Energy on the edge: Reducing waste at home

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Friday, December 01, 2006

'Honey, I'll be home soon — but you've got the thermostat too high!'

THE SITUATION

Public awareness about energy issues is at an all-time high. Consumers are taking matters into their own hands by purchasing efficient clothes washers and electricity from renewable sources. But reducing the demand for electricity through intelligent use of energy and appliances at home might be the most powerful tool for alleviating the energy crunch.

THE INNOVATION

Along come Rich and Bill Clem, whose Tigard-based startup, Eeco, is bent on making a negawatt —the energy you don't use — as sexy as a megawatt. "Everybody is creating alternative energy. We decided this is something we could do," says Bill, 49, the CEO who's an industrial designer. (Rich, 44, is an electrical engineer who worked at Triquint Semiconductor.) In pursuing tools for consumers to more tightly control their energy use at home, they noticed the dashboard display screen in a Toyota Prius hybrid that shows real-time miles per gallon was a powerful thing: Drivers learned how to avoid inefficient moves in their car — say, quickly accelerating when the car was using gas — because they were getting constant feedback. Eeco's first product, due out this spring, will provide that same sort of interaction with home appliances. A wireless system monitors the thermostat, water heater and other big-ticket items. The info is transmitted to a Web interface accessible by computer or cell phone. The user will be able to see how much energy is being used (and how much CO2 is being dumped into the atmosphere as a result) and turn down the thermostat if they wish, from wherever they are.

DOES IT HAVE JUICE?

This month, the Eeco system goes into live testing at five homes in Oregon. The Clem brothers, who have sunk $100,000 and many hours at Rich's garage lab into the startup, hope to work out the bugs in time for a spring launch. The Eeco system — essentially a new communicative thermostat, appliance switches and a wireless box— will debut for $1,000. Bill Clem says that amount can be made up through wise use and energy savings in one year in a typical 2,200-square-foot house. But the company's biggest hurdle may be convincing people that they really need to see their home energy use in real time. "It's a completely new space," says Bill Clem. "Electricity is invisible and the only time you think about it is when you get the bill." The company's first target market is second-home owners, who typically use their houses for a little over a month per year. For a service fee, Eeco would monitor their homes, as well as local environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity, and do much of the interaction with the home's systems — keep the pipes unfrozen and warm it up for arrival. Clem says the company has proprietary methods that allow heating and cooling of homes in a more efficient and incremental manner than just cranking up the thermostat. Monitoring homes for second-home owners is more of a peace-of-mind play — it will be marketed through security system vendors and property managers. But Eeco is obviously pulling for the efficiency savings to be such a slam-dunk that vacationers will put a system in their first home. And at a fraction of the cost of Prius, Eeco will also be giving other green consumers a more affordable chance to change their energy habits.         

— Oakley Brooks


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