Watt a waste

Helen Brown thought she knew all about saving energy. But a new device that shows exactly how much power her appliances really use had her reaching for the 'off' switch
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The Independent Online

The red numbers on the digital display are zooming higher and higher as the mechanical roaring reaches a rattling crescendo. I feel like an astronaut at re-entry time, desperate for those digits to stay below circuit-melting point: 148... 192... 270... 298... 330... 386... 401. "Abort! Abort!" I yell at my washing machine as the spin cycle climaxes. The wet laundry slumps in the drum and the numbers subside to a healthier 78. "Don't even think about tumble-drying anything after that little performance!" I mutter at the machine as I leave the kitchen.

Welcome to life with a "Wattson": a trendy new appliance that shows its owners how much electricity they are consuming at any given time. The Wattson (as in What Watts Are On) was devised and designed by Greta Corke, Richard Woods and Jon Sawdon Smith of DIY Kyoto.

"We all studied at the Royal College of Art," says Corke, "but, funnily enough, we never met there. After I graduated, my friend Rachel Wingfield and I contributed to an exhibition at the V&A called Brilliant, about lighting. We came up with a wallpaper installation where the pattern would change with energy use. I wasn't sure how to make it work, and then I discovered that Richard had developed similar technology for his final-year piece.

"It was an idea that we wanted to push forward, and Jon had worked in the same area so he joined us to develop the product that became the Wattson [pronounced like the name Watson]."

The trio formed DIY Kyoto in 2004, and outline its philosophy on www.diykyoto.com: "We do not wait for government initiatives to add to the Kyoto Protocol. We empower the individual to add, through their own actions, to the Kyoto agreement. We passionately believe that people can change their behaviour and take personal responsibility for environmental impact when given the right tools and encouragement."

Since the British are the least energy-efficient householders in Europe, we need all the encouragement we can get. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that UK families commit an average of 32 energy-wasting actions per week. But if we can make a game of cutting consumption, perhaps we'll see the light. Or rather, turn it off.

My Wattson was delivered a week ago. It is one of the £350 limited-edition range (a less costly version will be launched in April). I was immediately seduced by its cool, retro curves, and smooth, white surface. The tactile base is made from reclaimed wood from old school science labs. It's a beautiful thing, and that's the point. Most monitors are ugly, designed to be hidden beside a meter. The point of the Wattson is that you want to display it, and by keeping it in sight, you keep energy consumption in mind. And it's wireless, so once you've charged it up, you can put it anywhere.

But first, the technical bit. I have to nip out to the electricity meter and snap the jaws of a current clip (attached to a little transmitter in a black plastic box) around a cable. This done, I dash back into the house and plug in the Wattson, which glows into life like an alien species of jellyfish. Electroluminescence spills out across my desk in a steady throb of blue light. Greta has told me that blue is for low-energy use, red for high. "We worked for ages on the shape," she says, "and chose the brick because lots of bricks make a wall and, together, we can change the world."

The next few days were a frenzy of switch-flipping. I couldn't wait to find out what used watt, so to speak. And I was staggered by how off-beam my intuition had been. I'd assumed that appliances of similar shape and noise used equal amounts of juice, but my little hairdryer burned up a steady 150W, while my boyfriend's beard clippers used just 15W. Encouragement, then, for him to keep neat, and me to towel-dry. Out went the hairdryer. The toaster guzzles 200W, while the television and video combined came in at 30W. And they're not even the new, energy-efficient models.

Other appliances cause confusing fluctuations. The fridge was all over the place, veering from 35W to 120W. And the computers were interesting. Occasionally, we would hear a disc spin and the counter would scurry upward. I became very aware of checking e-mails because jolting the computer from screensaving mode to delete a series of Viagra ads sent the Wattson up 10W.

There was cause for rejoicing, too. The vacuum cleaner was bad, using 400W, so no more guilt about not using it. And the iron joined it on the naughty step, at a burning 425W. But while my digital radio only used 5W, I realised that leaving it on all day as a clock was daft. So I bought a clock. Sawdon Smith empathised with me. While developing the Wattson, he realised that he blew £50 a year by using his microwave as a clock (the Wattson also estimates how much each appliance costs per year, flipping between watts used and pounds spent).

As the week went on, we became increasingly competitive about cutting consumption. We would unplug items and run to the Wattson for confirmation of our goodness. It had become a sort of ecological Tamagotchi that we had to keep feeding with frugality. We were changing our habits and having fun. Light bulbs were changed to energy-savers: 15W down to 5W. When guests came round, they admired our new electronic pet, and realised that everyone would now know if they left the bathroom light on.

And it won't be long before those guests will be able to compare their consumption with ours online, as the Wattson will be accompanied by software that charts electricity use across hours, days, weeks and months, and allows you to compare your consumption with your neighbour's, say, or even with that of somebody living in America. "And then we'll show a cumulative total online of how much all the Wattson users have saved," says Corke. "It's going to be so much fun!"

Elementary, my dear Wattson...

* Over the past 10 years, electricity consumption from consumer electronics and domestic IT has increased by 47 per cent. Over the next five years, consumption in is expected to rise by 82 per cent.

* British homes are collectively wasting £750m of electricity a year by keeping appliances on standby.

* Switching off appliances rather than leaving them on standby can save homeowners up to £11 per year.

* According to the Energy Saving Trust (EST), changing just one bulb to an energy-saver can reduce lighting costs by up to £9 per year (£100 over the lifetime of the bulb).

* EST research also indicates that UK consumers are planning to buy around 30 million electrical items over the next six-months - more than one new item per household. Its study reveals that items considered to be "essential" now include juicers, bread-makers, and electric toothbrushes.

Helen's appliances

Iron 425W

Vacuum cleaner 400W

Toaster 200W

Hairdryer 150W

Fridge 35W-120W

TV & video 30W

Checking e-mails 10W

Digital radio 5W

Charging mobile phone 5W