For most consumers, home power management is rapidly becoming an economic necessity. Increasing global demand for energy—led by China and other developing countries—is now increasing the price of energy, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Add to this the recession, concerns about global warming and political instability in the Middle East, and we have a perfect storm of fear about skyrocketing home-energy costs.

For home integration experts, this means an unprecedented opportunity to show consumers how wireless monitoring and control features can help reduce their energy bills. And the more the price of energy increases, the more homeowners save and the shorter the investment payback period.

How much energy and when. To be on the consumer’s side, we have to understand the dynamics of residential energy use. The big picture—it turns out—is a bit complicated. Residential consumption of electrical power (and fossil fuel) is far from linear throughout the day, and this makes it a challenge for producers to manage the costs of energy production. In the early hours, energy consumption is at a low point. It begins to increase when people arise, and starts to peak when they turn on the lights, turn up the heat, dry their hair, and brew some coffee and toast a muffin. Then it dips until late afternoon, when it again rises, and peaks to the highest daily level for cooking dinner, watching TV, using the dishwasher, lighting the house and maybe the laundry.

Why is this daily pattern of use important? Because most power companies (hydro-electric producers excluded) rely on gas turbine generators (with high operational costs) to meet peak demand. This peaking capacity is added to the steady-state output from the lower-cost fossil-fuel generators that run day and night. Producers also manage costs by selling excess capacity to other power companies when local demand is low. They manage demand by offering industrial users off-peak discounts, and subsidizing consumer conservation (free compact fluorescent light bulbs) to blunt peak demand.

Some utilities have begun to “help” consumers regulate their own energy use, through a combination of energy monitoring and graduated rates based on the time of use. They want consumers to schedule discretionary tasks such as dishwashing and laundry at low-demand times. Pacific Gas and Electric in California, for example, has begun installing “Smart Meters” which report (and price) a customer’s energy use to the company in real time via RF transmission, which the user can then monitor over the Internet. But they’ve experienced a lot of consumer pushback, mostly concerning fears of radiation exposure, but probably fueled also by fears of the company “snoopervising” their personal energy-use pattern. Most people, it seems, would prefer to monitor energy use themselves—with the help of a home integrator, of course.

Residential Energy Realities

Home energy use is complex, and depends on a number of factors:

A. Size and insulation efficiency of the home

B. Summer and winter climate, relative to the type, age and efficiency of heating and air conditioning systems, and the energy costs where they live

C. Efficiency of kitchen and laundry appliances, water heating, home electronics

D. Energy behaviors of household members (summer and winter thermostat settings, lighting use, leaving windows open, etc.)

E. Use of home integration (lighting control, automated thermostats and window coverings) and monitoring devices that save energy when used consistently

Integrators who offer energy-saving features and power monitoring must understand and respect the fact that some important priorities lay outside our expertise. Otherwise, we risk looking like the old door-to-door aluminum siding salesman of the ’60s, and hurting our industry.

Homeowners wanting to improve their home’s energy efficiency should first consider the insulation efficiency and the efficiency of their heating and air conditioning equipment. If their home is much more than a decade old, these are not likely up to modern standards, and upgrading them can often provide the greatest cost-benefit—depending on local energy costs. Replacing old, poorly maintained major appliances may also be worth evaluating. The U.S. Department of Energy sponsors an Energy Calculator website which helps homeowners assess the energy efficiency of their home, and calculate the investment payback period for such improvements as a new furnace or high-efficiency refrigerator.

Note that these factors (A-C above) are passive: whatever efficiencies they offer are fixed, unless they are replaced or modified. The last two are active: energy savings depend on how the household uses them. This is where we come in.

Lifestyle Matching

The energy-saving devices we sell—such as shade and lighting control, or HVAC thermostats—involve user activity. They save money only if the homeowner uses them appropriately and consistently, day and night, and throughout the seasons. A critical benefit of home integration is the automation of these functions. We can also provide remote monitoring and control (by smartphone, for example) in the event the user’s schedule or the weather forecast changes. For people with multiple demands on their time and attention, automation may be the only way that the devices can be used consistently enough to fulfill the energy-savings promise.

To make these features irresistible for the client, we must go beyond power management, and explain and demonstrate how features can be designed to match the broader lifestyle needs of household members. Lighting control, for example can save energy by limiting the illumination level and pattern to the task. But it can also be used in the service of protecting the home, illuminating a safe pathway to the bathroom at night, showing off the architectural or landscape details of a home, and many other lifestyle goals.

When we match home integration features to the lifestyle needs of household members, we open many doors to client satisfaction…and dealer profit. CR

George E. McKechnie, Ph.D. is president of Axiom Home Theater in Monterey, Calif., and founding editor of SyncMyHome.com. He is a contributing editor to CustomRetailer.