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Energy guzzlers exposed

If your washing machine is devouring too much electricity due to lime scale buildup or worn bearings, you may get a nasty surprise when the electricity bill arrives at the end of the year. A new monitoring system exposes energy guzzlers before the bill gets too high.

In the midst of preparing for a party, the host hurriedly stacks her cold cuts and cheese in the fridge to make room for the bulky cake plate. In her haste, she doesn't notice that the plate is blocking the fridge door, causing energy to be wasted. A message immediately starts blinking on a display in the kitchen: “Please close fridge door.” In another scenario, the washing machine's bearings are worn, and the cylinder is guzzling an unnecessary amount of electricity to cope with the resulting friction. A text message saying “Please have your washing machine inspected” warns the owner in time, thus helping to avoid a horrendous electricity bill at the end of the year. The basis for these warnings is a monitoring system developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen. “Each electrical appliance is fitted with sensors that continuously measure the electricity being consumed,” explains project manager Peter Heusinger of the IIS. “The sensors send this information to a server which lies concealed in the fuse box as a top-hat rail module.” A small computer program in the server calculates the current electricity consumption of each appliance and automatically compares the values with ones obtained earlier. If the energy consumption of a fridge gradually continues to increase, it could be because the seal is damaged. The system then sends an appropriate message to the owner. "This can be in the form of a text message, a message on a display in the kitchen or one displayed in a user interface on the computer, depending on the user's preferences," says Heusinger. The user can not only call up the average electricity consumption of individual devices, but can, for the first time, also track their consumption during operation. This makes it possible to check, for example, whether a washing machine's economy cycle actually lives up to its promises. If a new appliance is added, the server recognizes it automatically – just as a computer recognizes a new scanner. The researchers will present the prototype of the system at the Hannover Fair (Hall 13, Stand E27) from April 16 to 20. “It is possible that all commercially available electrical appliances will have an integrated electricity sensor in the future,” says Heusinger. “However, this will only happen if the sensors can be mass-produced, which still requires a certain amount of development work.” The monitoring system itself, on the other hand, is already quite advanced, and could reach market maturity in about a year's time.

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