Are Smartphones the Future of Home Energy Conservation?

By Peter Bernstein November 29, 2012

Much of the attention in looking at eco-sustainability and what individuals can do to help reduce our respective carbon footprints in terms of our power consumption at home has centered around smart grids. Obviously, big monetary savings can be obtained if we all, consumers and utilities alike, are in a position to more judiciously manage our consumption of electricity.

However, managing consumption based on interactions with the power grid is only one part of the equation for truly becoming better stewards of the planet. The other side is in taking steps to assure our residences are optimized to be energy efficient. Enter the smartphone.

You read correctly, that old saying that “there is an app for that,” has been posited by researchers in Canada who believe smartphones can become valuable tools that allow individuals to perform most if not all of the tasks currently done by utility personal who perform energy audits.

Image via Shutterstock

“Do it yourself” energy audits    

As put forth in a paper recently published in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy, researchers Patrick Leslie, Joshua M. Pearce, Rob Harrap and Sylvie Daniel, investigated how smartphones could be used in energy ‘audits’, designed to help householders adopt energy conservation measures (ECMs) to reduce emissions, conserve resources and reduce operating costs.

As the paper notes, traditionally energy audits are done by trained staff who travel from house to house, burning lots of gas along the way.  The authors say, home owners may have the ability to make the energy-saving changes auditors suggest, but lack “the ability to recognize which changes are possible and which have the largest potential to reduce energy use.”  As discussed below, the reality is that most homes never have such an audit, and likely never will given the time that each audit can take. In fact, having had such an audit done myself, I can attest to the fact that like good wine these take time, and while the recommendations were helpful, guidance as to what to tackle, when and in what order was not provided.

In a nutshell, here is what the authors are suggesting. They believe that rather than waiting for an audit, software could be created for home owners to perform their own audits with their smartphones. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, since much of the technology needed already exists including:

  • Phone sensors can take pictures for reports, act as crude light meters or confirm a variety of measurements
  •  GPS data is already available for a wide range of applications
  • Current technology exists to analyze users’ appliances, provide the energy-efficiency rankings of similar homes, and give breakdowns of current energy use

The authors have an interesting vision for this. They see employment of an intuitive tool that would allow an untrained user, for example, to choose their house type, energy source and payment method, choose an ECM and input data as instructed.  The example they use would have a user provide the type and number of light fittings in their home, then receive suggestions for energy-saving replacements in real time; as technology developed, the range of tasks that could be performed by smartphones would grow.

As a real-time monitoring and alerting device, a smartphone could also ‘‘push’ users to make changes when conditions are right, for example, when a federal rebate or cheaper tariff was available. The authors contend that this provides significant advantages to current home visits by utility personnel in that such a capability would be able to keep users “constantly engaged with the energy efficiency of their homes.”

Not perfect but really quite good

Reality is that as convenient as a smartphone audit in the future might be, they are not perfect. Indeed, their lack of the ability to perform a “blower door test,” which measures how well a home is sealed, is a deficiency, albeit one that over an extended period of time could be overcome as new construction materials with embedded sensors and enhanced motion detection capabilities are introduced.  The authors were also sensitive to the fact that a smartphone-based system would probably require changes to subsidy programs in many jurisdictions.

By the numbers

While admittedly theoretical, probably the most interesting part of paper was the work done to quantify how smartphone-based energy auditing systems could accelerate energy and emissions savings.  The researchers provide a case study of Southern Ontario that is illuminating:

  • It was estimated that it would take auditors 55 years to cover all 157,000 dwellings in the current fashion.
  • Using smartphone technology, all the homes could in theory be audited simultaneously
  • Cumulative carbon-dioxide savings from smartphones would surpass those from traditional audits in 13 to 17 years, even with conservative assumptions.

Why is this so important? Using Canada as a benchmark, it was noted that residential buildings account for 16.3 percent of total energy use. What the authors did not say, that has been part of the discussion surrounding some of the push back that is being seen against smart grids around the world, is that a smartphone-based audit bears none of the suspicion people have about smart meters being a utility company’s “camel’s nose under the tent,” to get users to pay more and not less. 

Use of the smartphone would make home owners more proactive than reactive and allow them to make choices that fit in their comfort zones. In fact, given the utility industry’s education challenge on smart grid benefits, smartphone-based auditing is something they should seriously consider as part of a comprehensive push to help their customers be more conservation aware and more active in implementing steps that could not just save them money, but help cut carbon emissions. It will be interesting to see if the utility industry gets smart about smartphones.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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