When grocery stores search for controllable costs, they look at a few variables -- labor, shipping, and energy among them.
Energy costs, particularly electricity, can at times seem erroneously flat, a sunk cost that can’t be controlled. The energy company National Grid reports that American groceries spend “an average of $3.95 on electricity and 24 cents on natural gas per square foot annually.” The same report notes that energy cost fluctuates enough to signal that stores can make significant savings in this arena.
Echelon has long been in the business of working with buildings on temperature and energy monitoring or control. But there’s a difference between keeping track of one building -- like our corporate headquarters, which is outfitted with about 8,000 of our own chips -- and a national grocery store chain with locations numbering in the thousands.
Ketan Amin, a consulting engineer from Cincinnati-based Fosdick &Hilmer helped a major chain of stores nationwide implement a monitoring system which connects to all of their locations across the country.
The utility of the system, Amin says, lies in effectively processing the huge amounts of data that would otherwise sit dormant in the unread lines of electric bills.
It would take hundreds of thousands of person-hours to truly and effectively track electricity usage -- time an employee would have to spend combing through a local store’s monthly and annual electric consumption, and then painstakingly comparing it to usage nationally.
"Just a five percent drop in an electric bill could boost a company’s total bottom line by nearly three percent."
That’s where Echelon’s technology comes in: on a minute by minute basis, sensor chips monitoring energy usage around the building can track gas, electricity, water, heat, cooling -- everything that usually runs unchecked, and the technology can self-regulate and act on its own sensors. In the utility closet somewhere in each store lies a monitoring panel connected to the electrical operations in the store. Individual store managers can track usage and cost savings via a webpage access in their stores. That in-store portal also links up to a central database at the company’s headquarters, connecting thousands of stores, and offering opportunities for automation and comparative analysis all across the supply chain. Whether it was a freezer door left open or a chiller pump motor failing, excessive energy anomalies can be extracted from this vast data set from across the enterprise.
Managing data for electricity can be particularly hard because there are so few constants -- especially across the country as climates vary. But ultimately, it’s more than just the fact that the grocery store now has more data: it’s a vast change in the data quality. Normally, utility bills offer one data point per store per month -- this data has much more texture to it, however, and allows analysis on a minute-by-minute basis. That can precipitate an entire attitudinal shift when it comes to energy cost savings: suddenly, the energy statistics are changeable, rather than static realities.
Amin and colleague Ken Schuster, a systems consultant for the integrator ATR Distributing, has a background in grocery retail himself (Schuster worked at Kroger Stores for 16 years). Amin and Schuster estimate an individual grocery store spends hundreds of thousands on electricity per year.
Theoretically, just a five percent drop in an electric bill could boost a company’s total bottom line by nearly three percent, says Echelon’s Gordon Grice.
The stores that launched these interconnected devices in 2012 had them up and running in about 1,000 stores by that year; they’re now in the process of moving toward additional monitoring systems of the same kind for gas and water systems.
The industrial scalability of this segment of the Internet of Things is immense. The retail industry -- known for being late adopters; traditionally risk-averse -- tends to sign onto new tech only with proof of a cost-effective bottom-line. And it’s ironic that when it comes to the IoT, smaller has accidentally become sexier. Here’s a case where size brings with it an elegance that would have been impossible absent the automation of something as everyday as a grocery store.