From his office near Central Square, Mike Phillips can see that somebody left the exercise bike turned on at his house in Belmont. He taps an application on his phone and loads dozens of other details about his home — from the output of his solar panels to the most recent time his garage door opened.
All of this information is being beamed in by Sense, a sleek orange box made by his company, Sense Labs, that sits below his circuit breaker panel and tracks the flow of electricity into and around his home. Sense is built on the idea that every household device has a different signature — the spike when a refrigerator starts cooling, for instance, is different from the air conditioner turning on. Giving consumers an easier way to monitor their homes could save them money or even alert them to problems.
“Everyone thinks it’s all about their refrigerator and their lights. It’s not. Those things matter, but every home has a couple of crazy energy users that, if you knew about it, you can go and fix it,” says Phillips, the company’s cofounder and chief executive. Phillips says customers using the product, which debuted in 2016, have found huge surprises in their homes — one found out a roof heating coil used to avoid ice damage hadn’t been turned off when spring arrived. And some research has found that nearly a quarter of electricity usage comes from devices that are never turned off.
Despite heightened emphasis on energy efficiency, home energy monitors have not become widespread, in part because they can be complicated to install. Sense thinks the latest version of its product is easy enough to use — and cheap enough to install — that power monitoring could move into the mainstream . Where some home monitoring products need to plug into every circuit breaker, Sense plugs into a single breaker, and puts two current-sensing loops around the main power cables to monitor electricity flow.
Phillips and his cofounders are veterans of the voice-recognition industry, and some principles from their old jobs power Sense. Voice recognition algorithms examine sound wave forms to tell words apart. Sense applies similar algorithms to pick apart the peaks and valleys in electricity usage, and continues to expand its list of the devices it can discern turning on and off.
Right now, a Sense monitor starts at $299, plus approximately $115 to install. Phillips says typical electricity users can expect to cut their bills by about $100 a year. It’s widely available, and Vermont’s utility-funded energy-saving program, Efficiency Vermont, has started giving rebates to customers who buy Sense, which will cut about $200 off the price.
Phillips acknowledges that Sense must persuade users that they can trust a small company with the intimate details of the workings of their homes. Sense, after all, knows when your lights turn on and when you turn off your television. Phillips says Sense gives users full control over whether it can share their data. He says the company is also working to develop a feature that could let users know if something has gone wrong with their home, such as wires that need replacing or an appliance that needs service.
“The ability to let you know when something bad is happening is a super important part of this over time,” Phillips says.
Cost: $299, or $349 with a solar power monitor, plus installation
Power consumption: Less than 2 watts
Size: 5.4 inches long by 2.6 inches high by 1.3 inches deep
Weight: 7.8 ounces