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A year with the Sense Home Energy Monitor

Sense Home Energy MonitorMostly cross posted from Pocketables.

People have asked what sense the Sense Home Energy Monitor makes, and after a year of using it, and with the company getting pounded by negative reviews, they’ve started reaching out to customers to see if there’s anything they can do. I got off a call with them a little earlier, some thoughts.

TL;DR going to tell you a lot of meh things about Sense but tell you it’s still probably worth it in the end.

Does this make Sense?

Here’s the crux of the problem – they offer a product that can sense what electricity is being used by what device, but it takes some time for it to figure out what is what, it also takes you a little bit of detective work to help name things.

The eventual goal is to get your house mapped out and then you know where your electricity is being wasted. This can take a couple of months to even get usable data on what device is what. You’ll get electricity stats right out of the box, but not what device is using electricity for the first few days.

I’ll note the word up there, wasted, not used. Here’s where a lot of people initially tune out in the Sense model and advertising – “what’re you going to do, burn up, freeze, not do this that or the other?” – no, what you’re going to do is see that your fridge is costing you $20 more a month than it should and needs six bucks of door insulation repair, or your water heater is on significantly longer than it should be and the thermostat needs replaced or reset, or learn that your crazy uncle was entirely wrong about whether leaving the AC on all day or turning it off while you’re gone saves/wastes electricity, that a load of laundry costs this much with high temp to dry and this much with low, or that your computer is using 1000W and should only be ~300 because you got a falsely rated power supply.

I now know what it costs to run my company equipment at my house, the cost savings of turning my AC off all day and starting cooling 20 minutes prior to arrival, and that hot water costs a lot more than you’d think.

Sense Home Energy Monitor

But I still want more from this device. So do a lot of people. We were sold it (or in my case given it for review by a PR dept,) with the promise of a device that would map out most things automatically, help us understand where we were wasting power, was easy to install, and was smart.

It’s not that smart… yet

Sense Home Energy MonitorWhat we got was something that doesn’t instantly gratify out of the box, takes a couple of months of use and a little detective work to train/figure out what is what, uses a lot of bandwidth, and can’t find the smaller vampire devices. I’ll note that last part, phantom/vampire energy, listed as “always on” in the Sense app, is costing me about a buck a day / $365 a year. I don’t know which devices these are, and neither does the Sense Home Energy Monitor still, at a year.

I have no ability to break out what it’s seeing as a draw in “other” or “always on,” what draws when and when these things peak/wane.

I can however, use it as a dumb energy monitor and just go and unplug things until “other devices” shrinks to nothing. I’ve done this to identify some devices.

We were sold something that you cannot easily train. This is a very big problem. Their deep learning technology doesn’t have the ability for you to tell Sense what you’re going to do and say “listen for this, a TV is going to turn on.” or “hey, the fan for my air conditioner kicked on two minutes ago take note”. There’s no input other than naming devices, combining devices (for situations when your stove top has multiple energy draws,) and some billing.

It does get better, but it takes time. It also takes other people with your equipment getting Sense and naming devices for it to get better.

I was contacted

Sense Home Energy Monitor

I got a call as a customer of Sense, not as a PR/bloggy person. Well, actually I got an email to schedule a call and then I got the call and I talked with one of the outreach people and discussed a bit what I expected, what I wanted, and what Sense could and could not do at this point and where I felt let down.

I informed the Sense rep that what I want that it should be able to do is to tell me when things aren’t functioning normally. I want the Sense app to tell me when I’ve left home and the stove or a curling iron is on. I want the Sense app to tell me when my fridge is running for too long (kid left the door open). I want the Sense app to tell me when the water heater is running too long (bad element, thermostat, etc) or when the TV suddenly kicks on at 3AM (someone needs to go back to bed) I want to know when my house suddenly is on track to blow $600 in electricity a month.

In many cases I can IFTTT these things – stove or curling iron on and not at home – cool. That’s great. Unfortunately it’s not always picking up a curling iron as a curling iron. Sometimes we’re still picking it up as an other device.

A while back they added the ability to look for devices on the network. What that should have done was given Sense the ability to tell when my Android TV was on or off, or my computer was functioning or not, or any number of things. This didn’t seem to go anywhere.

The person I talked to mentioned they’re attempting to integrate Sense with some smart plugs so that it can monitor draws. I’m not sure about the rest of the world but there’s little chance I’m putting my stove on a smart plug, so most likely this is going to extend Sense’s usability scenario by being able to tell me the downstairs light cost me 3 cents last month or that my TV watching habit cost $2.

The issues are your old devices have a signature. These signatures may be drawn out (eg: motor spin up, runs for 30 seconds, compressor kicks in, and then based on ambient temperature, humidity, and perhaps mass of items in the fridge, the fridge runs for a minute, four minutes, etc). Telling their deep learning AI that something happened just would feed it a minute set of data. I get it. Doesn’t mean it’s great yet.

Sense: Promises broken

That’s where Sense doesn’t feel like it lives up to the promise. Actually there’re a few promises it doesn’t live up to at the moment. But we’ll go through them as I think it’s getting better.

Easy Install

It lists an easy install, that’s right there on their ad. It is an easy install for a professional, and if you’ve got a relatively new house, but what my experience entailed was getting an electrician out there to move the old lines so they could be clamped. Short run, hard turn, 1980’s box. Not particularly easy. Part of the install involves connecting a couple of wires to a 240 volt breaker.

So, possibly easy, but not guaranteed, professional licensed electrician legally required in many states. Definitely not easy in a house built in the 1940’s. On the website it does list as being installed by a licenced tech, but you’ll note the ads on Google and everywhere else just say Easy Install. I doubt you’re factoring in a $120, 10-minute electrician visit when you’re looking at one of these.

Sense Home Energy Monitor ad
Currently the first thing you see when you search for Sense home energy monitor on Google

Additionally after my easy install a day or two later I got an email saying that an install problem had been detected and by the time Sense noticed it it had been corrected. Errr… no, guy plugged it in, we powered it up, nothing changed…

Identifying a lightbulb

From the Sense website:

See how much electricity you’re using, what time your kids got home, or when a basement light comes on. Sense identifies patterns in your energy use to help your family be more efficient, informed, and secure.

Except the basement lightbulb and the kitchen lightbulb and the upstairs bathroom light bulb tend to register the same if you’ve bought the same type of bulbs. So now I’m buying different wattages to track different locations?

Stability better, messages unclear

In the first year I had the Sense Home Energy Monitor just stop functioning three times. I think they’ve got that mostly worked out as I don’t recall anything the past five months or so, but I’d get a message that my monitor had gone offline. The only cure for this was to go down into my basement turn the 240 breaker it was connected to off, and turn it back on again.

That said, I’ve gotten several messages from Sense saying my monitor is offline, I go into the app, it’s online, I get no repeat message. Not a huge whoop, but it’s kind of odd.

The things I’ve asked them to do

Sense Web FreezerEveryone and their dog wants a training mode for Sense. This is where we find out that AI is incredibly difficult to plunk individual person’s data into without making it schizophrenic to other users.

They’ve heard, they’re trying to figure out a way, my guess is this will not particularly be easy. They’re looking at modifying the core features of the beast, and the beast is a complex AI.

So I asked if they had the usage data, why not open it up and let developers take a crack at accessing their own data, seeing if they can train or make a companion program or algorithm that doesn’t go into deep AI to figure out what’s happening. Oh, Nest just said it turned on and there’s an energy draw? Let’s hint at that the air conditioner just kicked on. Woot. Oh Android TV just woke on lan and now there’s a 65W power draw, bet that’s the TV and an amp.

I’ve also asked them to look at something in the Sense app to tell it Device X is on when it’s not detecting it. This is an issue I have with my wife’s curling iron, it doesn’t always register. It ALWAYS NEEDS TO REGISTER. This little hair burning device and the stove are pretty important things that can set my house on fire. I’ll buy a smart plug if I have to just for her curling iron, but knowing the stove is off is probably a priority for most and there aren’t many (if any,) smart plugs that’re going to handle a stove.

Add “hours of expected operation” and “expected max run time” – while I’ve mangled some IFTTT code, I want the Sense app to notify me if my stove is on between say 11pm-7am, or if my fridge is running long at any time because the kids probably left it open.

Does it make Sense? Yes. Eventually.

After 1,600 words of me complaining about the Sense Home Energy Monitor you might think I don’t like it. That’s not the case. It’s good. The issue is with some software upgrades it could be great, and a year into my use it’s not yet.

The More You KnowKnowledge is power, and knowledge about your power is… well, powerful… yeah. Word.

With a lot more work it could identify routines and execute actions such as shower on in the morning (water heater kicked on?)? Kick on the coffee maker, start morning music/news, trigger smart lights to kick on for an hour. Track who’s in the house and screen time. Alert you when strange things happen like a garage door opening and nobody’s cell phone around, etc.

While I paid nothing for the thing it, combined with Nest and some inexpensive smart plugs have enabled me to use about $30 a month less than I otherwise would have. I would be at about $370 in electric savings now from the insights it has given me this year.

I’ll note, at a year, had I purchased at MSRP and paid standard electrician rates it would not have paid off yet and I believe I would be pretty irate.

Did it save electricity for me? No. It did nothing other than show me what devices were using way too much electricity and allow me to do things to mitigate that (such as unplug my Ryobi battery chargers which evidently always draw power even when not in use.)

Sense is your stethoscope, you’ll still have to play doctor until they get it a lot smarter. It doesn’t do anything for you except tell you what’s happening, and unfortunately a lot of the things it could do you can’t quite trust it for yet.

So yeah, it’s good, can be great, hopefully will be but right now it’s frustrating to the average consumer because it doesn’t feel like it’s doing what it should. Sort of like being given a stethoscope and being told physician heal thyself.

You can grab one here and make us some comission, but don’t expect it to be brilliant right out of the box

3.5 / 5 stars     

Paul King

Paul King lives in Nashville Tennessee with his wife, two daughters and cats. He writes for Pocketables, theITBaby, and is an IT consultant along with doing tech support for a film production company.