Excess home power usage can send indi­vid­uals’ energy bills through the roof and often leave utility com­pa­nies scram­bling to relieve pres­sure on the grid. So North­eastern Uni­ver­sity stu­dents devised a home energy-​​control system that mon­i­tors power levels inside a par­tic­ular home — or even throughout an entire apart­ment building or neigh­bor­hood — poten­tially saving home­owners cash and helping to pre­vent wide­spread blackouts.

The stu­dents, elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering majors Luca Cav­allo, Allen Chan, Martin Green, Khanh Lam and Egin Tol­lkuci, devel­oped the system for their senior cap­stone project. These projects pro­vide engi­neering stu­dents with a rich experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity, enabling them to pursue their inno­v­a­tive ideas through use-​​inspired research at a level of com­plexity more typ­ical of grad­uate studies. Pro­fessor of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering Bahram Shafai served as the stu­dents’ advisor.

Look around your living room or kitchen, the stu­dents said, and you’ll find count­less appli­ances plugged in con­tin­u­ously, from TVs and stereos to dish­washers and toasters. While these items may be turned off, they remain in stand-​​by mode and draw power for hours, even as their owners are at work or asleep. The cable box is a prime cul­prit, for example, because it con­tin­u­ally updates the channel guide.

People think that when they hit the power button and [an appli­cance] turns off, it’s not doing any­thing,” Cav­allo said. “But really that’s not true. It still uses quite a bit of power.”

That’s where the student’s inno­v­a­tive system comes in. They’ve designed a breaker box with an LCD screen and keypad that allows users to see how much power is being used in a par­tic­ular room or even by a spe­cific appli­ance. The keypad also enables them to set rooms and appli­ances at varying pri­ority levels, deter­mining when to shut them down during the day or night.

You des­ig­nate which areas of the house are low-​​priority, and it would com­pletely shut those off. That way, you would reduce leakage cur­rent overnight,” Tol­lkuci said.

Tol­lkuci and his team mem­bers said their tech­nology could not only lower energy bills for con­sumers, but also pro­vide energy com­pa­nies with the ability to detect poten­tial black­outs. If installed in homes or apart­ment com­plexes throughout a neigh­bor­hood, overall energy usage could be mon­i­tored and reduced in all of the units if the power load being drawn from the grid is nearing a dan­gerous level, the stu­dents said.

There is even a nat­ural gas sensor built into the system, so if a gas leak were detected inside a home, the power would be shut off to pre­vent a pos­sible explosion.