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Devices

{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction, Setup, In Use}

Introduction

thinkeco's modlet

At a Glance
Product thinkeco modlet Home Starter Kit [RES-STR-11]
Summary Cloud-based home power management system
Pros • Inexpensive to start
• Very nice smartphone interface
• Provides measurement and programmable control
Cons • Not a full standalone solution, requires Mac or Windows machine for setup and management
• Multi-outlet system can get pricey
• Return on investment could take a very long time

"A floor lamp left on overnight can use 1kWh of energy. That's as much energy as 500,000 hops for a bunny." That statement was the first thing that jumped out at me as I removed the thinkeco modlet from its box. Not that I've ever considered hops from a bunny as being wasteful, but 500,000 of them was a lot.

"modlet" stands for "modern electric outlet" and that's basically what it is, a cloud-connected outlet with surge-protection that lets you monitor power consumption and schedule on/off-time for devices plugged into it. I was excited to get the modlet out and put it to use. Having used a Kill A Watt for a lot of power measurement around the house, the modlet had the potential to be more plugged in, so to speak, and to help reduce energy costs.

Setup

thinkeco modlet starter kit
Figure 1: thinkeco modlet starter kit

Setup of the modlet was fairly simple, however it did require software installation on a Windows or MacOS system to support a Zigbee USB dongle that communicates with the modlet. The local software is used for initial modlet setup and provides the link between the modlet(s) and thinkeco's cloud. After setup, all modlet management is done via the mymodlet.com site, or associated Android/iOS apps.

Part of the challenge in reviewing the modlet was deciding what devices took a lot of power and were good candidates for testing modlet's power-saving features. Some obvious candidates were our Bang and Olufsen stereo, network printer, air compressor and a few other things. The modlet is rated for 15 A and 120 V and having never measured usage of our air compressor's power draw, I decided to cross that off the list.

The thinkeco site suggests using the modlet on a cable box, DVD player, stereo or game console, printer, office electronics, small kitchen appliances or window air conditioners. My decision was made when I opened the user guide and saw a coffee maker as the example. Since the toaster was right beside it, that went along for the ride. Whether or not that was the best choice I'll explain later, but it does seem to be the type of device the modlet is aimed at.

mymodlet.com home page
Figure 2: mymodlet.com home page

The mymodlet.com home page is where it all comes together with the modlet. When you first set up the modlet, it establishes a two-week baseline in which power consumption is tracked to aid in scheduling later. This baseline can be changed and tailored to whatever you want.

During the baseline period you can see power consumption of each outlet on the modlet with a one-minute resolution. You can also see the total usage of your devices over the period that the modlet has been installed. Within the Savings settings you can set the price of your electricity per kWh if you know it; this helps your summary be a little more accurate.

Default $ per kWh is set at $0.20. I had last checked my electric rate to be about $0.143 per kWh with Xcel at Tier II billing (more than 500kWh use per month), so I used that figure.

In Use

As noted earlier, the modlet isn't a standalone solution that connects directly to your wireless network. Instead, it has a USB receiver that is plugged into a MacOS or Windows computer that connects to the modlet(s) via Zigbee, linking it out to mymodlet.com in the cloud.

This was disappointing because it would be better if the modlet worked more like the Nest thermostat, which doesn't require a host computer and connects directly to your home network via Wi-Fi. On the other hand, Zigbee is commonly used for home control devices and opens the door to future modlet applications, such as theoretical integration with the ecobee thermostat and other devices.

The thinkeco site mentions as long as the modlet is a room away from the USB receiver it will work. Additional modlets can communicate directly with each other, further extending range with a mesh network. My testing found range to be very good with just the single dongle and modlet. The USB receiver was in the low power server in the network closet downstairs and was able to still access the modlet one floor up and several rooms over.

With this Zigbee communication going on, it would be easy to get concerned about power consumption of the modlet itself. To monitor the monitor, I plugged the modlet in to my Kill A Watt and confirmed that on its own, the modlet uses less than 1 W. It also has enough built-in memory to store data for up to two weeks and can run the power saving schedules (once communicated) without the USB dongle. This is good news because you don't need to run the computer the whole time for the modlet to work. Additionally, up to 100 (!) modlets can be managed with a single USB receiver, so it starts to make more sense as you add more devices.

Once in use, especially during the two-week baseline, the modlet really is a set-it-and-forget-it sort of thing. Unlike the Kill A Watt where you can see power consumption directly on its LCD display, you need to go to the web to see modlet's power information.

But simply watching power usage isn't the modlet's thing, it's the power scheduling that you do once the baseline period is up. I was a little alarmed to find out the coffee maker uses nearly 1200 W for the 5-6 minutes it brews. As I told my wife, that's the equivalent to running about 54 laptops. But it turns out the coffee maker really doesn't use much power overall and was a bad example to try, since when done brewing, even the hot plate has very little power draw. The reporting function within the mymodlet.com site reports I've used $0.39 combined since plugging the toaster and coffee maker into it about two weeks ago, based on my $0.143 per kWh rate.


Feature Tour

The modlet's bread and butter is its Savings Plans feature. There are four ready-made templates, one for office occupied during the day and another for office unoccupied during the day and similiar ones for the home. Like all templates, they are there just to help make your life a little easier and require a little bit of customization to be exactly as you'd like them to be. I chose the Home unoccupied during the day. While not always true, the coffee maker is not used after the morning hours.

mymodlet.com Savings Plan templates
Figure 3: mymodlet.com Savings Plan templates

Figure 4 shows the template for Home Schedule One (home unoccupied during the day). Using the Advanced Controls button, it was relatively easy to delete the secondary schedule and set up the schedule for on from 5 AM to 9 AM. I was a little concerned as I looked at it because we do use the toaster past the morning hours. But the Finish Scheduling, Choose Appliances button allows you to remove one or both outlets from the schedule. So our coffee maker can be off while the toaster is still usable.

mymodlet.com Savings Plan Home summary
Figure 4: mymodlet.com Savings Plan Summary

The results in Figure 5 do not accurately reflect savings with this schedule because I set the plan start date as Jan 27, 2012, but actually set the plan up today. My thought is that it calculated power usage during those times, saw no difference, so reported no savings.

mymodlet.com Savings Plan Home unoccupied template
Figure 5: mymodlet.com Savings Plan summary

However, I may be giving the modlet too much credit. It may be that because the start date was in the past and it simply does not take those dates in to account. Regardless, you can see that total energy usage is reported, along with total dollars spent. Thinkeco provides some nice comparisons such as lbs of CO2 removed, gallons of fuel saved, number of bags popcorn popped, etc.

The thinkeco Android app is very nice. (Figure 6 combines all four screens into one image.) For simply checking quick status of the modlet, I found it more user-friendly than the web portal. I probably wouldn't be too inclined to adjust schedules on it, but for quick looks it worked well and seemed to be fairly well thought out.

thinkeco Android app
Figure 6: thinkeco Android app

As far as support of the product goes, I found it a bit strange that there was no support option within mymodlet.com where I would be accessing my modlet. However, there are Contact links on both themodlet.com and thinkecoinc.com that indicated support was available. I didn't have to contact support, so I don't know the extent of support that could be provided.

Closing Thoughts

I believe the thinkeco modlet has value, especially as more and more devices come in to the home and consume power 24/7. themodlet.com claims that the modlet typically pays for itself in about 6-12 months, but my coffee-maker experiment says that's very optimistic.

But what about if I plugged our Bang and Olufsen stereo and Logitech Squeezebox into it? I know the stereo takes about 20 W with the power switch on but nothing going on. I also know that the Squeezebox takes about 5 W when on (if I remember correctly).

The modlet costs about $49.99 before tax and shipping. So at $0.143 per kWh (Xcel Tier II billing of >500kWh per month), I would need to save about 350 kWh to get my investment back. At 25 W of constant draw, one hour equals 25 Wh, so it would take 40 hours to equal 1 kWh.

Since I would probably schedule the modlet to shut the stereo off from 9 PM to 9 AM, that's 12 hours of the day with the modlet saving power. So it would take 3.33 days to save 1 kWh (40 hours) and 1166 days or 3.2 years (!) to reach the 350 kWh break-even point.

This obviously could change with higher idle power draw, but most devices don't draw that much "phantom" power. A better target for power savings might be incandescent lights that tend to be carelessly left on. But with its outlet-based design, the modlet can't do anything for wall-switch-controlled lighting.

There are other products that let you monitor power consumption such as the Kill A Watt Wireless. But it's more expensive, isn't remotely accessible and doesn't have power scheduling. The Save A Watt does allow you to set schedules and is significantly less expensive, but all programming is at the device with no remote management.

The bottom line is that the modlet's value is probably more in its monitoring and remote access/control features than its energy cost savings. If you've been wanting to experiment with home energy monitoring and elementary control, the $50 modlet isn't a bad way to start. Just don't go looking for it to pay for itself anytime soon. And with availability only via BestBuy and direct from thinkeco, you won't find it discounted, either.