How to evaluate energy management systems
Last updated 9/2/2021
We’ve now discussed the components and benefits of energy management systems – and we’ve laid out some questions to ask before deciding to get one. More and more companies are now offering this technology – think Schneider, Span, Lumin, to name a few – and even more are providing additional monitoring – such as Sense – so, if you’ve decided that you want an energy management system, how do you evaluate all of the different options available? In this section, we’ll explain some of the key things to consider when determining which system is right for you.
The key decision points for energy management systems
A true energy management system provides both monitoring and controls for some or all of your home. But within that description, there are a number of key decision points to make as you evaluate different energy management system options.
1. Do you need both monitoring and controls or will just monitoring suffice?
In some cases, all you need or want is a way to monitor your energy usage to be able to better understand your electricity usage and how that usage influences your bills. While very useful to purchase and install in your home, monitoring devices on their own are not a home energy management system: you can see what your home is doing, but you can’t actively manage it without controls. If monitoring is all that you’re after, then you don’t need an energy management system.
2. What level of granularity do you need for monitoring and controls?
The next biggest question is what level of resolution you need or want from an energy management system. For instance, you can have monitoring and control over an individual outlet, meaning you can see how much a certain appliance is consuming and turn it on or off from afar. Alternatively, you could have whole-home visibility into your consumption, and the ability to actively control your energy usage at different levels within that: on individual circuits, in individual rooms, or across the whole home. There are also a number of options that thread the needle between these two extremes, providing valuable insights and control over some, but not all, of your home, without requiring you to attach a device to every appliance in your home.
3. What other technologies do you need to integrate with?
And then, finally, the key differences between energy management systems come down to how well they play with other technologies: can you easily integrate a battery, electric vehicle, or solar panel system into the energy management system? And, if so, is this true for all brands or only certain brands? Depending upon where you are in your home’s energy journey, and where you’d like to be, this can influence which type of energy management system you should purchase.
Ultimately all of these questions sum up to one larger one: why do you want an energy management system? So...
Why do you want an energy management system?
From actionable energy use insights to home battery optimization to preventative maintenance tips, there are a number of reasons why you might want an energy management system. Ultimately, deciding the key things you want out of your system will be the biggest drivers in which product you choose.
Monitoring is a crucial part of energy management systems and the level of energy insight that you need will play a large role in your evaluation of different products. Most smart panels are able to provide you with consumption data at the circuit level, but some will integrate with additional monitoring devices, which can provide you with more detailed data at the device level.
If you’re just hoping to monitor your general electricity consumption, you likely won’t need more detailed monitoring. Even at the circuit level, you’ll likely be able to discern which appliances are drawing energy when powered off (i.e. phantom loads) and which ones are costing you more money during peak electricity hours if you live in an area with time-of-use (TOU) rates.
However, device-level monitoring will provide you with additional levels of detail, which could ultimately translate to more savings. Let’s say your electricity bill is higher than usual: if your monitor is able to track individual appliances, you’ll be able to see how much energy each appliance is using and roughly how much it’s costing you. Based on this information, you should be able to quickly determine if one of your devices isn’t performing properly – and get it fixed ASAP.
Amount of control
If you’re just looking for energy monitoring, you may not need an energy management system. However, if you want to remotely control your circuits, determining how much control you need is important. Smart circuits (or breakers) allow you to remotely turn each circuit on and off – but not all energy management systems come with the same number, meaning your amount of control will vary by system.
The number of controllable circuits on a smart panel can range from around 12 to 32 – though you can typically purchase additional smart panels for added control. You can also control your energy at the device level through smart plugs, which upgrade your current electrical outlets so you can control them remotely. Depending on your needs, it’s possible that smart plugs will provide you with enough additional control that you’ll only need a 12-circuit smart panel.
Available insights from monitoring & control app
All monitoring and control apps should be accessible via iOS, Android, and web browser, but each will likely come with different strengths and weaknesses. Before deciding on an energy management system, you’ll want to evaluate the software based on its ease of use and the insights it provides. For example, you may want to consider:
- Let’s say you live in an area with TOU rates – does your app factor this in when estimating your electricity costs?
- If you have a home battery, what preferences are you able to set for load shedding?
- Will your app alert you if certain circuits or appliances are using more or less electricity than usual?
- If you have an electric vehicle (EV), will the app show you its charge status? Will it allow you to adjust the rate at which it’s charging?
- What types of energy usage trends will you be able to see in your app?
What does your current – or future – energy set-up look like?
If you’ve decided to purchase an energy management system, odds are you’ve already made or are planning to make some other home energy upgrades. Considering your current, or future, energy set-up will be integral to deciding which energy management system is best for you.
If you have or are planning on installing solar on its own (i.e., without storage or an electric vehicle), you won’t receive all of the best benefits from an energy management system, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t install one! In fact, if you’re planning to install solar panels, there’s a chance you may already need to upgrade your electrical panel: as we mentioned in the previous section, an August 2021 report found that up to 48 million single-family houses in the United States will need to upgrade their electrical panel in order fully electrify (which includes adding solar).
Generally, if you’re looking to add solar or other electric upgrades, you’ll need a 200 amp panel and a replacement will likely cost you anywhere between $1,000 to $3,000 – so, paying a premium for an electrical panel that also allows for monitoring and controls is a worthwhile investment. However, in this case, you’ll likely want a smart panel that completely replaces your current panel, as opposed to one that adds on to your current panel.
If you have a solar-plus-storage system, you’re in the best position to purchase an energy management system – but you’ll also want to make sure that your system allows you to achieve your storage goals. As described above, you’ll want to consider how many smart circuits you want control over in the event of an outage. You’ll also want to assess the preferences you can set for load shedding and if you can make your battery automatically power certain circuits during peak electricity hours if you live in an area with TOU rates.
The flexibility and control provided by energy management systems also often means you can choose a smaller storage system for the same amount of resiliency. So, depending on the size of your storage system, you may want more or less smart circuits, accordingly.
Some energy management systems may provide greater benefits than others if you have an EV. For example, you might be able to determine your EV’s charge status and some may soon implement over-the-air software updates to allow you to remotely alter its rate of charge.
What’s your return on investment?
Ultimately, your largest consideration will likely be cost, and for good reason! Most people decide to make energy upgrades because they are cost effective in the long run. In general, energy management systems with less smart circuits will cost less than those with more – however, depending on your situation, this doesn’t always mean it’s the most economical choice for you. If you already need to replace your electrical panel or could save more from additional control, choosing a panel with more circuits could save you more down the line. Once you fully evaluate why you want an energy management system, and what your current, or future, energy set-up looks like, you’ll be able to choose the right system that meets your needs.