Author Archives: Karen Haywood Queen


Smart Grid in Your Home

Follow these guidelines to manage energy use to control utility bills.

Photo: techbeat.com

Imagine a home where your heat pump, water heater, pool pump, dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, washer, and dryer all work together to lower your energy bill; and where family members can see the real-time effects that a 30-minute shower or left-on light bulb can have on peak energy usage and the utility bill. The expansion of the nation’s Smart Grid will reach all the way into the home, with “smart” appliances able to communicate with the Grid — and you — to help control and lower energy usage.

Some of these new products can help you save money now. For example, you could set up a program based on your schedule to program your water heater to turn off automatically when no one’s home, cutting usage and increasing your savings. Once peak-demand pricing is adopted, that water heater could result in more savings by powering down during expensive peak pricing periods. Your utility will benefit by not having to power up expensive standby generation plants.

Other products now in development, such as dishwashers, refrigerators, and dryers, will benefit you when demand-based or peak pricing is adopted. For example, your refrigerator’s 20-minute automatic defrost cycle, which consumes about 10 times more energy than during the rest of the day, kicks on now any time. A Smart Grid refrigerator will wait to defrost until utility rates are low. A Smart Grid dishwasher will automatically delay its run cycle until rates go down, although you will be able to override the delay feature if you like.

Using the Web to Control Appliances
James and Cynthia Wilson of Fayetteville, NC, participated in a pilot program with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission and technology company Consert Inc. The program allowed the Wilsons and the utility to manage three aspects of home energy use — a four-zone HVAC system, a water heater, and a swimming pool pump — by taking about 15 minutes to fill out an online form with the family’s schedule and preferences.

At a web portal, James Wilson answered a series of questions about the family’s energy use and habits. He also specified what temperature the couple preferred in each zone, and for what hours, as well as how much the utility could adjust that temperature during times of peak demand. Now the Wilsons don’t have to remember to adjust the thermostat when they leave for the day.

“You can’t remember all the time,” Wilson says. “You don’t have time to go to every thermostat. The power company also has the ability to raise our cooling temperature up to 78 degrees instead of 74. You can see the impact that could have across an entire service region.”

In the web portal, Wilson indicated when his family uses hot water so that their water heater could respond to that demand. “I go to bed at 11 p.m. and the hot water heater cuts off,” he says. “I get up at 7 a.m. My water heater starts heating around 6, so it’s ready.” Once everyone leaves the house for the day, the hot water heater switches off, conserving energy throughout its unused daytime hours.

Finally, the Wilsons’ pool pump was set to come on at 2 a.m. The pump will automatically shut off after a certain amount of time if, for example, Wilson turns the pump on when he takes a dip at 6 p.m. and then forgets to turn it off.

Consumers are alerted when they are in a “control event” so they can override the command if they want, Ebihara says. If you want to change a setting, you don’t even have to be home. You could change your water heater setting before you sneak out of work early to make sure you had hot water for a shower at 3 p.m., for example.

Although programmable thermostats offer some of these energy saving benefits, they only work if people have them and actually use them. “In our pilot program in Raleigh [NC], only 15 percent of homes had programmable thermostats and of those, only 50 percent were actually programmed,” Ebihara says. By comparison, the online survey takes about 15 minutes to complete, at which point the homeowner can sit back and watch the energy savings commence. “We think most of America doesn’t want to interact with their products every day,” Ebihara says. “We call it ‘set it and forget it.’ ”

The utility benefits by gaining additional capacity, Ebihara says. “We’re in two-way, real-time communication between the consumer and the utility,” he adds. “We can present to the utility how much energy is being consumed at any point in time and be able to reduce that energy. If [the utility] sees a peak demand situation coming, it can reduce the load and reduce the load on the system.”

As for the Wilsons, they saved about $40 a month from September through April, with more savings possible during the summer. That’s without time-of-use pricing, which is not part of this program. “Being on the trial has been fun,” Wilson says. “Ten years from now, this will be common.”

Apps Make Energy Saving Fun
Speaking of fun, OpenPeak has designed an energy-managing device, the Home Energy Manager, that also allows you to check in with Facebook, Twitter, news and weather — and listen to music. “We realize that the average person might not get that excited about energy management,” says David Barclay, director of energy management for OpenPeak, which produces branded products to manage home energy use. “But you care about your Facebook page and Twitter updates. This keeps people more engaged in the energy-saving functionality.”

The energy saving and managing function shows you how much energy you’re using right this minute. You can set up monthly goals, monitor your progress, and get energy-saving tips if you’re not on track, Barclay says. Preliminary data shows that users may save up to 25 percent on energy use, he says.

Making It Real With Real-Time Usage Data
Or, you could use these managing products as an education tool for family members guilty of routinely leaving the lights on, leaving the hot water running, or leaving the TV, computer, and game systems on.

“I drag the kids over and say, ‘See those lights you left on? Go and turn them off. See how much money we save,’ ” says Mike Beyerle, innovation manager for General Electric. Beyerle tested a GE Home Energy Manager with his own family. “The first thing you get is an education,” he says. For example, you’ll be able to find out how much you spend to wash a load of laundry in hot water as opposed to cold water.

Designer Electricity 
With smart appliances and a home energy manager, you could set a home energy budget for the month and manage your energy use to hit that target, says Barclay. “You could say, ‘Manage my energy use so my energy bill is 10 percent less than last month,’ ” Barclay says. “The program could suggest a range of tips, reprogram your thermostat, turn off the water heater at night. It’s as active as you want it to be. You can go appliance by appliance or you can say, ‘I want to save money. What do you recommend?’ ”

With Smart Grid in the home, your electric bill also could be itemized to show, for example, how much energy your 20-year-old refrigerator uses, how much electricity your water heater consumes, and how much phantom power that new TV draws even in standby mode, Berst says. “If you saw that you were paying $100 a month just to keep your plasma TV on standby mode at 2 in the morning in case you had insomnia, you might plug it into a socket that automatically turns it off at midnight.”

You could track your energy use daily or weekly and change your habits if you were heading toward a major bill.

“Right now, we have one piece of data that tells us and them how much electricity they’ve used,” says Gianna Manes, Duke Energy’s chief customer officer. “They’ve already used it up. They don’t want to be surprised when that bill comes in. With these new meters, we can give them information quicker and give them more of it.”

The knowledge will give consumers information to take action. “The exciting thing is this can change the way people use and view electricity,” Hamilton says. “People don’t view energy as a commodity. Electricity to them is the flip of a light switch. They don’t know how much they spend — it’s not detailed the way our phone calls are. This will help us make different choices for energy. You can set goals for how much you want to spend. You can decide, ‘Hey I want to reduce my carbon emissions.’ ”

Homeowners and businesses that need guaranteed reliability might pay a higher rate. “Right now the hospital gets the same priority as the video game parlor,” Berst says. “We need to be able to identify the critical load and keep them up.”

You might be able to set parameters such as reducing your home’s carbon footprint or setting a target dollar amount for your energy bill, Hamilton says. “Hopefully, some of the systems that are going to come out will give you solutions: here’s what you can do if you’re not on track,” she says.

No Smart Appliances? No Problem
But what about consumers who, unlike Wilson, aren’t computer savvy? “People like my 87-year-old mother are not going to want to figure out how to program the dishwasher,” says David W. Kreutzer, Ph.D., a research fellow in energy economics and climate change in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Consumers should be able to obtain the energy-saving benefits of Smart Grid even if they don’t have a home area network or even smart appliances. “Ideally, a consumer could purchase a Smart Grid-enabled clothes dryer, plug it in, and register it with their service provider through a Web portal or a toll-free phone call,” says a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), calling for “plug and play” configuration with no technical expertise required.

Smart appliances shouldn’t be necessary either to benefit from Smart Grid and time of use pricing, says Katherine Hamilton, an energy expert who recently stepped down as president of GridWise Alliance. “You could program your thermostat to go down a couple of degrees,” she says. “You could decide not to run your dishwasher or washing machine [at peak times]. Not all of this is going to require new appliances.”

For example, one home energy manager will show you when your utility is charging peak-usage rates — a useful tool once those rates are widespread. Tendril’s Vision looks like a clock and does tell time. But it also shows green when utility prices are in off-peak hours, red when prices hit peak hours, and a red highlight as a warning when a peak pricing period is about to begin, says Sara Blanchard, a spokeswoman for Tendril.


Play Sets: Enjoy a Park in Your Yard

Wooden play sets offer multiple options for hours of outdoor fun from spring through late fall. But before you buy or build, do your homework.

Play Sets

When today’s parents and grandparents were growing up, many backyards boasted a simple, inexpensive swing set made of hollow steel with a slide and perhaps a glider, cemented on grass or dirt. Today, families have many more choices, and wooden play sets that can be added onto as children grow offer multiple options for hours of outdoor fun from spring through late fall. But before you buy or build, do your homework.

Site and Sight
Another industry safety standard is to leave six feet of open space around the stationary part of the set. For the swings, take the height of the swing beam and multiply times two. So, if the beam is eight feet high, you’ll need 16 feet of open space with protective surfacing in the front and back. This zone helps prevent collisions as kids swing and shoot off the bottom of slides. Even if you’re starting with a small set, you may want to add to it later, so leave extra room to maintain that six-foot clearance around a larger set.

Plan a site you can see out a window, especially if your children are younger. Don’t plant the play set in the center of the yard either. Off to the side is better so the kids have enough room for a ball game, too, says independent builder Jeff Corner, of Grafton, Wis., who has been building play sets since 1989.

Ground Work
You’ll want something — not just grass — underneath the set that looks good, can handle plenty of wear and tear, and will cushion falls. The recommended ground cover depth is nine inches, Hendy says. To have nine inches after settling, for instance, start with 12. “Seventy-nine percent of injuries are from falls,” she says.

The most popular ground cover choices are playground wood chips certified by ASTM and pea stone. Wood chips are less expensive, but they will eventually rot and you’ll have to add more every year or two. Pea stone is harder to install, but drains better, lasts longer, and is less likely to get tracked into your home, Corner says. One danger from pea stone, however, is that your lawn mower can pick it up and spray it out like missiles. 

Slide into the Basics
A basic play set includes a slide and swing. Many companies, individual builders and kits offer modular designs you can add to later. “They’re big, modular Tinkertoys,” Tripp says. After the slide and swing, the next most popular components are climbers: monkey bars, rock walls or both. Other popular add-ons include gliders, tire swings, ramps, fire poles, steering wheels, and picnic tables. “Not only does adding on make the set fresh and interesting, but it breaks down the cost and keeps it age appropriate,” Gray says.

If you’re building your play set, plan on at least a weekend, probably two. Check the kit to see what’s included. “You may think you’re getting a set for $250, but then it doesn’t include the wood or the slide,” Corner says. He strongly recommends a miter saw, which gives “good straight cuts,” for do-it-yourselfers, even if you have to rent one.

For Safety’s Sake
Safety doesn’t stop with the protective surface. ASTM standards stipulate that ladder rungs and any openings should be either less than 3 inches or more than nine inches so a child won’t get stuck and choke. “It’s more difficult for young children to negotiate, but better a Band-Aid and a boo-boo than a tragedy,” Gray says.

Prevent children from wearing sports helmets on play sets. Since a helmet is bigger than the child’s head, Hendy says, a youngster wearing a helmet could get stuck in an opening he’s passed through many times without the helmet.

Other choke hazards are ropes, pet leashes, and chains. Don’t allow children to play with them on the set. To prevent falls, make sure you have a guard rail for elevated spaces 30 inches above the ground and a protective barrier on elevated surfaces more than four feet high.

Take Care
Proper maintenance is critical for safety, appearance, and durability. The most important task is to tighten the bolts twice a year because wood shrinks and swells with changes in humidity. “Look at Easter and back-to-school time,” Gray suggests. Depending on the wood, you’ll also need to reseal and/or restain the set every few years. “With California Redwood, that’s primarily a cosmetic decision,” he says. With other woods, restaining and resealing is important to preserve the wood.

With proper planning and maintenance, you’ll be able to pass your set on to the neighbor’s children in 15 years or save it for your grandchildren for generations of enjoyment.


How To: Hold a Successful Yard Sale

A well-planned yard sale will leave your wallet fatter and your home de-cluttered. Proper planning, skillful organization, and a sense of humor will save the day —and your sanity. Here are tips to ensure success.

Even if you’ve had numerous yard sales in the past, here are a few pointers to make yours more successful.

Start Early
Even if your next yard sale is months away, start sorting through your belongings to get ready. Put each item in one of four storage containers: Keep, Toss, Yard Sale, and Undecided. “If you’re not using it in the next year, don’t keep it,” says Dave Valliere, senior product manager for home storage at Yardsalequeen.com . Except for maternity clothing and plus sizes, adult clothing doesn’t sell well either.

‘Ad It’ In
Advertise online and in your local paper. If you have baby items or antique furniture, say so. People will scan the ads looking for items they need, and if you have what they’re looking for they’ll come to your yard sale. “If your ad says ‘antique furniture’ or ‘60s modern,’ those kinds of identifiers will definitely be lures to people,” says Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America. “If I see ‘baby clothes’ and ‘Fisher-Price,’ I’m not running over to that sale,” Littlefield says. “But people who have a newborn will go.”

Sign Me Up
Check local ordinances on sign placement. Make your signs easy to read from the road and similar in design so people can follow them. “We get more business at our sale because our signs are professionally done,” says Nikki Fish of South Bend, IN, who hosts a major yard sale every year but enjoys shopping yard sales even more than selling. Paint or draw the arrows after you plant the signs to make sure the arrow point in the right direction. “Wild goose chases are very frustrating,” Littlefield says. With that in mind, take signs down when your sale is over.

Price Pointers
Visit other yard sales and thrift stores to get ideas on pricing. “My thrift store sells hardcover books for $1,” Heiska says. “If I were to try to sell my books for $3, people wouldn’t buy them.” You’re in business for the day to get rid of things you don’t want. Price accordingly.

To make it easier for shoppers, you can group items at the same price on one table, mark prices with colored stickers — all green stickers are 50 cents, for example — or put price tags on each item. Be sure you have lots of small bills and coins to make change.

And remember, everyone negotiates. If you keep your sense of humor and a smile on your face, your prospective buyers won’t be offended whether you accept their offer, make a counteroffer or turn them down, says John Lundgren, author of the ebook How to Turn Your Garage Sale into a Money Machine.

Finally, make sure price tags don’t damage the item. “If you put a price tag that’s going to pull off the cardboard of an old board game and ruin the aesthetic, people may not want it,” says Littlefield.

Timing
The most popular start time is 8 a.m. Saturday. But there are regional differences. Yard sales begin later in upstate New York and earlier in the South. Check ads in your local paper to determine local custom. If you have lots of stuff, host a two-day sale for Friday and Saturday, Saturday and Sunday, or two Saturdays. “If something doesn’t sell the first day, drastically reduce it the next day,” Heiska says.

Caging Early Birds
If you don’t want people at your home the day before, don’t advertise in the paper and don’t add arrows to your signs until sale day. “The moment you put your signs out, your yard is fair game,” Littlefield says. The night before, block your driveway so the doorbell doesn’t wake you. But be realistic: Mentally subtract at least 30 minutes from your advertised start time so you’re ready for early birds. “If they show up while I’m setting up, I’m happy,” Heiska says. “My goal is to sell the stuff. I don’t want to risk them not coming back just because they’re here before my official start time.” But don’t dicker with early birds. Stick to your prices. “If they discover this great pitcher that’s highly valued and collectible and you want $20, don’t let an early bird walk away with it for $10,” Littlefield says.

Lure Them In
Put the good stuff, the big stuff, and the manly stuff in easy view. “If a man is driving and he happens to see a lawn mower, a fertilizer spreader, a circular saw, or a weight bench, he’s more likely to stop,” says Heiska.

Don’t Sell It If It Isn’t Yours
Don’t sell your toddler’s toys, your husband’s baseball card collection, or Grandma’s heirloom dishes if the owner isn’t ready to let them go. “I remember buying some toys for my son and the little kid [who lived there] still wanted them,” Heiska says. “It was heartbreaking for me.” That makes other prospective buyers uncomfortable, too. If an item is not for sale, cover it up and/or add a sign that says “Not for Sale.”

Mind Your Money
A forgotten cash box is an easy target for thieves. Use a fanny pack, apron, or pocket to keep money with you at all times. If you’re worried about counterfeit bills, buy a special counterfeit detector pen at an office supply store. Make a mark on the bill, and it turns a different color if it’s counterfeit. Don’t take checks or large bills.

Space Is Important
Give people room to browse. If they feel pressured or watched, they’ll leave. “Every time they put an item back, they’re almost rejecting you and it’s embarrassing to them,” Lundgren says. “You have to back off and let people look at your items. Say ‘Good morning,’ then have a cup of coffee or chat with a friend.”

When your yard sale is over, store the leftover items in your bins for the next sale or donate them to charity and deposit your earnings in the bank. Your home will be less cluttered and, in a week or two, you might just be ready to go yard saling for your own new treasures.


Quick Tip: Make Your Home More Romantic

For less than the price of a romantic night on the town, you can make your home romance-ready year round.

Romantic Homes

Photo: shutterstock.com

Romance truly begins the minute you walk in the front door. “When the outside world clutters our inside lives, it’s harder to get to the point where you can reconnect,” says decorating coach Kathryn Salyer of mydecoratingcoach.com.

You may have caught the word “clutter.” Considering that the kitchen is a hub of household activity, it has the potential to be hectic or serene—and that feeling starts with the atmosphere. Start by clearing your line of sight by getting rid of all the unnecessary magazines, junk mail, utensils, and anything that takes up space without adding beauty or value. “Uncluttering your home and uncluttering your heads gives you the freedom to be romantic,” Salyer says. One suggestion: Create separate bins for catalogs, bills, and electronics and place those bins on a shelf.

Now you have room to add some relaxation-inspiring accessories. Consider special-occasion wine glasses or a wine cooler to chill wine to just the right temperature—even at the last minute.

If breakfast is more your cup of tea, consider an individual brewing system that allows one of you to brew a latte while the other makes hot chocolate.