One box to rule them all

Smappee doesn’t look like much, but this little box alongside its apps are trying to automate appliances, cutting electricity bills in the process.

Most of us are aware of what it costs to run the big appliances like the air conditioning in our homes every month, the same however cannot be said about the smaller devices that we run daily in our homes - how much electricity (and money) do they gobble up every month?

A company called Smappee is trying to answer this question with a device that clamps onto your fuse box and attempts to itemise each and every appliance, set of lights, and even things like a vacuum cleaner, to give you an idea of what’s using energy in real time. 

The box which has gone on sale in most of Europe, the UK and most recently the US costs $249 and the company is hoping to involve utilities companies and solar power installers to help sell the product to their customers as a way to track their energy use.

In South Africa’s prepaid electricity environment this could prove to be a vital tool to help people save their much needed electricity and money each month.

Most people would argue that such devices already exist and that this is just an old idea dressed up in a new coat, but what sets Smappee apart from the rest is how it works. Unlike a smart meter, which is reading the entire flow of energy at the curb, Smappee does it from inside your home using a small clamp that goes around your breaker box wiring and measures the current through a magnetic field. Not all electronics and appliances are the same, so the system is able to identify when anything, or at least most of the electronics you use, turns on by its unique electronic signature.

Each time an appliance turns on or off, you can see it in real time in Smappee's app. The system also groups together types of activity, including the amount of electricity you're always using, and how much you're consuming when certain things are on. The system's even been set up to give you an alert when something gets turned on or off, a feature Smappee's CEO Stefan Grosjean says can be used to set up simple alerts for things like your garage door and motion-activated flood lights.

"Once you start seeing what each item is doing, you become an energy manager," Grosjean says. "Without even realizing, you start thinking ‘why is the TV using that amount of energy?'"

Grosjean's previous work involved installing similar systems inside of commercial spaces to provide analytics for companies like Walmart. Instead of doing it at the main power source, that project involved adding sub-meters and even metered power outlets to specific departments, something that's possible but extremely expensive to do in homes, says Smappee's business development manager Richard Morgan

The big difference is that the kind of system that's tracking every plug is extremely accurate, whereas Smappee leaves a little wiggle room for the precise number of devices using electricity. Grosjean says the system will pick out about 80 percent of a person's appliances, but cannot identify anything that uses less than 40 watts. That means something like a TV or a refrigerator is pretty simple, but your phone charger is basically invisible. You also need to train it to recognize each and every device by its energy signature. When something pops on for the first time, you have to name it. It won't guess for you, but Grosjean says the company is building up a database of devices so that it can begin to autocomplete product names for you, and speed up that process.

The other 20 percent of mysterious activity is still an issue though, something Grosjean acknowledges. The system also has trouble when multiple things turn on simultaneously. "We won't find 100 percent, we'll find the big energy guzzlers," he says. "The principle we have is a bit like Shazam. If there's a lot of other music around, it will mix it up ... we always have something like 5-10 appliances on all the time, so the difficulty for us is to make a combination of songs, to say ‘okay, if I were to combine those music, those things does it match?' And sometimes we're in trouble."

Beyond energy tracking, Smappee includes a plug that lets you remotely trigger its power on or off. It's controlled through Smappee's base station using the 4.33GHz band. That connection can be toggled manually or by setting up rules to do things like turn off your home entertainment system's power strip when you leave a geofence around your home. You can buy more of these in packs of three for $40, which is less than many standalone remote-controlled plugs.

Next on that list are things like support for Apple's HomeKit, and potentially premium services that people can pay for to help keep an eye on their home, like if your refrigerator breaks and leaves a puddle of thawed ice buildup all over your kitchen. But by then, Grosjean jokes, you might have already used Smappee to realize you need a newer, more efficient model.

Find out more about Smappee

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