Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sustainable Living Through Education: Real-time Utilities Consumption Monitoring or "Dashboards"

Without exception, my daily routine consists of one 20 minute-ish shower and has for the last decade or so. It, not coffee or tea, is my waker-upper and I have failed to take quicker showers every time I have tried -- it just feels too damn good. What is so important about this one activity though? I also brush my teeth in the morning and at night, turn my computer and television on with regular frequency, but not with the exact same regularity of showering.

So, why is it that I still have no clue as to how much water and electricity that my shower takes?

Off the top of my head, I seem to remember showers using something like 10 liters a minute (pretty sure I'm wrong), so multiply that by 20 minutes and it's 200 liters or 0.2 cubic meters. And now and I can't remember what the going rate for water is, even though I've seen the bills many times. You know? The bill that comes every 3 months?

Learning to Save -- literally

It sounds like I'm focusing on water, but the same concepts are true for your other utilities like electricity and gas. The bills usually come once every 3 months, almost everything is metered and cost is usually tiered, and everyone is supposed to be using less of everything.

That's funny because utility companies make more money when you use more of things, in general. Why are both publically and privately owned utilities telling us to use less than? The reason is usually because resources are running out and they are at/near capacity, so it may actually cost more for them to expand. At the same time, they may benefit from higher usage, so it's a case by case thing.

Way back when in my final year of undergrad, I did a major project involving water conservation. Long story short, I learned that one of the most effective (in terms of cost and the quantity of water saved) ways to save water is through public education. The other is, kind of obviously, water metering that hits your wallet directly.

Okay, everyone is telling me about resource shortages and how I should save. Am I saving or not? I can go out and buy water or energy saving devices to feel good, then cross my fingers that my next bill in 3 months shows that I used less. Maybe you're a go-getter though. You ask your utility to send you bills more frequently, or you learn to read the dials on your meter hidden outside or in some closet. Even with a digital smart meter, the information may not be second by second, or minute by minute, and you probably have to put up with the location issue.

Unfortunately, we praise proactive people, the "go-getters", because it's a perk. I like to think of perks as things the "average" person doesn't do. To be nice, I'll just say that the "average" population is a large enough portion of our population to be significant. Even though I enjoy studying conservation issues, I am "average" and not a go-getter. What is the "average" person to do other than buy "_____ saving" devices and hope for the best?

Internet Monitoring of Consumption

Right now, the answer to the question posed above is "not much". You can be more proactive and learn to read your meters, go outside in the cold or into your dirty closet, buy electricity monitoring meters, get more frequent bills, etc. But then you run into the problem of knowing exactly how much you're being charged per unit of whatever resource, especially if you are charged at different rates depending on time of use or total quantity used.

We might be going places though. According to some brief googling, California and New York City are now, or will soon be, using water meters that report your consumption in real time. Australia, the country located in/around a desert, appears to be approaching or at that stage, as well. These would use smart meters with built-in wi-fi.

From the looks of it though, all of the above appear to use internet-based tracking. That is, you log into a website, into your account to check how much of what you used. And you may even need to log into each utility account (i.e. gas, electricity, and water) separately because they're likely provided by different companies.

Short of buying and paying for a smart phone and logging into your accounts after every shower, when you remember, or when you feel like it, do you think the "average" person would do that? The answer is probably, "yes", in the short term. Longer term, the answer is probably, "oh ya, I forgot we could do that".

Making Learning Easier: Building Dashboards

Why is it that we know exactly how much every squeeze of a gas pump costs, but we don't know how much running your faucet full blast for an hour (woops, I forgot?) costs?

Probably because everything used to be so damn cheap and the technology wasn't there. What we need is probably something more integrated, streamlined, and in your face. An LCD screen like a thermostat at every faucet, maybe? Cool, but overkill and exorbitantly expensive. Just think of all the wires.

How about thinking a bit bigger and going with a large display screen the size of an iPad or 10"-ish tablet mounted in a central location? This was actually an idea that came up during one of my graduate school classes, and I haven't been able to find one online (surprise me?). We didn't go into any amount of detail, but everything just comes together as one of those "duh" ideas.

Just think of your digital thermostat. Hopefully, you have a programmable one. Instead of your temperature, it would show you how much water, electricity, or gas you have used since a certain date. Like a digital watch, you could select different modes and even count your consumption from when you hit start. All of your utilities could be read on a single screen in the comfort of your home, and you could see the results of the conservation measures that you have taken in real-time. This includes figuring out "leaks".

And with a consumption quantity, it would be simple to multiple the value by a billing rate, and then you have yourself a cost. Add in some memory and you would be able to see historic consumption rates and costs.

Smart meters are becoming more and more widely used and they may come with built-in wi-fi. If my laptop can receive wi-fi signals from my neighbours, I don't see why it wouldn't be able to receive the signal from the meter(s). In terms of security, if you're willing to trust your computer and router to encrypt your online banking information, why not your utilities? Hackers are welcome to pay my bills for me.

Alas, it appears that we won't be seeing anything like this for a awhile. Maybe we'll end up buying a dead-tech tablet like a Playbook for $75 on clearance, duct taping it to the wall, and using it to log into our real-time utility monitoring accounts online when they become available.