Each month, our energy provider includes with our electric bill a detailed assessment of how we compare to our neighbors in energy use. It’s not pretty.
We live in a community of homes that was built approximately 55 years ago, in a time when energy consumption was, at best, an afterthought. These days, however, we are apparently energy hogs. According to our monthly statement, we consume about 70% more electricity than our next most voracious neighbor.
Now, of course, there are good reasons for this. I work from home four days a week on average, and use both my home computer and my work computer in the home office. My basement office is typically cooler than the rest of the house, so I sometimes run a space heater. It’s also darker, so, of course, I have the lights on all day.
The household also has other appliances that we run day and night—our refrigerator, dehumidifier, cable modem, and Wi-Fi router, for example. Connected to our two televisions in the house, we have TiVo DVRs and AppleTV set-top boxes that are powered up all the time.
During the winter, in our finished basement, we run a pellet stove, which requires electrical power for the fans and built-in electronics, as well.
Nonetheless, we reasoned, there must be a way to reduce our energy consumption and lower our electric bill. Could technology provide a solution?
In June of 2014, Apple held its annual developer’s conference, at which the company announced an impressive host of new products and platforms. One of those, HomeKit, was going to enable a plethora of products that would make one’s home smarter.
With HomeKit, software would run on iOS devices, and hardware would be controlled from those devices.
HomeKit is an application programmer’s toolkit, or API, that enables third-party companies to tie their smart home products into the Apple ecosystem. The idea is that users would be able to control all kinds of new devices—locks, thermostats, lights, and so on—from their Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, or Apple Watch. And do so intelligently.
Despite the promise of HomeKit, third-party smart home products have been emerging slowly and in small numbers. But they have been emerging, so that’s something.
We recently purchased several HomeKit-enabled iHome SmartPlugs that we hope will help us significantly reduce our energy consumption.
These devices are made by iHome, a division of SDI Technologies, which has been around since 1956. The iHome division was founded in 2005 to market iPod speakers and other consumer electronics.
With its connection to Apple products, it stands to reason that iHome would want to build HomeKit-based products, and it appears the SmartPlug is their first.
At $39.99 each, the SmartPlugs aren’t cheap, but if they last and do what they’re supposed to do, they will pay for themselves. More on that later.
Each SmartPlug comes in a nicely designed cardboard package containing the plug and a very brief Quick Start Guide.
Basically, you plug the three-pronged SmartPlug into a wall socket, set it up, and then plug power strips or electrical devices into it. The setup procedure is done through an app that you install on your smartphone.
The iHome Control app
To control the SmartPlug, iHome has created iPhone and Android versions of an app that you use to control the device. Called iHome Control, the app is a free download from your app store of choice. We’re using the HomeKit-enabled iPhone version.
The process requires that your smartphone be connected to your in-home Wi-Fi network.
After you download the control app, you must first create an iHome account on the iHome site. The account is free, and requires only a user name and valid email address.
After you’ve signed up for an account, you plug the device into the desired outlet. The device displays a flashing green light indicating that it is ready for setup.
On the iHome Control app, you tap Search for Devices, and follow the relatively straightforward onscreen instructions. As part of the process, you have to enter a unique accessory setup code, which is provided in the Quick Start Guide.
Homes, rooms, scenes, and rules
After setup is completed successfully, you get a notification that your SmartPlug is connected to your Wi-Fi network. Now, you are ready to define the controls that you want to have automatically applied to the plug.
Beyond this, you can define individual rules for the SmartPlug, and then combine those rules, as desired, into scenes.
Rules can only be based on times that the SmartPlug is to be on, and each rule can apply only to one SmartPlug.
You can have multiple rules for each SmartPlug, and these rules will typically reflect different timespans, days, or both.
If you have multiple SmartPlugs in the home, you can define scenes that incorporate multiple rules.
For example, you could program multiple lights in the home to go on at a certain time of day.
My use case is pretty simple—automatically shutting off the three SmartPlugs that power my cable boxes, DVRs, and home networking equipment while everyone in the house is sleeping, and powering everything back on in advance of when the equipment is needed during the day.
Because the rules allow me to specify days of the week as well as times of day, I have programmed a dozen or so different rules covering all three SmartPlugs for weekdays versus weekends, which provide pretty much all the flexibility I need.
In addition, I can pretty quickly override a rule by turning off or on a SmartPlug manually in the iHome Control app. The next time a rule kicks in, it gets everything back on the pre-programmed schedule.
Hiccups, expectations, and final verdict
There were a few glitches getting everything set up and running the way I wanted it. When I first installed the SmartPlugs, the iHome Control app informed me that I needed to upgrade the firmware and walked me through the process.
I also ran into a glitch where, when I installed iOS 9, all my rules got wiped out, and I had to reset the SmartPlugs and set them up all over again.
So, there have been a few hiccups getting this project off the ground, but now that everything seems to be functioning correctly, I’m optimistic.
We’ve been using the SmartPlugs for a couple of weeks now, so it’s hard to know how much money they’re going to save us over time.
That pushed me to research this topic a bit further, and I found a helpful site that provides an energy calculator. By plugging in information about a device, I was able to calculate the annual cost of running it 24 hours a day.
For example, my cable box, rated at 35 watts, is designed to be always on. With the electric rates in Massachusetts averaging about 21 cents per kwH, the annual cost calculates to $65. The SmartPlug is going to cut this by approximately two-thirds, saving $44 a year.
Applying these sorts of savings to multiple devices in multiple rooms should really add up. The proof will be in the pudding (in this case, my electric bills over the next few months), but I have to say I’m sold on the potential.