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Editorial: My Apartment in Tokyo

April 30, 2016
May/June 2016
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Every time I visit Japan I learn something new, and my most recent trip was no exception. This time I stayed in an apartment, which exposed me to several new energy-related devices. First, what’s this gadget attached to the wall? (See photo below.)

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 (TEPCO)—the utility that brought you the Fukushima catastrophe—a monthly “fuse” charge. This means that if your apartment’s total demand exceeds a certain number of amperes, a circuit breaker triggers and everything shuts off. So you must carefully manage your electric appliances, because if too many are on at once, you lose power. That’s why you need a National BQX960011011!

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

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, A/C, 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 goes off if you stay in the red zone for more than a moment. So this is how Japanese consumers save peak power. Even though smart meters haven’t reached Japan, these demand savings in Japanese apartments might still help TEPCO to reduce its peak demand.

The photo on the right (above) is a remote control for the water heater. It allows you to easily monitor the amount of hot water that is available, or even to switch it off when you go away. The display shows that the (electric-resistance) heater holds only 80 liters (21 gallons), but the temperature is a scalding 87°C (190°F). I wasn’t sure why they kept the water so hot, but it might be to make sure that visitors wouldn’t run out of hot water in the middle of a bath (which uses more hot water than American baths). Or perhaps the owner simply never checked the temperature.

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A “peak alarm unit” that gives Tokyo residents a measure of their current power use via colored LEDs. (Credit: Alan Meier)

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A remote control for the water heater. (Credit: Alan Meier)

My 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 lid 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 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.

My apartment quickly revealed to me Japan’s differing priorities in saving energy and peak power. I also acquired a new skill: juggling appliance electricity demand. If you get a chance to visit Japan, avoid the hotels and find an apartment. You will learn all sorts of new skills and habits.

Alan Meieris Senior Executive Editor of Home Energy.

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