Tips And Tech To Make Your Australian Home Energy Smart

Tips And Tech To Make Your Australian Home Energy Smart

Turn off the lights when you’re not in the room, unplug devices on standby and run appliances at off-peak power times — we’ve heard all these tips for lowering your power bill before. With all the power-saving apps, services and gadgets that are now on the market, there are so many more options for making your home energy smart.

Smart home image by Shutterstock

Gizmodo’s Energy Smart Home series powered by Hello Grid — an initiative of the Energy Networks Association, representing the networks who deliver energy to almost all Australian homes and businesses.

Making The Right Choice

To begin with, switching to a retailer with the best offers and services for your needs can make a huge difference to your power bill. The government’s Energy Made Easy site is an easy way to compare offers from different retailers, depending on your particular needs and preferences. If you are able to put in information from a few recent power bills, it can even tell you just how much you’ll save by switching over. For those with solar panels, you can also pick companies that offer solar contracts, and compare the feed-in tariffs each one offers. The site even lists which companies are accredited under Australia’s GreenPower system.

Even after picking the right retailer, it’s important to be running the right appliances to make sure that you’re making your power bill go as far as possible. Australia’s energy rating system compares how much energy any given appliance will use, rating its average energy consumption per year. The rating system is fairly straightforward — more stars means higher energy efficiency, and thus less of an impact on your bill.

The system is a little bit different for airconditioners, however, which estimates energy use on a per-hour basis instead of annually. While all applicable appliances in any given store will have one of these stickers attached, you can also start your research ahead of time. The Energy Rating website has a full list of all its appliances and their ratings — they’ve even got a smartphone app for it.

Energy efficiency aside, there are a number of other valuable features to look for in an appliance these days. Most dishwashers, washing machines and the like will now have built in timers and delayed start settings, which can help you shave even more off your power bill. Set your dishwasher, washing machine or dryer to run during off-peak hours, which can often be late at night — or if you have solar panels installed, during the day when you’re generating the most electricity.

Automate Your Energy

Now for the fun part — the gadgets that can take over in making your home energy smart. There’s been a lot of buzz lately about ‘smart homes’ and home automation — often controlled through smartphone apps and Wi-Fi connectivity. This same technology can be used to reduce your energy usage.

To begin with, the main caveat with smart homes is that the automated systems themselves use energy, so financially are only worth putting in if they are going to save more energy than they use. With technology improving at such a fast rate, however, these systems are becoming increasingly energy efficient to run. Some automation systems will allow you direct remote access to your home systems, whereas others will operate based on a series of sensors or timers.

Belkin’s WeMo is one of the most popular home automation ranges currently on the market, which supplies both smart lights and switches — a small device that is plugged in directly between the power outlet and the device to both monitor consumption and control the flow of power. With integration to automation app IFTTT, the WeMo Insight Switch or WeMo Switch provide an easy way to turn off devices from afar, or even facilitate device control automatically.

An example would be to use IFTTT’s ‘if/then’ programs to automatically cut power to your home entertainment systems during hours that you won’t be using it, to save on leeching standby power. WeMo’s range even includes a motion sensor — so you can set it to turn a heater or fan off when you walk out of a room, or turn the lights on when you enter.

There are plenty of alternatives, too, and some brands like Efergy have a wide range of energy-saving and monitoring appliances available. Of course, if you’d rather have the professionals do it and gain even greater control over your home, there are a number of companies who will transform your home into a smart one. Throw in a few sensors, outlets and a smartphone and the possibilities are endless!

Some power companies will even automate certain behaviours for you, if you opt into one of their load control programs. Basically how this works is that the customer is incentivised to hand over some control of certain appliances — such as pool pumps or air conditioning systems — in exchange for lower tariffs. This way, individuals get a bit of a discount on using appliances that are traditionally fairly expensive to run, while power companies are given more direct control to be able to lower demand in peak usage hours. It’s not for everyone, but it is a potential way to save both time and money.

Smart Meters and Smart Apps

If you live in Victoria or select parts of NSW, then you’ve got a leg up on the rest of us as far as monitoring your electricity usage thanks to the large-scale introduction of smart meters. Smart meters record your electricity usage in near to real time, and while they won’t do anything to minimise your power bills themselves, they can be useful in changing your power usage habits.

However, if you have no usable tools with which to interpret the data from your smart meter, there is arguably very little benefit to having one installed. Green electricity retailer Powershop is one company that seeks to give its customers these tools, providing an app that shows both usage and the cost that it is incurring. Powershop has had great success with this app, seeing at least two thirds of its customer base using it.

The evidence for this app’s success is anecdotal, but by all accounts the system is helping people to adapt their usage and save money on their bill. “Our customers tell us that as a result of having the tools at their disposal they can quite easily make behaviour change and reduce their usage, and in doing so save money. Unless you get this real time feedback on your behaviour and how much it’s costing, it’s very hard to make a change. If you get a paper bill once a quarter which shows you your entire usage over the quarter, it’s very hard to know how much different behaviours cost.”

If you have a smart meter and you’re not using an app or a website to keep track of your data, then it’s worth checking if your retailer offers any similar tools. United Energy offers an Energy Easy service for those in Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula which not only monitors you usage but also lets you set an electricity saving target to work towards. Jemena has another tool called the Electricity Outlook Portal that will also let you make the most of the data from your smart meter.

If you don’t have a smart meter, don’t lose all hope. There are still a number of apps and services that will let you monitor your usage almost as well as if a smart meter. Powershop, for one, has tools within its app that will let its customers enter a meter rate to effectively convert the app into a smart meter. “Our model is probably one of the few ways you can convert the standard meter in NSW to effectively a smart meter by providing us meter rates. Obviously people aren’t going to do that every half hour,” says McManus, but the option is there for customers who want to know more about their usage.

Of course if you’re using WeMo’s Insight Switches as mentioned above, these devices can give you usage feedback on individual devices within your house, such as your heater or TV. A number of other similar devices are available, but there are also third party systems that will give you an even more comprehensive view of your usage than a smart meter would — although these systems are mostly geared for people with solar panels who are generating as well as consuming electricity.

Smarter Solar Power

Rooftop Solar Panels Are Almost All Facing the Wrong Direction

If you’re lucky enough to have solar panels installed, you want to be making sure you’re getting the most out of them. Solar power company Enphase, recently of note for their innovative modular battery concept, has pioneered an energy monitoring system they call “Envoy-S Metered”. This technology gives you a snapshot of energy used during peak and off peak hours and — if you have solar panels installed — shows you how much energy you’re generating. While it can be installed in homes without solar panels, the real benefit of Enphase’s Envoy system is monitoring how much of your solar energy you’re using, and how much excess you’re generating. For people who are considering installing a battery to store all their excess power, this tool is a godsend.

For a quick overview of how the MyEnlighten interface below works: the blue bars are for solar generation and the orange bars for energy consumption. Light orange indicates solar power being used whereas dark orange is power bought from the grid, with the dark blue segments indicating the amount of unused solar energy being generated from the house’s solar panels.

Installing solar panels will also necessitate a change to regular energy usage, adapting to the times when you have the most excess energy. Having solar panels generating electricity during what can often be peak or shoulder periods for most electricity retailers means you’ll have different energy usage habits to the regular consumer. This means setting appliances to run in the middle of the day when the most energy is being generated, rather than in the night when you would have to buy energy from the grid.

Going back once again to low-tech solutions, one of the best things you can do to increase your solar output is to make sure that your solar panels are being cleaned regularly. Dirt or dust on the panels may see a significant drop in the amount of energy being produced. Similarly, if anything is casting any significant shade on one of your panels, this could drastically reduce the efficiency of all of your panels. Make sure all your trees are kept in check so you can continue to make the most of your energy generating investment.

Have any more smart energy saving tips? Let us know in the comments!

10 Expert Tips For Building Your Automated Smart Home

Imagine walking into your house, and tapping a button on your iPad — then seeing the lights come on, your air conditioning change to a comfortable temperature, and your favourite program come onto the TV. You can turn your apartment into a high-tech penthouse and stand out from the crowd, or build a smart home on your very own piece of Australian soil. Let’s take a look.