Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 3 May 2016

Our apartment in Tokyo

Every time I visit Japan I learn something new and my most recent trip was no exception. This time we stayed in an apartment, which exposed me to several new energy-related devices and controls. First, what’s this gadget attached to the wall?

Reading the Japanese isn’t terribly informative because the label just says it’s a “peak alarm unit”. The apartment’s owner pays the Tokyo Electric Power Company – the utility that brought you the Fukushima catastrophe – a monthly “fuse” charge. It means that if your apartment’s total demand  exceeds a certain number of amperes, a circuit breaker triggers and everything shuts off. So you need to carefully manage your electric appliances because, if too many are on at once, you lose power. That’s why you need a National BQX960011011!

The colored LEDs give you a rough measure of your current power use; when the red LED appears, it’s time to scurry around and shut off the water heater, AC, or a couple of elements on the electric stove. There’s no need to constantly watch the display because it takes only a few days to get a sense for what appliances can’t be operated at the same time; besides, an audible alarm starts if you stay in the red zone for more than a moment. So this is how Japanese consumers save peak power. Of course this is old news to many Italians, who have juggled their appliances to stay under 3 kW for decades, but they live more by their wits than with the assistance of these sorts of gadgets.

Here’s a remote control for another appliance.

This is a remote control for the water heater. It allows you to easily monitor the amount of hot water available or even switch it off when going away. The display shows that the (electric resistance) heater holds 80 liters. It also shows that the temperature is a dangerously hot 87°C, though this was not apparent until I pushed °C button. I wasn’t sure why the landlord kept the water so hot. One explanation is that she didn’t want visitors to run out of hot water in the middle of a bath (because Japanese baths hold more hot water than European baths). But I lean towards the “user oversight” hypothesis combined with poor user interface. I suspect that our landlord never checked, did not know how to check, or an earlier visitor adjusted it and she did not notice. And did you notice the Wi-Fi icon?  Wrong!  The Japanese writing above it says “Start/Stop”. So much for standardized symbols.

Our apartment’s toilet was “old school” because it had only a heated seat.  Newer toilets squirt warm water, blow air, and have motor-assisted flushes. A few models even raise the seat when they sense a person nearby. One toilet manufacturer, Toto, offers models that perform urine analyses to better monitor old people’s well-being. In these ways, the toilet is being transformed into a major energy-consuming information appliance.

One of the small but intriguing changes in Japanese homes is the proliferation of fixed remote controls. For example, most toilets now include a wireless remote flush that affixes to the wall in a more convenient location than on the side of the toilet. The water heater control and several room lights had similar remotes. That’s a lot of batteries to replace, though I imagine these switches will soon begin harvesting ambient energy sources--mostly light—to power themselves.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier