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Green Science Image Gallery

A smart meter, when paired with energy monitoring software or devices, can provide extensive information about your home energy usage. See more green science pictures.

© iStockphoto.com/D4Fish

Reducing home-energy consumption can be accomplished many ways. Good insulation, double-paned glass, weather-stripping and similar efforts can improve your home's ability to retain hot or cold air. Some homeowners choose to install solar panels or to simply lessen their energy use, for example by foregoing air conditioning or by turning off computers when they're not needed. But as part of managing your energy use, it's important to know how much electricity you're actually using, and your monthly electric bill may not tell the full story.

The federal stimulus package included money for the installation of 40 million smart meters in homes. Besides the stimulus funding, smart meters are becoming an increasingly popular tool for consumers and utilities to work together to reduce energy consumption. (Although, as of mid-2009, only around 6 percent of American homes had smart meters installed [source: Fehrenbacher].)

For about $200, you can get a smart meter that will provide you with much more information about your electrical usage than a standard mechanical meter [source: Wald]. This data -- which may provide breakdowns of usage and rates down to the hour or even the minute -- has the potential to be useful for consumers and utilities alike. Consequently, many third-party companies are stepping forward to provide computer programs and devices that work with smart meters. Some of these programs allow you to receive text messages with information and others can provide a breakdown of how much electricity each appliance consumes.

By having easy access to these detailed reports, you can see if appliances that you run periodically -- such as a dishwasher or clothes dryer -- should be run less frequently or only when they're full. You may also find out if a device is malfunctioning, using more energy than it should. You might learn that it's actually cheaper to run some devices at night when electricity rates are often lower.

On the next page, we'll learn more about how consumers can better monitor their home-energy consumption and take a more proactive role in reducing energy use.