IoT Basics: Eight Ways to Save Energy and Money
For those who haven’t bought a new gizmo since their last computer, a lot has changed. Little devices can make a big difference. Not only are they built using technologies with more focus on the environment, but they are also internet-connected, offering features and information about decreasing your carbon footprint. Here’s a quick overview of eight ways to save energy–and money.
1. Toilets, Showers, and Faucets
According to the EPA, everyday household leaks account for about 1 trillion gallons of wasted water annually. Fixing a dripping faucet can sometimes save homeowners about 10 percent on their water bills. Smart water leak detectors placed under sinks, around hot water tanks, and in toilets can text or email you about a water problem. (It helps most when you’re not home.) Some have automatic shut-off valves once a leak is detected. Devices like the Moen smart faucet and smart shower head incorporate a bunch of conservation tricks. For example, you can ask Alexa to tell Moen to wash your hands. That will wet them, automatically pause, then give you 20 seconds to soap up, and resume water flow. The shower head can preset the temperature and length of your shower. (Cutting showers to 5 minutes from a typical eight-minute shower time can reduce your energy spending. It also can conserve an average of about 7.5 gallons of water.
Running toilet syndrome can be nipped with devices like SI-Toilet Sensors and Blue Bot. They get inserted between the supply line and fill valve on any toilet, monitoring and reporting each time a toilet is flushed and water fills the tank. If a leak is detected, a real-time text message alert is sent. Smart toilets, says Good Housekeeping Magazine, conserve considerable water, and some incorporate built-in bidets to reduce the need for toilet tissue. (Though it’s up to you to calculate whether more water or more toilet paper is better for the environment. Might be hard.)
For full bathroom remodels or new construction, check out Hydraloop. It collects, treats and re-uses the water from showers, baths, washers and dryers, heat pumps and air conditioning units — often referred to as “grey” water. It claims to recycle 45% of such household water for reuse. The device goes through a 6-step process that includes sedimentation, UV light treatment, aerobic biological treatment, and air bubble flotation (whatever all those things mean). And it claims not to use much electricity. It’ll set you back $4,500 (not counting delivery and installation) but you end up with the Tesla of water management.
2. Motion Lighting (Indoors and Outdoors)
Research about whether to install motion sensors or timed dusk-to-dawn night lights has yielded varying conclusions. Generally, outdoor and front door lighting should be on motion sensors. (Yes, that raccoon may set them off, but at least you won’t be uselessly lighting up the neighborhood all the time.) Indoors, having motion sensor lights that light up only when they sense motion will typically be more energy efficient.
3. Smart Smoke Alarms
Smart smoke alarms warn you of danger even if you’re not at home. According to Wirecutter, the Google Nest Protect is the one worth buying. It sends alerts about smoke or carbon monoxide to your phone, is attractive, simple to mute, and has a “heads-up” warning before it triggers the alarm.
4. Smart Thermostats
Nest Labs released a smart thermostat study (grain of salt required) and found that the average household could save 10–12 percent on heating costs and 15 percent on cooling by using one. Heating and cooling generally gobbles up the biggest chunk of energy use in the home, so those percentages can translate into big bonafide savings each month. The biggest benefit of smart thermostats is that they can be programmed to adjust the temperature to your schedule (say, heat your house when electricity is least expensive, or turn it down when you’re away).
Smart thermostats are not problem free, though. For example, if the thermostat doesn’t sense anyone in the room (say when you’re sitting silently and motionless in the chair reading) it will lower the temperature. And questions about privacy ensue, though most alarmist worries have been largely debunked. Much of the ability of products like Ecobee Smart Thermostats or Google Nest to save you energy and money is based on whether you’re taking advantage of their smart features.
If you have digital controls on your heating or air conditioning, put down those remote controls and grab the manufacturer’s app, which may unlock the ability to program time and temperature, just like with a smart thermostat. Don’t assume, however, that it will be easy to do so. Interfaces often are confusing, especially when you’re making changes on a three-inch LED screen up on the wall.
5. Hot Water Heater
The average family spends $400 to $600 a year for the luxury of having regular hot showers and warm water. That’s partly because conventional water heaters are famously inefficient; they can account for up to 20 percent of your entire utility bill. Many homeowners are switching to heat pump (often called hybrid) hot water heaters or on-demand hot water heaters, to save energy and money.
Water heaters that use heat pumps instead of electric coils to heat the water are not new, but they’re having a moment as energy prices skyrocket. Then there are on-demand hot water heaters (sometimes called tankless water heaters), which use either electricity or natural gas for energy. These heat the water when you turn on the tap. Because they don’t have a tank, there are no heat losses during the long intervals between when you actually use hot water. Plus, they are much smaller than a water heater with a tank.
Heat-pump-based systems, by contrast, take heat out of the surrounding air and pump it into a water holding tank; sort of like a refrigerator, but in reverse. They use about one-third of the energy that a normal water heater would. Rheem makes a highly-rated unit that uses very little energy. These cost upwards of $1,000 uninstalled, but state utility rebates may be available, and the new Inflation Reduction Act, if it passes, includes all sorts of federal credits and incentives for this sort of system.
6. Smart Plugs
Smart electric plugs don’t save as much energy as heat pumps or water detection devices, but they’re simple. They plug into your electrical outlets and manage the energy consumption of anything you plug into them. Smart plug apps let you program times of use, remotely turn a device’s power on and off, and even view your total energy consumption. Many folks think that just turning off a TV stops the flow of power, but it actually just puts it into a lower energy consumption state, which often continues to use a surprising amount of power.
The Eufy Smart Plug reports on your daily energy consumption and lets you schedule shutdowns remotely via an app. Cnet has a good review of many plugs and installations. Make sure your smart plug is compatible with your home controllers: Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple Home Kit each have different ways of connecting. Smart power strips are also a good option.
If you have a lawn you’re probably already feeling guilty. But you can regulate the amount of water you use to irrigate your lawn or garden, based on specific soil moisture levels and even the types of plants. Wirecutter recommends the Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller because it uses hyper-local Web-based weather information to adjust schedules automatically. That way you won’t be one of those people who water their lawn right during a rainstorm. Agri-business firms like John Deere are using even smarter machines to be able to tell weeds from vegetables and detect soil deficiencies.
8. Smart Appliances
I put these at the bottom of the to-do list because they don’t make sense unless you need to replace an aging appliance. The energy and emissions consequences of building a new one are so huge that you’ll almost never do a net favor for the planet by replacing a perfectly good one with a smart one. (The same logic often applies to replacing an internal combustion car with one with better mileage.) If you do need a new appliance, definitely opt for smart.
Washing machines, refrigerators and coffee makers all now want to talk to you, often to make your life easier but sometimes to make it more sustainable. Samsung’s Family Hub is built into its fridges, and can control your other appliances (if they’re on Samsung’s hub, including your doorbell). You can see inside the fridge from anywhere via video, so you won’t go home with extra milk because you couldn’t remember if you had any. (No, it still can’t see how much is left in the carton.) Some models even have bar code readers that let you track food expiration.
LG’s smart washing machine can diagnose itself, maybe saving you an exorbitant plumber’s fee if, for example, your machine is just unbalanced. You can also control wash cycles remotely. For those who pay different electrical rates at peak times, your dryer can let you know when you’ll pay the least amount to dry your clothes. (Though as noted above, hang your stuff up when you can.) Read more about responsible appliance buying here, and learn key tips. (For example, your clothes don’t need to be washed as often as you think.)
By 2025, an estimated 38.6 billion smart devices will be collecting, analyzing, and sharing data. Becky Center, CEO of Indiegogo, told me via Zoom that the crowdfunding company has seen a groundswell of projects related to sustainability and IoT. There’s the Reencle: which turns your kitchen scraps into garden compost, and a wind turbine that fits in a backpack, just to name two
The issue of IoT gadgets and sustainability takes us back to the need for a basic rethinking of our consumerism. Will we use it? Will we use it correctly? Is it built to last? (Smart devices often are, because of software upgradability.)
And most important for the industry, which has given us a DIY headache, why isn’t there one single standard to hook all these systems together? (That is a subject for another column!)