From work, Mike Phillips can see when his son makes a piece of toast or leaves for school in the morning. Every electrical device in the house—from the toaster and garage door opener to the fridge and lights—shows up on an app in a news feed of everyday life.
Inside the home's electrical panel, a small gadget called Sense continuously monitors energy use. By recognizing the electrical "signatures" of a washing machine or laptop, the device can send out reports of everything in use in real time.
"We're measuring power in this really detailed way," says Phillips, CEO of Sense. "We're measuring at a million times a second, which I know sounds extreme, but the reason we do that is then we have a super high-fidelity signal of your power. Then we can do signal processing and machine learning to figure out the signatures of different things."
It's more precise, the company claims, than some similar devices that can't always tell the difference between low-wattage gadgets. Phillips and his co-founders, who previously created Vlingo, the speech-recognition software used by Siri, were able to apply some of the same technology to recognize electrical signals.
The ultimate aim of the product is to help consumers save energy, but the app uses the news feed to try to keep them interested.
"Everyone's found out that even though energy efficiency is important, it's kind of boring for people," Phillips says. "People don't wake up every day and try to figure out how efficient their fridge is that day. So we found that we can use this detailed, real-time view of your house to engage you in a different way."
While updates on your appliances might not sound inherently fascinating either, it seems to be working. On average, users check the app four times a day. Utility companies that have tried to get consumers to use apps that report overall energy use, by contrast, have found that people quickly lose interest.
Over time, the company plans to start offering specific recommendations—the timeline might tell someone that their air conditioner isn't working, or that their fridge is one of the worst-performing out of all homes using the device.
Right now, even though the app isn't pushing energy efficiency, people are reporting that they're starting to make changes. Ultimately, the company hopes that the technology can help save as much as 20% of wasted energy in homes.
"The basic numbers are about 40% of the power you're buying is wasted—by wasted, I mean you could save it with economically viable things to do," says Phillips. "Technology like this will not be able to get all of it, but we think we can get quite a large amount."
The amount of energy wasted in the U.S. now is estimated to be the equivalent of what 120 coal-fired power plants produce.
While it seems like consumers might be able to quickly learn everything they can from a device like this—finding the energy problems they can fix within a couple of weeks—the startup argues that things can change over time. A heat pump might start leaking; something else might break.
And though the company is selling devices direct to consumers now, they hope that it will eventually come standard in an electric panel or smart meter.
"Our fundamental belief coming into this is that all houses should have something like this . . . We'll be working with utilities and others to deploy at a much larger scale, in a mass-market way," says Phillips.
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