Get to Know Your Microwave
The other night I was on my Mac playing with GE’s data visualization piece created by Lisa Strausfeld of Pentagram. It deals with the electricity consumption of a large variety of common appliances. It displays over fifty different little icons representing all those take-for-granted devices of modern domestic bliss. Everything from hair dryers to toasters to refrigerators to the electric water heater.
The tool is visually clean and easy to use. Choose the kind of device-specific information you want from a master drop-down and then roll your mouse over any of the icons. Some icons have little stars associated with them. Click on the stars and you get details about the payback from replacing your old device with a new, ENERGY STAR certified device.
I am a big fan of ENERGY STAR. It has been a huge success for the U. S. Government. Much of its success as a brand is due to its very simple message via its now well-known blue stickers. The unspoken message: “This product you are considering buying is going to consume less electricity than similar products that do not bear the ENERGY STAR logo. So, all other things being equal, this product will cost you less dough to operate.”
Perhaps this visualization tool enables some users to, among other things, suddenly grasp the value of ENERGY STAR, and that’s good. The tool indicates how your beloved microwave oven sucks up energy every time you excite the water molecules in a bag of microwaveable popcorn. What if you ran out and bought the ENERGY STAR version? How much better life would be.
I applaud what GE is trying to do here and I think the designers and developers of the tool probably delivered what GE asked for. I have worked in the fields of energy and software for over 20 years. To most US citizens, energy is a local issue. How much does the local gas station charge me for regular unleaded? What’s my local utility going to charge me this month for electricity? The tool affords the user the ability to explore costs by state and by period of operation. (Electricity prices do vary dramatically across the country so this is useful as is the message that how one operates a device may be just as critical as how much power it requires.)
So here is an opportunity for the designers to [bring along and] not leave behind the average inquisitive American. Most people do not understand monthly utility bill terminology. It would be great if a sidebar (or, of course, something more elegant) associated with this tool could clarify the basics. Electricity is analogous to water: “Watts” define the size of the pipe connected to a device or a home or a factory and this pipe delivers the water (i.e. electricity) necessary to operate the device / home / factory. “Watt-hours” are a measure of how much time elapses while that pipe is full and the “water” is flowing. Watts are a measure of “power;” Watt-hours are a measure of “energy consumed”. The talented folks who created this visualization tool could take my clumsy words and visually demonstrate this idea.
My other suggestion would be to try to stay away from the “gallons of gas” comparison. Yes, we all understand gallons of gas, but in the US, the vast majority of electricity is generated using the primary fuels of coal, plutonium and natural gas (in this order). Oil is used in some cases, but its cost and handling issues make it unattractive to nearly all electricity generators. In this country, oil is all about the transportation sector. So it might make more sense to express savings in terms of, say, 100-watt light bulbs burning for eight hours per day. I suggest this in the spirit of wanting Americans to be more proficient in the area of what I call “energy literacy.” The graphic from GE does help move the user in that direction, but we as a nation have a long way to go.