Almost Genius: Belkin's New In-Home Carbon Emissions Tool

Belkin's Conserve Insight monitor is good-looking. But what does it tell us that we don’t already know?

Conserve Insight is a new home energy monitor from Belkin billed as a tool to help you "[f]ind out how much energy your devices really use." Hook it up to appliances and it can tell you how much CO2 they're emitting, how much they cost to run, and how many watts they draw. Forget, for a moment, the theatrical, faintly sinister marketing language at work here, and mull on this: Should we even care?

Obviously, we consume more energy than we ought to. But will a device that details the precise power draw of the air conditioner and the dollars and cents of running the microwave modify behavior?

The device tells us, with extreme precision, what we already know. Most of us are well aware that if we're screwing in standard fluorescent bulbs—and having to replace them every month—we're fattening our carbon footprint. Those who aren't aware wouldn't buy Conserve Insight in the first place because, frankly, they don't give a crap about their carbon footprint any way.

It's true that some environmentally enlightened people might, unbeknownst to them, own ACs or refrigerators that suck tremendous amounts of energy. In that case, Conserve Insight could provide a real service. Once. But then what do you do with it? Throw it away? Not very green.

The biggest problem here is that there are no incentives to alter your behavior once you're schooled on how un-green you are. Contrast that to smart meters, which track energy usage more or less by the hour at the regional level and encourage conservation by charging more for consumption during peak demand. Deploying the technology around the United States has been slow-going and rife with setbacks. Nevertheless, various forms of energy monitoring are underway in 30 states, and it's only a matter of time before smart meters find their way into every household in America. In which case, you might as well wait for the real thing.

We admit: On pure aesthetic grounds, the device is a gem. It's got a simple interface with three graphic icons—a globe, a dollar-sign, and a lightening rod—so you know precisely what you're measuring without even having to read, and with its curved edges and slim body, it fits, iPod-like, into the palm of your hand. For design nerds and eco geeks alike, it's a deeply attractive product. While other products do roughly the same thing, the elegant design makes this a true consumer product.

And therein lies the conundrum. On one hand, we're supposed to consume less. On the other, we're lured by good design and clever marketing to consume more—Buy this organic chicken! Buy that reusable diaper! Buy this sweet little device that monitors your energy usage!—to the point where the whole notion of green living becomes a Sisyphean exercise in how expertly we can bleep out the noise. In this sense, the Conserve Insight tag line becomes something of a philosophical challenge: Find out how much energy your devices really use? If only it were that simple.

For example: Suppose your AC or refrigerator is an energy vampire. Do you throw it out? What about all that carbon it takes to make the new one that you buy? What's the pay back period? Is it really worth it? (After all, it can sometimes be more environmentally friendly to drive a used car than to buy a new Prius.)

In that sense, Conserve Insight (and ballyhooed products like it, such as the Kill-A-Watt) is both silly and genius: The perfect symbol of an age where you can never really be sure what "green" means. Every day, we get more and more information about living better—but less and less understanding of how to do it.

[Images via Belkin]

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  • chris jefferies

    Too bad my comment was too long to display properly.

    I think this is a very important topic; what is meaningful to us re: energy usage. Will knowing the details of what we use actually compel us to change our behavior beyond the initial "thrill" of saving energy dollars.

  • chris jefferies

    You pose an excellent question, "Should we even care?" and I think you would agree that, indeed, we should, but the impression you leave with us is that we should give up and "wait for the real thing". The real thing being smart meters.

    Clearly most of what I read indicates that we win the energy game by methods of efficiency and conservation; use less, use smarter, wins out over adding solar panels on the roof or buying a electric car.

    However, I'm not convinced that the current vision of "smart meters" as presented by the utility companies and appliance manufacturers is a meaningful answer for consumers. Don't worry, I'm not a smart meter conspiracy nut who worries about price gouging and electro-magnetic radiation. On the other hand, I think the utility companies are more profit driven than they are eco driven and overtures about saving us from higher energy costs seem disingenuous. It's likely more about the management of efficient delivery and consumer disatisfaction when that delivery does not match the demand.

    Today, I can go to the web site of my utility company and see the smart meter readings, down to the kilowatt used per hour. But if I want to know how much energy my refrigerator is using, I'll need to unplug it for an hour and see what happened to my overall usage (and be sure not to turn anything else on or off during that hour). Generally it's about as tedious as using the Belden product or a Kill-a-watt; perhaps more tedious.

    From appliance manufacturers such as GE, the vision is that you buy their appliances which will have a means of communicating with the smart meter. The promise is that you can mix that into the overall usage data for refined monitoring. But you won't get that until you upgrade to the latest "smart" appliances and as you mentioned, sometimes it's more green to use an appliance 'til it dies.

    What I'd like to see is an "inexpensive" way to retrofit all the plugs, lights, and the thermostat in my house with a communicating energy monitor (like Insight, Kill-a-watt, etc) that sends it's usage data through my wifi device to a secured portal. I would log in to my portal
    and see what each device is using, 24x7. I would also be able to schedule my thermostat to turn the AC/Heater off while I'm away or down while I'm asleep. The system would also alert me when energy usage reaches some threshold which would, for example, let me know when the kids are leaving the TV and video game systems on too long.

    I've researched systems like this, but they're mostly for commercial buildings or large expensive homes. We need something for the rest of us, the renters; something we could take with us; something that costs less than a few hundred dollars and dramatically reduces our energy bills.

    Sadly, I think that in general comnsumers are too busy, distracted or just plain lazy to pay much attention to this kind of solution. Until energy prices go sky high...

    Of course we can just... turn it off!