BLUE HILL, Maine — Walk through the typical American home at night and you’re likely to see a dozen or more red and green electronic eyes illuminating the dark — each one an example of “phantom” power sources that account for between 5 and 10 percent of residential energy use.
But unlike a phone bill, which offers a breakdown by individual calls, electric bills don’t allow consumers to see exactly how much they are paying for that television in “standby” mode, the old refrigerator in the garage or the dooryard light left on all night.
For the next year, 50 families in the Blue Hill area will be part of a study that could help shed light on the question of whether arming homeowners with detailed information on their energy use will affect their consumption habits.
The project, which is being spearheaded by a Blue Hill-based company and a University of Maine researcher, will allow households to track their energy use in both real time and over time down to the level of individual appliances in some cases. UMaine researchers will then analyze how electricity consumption trends change across the 50 households during the year.
The technology to monitor individual circuits within a house has been available for several years. But the scope of the study, which is being paid for with a $90,000 grant from Efficiency Maine, could affect energy policy in the state as well as utilities’ decisions on electricity pricing.
“We have never had this many homes in one study with this much detail,” said Joanne Steenberg, vice president of PowerWise, the Blue Hill-based company that developed the monitoring technology.
Nathan Weise, a UMaine professor of electrical and computer engineering who will help analyze the results with a team of students, said the aggregate data will be made available to educators, energy-efficiency agencies and other groups.
Households, meanwhile, can potentially use their individual data to make decisions about replacing inefficient appliances and to take smaller steps such as switching to energy-efficient light bulbs or unplugging appliances that still draw “phantom power” even when turned off.
“The key is for people to see with their own eyes when and how their household electricity is consumed on a circuit-by-circuit basis,” Weise said in a statement.
Such information could be even more useful if Maine utilities eventually offer “dynamic pricing,” which is when consumers pay varying electricity costs depending on the time of day. Typically, costs are higher during peak, daytime hours and lower at night. Dynamic pricing thereby would allow consumers to potentially save money by operating more energy-intensive appliances during off-peak hours.
“Smart meters,” which use digital technology to record and report to utilities the electricity use for an entire house, would be used as part of utilities’ dynamic pricing programs. However, utilities first must receive approval to implement dynamic pricing from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon said Wednesday the company hopes to launch a trial dynamic pricing plan to a select group within several months, contingent on PUC approval. The company eventually hopes to offer the option to all customers. Central Maine Power also has expressed interest to the PUC in dynamic pricing.
Faloon said Bangor Hydro also plans to unveil a feature in the coming weeks that will allow all customers to see their electricity use by hour, day or month. But the level of detail will be lower than that offered to the Blue Hill study participants.
Each home participating in the Blue Hill study will receive a free eMonitor developed by PowerWise employees that enables homeowners to track electricity use at 22 individual circuits.
Homeowners then can use a Web-based portal and software to see exactly how much electricity the household was using and which appliances were responsible for the use at any given moment.
“You think you know what you’re doing in your house and how you are using electricity,” Steenberg said. “But when the eMonitor goes in, you say, ‘I had no idea!’”
Sitting in PowerWise’s office just outside downtown Blue Hill, Christian Gilbert used a company employee’s account to demonstrate the Web-based portal. The graphs clearly showed usage spikes when family members took showers in the morning and a steep spike in the refrigerator circuit around dinnertime.
The software also shows long-term trends and can send out notifications if, say, the oven circuit has been active for several hours or the circuit tied to the water pump is overly active, indicating a possible water leak or running toilet.
Steenberg said her family has reduced consumption by about 20 percent, even with two plugged-in teenagers in the house. PowerWise claims that many households see a 15 to 20 percent drop in use after installing an eMonitor.
David Leonard is among the roughly 50 people who have signed up for the study. Leonard and his wife used an earlier Efficiency Maine program to secure a home energy audit. As a result of the audit, the Leonards made improvements that helped reduce propane use in their Brooklin home by 40 percent.
Leonard said the electricity monitoring study seemed like a good follow-up as the couple attempts to reduce their energy use.
“It’s not like the old days … where when you turned the TV off it was off,” he said. “I will be interested to see all of those things that are plugged in all of the time and what they do cost.”
Steenberg said PowerWise is still accepting queries from homeowners potentially interested in participating in the study in case any of the first 50 volunteer households elect not to participate. For information, call PowerWise at 370-6517.