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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Can technology actually encourage UN-green behavior?

Posted on November 8, 2011 at 5:35 PM

Many tech writers – myself included – have written about how the magical wonders and powerful power of automation can transform otherwise ignorant, soulless and bent-on-destroying-the-planet homeowners into green, energy conserving, happy, cookie-making elves. We’ve waxed poetic about how every kWh saved somehow means another field of Fair Trade coffee beans magically springing up in a new, evergreen Colombian field and also accounts for the mysterious regeneration of several square meters of lost rainforest.

And, yes, automation CAN definitely do these things. (OK, maybe just the saving energy part. Those Colombian coffee beans need to get their deal squared away by the cartel.) In my home, I use a Lutron automated lighting system – RadioRA2 to be exact. Now, I can’t give you any kind of actual, hard-dollar-cost metric on whether having my lights only come on to 85% bright when I press the on button has actually saved me any electricity costs or whether my bulbs ACTUALLY do last longer as claimed. I know that I still seem to have to replace the stupid things, and since I don’t put a stopwatch on their on/off life cycle, I don’t know if they are indeed lasting longer, not needing to be replaced as often, causing less waste to the landfill, making baby Jesus shed one less tear, etc. But I CAN tell you is that when coupled with some timing events like “Initiate Goodnight scene at 12:30 AM” and “Initiate Good Morning scene at sunrise” that my outside lights only come on when I want them to and then are not accidentally left on all day; burning away, ridiculously competing with the SUN to light up the sides of my garage and virtually never used front doorstep. I can also tell you that with occupancy sensors in Lauryn’s room and bathroom that she is no longer leaving lights when she finishes using the bathroom – though it has done nothing to prevent her from wanting to spend 5 or more minutes playing in the sink, washing her hands, the counter, the floor, any toys that are nearby… -- and that her fan no longer runs all night, but turns off 10 minutes after she stops moving around.

And when I couple the lights with a Lutron thermostat, I can also have the system automatically drop – or raise – the temp, either according to the season or just based on the whimsy of my mood at the moment when we are sleeping. Then it can gradually adjust to a more “being awake friendly” temp when we are about to rise. Or put the house into a preset “cold…so VERY cold…” mode when we go on vacation. That kinds of stuff automation is great for and surely does save energy and money.

Now, do these small bits of energy savings make a difference? Sure. Likely on an infinitesimal scale. But it is many single drops of rain that make up a monsoon. (I’m seriously hoping that I just made that up. I was thinking it in my grandest, Confucius, “Ancient Chinese proverb say…” voice.) So when my miniscule power saving is coupled with your savings and then force-multiplied by that of other people doing the same thing, maybe that giant ogre turning the huge crank that generates electricity down at the power plant can have an extra 5 second break or something. His arm will feel more rested. He won’t go home and yell at his wife. She’ll feel happier and she won’t smack the kids around. Then they’ll feel more fulfilled and do better at school and will grow up to cure ogre cancer or something. See the potential power of energy savings at work?

But beyond any actual money or saving-the-world energy savings, *I* feel better knowing that a light wasn’t left on. If for nothing else, it saves me an ounce of aggravation of having to wonder and then yell, “LAURYN?! DID YOU LEAVE THE LIGHT ON?!” And Lord knows I can use that.

But there is a move towards incorporating automation with energy metering and smart meters on the sides of people’s homes that will report energy usage and give feedback in real-time. The thinking is, when you know how much something is costing, you’ll be more likely to adjust and align your behavior into a more “planet friendly” posture. Drop the thermostat a degree and INSTANTLY know how much you are paying for that extra percent of comfort. Never again will you need to struggle trying to find an answer to the eternal question of what costs more: Baking for 3 hours a 350 degrees or 3.5 hours at 325? Here’s an example of how this is *supposed* to work.

Energy monitoring software: “You know, running your pool pump 24 hours a day is costing you like $150 a month.”

Me: “Holy crap! Are you serious?!”

Energy monitoring software: “Yes. My systems report that it is drawing X amount of power, and when multiplied over a…”

Me: “OK, OK! I hear ya! Shut it down! Shut it down IMMEDIATELY!!!”

But in reality, what normally happens is that people find out how LITTLE energy something actually uses and how LITTLE money that actually translates to and then they feel not-so-guilty about maybe being a little less green. Say more brownish-green. Now, the porch light that they might have turned off, can go ahead and stay on a few extra hours because, well, it costs less than a penny a day to run, and I kinda like having that light on. Or, leaving the TV running all day so the cats – it’s always “cats” plural, isn’t it? -- don’t feel lonely or maladjusted or whatever it is that crazy-cat people think that cats are feeling is worth the $.16. Or that all the cell, laptop, iPad and iPod chargers and computers and shredders and clock radios and Glade plug-in air-fresheners and whatever else people use to suckle at the great electrical teat really costs SO little that it isn’t worth the MINISCULE amount of effort required to unplug them and save some of the massive amount of vampire power drains that occur every day in almost every home in the country.

I must admit that I experienced this phenomenon firsthand not too long ago. I was reviewing a Panamax surge protector that was IP enabled. This feature was really so that you could log into the system remotely and reboot components like cable boxes, routers, modems that occasionally lock up, thus saving an installer truck roll and – hopefully – getting the client back up and running – ie: letting them watch Oprah or Dr. Phil or whatever it is angry housewives watch in the afternoons – more quickly. But, one of the side little bennies of the system is energy monitoring; the system will measure and report how much power is being consumed.

Now, I have a 60-inch Pioneer Elite Plasma. Not one of the new, nancy-boy, sweet-and-sassy energy friendly ones. No. I have the man’s man version; the end-of-production, 9G model that puts off many –a-BTU of heat, was built with a “Damn the power supplies! Full power ahead!” design model of better quliaty through more power, and is said to suck down electricity with the ferocity of a Dyson-vacuum scorned. I also run an 8-channel power amplifier, my cable box DVR and Kaleidescape server that are basically “on” all the time and my pre-amp and some other stuff. I had always thought that running this system was costing me a pretty decent clip, and that whenever I fired it on, I was giving Mother Nature a giant, angry flick right on the boob.

And, seriously, if I had found out that it was costing me like $1 or more an hour to run the system, I would have *probably* made up some song-and-dance about why Lauryn can only watch TV for a specified amount of time – you know, for educational reasons -- and that instead of Dana and I just sitting on the couch, aimlessly flipping through channels like slacked-eyed zombies we should be, I don’t know, listening to music or reading or actually talking to each other. Had I known that it was actually costing me a lot of money to use my system, I would have made lifestyle changes to lower that consumption. But what I found after running the system for a month was this:

An entire day’s worth of use burns up around 2 kWh which costs me about a quarter. Two dimes and a fat, ugly nickel. For the day. And, even if you split that into just the 12 hours or so we really use it, it’s AWFULLY tough to start laying down “THOU SHALT NOT WATCH TV!” laws using price and electrical consumption as your soapbox when it is only costing you $.02 an hour. Even for me. Just ask Dana; I'm a tyrant. For the entire month enjoying my A/V system to my heart’s delight used up 82.66 kWh. Now, this might sound like a lot – and I’m sure that it would get me *immediately* excommunicated for all but the most forward thinking Amish communities -- but in actual dollars and cents comes out to a whopping cost of like $7.34. For the price of lunch at Chick-Fil-A – the 3 strip meal with large waffle fries and large sweet tea -- I get to enjoy a month filled with amazing picture and sound with all the movies, music, Internet radio and Time Warner HD cables and DVRs I can stand.

Automation is great and it will not only make your life more enjoyable, it can also definitely do its part to help you to save power. But the truth is, unless you turn your thermostat all the way to off and dim your lights to zero and don’t turn them back on again, it probably isn’t going to save you that much money and you'll probably never recup the costs of the automation system. Well, unless they find away to help you to live to live 314 years old or something. Save energy because it’s the right, smart, and eco-conscious and planet friendly thing to do. If it also happens to drop your monthly bill by a couple of bucks, then that’s OK too. And that’s my two-cents – or an hour’s worth of Elite Plasma watchin’ -- on that.

Categories: November 2011, Electronics, Rants