Teeny sensor system lets you effectively monitor electricity usage

MIT and the Office of Naval Research system can inexpensively monitor electricity used by household appliances, lighting fixtures and electronic devices

Getting a handle on electricity use in the data center, home or even Navy ships at sea is no easy task, but a system under development by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Office of Naval Research aims to tame that challenge.

powersavings Office Of Naval Research/Bryce Vickmark
 MIT researches have developed a system that could figure out exactly how much power is being used by every appliance, lighting fixture, and device in home or business...Office Of Naval Research . Credit: Bryce Vickmark  

With backing from ONR, MIT have designed what they call a portable system to precisely measure and cheaply monitor the amount of electricity used by individual household appliances, lighting fixtures and electronic devices.

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According to an ONR release the system involves five postage stamp-sized sensors placed above or near power lines coming into a house.

“The sensors are designed to be self-calibrating—enabling them to automatically pinpoint the strongest electrical signals. The system can distinguish between each type of light, appliance and device based on unique signatures; which ones turn on and off; and how often and at what times. It then displays this data in real time on an app that allows users to focus on specific time segments—revealing when, for example, a refrigerator goes into its defrost cycle, or how regularly a water heater switches on and off each day,” ONR wrote.

“There are already ways to monitor household energy use,” said Dr. Steven Leeb, an MIT engineering professor in a statement. “But they involve hiring a licensed electrician or cutting through power lines or pipes to attach expensive, specialized equipment. With our system, you can install non-contact sensors using zip ties or even velcro, and use signal processing to measure power consumption. It’s fast, easy and much less expensive. It also could serve as a way to tell when equipment needs maintenance or replacement.”

MIT wrote about the system in August saying “While many groups have worked on developing devices to monitor electricity use, the new MIT system has some key advantages over other approaches. First, it involves no complex installation: No wires need to be disconnected, and the placement of the postage-stamp-sized sensors over the incoming power line does not require any particular precision — the system is designed to be self-calibrating. Second, because it samples data very quickly, the sensors can pick up enough detailed information about spikes and patterns in the voltage and current that the system can, thanks to dedicated software, tell the difference between every different kind of light, motor, and other device in the home and show exactly which ones go on and off, at what times.

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“The system is designed so that all of the detailed information stays right inside the user’s own home, eliminating concerns about privacy that potential users may have when considering power-monitoring systems. The detailed analysis, including the potential for specialized analysis based on an individual user’s specific needs or interests, can be provided by customized apps that can be developed using the MIT team’s system,” MIT wrote.

As for the military component, having a way to track energy use in real time would help cut back on fuel and power consumption, a Navy ship might be able to sail for longer periods of time before needing replenishment. Leeb said his group is conducting at-sea tests of the system aboard three U.S. Coast Guard cutters based in the Boston area, to mirror some of the conditions and challenges facing Navy vessels.

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