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USFers' Smart Meter Improves Home Efficiency

12-03-2012
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Sami Rollins (left), associate professor of computer science, and graduate researcher Lazeeb Choudhury MS '12 (right) can monitor and control the energy consumption of individual appliances in their research laboratory on the Internet or with a smartphone app. Their work is part of an innovative smart meter system being tested in homes.

The University of San Francisco’s Sami Rollins, associate professor of computer science, envisions a future of environmentally conscious homeowners who can monitor their home’s energy efficiency and turn appliances on and off remotely from their smartphones.

As things stand, owners of entirely solar-powered homes must scramble around the house when a warning siren sounds, turning off lights and appliances to preserve their dwindling energy supply whenever a heavy bank of clouds roll in or the home’s reserve battery runs low. And homeowners of wired houses are often left scratching their heads when, despite their best efforts to turn off lights and keep the thermostat at 68 degrees, their monthly electric bill remains stubbornly high. 

Students work on NSF grant 

Rollins, who received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research with computer science colleagues at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, is studying residential energy consumption patterns in homes in Northwest Arkansas and San Francisco. USF computer science student Lazeeb Choudhury MS ’12, who will graduate this fall, and recent alums Simon Piel ’12, Kevin Moran MS ’12, and Neal Xiong MS ’12 have pitched in as part of the research team.

The team is piloting a monitoring system that notifies homeowners of the best times to turn particular appliances on and off. When notified, homeowners can use an associated app, also being developed by Rollins’ team, or go online to start or stop their high-consumption appliances when energy is in short supply (in the case of off-the-grid homes), to respond to flex alerts during periods of high energy demand (in the case of on-the-grid homes), or to save money under variable energy pricing schemes.

Unlike most commercially available smart meters, such as PG&E’s, Rollins’ system incorporates energy meters for specific appliances. It’s an approach that offers a more fine-grained perspective. 

“The system is designed to provide users with more information so that they can better manage their energy usage, overall,” Rollins said.

Testing is underway at 6 homes

Rollins and her fellow researchers have installed the system in five Northwest Arkansas homes and one home in San Francisco. One Arkansas house is off the power grid and entirely solar powered. A second Arkansas home is on the power grid but has solar panels. The remaining four homes are standard on-the-grid houses. 

Aside from allowing homeowners to turn home appliances on and off, the meter system and app are designed to collect data on how homeowners use the the meter system and app and how effective notifications are in coaxing changes in homeowners’ behavior.

With residential homes accounting for 22 percent of U.S. energy consumption, Rollins believes smart technology offers great potential for encouraging more homeowners to adopt renewable technologies.

“For example, one of the questions that we hope to answer is how homeowners might transition from being on grid to off grid,” Rollins said.

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews