Burbank-based Ceiva has created a digital photo frame

Burbank-based Ceiva has created a digital photo frame that connects to Glendales smart grid system so residents dont have to take the extra step of going online to check their usage. (Photo courtesy of Ceiva)

A week ago, Jim Sepe began playing around with his appliances — turning up the air conditioner, setting the Jacuzzi at a lower temperature and running the microwave to watch numbers tick up and down on a digital photo frame he keeps on his kitchen countertop.

“It’s really fun,” Sepe said. “I learned that if I did this or that, or turned my Jacuzzi down a few degrees, I was saving money.”

Sepe is a guinea pig for a new project cooked up by a Burbank businessman, Glendale Water & Power and Ceiva, a digital frame maker, that displays electricity and water usage on a small frame to get people to engage with the smart grid technology the city has spent $20 million on installing.

Glendale was the first city in the nation to get federal stimulus money for installing smart grid technology in March.

Utility providers throughout the country have spent millions on smart grid technology, but are having trouble getting customers to take advantage of it. Smart meters allow customers to track their energy use online and change their behavior in order to save money. But only works if people pay attention.

“I think [the frame] is going to revolutionize smart grid because … it’s going to get customers really engaged,” said Glenn Steiger, general manager of Glendale Water & Power. “That’s the point — people need to be engaged for it to work.”

Amid a slide show of Sepe’s family photos, a screen shows up notifying him that he’s spending 13 cents an hour on electricity and he’s used 640 gallons of water so far this month. When he flips on the air conditioner, the electricity cost shoots up to 94 cents an hour.

“I knew that when I turned on the A/C, it’s going to be more, but I didn’t know how much more,” said Sepe, who happens to be Ceiva’s chief technology officer.

Since having the frame for about a week, Sepe said it’s caused him to think more about how much he waters his lawn and about bringing down his Jacuzzi temperature when he’s not using it.

For 10 years, people have been able to send photos directly from phones or computers to Ceiva frames. The company reconfigured that wireless technology recently to connect with energy data, something that hasn’t been done before, said Ceiva President Dean Schiller.

Schiller, who lives in Glendale, met Steiger a few months ago at a smart grid conference in Washington, D.C., where several speakers talked about the challenge of getting customers to engage with smart meter technology.

Smart meters have been a tough sell for some customers who loath the Big Brother aspect of the technology.

“Everybody’s struggling with this issue and how to connect with the customer,” Schiller said. “We thought, ‘How do we get people’s energy data in front of them?’”

Ceiva plans to distribute 50 more of the frames in the next few months to Glendale Water & Power customers as part of a pilot program. Steiger said the city is looking for volunteers to check out the frames, which will be provided for free.

“We want people who really want to participate,” Steiger said.

Those interested in trying out the frames may contact Craig Kuennan at (818) 548-2107.