Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Track your home's live electricity usage with Python

Modern electric meters (the one attached to the outside of your house) emit an IR flash for each watt-hour consumed, through the port on the top of the meter. It turns out, it's easy to detect this flash, decode it into "live" power usage, and make cool charts like this:

That's live KW on the Y axis and time on the X axis.

The flash, at least for my meter, appears to have high temporal accuracy, meaning it flashes precisely as you cross 1.000 WH. This is great, since it enables accurate, real-time power usage. For example, when I turn on the lights in my home office, I quickly see the power jump by ~65 watts, and then drop again when I turn the lights off.

This is a fun way to track down which appliances or crazy computers or parasitic drains are using up so much electricity in your house!

I've gone through several designs for this over the years. My last attempt was destroyed when lightning hit my house (there's always a silver lining!), so, I decided to try something new this time and I'm very happy with the approach since it's much simpler, and, moves the pulse detection into Python.

I use a trivial analog circuit to detect the IR pulse, consisting of two 100K resistors in series and an IR photodiode in parallel with one of the resistors. Make sure you get the polarity right on the photodiode otherwise it won't work! Mount the photodiode on your power meter, aligned so that it "sees" each IR pulse. I also added a small (0.01 uF) ceramic capacitor in parallel with the same resistor, to suppress transient EM fields otherwise picked up by the relatively long wires out to my meter.

Finally, I use this simple USB audio adapter to move the problem into the digital domain, connecting to the ends of the two series resistors to the mic input to use it for the A/D conversion. This USB audio adapter drives the mic input with ~4.0V bias voltage, which is great since otherwise you'd need an external source.

When there's no pulse, the photo-diode acts roughly like an open switch, meaning there is a fixed 200K resistive load on the mic input. When a pulse happens (mine seem to last for ~10 msec), the photo-diode acts roughly like a closed switch, suddenly dropping the series resistance to 100K. This drop causes a very detectible pulse (strongly negative then strongly positive) on the mic input's voltage, I suspect because there's a capacitor behind the bias voltage (but: I am no analog circuit engineer, so this is speculation!).

You can plug this USB audio adapter into any computer; I use a Sheeva plug computer (delightful device, very low power -- I have three!). I record the digital samples (arecord works well, at a 2 Khz rate) and decode the samples in Python to detect a pulse whenever the value drops below -1000. You can easily compute the live KW based on the time between two adjacent pulses, push this into a database, and build graphs on top of this using Google's visualization APIs (I use dygraphs).

My last approach didn't have nearly the temporal accuracy (ie, it smoothed heavily across time), which masks interesting things. For example, now I can tell the difference between a resistive load (the coffee maker, oven, crockpot) and an inductive load (refrigerator compressor, vacuum cleaner) because the inductive load has a huge spike in the beginning, as the motor consumes lots of power trying to spin up.


  1. Brilliant! The use of the audio USB plug is quite ingenious!

    As an alternative to using the costly Sheevaplug, perhaps an Asus WL-500gpv2 would be a better alternative. Doesn't have the horsepower of the Sheeva but at a cost of over $100, two WL-500gpv2 unit can be bought. So then you'd have redundancy built in for when the next lightning storm strikes. =)

  2. Thanks!

    The WL-500gpv2 is a good idea! Maybe next time, after lightning next strikes again, heh.