Cut and control your fuel bills, while going green

The super meter has arrived while other gizmos promise to transform our energy usage. Chiara Cavaglieri reports
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With winter nearly upon us and household gas and electricity prices rising, we all need to find ways to curb our energy spending over the coming months. Getting smart about the way we use energy isn't just about switching to the cheapest provider either – learning to manage our usage is the key to long term savings. And the best way to do this is to get to grips with how much energy we actually use.

Home electricity monitors such as the Owl or Efergy Elite, which you can order online, are simple handheld gadgets which provide a "real time display" of the fuel being used in your home. So, if you turn off an appliance such as the television or microwave, you can watch the counter go down and get a much clearer idea of how much your energy habits are costing you and the planet.

"Visual displays make the amount and cost of energy consumption visible and encourage people to switch off unnecessary appliances, efficiently manage their heating and make other informed energy-saving changes," says Brooke Flanagan, the head of strategy and research at the Energy Saving Trust.

Most monitoring devices cost around £40, although many of the energy suppliers offer them free if you sign up for certain tariffs. Right now, npower is giving them away to customers switching to paperless billing.

A more sophisticated way to calculate energy consumption is to use smart meters. Under government plans, these will be installed by energy suppliers in all their customers' homes between 2012 and 2020, although First Utility has already started with the new "Smart as Standard" dual-fuel tariff which provides customers with the meters free of charge.

Hazel Cottrell, an energy researcher at Which?, says: "Smart meters are different from energy monitors – these will actually replace your current electricity and gas meters and talk to your energy supplier so that you get exact readings."

Unlike energy monitors, which work by clipping a sensor to your fusebox to calculate your electricity usage and send this information to portable receivers, the smart box is essentially an electronic version of existing meters. It is able to send readings back to your energy supplier so that you get an accurate bill based on your actual usage instead of estimates.

The long-term potential to save money with smart meters is impressive when it is combined with wireless energy monitors – the technology is also in place to let smart meters communicate with appliances so that they use power only at times when energy is cheap, or switch them off at peak times. However, with another 10 years to wait until every household has one, energy-conscious homeowners may prefer to act now.

One option is the AlertMe smart energy system which lets customers monitor their energy usage as well as adjust their consumption by remotely controlling their appliances. Instead of transmitting to a handheld unit, like other energy monitors, it measures the energy being used in your home and sends the information through a hub connected to your broadband router. Set-up costs start from £29.99, plus subscriptions from £1.99 per month, but AlertMe says that its system could save you around 25 per cent of your bills each year.

Even better, with the AlertMe smart plugs, costing £25 each, you can view and control specific home appliances. These are attached to plugs and sockets so that you can find out how much it costs to run an individual appliance, such as your kettle, washing machine or fridge. More importantly, you can log on to the AlertMe dashboard to control these appliances. So, if you've left the TV on standby, for example, you can simply use a computer or even your mobile phone to turn it off, saving energy and reducing your electricity bill.

"Our aim is to give customers easy to understand information on their energy use anytime, anywhere and allow them to access this simply as part of their daily routine whether that be online, on their mobile phone," says Mary Turner, the chief executive of AlertMe.

The firm has also tackled controlling heating, which accounts for more than half of your home's energy. It has produced a wireless heating controller which allows you to heat your home only when you need to by changing the temperature or turning the heating on or off with a simple text or by going online. For customers with the AlertMe home monitoring system – it costs £149.99 then £4.99 for a monthly subscription, and is primarily used for home security – you can create customised email, text or voice alerts to warn you if a specific appliance, such as a fridge or freezer, has stopped working .

Despite this potential, the success of energy monitoring relies on you taking action. With accurate readings to show you how much it costs to boil a kettle or leave a television on standby, you have the motivation to become more energy efficient and cut your bills, but you'll only save money if you are prepared to make changes. "Energy monitors require you to make a behavioural change, so if you want to cut your bills you have to use the information the monitors provide," says Ms Cottrell.

If that sounds like too much effort, the PassivEnergy management system may be better for you. This replaces existing heating controls and runs your home with minimal energy waste by learning your energy habits and adjusting them accordingly. All you have to do is feed into the system whether you are in, out, asleep, or on holiday. It will then ensure that you have the right amount of hot water and heat. So, if you pop to the shops, it will put the house into a low energy state until you get back.

This service doesn't come cheaply, however, so expect to hand over upwards of £484.

Case Study

Sandra Hewitt, Charity consultant

Sandra Hewitt, 44, who has five children and works as a consultant for a charity, has had the AlertMe system installed in her home in Blacon, Chester, since June. This was set up for her for free as part of a local energy programme called Sustainable Blacon which runs until April 2011 and involves groups of households piloting different energy-saving approaches.

"The biggest thing for me is awareness, not just for myself but my whole family, seeing how we leave things on standby and keep radiators on full in every room of the house," says Sandra.

She has both the AlertMe heating control thermostat, which isn't commercially available until 2011, and the AlertMe energy system, which includes five smart plugs.

Using these to monitor the running cost of individual appliances such as her kettle, washing machine and TV has made it easy to see how much electricity the family use unnecessarily. It has made it obvious that little changes can reduce the bills.

"It's learning curve. For example, I've always had a full kettle on the boil, but now I know that it costs more and only use the amount that I need," she says.

Even better, she can remotely control all of the smart-plug appliances and use the thermostat controller to turn the heating on and off while she's at work.

"It's about taking control of the way we use energy and really getting to grips with exactly how much we waste," says Sandra.

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