April 23, 2014

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Smart electrical meters and their smart peripherals

When I was a college undergraduate, I lived in a 1920’s duplex and I recall my roommate and I trying to figure out where our electrical bill was going. He was standing outside by the electrical meter, I was turning things on and off, and we were yelling back and forth so we could sort out which gadgets were causing the wheel to spin faster. (The big power sinks? Our ancient 1950’s refrigerator and my massive-for-the-day 20-inch computer monitor.) Needless to say, this was more difficult than it should have been.

More recently, I got myself a Kill-a-Watt inline power meter which you can use at any power outlet, but it’s a pain. You have to unplug something to measure its usage. People with the big bucks will spring for a Ted 5000 system, which an electrician installs in your breaker box. That’s fantastic, but it’s not cheap or easy.

Today, I’m now the proud new owner of an LS Research “RateSaver”, which speaks ZigBee wireless to the “smart meter” that CenterPoint Energy installed on all the houses in our area. How did I get this thing? I went to a League of Women Voters “meet the candidates” event back in October and CenterPoint Energy had a display there. I asked the guy if I could get one of these things and he said he’s look into it for me. Fast forward two months later, and a box arrived in the mail. New toy!

So what exactly is it? It’s a battery-powered light-weight box with a tolerably readable two-inch monochrome LCD display. As I’m sitting here typing, it’s updating my “current usage” every few seconds and is giving me a number that’s ostensibly accurate to the watt. In the last minute, after I pressed the proper button, it’s been alternating between reading 650-750 watts, and 1400-1500 watts. (Hmm… maybe my fridge consumes 700 watts.) If you leave it alone, the refresh rate slows down to maybe once a minute. Also, it’s sometimes reading “0.000 kW” which is clearly incorrect but it returns to the proper number when I press the button. Wireless range is quite good. I’m on the opposite side of the house as our electrical meter and it’s working fine.

The user interface is all kinds of terrible. In addition to slow button response, the button labels are incorrect. LS Research is apparently just rebranding a Honeywell Home Energy Display (for which the Honeywell manual was included). LS Research apparently rearranged the button labels without changing the corrresponding software. Bravo! Thankfully, the Honeywell manuals have the proper labeling. Also amusing: there’s a message in the system saying that “non-peak price starts at 7:00 PM. Save Money by waiting” when in fact my electrical pricing deal is for a flat rate (which floats with market conditions and is presently $0.0631 per kWh).

Update: I’ve since learned that Honeywell acquired LS Research, so this is something of a transitional screw-up. Welcome to the world of beta products.

Since I’m a security guy, I assumed I’d have to go through some kind of protocol to get the thing activated, and the manual from inside the box describes an activation procedure where you make a phone call to your energy company, giving them the hardware ID numbers of the outdoor smart meter and the indoor display box. Conflicting instructions were also included with my display, describing setup which was as simple as “turn it on and hit the connect button” so I went with the easy instructions. Time passed and the box started working without requiring any additional input from me. I hope that my display box was pre-configured to work exclusively with my house, but this does lead me to wonder about whether they got the security right. (I experimentally turned lights on and off while watching the meter updates and validated that I am, in fact, looking at the usage of my own house.)

At the end of the day, I and everybody else here is now required to pay a $3.24 “advanced meter charge” in order to have all this functionality (which, incidentally, saves the electric company money since it no longer needs human meter readers). Is it worth it? Presumably, at some point I’ll have some kind of variable-priced electricity and I could then hack my refrigerator and air conditioning system to pay attention to the spot price of electricity. If electricity got extra cheap during a five minute window of the hot summer, the controller could then crank the A/C and drop the house an extra few degrees. Of course, if everybody was following this same algorithm, you’d either have insane demand swings, when everybody jumps on to consume cheaper electricity when it’s available, or you’d have to carefully engineer the pricing system such that you had stable demand. Presumably, if you got somebody who understood control theory to design this properly, you could end up incentivizing both demand and pricing to be fairly stable across the space of any given hour of the day.

Probably the biggest benefit of these smart meters will come the next time we have a major hurricane that comes through and knocks out power. Hurricane Ike left my house without power for ten days. At the time, CenterPoint Energy had a vague and useless web site that would give you an idea what neighborhoods were being repaired. Since it was too hot to stay in our house, we stayed instead with a friend who had power and drove by our place every day to see if it had power. This was very frustrating. (I unplugged all my computer equipment, since I didn’t want flakey power to nuke my equipment. Consequently, I couldn’t just do something simple like ping my home computer.) Today, I can log into CenterPoint Energy’s web site and see the power consumption of my house, in 15-minute intervals, and so can the people coordinating the repairs. If they integrated that with a mapping system, they’d have real-time blackout maps, which have obvious value to emergency planners and repair operations coordination.

I just hope they have somebody with a clue looking over the security of their system. (If somebody from CenterPoint reads this: people like me are more than happy to do private security evaluations, red-team exercises, and so forth.)

Future work: there’s a mini USB port on the side of the box. Now I just have to find some documentation. It’s probably bad form for me to go reverse-engineer it myself.

Comments

  1. Aleks Totic says:

    I have the TED 5000. It cost me $200, and it was an easy install without an electrician. Now I know that my house’s idle draw is 185W in the middle of the night. I”ll never know for sure where do the other daily 18KWh go to until usage gets segmented by circuit breaker.
    A cool hack would be for every appliance/power switch to have a unique powerup/shutdown signature. Signature would be a unique sequence of power draws. With the signature, you could analyze usage down to an appliance.

  2. Ken Houghton says:

    “I and everybody else here is now required to pay a $3.24 “advanced meter charge” in order to have all this functionality (which, incidentally, saves the electric company money since it no longer needs human meter readers)”

    Think touch-tone telephone lines. Service Labor costs (reading the meter, as opposed to designing and building the system) are relatively nominal in most businesses–certainly in power.

    You’re paying to make their investment pay off, just as the touch-tone lines reduced indirect costs. And since it’s a regulated monopoly, the level is appropriately compensatory (just ask CenterPoint).

    The extra charge will go away later than it should, but–if the telecommunications industry is an indication–it will go away.

    (Being on a fixed rate, you may not know, but does the meter provide two-way communication? Can’t monitor and adjust your usage without information on “specials” and “surcharges” if you’re on a variable-price plan.)

    • dwallach says:

      Presumably, the “message” feature of my display box allows messages to be delivered from my electrical provider to me, so two-way communication must be part of the communication spec. I also once got a telephone survey, right around the time they put in the smart meter, which asked me all sorts of questions that boiled down to “would you be willing to have real-time variable pricing.” Also, one question asked whether I’d be willing to let my electrical company remote-manage my A/C controls. It’s fair to assume that the meters they installed can support such things, if and when they’re ready to do it.

      • NathanT says:

        Dan, you may Presume too much. While the display on your box may have a feature that suggests it is possible, doesn’t necessarily mean they send any messages. As you say it is part of the “communication spec.”, but it may a protocol/feature that is not used, might not even have a corresponding feature/spec on their equipment (i.e. the equipment they use to read your meeter).

        As for the A/C question: currently my electrical company “remote-manages” my A/C, but they have not installed this kind of Smart Meeter yet, though that was in discussions last year. Instead they have a completely separate wireless device attached directly to my AC unit. There was a push to have such this device mandatory on all AC units last year (not sure if it got vetoed or not), but I am currently paid a ~whopping~ $20 per year credit on my bill to let them control my A/C three months out of the year. I didn’t notice any difference from the summer without it to the summer with it, so I don’t mind getting the paltry $20 credit.

  3. golden says:

    A typical fridge uses 200-700 watts when it is running (which isn’t all the time), so if you’ve got 1500 watts going on in your house it’s from something else.

    See
    http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/howmuch.html

  4. Lori says:

    Just scan for square wave signals in the 11.57 microhertz range (24 hour cycle).

  5. pete.d says:

    “…I recall my roommate and I…”

    That should be: “…I recall my roommate and me…”

    I’ve given up on the unwashed masses, but from an academic I have higher expectations. :p

    • Anonymous says:

      Don’t stress over it. Engrish will be the new global language.

    • dwallach says:

      If you want to be particular about it, the “I recall” part is more of a parenthetical remark, and “my roommate and I” is the actual subject of the sentence.

      I do take my grammar seriously…