How to Use Cheap Sensors and Mobile Phones to Make People Care About Energy Waste

     

Visibility of energy use is not enough to get people to change their actions, we still need to find a way to make people care to compel them to act.

At last week’s Cleanweb Hackathon in Boston, teams focused on combining hardware, software, and mobile devices to figure out how to make people care about regular energy issues. There were two pitches for lighting efficiency (LightOut) and water efficiency (Water Hero) that were particularly creative and compelling takes on how to make people address waste.

The format of the hackathon was simple: Participants pitched ideas and got onto teams on Saturday morning. On Sunday at 3:00 p.m. they presented their ideas and the progress that they had made to a panel of judges. Judges voted, some people win prizes.

One of the judges, Barun Singh, founder and CTO of Wegowise, commented,  “There were a lot of great ideas presented this weekend. The sign of something that’s good is that once you’ve heard the problem, you know it makes sense to address.” All of the teams focused on real energy problems that we face, but the winning teams focused on making people care about these issues. Another judge, Tony Barnes from EnergySavvy said, “and it’s not just about what makes sense to address. It’s also about getting people to care – and act. And that can be an even more difficult problem.”

Most energy issues are hard to solve because they matter when looked at on a large scale but are not costly enough at the individual level to spark action. Most people spend 10 times more on their phone bill than what they might waste in water each month.

The industry, and the hackathon teams, are learning that we need to re-address the same problems we all know exist with a focus on understanding and addressing what will make people care about changing their actions to solve the problem.

Two teams in particular were able to do this effectively: LightsOut and Water Hero.

The LightsOut pitch is simple: public shaming. Many public governments and private businesses keep a significant number of outdoor lights on during the day. It’s unnecessary and a waste of money. For their pitch, the LightsOut team walked around Somerville for 30 minutes and took more than 70 photos of outdoor lights that were on during the day. They calculated that for the city of Somerville, each street light cost ~$400 per year to run during the day. The LightsOut application gives regular people the ability to take a picture on their phone and report it. The application will aggregate all of the data, centrally display it, and report the problem.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.13.32 PM

I love this take on efficiency because it uses PR. The lights by themselves don’t cost much for a corporation or government, but, since it’s a blatant waste of energy and cause of emissions that everyone can see, it could be a PR nightmare.

Water Hero took a similarly novel approach to water efficiency and it’s pure genius. They focused on eliminating the potential risk of water damage in properties. The byproduct of addressing water damage risk is that water efficiency can be addressed.

Water is cheap in the United States, unless you’re in a drought region. This is good for health and sanitary purposes but bad for efficiency. We waste 1 trillion gallons of water per year, but to each household it’s a very small amount. However, if you look at where water creates pain and damage in the economy for regular property owners, the answer is clear. Water damage. Water damage is the largest single claim that insurance companies have to pay out, totaling more than 24% of the 60 billion dollars of residential claims paid each year. Having water damage in a home is 4 times more common than a burglary and 7 times more common than theft.

Barnacle Alert via Text

Water Hero constantly measures the water use of a building and can detect a leak. If a leak is detected, it can automatically shut off the water to avoid damage and report these issues to the property owner’s mobile phone. See to the right what a sample text will look like in the event of a leak. This functioning application was built in just one weekend.

Paying a small yearly fee to eliminate water damage risk, which could also results in lower insurance costs, is a no-brainer for most risk-averse homeowners. Here’s the kicker: the benefit of monitoring a home for potential water leaks is reporting water use data all the time. Water bills come every 3 months, but Water Hero can report and send alerts for high water use on a continuous basis. In the sample report below, notice how you can see the water use through a single day, across many days, and in aggregate for a week or month. If there was a small leak, water would be running during the night. If there was a huge leak, the graph would shoot up and Water Hero would shut off the water and send a warning text.

WaterHeroDashboard

 

This data gives property owners the ability to recognize and address smaller and continuous leaks, inefficient buildings, or tenants who are using a lot of water.

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About Chris Williams

Chris Williams works with HeatSpring developing products and managing online content. Chris is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer and an IGSHPA Accredited Geothermal Installer. He has installed over 300kW of solar PV systems, tens of residential and commercial solar hot water systems and 50 tons of geothermal equipment. You can find him on Linkedin
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