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Real Estate

Electricity monitors, high-tech thermostats slice bills

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:46 PM

It was the day somebody set the thermostat to 41, again, and one of the air conditioners froze up, again, that Harriet Boorhem happened to open the email that would save her charity, Promise House, thousands of dollars on its electricity bill.

Richardson, Texas, energy monitoring company Entouch Controls offered to give the home for troubled teenagers new thermostats that would prevent any kid or staff member from setting an outrageous temperature. The thermostat technology company and its investor, Trailblazer Capital, are also monitoring electricity use at the charity for free.

"We can't overstate how bad the problem was," said Boorhem, president of Promise House.

By simply limiting the temperature to a certain range, and becoming aware of how much juice they are using, Entouch expects Promise House will save $15,000 a year.

Monitors and thermostats can help just about anyone — residential customers and business owners — cut electricity usage. As electricity companies begin offering these simple services, customers are falling in love.

"There's only a handful of things in the 27 years I've worked here that people come up to me automatically, unsolicited, and say they appreciate it," said Reliant Energy spokeswoman Pat Hammond. Reliant's new weekly email update monitoring customer electricity bills is one of them.

It doesn't seem logical that simply knowing how much electricity they are using should cause people to use less. But it does.

Oncor, the North Texas power line utility, found that, on average, people using monitors tend to cut their electricity use 8 percent or 9 percent.

An electricity monitor is a rectangular device, about the size of a slice of bread, that reads a customer's meter in real time and shows how much electricity the home is using. Users can program the monitors to flash when usage hits a certain level.

Understanding how much juice they are actually using often prompts people to do something simple, like turning out a light.

"I'm walking by it; it's on the kitchen counter," said Bill Harmon, vice president of residential marketing for Reliant Energy. "They'll see a number on there, and their family will understand when that number is too high, and they'll take some action."

Not all customers can just buy a monitor at a hardware store. The monitor must be compatible with the digital meter on the home.

Customers who can't get their hands on a device can monitor their usage on the Internet. Some retailers, including TXU Energy, offer easy-to-use websites and smart phone apps that let customers track their usage.

Reliant and TXU both send weekly email summaries to customers who request them. Customers can also set targets for their monthly bills and receive email alerts if usage is getting too heavy.

"Most people at home or in a business don't know how much they spend on energy," said Greg Fasullo, chief executive of Entouch, which donated the monitoring system to Promise House.

He said his system measures big energy appliances individually and analyzes the data. His typical customer is a small business, such as a restaurant. Monitoring usage at a restaurant can detect when an air conditioner needs maintenance or if lights are left on after customers leave.

What if Promise House employees secretly plug in space heaters beneath their desks this winter if they don't like the new temperature settings, Boorhem asked. Space heaters suck a lot of electricity. Fasullo told her the monitoring service would detect the contraband. Promise House staff could then decide whether to raise the temperature or put on more sweaters.

Fasullo said monitoring is particularly powerful when used with a high-tech thermostat. He said his customers can cut their electricity usage 20 percent to 30 percent, and often reduce their bills enough to pay for the installation and service within a year.

For a complete do-it-yourself solution, consider programming the thermostat you probably already have. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, only about 60 percent of people who have programmable thermostats actually program them.

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