Belkin and Power Map Bet on One Plug Approach

Electronics giant Belkin and stealthy Rutgers spinout PowerMap (pdf) are taking separate cracks at a holy grail of sorts for home energy management: a single device that can read every power load in the house (down to the individual light bulb) from a single box plugged into a single outlet. As I argue in my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), if the technology can prove itself in utility pilot projects and consumers’ homes, it may just have a crack at disrupting the home energy market.

Most existing home energy management systems fall into two broad categories. Cheap ones — or free, in the case of Google PowerMeter or Microsoft Hohm — which use electrical meters to gather their power information. Those often times give only entire-household energy usage, not reads on individual appliances. Systems that can actually gather specific appliance or household system power data, on the other hand, largely need dozens of smart plugs for each individual appliance, or a circuit-panel reader installed by an electrician — and those can cost hundreds of dollars.

A single power socket-mounted device that could read multiple devices could be a lot cheaper than that. . . but what’s the secret? In Power Map’s case, it’s by reading the sine wave signature of the alternating current that zings around a home, CEO and co-founder Rick Mammone explained to me last week. His background is in speech recognition technology, and compared to differentiating people’s voices by the slight variations in sound waves, telling your washing machine from your dishwasher is much simpler, he said.

Unlike decades-old, low-frequency powerline sensing technology, Power Map uses higher frequencies like those used by the HomePlug power line carrier specification. That allows Power Map to measure the complex impedance of a device, which can tell when an appliance needs to be repaired and replaced, as well as how much power it’s using, Mammone said. Power Map’s meter spends about 20 hours listening to a household’s current and identify everything that’s plugged in at the time. From that point on, it can measure how much power each appliance or system is using, all for the cost of a single plug-in meter.

Belkin’s technology differs from Power Map’s in that it measures the voltage of the household electricity, rather than the frequency, using technology it got from Zensi, a startup it acquired in April. Kevin Ashton, co-founder and CEO of Zensi and general manager of Belkin’s Conserve line of energy efficiency gear, told me this week that the system makes sense of the noise on a household current via cloud-based algorithms originally developed for facial recognition software, and can individuate each load, down to the individual light bulb.

Belkin hasn’t said how it plans to bring its “one plug reads all” technology to market, but it has a huge line of energy conservation products and utility industry inroads via its smart meter Gateway product. Power Map has yet to disclose how much money it’s raised or how much it’s seeking to bring its product to market. But it has set a $50 price tag for its plug-in meter.

It wouldn’t do to go without mentioning another potential contender in this field — Intel (s INTC), which has been working on a one-plug measurement device for some years. Still, Intel didn’t mention the technology in its big licensing and partnership-centered home energy management announcement in September, so it’s unclear when/if this technology will come to market.

To read the rest of my article on the one plug approach to home energy management, check out GigaOM Pro.

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Image courtesy of MackDaddy2000 via Creative Commons license.