With the usual wave of winter ice storms setting in, many people have decided to prepare, trying alternative energy  or purchasing power generation devices. Let’s face it: No one wants to be at home freezing in the dark when a generator, inverter, off grid solar panel system, or power pack can help the situation. What normally follows a rash of power failures  is a phalanx of irritated homeowners who flood stores, picking them clean of anything that can generate power. Many people are disappointed, however, when they get home and that shiny new generator is unable to power the devices that the homeowner had in mind, and in many cases, these people are still freezing in the dark, only now they are out a lot of money.
The reason for this is simple – most people have no idea of the amount of power their devices consume. Some are easier than others to figure out – an 1800 watt space heater, for example, uses about 1800 watts nominally. But what about your furnace? What about your refrigerator or air conditioning? What about your oven? These items stump even the most thorough calculations. To add insult to injury, it’s fairly inaccurate to rely on the label or tag on some electrical devices. Your refrigerator, for example, will use a relatively high amount of amperage when the compressor starts running, then it will settle down to a lower amperage as it cools the fridge. Finally, the amount the fridge cycles on and off depends in part on the ambient temperature in your home; a chest freezer in a 100 degree garage in Arizona will cycle far more often than the identical chest freezer in a cool basement in Maine. How do you go about penciling that one out?
How about just looking at your power  bill? After all, the power utility keeps detailed records of how much you use down to the penny – right? They do in fact keep detailed records, but it’s still impossible to break out each device separately, and unless you plan on purchasing a device powerful enough to run your entire home, then your power bill isn’t going to shed much light on your power consumption (pun intended). So what do most homeowners end up doing?
A BETTER WAY TO CALCULATE POWER USAGE
Modern technology is able to help somewhat with the conundrum we’ve described. Numerous manufacturers now make plug-in monitoring devices that can tell you, among other things, how much wattage your devices use instantaneously, over time, and a host of other parameters. Perhaps the best known of these devices is called the Kill A Watt. This device is a simple plastic meter that has a conventional 120 volt male plug in on the back side. On the front side is a female wall style receptacle with a display screen. Usage is simple – plug the Kill A Watt into a wall socket, then plug in the device you wish to use directly into the front of the Kill A Watt. Then, use the device as you normally would. When you’re done monitoring the power consumption, simply scroll through the Kill A Watt’s display panel and get the readings you’re after – most commonly total kilowatt hours used.
Devices like the Kill A Watt really are revolutionary and should be the first purchase you make before considering a generator or solar power system. Consider that Kill A Watt is available just about everywhere online for under $25. Here are some tips on Kill A Watt usage. These tips apply to similar monitoring products, not just Kill A Watt:
- Longer monitoring periods provide more accurate data. For example, you could plug your refrigerator into Kill A Watt for an hour, and get some data – or you can plug it in for a week, and get accurate data. What you want to do when monitoring your devices is to account for normal usage activity, which tells you exactly how much power you use for extended periods.
- Monitor all devices, even those whose consumption you think you know. During a power failure, every watt is precious and hard to replace with power generation devices. Are you going to trust the sticker on the side of your space heater to tell you how much power it should use? Or are you going to plug in Kill A Watt and find out how much power it actually uses? Keep in mind that as devices age, they tend to become less efficient. A refrigerator is a prime example of this. As it ages and its seals wear out, it tends to run more often, deviating from the manufacturer power usage specs, sometimes significantly.
- The only real number you care about is total kilowatt hours used. Kill A Watt and similar devices can display line voltage, line frequency, instantaneous voltage, instantaneous frequency, and a bunch of other parameters, but the figure you need to know is how much power (in kilowatts) the device uses over a fixed period of time.
- Kill A Watt loses its results as soon as it is unplugged. No, it does not have a memory! Write down the data before unplugging it.
In short, Kill A Watt and devices like it are a great tool for those considering alternate ways of replacing power through alternate means. These devices provide and easy, math-free, and incredibly inexpensive way to tell you exactly how much power you are using for a given device.