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Do smart plugs really help to cut down energy use?

A smart plug is an easy and great way to add automation to any room of your home. Ideal for the smaller electronic devices found inside most residences — like lamps, fans, and humidifiers — having your hardware connected to a smart plug unlocks a new layer of on-the-go controls.

Imagine being on vacation and wondering whether or not you powered down the basement dehumidifier before you left. When you connect an appliance to a smart plug, just grab your phone, launch the plug’s companion app, and check to see if the plug is on or off. Better yet, maybe your plug is one of many brands that are compatible with voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Then all you would have to do is launch the assistant app and tell Alexa (or Google) to check the plug status. If it’s still on, simply tell the assistant to turn it off.

While automation functions are the premiere selling point of most smart plugs, another benefit is the potential savings you’ll begin to see in the monthly electric bill. While this latter perk tends to be shrouded in a blanket of myth, your friends at Digital Trends are here to unpack the greatest mysteries of the modern smart home.

Do smart plugs really save you money? Let’s find out.

The building blocks of residential electricity

A telephone pole at dawn.
A stop on the journey electricity takes to get to your home.

Before we examine the potential cost savings of smart plugs, we thought it best to take a look at the journey electricity takes from your road’s utility pole to your home.

For the typical North American residence, electricity enters the home through a 240/120-volt split phase service drop. If you’ve ever been walking around your neighborhood, you may have noticed a metallic, vertical conduit extending from the roofs of the many homes along your street. This conduit is known as a service drop. Look closer, and you’ll see a series of three wires entering an opening at the top of the unit.

These connections are then routed through your home’s attic, walls, and down to the main electric panel in your basement. They terminate in a hub of 120- and 240-volt circuits to power all the lighting, outlets, and appliances in your house.

Depending on the energy company that delivers your electricity, your home’s energy consumption will be measured by a mechanical electricity meter or a more modernized digital model. Regardless of the meter, the electricity used by you and yours is measured in watts and kilowatts. A single kilowatt is equal to 1,000 watts.

Do smart plugs cut down on energy consumption?

A Wemo Indoor smart plug on a table.
Energy saver: A Wemo Indoor smart plug.

Any device that you have connected to an electrical outlet is drawing power from your home’s electrical panel, whether that TV, floor lamp, or fragrance emitter is on or not. When not directly in use, devices still draw a minimal amount of electricity referred to as standby power (sometimes referred to as vampire energy). For most components, this is something akin to less than 0.15 kilowatts, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t very much energy at all.

A smart plug acts as a kind of gateway between the electricity provided by the power outlet it’s connected to and the device lined into the actual smart plug. When you dig into your plug’s companion app to power down your plug, in essence, you are sealing the floodgate between your outlet and the component your plug is powering, which is what turns off your device.

But guess what? Your smart plug is no different than the devices you connect to it when it comes to standby power. In order to remain connected to the Wi-Fi and Z-Wave networks that these plugs use to operate and automate, a smart plug requires a steady flow of electricity to keep these connections going.

While this amount of power is minuscule, it’s important to understand that no matter what gear you have plugged into an electrical outlet, that hardware is somehow drawing energy — even a smart plug. The only time a component is truly not drawing power at all is when it’s unplugged.

The best way to use a smart plug

A Black + Decker dehumidifier in a living room.

It may sound like we’re leading up to some kind of overarching statement that smart plugs don’t do much when it comes to cutting down on your energy usage, but that’s simply not the case.

What we will say is that you should be thoughtful when choosing what hardware you’re connecting to a smart plug, especially if you’re trying to save money. Having phone chargers, coffee makers, desk fans, and other small items connected to a smart plug will grant you awesome automation features that you can control on the go, but these smaller devices don’t draw much power in the first place, so a smart plug isn’t going to do much in terms of energy consumption.

Instead, consider the devices in your home that draw a more significant amount of electricity. Dehumidifiers and air conditioners (window and portable units) are two big energy hogs, especially during the summer months. Depending on local temperature and humidity levels, there are times where a dehumidifier or temperature-triggered AC may run all day and night.

Connecting these appliances to a smart plug can help you create an automation schedule. Instead of running a dehumidifier all day, your automation may keep it powered during daylight hours and sporadically powered overnight. In most smart plug scenarios where automated power is applied to heavy-load appliances, most homeowners will likely see some kind of savings when the next electric bill hits the mailbox.

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