Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

Publication date: 26 November 2008
Originally published 2008 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Jul-2012.


Suddenly, saving energy is cool again. This means new and interesting technology... and some new and irritatingly popular scams.

If you're feeling a little embarrassed about your 750-watt SLI gaming PC sitting in its air-conditioned throne room and want to reduce your electricity consumption, it is of course important to know how much electricity you're using, in more detail than you get from the quarterly bill.

Just looking at your electricity meter will let you figure out how much power the whole dwelling has used over a given period of time. Or even how much you're using at this exact moment, as long as you're willing to stand in front of the breaker box with a stopwatch.

But even if the electricity company replaces your breaker-box power meter with some whiz-bang Internet-enabled version (which, needless to say, some people think will immediately give you cancer), it'll still only be able to tell you the aggregate power consumption of each whole circuit. To tell whether, for instance, your fridge is leaky and thus running its compressor too often, you need a separate stand-alone meter, cheap versions of which are now available, but generally pretty inaccurate.

All This Will Change in the networked world of tomorrow, which technology companies always insist is exactly five years away but which really will arrive fairly soon.

The usual vision is one in which every major appliance in your house - everything from PCs to ovens - has its own IP address and can report its status, and possibly even be controlled, either within your house or even over the public Internet.

(The appliance companies always claim that Internet-connected devices will be able to warn you of impending failures and even notify service personnel, but this is another one of those half-baked ideas, like the "smart fridge" that notices you're almost out of eggs and then orders more eggs whether or not you actually want them. The sensor and customer-support systems needed to make automatic fault reporting actually work would be a lot trickier than simple on/off and power-consumption systems.)

Security failures in Net-controlled appliances could of course result in hilarity, when people who left their password set to PASSWORD come home to find some kid in Finland told the air conditioning and central heating to have a full-blast fight. But this setup would also allow you to easily turn off the air-con if you go to work and realise you left it on. It could also completely and finally eliminate the nagging feeling that you left the iron on when you went on holiday - if the iron itself isn't smart enough to be Net-connected, the power point it's connected to may be.

And you could also send anonymised power usage stats to central servers, which could in turn let people know the real-world power consumption of different models of appliance.

Appliances already come with Energy Star ratings, but they're an oversimplification. They try to boil the entire energy consumption of some theoretical normal use of a given appliance into a simple movie-rating star system, which can't actually be done. If you only ever do cold-water washes with your washing machine, for instance, then a machine with a low Energy Star rating may actually consume no more power than one with a high rating. And if you've got a solar hot-water system, even hot washes will use little more actual total power than cold - the Energy Star system can make no allowance for how you actually heat your water.

Individual power meters in every appliance get around this problem. (And the idea could easily enough be extended to devices that run from gas or heating oil or pretty much anything else.)

Meanwhile, on the dark side, plenty of people stand ready to take your money for "power saving" gadgets that don't actually do anything at all.

There's a plague of these bleeding things. Search for "power saver" and you'll find dozens of them. They usually claim to "stabilise" the mains voltage and reduce "overheating" and/or "power loss", thereby making all of your appliances more efficient and saving you money. And they're supposed to protect you from power surges and lightning strikes and, I don't know, probably tornadoes as well.

Some of them wire into your breaker panel, but a lot just plug into a socket somewhere and, allegedly, spread their magic through your whole house by osmosis, or something. Most of them are claimed to work by improving the power factor of your electrical gear.

You can read more about power factor and power factor correction (it's what that "PFC" on the box of your new PSU means) in my old Ground Zero column here. Basically, many kinds of AC loads are "reactive" rather than mere passive resistors, and thus cause more current to flow through the wires than you'd expect for the amount of actual power they draw. The more of this extra current is sloshing back and forth, the worse the power factor.

There are a few reasons why the "power saver" claims are ridiculous. The most important one is that only large commercial power users are actually billed by power factor.

Ordinary spinning-disc home power meters don't even notice it.

So even if these plug-in one-size-fits-all $100 power factor correctors weren't a ridiculous idea in the first place (PFC actually has to be matched to the load), and even if the power factor of the average home were particularly bad (it isn't), and even if electrical distribution stations didn't have their own PFC gear (they do), the "power savers" would be solving a problem that doesn't actually exist.

The way the power-saver companies deal with this unfortunate fact is by lying. For instance, these guys say:

"...most homes today have a 0.75 power factor or less. This means that about 75% of the electricity that is coming through your meter at your home is being used effectively, the other 25% is being wasted by your inductive load caused by some appliances(air condition,and any other applilance with inductive load)."

This is, to use a technical term, bollocks. (And poorly-spelled bollocks, at that.)

The apparent power that comes from a bad power factor is not real power at all. It's extra current flow, which loads up the distribution network; that's why electricity companies don't like lousy power factors. But it is not actual real power, which is why the electricity companies don't charge you for it.

(And, moreover, most homes today actually have an aggregate power factor well above 0.9. Domestic loads with lousy power factor tend to not draw a whole lot of juice; 100 watts of a load with an atrocious PF of 0.5, plus 900 watts of a simple resistive load with PF 1, gives an aggregate PF of 0.95. And on top of that, reactive loads can be capacitive or inductive; if you happen to have both, they'll at least partly cancel each other out!)

Not every "power saver" device is a scam. While I was trolling for examples, I found the "Power Genie", which at first glance looks just like the magical bulldust products. But the Genie is actually just a box that turns on things connected to one of its sockets when a thing connected to another of its sockets is turned on. Fair enough.

But then I see the "Enersonic PowerSaver", proudly promoted by one of my bestest buddies, and my tiny spark of faith in humanity is extinguished once again.

(Apparently the Gadget Guy is "investigating the claims of the product in more detail", but I for one am not on the edge of my seat waiting for the results of that particular Commission of Inquiry.)

If you've got a quantum ceramic fuel depolariser bolted onto your car and insist that your stereo sounds better when the speaker cables are on little stands that keep them off the carpet, I'm sure a plug-in "power saver" will suit you down to the ground.

The rest of us can just keep an eye out for the first air conditioners with IPv6 addresses.

(If you just can't get enough of bogus power savers, I've blogged about different versions of them here, here, here, here and here!)

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