sure that these reports are correct. We simply trust that the meter is correct and to verify it matches the bill, we'd need to manually look at the meter and keep a tab. Secondly these reports reflect old data, we can't predict with much accuracy how our usage will be in the future from this data (particularly for electric and gas since they fluctuate depending on the temperature). Lastly, the reporting is in aggregate and so we have no idea how much impact certain things have on the usage.

Let me give you an example that is probably all too common right about now. Lets take a moment and look at air conditioner usage. We have central air and we've got a timer that runs the air conditioner depending on the time and interior temperature. We have no real way of computing the cost/benefit of our temperature/time decisions since we have no idea how much it costs to run. We know from our bills that it costs a lot to run the air conditioner, but we don't know how much. We also don't know how much more it costs when it's hotter outside. Same goes for any electric appliance in your home. Do you know how much it costs to run your dishwasher?

Without this knowledge, how can we be better consumers? We really have no way to measure our impact. If you knew that running your dishwasher cost you $5 would you run it without a full load every day? Or would you wait until it was full? If it cost you an extra $100 a year to run your bathroom faucet continually when you brushed your teeth would you do that? Maybe you would or maybe you wouldn’t. The point is that with god information you could make better decisions. And in today’s world, there is no excuse for us not to have this information.

So. I propose that the solution is simple. Some company creates a line of meters (for gas, electric and water) that goes between the utility meter and our homes. These meters do the same thing as the utility meters but they have the ability to report the data in a number of ways.

For instance, in my home I am pretty wired up so I would like to see these devices connect into my home network and from there I’d like to see some software that would gather this data so I can flip on my pc when I get home and see real-time usage amounts and track historical data. Maybe the software could also connect to a temperature sensor inside and outside of my house so I can see how the temperature influences usage. I can also know in advance what my bills are going to be.

These meters should be available today and should be part of every new home that gets built. I can’t see them being too expensive and all I can see is the beneficial uses over them. If we had this information, we could all do our part in curbing our usage. How bad would that be?


renaec said...

This is a genius idea! How, I wonder, could this be proposed to the utility companies or the government? Where would we even begin?

trace said...

Actually I'm not sure we need anyone’s permission to do this at all (utility/govt.). From what I know, just inside the meter is the responsibility of the homeowner. So all we need is the meters to be built and then have a plumber/electrician install them.

I would pester the companies that make the current meters.. That would be my starting point. Or perhaps start an online petition to display the need/demand of the public for these devices.

kanabul said...

I love this idea... really.