Partnering for energy innovation: designing a remote audit

by Ethan Goldman, Energy Informatics Architect

When your car has a problem, a warning light on the dashboard usually alerts you to the situation and lets you know that it's time for a tune-up. But how do you know when your home or your workplace isn't operating in top condition?

At Efficiency Vermont, we get a lot of calls from people who are in uncomfortable buildings with high energy bills and they want to know why. In some cases an Efficiency Vermont Energy Consultant will travel to the facility to take a look around and set up a monitoring system to keep track of the building's energy use. But these monitoring systems can be a costly investment for the customer and they can only be read on site, which means a lot of time spent travelling to and from the facility.

A low-cost solution

So we asked ourselves, “What if there was an easy, low-cost, way to remotely monitor the performance of a house or building. What if we could just drop a device in the mail to a customer, have them set it up in their building, create a link for the data over a cellular connection, and run an analysis to get targeted advice about real savings opportunities?”

Unfortunately, this device doesn't exist… yet. But last year, Efficiency Vermont posed this challenge to a team of University of Vermont (UVM) students in the Senior Engineering Experience in Design (SEED) program, and over the course of their senior year they produced the first prototype. The compact package—housed in a custom 3D-printed enclosure—contains sensors for temperature, humidity, and light, as well as a cellular modem to transmit the data from almost anywhere in the state and an SD card to store data. The cost for all of the parts, including the cellular data plan, is only $250 (alternative systems could cost $700 or more).

When paired with electric and heating fuel usage data, information from temperature and humidity sensors can help to provide a comprehensive view of what's going on in a building. An abnormally high level of moisture or inconsistent temperature pattern can indicate that there are issues with the building envelope or heating and ventilation systems. With more frequent and varied data collection we're able to quickly and accurately identify potential problems and opportunities for energy savings.

Micah Botkin-Levy, James Chin, Hao Hu, Kaitlyn Mayberry, and Michael Zonnenberg were the five students tasked with tackling this challenge. Their design proved that the concept can work. A video demonstration of the prototype device is available on YouTube, and their final report with all of the technical details can be found here.

Stay tuned for updates as we tweak and refine the device design and begin testing out remote building diagnostics to help find more savings for Vermonters. Have an idea for alternative ways to monitor building energy use? Let us know in the comments below!

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