October 23, 2008

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Be Buffy
Slay electricity vampires in your home

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

’Round come the end of October, it’s a tradition for dorks like me to talk about energy conservation. Why? Mostly because of a silly term.

“Electricity vampire.”

As awesome a horror movie as blood-sucking monsters made entirely of sparks and lightning would be, electricity vampires are really much more mundane. In every house, there are appliances that use power even when they’re turned off. Anything with a remote control, for example, like your television or DVR. Computers and monitors take a little bit of power, too, and anything with an AC-to-DC power brick or “wall wart” draws a little current as well. Think of the two outlet prongs as vampire fangs, slowly draining your domicile of life-giving energy.

Or don’t. It’s really kind of silly.

The good news is that by adding even more gadgets, you can actually reduce your electricity usage. That’s good for the planet and good for your utility bills. They come in two main varieties: ones that tell you how much power you’re wasting so you can take action and ones that shut off idle devices for you.

The Kill A Watt (har har!) is one of the former, and it’s pretty simple — it’s basically a more user-friendly version of an electrician’s multimeter. It plugs into the wall, and you plug an appliance into it. You get an instant readout of how many watts (or volts, or amps, etc.) the appliance consumes, and can leave it plugged in to record a cumulative watt-hour total. It’s between $20 and $40.

For a bit more, around $200, you can step up to the even-more-cleverly-named Wattson. You clamp a wireless sensor between your electric meter and fuse box and it sends your home’s energy usage straight to a dapper-looking display box. It can also interface with a computer using software called, what else, Holmes. The only problem? It’s sold in the UK, and since it hooks to your electrical system, the differences might not be trivial. The manufacturer plans to ship a North American version next year.

The EnergyHub is also not quite ready for purchase, but could be the prettiest of the bunch. Rather than Kill A Watt’s rudimentary LCD or Wattson’s future-chic design, EnergyHub gives you a full-color screen with graphical data on your energy usage. Its transmitter plugs right into an outlet, though it’s not clear if you’re then only monitoring that outlet’s devices or your whole house.

More proactive solutions generally come in the form or smarter power strips. While you can always just unplug things when you’re not using them, having your power strip automate the task is so much sexier, ain’t it? The Smart Strip uses one of its outlets as a control for six others: if the control device is on, all the others are on too, and vice versa. Useful for a computer and peripherals, perhaps, or your television and home theater equipment. Different versions range from $30 to $50.

The Wattstopper Isolé uses a slightly different approach. Instead of a control outlet, it uses a sensor to detect if anybody’s around to use the attached equipment. Yes? Outlets are on. No? Outlets are off. Wattstopper sells it for $90.

However you go about it, saving electricity is a no-brainer. Which is useful when zombies come knocking. They hang out with vampires, you know.