Review: B.C. Hydro’s EMU-2, energy monitor and nag

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EMU-2 home energy monitoring device, from Rainforest Automation.

The EMU-2 is a device that wirelessly links to your B.C. Hydro smart meter and displays your power use in kilowatts and pennies.

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B.C. Hydro is promoting it as part of its conservation efforts. The theory is that if you know how much electricity you are using while you’re using it, and also know the cost of that use, you’ll use less.

Vancouver-based Raincoast Automation sells the EMU-2, which is one of two monitoring devices that B.C. Hydro has authorized to link to its smart meters. The other one is the more expensive Eagle.

Buying either device starts with a form on B.C. Hydro’s website. B.C. Hydro uses the information you provide to make sure your meter is compatible. Most detached and semi-detached houses should qualify. You'll need to supply information from your latest bill.

I filled in the form on a Sunday. An email reply came from B.C. Hydro on Tuesday confirming compatibility. I ordered right away. The EMU-2 arrived in the mail on Friday.

Setting it up was as easy as plugging it in because B.C. Hydro and Raincoast did most of the work for me. I installed the two included AA batteries and plugged in the EMU-2 using the included power plug. It took a few minutes for the device to link to our meter.

The EMU-2, which is a little bigger than a pack of playing cards, has two buttons on the right side that control what appears on the grey-scale screen. You press the top button to go through a series of screens in one order, and press the bottom button to go in reverse order. One screen change per press.

The screen I’ve been most interested in shows current usage in cents per hour and amount of electricity being used in kilowatts. Another screen shows total kilowatt hours used yesterday and total so far today. Others include date and time, electricity price per kilowatt hour, meter reading, usage since a certain date, and messages from B.C. Hydro.

At our house, when most things are turned off, the EMU-2 shows usage of around 1.5 cents an hour. That accounts for things such as the Wi-Fi router, the computer in sleep mode and the video recorder on standby. [Update: it's actually around 1 cent an hour when the house is shut down for the night. Something must have been running when I noted the 1.5 cent reading.]

When the oven or clothes dryer are on, it jumps to around 30 cents. When both are on, it heads toward 60 cents. The readings are slightly behind reality; for example, when I turn off the oven or the TV, the usage displayed on the screen doesn't change for a couple of seconds.

Cost of electricity has been programmed in by B.C. Hydro. On our device, it’s showing 7.5 cents for the first 1,332 kWh, and 11.3 cents after that. (I wrote about the two-rate system in an earlier post.) The prices quoted above are based on the 7.5 cent rate.

A vertical row of three lights are on the EMU-2’s left side — red, yellow and green. They are the device’s nagging feature. Below a certain usage threshold, the light is green; at the threshold and up to five times above it, the yellow glows; beyond five times, the admonishing red glows. Out of the box, the threshold was set at a mere 0.5 kW, which translates into roughly 3.7 cents.

The yellow light glowed often for us; turning on a few lights and the TV was enough. The red glowed for the oven or dryer. All that glowing proved to be annoying, so I looked for a way to turn off the lights, short of putting a piece of tape over them. It turns out you can re-program. Switch on a bunch of stuff until your desired threshold is reached — I aimed for 25 cents. With the current usage screen active, press the top button for five seconds. When all three lights come on, the new threshold is set. Not intuitive, but not that hard.

Because the screen can be difficult to read, I’ve placed the EMU-2 at the base of a table lamp, where light can shine directly on it. The device has a backlight, but it only comes on briefly after you press one of the control buttons. It also has magnets on its back, so that it can attach to, say, a refrigerator door. But I found that the magnets were not strong enough to keep it in place on our fridge door.

The batteries allow you to roam with the EMU-2. Go to your dryer, turn it on, and watch what happens on the EMU-2’s screen.

B.C. Hydro’s promotional material says monitoring-device users typically reduce their electricity consumption by two to six per cent. I can see how that can happen. The numbers and the lights on the EMU-2 have nudged me to turn off lights when I leave a room, to turn off the TV when I’m not watching it and to have shorter showers (though, I’m a little skeptical about whether that’ll last.)

The EMU-2 is being sold at a discounted price through a B.C. Hydro promotion. It’s $34.99 (a $35 discount, says B.C. Hydro). I paid another $6 for shipping. The total came to $45.91 with taxes included.

It’s $64.99 plus shipping and taxes for the fancier Eagle, which operates as a gateway. Hook it up to your router. Computers and smartphones on the same network can display usage information through a web browser.

I opted for the EMU-2 because it’s a standalone device that constantly displays usage; I don’t have to switch on a computer or launch a smartphone app. The EMU-2 is also cheaper.

Here’s B.C. Hydro’s order page for both devices.

If you receive a B.C. Hydro residential bill, you can get access to your power consumption data by signing up for a MyHydro account. Go to bchydro.com, click on Create a MyHydro Profile. With the EMU-2  you get immediate information about power use while you're using it. On the website, the data lags by about a day; there are numbers for usage by the hour, day, week, and month. You can compare your usage with a variety of things, including "similar homes nearby."

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