Rewired State – Possible “Energy Education” Projects

For Rewired State: Carbon and Energy Hack Weekend

Whether you come at it from an energy gap/ cost or a carbon standpoint there’s no doubt that we all need to live more frugally.

There’s a great deal of hardware and software available** to help us do it but there’s also a major missing factor – motivation.

So we need tools to address this by information and educating and in addition we must have the means to motivate people to actually do something.

Some ideas (for which team members needed):

1. See thedonation.com giving energy saving a charity slant (Hermione sent something out already)

2. Explore the house – like King County’s eco-Remodel tool. This is rather US-centric but the idea could be adapted and developed.

3. “Find the Watt” game for kids. Win rewards for finding out what each energy-consuming device in the house uses and getting close to the overall measurement (can be done with an OWL or CurrentCost monitor). How can this be made more fun?

4. Wattopoly/ Cluedowatt – combining ideas from well-loved board games with exploration of the domestic energy landscape. (Could be a global version based on Risk/ Carmen San Diego.)

5. What could be done on a smartphone that’s more interesting than showing readings and charts?

Some other ideas (hardware involved see last post):

a. Low-cost heating control/ smart thermostat. Would compensate for varying weather conditions so the boiler would fire at at exactly yet right time. Could be also based on the new bridge board. Possible in a weekend I think. External temperature sensor. Use BBStandby as timer for boiler. Online control panel/ smartphone app to manage settings and override.

b. Reproducible version of low-cost energy monitor with automatic posting to an online data store. Could be also based on currentcost or adapted from the bridge board. Probably not a weekend project.

If anyone wants to team up an anything please let me know.

** Google Powermeter, M$ Hohm, Pachube etc. See also, the idea posted by @floppy.

CurrentCost Bridge Board Hack

Thx to the nice people @currentcost for the board, albeit not quite the latest. Thx also to @jrcrouchley for his post on what he did with it. My own objectives included using it for it original purpose and making a more compact version of my home monitoring setup. Guess I need at least 2 of these boards and CC tell me they’ll be back on Amazon soon.

This board is an older design with 2xRJ45s rather than an RJ45+RJ10 to the monitor.

OK. Got a 5v PSU, cable and USB-serial breakout board (same Sparkfun one as John used). Then went through “follow the track” to wire up the USB serial. Found the input (pin1), output (pin2) and ground (pin5) easily enough (these are pins on the RJ45 to the monitor).

First test: Create an account @currentcost and see whether it will just store the data. If that works OK that can be transferred over to Pachube and from there to my various analysis stuff including an Android app.

Result: Not successful initially. It’s possible that the software burned into the bridge was an old version. Moved on to next stage (I’ll update this later).

Built the USBTinyISP kit. This is a great product, coming as it does with very detailed assembly instructions. The Arduino IDE has a facility for burning the bootloader and that worked a treat once I’d sorted out the jumper issue. On my board this is a pair of pads called LK4 to which a switch must be attached. Close the switch for programming, open for normal operation.

Second test: Load my own monitoring sketch and talk to my own online data store. The problem here was that I needed pinouts from the AVR chip. Found the chip doc and with the help of the Arduino Pro Mini schematic figured out how to get a LED on digital pin 13. I then tried something that uses the ethernet interface.

Result: Got the blink sketch going ok. Then loaded an ethernet sketch. Initially just a client which fetches the time and pushes it to the IDE’s serial monitor. Worked OK. Now I’ll attempt something more substantial.

Conclusion: As John noted, this has many interesting possibilities. It will shortly become part of my home monitoring infrastructure. It’s only input is serial – intended for the CurrentCost monitor. I could feed everything through the CC or use another Arduino to serialise everything. Now that they have the IAMs the CC monitor is becoming a very useful hub.

For development convenience I’ll add an auto-reset for program loading. A further possibility is to make an ethernet boot loader so the program can be updated without the USB adaptor.

A Tale of 2 Energy Projects

Together with friend and colleague David I have been working to reduce our household energy consumption(s).

This has taken a while and we’ve learned a great deal along the way. It’s a work in progress as some of the things we now need to do require some capital expenditure and we’ll do that one step at a time.

With 87% of households still paying more than they need to, switching suppliers is the first place to start saving money (if you haven’t already done so) and if you choose carefully is usually painless. But the most effective strategy is to pay attention to the energy you use, and on what, and then make changes that can save you almost as much again as switching suppliers.

Here’s a comparative overview of the two projects:


David Paul
Overall objective Save money (save energy, reduce emissions the happy by product, motivation financial Save money (save energy, reduce emissions the happy by product, motivation financial
General approach “low tech‚” – Owl meter, true watt meter, meter readings, spreadsheet. Link from meters to PC would be nice but not available at realistic cost “gadgets r us” – don’t do stuff by hand if you can put a gadget to work for you
Home situation Suburban, Terrace circa 1970, 30 year old heat only boiler Suburban, detatched circa 1970, 4 year old boiler
Location Outer London Outer London
Residents 3, now 2.5 (daughter at uni) 4
Insulation Double glazed tp SW weather side, single to NE cold side, Mineral wool cavity wall insulation (recent), 50mm high performance flat roof insulation Double glazed, Foam wall insulation, Standard depth loft insulation
Surprises UPS for computer consuming when computer off. Fridge Freezer running to ocold and costing £80-90/year Underfloor heating, Boiler controls
Electricity savings Est 18% reduction by tuning fridge/freezer, switching PC off more often, daughter away at Uni (lights off earlier, less dishwashing and washing)! 30% reduction, mainly by applying a difference policy to heating “conservatory”
Gas savings Est 24% reduction by switching heating on only when needed, draught proofing and insulating integral garage door and glaze front door, daughter away at Uni (fewer baths!) 25% reduction by continuous tweaking of heating controls
Overall result 23% reduction – savings of £260 on top of £470 by switching 27% reduction ‚- savings of almost £1,000 per annum
Next project(s) New fridge freezer (on order), possibly new boiler +modern controls,, double glazing to rest of house, new energy saving UPS for computer Automate heating controls; re-insulate loft
More detail at To follow; I suggest my unis and cost graphs, showing the change) previous post on this blog

The main conclusion from this exercise is that a great deal of savings can be made with almost no change in lifestyle. Just paying the standing orders with eyes closed is an expensive and frankly careless way to live. Switching suppliers can save you some money but the most effective strategy is to pay attention to the energy you use. For those who like gadgets you can get some additional savings and save time on measurements. If you are not that way inclined you can still achieve comparable results.

But, and I cannot emphasise this enough: energy saving starts with your own motivation to save money and investing a little time to enjoy the benefits – money saved, fuel saved and your share of reducing carbon

Energy Project Interim Report

Colleague David and I have been running this project for 18 months now, each with our separate methodologies. Despite the differences in approach we have achieved comparable results. This is a precursor to a summary report on both approaches which will follow shortly.

Objective: Save energy + Save Money + Reduce Emissions

Focus areas: 1.Heating, accounting for 60% of consumption. 2. Appliances that draw significant current. (Initially less interested in lighting etc.)

Our home: 5 bed detached suburban home in the South East. Built 1970. Foam insulation in walls. Attic insulated and boarded, not recently. Concrete floor is less than ideal although it is insulated to the extent possible. 4 of us at home, I also work from there.

Starting point: Measurement

Appliances: I got a couple of energy monitors, one by simply mentioning the subject to my electricity provider. We went round with the wireless display and noted the consumption of each appliance. Fitted some slave plugs e.g. to turn off the printer when the computer is off or on standby. Also got a zapper to make it easier for family members to turn things off when not in use. Gradually changing the light bulbs. This appliance “scorecard” is a key tool because you never know what “vampires” you will unearth. This also helps to stay focused on changes that are easy and have maximum impact.

Heating: Being a systems guy I thought I needed same data before I could start really saving. I’m not good at anything repetitive so I wanted to delegate that to a ‘bot. Went to homecamp and got inspired. Learned a simple prototyping technique using Arduino modules (reasonably low consumption). Hooked up electricity, gas and internal/ external temperature measurement. In retrospect this was not a perfect solution but I was in a hurry to get my hands on the data. 18 months later you still can’t buy kit like this for any reasonable sum so I’m likely to create a better version. After clearing a few hurdles I have a growing body of good-enough data that reveals several interesting findings.

Impact of weather: When looking at your measurements to judge progress you obviously need to take out the impact of varying external temperatures. The chart shows just how dramatic this is and highlights the cost of a winter like that of 2009-10.

Weather impact 2009-10

Next phase: Interpretation (heating only)

Armed with this data I could see that some adjustments needed to be made. The first was to use less underfloor heating which is only in our “conservatory”. The solution is to not try to keep it warm in winter when we rarely use it. Next were the heating controls that go with our gas boiler. The timer was turning it on too early and off too late; no combination of settings are right for all weathers. Finally the thermostat setting. I work from home quite often and prefer a cooler house than do the rest of the family. So the thermostat needs to be adjusted frequently.

Next phase: Feedback and tweaking in the first instance. I tried adjusting the central heating timer so it would come on at the “goldilocks point”. However, as soon as the weather changed the timers are wrong again. I checked out some fancy thermostats and was put off not only by the price but also because I couldn’t find a plumber to fit one, although any plumber is happy to install a new boiler. So for the moment I settled for approximate settings. I’ll do more in the next phase.

Result: I received a cheque back from utility. As I had not changed my standing order it did not take long at a rate of about 30% saving to build up a balance with the utility. I asked for this to be repaid and got a check for £700 (about 30% of my original cost). The penalty for this saving is minimal. The conservatory is now kept quite cool as it is mainly used in summer. The main house temperature has stayed around 2O degC so a further saving could be made there (family decision not mine).

The proper solution: A smart thermostat is what we need. If I can’t get one at reasonable cost then a remote-controlled timer could be another interim step – I’m putting this in place now. The latest quote received is a possible but I’m not convinced of the payback. There are at least two other smart thermostat suppliers entering the market so things may change soon.

Medium term plan: While this is being sorted out there are some other things to do. Re-insulating the loft is one. Ditching my car is unfortunately not possible without moving house as we have virtually no local bus services. I have also started monitoring my petrol consumption because I think I can improve my driving habits. Having feedback will help me achieve this. Most of our appliances like freezers and washing machines are fairly new but as they are replaced we will be looking for efficient models.

Spreading the benefits: I reckon that comparing notes with David has been an important art of getting to where we are. For this reason I’d like to get involved in a wider project involving many more homes. I have written some notes about what this might look like and am talking to potential partners with whom we might organise this.

Advice for others: Make that checklist of appliances. Just knowing what everything consumes affects your use of them. If you’re changing your boiler see if you can afford one with “optimised start” that compensates for weather conditions.

Watch this space for further energy saving progress…