December 2008

Volume 17, Number 12

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Article Contents

Green Topics

Energy Dashboards: Using Real-Time Feedback to Influence Behavior

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All right, I’ll admit it. Like a lot of people, I’ve been known to drive with a heavy foot. Sometimes I have a good reason, but often not. Unlike many people, though, I’m able to see just how much worse my fuel economy is when I’m rushed and driving faster. Seeing my average fuel economy drop on my dashboard display encourages me to slow down. This is sometimes referred to as the Prius effect, though in my case I’m driving a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid.

Can the same principle apply to buildings? If we provide real-time information to building occupants on their energy consumption, will they be encouraged to conserve? A growing number of products are designed to do this—some focus only on electricity, others look more broadly at energy, and a few also track water use.

Evidence of Energy Savings

In 2006 and 2007, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, set out to determine how much energy could be saved if consumers could view their moment-to-moment electricity use and were provided with the means to adjust their power use through online controls. They provided 112 homeowners on the Olympic Peninsula with advanced digital controls on their heating systems, water heaters, and clothes washers. Through an online interface, the homeowners could set their sensitivity to electricity prices (which varied according to peak utility periods) and their level of tolerance for fluctuating temperatures and other inconveniences that may occur from reducing electricity use during peak periods. Their electricity use was then adjusted automatically.

Participants in this GridWise demonstration project reduced their electricity bills by about 10%, and the utility company determined that, based on the customer response in this demonstration, if implemented utility-wide the technology would result in a 15% reduction in peak loads.

Tracking Energy Use

Integrating buildings with “smart grid” technologies like those studied by PNNL may be the ultimate in integrated feedback and control of energy use, but it’s not necessary to wait for utility companies to offer such programs. Numerous energy “dashboard” systems that are available to anyone can influence behavior by displaying instantaneous consumption of electricity, natural gas, and even water.


Agilewaves' Resource Monitor provides real-time data on resource consumption in residential and commercial buildings. The data can be displayed in the building or accessed over the Internet.

Photo: Agilewaves

In August 2007, Agilewaves, one of the technology leaders in building dashboards (and a 2008 BuildingGreen Top-10 product award winner), installed one of its systems in a new spec house in Palo Alto, California. Agilewaves cofounder and CEO Peter Sharer told EBN that the energy monitoring system was a big factor in the home’s quick sale—it sold in three days for more than the asking price. The owner has been tracking his energy use intently and challenging himself to use less and less energy.

Lucid Design Group, which was one of the first companies out of the gates with a user-friendly interface displaying building energy consumption (see EBN Vol. 15, No. 6), got its start at Oberlin College when several of the company founders were still students. The students, inspired to save energy by their professors, organized an energy-saving competition among several dormitories at the college and created a user interface to display the real-time and cumulative energy consumption on computer monitors. Lucid, like Agilewaves, is fundamentally a software company, focused on the display of information. “The key for us is having a consumer interface that’s intuitive and user-friendly,” Murray told EBN.

Since that start, Lucid Design Group co-founder and president Michael Murray has branched out to office buildings, including a system at Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, California office park, where five buildings are being monitored by a Lucid system. At the same time, Lucid continues to focus on colleges and universities, with the company having installed nearly 25 such systems in the past four years, some of which also track water use. Inter-dorm competitions remain popular, and dormitories routinely see a 10% to 15% reduction in energy use during these 4- to 12-week competitions, says Murray. The company plans to study whether, and to what extent, savings continue.

A company with preliminary data on sustained energy savings is Quality Attributes Software, makers of the Green Touchscreen (see below). The company installed touchscreen kiosks at the Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa in San Francisco, a LEED Gold certified building. According to Craig Engelbrecht, chief marketing officer for Quality Attributes Software, the hotel saw a 26% drop in energy costs and a 45% drop in water costs after installing the kiosk. Engelbrecht acknowledged that the company hadn’t been able to track the source of such dramatic savings, but he noted that all guests at the hotel are oriented to the Green Touchscreen on checking in. Guests can also view real-time metrics for the hotel through a channel on the televisions in their rooms, although room-specific data is not available.

In homes, the makers of the Powercost Monitor, Blue Line Innovations, has compiled a number of studies showing that providing real-time information feedback to utility customers consistently results in reductions in whole-house electricity consumption of 7%–12%. In long-term trials, behavioral changes can become so routine that customers are no longer aware of them. Depending on the product, monitoring systems consume some degree of energy themselves, but this should be dwarfed by savings.

Whole Building Systems

Full-featured systems for displaying detailed information on whole-building resource use are more common for commerciail buildings, though some are going into homes.

Resource Monitor

Agilewaves, Inc.

Menlo Park, California


The Agilewaves Resource Monitor provides residential and commercial building owners with real-time data on electricity, gas, and water consumption. This Web-based system can monitor data from circuits, rooms, water lines, and appliances. Agilewaves can also track, store, and analyze temperature, humidity, output from photovoltaic and solar water heating systems, utility costs, and carbon footprint information. It can also communicate with certain building management systems to actively manage loads based on real-time usage. The Resource Monitor can help reduce energy, gas, and water consumption by up to 20%, according to the company. Each system is custom-configured and can be adapted to monitor unusual flows such as runoff from green roofs. The least expensive residential Agilewaves system costs $7,900 and includes meters for whole-house electricity, gas, and water consumption, plus detailed energy or water use on seven circuits. Actual installed systems have ranged in cost from $10,000 to $80,000. If the company is able to replace the onsite central processing unit with Internet-based software, costs could eventually drop to a few thousand dollars.

Building Dashboard

Lucid Design Group, LLC

Oakland, California


The Building Dashboard from Lucid Design Group got its start at Oberlin College, where students developed a monitoring system to compare energy use by different dormitories; several students commercialized the first user-friendly energy dashboard system for commercial and institutional buildings. Their company has developed touch-screen displays that show the real-time use of energy and water in an attractive and easy-to-understand manner. Most of Lucid Design’s systems have been installed at colleges and universities, including a system collecting data from 50 buildings at Elon University, but the company has several systems in commercial buildings as well. System costs are typically in the range of $25,000 to $50,000 if meters are not already in place, and $10,000 to $20,000 if meters are present.

Green Touchscreen and iBPortal Dashboard


This Green Touchscreen at an Iowa utility shows energy consumption information for the building, along with other environmental information for consumers and building occupants.

Photo: Quality Attributes Software

Quality Attributes Software, Inc.

Ames, Iowa



The Green Touchscreen is a Web-based, interactive program designed for kiosk display to help building occupants in educational settings see and learn from energy consumption in a building. The company also offers the iBPortal, a platform for collecting, analyzing, and displaying real-time data on building performance, including electricity and natural gas consumption, water consumption, indoor air quality, and energy production from renewable energy systems. The iBPortal supports public dashboards like the Green Touchscreen, but it also can support internal building management systems. In addition, third parties can build applications compatible with the iBPortal for specific building systems. Systems average between $20,000 and $30,000.

Electricity Monitors

Numerous systems are available for homeowners and small commercial buildings to offer real-time feedback on electricity use and draw attention to cost-saving opportunities.

Insight and Vantage

Tendril Networks, Inc.

Boulder, Colorado




Tendril, Inc., foresees a thoroughly networked system of communication between utilities and electricity consumers and their individual electric loads, and has developed a number of products that move toward that end. Its Insight energy monitor is a small, freestanding display for use in the home; the Vantage is an Internet-browser-based product. Both track the cost and consumption of electricity in real time while allowing the user to see what loads are responsible for what usage. They can also issue alerts from utilities. Tendril’s systems work in concert with special wireless-enabled devices, such as electrical outlets and meters, and with TREE, the Tendril Residential Ecosystem platform. Tendril’s systems provide fine-grained understanding and control but require an array of wireless devices—and the participation of utilities—to operate at their full potential. Basic installation costs $100; more complete systems could be much more costly.

PowerCost Monitor

Blue Line Innovations, Inc.

St. Johns, Newfoundland

866-607-2583, 709-579-3502


The PowerCost Monitor is an affordable, real-time electricity meter similar to The Energy Detective. The transmitting device with this product clamps onto the standard electricity meter outside a home or small commercial building, and data is transmitted wirelessly to a receiver indoors. Both the transmitter and receiver are battery-powered. The display can be programmed for either single-rate electricity pricing or tiered (peak and off-peak) pricing. The user enters electricity costs (including both peak and off-peak if applicable), and the unit is then able to display real-time costs of electricity for the house. Tens of thousands of utility customers in Canada and the U.S. have received PowerCost Monitors through programs to reduce electricity demand, with measured savings as great as 18% in Newfoundland and Labrador. Retail price: $149.99.

The Energy Detective (TED)

Energy, Inc.

Charleston, South Carolina

800-959-5833, 843-766-9800


The Energy Detective (TED) displays real-time electricity use for an entire home, encouraging conservation.

Photo: Energy, Inc.

The Energy Detective (TED) is a simple, inexpensive device for displaying real-time electricity use in an entire home or on a single circuit. A transmitting device is installed in the home’s circuit breaker by clamping it onto the main incoming electrical leads. Once installed, it sends data to the receiver, a small LCD display that plugs into a wall outlet and sits on a shelf or table showing real-time electricity consumption. A more sophisticated model communicates with a personal computer, allowing peak electricity loads to be reduced (load-shedding) and providing graphs of historical electricity use. The retail price for Model 1001 with computer interface is $144.95.

Energy Joule and Energy Orb

Ambient Devices, Inc.

Cambridge, Massachusetts


The Energy Joule is a small plug-in display that shows current electricity use and cost, along with weather data. The display also changes color on a “stoplight model”—green, yellow, and red—to indicate relative energy cost. Data is sent to the device using cell-phone technology. Ambient Devices also offers the Energy Orb, a frosted glass ball which glows in stoplight colors to indicate relative energy costs at a glance. Both products are available only through participating utilities, with cost depending on the utility program.

ECM 1220 Energy Monitor

Brultech Research, Inc.

St. Catharines, Ontario


The ECM 1220 Energy Monitor, available in both a portable professional model and a home model designed for permanent installation, is a sophisticated device for measuring electricity consumption in homes or small commercial buildings. With optional software, the unit displays kilowatt-hour (kWh) use and cost of energy used; displays average daily, weekly, and monthly electricity costs; allows users to set and track a target electricity budget; detects unusual electricity consumption that may indicate faulty equipment or other problems; and helps identify appliances and other electrical loads in need of repair or replacement. It is available in a wireless model (ECM-1220.H-X). The same monitor is available through Optimum Energy Products, Ltd. (, branded as the EML 2020 Portable Power Monitor.

– Alex Wilson

Comments (2)

1 Additional affordable monitor posted by Kevin Little on 12/13/2008 at 02:55 am

There’s a lot to discuss in terms of performance feedback systems but I’ll put the philosophy discussion in another comment. For readers who decide they are ready to use performance information to guide intelligent action, here are some suggestions that fill in the mid-range between the $10,000 plus systems and the home units that won’t work effectively in the school or commercial settings we’ve experienced.

INEXPENSIVE, ROBUST ELECTRICAL ENERGY MEASUREMENT Continental Controls ( produces the WattNode family of industrial-grade electric energy meters that will connect to almost any building monitoring system. A WattNode and appropriate set of current transducers (doughnuts that clamp on wires in the electric panel of a building) typically will cost less than $500. The installation requires knowledge of electricity, so add an hour or so of an electrician's time. The WattNode produces a signal that needs interpretation so you need to connect the output to some kind of system.

ONSET U-30 WEB-ENABLED RESOURCE MONITORING FOR $1000. Onset Computer Corporation (the maker of Hobo data loggers) recently released a series of web-enabled data loggers-the U-30 family. These loggers communicate between a user's site and Onset servers by cell modem, Wi-Fi or Ethernet connections. The basic hardware loggers are less than $1000 and will handle five meters or sensors (five more with an expansion unit); the price includes hourly updates to Onset servers and a basic web-page view, administrative set-up and alarm notifications. The price does not include the meters or sensors that you will monitor but you can attach a WattNode meter to the U30 with a $70 cable, getting you web-enabled electricity monitoring for about $1500. The Wi-Fi and Ethernet (wired) units have no monthly service fees if you choose hourly updates; there is a modest fee for more frequent updates. For many users in schools or small commercial buildings, 5 to 15 minute snapshots of performance, updated hourly and linked to alarms, will be more than adequate to guide energy use and document the impact of intended and unintended actions. The Onset system is cost-effective for such applications.

ADDING BUILDING DEMAND (ELECTRIC ENERGY USE) TO A RENEWABLE ENERGY MONITORING SYSTEM. Fat Spaniel Technologies ( has provided renewable energy monitoring for more than 1500 systems in 13 countries around the world. It is simple and relatively inexpensive to extend the Fat Spaniel internet gateway hardware and web view to monitor demand--an electrician can add a simple WattNode meter to monitor energy use or a more sophisticated full feature power meter to monitor several electrical parameters and connect the outputs to the gateway hardware. With the additional input(s), the Fat Spaniel web display (and data downloads) will integrate a building's energy use with the site's energy production.

I am happy to discuss our experience so far with these solutions.

Kevin Little, Ph.D. Informing Ecological Design, 608.251.4355

2 Is the Prius effect relevant posted by Kevin Little on 12/14/2008 at 12:11 pm

The Prius effect is a real phenomenon, in which drivers use the mileage display feedback to improve performance—they actually change the way they drive. Does the effect generalize to other systems, like buildings? It depends.

Based on my experience and study of information systems, at least five conditions must be met before a person or team can use feedback to improve performance of a system. The person or team must (1) sense the feedback; (2) interpret the feedback; (3) translate the feedback into one or more suitable actions that will improve performance; (4) have the authority to act; (5) actually act to change system performance.

In greater detail, here’s why the Prius effect is real for many hybrid car drivers: (1) Sensibility In the hybrid car, the instantaneous mileage performance display is kept in front of the driver and is available at all times with a glance; (2) Interpretability The feedback signal in the Prius and Honda Hybrid Civic (and other vehicles) is a variation on a bar graph that moves beside an indexed scale—higher is better, lower is worse, and most hybrid drivers are primed and able to interpret the feedback. (3) Know-how Most drivers understand that the main control action to save energy is to reduce engine RPM—either to slow down staying in the same gear or shift to a higher gear and maintain the speed (or both). Generally, slowing down is a good thing for mileage performance as air resistance increases as the third power of speed. The main control lever in a car with automatic transmission is the accelerator; it’s pretty easy to learn the connection between using the accelerator and the mpg display. (4) Authority The hybrid driver is in the driver’s seat, interacting with accelerator, brake and gear shift and so can change driving actions to improve performance. (5) Will into Action Hybrid drivers are often motivated by bragging rights and concern for the environment actually to drive conservatively, adjusting their driving actions, guided by their display.

When real-time building information systems are deployed in settings that meet the five conditions I’ve listed, then the Prius effect will hold and a building’s performance can improve.

When designed well enough, building information systems help building managers and users to • focus on desired performance, • shape behavior of new managers and users, • fine-tune actions; • experiment with new actions, measuring effects of changes; • troubleshoot and resolve problems; and • compare their building’s performance with other buildings.

It’s true that you only need know-how, authority and will-into-action to improve performance. It also helps to have a good system design at the start so that good performance is the baseline.

Nonetheless, you can do even better if you define the right feedback, delivered on time to users who know what to do with the information. That’s our challenge as information system designers.

I'm eager to discuss these issues further.

Kevin Little, Ph.D. Informing Ecological Design, 608.251.4355

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