Like is planned for millions of homes in California, my home now has an electronic time-of-use electric power meter. It took the very polite man from PG&E about 5 minutes to install, and he even knocked on my door first so I could shut down computers.

Like all pieces of technology that enter my home, I gave the new electric meter a careful examination and some research on the web. It’s a GE I-210+ with wireless networking to Silver Spring Networks. There was no indication on how to connect it to any of MY networks, so I can see my real-time power consumption.

One of the first things I’m noticing with the new meter, which has a nice little LCD readout of my current power consumption, is that with EVERYTHING turned off, I’m still using almost 300 watts (ALL the computers are off, and I unplugged the DirecTV receivers). That’s rather more than I expected for vampire power draw from power bricks and such, and will be doing some serious hunting for power consumers in the near future.

I also started to investigate how I can collect the real-time power consumption data. Some web surfing says I could buy a remote display gizmo that has a transmitter attached to the meter. Reading the manual from the device seems to suggest there is an optical signal that can be read from the meter. A little more web surfing showed someone in Europe who made a little optical detector for an infrared pulse output from a different brand of electronic power meter.

As I know digital cameras can detect infrared, I grabbing my Canon A710 digital camera, and set the mode to video and took some shots of the front and sides of the meter, at night. Sure enough, there is a slowly pulsing infrared LED on the front, down and to the right of the LCD display. I shot a minute of video and came back inside, opened the video file in a video editing program and preceded to measure the time interval between blinks. It was a blink every 2.6 seconds, and the meter said I was consuming 1.40 kilowatts. Some quick calculations say the infrared light must blink 1000 times per kilowatt/hour, or every 3.6 seconds per kilowatt of real-time consumption. Blinking every 2.6 seconds works out to a just about exactly 1.40 kilowatts.

So, the options for knowing my real-time power consumption include: pay $110 for a gizmo, or build a gizmo myself and feed the data into a computer. Buying the gizmo is certainly better use of my time, but building something is a lot more educational.