When National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers helped install a peel-and-stick energy-metering system in a Wells Fargo branch bank last June, they weren’t sure what exactly they would learn.
After all, the system from Whisker Labs, an Oakland, California startup, was the first “beta-ready” technology to emerge from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2), a five-year, $10 million program. As part of the IN2 program, select companies who have successfully met technical project-based milestones in the lab have the opportunity to test and demonstrate their products in a real-world environment within Wells Fargo’s commercial real estate portfolio. The June 22 pilot installation at a Wells Fargo Branch facility in Aurora, Colorado, was designed to allow NREL to evaluate technology performance and demonstrate the benefit of this less-invasive submetering technology in a commercial building.
“We wanted to see how it performs under real-world load profiles versus how it did in the lab, a unique opportunity as part of the IN2 program,” said Meghan Bader, a program manager with the NREL Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.
In the midst of the beta demonstration, Earth Networks announced on December 5 that it had acquired the start-up. The Germantown, Maryland company, which operates the world’s largest weather observation networks, will create a new division called Whisker Labs for the energy-sensing hardware and software infrastructure.
“Our breakthrough device and software platform unlocks the full potential of a smart home by collecting and analyzing health intelligence data from both legacy ‘unconnected’ appliances and optimizing newer ‘connected’ appliances and devices,” said Bob Marshall, chief executive office of Earth Networks, based in Germantown, Maryland.
The successful exit affirms the purpose and value of the incubator.
“Through the IN2 program we were able to successfully test their technology within the NREL Systems Performance Lab (SPL),” said Richard Adams, director of NREL’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. “Using NREL’s laboratory, we were able to characterize the performance of the ‘stick-on’ power meters with typical appliance loads. The accuracy of the measurements relative to reference meters indicates potential suitability to applications such as measurement and verification, and fault detection and diagnostics of building equipment.”
IN2 Fostering Early-Stage Building Tech
Launched in 2014, IN2 is funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and co-administered by NREL. The initiative fosters and accelerates early-stage commercial building technologies; Whisker Labs was among the first selected for the program.
The choice of Whisker Labs’ meters was a good fit because existing submetering systems use direct measurement, which requires the installation of current transformers (CTs) and voltage sensors. They are much more costly than Whisker Labs’ indirect sensors and also require skilled technicians to install and monitor. By comparison, Bader said, “a lay person can install the Whisker technology” by applying it to the outside of a circuit breaker.
Steve Frank, an NREL commercial buildings engineer, was part of the team that worked with Whisker Labs in the SPL prior to the beta deployment. He has been impressed with the progress of the device. “It’s what you want to see in IN2, when something goes from lab testing prototype phase to the field testing phase as the company improves its product,” Frank said.
Speed and Ease of Installation a Key
Ease and speed of installation is a key innovation of the Whisker sensor. Once in place, the technology indirectly measures voltage and current by monitoring the electric and magnetic fields around a circuit breaker. The system then uses a proprietary computation to determine what the power is within the breaker circuit. It accomplishes all of this through a tiny, stick-on sensor connected to a hub that, in turn, connects wirelessly to the internet.
As a demonstration of the ease of this new technology, Frank and others installed the Whisker sensors on June 22 before conventional submeters were put in place in the same building. The contrasts were striking. Even including training for a half dozen people, the team was able to cover 34 breakers in the panel with Whisker sensors in 30 minutes.
In contrast, it took a licensed electrician about three and a half hours—working in the dark with flashlights because electricity had to be shut off—to install conventional submeters with CTs for only nine breakers. During that time, there were disruptions at the bank, including the fact that the cleaning staff couldn’t complete their normal duties.
While both meters measure voltage and current—which allows the determination of power consumption in a building—there are trade-offs between the Whisker sensors and standard meters. Standard meters use direct measurement and, therefore, are more accurate and less susceptible to electro-magnetic interference. Still, the Whisker sensors can provide valuable data.
“You have a qualitative idea of what is happening in all of the individual circuits,” Frank said. “This is very useful for doing things like fault detection, optimizing schedules, checking that control set-points are working as intended—such as seeing things like lights dimming or fans going on—and that power usage is going down.”
The demonstration is on-going, and expected to last through February. We have been able to test the sensors with some typical continuous commissioning tasks such as verifying proper lighting controls and holiday schedules,” Frank said. Further analysis is pending of the data.
The Future of Whisker Labs
In the future, Whisker Labs’ peel-and-stick technology could reduce energy-metering costs by 90% in commercial buildings—as well as the next-generation connected home. The information collected through the sensors and the Whisker Labs data-management system can also be used by third-party energy information systems, which will provide building owners with insight into building energy consumption and enable cost-effective energy savings in commercial buildings.
According to Earth Networks, the Whisker Labs home energy monitoring device will be available to business partners such as utilities, solar and energy companies, home automation providers and insurance companies in early 2017. It will be made available to consumers later in 2017.
The company said that the Whisker Labs home intelligence platform will be affordable and easy-to-install, allowing users to affix a sensor to an electrical panel or breaker box to allow real-time measurement of power consumption of appliances in the home by sensing power as it flows through that breaker box. Whisker will also provide insights into energy use and health of each home appliance via a mobile app. Whisker Labs’ data, analysis, and automation capabilities are intended to enable both home and energy intelligence.
“Today, every appliance and every device in the home is connected to the power network. The problem is, that network is not accessible and the power data it holds is locked. We are excited to open this power network and connect it to the internet through one simple device,” Marshall said.
Frank and the NREL researchers are also pleased with the insights the technology can provide.
“Whisker Labs offers a high degree of visibility into what’s happening inside a building’s electrical system at a very low cost point with minimal time investment,” said Frank, and through ongoing efforts, NREL is positioned to help gather information for further improvements and potential breakthroughs.
— Written by Ernie Tucker, NREL Communications and Public Affairs