Why Energy-Monitoring Is Proving Useful For Low-Income Families

Jean Crawford, of Austin, Texas, used to go backpacking, canoeing, camping, bicycling and horseback riding. But since suffering from severe heat stroke in 1991 while working as a mail carrier, she’s been in a wheelchair — and living on a small fixed income.

“You learn to be extremely thrifty when the money’s not there,” said the avid Longhorns football fan.

That’s why she’s glad to be taking part in an innovative project, sponsored by Verizon, that’s using mobile technology and other smart tools to keep close tabs on her electric bills.

Since January 2014, 140 apartments in Austin have been outfitted with energy-monitoring devices, smart thermostats and routers with Verizon connectivity to closely monitor energy use, room by room, down to each appliance. The residents can check their computers or tablets at any hour and know exactly where their energy dollars are going at any time of day.

The project is still relatively new. But interviews with participants and research findings strongly suggest that participants are indeed using the high-tech tools. They’re watching their energy use in close detail. And that added knowledge is prompting them to turn down the air conditioning, dim the lights, pull the shades, run the dishwasher less — small steps that can add up to appreciable savings.

Retiree Chester Skorupa saw that readings for his water heater were spiking up every few hours whether he was home or not; the electricity was needed to keep the water warm.

“So the last time I went on a lengthy trip, which was about a month, I just turned the water heater off,” he said, “and it made a huge difference in the amount of electricity I was using.”

After the first six months, researchers found, 85 percent of the participants said they had become better educated and more aware about energy. Sixty-four percent said they’d become more proficient with technology. Thirty-six percent said they’d made some changes in their behavior in conserving energy.

"Those were powerful numbers after just six months," said Christopher Lloyd, Verizon’s executive director of public policy and corporate responsibility — particularly since the residents had to become proficient in as many as three tech tools: a tablet, a website and an app.

One thing this early phase of the research didn’t yet show was the actual cost savings for each resident. “We’re establishing a baseline this year, which will be compared with next year to determine actual savings realized,” Lloyd said.

The apartment complexes chosen by Pecan Street Inc., the nonprofit that’s running the project, are all for people living on low incomes. Two of the complexes are primarily occupied by Hispanic families. A third is for people 55 and older. A fourth has a diverse mix of ethnicities and ages. Low-income individuals and families “typically spend 15 to 20 percent of their income on energy,” said Jackie Renner, Pecan Street’s programs manager.

Pecan Street equipped each of the apartments with electronic gauges that track energy data on every circuit in the breaker box, every minute. A router from Verizon transmits the data to the cloud. Each participant gets a Samsung Tablet with a Verizon 2-gigabit data plan and accesses a mobile app developed by Pecan Street to see the data on the participant’s smartphone. They also have access to an online portal called Plotwatt to read their data. (Early results show that people with the mobile app are more than twice as likely to check the readings at least once a week.)

The apartments are equipped with smart thermostats, which automatically ease up on air-conditioning when nobody’s home. Pecan Street held workshops to explain how the equipment works — some residents had never used a tablet before — and to give simple energy-saving tips.

“We aren’t asking people to live uncomfortably,” Renner said. “We’re encouraging them to take small steps and see how much they can save.”

After Jean Crawford began charting the energy readings on her Verizon-issued tablet, she turned off the ice machine in her refrigerator and used the dishwasher less often. “It makes you much more energy-conscious,” she said.