There are plenty of ways to be green these days, but without some sort of feedback it's hard to know just what shade you are. Enter Google's PowerMeter, a service that tells you how much current you're responsible for consuming. Why, it even shades its bar graphs in green, getting more pale the greedier you become. Google has partnerships with some utility companies in the US, Canada, and India, meaning a select few of you can do this sort of tracking by default. The rest of us were left out -- until now. Two devices on the market let you track your usage in PowerMeter regardless of just how backwards your utility company is: The Energy Detective's TED 5000 and the AlertMe Energy. We've been experimenting with these two for about a month now, finding that they serve the same purpose in very different ways and at very different costs. Click on through to see which one can best help you get greener.

Installation

We'll start with the more daunting of the two: TED. Its website describes installation as being "simple and quick," but then goes on to warn that "serious injury / death could occur if you are not familiar with electrical components and operation of the circuit breaker panel." If you're not the type who is comfortable taking apart your circuit breaker and wiring in the TED's measuring transmitter unit (MTU), don't want to pay an electrician to do it for you, or can't handle working in the dark in your basement while surrounded by cobwebs and other icky things, this isn't the one for you. This also precludes usage of this device for folks living in some apartments or shared living spaces that don't allow unfettered access to the building's coppery bowels.

Powering Google's PowerMeter: testing the TED 5000 and AlertMe - DO NOT POST
We soldiered on, heading to the basement, flipping the main power switch, and removing the face from the circuit breaker box while somewhere in a distant corner of the house a UPS beeped in its death throes. Four screws removed we were in, standing in the dark and shining a flashlight at a daunting collection of wires -- some still very much alive. Installation of the MTU entails wiring it directly into two breakers, grounding it, and then placing two clamps around the large wires that power the box (and the house). All went well for us and within about 15 minutes we had everything buttoned back up, lights on and UPS silenced, but we can't encourage strongly enough that you call an electrician (or electrically-minded friend) if you're at all uncomfortable with this. It is complex, but this installation gives the TED 5000 the definite advantage of being able to track not only power consumed but power generated, useful if you have a spinny turbine in the back yard or sunny solar cell on your roof.

TED 5000 unboxing and installation

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It's an entirely different story for the Brits with their AlertMe Energy kit: for starters, the safety notices reassuringly tell you that "there should be no need for a qualified engineer", and they aren't lying -- we didn't have to cut any wires or even unscrew anything throughout the entire installation. The first step was to simply power up the hub and connect it to our router, in order to authorize the connection with our online account. Once done, we then powered up the MTU which only involved popping open the case to pull out the battery isolation tab, and then connect the meter reader clamp to the MTU. Finally, we attached the clamp to one of the four meter cables and then left the two components inside the meter compartment. Voilà! At this point we just had use AlertMe's web interface to register the meter reader, and a minute later the system was already minding its own number-crunching business.

Our AlertMe review kit also came with a SmartPlug -- not dissimilar to a socket extension brick but with just one socket -- which provides individual appliance power monitoring, as well as the ability to remotely switch a device on or off. Ignoring the temptation of pranking your flatmates or family members, this SmartPlug can become quite handy for identifying the 'vampires' in the household, or reducing hazardous risks if the system alerts you of abnormal electrical activity while you're away. Like the meter reader, installation of the SmartPlug is also done easily by a simple click on the web interface. It's the same easy procedure with other wireless peripherals available at AlertMe's online store -- lamp, keyfob, motion sensor, camera, etc. This makes AlertMe a gateway into a proper home automation and security system.

AlertMe Energy kit with SmartPlug

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Usage and data


Both devices export their usage stats to Google's PowerMeter service, which at this point is only visible via a simple widget on your iGoogle homepage. It gives daily, weekly, and monthly bar graphs of your power usage and... that's about it. It's about all you need to know if you want to just track your overall energy usage, but both solutions offer their own ways to let you dig a little deeper.

For TED 5000 it's the Footprints website, served up by what's called the Gateway. It looks like an economy-sized AC adapter, decoding the signals sent by the MTU that we earlier installed in our circuit breaker and connecting to your home network via Ethernet. Anywhere on your home network you can go to http://ted5000/ and get a faceful of data, including the cost of your consumption (if you configure your utility's current rate), amount of CO2 generated, a comprehensive suite of reports and, most interesting, a little tachometer looking thing that swings further into the red the more current you pull down. Flip on a single light bulb, even a CFL, and you'll see it here. You can also export your data to spreadsheets, and who doesn't love spreadsheets?

The TED package we received also included a wireless monitoring device, a little rechargeable unit with an LCD that gives you a high-level view of your real-time usage; the AlertMe Energy fully relies on the web to log and display statistics. Both kits use Zigbee which opens the door for a variety of wireless monitoring solutions.

AlertMe takes a similar approach to display the same set of statistics as the TED offers but with a user-friendly, Internet-accessible interface, and yet there are extra functionalities such as identifying each device by light color coding, controlling SmartPlugs (as mentioned earlier) and setting up thresholds for email alerts and auto-off for SmartPlugs. Once you're logged in you're greeted by the above dashboard, giving you realtime power usage, cost of electricity used today, access to detailed charts and access to each component (to view signal strength, battery status and temperature). (You can see more screenshots in the AlertMe gallery above.)

If you're on the move you can still monitor your AlertMe kit via its mobile site, featuring the same speedometer-style indicator (which updates every ten seconds) and a breakdown of power consumption from each component, plus the option to switch SmartPlugs on and off. This site is also handy for quickly tracking down vampire appliances, as you won't need to keep going back to the computer screen when switching things off one by one.

Wrap-up

The TED 5000 provides a thoroughly comprehensive way to track every watt, letting you know exactly when it was consumed -- but not by what. You'll have to figure that out and then go turn it off yourself. The lack of any kind of mobile app or view to your data is a bit of a disappointment these days as well. Finally, the up-front cost is high, $239.95 for the package we tested (though we'd recommend ditching the wireless display to save $40), but it does have the distinct benefit of being a one-time cost. There are no monthly fees here.

On the other hand the AlertMe Energy goes for less intimidating interface to encourage wider adoption, as well as making good use of Zigbee to extend the package's functionality beyond energy monitoring -- with some extra investment it becomes a home automation and security system. Sure, each SmartPlug comes at a cost of £25 ($41), but it adds great value to the basic kit as it aids the product's main objective: to save your energy bills. The basic kit is only £69 ($113), but there's also an annual subscription fee of £29.90 ($49) for the web services -- such combination is still cheaper than TED's package. Well, for two years and a bit at least.

In the end, we were left with the lingering doubt that neither would ever pay for itself. Given the cost of electricity versus the price of admission you'd have to go all Buffy on some pretty serious energy vampires (maybe an electric foundry accidentally left simmering in the basement) for these to make economic sense. But it's not always about saving money, and the ability to monitor and control your home remotely (if you have AlertMe's option) can be hugely reassuring while traveling. Also, remember that with Zigbee these systems have much potential for future expansion -- something we hope TED will capitalize on to justify that initial cost. Even now, either provides you a good defense to to keep those monthly bill terrors at bay.

Special thanks to Richard Lai for additional work on this review.
TED

5000

Pros

  • Comprehensive data
  • Google PowerMeter compatibility
  • Wireless display

Cons

  • Complex installation
  • High cost
  • No mobile app
Conclusion

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Powering Google's PowerMeter: testing TED 5000 and AlertMe Energy