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A device to track your energy use, right down to the toaster

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 10/4/2018 By Scott Kirsner
a close up of a piece of paper: The Sense home energy monitor can keep track of everything from a garage door opener to a toaster.© Sense The Sense home energy monitor can keep track of everything from a garage door opener to a toaster.

Are you ready to have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with your home’s electrical panel?

A Cambridge startup, Sense, and its investors are betting you are. Sense is expected to say Friday that it has raised $18 million in funding for a home energy monitoring system that can monitor not just your total power usage but also keep tabs on every time you leave the oven on, your kids slide the post-school Pop-Tarts into the toaster, or the garage door opens — and deliver that info to you through a mobile app.

Sense founder and CEO Michael Phillips acknowledges that not everyone is an “energy nerd” interested in the hourly peaks and valleys of a home’s power consumption. So he’s positioning the company’s $300 device as being more about “home awareness” — knowing what’s going on in the house when you’re out. Still, selling sophisticated technology for a homeowner’s basement remains challenging terrain for any kind of company, big or small.

Phillips spent most of his career in speech recognition. And it turns out that analyzing the phonemes of spoken words is not that different of a technical problem from analyzing the waveforms of electricity usage: You’ve got to train the computer to see a certain pattern and quickly identify that it is the word “wonderful,” or a water heater switching on. Many of Sense’s employees also come from the realm of speech recognition, including vice president of technology George Zavaliagkos, who previously worked for Amazon’s Alexa speech recognition team in Cambridge. The company has 45 employees in total.

Sense’s electricity monitor is a small orange box, about the size of a box of movie theater candy, that connects to three things: your home’s Wi-Fi network, the two main power leads that feed your home’s electrical panel, and a 240-volt circuit breaker. (They suggest an electrician handle the install.) Once it’s in place, it sends data to a mobile app that can let you see how much power individual appliances in your home are using, and when they’re on. Some appliances need to be labeled by the user — you might switch on your iron and see it listed as a generic “heat source,” but then tell the app to give that heat source a proper name. An add-on to the Sense monitor can also track power production, if a home has solar panels on its roof.

Sense can discern some pretty interesting activities in the home, beyond just figuring out whether the garage door has opened while you’re on vacation in Italy. One user told the company that the device helped him identify a clog in his home’s septic drainage field — and deal with the issue before it turned into a crisis. (The septic pump had been running erratically.) Another homeowner who regularly rented out his home on Airbnb discovered that “his cleaner would stay overnight if there wasn’t a guest scheduled for that night,” says Carol McGarry, Sense’s public relations manager. How? By noticing in the Sense app that the spa tub would go on late in the evening.

Michael Mahan, one of the investors in Sense, says that most homes are still full of non-smart, non-Internet-connected appliances (unlike those fridges you see advertised that let you surf the web from their doors.) “Sense helps all of those legacy products be smart and connected, and it helps you get data from them,” says Mahan, a vice president at Schneider Electric, a French energy management and automation company.

Schneider Electric produces electrical panels, and “there’s a lot of potential for partnerships” between Schneider and Sense, Mahan says — perhaps bundling Sense’s technology with Schneider’s Square D brand of panels, or helping Sense reach the shelves of wholesalers and retailers around the world.

Sense was founded in 2013, and the last five years haven’t exactly been roses and daffodils for startup companies trying to raise money in the energy efficiency sector. So it’s no small feat that Sense has attracted $18 million from investors this month — on top of $20 million it raised earlier.

The company’s backers include Shell Ventures, part of the Dutch energy giant; Burlington-based iRobot; Energy Impact Partners, a fund that invests money for utilities such as National Grid and Southern Company; and Schneider Electric. As more utilities shift to dynamic pricing — charging consumers more when power is in high demand — Phillips says that will help drive the need for data delivery devices like his.

You’ll want to make sure that your electric car is charging when power is cheapest. “Over time, utilities are going to really have to have influence on when people use energy, not just how much they use,” he says. That will help the utilities avoid building expensive new power plants to handle those moments of peak demand.

The challenge of building awareness among potential buyers is one of those things that can sink startups — even well-funded ones. “I’m impressed with what they have done,” says Martin Flusberg, CEO of Powerhouse Dynamics. “But it’s possible that most of the early adopters of this technology have already adopted it. My impression is that selling this into homes is just not a gigantic market.” Flusberg’s company built a $500 power-monitoring system for homeowners, but eventually shifted most of its focus to restaurants and convenience stores, where keeping a lid on energy consumption can make a big difference to the bottom line.

What could help Sense get the attention of consumers? Flusberg says marketing deals with utilities could provide a boost because they communicate with and interact with every US homeowner. Phillips says that several such deals are in the works, and in July the company began a small pilot test with a utility-sponsored energy efficiency program in Vermont.

Already, Sense’s device is in “tens of thousands of homes,” Phillips says, adding, “We want to get into all of them.”

Attaining that goal will require the company to execute a marketing and sales strategy that convinces millions of people that it’s time to initiate that deeper, more meaningful relationship with their electrical panel.

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