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REVIEW: Microsoft Hohm's First Gadget

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If you didn’t equate electricity meters with Microsoft (s MSFT), get ready to. The first gadget that is compatible with Microsoft’s energy tool Hohm is officially on sale today for $249 and I’ve spent the last week taking Hohm and the device for a spin. Based on my experiences so far, I think Microsoft is on the right path towards helping consumers better understand their energy requirements and the Hohm service really did help me learn about a variety of low cost options that could reduce my home’s energy consumption and carbon footprint.

The heart of the Microsoft Hohm system is a PowerCost Monitor from Blue Line Innovations (company profile), which is comprised of two parts: a sensor unit for your electric meter and a wireless LCD display unit. Installing the sensor took me about 15 minutes and was quite simple using the included instructions. The sensor is essentially an “electronic eye” that, when lined up properly with the spinning disk in my meter, reads electricity consumption in real-time. That data is fed back to the wireless LCD display to indicate current cost of electricity usage per minute, total kilowatt hours and cost of electricity used over time, to name a few bits of information.

Since the eye on the sensor unit only measures the amount of electricity consumption, you have to configure the LCD monitor to make sense of the data. This process is also simple and consists of running through a menu to enter the cost of power from your utility provider. I didn’t have my electric billing rate handy, but a quick online lookup of my last bill offered the information I needed.

I like that the monitor can account for tiered rates — like I have — as well as a single flat rate or time-based rates. Once I programmed my billing details to the monitor, I simply had to pair the monitor to the sensor, which is accomplished with a five-second button press. I’d estimate the entire out-of-the-box setup process took under a half-hour before I was able to see real-time electricity consumption on the LCD monitor.

The monitor is nice enough, but Microsoft’s Hohm service greatly expands the value by offering real-time energy charts online along with various suggestions on how to reduce utility demand and costs. How does Microsoft get that data visible on the web? Again, Blue Line Innovations provides the hardware — this time in the form of a Wi-Fi accessory to the smart meter sensor.

This piece was even easier to set up — I just connected it to a PC to ensure it had the most recent firmware and then I registered for a Microsoft Hohm account. Once done, the Wi-Fi receiver was connected to my wireless home network and a single button push on the meter sensor began to send energy consumption data wirelessly to the Microsoft Hohm website, viewable in any browser, including the one on my iPad.

The online charts show electric consumption, costs and even the amount of CO2 produced by the electricity consumption over various time periods: 30 minutes, 6 hours, day, month, or year. While useful to see in the browser in any web-connected computer, the real value is in combining such data with other information you provide about your home. You can add as little or as much detail about your home and with it, Microsoft Hohm recommends cost-cutting, energy-saving activities. If you’re familiar with the online financial service, it’s a very similar approach.

I only completed 56 percent of my home profile (so far) by explaining what types of bulbs we have in which rooms, what type of hot water heater we have, etc…. and Microsoft Hohm started offering useful suggestions. I can save an estimated $145 annually and reduce the home’s carbon footprint by 805 pounds by getting our air ducts professionally sealed, for example. Or when I get my home’s siding replaced, Hohm says I can save $283 per year and diminish our carbon footprint by nearly three-quarters of a ton with sheathing insulation. And the qualities of your home, along with the recommendations you act upon, modify your Hohm Score, a number indicating how energy efficient your household is.

Perhaps the most useful feature is the printable home energy report and instructions on how to use the Hohm recommendations — don’t worry, I didn’t waste paper by printing it. In fact, the printable report is best viewed online as it shows do-it-yourselfers how to lower the temperature on your water heater or how to install that exterior sheathing. Besides the written instructions, some recommendations offer helpful videos with additional detail and guidance.

Overall, I found this first iteration of the Microsoft Hohm service to be very useful. We’re always looking for ways to reduce our energy consumption as well as the carbon footprint of our home and Microsoft is now helping us do just that. And I expect the Hohm services to mature over time. There are hooks into future features such as connecting your Hohm account directly to a participating energy provider and even today, you can tweet your Hohm Score or send it to Facebook and help the green, smart-meter movement.

Related research from GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):
Company Profile: Blue Line Innovations

Home Energy Management: Innovating Beyond the Browser

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