First Electric Cooperative's Neighborly Lesson In Home Automation

First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville has nearly finished upgrading a member’s home with automation technology to increase energy efficiency.

The project will give the utility a vehicle for educating the rest of its members, including businesses, on available technology and renewable energy. It will lower homeowner Tori Smith’s electric bill, too.

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First Electric “wanted to be able to showcase a home and be able to incorporate videos and some different messages to teach our members about energy efficiency, home automation, home technology and renewable [energy],” said Tonya Sexton, the co-op’s vice president of marketing and development.

“From our members’ perspective, and from Tori’s perspective, we’re hopefully helping her save money on her electric bill. No. 2, we’re educating her. And, No. 3, we’re able to use renewable,” she said.

The project includes installing several components at Smith’s 1,670-SF home in Jacksonville:

A 4,000-kilowatt solar array donated by Today’s Power Inc. of Little Rock, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.

  • A Rheem Performance Platinum 50-gallon hybrid high efficiency smart tank water heater.

  • A Google Nest, a smart programmable thermostat.

  • A Google Smart Light LED kit.

  • Smart LED bulbs.

  • A Google Home Hub and Google Home mini smart speakers.

  • A Google Nest Yale door lock.

  • A Ring video doorbell.

As of last week, all but the solar array had been installed, and that work is expected to be completed by Oct. 1.

Sexton said in a news release that the utility expects to see Smith “saving 50% in energy usage just from the hybrid heat pump water heater and solar panels.”

Asked how much the project cost, she said, “If someone were to go out and do this project on their own, it would cost them probably somewhere, roughly, about $15,000. I’m going to say $13,000-$15,000.”

The solar array alone would have represented about $10,000 of the cost.

The project didn’t require much labor, either: Two people from First Electric to aid in the installations, a plumber, an electrician and a few staff members to film the installations for promotional purposes.

Smith’s home was chosen because of its proximity to First Electric’s headquarters, the easy access it offered to Today’s Power and the feasibility of using solar energy there. In addition, Smith was a middle-of-the-road member in energy efficiency, and her house was relatively new — built in 2006 — but without automation technology. Older homes weren’t considered because they could need more work than simple installation of the new technologies.

Sexton said First Electric wanted the project’s results to be representative of an average member. The utility wanted the home it upgraded to serve as “a real-life, working example.”

“This is just a great tool for us to help our members find out more information about renewables and the value-added services that can give you instant access to your usage and the ability to control it,” Sexton said.

The utility will be monitoring Smith’s use of the technology going forward and plans to share with all of its members how much her electric bill changes.

In addition, Sexton said the project fits First Electric’s mission of improving the quality of life of its members, and Smith agrees that it’s improved her quality of life.

Smith said she loves all the new tech in her home, and she said she’d “planted a seed” by describing the upgrades to friends who had not previously considered installing automation technology.

Smith also admitted that she’s “not tech savvy,” but First Electric’s team explained how to use everything.

The project will be promoted on First Electric’s website, social media sites and in the monthly Arkansas Living magazine sent to members of electric cooperatives around the state. Already, crews have filmed how-to videos the utility will share online, Sexton said.

She also said First Electric hopes that, within the next year, its Smart Hub mobile application could be integrated into Alexa and/or Google Home technology. If that happens, members could say, “Alexa, how is my electric bill looking this month?” and in the next breath have Alexa shut off lights or adjust the thermostat.




Jennah Denney