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Updated 12:00 PM June 23, 2005




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Students' invention brings home environmental AWARE-ness

Air conditioners have been humming right along with the heat wave of recent days, which could lead to larger-than-expected monthly energy bills. But what if consumers had a system that allowed them to monitor their consumption and adjust it in peak times?

That technology is here today and is winning top honors for a student team from U-M that has designed a monitoring system to warn homeowners when they exceed their monthly goals on utility costs, allowing them to conserve in time to lower their bills.

The team developed a computer-based tool called AWARE@home that lets homeowners monitor total consumption of electricity, gas and water in real time. It also designed a wireless wall plug that allows the electricity consumption of individual appliances to be monitored on the same system.

Utility consumption is expressed on the system in dollars or environmental emissions and delivered to the homeowner automatically through a wireless network, says Steven Skerlos, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and advisor on the student project.

Honors for the technology, developed by engineering and business students, came last month during an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-sponsored design contest seeking profitable sustainable development technologies from universities.

The first-ever P3 Awards—People, Prosperity, and the Planet—took place May 16-17 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Of the 64 student teams invited to the finalist competition, seven teams, including U-M, won top honors for their designs.

The AWARE@home system already has received commercial attention. Skerlos says power companies, landlords, meter providers and appliance manufacturers have expressed interest.

The system is designed for ease of use by homeowners. First, the utility provider swaps out the analog meter for a digital one. Then the consumer gets a startup kit that includes a CD and, if needed, a USB wireless antenna for the computer.

After loading software from the CD onto the computer, the homeowner is asked basic questions about utility rates, billing cycles and how much he wants to spend on utilities each month. At any point in the month that the desired expenditure on utilities set by the consumer is likely to be exceeded, AWARE@home will send an e-mail message notifying the homeowner and directing her to the Web for information about how to reduce consumption.

"The whole point is to get information to consumers in time to take action," Skerlos says. "That is, before the bill arrives."

In the long term the team hopes the AWARE@home system—which was developed with a grant from the EPAP3 program—will help reduce utility consumption in U.S. homes by 10 percent. That may sound small, Skerlos says, until one considers that the United States accounts for almost 25 percent of world's energy consumption.

In the future, Skerlos says the team would like to get cars on the AWARE@home network as part of an effort to help reduce the 8 million barrels of transport-related petroleum used by U.S. passenger vehicles each day.

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