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Smart homes no longer a fantasy

Not that long ago, the 1999 movie Smart House — which featured a fully-automated dream home run by a computer named Pat — seemed futuristic and far fetched. Fast forward to today, and there are voice-assisted devices you can talk to and ask to control anything from your television to your lights to your mood (okay, it can’t literally change your mood but you could ask it to tell you jokes or play upbeat music).

Using smart home devices doesn’t mean your digs will have a higher IQ, but it does mean your home could have a leaner energy budget. “Smart homes” are houses that have a number of interconnected devices and home appliances that perform certain actions or functions and many are designed to save money, time, and energy.

Here are some smart home devices — in no particular order that may or may not be interconnected — that could save some green:

  1. Energy monitoring devices, which give real-time feedback on energy consumption and track your energy stats (kind of like a Fitbit for your home); these typically cost between $200 and $300 but can make a real difference in your energy bills if you make adjustments based on feedback.
  2. The SmartThings Hub; think of it as the brains of your smart home. With it (and compatible items), you can open your garage door, turn on music, or start the coffee maker. When you leave, it can lock the doors, turn off the lights, adjust your smart thermostat, and activate a security camera.
  3. A smart lighting outdoor module, such as GE Z-Wave, which works with Alexa. This allows you to control all your outdoor lighting and appliances, including seasonal and landscape lighting. Schedule or turn outdoor lights on or off from anywhere.
  4. Smart bulbs, which are internet-capable LED bulbs that allow lighting to be controlled remotely. Many of them can even change color; some can play music, and specialty smart bulbs may help you sleep better by emitting colors designed to help regulate natural melatonin production or provide soothing light that doesn’t disrupt circadian rhythm.
  5. Smart sprinkler systems that water your garden only when plants need it. They take local weather forecasts into account and will delay watering if rain is headed your way.
  6. Water leak detectors and shut-off systems (some are SmartThings compatible but can be operated independently). The simplest versions sit on the floor and alert you when they get wet. More elaborate versions continually monitor the flow of your water system, informing you if water pressure changes and allowing you to shut off the water supply if a leak is detected.

Smart appliances and devices save money because in many cases they allow you to use less energy. They’re also convenient, fun to use and can give you peace of mind. In short, they may be worth it in the long run, but only if the initial outlay fits your budget.

Energy savings beyond belief

By Brian Sloboda

A quick search of the Internet reveals many great ways to save energy around your home. Simple things, such as adding insulation or using energy efficient light bulbs, are simple and relatively inexpensive ways to save small amounts of energy. The same search will also reveal “amazing” products that claim to cut up to a third of your energy bill – without you changing anything about your energy use habits. Claims like this sound too good to be true, and there is good reason for that. These claims almost always turn out to be exaggerations or downright lies.

An energy efficiency scam is generally easy for a person who works at an electric co-op to spot and identify. However, it isn’t so easy for most people. Scams generally center around misstatements of science or confusion over utility programs.

A popular scam is a little box that promises to save you energy. The box is a device that supposedly saves energy without the consumer making any changes to behavior, turning anything off or adjusting the thermostat. The people who sell these boxes often claim outrageous energy savings—sometimes as much as 30 percent or more. They often use terms, such as power conditioning, capacitors and power factor, all of which are legitimate industry terms.

The sales pitch usually goes something like this: The device being sold will control alternating current, power factor and reduce the cost of electric bills. It will condition your power and make appliances last longer. The device uses no power and has no moving parts. It will make the motors in your home run better. The sales material often claims that the utility doesn’t want you to know about the device. That last part is actually true – because it is a rip off. Variations of the product have been sold to both residential and commercial customers.

There are several questions that you should ask a salesman (or yourself!) when reading an ad for the next magical cure-all:

1. Does it violate the laws of science? Some products claim that they are capable of “changing the molecular structure … to release never-before tapped power.” Changing the laws of science is no easy task. If the inventors truly can do this, the product will surely be sold at every store in the nation, and they will become very wealthy. They won’t be mailing out flyers or operating from a poorly designed web site.

2. Was the product tested by an independent group like a national lab or university? If the performance of the product was not tested and certified by a lab or other entity not connected to the company selling it, then be skeptical. Call the third party group and talk to them. Sometimes scammers lie about the tests.

3.  Is it too good to be true? In today’s economic times, saving money is top of mind. We want something to be true so that we can save money, improve our lives and feed our families. But wanting something to work doesn’t mean it will.

Sometimes energy scammers contact consumers directly, either by calling or stopping by and claiming they represent the local electric co-op. Never give anyone personal or financial information who claims to be an employee of the co-op without confirming their identity. If they call, ask for a call back number, then verify their identity with your co-op. If they stop by, ask the person for a valid employee ID.

The key is to be skeptical and ask questions. Asking tough questions and being skeptical will not offend honest people. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Brian Sloboda is a technical research analyst specializing in energy efficiency and renewable energy for the Business Technology Strategies (BTS), a service of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.


Green up your laundry room

If yours is an average family, you wash 400 loads of laundry each year, using 40 gallons per load with a traditional top-loading washer. But switch to an Energy Star front loader and cut your per-load water use to 25 gallons and cut your energy costs of the same laundry by about a third.

Even more startling, that Energy Star washer can save enough money over its lifetime to pay for a matching dryer. The water savings could fill three backyard swimming pools!

If your washer is more than 10 years old, a new Energy Star top-loader could save $135 each year in your electric bill. So why is a top-loader more efficient? For one, the tub the clothes sit in rotates, and the clothes inside tumble in less water. They also spin clothes faster, resulting in dryer clothes even before you put them in a dryer or better yet hang them out to dry.

Here are some washing and drying best tips:

  • Use a “high-efficiency” detergent with front-loading washers. Regular detergent creates too much suds, which can affect the machine’s performance.
  • Look for plant-based detergents and non-chlorine-bleach products made from sodium percarbonate or sodium perborate.
  • Wash a full load – regardless of size of load -- the washer uses about the same amount of energy.
  • Wash in cold water – water heating consumes about 90 percent of the energy to operate the washer.
  • Avoid the sanitary cycle, which uses super-hot water.
  • Leave the door open after use on front-loading washers to avoid mold buildup.
  • Rinse the washer every month with 1 cup of bleach to help reduce mold or mildew.
  • Dry clothes on a rack or outside.
  • If you must use a dryer:
    • Buy one with a moisture sensor option on the dryer, which automatically turns off the dryer when clothes are dry.
    • Clean the lint filter after every load to improve air circulation and increase efficiency
    • Scrub the lint filter regularly if you use dryer sheets to remove any film.
    • Dry only full loads and dry two or more loads in a row to take advantage of residual heat.
    • Use the cool-down cycle or perma-press cycle to allow clothes to finish drying with residual heat.
    • Dry lightweight items that take less drying time together vs. mixing them with heavy items.

Remember, clothes dryers aren’t Energy Star rated because the amount of energy they use doesn’t vary much from model to model. But over 18 years, according to the Consumer Energy Center, a dryer can cost as much as $1,530 to operate. Maybe you don’t need a dryer after all….

Stove shopping for energy efficiency

When shopping for a new stove, study your options carefully because chances are you’ll live with your choice for the next 20 years. You can bet that a new stove will have more insulation, tighter gaskets and more efficient self-cleaning than your old model. Though Energy Star doesn’t rate stoves and ovens, look for the yellow EnergyGuide label that tells you how much it will cost to operate a particular model.

When shopping, think about the basic cost of cooking. According to the Consumer Energy Center, 58 percent of households cook with electricity even though gas stoves cost about half as much to operate: electricity is just so convenient. And, as Michael Bluejay points out, we’re only talking about an average of $18 a year cheaper for gas. Gas prices also are more volatile than electricity prices.

New convection ovens, which circulate heated air around the food, offer an alternative to straight electric and gas. Whereas an electric oven costs about 16 cents to operate for an hour at 350 degrees, a convection oven costs about 11 cents and gas 7 cents.

Other efficient cooking options are an electric frying pan at 7 cents, toaster oven at 8 cents, electric crockpot at 6 cents and a microwave at 3 cents.

New stoves come with all kinds of extras: warmers, grills, griddles, six or more burners, for starters. Select a model with only the features you need and will use and an oven suited for the size of your family.

Also consider the different types of stove-top cooking elements. Solid disk elements and radiant elements under glass are easier to clean but take longer to heat and use more electricity. Halogen elements and induction elements are more efficient. However, induction elements require you use only iron or steel pots and pans.


Use your oven efficiently

Seems like we naturally use our ovens more for baking, broiling and roasting in cool weather. The Consumer Energy Center offers these tips for using our ovens more efficiently:

  • Bake several items at a time.
  • Unless you’re baking breads or pastries, you may not need to preheat.
  • Don’t open the oven door to check food – you lose 25 degrees every time you open the door.
  • Don’t cover oven racks with foil – it blocks the flow of hot air.
  • Turn the temperature down about 25 degrees if you use glass or ceramic pans in the oven.
  • Clean a self-cleaning oven right after you’ve used it to take advantage of residual heat.
  • Self-clean no more than once a month or you’ll use more electricity than you save by cooking with a clean oven.
  • Check the seal on your oven door for tears or gaps that can allow heat to escape.
  • Use a toaster oven or crockpot for baking, particularly smaller amounts of food.
  • Turn the oven off several minutes before the allotted cooking time is up. The oven’s residual heat will finish the job.