Many of us have Smart Homes but are we actually smart about our homes? That is to say, while you may be able to interact with a variety of connected devices around your home, do you know when anything is on or off from anywhere? Or do you know how much energy a particular device you have is consuming? Or do you know how much energy is being consumed at your home all of the time? These are the very questions a new connected power device called Sense is trying to figure out, day and night. And Sense is using machine learning to do so. I recently install the Sense in my electrical panel and the insights I’m already getting are making me check the Sense app many times a day.
What’s really interesting is I got a preview of this type of technology back in 2010 as part of an Intel Influencers program. Deep in the Intel Labs, a few others and I saw how an electrical device could be “identified” by the electrical fingerprint it put out. Essentially, when any electrical device is powered on and running, it puts out a digital signature. You can think of it like a voice print that can not only identify what is being said, even contextually, but also who is saying it. The voice of a child saying “I want to go to the zoo” looks differently than an adult saying “the garage is dirty.” And even more precisely, one person saying “I went to the WHITE house” is contextually different than someone saying “I went to the white HOUSE.” These types of nuances can be differentiated in voice, pronunciation, emphasis, and other nuances.
Machine learning actually unlocks a lot of potential when it comes to interpreting huge sets of data. And this is exactly what Sense is trying to do. As more Sense devices are installed and start sucking in vast amounts of data, and that data is compared, it begins to identify patterns and signatures of electrical devices. The more data that is uploaded and analyzed, the smarter and more precise the data analytics becomes, and the more accurate the device identification also becomes.
But this is a long process if you think about the number of unique things that plug into the wall, old and new.
So that’s the idea anyway behind Sense. And I’m currently letting it take a deep dive into the HighTechDad home. This will be a lengthy journey I have a feeling. But I feel good about contributing. So I wanted to share my experiences with Sense thus far. I will be writing a follow-up in a few weeks or months as the insights come trickling in.
Installing the Sense
I’m not an electrician. I’ve run a few wires, replaced a few plugs, and installed some smart light switches. I also just had my entire home’s electrical replaced and upgraded (not by choice but to prevent a fire in my daughter’s wall). And I recently replaced all of my bulbs with LEDs.
Here’s my new panel.
Even with a nice clean and new electrical panel installed, I didn’t feel comfortable installing the Sense power monitor myself. So I had my electrician do it while I watched and asked a ton of questions.
I do not recommend you try installing the Sense yourself unless you are an electrical expert.
Don’t take any chances. You could really injure or even kill yourself.
According to the Sense installation instructions, you need to have an empty 240V breaker. You can, according to the instructions, connect to an existing 240V breaker but you shouldn’t use a tandem breaker unless it is 240V.
If you have any questions about the voltage, 20 versus 15 Amp circuits, paired versus un-paired or un-bonded breakers, DO NOT ASK ME, please. I won’t answer you, sorry. (I will answer other questions happily, though!) Please contact Sense Support for anything technical.
- Turning off the power to your panel – after turning off the main, we also turned off individual breakers
- Removing the screw cover to expose access to the breakers
- Find a spot for the Sense unit
- Install the antenna
- Connect all of the cables (power, current sensors & antenna)
- Connect current sensor clamps around the service lines
- Connect black and red wires to breaker and white to neutral bar
- Close the panel
- Turn on Main Power
- Turn on circuit breakers (if you had turned them off individually) & wait for start-up chime
- Go to the app after hearing the successful chime
That’s it! It actually is pretty simple. As I noted, we did turn off the individual breakers once the power was off and then when we turned the main back on, we turned on the breakers one at a time and not all at once to prevent a surge in the house.
Here are a few pictures to help with the words. Below, we are installing the antenna. You knock out a plug in the bottom (or side) of your panel and then feed and connect the antenna through. We chose one at the bottom to better protect against rain. (One note, the Sense doesn’t support 5 GHz bands, only 2.4 GHz – you may have to play with the positioning of the antenna.)
Here you can see we have the red and black wires connected to those circuits (note: we shared a circuit since the Sense itself actually only consumes 0.1A, and the switches were already “locked” together with a metal bracket).
We found a nice, clear area to mount the Sense on the upper, left side of the panel. It was attached with strong, double-sided tape. We do wish the wires included with the Sense were slightly longer as the stretch from one side and down with the other cables and back up to the neutral bar was a bit tight. You can also see that we put the current sensor around the two service lines. You do have to be sure these sensors are facing the same direction for the current (there are labels on them to help you with that).
Once we turned the main circuit on and the individual breakers on, we waited to hear the startup and success chime from the Sense. It does take a minute or so for the Sense to boot up. Once I heard the chime, I started up the Sense iOS app.
You then connect to the WiFi network you want. (You can change WiFi networks later but you have to do it with your smartphone next to the panel and you may have to turn off the circuit that has the Sense attached to it – I had to do that.)
Making “Sense” of Your Home’s Electricity
Now, your work is pretty much done. You just have to watch Sense as it records your electrical usage. Do note: it does take a lot of time for things to be discovered, especially devices. My install took place on 2/25/17 and as of this writing (3/6/17), it hasn’t discovered any devices.
What it has figured out, more or less, is the electricity of the Always On type. This is stuff that is running all of the time (e.g., WiFi, security cameras, clocks, refrigerators, etc.). Everything else is pretty much lumped into an “Unknown” category.
I have found that the Always On amount does change as the Sense learns. It may go up or down.
You are able to see real-time usage at any point in time and there are indicators as to when power goes up or down and by how many watts.
I have started to look for patterns in usage. I already know my devices, especially timed ones. For example, I know that my pool pump turns on around 8:30 am and off around 2:30. During that time, the pool sweep comes on as well (but I can’t remember the time exactly). Below, you can see this process in action.
While the pattern isn’t completely obvious, my coffee maker is MUCH more obvious. You can see it turn on at 5:45 am and then complete just after 6 am. You can clearly see when the water pump is pumping and the water is being heated. I showed this to everyone in my family but they didn’t seem to share my excitement. Haha, oh well.
For now, while the Sense is analyzing everything, I can only watch and see if I can identify items by looking at the power levels. It’s actually kind of fun trying to figure things out. Obviously, my brain can probably process and identify patterns a bit easier because I know the context of what is on and when it is on, but I’m thinking that after a certain point, the Sense will do a much better job than I will.
There are some fascinating articles on the Sense blog. I would recommend reading the “How Does Sense Detect My Devices?” and “Why doesn’t Sense have a training mode?” which provide some good explanations into the technology.
The Sense power monitor currently retails for $299.
I will write an update in a bit, once Sense has become a bit smarter. Right now, he’s a baby and just learning how to listen and think. Soon as he begins to grow up, he will be able to talk and understand.
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HTD says: I find the Sense technology to be fascinating. Gaining insights into your home’s energy usage by just sitting back and waiting for Machine Learning to figure it out itself is the true sign of a “Smart” home.