Bojan and I have both written about our love of self-quantification: the art of quantifying parts of your life in order to give you information and control.
So I was thrilled when Smappee agreed to let me take their home energy monitor for a whirl. Smappee wants to make you “smart about energy”, promises the opportunity to save up to 12% off your home energy bill and retails for $249/£169.
I’ve been playing with the Smappee for the last month and in this detailed Smappee Review I will share my experience with you.
Basic Smappee Review
Smappee is a home energy monitor that keeps track of your electricity usage by means of a little clamp that goes on the outside of the cable connected to your electricity meter. The monitor itself connects to your home wi-fi network in order to send information to the Smappee App on your iPhone (also available on Android).
Inside the box is the Smappee monitor, cabling, and a “Smart Plug”. Installation is relatively straightforward, though the documentation is scant. I’d like to see a “quick start” guide included in the box in addition to the little slip of paper that directed online to find the setup instructions and manual.
The Smappee monitor itself needs to be plugged into the mains. I had some difficulty with this as my electricity meter (to which the monitor needs to be proximate) is located in our garage with no power outlets. This meant I had to run an extension cable from the nearest outlet to the meter in order to plug in the Smappee. I’m assuming this isn’t an unusual configuration, so I’d prefer to see the Smappee run on batteries (with a consumption of less than 2W I’d assume it could run for a reasonable period).
Setup is pretty painless, although I did have to consult the PDF for instructions on resetting the monitor, which doesn’t have an interface to speak of; Rather it communicates with you by emitting soothing colours – green when everything is fine, blue when it’s doing something and red when there’s a problem. Although the minimalistic scheme is a nice aesthetic, it does leave you a little in the dark as to how things are progressing, particularly in the first five minutes or so of setup and connecting to wifi, which takes just long enough to make you wonder if it’s working.
Once your Smappee has changed to a soothing green hue you know you’re good to go. Download the app and you’ll quickly be able to see how much energy you’re guzzling.
The Main Screen
The default view for the Smappee App is the snappily-titled “Main Screen”, which presents three Venn-like circles that represent:
- your current usage
- your “always on” consumption (more on that in a second)
- the power of your Solar production.
Rather irritatingly, this third circle appears irrespective of whether you have any solar panels or not (I don’t). The lack of ability to turn off this third bubble, which for me always reads Zero, seems an odd oversight.
Current Consumption is a pretty intuitive concept – it’s the amount of energy your house is currently using. The bubble on the screen changes size proportionate to how much energy your using, so be prepared to see it balloon when you flick on the kettle or shower. This is a simple yet effective way of visualising what’s currently going on in your home.
The Current Consumption bubble is a neat, intuitive way of presenting the basic information that you’d expect from any energy monitor.
Another feature I like is that as your consumption changes, little digital readouts flash up momentarily showing the change in consumption and, if it’s trained into the app, which appliance triggered the change (more on training appliances later).
Always On consumption is a metric that I’ve not seen in other monitors; It basically takes a 3-day running average of appliances that are running constantly in your house and presents it as a KWH figure. This tells you how much energy is being consumed by all those devices you leave in “standby”, as well as those you have to leave on, such as fridges etc. This is a great way to challenge yourself to switch off appliances fully and see if you can bring your consumption down by a notch. The app has an achievement for reducing this by 3% and it’s a real kick when you manage it. I can see this having a really positive effect for those people who don’t turn off their TVs and other electronic devices fully overnight.
Having the ability to dip into the app at any given point and check your consumption levels in this intuitive, visual way is a nice entry point for the app.
Obsessed as I am with the cost of powering my home, the Usage screen is where I spend most of my time. For this to work, you need to key in the price you pay per KWH (usually found on your bill). It only appears to take a single figure, which would exclude anyone with a multi-tier tariff like Economy 7, and not being able to stipulate a standing daily charges is a shame as it means your daily “cost” cannot be compared directly to your bill if your supplier has any of these.
What the Usage Screen gives you at a glance is your daily spend and KWH consumption. You can quickly toggle to your monthly cumulative total and yearly figures, with the ability to go back and forth to previous days/months/years.
I’m not sure if this is a bug or deliberate design (I don’t know why it would be), but my app only seems to hold daily usage data for the past week. Any earlier and the values become zero. This is hugely disappointing as I’d expect to be able to drill down my daily stats to at least a month prior.
Tilting your iPhone or iPad on its side morphs you into what I would generously call “analytics mode”, displaying a bar graph of your usage which will show your hourly, daily or monthly usage depending on whether you entered from the daily, monthly or yearly view.
It’s this area where the Smappee App fell significantly short of my expectations. To have only three basic views is disappointing in itself, but the graphs themselves also have zero interactivity. I expected to be able to tap a bar to display its value, to have options for filtering, trends and averages or other basic manipulation functions. There are none. All that is possible is a traditional pinch-and-zoom approach that enables you to read more easily across from a bar to its corresponding value.
It makes no sense to me at all why Smappee would invest so little in such a key element of their package. Surely it’s reasonable to expect that someone purchasing a high-end “smart” app would expect more than the most basic of analytics? The only theory I can offer is that the Smappee offices are chock-full of individuals who are great at the hardware stuff (hence the Smappee itself works great) and not-so-great at the software stuff (hence the limited analytics).
The Cool Stuff
Smappee brings two things to the party that its competitors – to my knowledge -either don’t do at all or don’t do as well: Appliance tracking and smart plugs.
I can only hope to explain this in the most pseudo-scientific of terms, but the Smappee monitor is able to detect the most minute fluctuations in the supply of electricity from your meter. This enables it to assign “signatures” to the unique fluctuations that occur when an appliance is turned on or off, which in turn allows it, over time, to catalogue your kettle, oven, dishwasher etc and report the usage of those appliances to you via the app.
This is pretty cool.
Unfortunately (but perhaps understandably), this isn’t as simple as letting the Smappee “scan” your house and tell you what all the appliance are. Left to its own devices the Smappee will, over time collect a list of “unlabelled appliances”. You’ll need to do some detective work in order to identify them based on their levels of consumption and time of use. If -like me- you’re not that patient, you’ll want to speed things up a bit which requires a painstaking process called “appliance training”.
For the first time in my adult life, I sat in a dark empty house turning a lamp on and off for my iPhone’s benefit. Why? Because for Smappee to detect your appliance’s signature initially, the house needs to be “quiet.” By quiet, I mean you need to have as few things turned on as possible. In my experience this meant turning everything off except the “always on” stuff – fridges could stay on, but lights needed to go off.
Once you’ve “gone dark” all you need to do is to tell the app you’re ready to train your chosen appliance and follow the on-screen instructions. After you’ve done this a few times you’ll learn to quickly assess whether the training’s going to work or not (it seems to be a bit better than 50/50 for me) – if it is, you’ll need to turn your appliance on and off as instructed three or four times successively. Once this is done and the appliance is “trained”, you can label it. Repeat for as long as you have the energy and the willpower.
I have to say it’s pretty satisfying to have a list of apps and to know how often they are used, what they consume and how much they’ve cost in the last day, month or year – all of which is accessible via the Appliance screen. My only reservation here is that I know my Smappee doesn’t detect all my inidividual appliance’s activities all the time – particularly when I’m running three or four together – so I’m skeptical of how accurate the consumption & cost figures are.
Given this appliance-level data is one of Smappee’s unique selling points, I’m surprised they haven’t done more with the analytics side here either. You can’t rank your appliances by use/cost, you can’t see which appliances are currently running in your house (which would be great when the bubble is big but you’re not sure why) and there’s no inline help for figuring out what an appliance is (such as a list of common appliances in a particular power range).
(Update 17th Nov: Thanks to Smappee CEO @StfnGrsjn for pointing out that if you do a “long tap” on the consumption bubble, Smappee will give you a view showing what’s currently consuming energy in your house)
Again the technology is cool, but the interface leaves you wanting more.
The Smappee comes with a single “Smart Plug” ( you can purchase additional 3-packs of plugs for $39.99/£34.99 ). The premise is simple: Plug it into a socket and you can program it, using the app, to turn a device plugged into it on or off. Timers can be scheduled; you can also set more complex triggers such as “when I leave the house” (great, I assume, for people living alone) or “when no significant usage is detected” (a good proxy for everyone being asleep). You can also turn the socket on or off manually via the app.
Initially I was a little nonplussed with where to deploy my plug. Because only I was the “master of the App” (my wife is nowhere near as enthusiastic about these things) I needed it to go somewhere it wouldn’t switch things off unexpectedly. Because I only had one it seemed a bit arbitrary and wasteful to plug a kitchen appliance into it (which don’t draw huge individual amounts of energy in standby) and so I ended up plugging in…a pair of photo frames.
The frames turn themselves off (to standby) on a timer, so all my plug is doing is reducing the “always on” component. This is, I think, my principal frustration with Smart Plugs. They are certainly smart, flexible, powerful; but I can do very little with only one. If the Smappee came with six, I could probably start to rig up something cleverer (turn all my kitchen appliances off when I go to bed, for example) but the cost of initial set up would vastly outweigh the meagre standby savings.
If you have an appliance – let’s say an electric fire – that you’re likely to leave switched on and that would consume a significant amount of energy in the time it took you to get home again, I’d say the smart plugs could be of benefit in small numbers. But for the majority, I’d suggest this is going to be a gimmicky feature at best. Your biggest savings will come from becoming more mindful of which apps are the most power-hungry, and cultivating a habit of turning off your appliances at the outlet instead of leaving them in standby.
Will it save you 12%?
At its heart the Smappee is designed to save you money by making you more mindful of the energy you consume – Smappee claim that you can save up to 12% of your annual energy consumption. A 12% reduction in electricity consumption would save me £127 per year – therefore the Smappee would pay for itself after 16 months. But how exactly am I going to achieve that reduction?
To save 12%, I estimate I’d need to reduce my annual consumption by 895 KWH. According to Forbes, this is a saving equivalent to running four standard 60W lightbulbs for 10 hours per day every day for a year. Without detailed analytics, and lacking specific advice from Smappee on how to achieve this, I’m skeptical the reduction in my usage will be that significant. Perhaps if the app included a way to set this as a target, and to measure your consumption against this target it would be clearer to what extent Smappee is helping towards your goal.
As an aside, I also recently switched my energy supplier which, even without any reduction in usage, will save me 16% (£169) this year without any upfront investment; Savings from reduced consumption, rather than pricing, are undoubtedly harder work.
Smappee Review: Final Thoughts
There’s no doubt in my mind that the hardware itself in Smappee is a quite incredible feat of engineering and I think there are a minority of self-quantification nerds like myself who would get a kick out of some of the data it’s possible to squeeze from Smappee and are also prepared to put in the work required to do that. I’ve certainly enjoyed having more information at my fingertips and in discovering which apps in my house are the most power-hungry.
For the average consumer, the App side of Smappee just doesn’t feel polished and intuitive enough to me for it to have widespread appeal. I can see people struggling with the scant instructions and limited inline help and disappointed with how little information is accessible.
I’m optimistic that the area that needs work – the App – is probably the one that’s most easily fixable by Smappee, so I’m looking forward to seeing them roll out something with snap and crackle in the near future that will have me jumping up and down with excitement.
For the time being, I’d recommend that only the hardened number cruncher with cash to spare should take the plunge with Smappee.
Smappee Review: Summary
+ Easy to install
+ Appliance-level monitoring gives you real insight
– Analytics are underpowered
– Daily usage history only goes back 1 week
– Smart Plugs unlikely to be cost effective