UCI Professors Try to Zap Your Electric Bill

Every month, it arrives in the mail, always to a gasp and sometimes to whispered expletives. Paying the electricity bill is a chore, tossed into the shuffle of life without much thought or analysis. We peek at the dollar amount, grit our teeth and sign the damn check (or, these days, click the damn button).

What exactly are we paying for? We don't ask; they don't tell. That's a problem for David Kirkby, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine.

“It's like if you went to the grocery store to buy your week's food, and there were no price tags,” he explains. “You just walk down the aisles and pick whatever you like, and they say, 'We'll send you a bill at the end of the month. And we won't even give you an itemized bill. We're just gonna tell you the total amount.' That's basically how we deal with energy.”

Kirkby and his colleague, Daniel Stokols, UCI professor of psychology and social behavior, believe consumers deserve more information about this silent, invisible resource, for the preservation not only of people's bank accounts, but also of the planet. With a grant from the UCI Environmental Institute, the scholarly duo developed a home system that allows people to track—in real time—exactly how much energy each home appliance and gadget is guzzling, as well as what it will cost. “Essentially, we wanted to stick on the price tags,” Kirkby says.

The idea was that if people knew the printer upstairs was eating up $5 per month simply by being plugged in at night or that someone's repeatedly leaving the kitchen light on costs 10 cents per hour, they'd do something about it. And if scores of people changed their ways, it would have a major impact on the environment. Across the U.S., electricity use has increased 40 percent during the past three decades, with our ever-expanding galaxy of electronics now consuming about 30 percent of the energy in homes.

“If half of America's households cut their energy usage by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road,” Kirkby says.

The project, uci@home, began about two years ago on a campus already emerging as a living lab for green buildings. In 2009, Google launched a software tool called PowerMeter that lets consumers track electricity usage in a detailed way, but Kirkby took the technology a step further by engineering a “smart strip,” a bland-looking power strip that wirelessly feeds data to a household hub that is then aggregated, graphed and stored. A green light appears on the strip when its devices have used less than 10 cents worth of energy over the past 24 hours—giving the consumer an electronic thumbs-up. Stokols focused on the psychological and societal aspects of energy consumption, analyzing how people react to different signals and trying to figure out what motivates them to make changes.

Last summer, uci@home launched a pilot study in faculty-housing complex University Hills, selecting six homes at random from a pool of interested families and individuals and supplying them with seven smart strips to use in different rooms.

Joerg Meyer, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the time, says a $300 electricity bill prompted him to participate. “That was a defining moment,” he says. “I wondered, 'Why am I using so much?”

He plugged everything into the strips—his computer, PlayStation, cell-phone charger, satellite receiver and flat-screen TV. Then, the prof logged onto a website to watch his stats, viewing how much energy was currently being used by each strip, how much the energy cost in the past 24 hours and how much it'd cost in the next 24 hours if he continued such energy-guzzling ways. Meyer could compare his energy usage with that of his neighbors. He could graph the information minute by minute, day by day, week by week, and set personal goals. Tracking the data was almost addictive, Meyer says, especially monitoring that little light on the strip. “You wanna keep that green light happy,” he says.

The findings were intriguing. “I could see which hours the light in the fish tank was on and how cutting down those hours could save some electricity,” Meyer says. “All those little things add up.”

But the biggest energy vacuum, he found, came from his room lighting. His kitchen's recessed lights and downstairs floodlights required a hoggish 1,000 watts. Aghast, Meyer bought compact fluorescent bulbs on sale at Lowe's and attended an Earth Day event at which Irvine's government gave away energy-efficient lamps. His next electricity bill was for $150.

“The best part of the program was that the feedback was immediate,” explains Meyer, who says he became much more aware of his energy-using habits and now switches off lights when he leaves rooms and unplugs his cell-phone charger when it's not in use.

Not every case was quite as successful, Kirkby says. Other homes didn't see dramatic changes in their bills, possibly because those participants were energy-conscious to begin with or the savings simply weren't enough.

Also, Stokols says, “Ingrained behavior can be difficult to change.”

Kirkby and Stokols tested various signals on the device, like audible chirps that remind you to check your usage and flashing red lights to declare, “You're using too much!” (Both were annoying, participants told them.) They could have given the system the power to make household adjustments on its own, but decided not to.

“We were really hoping to give people information, and then people, in turn, would use less energy by choice,” Kirkby says. “If you create something that says, 'Oh, you've watched too much TV, so I'm gonna turn it off,' it becomes a fight.”

The team would like to see uci@home in the abodes of the general public, but more testing is needed, as they “still have to find the magic formula.” Public interest has been great, however, and they applied for funding from the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission to conduct long-term studies.

“It may take some time for people to be ready for these types of devices, but we're heading that way with battery-operated cars and hybrids,” Stokols says. “And as people see the price of gas going up, up, up, they're looking to compensate somehow.”


This article appeared in print as “Zapping Your Electric Bill: UCI profs are testing a 'smart strip' that could cure you of your power-guzzling ways.”

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