On its face, home automation relies on a principle of conservation so low-tech that your parents probably had it instilled in you long before we all had computers and smartphones: don’t leave the lights on when you leave a room, turn down the heat when you go out for the day. If you’re not using your electronics, they should be off. And the less unnecessary energy you use, the more money you’ll save on your utility bills. Simple enough, right?
But like most things in life, the devil is in the details. Yes, you could manage your energy usage manually with a conventional thermostat, light switches and appliances, but the trouble is, it’s not always an easy routine to sustain and economic principles sometimes fail to account for human error or unexpected events. We get rushed and forget to hit the lights as we leave, or a heat wave arrives over vacation and suddenly a setting of 68 degrees is no longer the money-saving maneuver it once was.
How home automation can save you big bucks
Home automation devices were designed to compensate for these kinds of gaps in control. While there’s been a glut of smart technologies released for use around the home, there are several that can have a much bigger impact on your energy bills — and save you a lot more money.
Once upon a time, efficiency experts were in love with programmable thermostats. Giving consumers an affordable tool to set home temperatures seemed like a no-brainer to lower energy use and spending. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Studies showed that these miracle devices were really only reducing energy use by 6.2%. Even worse, 53% of installed programmable thermostats weren’t even being used as intended—they remained in “hold” mode, meaning they were functioning just like a manual model. The situation was dire enough that in 2009, the EPA totally removed its ENERGY-STAR labeling for programmable thermostats.
That’s where smart thermostats and HVAC control systems come in. The idea is, what if you don’t have to tell your AC that you won’t be around during a certain time? What if it can detect that you’re gone and adjust on the fly? And further, what if it could allow you to make changes to the programming remotely, and monitor where your energy goes? Although there’s no EPA data yet on just how efficient smart thermostats are, industry findings look promising, with the potential to save the residents who use them a good $135 per year. Of course, you’ll see a more dramatic difference on your electricity bills if you live in a climate with extreme highs or lows—temperate areas tend not to vacillate as much in energy costs.
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Most people have already heard of smart thermostats, of course. And while it’s true that heating and cooling costs make up the bulk of energy expenditures, lighting is right up there, too. At 11%, it’s the second highest category of energy use. And about a third of that light may be unnecessary, according to the International Dark-Sky Association. However, occupancy sensors can tell when rooms are left empty and turn the lights off automatically. While motion detectors have been around for over 30 years, a virtual eternity in the tech world, recent developments in sensor technology, including the use of optics, has allowed occupancy detectors to become much more accurate at sensing activity in a space. This in turn makes them more suitable for use in the home, helping you drive down those lighting costs.
Smart power strips
Not all electronics were created equal. Cable boxes, DVD players, video game consoles and automatic coffee makers are what’s known as “energy vampires”— hungry electronics that secretly suck down energy, in some cases, even when switched off. But energy monsters can be stopped with the help of smart power strips. They come complete with motion detection systems that shut electronics off when they sense that you’ve left the room, and reduce the overall amount of energy they consume. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that installing smart strips could result in a net savings of $200 a year, pretty good for a $30 investment.
Monitoring your usage
If you’re a data wonk, you’re going to love this next part. One of the beautiful things about automation devices like smart thermostats is that they don’t just give you the ability to program on the go—they actually allow you to access real-time usage information, and view consumption over time in helpful charts and graphs. That can help you really hone in on when you’re spending the most, and help you create a plan for where to cut back.
Plunking down a couple hundred dollars for a variety of different automation tools isn’t always very cost-effective, however. For instance, if you purchase a smart thermostat, you can expect to spend anywhere between $200 to $500 — plus the cost of installation, if you choose not to do the work yourself. Using the EPA’s estimate that programmable thermostats save around $180 a year in energy costs, that means it could take up to three years before the device starts to pay for itself.
And that’s only the thermostat. Factor in complex lighting controls, and you could have another several-hundred dollar expense. That’s not to say that home automation can’t be made more affordable, though. Indeed, networked options are starting to appear that integrate several functions into one device, which means less to buy. For instance, security systems from Piper now roll together home monitoring with lighting, HVAC, and appliance controls. And with home hubs already taking center stage at tech conventions this year, it’s likely that devices will increasingly combine several features into one machine, allowing homeowners to reap energy savings without a hefty down payment.
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