Our Smart Meter Is Not Yet Very Smart

A couple of years ago, DTE Energy, who provides our electricity and is the main carrier for the metro Detroit reason, began replacing regular electric meters with new smart meters.  Our community was one of those that was to receive the new meters.

mb-201309meterThe first difference is that the new meters are digital.  This made them easy to read, which was nice as compared to the old ones that had multiple dials.

The biggest benefit to the electric company is that the new meters could be ‘read’ via an electronic signal.  No longer would they need meter readers, nor would customers have to deal with estimated readings if the meter couldn’t be read, as the meters would transmit usage remotely.  They are also supposedly able to notify the company of outages, as they can identify meters which are no longer responding.    This additional broadcasting has been a major cause for concern as many people think that the signals are dangerous.  I guess I’m not as concerned as many here since cell phones, wireless router signals, and everything else seem to already be inundating the ‘spectrum’, so to speak, so is the electric meter really cause for that much worry?

One of the biggest selling points that we were provided in the announcement was the abilities we would have as customers to track our usage.  We were told that we could track our usage in real time through the internet, via accessing our account, or that we would even be able to use compatible devices within our home (typically a thermostat) which would have the ability to interact with the meter and provide usage details.  You could look at your device and note the power usage at any moment, and see what the effect is each time an appliance or light is turned on or off, or every time the A/C kicked in.  I immediately equated it with having a Kill-A-Watt meter virtually attached to any electrical device.

Which seemed pretty cool to me.

So, I was pretty excited when they came to install the new meter.  I’m pretty sure I even went on online later that day to see if the new availability through my account access was available.

It wasn’t.

I figured maybe it would take until the next billing cycle to show up, and checked after that to see if it was there.

It wasn’t.

A few more billing cycles and it still wasn’t.

After a few months, I e-mailed DTE and asked them if I was missing something or if I had to enable something, basically checking to see if and when these features would be available.

They answered me that they were not currently available, they expected them to be available in the future, but they didn’t have a date that they could provide me.

Great.  Thanks for the info.

It’s been over a year and a half now since we’ve had our meters.  I will say that they have improved the information available online….slightly.  They break down usage by category, for things like appliances or cooling and such.  Which, I’m not exactly sure how they would come up with that, though I’m thinking that it’s either a wild guess, or if it is based on some actual information, is probably based on some algorithms that if the power usage changes by x amount, it’s likely the air conditioner, by y amount, it’s the refrigerator, etc.

Either way, it’s pretty disappointing to see the lack of progress in terms of enabling the features that were promised to residents, who were not given a choice on whether to participate in this program.

So, tell me DTE, when will these smart meters start showing signs of intelligence, because so far they’re getting barely a passing grade, so far as I can tell?

Readers, has your company switched you or announced plans to smart meter technology?  Have any of you been able to utilize the advanced data that they can supposedly provide?

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Commonly Overlooked Ways to Save on Utilities

Everyone knows that to save on utilities it is important to reduce the use of major appliances. However, the common adage of turning off the lights does not always lead to significant enough results to lower utility bills. Because the average household often uses more gas and electricity than they are aware of, it is important to examine how every aspect of a family’s routine can be adjusted to help add up to major savings on utilities.

In order to help anyone who would like to save on their utilities, the following ideas are among some of the most commonly overlooked ways that people can make changes to reduce their usage of electricity and gas.

Wash Laundry on Cold 

Many people mistakenly believe that the majority of energy used during laundry is for running the washing machine. However, most of the energy used during laundry is actually used for heating up the water. Therefore, simply moving the switch to a cold wash can effectively reduce energy bills.

Monitor Appliances 

Many appliances use energy even when they are not being used. In fact, if an appliance is plugged in, then it is most likely drawing energy even when it is not turned on. Many households have appliances that they no longer use. If they are still in working order, consider them for your next garage sale or just move them to a storage unit for safe keeping.

Install Weather Stripping 

Most of a home’s cool air and heat escape out of the house through tiny cracks and crevices along the seams of windows and doors. Even the smallest of cracks can lead to significant energy loss. Therefore, it is important to make sure that all of these cracks are sealed.

Pay Attention to Windows 

Simply changing the window decorations each season can help to cut out heating and cooling costs. During the summer, the windows should be shaded with heavy curtains or blinds to block out the sun. When winter comes, these can be removed so that the sun can shine through and help to heat up the house.

Take Cool Showers 

Showers are well-known for being a way to save water as they require less than a bath. However, showers can also be used to cut down on gas and electricity by reducing the amount that is needed to heat the water. Therefore, a cool and quick shower can provide an invigorating way to save.

Around the home, minor changes can be made to reduce the use of gas and electricity. While many of these ideas are often overlooked, they take little effort and can add up to major rewards when the utility bill arrives in the mail. Saving on utilities is as simple as incorporating these ideas into a person’s daily routines.

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Clean Off That Air Conditioning Unit

We had a really hot spell a couple of weeks back and the air conditioning was working overtime at our house.

I happened to walk by the compressor and noticed that it was time for a quick clean.

Keeping your compressor clean is very important to the operation and efficiency of your air conditioning system.  I really don’t know the specifics of how it all works, but I know that a main part of the system is a massive flow of air within the compressor unit.  I know enough to understand that keeping the flow of air is critical to the effective operation.

There are two areas where this is key: The top and the sides.

Sounds pretty simple.

The top is easier to keep clean.  With every unit I’ve seen it’s basically a big fan blade protected by a safety grate.  You want to make sure that these aren’t covered with leaves or anything bigger.  Also, give it a check just to make sure nothing is cracked or appears loose.

The sides are the part where you’ll want to do some work.  The sides of our unit appear solid, but they’re really not.  Air is drawn in through the sides and the openings are tiny, making it much easier for them to get clogged.  We have quite a few mature cottonwood trees in our neighborhood, so it doesn’t take too long before the ‘snow’ creates a film and enough of a buildup will make it so your air conditioning isn’t working like it should.  This can lead to higher energy bills as it has to work harder to keep up, a warmer house if it can’t keep up, and a shorter life span on your A/C unit as all that extra work will take its toll.

I clean mine with the tried and true method of hosing it down.  I turn off the A/C to the house, and aim the hose jet at it until the cottonwood and other little debris gets washed down on the ground.  After I’m done, I turn the A/C back on and enjoy the cool.

Anything beyond that probably requires a professional, but keeping your A/C unit clear of debris is something you can (and should) easily do.

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The Case For CFL Bulbs

Lately, I’ve seen some buzz building about the government ‘forcing’ American citizens to convert to CFL bulbs by phasing out the sale of traditional (incandescent)  bulbs over the next few years.

Many of the opponents feel that this is some sort of violation of rights, taking away choice or forcing a lesser product down their throats.

I guess I see it as that the positives outweigh the negatives.  Yes, there are drawbacks to CFLs (see below), but in terms of what we gain, I think converting to CFL bulb (or LED bulbs, which I haven’t tried yet) is a net positive.

As we build more homes, as they get bigger, the energy demands continue to grow.  If we can save the need for additional power capacity or further dependency on oil, which is outside of our control in terms of both pricing and availability, I think it’s worth the sacrifice.

Not to mention the impact all the power consumption has on our environment.

People are forever going to complain about the negatives that are associated with CFLs.

  • That they don’t like the color of the light (which has been improved dramatically over the years),
  • Tthat they don’t like how it takes time for the lights to reach full brightness (this isn’t perfect but has also been improved by leaps and bounds)
  • That they cost too much.  Between sales, coupons, and promotions, I’ve not paid more than $1 for a normal CFL bulb in the past two years.  If you’re still thinking they cost $3 to $4, then you’re not looking hard enough because deals are out there.  At $1 per bulb, they pay for themselves in months with the reduced usage, plus they last so much longer (I’ve not had one burn out inside our house yet, and I’ve been phasing them in since 2007).
  • Or that they can’t just throw them in the trash.  I guess I don’t see this as a huge problem.  They burn out so infrequently that it’s not a big deal to set them aside and then take them on a trip to Home Depot, Lowes, or IKEA, one of just several places that I know accepts them for proper disposal.

The fact is that many other countries across the globe have already taken these steps, and guess what?  No great shakes!  They’ve survived!

If it’s really important, go ahead and buy all the energy wasting incandascents you want.  The light bulb police won’t be coming to arrest people that use them.  Traditional bulbs will still be for sale for awhile, and they can sit on your basement or garage shelf for years if you think that’s the best way to go.

And who knows, you might just end up with a collector’s item some day?

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