Sharing my carbon footprint

You may have noticed there are some new graphs on the right sidebar of this blog. You can now get live updates on my home electricity use and my carbon footprint (well my electricity-related carbon footprint anyway). Things have clearly moved on since I first got my Current Cost device in November and became part of the Act on CO2 campaign. I’ve been steadily reporting back my energy use to the PR company employed to manage the campaign but realise that for the data to have any impact on my behaviour I should be forced to look at the data everyday.

Actually I think I’m losing the plot on the whole saving energy thing and have become way more interested in the data-mashing/amateur electronics end of things. In particular I’ve become interested in getting objects (in my case an energy meter) to blog/tweet on their own. My house needs to tweet to remind me to be a more careful user of energy – that’s where I want to end up.

We’re not quite at the stage of seeing @daveshouse on Twitter yet but we do have nice graphs. These come courtesy of Pachube: “a service that enables you to connect, tag and share real time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments around the world”. Pachube are beta-testing at the moment so you’ll need an invite code to use their service (sign-up details here). On their applications page they have an app to connect the Current Cost meter to your computer. This allows your meter to output information to a feed. I’ve created another feed for my carbon footprint using another Pachube app and finally, the wonderfully titled Pachublogject (which is also still in beta – many thanks for allowing me to test) spat out some code for a widget.

And that’s the widegets you see in the sidebar. I could add another for temperature in my living room but will resist for now. It’s live energy use you are seeing and it changes, according to use, every 15 seconds or so. The carbon footprint bit recalculates based on the previous 24 hours energy use. Where the graph shows a flat line that isn’t always because there’s noone in the house – more likely it’s because the laptop the meter is plugged into is switched off. And that’s where the flaw is in this for me – I don’t have an always-on machine at home that the meter can feed into. So the next thing I need to do probably involves me connecting the meter to an Arduino and then direct to a port on my router. That will involve some programming or something like that – beyond my technical expertise currently although I’m learning stuff pretty rapidly on this project. From there we’re only a short step away from twitter. Bring it on!

Connecting up my Current Cost meter

current cost

I thought I’d write up the process by which I connected up my Current Cost meter to my computer so that I can see my electricity usage data on a timeline and share the data with others. It’s a bit of dummies guide pulled together from the many websites that discuss Current Cost but have a tendency to use words like Linux; you know, words that I and 99% of other computer users simply don’t understand.

I’m going on the basis that you have got your Current Cost device working okay. These are instructions for connecting to a PC. I tried plugging the meter into a mac but hadn’t a clue what to do next when the mac didn’t recognise the device (advice welcome thanks).

Step One: The Current Cost meter needs a special lead to connect it to the computer’s USB port. You can buy that lead from ebay. It connects to the port on the bottom of the meter.

Step Two: You plug in the USB into your computer and your computer gets confused. Mine thinks it’s loading a mouse or sometimes just gives up. But it doesn’t matter. If you look under control panel (click classic view) choose device manager and then Ports (COM & LPT). You’ll now know which serial port your device is connected to (it’ll say Serial to USB COM7 or whichever number it gets assigned to). Make a note of the number it is on. You may need to do this step each time connect the device although mine is always on either COM7 or COM8 so I just guess rather than repeat the above steps.

Step Three: Get some software to read the data from your meter. Dale Lane has created two useful bits of software. One reads the data, creates graphs, summarises trends and can share your data with other users (the instructions tell you how). The other (link is to executable file) just creates a series of graphs on one page, this one’s probably simpler to use to be honest if you want an at-a-glance look at how you’re doing. However, sharing data is what excites me about Current Cost – I’ll talk about thoughts on that in another post.

Step Four: Take a look at that data. To get the data through, both sets of software ask you to input the COM port number. Once you do that the data comes through. The meter itself saves a day’s worth of two-hourly figures, single day data for the last 31 days, monthly data for 12 months and yearly data for four years (info from Dale). The software saves the data as well so as long as you connect the meter and ask for data (it doesn’t happen automatically) at least once a day you will have complete two-hourly figures for each day from the point you started recording.

Overall the software is really useful. We now know that we use most energy between 3pm and 5pm. Why, I haven’t a clue. That’s the time just after child no. 1 comes back from school; is she going round switching on every single appliance? The likely culprit is actually weekend clothes washing/drying. That’s backed up by the double peak we see on Saturdays and Sundays.

Next step I want to tackle is getting the meter to speak to the outside world on its own. I intend to get it to tweet – given my technical naivety that may take some time.

Counting the current

I now have one of these, a Current Cost thingy that measures how much electricity I’m wasting every time I forget to turn the lights off in the kitchen. It was sent to me as part of my impending positioning as some kind of ambassador for the government’s Act on CO2 campaign (that’ll teach me to respond so quickly to internal council circulars last thing on a Friday). More on that after the campaign goes live on Thursday but in the meantime I’m enjoying watching how the Current Cost device freaks out as I switch on the kettle, the tumble dryer and the dishwasher at the same time – those kilowatts go wild!


The device has a serial port on the bottom and I would love to share my usage stats with the world. However this involves some technical geekery which may well be beyond my knowledge. Just extracting the data from the machine looks complex. It’s either a DIY job or I think I just buy a specialist cable.

Once I have the data I’d like to translate it into some simple charts that could sit on the sidebar of this blog. Some have used the Google Charts API. If I can work out what I’m doing, I’ll do the same.

There seems to be a fair few people at IBM’s Hursley offices who are into fiddling with Current Cost so there’s plenty of guidance on the web about this – they even won a prize for hacking the machine and sharing the data. There’s also a wiki.

Note: I’ll put all the posts about the Act on CO2 campaign and my involvement into their own category (rss feed).

Phew – back to full

That was weird. After I published the post about the Custard Factory it showed up in my RSS feed with a lot of strange characters in it. After a bit of fiddling I’d got rid of the characters but in the process my RSS feed got truncated. As any savvy internet type will tell you, sending out a short feed is bad etiquette (it did however boost my visitors by 8 times more than usual).

After some fiddling and weeding out of the said strange characters I’m now back on the full RSS feed.

Apologies if my messing about spammed your feedreader with repeat posts.