Sense review:

The $299 Sense Home Energy Monitor (£240 and AU$390 at the current exchange rate) is supposed to bridge the gap between your utility-issued electric meters and detailed usage data. Sense successfully communicated whole-home watts at-a-glance during our testing. It also detected a few of the large appliances in the CNET Smart Home automatically. But like its competitor, Neurio, Sense had trouble identifying certain devices.

Sense’s FAQ page says it’s working on algorithms to detect more products, so it might get smarter soon. For now, if you’re looking for in-depth data about your home energy consumption, this home energy tracker is pretty limited and I wouldn’t readily recommend it.

A note on electricity

All of the electricity-dependent products in your home contribute to a total watt (W) or kilowatt-hour (kWh) reading. (Note: one kWh is 1,000W.) At any given time, you should be able to see real-time energy stats on your home’s electric meter. This info is then used by your local electric company to calculate the amount you owe.

But there’s a problem. Meters, especially traditional non-digital units, are difficult to read — and they only give you an overview of your consumption, rather than itemized watt or kilowatt-hour readouts of individual devices. That means you’re out of luck if you want to better understand why last month’s bill was so high.

Ideally, Sense should help you identify individual devices and figure out how to change your usage patterns. That’s when you’ll start to see savings and reduced strain on the electric grid.

Getting started with Sense

The smallish rectangular Sense attaches to the main switch inside your breaker panel and relies on two sensors to detect unique device “signatures.” While it took two electricians only 10 minutes to install Sense, this is not a do-it-yourself project. The installation requires the removal of the breaker panel and there are all sorts of potential shock hazards involved.

Sense is compatible with recessed and wall-mounted electric panels. It will work with more than one panel if Sense is installed in the main electrical panel and the additional panels are subpanels. Not sure if it will work in your home? Check out the Sense FAQ for more info before you buy.

Sense CEO Mike Phillips offered some insight on its device detection functionality via email:

“In terms of what Sense can detect and what users can expect, this varies a lot by home, based on the signatures of your devices and how similar their power profile is to other devices in your home. We model each home’s devices individually. In most homes, Sense does a good job detecting core devices such as microwaves, refrigerators, garage door openers, air conditioners, garbage disposals, dryers, etc. It takes time for Sense to detect these devices because it needs to see enough data. For example, we typically detect the refrigerator first since this cycles on and off continuously, so we see many occurrences.”

According to Sense, products generating more energy are easier to single out, but it is possible for it to identify devices with a low 5W to 10W output.

That’s where Sense differentiates itself from Neurio, which wasn’t able to detect any appliances under 400W. Sense attributes its ability to detect low-wattage devices to the 4 million readings it takes per second to identify unique patterns. Theoretically, this should give Sense an edge over the competition.

Using Sense

After Sense is installed by a qualified professional, the device should chime to let you know the configuration was successful. Download the related Android or iPhone app and follow the instructions to connect it to your local Wi-Fi network. Sense doesn’t currently have a web interface, so you’re limited to viewing your energy stats on your mobile device.