There is no shortage of advice for reducing electric use, but how do you know if your new CFL light bulbs and energy-saving practices are making a difference? Reading an electric meter practically takes an engineering degree, and your power bill is an imperfect and delayed measure of electric use. Power needs vary each month, and rates may also shift.
The best alternatives are, somewhat ironically, new electric devices. Watt-hour meters and whole-house energy monitors draw some electricity, but they can save far more power than they use.
One Outlet at a Time
The cheapest, easiest way to calculate your power consumption is with a plug-in electricity monitor, such as the basic $24 Kill A Watt. Electricity monitors are like outlets with digital displays. Plug the monitor into the wall, and plug a device into the monitor. The monitor shows electric consumption in kilowatt-hours, just like your utility bill. You can use the figures to calculate the monthly or annual energy costs for each device or appliance.
The wattage of a lamp with a 100-watt bulb is not a mystery. The Kill A Watt is more useful for computer stations and home entertainment systems. If a TV, DVD player, stereo receiver, digital video recorder and video gaming system are all plugged into a power strip, you can measure the total power load. Moreover, you can unplug each device and determine which devices draw significant amounts if power when they are switched off or on standby.
Newer $60 Kill A Watt models include a surge protector and can be pre-programmed to turn devices on and off as needed.
Tracking the Whole House
Once you determine the power load on individual outlets, you can check and control the overall household consumption with the Energy Detective. This $200 system is wired to your main circuit breaker and displays real-time energy usage to the second. For example, if you open the refrigerator door, the Energy Detective reading should jump 20 watts to account for the refrigerator light.
A 2008 U.S. Department of Energy study found that knowing and tracking energy consumption dropped the average household's energy use by 10 percent. You will probably be more conscientious about turning off lights if you see the wattage increase every time you flip a switch.
Google is also making tracking easier. The Energy Detective is the first device approved for use with Google PowerMeter, which allows users to track and analyze household energy use from any computer or Internet-enabled device. Google PowerMeter graphically shows the change in usage over time, and compares current consumption to usage by neighbors, friends and comparable households. It also links to specific suggestions for energy savings.
As they say, knowledge is power. In this case, power knowledge is power savings. Learn how much power your devices and your whole house regularly draw, and use that information to cut your power bills.