I just saw this article from the New York Times

You dutifully sort your plastic and paper. You are hip to the latest low- and no-VOC paints. You have even thought about buying a hybrid car. But what about the electricity you use at home? Not only does it come at a cost to the environment, but it also costs you — to the tune of $2,200 a year, on average, for a single-family home.

A “smart” power strip from Belkin can learn what to turn off and what to keep on.

Hand-held gadgets with batteries are great about communicating their energy needs (“recharge me if you ever want to hear Scritti Politti again!”), but what about the bigger machines in your home — the ones that lazily slurp up power all day long even, in some cases, when you think they are turned off? What can you do about them?

Spend any time reading about the country’s electrical infrastructure, and you might think a solution is around the corner. Politicians and policy wonks use phrases like “smart grid.” In the future, they say, we will all live in intelligent homes that will not only take from but also give back to the energy matrix.

In the meantime, there are a number of products to help you track and manage your energy consumption.


Vampire power may sound like a radical movement of “Twilight” fans, but it is far more mundane. The open secret is this: The things you turn off, like televisions, DVD players, cable boxes? They’re not really “off.” Many devices have to maintain a trickle of electricity (indicated by those little red LEDs that glow) to receive a signal from a remote control or display a digital clock.

This has been more an offense to people’s principles than to their finances. Under the best (or worst) of circumstances, vampire power accounts for tens of dollars a year — not enough to make a real dent in your savings, but still, money that could be saved. Until recently, the only way to ensure that these things were truly power-free was to take direct, manual action, like unplugging the TV from the wall or turning off a power strip’s switch.

But who wants to do that several times a day? The less motivated but still guilt-ridden can get the same result by buying a “smart” power strip. There are many models, but the goal is the same: to cut all power to devices that do not require it when they are turned off, while continuing to supply electricity to things that do, like DVRs. Belkin, the tech-accessory maker, has a smart strip called the Conserve AV that retails for about $30. When you turn off your TV, the strip knows to shut off power to other devices (like your DVD player and your home-theater system) that are plugged into it as well.

Another handy device from Belkin, the Conserve Insight (also about $30, available in September), measures the energy draw of plug-in appliances. It allows you to identify the worst offenders and estimate their cost, in dollars, kilowatts or pounds of carbon dioxide.


In the future, efficiencies will not be add-ons — they will be built into the products themselves. Some progress is already being made.

Apple’s new AA-battery charger (about $30), for instance, shifts into low-energy mode once it has finished recharging a pair of batteries.

Lutron’s Eco-Home dimmers have a variety of enlightened energy functions. The Maestro Eco-Minder dimmer (about $46 at lutronstore.com) encourages conservation with LEDs that change from red to green when your lights are dimmed 15 percent or more. It’s a subtle reminder to dial back when you do not need operating-room levels of illumination.

The company’s Maestro Eco-Timer (about $48) automatically shuts off power after a certain length of time, making it useful for bathroom fans and vestibule lights. And its Maestro Dimmer with Vacancy Sensor ($54) can determine when a room is unoccupied, shutting off the lights when no one is home.


 The best tool for getting energy use under control may be one that many people already have — a programmable thermostat.

The energy spent on heating and cooling generally far outweighs the energy used by consumer electronics, appliances or lighting. What’s more, there’s a real opportunity for savings because people often do not take full advantage of their digital thermostats.

“It’s just a pain to program them,” said Seth Frader-Thompson, the chief executive of EnergyHub, a start-up company that is designing an easy-to-use thermostat and energy control system. “The interfaces are really obtuse.”

Mr. Frader-Thompson estimates that about 80 percent of Americans do not use the settings. “It’s just like the 12 o’clock blinking on the VCR,” he said.

In fact, because a thermostat’s effectiveness is entirely dependent on how it is installed and set up, Energy Star stopped rating them in 2009. The government program estimates that a properly programmed thermostat can save an average of $180 annually.

Lutron’s Maestro Eco-Timer shuts off power after a length of time; it can be useful for fans and vestibule lights.

Apple’s AA-battery charger draws less power once it has finished recharging a pair of batteries.

The first step is to find the manual and set aside 15 minutes for programming. (If you no longer have the manual, search for an electronic copy online, using the model number.)

The next step is setting comfortable morning and evening temperatures, and day and sleep temperatures, to keep the heating and air-conditioning systems from working too hard. Energy Star’s recommended settings, listed on its Web site (energystar.gov), are a good starting point.

For those who do not have a programmable thermostat, upgrading to one (which costs about $50) can be an easy do-it-yourself project or a quick job for an electrician, who may also help you with the setup. When choosing a model, keep in mind that simplicity is crucial, but make sure it has modes for weekends and weekdays.


 Another way to get control of your energy use is to squeeze more information out of your utility bill. Several free Web sites may show your usage history more clearly than your bill. Earth Aid (earthaid.net) synchronizes with your utilities’ accounts and shows your electricity, gas and water use in colorful graphs; it also compares your usage with that of any neighbors who are members.

Google’s PowerMeter (google.com/powermeter) site and Microsoft’s Hohm (microsoft-hohm.com) offer a similar free service, with number-crunching graphs and efficiency recommendations. Earth Aid’s service, however, connects with more than 200 power, gas and water companies — far more than its competitors. It also rewards good behavior: If you curtail 75 kilowatt hours, for example, you earn points redeemable for a dog wash. Or a cupcake.



 The biggest gains for energy management will come once most traditional electrical meters have been replaced with smart meters. This will facilitate two-way communication between a home and the power grid and will also allow homeowners to take advantage of off-peak pricing, when power rates are lowest. The eventual result will be appliances that can make efficient decisions, like a dishwasher that waits until rates are lowest to run its cycle.

But widespread installation of smart meters isn’t expected until 2020; less than 10 percent of American meters now in use have the technology. And smart appliances are still hard to find.

If “Jetsons” wizardry is something you can’t wait for, utilities around the country are running pilot programs that bring smart meters and forward-looking technology into a few homes. In Queens, for example, Con Edison is outfitting 300 homes with smart meters and energy-monitoring equipment; a small control panel displays real-time energy use for appliances that can be turned on or off remotely. Your utility company can tell you if similar programs are available for you to test drive.