Wattvision's Simple Energy-Management Dreams

The race is heating up among companies looking to bring you tools that sit atop your electricity meter to help you cut energy consumption in your home. Many of them are working with utilities on services for smart meter rollouts; some are building high-end dashboards that include a rich, PC-style display with which to tinker; and some are creating smart outlets that offer a detailed look into the energy consumption of different appliances and devices. But Wattvision, a 4-month-old, Y-Combinator-born company, is heading straight to the bottom with dreams of selling a cheap, bare-bones energy management tool that it says is a snap to install on your meter and can be monitored via the Web. No bells, no whistles—just information.

Well, that's the plan anyway. Wattvision CEO and founder Savraj Singh tells us he's in the process of raising the company's first round of angel funding so he can launch the tool within the coming months. He's not waiting around for complex smart meters, which are getting a boost from the stimulus plan but will still take years to roll out. Singh says Wattvision's tool can work with basic electricity meters and can be installed without using an electrician. And while he hasn't yet set a price point on the monitoring hardware, he calls the $250 range others are looking to charge way too high for the regular consumer; Wattvision's gear, he said cryptically, will be priced in the range of a standard iPod.

Ahead of the launch, Singh set up the sensor hardware at a handful of pilot buildings, including the Mountain View (Calif.) offices of social network company FriendFeed. Singh showed us how the gear is monitoring the energy consumption of FriendFeed's office space and others in real time on the Web, updating every 15 seconds. We watched the buildings fluctuate between consuming, on average, 15¢ to 35¢ per hour of electricity.

Kinks to Work Out

Wattvision still has a lot of work to do before it can get its energy-management tool to market. For example, currently the connection between the meter and the Internet is wired, though Singh says they're adding a wireless connection soon. Wattvision also hopes to add smart social networking features (Singh previously worked at Microsoft), and it has developed its sensor design to be open-source so that third parties can build compelling applications and services on top.

Wattvision's business model has its own issues, namely that selling a straight-to-consumer gadget is very difficult for a startup with no funding to do. Consumer electronics take a lot of capital costs to develop, and manufacturing is a margins business, which means high volumes can be critical to succeeding. High-volume consumer sales, in turn, require a lot of marketing and relationships with retailers—also difficult for a startup. These difficulties aren't impossible to surpass—see Danger's Hiptop (formerly T-Mobile SideKick) or Meraki's Wi-Fi gear (though this is partly for the prosumer with service provider plans)—but will make the road ahead tough for Wattvision.

The product is also super simple—maybe too simple for a user who would go to the trouble of buying one in the first place. It shows the whole energy consumption of the house, so if you want to know how much of a power hog, say, your fridge is, then you're going to have to go unplug it and then look at the Web interface. It's a sort of black box approach: You can't really see what's inside, but through trial and error you can deduce a way to reduce your energy.

Still, I like the idea of a down-and-dirty, basic approach. Whenever an energy management company pitches us and promises ease of use, my eyes start to glaze the moment they start pulling out various hardware for the router connection, for the dashboard, for smart plugs—it never seems to end. Never mind that such solutions typically require an electrician.

It's also refreshing that Wattvision is looking to get its sensor out there before the smart grid rollout, as that will inevitably take more time than people think. But with that time line, the company really needs to go into overdrive and get its product out so it can claim some solid market share before those fancier versions hit the shelves.