Many homeowners begin a remodeling project knowing that they want to update their home, but without an idea of where or how to get started. For remodelers, this is an excellent problem to have. Even with budget constraints, design ideas flourish and overhauls begin.

But with more homeowners trying to “green” their homes in the process of a remodel, design remains important, but so does energy efficiency. Determining where to begin an energy upgrade requires knowledge of how efficiently the home and its inhabitants currently operate. To that end, Peter Troast, president of the energy-efficiency education company Energy Circle, has put his own home under the microscope.

“The origins of this idea come from being a typical homeowner,” Troast says. “Where we live, heating oil prices were north of $4 last year, and everyone was in a panic. When that happens, one of the first places you turn for a solution is to try and figure out what’s going on in your house.”

A Friend Named TED

Finding it difficult to track down informative details through old electricity bills or bits of information on the Web, Troast installed a device called TED, or The Energy Detective, in his home. The unit, which retails for about $150, hardwires into a home’s electrical panel and monitors the amount of energy being used minute to minute.

“Our family displays the TED monitor prominently in our kitchen where everyone hangs out,” Troast says. “It’s resulted in an amazing instant knowledge and behavioral change. When you wake up in a nice, quiet house, and then throughout the day see spikes in the energy use, you can investigate what events are triggering those spikes and really learn how your activities affect your energy use.”

On Earth Day, April 22, 2009, the family took its energy experiment live, rigging TED to report the family’s minute-to-minute energy use through a chart on the Web. The Troasts also begun using the social networking tool Twitter to report on household activities that cause spikes throughout the day. Recent tweets include:

@EnergyCircle KW: Behold - The spike that is the bathroom fan being left on. (10.8kWh today / 0.69kW now) -

@EnergyCircleKW: Worse than being grounded? - TED & I are colluding to send the kids invoices when they forget to turn stuff off (4.1kWh today / 0.38kW now)

@EnergyCircleKW: Yep. - Clothes dryer one of the biggest culprits. Considering outdoor clothes line. (7.8kWh today / 6.38kW now) -

“The idea behind Energy Circle KW was to show the graph in real time and share that info,” Troast says. “Given our commitment to our business of helping people learn about their home energy use, we felt it was appropriate to expose this data publicly.”

The real value, Troast says, has been learning about how his home operates and where the family’s energy-use benchmark should be set. “It’s not just about the spikes, it’s about the valleys, too -- what are we not doing during those times, and where should our standard level of energy use be,” he says. Of further value, he adds, is the fact that his children are learning to investigate and annotate TED readings, which means the family’s energy education is extending to future generations.

Broadening the Scope

Troast points out that real-time energy monitoring, let alone “tweeting” about it, may not be for everyone. (He even uses the word “geeky” in describing the experiment.) Additionally, while his family has reduced its electricity use 16% thanks to TED’s insight, Troast recognizes that electricity is only one utility out of several present in any home.

“There are a lot of companies getting into the idea of smart-metering, and our next task will be to measure other inputs so homeowners can get a real understanding of their energy use,” he says. “We’d like to socialize this concept as a low-cost way to get into your home and know what’s going on, as well as measure improvements.”

The remodeling industry could become an ideal vehicle for spreading interest about home-monitoring projects. “I think it’s a great idea for retrofit and remodeling contractors to use smart monitoring early on to establish an initial baseline of a home’s energy use,” Troast says. His own family, he adds, has “picked most of the low-hanging fruit” when it comes to making energy-efficient changes at home, such as using CFLs or LEDs rather than incandescent lighting, and eliminating electricity draws from “vampire” appliances.

“We’ve done the pre-remodel piece, and we’ve also had an energy audit done,” Troast says. “Now we realize that we need to move onto the remodel aspect by addressing some fundamental building envelope challenges.” Who knew energy monitoring could reveal a leaky knee wall?