There’s not a lot of opportunity for monitoring or tracking power usage within a home. Sure, you can install outlet receivers to see how much a plugged-in device is consuming. You can set up a series of elaborate timers or motion sensors. But these don’t account for hard-wired electrical components like water heaters, pumps, compressors, or large appliances. And they’re not exactly convenient. The Sense Home Energy Monitor has emerged with a solution that has the potential to make a major impact on every home – new or old.
To understand the impact Sense has on my home, you have to understand the home itself. My homestead was built in 1925. Electricity was probably provided in the mid-40s, and it was heavily remodeled in the 70s. Nearly 50 years later, it is in my care after scores of renters, do-it-yourselfers, and more. As you might imagine, there’s a new surprise behind every wall or beneath every floorboard. There’s a mixture of old knob-and-tube wiring and newer Romex. And since my walls can’t talk, it’s up to me to determine and diagnose every wonky door, odd squeak, or electrical phantom.
The electrical is what gets me every time. Early on, I spent some time determining which outlets actually had proper grounds. Within the same room, some would be well-grounded, and some wouldn’t. Switches and dials may or may not do anything. And the breaker panel resembles a rat’s nest on a good day. But above all, I had to accept that power usage and electrical utility was not something that I could easily monitor. Until the Sense Home Energy Monitor came along.
To be honest, I doubted some of the claims made by the Sense monitor website and data sheets. After having seen glimpses of my own wiring and sketchy outlets, I figured it would be a flop. I have no smart devices. To put it bluntly, my humble little homestead is the polar opposite of Bill Gates’ tech-savvy mansion. But I admit I was curious to give it a shot. If put to the test, my old rickety homestead would be a formidable challenge for this little Sense box. I wanted to determine if this new technology could pass muster and detect the devices and electrical systems on those old bones.
Setting Up The Sense Home Energy Monitor
Out of the box, the installation was pretty basic. I did get a warning that an electrician may be required to install the unit, and after I saw the installation options I could see why. There are two ways to install the unit – either inside the electrical box, or outside with a wall-mounted setup. You should exercise appropriate judgment on your ability to install this device yourself vs calling in a professional.
Anytime you’re working around electrical circuits, the risk of shock, electrocution or fire are among some of the hazards present. If you have any doubts about your expertise and skill level with electrical work, PLEASE hire a professional.
The second option would require a GCFI outlet installed within a few feet of the box. I decided not to go this route for two reasons: First, I didn’t have a need to see the small red light and bright orange unit up against my white walls. Second, I had no intention of installing an outlet and opening up a bunch of wall spaces that I’d have to patch in to run a little bit of wiring. In most cases this activity alone requires a permit and licensed electrician. If the unit had some kind of touchscreen or voice activation it might have been worth the time and money, but I saw no need for the wall-mount.
So I went with the first option – to install the unit inside the panel box. This option allowed me to conceal the unit and the small red indicator light. Plus, it eliminated the need for any wall patching or penetrations. It did present a different challenge though. Remember the rat’s nest I mentioned earlier? Yeah. Space inside old panel boxes is a rare commodity compared to modern electrical boxes.
The monitor itself is a small rectangular box made of rigid molded plastic with a small antenna. It measures about 5 1/2 inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches thick and weighs less than a half a pound. It consumes less than five watts at 0.1 amp. Attached by a quick-connect male connector is a set of two spring clamps designed to go around the inbound leads. There’s also a connection that runs to a required double-pole breaker.
Sense provided a very clear and large installation chart with easy step-by-step instructions, contact information, and clear diagrams of the installation process. These instructions are also available on their website, along with helpful resources. You’ll need to install the Sense app to guide you through the process and confirm connectivity. The diagram on the installation instructions provided is easy to follow, along with the guided images on the Sense app. My panel box – not so much.
I was able to attach the plastic spring clamps to the main feeder lines coming into the panel with a little persuasion, and the small WiFi antenna required a plug punch out to be removed, which I was able to do from the inside of the panel box without too much trouble at all. My last available double-pole breaker allowed me to wire two legs and run the neutral up to the neutral bus bar. With the antenna installed and the clamps connected, I was able to check my connections to the unit and get ready to power it up. Main breaker on. Sense breaker on.
Bringing The Sense Home Energy Monitor to Life
To be completely honest, I was expecting an instant-on angels singing type of reaction. Like National Lampoon plugging in a sea of Christmas lights. But it wasn’t like a light bulb turning on instantly. Instead, it was more like a light bulb slowly coming to life. After a few moments, my modem came back online. The beep of a microwave nearby. Then my WiFi. Then, after a few quiet moments, I got a notification through the app. Success!
Soon after, I realized that this device isn’t riddled with instant gratification. But that’s not the point. And Sense took careful measures to make sure this was the expectation. What lacks as the device is learning is returned tenfold by the automation and communication from Sense. The app and email follow-up proved responsive time and again – keeping me up to speed on progress and the learning of new devices. It is a prime example of progressive, professional quality. Over time, new devices started percolating. At first one or two. Then a few more. On one occasion I got a series of emails notifying me that more than ten new devices were found. The Sense monitor picked up on each signature, each light fixture, each outlet.
Sense uses a series of markers to determine which devices do what. Motors, heaters, and lights all have different behaviors with regard to energy demands, consumption, and patterns. The Sense Home Energy Monitor gathers information based on the component’s power usage and compares it to other known devices. Then, it assigns a profile that seems to fit and lets the user know that it found a new device.
I waited a fair amount of time to spell out the details of this device. A big part of my reasoning was that I wanted to make sure it would hold up and that I could observe and mark any strange occurrences or short-term failures. What I found was the opposite. Instead of lax reporting or performance, the Sense Home Energy Monitor has outperformed my expectations.
Managing Great Expectations
Unlike other tools, this isn’t the type of thing I can drop-test or stress-test in any way. I have to rely on the Sense Monitor to do its job. And, I can say that it does just that. As an ambient monitor, I can pop in any time using my smartphone to see exactly how much power is being consumed. In real-time. Plus, I can tell what devices are on, how much juice they are drawing, and for how long.
Now, for anyone who is a power miser like I am, this is a major benefit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my power bill and all I see is confusion. I know the kilowatt-hours were used in the past 30-ish days, but I have no detail on what I got out of those hours. Refrigerator? Hot water tank? X-Box all-nighter? Who knows?
But with the Sense Home Energy Monitor in action, I started to notice patterns. I started to notice power usage. I started to notice, for example, how much energy my coffee pot actually used and the typical duration. I could turn things on or off and see an instant change in power consumption. Things started to make. . . sense.
Sense Home Energy Monitor Makes Sense When it Comes to Saving Money
The initial benefits of seeing these trends are cost savings. The app allows you to insert a kilowatt-hour billing rate to determine how much a device is costing you per year, or how much it is costing you as it is being used. It also has a built-in history marker that displays power usages and peaks on the Sense app that accompanies the device. A simple ticker allows the user to see peaks in power usage and daily activity. It is somewhat intuitive in that you can zoom in and watch it by the second, or zoom out and scroll left or right to see previous power consumption, or day by day to see your typical use patterns.
During a mild time of year when we had no heat or cooling systems running, I noticed a strange repeating spike. After doing the math, I realized that this spike was burning 1,300 watts for about 20 minutes of every hour – around the clock. But it was only happening in short, repeating bursts of about 10-20 seconds at a time. So, when I saw my next power bill had spiked again over the previous year, and the month before, I realized I had a problem to fix. There was a major draw that I couldn’t account for.
I asked around to the guys at work to see what would draw that much power – a huge hot water tank or failed burner, a burned-up compressor for a freezer, a wall heater that was struggling to keep up.
So, I started the hunt. With phone in hand, I approached the breaker box and shut down the kitchen outlets supporting the fridge. I watched. The Sense monitor app spiked again after a few minutes. Not the fridge. Next. I shut off the breaker to the hot water tank. Again, it still spiked. Not the hot water tank. Next. I went through just about every possibility inside the house and couldn’t seem to stop the phantom power draw. And I’m sure I got some strange looks for putting my ear down to power outlets, listening for strange frequencies. It gnawed at me for about three days until I finally found the source.
Our hand-me-down hot tub, which I assumed was off, was cycling the water heater because of a faulty component. I flipped a single switch and the spike flatlined. Excellent. It was like I just found a $100 bill. Even in the short term, the value of the Sense Home Energy Monitor started to become apparent.
The Sense Home Energy Monitor is Always Learning
Over the next few weeks and months, the Sense Home Energy Monitor began to learn the devices in my house. I received additional email notifications when the Sense Monitor found new devices off of electrical signatures that were similar to other Sense users. Even though none of my devices are connected to the internet, Sense could determine what they were.
In general terms, the devices emerge as heat sources, like Heat 1, Heat 2, or Motor 1, Motor 2. But as the use continues to follow patterns of other known devices, Sense automatically ties device names to each component. I can see when the refrigerator draws power for the compressor, and when the hot water tank kicks off during early morning showers. And as new devices are claimed and tuned in, I can see specifics even more clearly.
One nice feature is the community aspect. Devices that are similar can be assigned based on similar devices owned by other Sense users. This means that if enough people have similar devices, Sense will suggest or label a device based on the electrical signature. You also have the option to reassign this label to fit the device or location. This way, if you have multiple sources of heat or lighting, you can tell where they’re left on. And if you want to differentiate between rooms or floors, you can clarify the source.
This is where the next set of value starts to emerge – the long-term value of common-sense power monitoring with the Sense Home Energy Monitor. I started to see the obvious daily trends emerge – like morning activity with hot showers, blow driers, lights and heaters. Then the lull mid-day when the dogs are alone using a paltry 40 watts from a ceiling fan. And again, at night when the oven fires up and the evening lights kick on.
While my devices and my home isn’t in line with the smart-device culture or Internet of Things, the monitor is ready for integrations like these. So, if you accidentally leave something on, you can tell Alexa or your Google Assistant to check in or turn compatible components on or off using voice commands. It also works well with the smart power strips like the Belkin Wemo Insight Plug so you can cut or provide power through the Sense app from anywhere. They’ve also got some pretty interesting setups for solar power monitoring for those with rooftop panels. This alone would be a significant tool for adjusting panels based on the season to get the best output.
The Big Picture Perspective of Power Monitoring
It’s at this point where I can really look at big-picture power consumption. On a personal level, I can tell which devices draw the most power and seek to find low-energy solutions and replacements. Or, I can work toward modifying behaviors to reduce power. This was a bit of a shock treatment to my system. How could it possibly be my behavior that causes a surge in my energy bill? It has to be something else.
Turns out, it’s pretty much me. And my family. And our behavior. The Sense Home Energy Monitor adds a level of common sense to our power usage and our behavior. It provides a level of self-check to determine flaws and true need.
It enables me to make solid decisions around the house based on verifiable data. I now find myself shutting off lights in empty rooms. I cringe a bit when the hair straightener is sitting plugged in and unused. I drop that thermostat just a touch when no one is looking and put another log on the fire instead.
Meanwhile, the monitor itself has become another component hidden behind the walls of this old homestead. But it gives me a glimpse of what’s really happening – like a pulse I can check on a whim. And while these walls can’t talk, the Sense Home Energy Monitor has become a welcome addition that tells a very clear and honest story. Start saving with Sense today for $299.00, or $349.00 for the solar setup.
03/12/2020 Update: Spring is just around the corner and Sense is celebrating with $39 off the price of the Sense Home Energy Monitor and Sense Solar starting on March 19th, the vernal equinox, and lasting through March 24th, the 200th birthday of Edmond Becquerel, inventor of the photovoltaic cell in 1839. Promo Code: SUN39