By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, CA, May 22nd, 2013 -- When it comes to conserving energy and preserving the environment, most of us have good intentions. Our actions, however, often fall short. We’re busy and we don’t like being inconvenienced.
The California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug) located in the Calit2 Building is working to reconcile that discrepancy. Its most recent project, “Five Watts, Five Seconds” – or 5W5s – is a low-power device that communicates wirelessly with television set-top boxes, putting them to sleep when they’re not in use and allowing them to “wake up” and respond within five seconds when consumers hit the ‘on’ button on their TV remote control.
The 5W5s box bridges technology and human behavior. Unlike behavior modification devices, which encourage consumers to use less power, the 5W5s approach is considered behavior adaptation.
“Our technology is smart enough and also efficient enough to be able to adapt to you,” says CalPlug technical manager Arthur Zhang. “So instead of telling you how to do the right thing, this takes care of it for you.”
Set-top boxes, those ubiquitous devices that bring cable, satellite or Internet television into our homes, are always “on,” even when we are not actually using them. They consume 20-40 watts of power, and according to Zhang, there are 120 million of them in the U.S.
The 5W5s apparatus developed by CalPlug costs less than $10 to produce and consumes only .1 watt on average (but no more than 5 watts). The device uses sensors to determine consumers’ patterns of behavior and activity, and then calculates the probability that they will watch TV at a given time.
The small device, which plugs into a wall outlet, contains a 32-bit microcontroller that operates as a decision-making engine. Based on past behavior and the sensor data, the chips determine whether the set-top box should be fully powered up, put into sleep mode or even shut off completely.
In all cases, however, the consumer can override the system and turn the box on but it may take a little longer than five seconds to respond.
The team’s goal was to find the “breakthrough point,” where the lowest energy usage accrues the largest savings.
In tests conducted by CalPlug, a TV/set-top box configuration showed an energy savings of 38 percent in one week with the device, when compared to an identical TV/set-top box without it.
The device also can intercept service provider-delivered program guides and updates, waking up a slumbering set-top box so that it can receive the information. “Like a beam to a mother ship,” Zhang quips.
“We have been able to get input from all these experts in the industry who have been working in this field for years,” he says. And while any of its collaborators could probably assemble a similar device, he adds, CalPlug’s strength is its ability “to really bring everybody together to think about what would be a compatible solution, where everyone is happy and we’re not undercutting anybody’s business model. This kind of solution has been very well-received.”
Also well-received was CalPlug’s most recent set-top box workshop, its third. The semiannual workshops bring together academics, manufacturers, service providers, utility and public agency representatives, and students, who share recent developments, brainstorm future ideas, and learn from each other.
Zhang thinks the sessions are getting better and better, and based on post-workshop feedback, the attendees agree. “All the participants were energized and actively engaged,” says Brad Meister, an energy efficiency research engineer who volunteered to chair the CalPlug advisory committee. “I think this was the best workshop yet. CalPlug has built a trust among the community and that’s very important.”
As for those energy-saving 5W5s gadgets, set-top boxes are just the beginning. CalPlug’s next phase, which is expected to launch sometime this summer, will scale up the devices to send power communications to more home-based plug load devices, like refrigerators, home entertainment components, lighting and air-conditioning units. “We’re excited. Our goal is to make a device that can be the least intrusive while performing behavior adaptation and saving energy,” Zhang says.