Summer is here, and that means 'tis the season for energy use to spike. Every year, as the weather warms and air conditioners start blasting, energy use skyrockets -- along with consumers' electricity bills.
Looking for ways to protect your wallet? A growing number of companies are hoping to help. They're developing and rolling out a wide variety of tools -- including both gadgets and software -- to help consumers calculate, monitor and manage their energy use and cost. You could think of them as energy spies who lurk among your appliances and report back to you. But some come with a high upfront price tag, and not all are worth the money.
These tools take different approaches. Some gadgets allow consumers to control their air conditioning -- and potentially other appliances -- via the Web or mobile phones. As utilities shift to time-of-use pricing, charging more in the afternoons (when electricity is in high demand) and less at night (when electricity is in surplus), other companies are developing more sophisticated equipment and software to help monitor real-time energy prices and energy use. Some of these tools can supply monthly and annual energy data and even forecast your consumption, under different scenarios, to help you save energy.
Here's our roundup of some of the power-saving gadgets and services available for consumers today:
AmericanGrid: Costco began carrying AmericanGrid's home energy-management system earlier this year. The kit comes with a dashboard to display the energy data, an Internet gateway and other devices collect data and control the temperatures in each room and major appliances' energy use. It allows you to use text messaging to turn on or cut off power to certain appliances, and sends information about your energy use – including how much you are paying for electricity use at any given time – to a server managed by AmericanGrid.
A household paying more than $250 in monthly energy bills could see savings of up to 20%, the company claims. But the system isn't cheap: It retails for $499.99 on Costco's website, plus a subscription fee of $179.99 to $359.99 for a one- or two-year subscription for energy data and analysis services.
Energy Inc.: This company makes The Energy Detective (TED), which is a combination of two product lines that show energy consumption and electricity pricing throughout the day on the Web. (Check this live display.) With various packages available to fit different needs, TED can monitor energy use from customers' main electrical panel and subpanels, and can also monitor energy production from solar panels, for example.
The company's more expensive product line is also compatible with Google's PowerMeter, a Web-based tool that can use data from TED's devices to dissect your energy use, help you figure out your likely annual electric bill and set cost-savings goals. Energy Inc. also separately offers a wireless display device, as well as its own software to analyze your energy use. The company sells its products on its website, with models ranging from $119.95 to $455.80 for standard packages.
Current Cost: Want another gadget option for Google's PowerMeter? Current Cost offers simple devices that can clamp to your meters to determine your overall energy use and display the basic information. You can also spend extra for a package that comes with Google's PowerMeter, which then will give you more details about your historical energy use and ways to set and track your energy-saving goals.
Current Cost's gadgets are available online. Basic kits range from $129 to $169, but that doesn't include the accessories you need, such as transmitters and cables, to set up the monitoring network.
Mi Casa Verde: This company's Vera Z-Wave, sold at Amazon.com and Smarthome.com for nearly $300, connects to consumers' Internet gateways in order to collect and display energy data over the Web. With this system, you can control the lighting and other appliances in different rooms of the home, so that they turn on and off whenever you wish (see a demo video). You can also program the system to send text messages or emails whenever your lights or appliances aren't being dialed down or turned off as planned.
But wait, there's a catch. The Vera Z-Wave can only control lighting and appliances that are attached to compatible wireless sensors using the Z-wave protocol. Here's a trade group with a list of compatible products -- such as light dimmers, thermostats and even home security systems -- and their manufacturers.
Powerhouse Dynamics: This company's eMonitor lets customers track energy use at the circuit level. That means you can get a closer look at energy-use patterns in different parts of your house without having to plug your appliances to specialty sockets. With this system, you'd be able to adjust the power usage of your cooling and heating system, as well as some other appliances, and get alerts when your energy use exceeds the norm. You can even calculate your carbon footprint.
Of course, this type of detailed monitoring costs money. The suggested retail price is $499 for 12 circuits, plus an additional $189 for a two-year service. You can find retailers using this locator.
PowerMand: This company sells DreamWatts, which offers a similar setup as AmericanGrid. Here's how it works: You buy an Internet gateway that collects data wirelessly from thermostats and other devices that measure electrical circuits' energy consumption. Then you'd need to subscribe to PowerMand's service to get the data and analyses. Here are some screen shots of what you'd see when checking your energy use online.
Unless you're handy, you'd probably want a technician to help you set up this network. You can find a dealer that sells its products on this list. The company says its systems typically pay for themselves in energy savings in eight to 18 months.
Alarm.com: For those who just want simple and remote control of their lighting and thermostat, alarm companies offer some cheaper solutions. Alarm.com sells its sensors and security software through dealers, who can tack on an energy-monitoring option at a low or even no additional cost. These systems can enable you to program your lights, air conditioning and heater to turn on and off at different times, and to do so on your computer or smartphone.
Alarm's dealers set their own prices, but the company says on its website that its security system equipment and installation would start at $99. A company executive recently told Greentech Media that the service charge would run around $30 to $35 per month, and adding the energy-management option could cost anything from nothing to up to $10 per month.
Belkin: Another low-tech and low-price option comes from Belkin, which recently launched a new $29 gadget called Conserve Insight that lets customers measure the energy consumption of any appliances that are plugged into a Belkin socket. The sockets is then attached to a little monitor, which tells you how much you are paying -- in energy costs -- to use those appliances.
The downside? You'd have to manually keep track of all the information in order to compile and compare your daily, weekly and monthly usage. After that, you'd have to figure out how to use that data to save energy on your own. The company encourages its customers to measure how much energy cell-phone chargers and other electronic devices sip even when they aren't being used, if they're left plugged in. This might be fun at first, but the novelty would probably wear off quickly.
Blue Line Innovations: This company sells energy-monitoring equipment, PowerCostMonitor, that attaches to customers' meters to provide real-time energy consumption data. The device, which costs $99, sends this information wirelessly to a display the size of a digital clock. You can find it at several outlets, including Fry's Electronics, Crutchfield and Smarthome.