First Look at Microsoft Hohm: Is it More than Home Energy Saver Dressed Up?
Microsoft Hohm is here. The new home energy managing tool that we've been anticipating for the past few weeks launched this morning. To design Hohm, Microsoft licensed the energy models in the Home Energy Saver tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Department of Energy. Home Energy Saver (HES) is not a new tool. Berkeley Labs estimates that a million people use HES every year to compute their home energy use and reduce it.
While The Home Energy Saver has found traction for many and is a powerful tool, it is imperfect, which is one reason why we've been eager to see how Microsoft would improve it. A recent comparative study of Home Energy Prediction tools (pdf) conducted by Earth Advantage, Inc., for the Oregon Energy Trust, presented at the Affordable Comfort Institute (ACI) conference in April, estimated that HES provided home owners with an accurate prediction of their actual energy use only 53% of the time, and yielded "large errors" in prediction for 21.9% of homeowners using the long version. A shorter version of the questionnaire was accurate less than 18.6% of the time, and yielded "large errors" in prediction for 68.3% of home owners. The study didn't arrive at a conclusion about the cause of such significant error rates, but most energy experts suggest sheer length of the questionnaire and opportunity for data entry error, is the cause.
This morning, I set out to see what steps Microsoft had taken to remedy these short-comings in what is otherwise a very powerful tool. I've only had a few hours, and we'll take more time over the coming days, but here's what I've seen so far:
The data load for Microsoft Hohm appears to be just as onerous as the 185 input fields in HES. Many questions, as is the case with HES, stop you cold. Do you know the temperature setting of your water heater? Are you ready to count the square footage of every window and door in your house? What is the capacity of your furnace to generate heat in btu's/hour? And can you remember the time of day settings on your programmable thermostat? (Katie Fehrenbacher of Earth2Tech got a preview over the weekend and reports a 30% completion level.) That said, Hohm's is a friendly interface. The graphics and messages are clear and engaging, allowing easy and smooth input. It's divided into sections, and returning to any one is easy and intuitive. Either by quirk or design, a recycle-arrow pause indicator flashes on the screen during input, giving the user the impression that a response to "color of roof" has given the program something particularly interesting to think about. Hohm does not appear to penalize you for incomplete data entry. My attempt this morning is 66% complete and I still have recommendations. Microsoft Hohm appears to provide a bit more information about economic benefits, but some questions are head scratchers for the informed, let alone folks new to home energy. When Hohm asks for air leakage information, for example, it doesn't specify unit, just asks for a number between 0 and 25,000. Cubic feet per minute--CFM? Air changes per hour--ACH?
Ultimately, however, Microsoft Hohm and the Home Energy Saver seem to be functionally the same. Each program asks about the same number of questions, and after submitting our house data into the two programs on the same day, HES and Hohm each returned with 9 recommendations. They are virtually identical, with subtle distinctions like the one that follows:
The Home Energy Saver was - and is - a useful if flawed tool. Microsoft's use of it will no doubt, as Berkeley lab scientist (and team leader for the Home Energy Saver project) Evan Mills has said, "... bring important capabilities of our home energy-efficiency software technology to an even broader user base than it currently has." After our quick test-run, we're left wondering if Microsoft's reach is the real difference it's brought to this establised tool, or there's anything more than that.