Install the Sense home energy monitor yourself (with no prior electrical experience)
Published on 26 Mar, 2019 by Michael Bishop
Categories: Smart home
As we explained in our earlier overview, home energy monitors are a fun way to really understand how your home uses energy. And better yet, understand how each specific device and appliance inside your home uses energy.
This article shares the author’s experience installing one of the best options — the Sense home energy monitor. Definitely also review Sense’s simple installation guide.
Gear included in the Sense energy monitor box
Sense strongly recommends that the energy monitor only be installed by a professional electrician. But the installation process, as shown in this Sense video, seemed simple enough. And I’m cheap. So I decided to try installing it myself, despite having almost no electrical experience. I’m happy to report that it was simple, and took less than 30 minutes.
Note: I’m not a qualified electrician — this article just shares my personal experience. Electricity is dangerous. Install the energy monitor at your own risk, or play it safe and support your local electrician.
Installing the Sense home energy monitor
Step 1 — Get your energy monitor
I got mine at Sense’s website, for $299. A solar-compatible version is $50 more. If you don’t have solar now but anticipate getting it later, you can pay the extra $50 at that time for an upgrade kit (it’s the same exact monitor either way). (When you’re ready, you can connect with top-rated local solar installers here.)
Step 2 — Install the Sense app on your phone
Later on, you’ll finish the Sense energy monitor installation by connecting it to your home’s Wi-Fi via Sense’s phone app. You’re about to turn off all power in your home. If this will potentially annoy family members or housemates, it’s a good idea to have your ducks in a row first!
Also make sure you have your Wi-Fi network name and password handy.
Step 3 — Find the breaker box
The Sense energy monitor is installed inside your breaker box, so you’ll need to know where that is. Your breaker box can be inside or outside your home (mine was in the garage). Look for a metal box like this:
Now open the lid and make sure it has circuit breakers (not fuses). Circuit breakers look like this:
1-pole 120-volt breaker
2-pole 240-volt breaker
Step 2 — Find a 2-pole circuit breaker
The Sense energy monitor doesn’t come with a circuit breaker, but it needs one to measure your home’s electrical voltage (and to power itself). Specifically, it needs a 2-pole 240-volt circuit breaker (see the right-hand image above).
If you’re wondering, 2-pole circuit breakers are normally for large appliances such as clothes dryers. While the Sense energy monitor uses only 4 watts of power (which is tiny compared to large appliances), it still needs a 2-pole circuit breaker to measure both phases of electric power.
I procrastinated on installing the Sense energy monitor because I thought I needed to buy a 2-pole circuit breaker. It turns out there was an unused one in my breaker box. But even if there wasn’t, Sense approves of “piggybacking” on a 2-pole circuit breaker already in use (in other words, sticking the Sense monitor’s wires into a circuit breaker alongside the wires of whatever appliance is already using it). (Sense would like me to add: ...provided this piggybacking approach complies with the local electric code!)
If you go the piggybacking route, make sure not to exceed the circuit breaker’s maximum-rated amps. That maximum should be indicated right on the circuit breaker’s switch (the circuit breakers in the images above have a 20-amp maximum). Then check the maximum amps of whatever appliance is connected to that circuit breaker (look for a geeky energy label on the appliance). Add the appliance’s maximum amps to the Sense monitor’s 3 maximum amps. If less than the circuit breaker’s maximum amps, you’re good to go.
If you need to buy a new circuit breaker for the Sense energy monitor, the maximum-amps rating doesn’t matter. Here’s a standard option from Home Depot. The 60-amp-maximum option is the same price as the 15-amp-maximum option. Might as well get the 60-amp-maximum option in case you need it for a larger appliance later on.
Step 3 — Annoy your family by shutting off the central power
Don’t miss this step! Turn off the main-breaker switch in the breaker box (after getting your headlight on if not near daylight).
A word from a Sense rep on this before we continue: "When you shut off central power, you are not safe from potential injury because the service mains are still live, and touching them could lead to serious injury/death. This is especially important because the sensors clip around those mains."
Step 4 — Take off the breaker box’s cover
It’s getting real now. Grab a screwdriver and open up the breaker box. You’ll see wires connecting to the circuit breakers. Hopefully it’s well organized in there.
Step 5 — Pick a spot to put your Sense energy monitor
Find a spot inside your breaker box to put the Sense energy monitor. Sense’s installation guide shows it on the bottom of the breaker box. I ended up putting it at the top (explanation below). If easy enough, putting it on the bottom of the breaker box ensures it'll never fall down (potentially causing energy-monitor damage or wire strain).
Step 6 — Open a knockout hole for the energy monitor’s Wi-Fi antenna
The energy monitor has an antenna at the end of a wire, which passes energy data to Sense via your home’s Wi-Fi connection. For a better signal, the antenna should be outside your breaker box. Conveniently, you can punch a hole in the side of your breaker box to stick the antenna out of. Look for little rings around the sides of the breaker box. Unless an open one is already available, you’ll need to remove a ring (or “knockout”).
One way to remove a knockout is to put the edge of a flathead screwdriver near the edge of the knockout, and hit the other side of the screwdriver with a hammer. You can then push it back and forth until it breaks off.
The knockout is attached to the breaker box in two or three places around its edges. Put the screwdriver edge between those attached parts.
I had a hard time getting a knockout out. I eventually learned this was because my breaker box is flush with wood on that side. I ended up sticking my monitor’s antenna out of an already-open knockout on the top of the breaker box.
Step 7 — Connect the Sense energy monitor
Definitely review Sense’s installation guide carefully for this step.
Apart from the antenna and the circuit-breaker connection, you’ll be putting “current sensors” around the two big wires in your breaker box (these big wires are called the “service mains”).
Make sure the current sensors are both label-side up! See Sense’s guide for pictures.
After connecting the current sensors, connect the Sense energy monitor’s power cable to the circuit breaker and the “bus bar” (see the guide). This is both very easy and very satisfying — let’s pretend we’re master electricians for a minute!
Here’s my installed Sense energy monitor (before I put the breaker box’s cover back on):
You can see that my monitor isn’t level (the left side is lower than the right side). I checked with Sense and they said that’s no problem.
Step 8 — Put the breaker box cover back on and turn on the central power
At this point, I victoriously notified my family that I had successfully installed the energy monitor, and they resumed their electricity-powered activities. Five minutes later, I told them I needed to turn the power back off to troubleshoot the installation. Don’t make the same mistake — be sure the Sense energy monitor is all set up before giving your family or housemates a greenlight.
Step 9 — Connect the Sense energy monitor to Wi-Fi
Shortly after turning the central power back on, the Sense energy monitor should make a friendly little chime. That means that, as far as Sense can tell, you did the installation correctly.
The energy monitor didn’t find my home’s Wi-Fi connection until I turned the circuit breaker’s switch off and back on again.
Once you hear the chime, press “Get Started” in Sense’s phone app, and it will guide you through the Wi-Fi setup.
We hope this article helped you get more comfortable with the idea of installing the Sense energy monitor yourself. It’s easy-peasy if your electrical setup is standard. And it’s very satisfying.
In a future article, the author will cover the Sense app. And how he used it to cut his electric bill.