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Smart Meters: Giving Away Your Secrets to Save Energy?

Smart meters are set to become an increasingly familiar item in our homes, as energy companies start a major campaign to roll out these devices across the country from 2015, as part of a Government mandated programme to install 53 million of them by 2020.

Billed as the ‘next generation’ of gas and electric meters and a major boost to energy saving, they come with a whole host of intelligent functions built-in, which offer unprecedented levels of convenience and ease of use for suppliers and customers alike – but not everyone is happy with the idea. A report from the EU Data Watchdog in 2012 concluded that Smart Meters represent a significant risk to personal data security, while some in the defence and intelligence community fear the potential danger of web-enabling the nation’s critical infrastructure, in this age of burgeoning cyber-terrorism.

So, are Smart Meters the must-have gadget of the future, or another example of Big Brother’s growing surveillance? Just what does lie behind these controversial devices? As Obi-Wan Kenobi once (fictitiously) said, many of the truths we cling to most dearly, depend on our point of view.

Smart benefits

There is no doubt that Smart Meters represent a huge functionality leap from their current ‘dumb’ counterparts.

  • They can display your usage in real time and in real money
  • Give households the ability to keep tabs on mounting bills quickly and simply
  • Because they communicate directly with the energy company’s HQ, there will be no more missed meter-readers or estimated bills!

Perhaps in the future they could even allow devices such as washing machines or electric car rechargers to switch on automatically, when energy prices are cheapest.

Aren’t the advantages just marginal though?

Opponents argue however, that these are pretty marginal advantages; already you can buy energy monitors very cheaply, that will enable you to keep track of your usage. Sending in your own readings by ‘phone or the internet is a long established practice, and timers can do today what smart meters only promise for tomorrow. The benefits, many argue, do not outweigh the costs.

Secrets Revealed

Smart metering carries huge risks to personal data protection, it enables a vast amount of information to be collected routinely from households and potentially could allow what individual members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes, to be tracked.

If someone you had just bumped into came up with that sort of thing, you might be forgiven for putting them down as a bit of a conspiracy theorist – but this was what the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) had to say in his report on plans to roll out the technology across the EU. Even so, it does sound a little far-fetched, surely? After all, it’s only a meter…well, not quite; those in the know will tell you, it all comes down to granularity.

The traditional model – a meter reader calling once or twice a year – allows your supplier to bill you accurately, but doesn’t really say much about you, or your household, beyond how much energy you collectively use. Collect readings every 15 minutes, night and day, year after year and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that what goes on behind your front door suddenly becomes a lot more transparent.

With access to that data, it becomes a fairly simple matter to know very precisely when something is switched on, or off; it might also be possible to identify exactly what was being used – and records like that over the months could very soon build up a fairly detailed picture of household behaviour.

It led the EDPS to highlight a number of concerns; knowing when a house is regularly empty might be of interest to criminals; the personal profiles being generated might be used commercially; health issues might be inferred if someone was known to be using a particular type of medical device.

A bogus threat?

Yes, but hang on a minute. Just because it might conceivably happen, that doesn’t mean that it will – right?

Wrong, actually; it already has. At the 28th Chaos Computing Congress, ‘White Hat’ hackers reported that they had been able to intercept unencrypted data travelling from Smart Meters which allowed them not only to work out if houses were occupied at the time – but also what those occupants were watching on TV!

Frightening levels of detail

Apparently, the changing brightness of a picture on plasma-screen or LCD sets is mirrored in the TV’s power-consumption levels – and that gives every programme its own distinctive electrical signature. With the power company in question taking readings every two seconds (yes, two seconds!), matching household consumption patterns to on-screen viewing becomes a simple exercise for anyone with enough know-how and a handy laptop.

Your data, your choice

So, where does that leave us? Can smart meters help you save energy and the UK achieve its carbon reduction target? Yes, they can. Will you be giving away at least some level of ‘extra’ information about your household into the bargain? Yes, you will.

How you feel about that, is of course, up to you. The manufacturers of smart meters quite rightly point out that at least as much information is regularly harvested by the likes of Google, insurance companies and your favourite supermarket cards or loyalty programmes – and many people routinely give away far more on Facebook.

All of that is, of course, true, but for many of those who oppose smart meters it is about a much more simple principle – the right to choose. You can avoid overly intrusive companies, and you don’t have to use particular credit cards or loyalty schemes; being forced to host an enforced ‘spy’ in your own home is something different entirely. It’s your data, they argue; it should be your choice.

In the end, however, the whole debate may itself be superseded by technology. Waiting in the wings are solutions which might see the whole idea of ‘meters’ consigned to the history books, as appliances and devices start to communicate directly with a smart grid, taking load on demand and reporting their own usage without the need for any kind of separate meter at all.

Heaven, or hell? That old Jedi was right; it really does depend on your point of view.

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Saving Energy Through Double Glazing

Insulating your home is one of the best ways to make your home energy efficient – and one of the key ways to save energy is through double glazing. Double glazing acts as second layer of protection for your home from losing heat. And when around half of heat used to keep your home warm is lost through the walls, windows or loft, you could cut this significantly by installing double glazed windows.

Single glazed windows alone can lose around 20% of your home’s heat. Double glazing can make a wise long term investment for your home, and be good for the environment. Double glazed windows can save $80 to $100 and 680kg of CO2 every year – not to mention adding real value to your property if you later choose to sell.

How Double Glazing Works

Double glazing works by trapping air between two panes of glass. This creates an insulating barrier that will stop heat being lost, stop condensation appearing at your windows, and will also help stop noise from outside.

You should look for energy saving recommended double glazing, to ensure that you are installing the most energy efficient frames and glass. This will be particularly important when Energy Performance Certificates give an energy efficiency rating to homes in the new Home Information Packs that you’ll need, if you choose to sell your property after June 2007.

Top Tips

Remember that installing double glazing can considerably alter the outside appearance of your property, so choose the type of double glazing for your home carefully. This is of particular importance when installing new frames and window panes into older style properties.

In the main, you can choose uPVC, aluminium or timber frames for your windows – choose wisely and in accordance with the other main style features of your property. If you have a listed building or a building with unusual features, please bear in mind that you may need to get building or planning permission from your local council before you start work. Contact your local council to find out if you’ll be affected by any regulations.

Ensure that you use an experienced professional to install double glazing rather than trying to do it yourself. However do get involved by asking how the windows will look when the job’s finished, what sort of security is being fitted to the windows and what guarantees accompany the double glazing work.

The Costs

The cost of installing double glazing greatly depends on the size of your house, and how many windows you wish to fit double glazed panes into – but expect to pay several thousand pounds for it. The double glazing company market is a competitive one, however, so shop around and see what deals are on offer – and don’t be afraid to haggle!

If your budget is tight, you may choose simply to double glaze the windows in individual rooms rather than your entire property. Pick the rooms you use most often and tend to heat most. Remember there may also be grants available to you in installing double glazing.

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How to Choose the Right Energy Efficient Windows

Everyone knows that having single glazed windows is a disaster as far as energy usage is concerned. Many houses already have double glazed windows and one of the objectives of the government is to refurbish many more homes in the next five years so that they have more energy efficient windows. But is it always enough to have double glazing? Cold countries such as the Scandinavian countries favour triple glazed windows, with special heat conserving glass – some people in the US believe that the extra expense is also worth if for homes in this country.

Energy Efficiency with Style

The manufacturing processes and the technology involved in making double and triple glazed windows has progressed a lot in the last few years. It’s now possible to get energy efficient multiple glazed windows in any style, suitable for modern, new builds, or traditional Victorian homes or medieval farmhouses. It is crucial that the frames are airtight and let in no drafts – the glass may be energy efficient, but the window overall will be a drain on energy and on finances.

Double or triple glazed glass units for windows can be fitted in any style or material, but the main ones used tend to be wood or UVPC. There are advantages and disadvantages to both; wood may look good and fit in much better in an old house, but it does need regular maintenance to prevent weather damage and to keep it in the best condition. UVPC is available in different colours – you don’t have to have white – and it needs a clean a couple of times a year to keep it looking new.

How Much Can you Save with Double Glazing?

Various studies have been done to illustrate how an individual householder can save money with double glazing – the current estimates say it’s about $135 per year, which represents a reduction on your energy bills. Double glazing costs a lot more than that though, even for one window, so getting new energy efficient windows must also increase the look and appeal and saleability of your home. It takes many years for the windows to pay for themselves.

Triple Glazing is Usually A Rated

Although some double glazed energy efficient windows do carry the A rating, triple glazed windows are always highly rated as they have three layers of glass with internal gas filled spaces to provide much better insulation. The most energy efficient designs have krypton, argon or xenon between the sheets of glass. These are the inert gases – there is little chance that they could leak out but if they did, the gases are completely harmless.

Other rating requirements are now imposed for all new windows fitted in England and Wales as part of the governments drive to reduce energy expenditure and to lower our national carbon footprint. New windows must be rated at least at the level of band D energy efficiency but if you are changing the windows, you want them to last for years, so choosing at least a B rating is sensible.

What is Low Emissivity Glass

Also called Low-E glass, this is the most thermally energy efficient double glazing. When you have this type of glass fitted to a south facing window, you can maximise the heating effect of the sun in winter and minimise the loss of heat through the glass from the inside. The windows are made from glass that has an internal thin coating of a metal oxide, so it lets heat in but stops it getting out again. You are looking through this layer all the time, but it is so fine that your eyes can’t tell the different between low emissivity glass and ordinary glass.

Professional Fitting

Whatever type of window you choose, the most important thing for energy efficiency and cost effectiveness is to get the windows fitted professionally. They will then look good and you can be assured they will be draft free and will comply with building regulations. It’s best to look for someone who is registered with one of the UK schemes for window installers – either FENSA or Certass. That way you will also get a certificate to show the windows fulfil energy conservation requirements and you can keep this to pass on if you sell your house during the lifetime of the windows.