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Mt. Pleasant man, partner build device to monitor energy use

Jul. 1, 2005
Charleston Post and Courier
By John P. McDermott
Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes, though Dolph Rodenberg III begs to differ. He gives full credit to wife Robin. She had a tendency to leave the house without turning off the lights. He had a tendency to fret over wasted electricity.

Determined to break this common domestic deadlock and lower his energy bills, the Mount Pleasant resident scoured area hardware stores a decade ago for an electronic monitor that could measure and show how much power his family was consuming at any given time.

"There wasn't anything out there," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

So Rodenberg, with no expertise in electronics or electricity, set out to invent such a device himself. The finished product is called The Energy Detective, aka TED, a patented countertop gadget he and his partners at Charleston-based Energy Inc. are bringing to market after 10 years of preparation.

TED, which resembles a portable digital alarm clock and retails for about $140, is aimed at cost-conscious households looking to get a better grip on their power usage. That can be a tricky task without a source of accurate, real-time feedback, Rodenberg said.

"What you don't know, you can't manage," he said, estimating that TED could trim energy bills by at least 10 percent if used properly.

Most of the 15 utilities Rodenberg has contacted about possible distribution deals or collaborative ventures, including South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., have expressed interest in the device. The California Energy Commission and some major appliance makers that Rodenberg won't identify also are intrigued. "The reaction has been nothing but positive," he said.

Danny Kassis, SCE&G's statewide manager of electric support services, was impressed after seeing TED in action. He said it's too soon tell how the device could be marketed to customers or if a deal will materialize. But the Columbia-based utility is interested.

"I've seen lots of things that people have touted as being useful to utilities and having the ability to do this or do that, but they never seem to pan out or function as advertised," Kassis said. "In this case, I saw something that was very interesting to us."

With oil prices near record levels, electricity bills on the rise and utilities under pressure to better manage their demand, TED's rollout is timely, said Rodenberg, who recently left his sales and marketing job at an engineering firm to promote his creation.

But it took years of persistence, tens of thousands of dollars in upfront investment and a key cold call to reach this point.

At first, Rodenberg said he didn't know whether another weekend tinkerer or some big power utility already had secured the rights to his idea. To make sure he hadn't been beaten to the punch, he spent hours and hours in his spare time in university libraries in Clemson and Charleston, poring over patent records and industrial journals. "This was before the Internet was in widespread use," he said.

Confident that the concept had not been patented, Rodenberg sketched out a draft plan on paper in 1997. In need of a partner with technical expertise, he passed it among several electrical engineers. "They said, frankly, it couldn't be done," he said.

The problem, those experts agreed, was that a single device could not simultaneously monitor the current in every wiring circuit in a home, just the specific circuit it was plugged into.

Undeterred, Rodenberg took his proposal to Rick Borden, a freelance electrical engineer he met through his sales and marketing job at engineering firm Davis & Floyd's North Charleston office.

"His initial response was this can't be done," Rodenberg said.

But Borden, a Canadian, then recalled an obscure technology he had come across in his other discipline, that of a master electrician. When installed on a home's main circuit panel, that gadget could measure the ebb and flow of incoming power and instantly transmit that data to a monitoring device.

Within 15 minutes, Borden was on board. "At that point, I got excited," Rodenberg said.

Their next challenge was to find a technology expert to create the software that would make their device tick and convey vital information to consumers, such as the amount and cost of the power they were using. When they couldn't find the talent locally, Rodenberg on a lark phoned a computer engineering professor at Georgia Tech.

"Who was your sharpest graduate last year?" Rodenberg asked.

He was referred to Steve Bowling, who agreed to develop the software after a three-hour late-night meeting with Rodenberg and Borden at a diner east of Atlanta.

"I really liked the idea," Bowling said. "This type of application is very timely because energy costs are going up and up, and more people are getting concerned about that."

Bowling delivered the software about six weeks later, allowing Rodenberg and Borden to develop a crude working model. The duo then applied for a patent, which was issued in May 2001.

From there, Rodenberg and Borden began working out the inevitable kinks, refining prototypes, meeting with suppliers, setting up a manufacturing operation in Florida and lining up financial backing for what had been a self-funded business. They declined two offers from venture capitalists because those investors demanded too much of an ownership stake, Rodenberg said. Last year, they found a silent partner they were comfortable with, local physician Arthur Smith.

Bowling had to part ways with Rodenberg and Borden soon after delivering his software to take a job with Chandler, Ariz.-based Microchips Technology, where he is an applications engineer.

"It's something I am really proud of," Bowling said of his work on TED. "I have the finished product sitting in my kitchen. Friends come over and say, 'What's that thing do?' ... It's a great conversation starter."

While Borden is on a sailing voyage to Ireland this summer, Rodenberg is minding the helm at their West Ashley office. In the few weeks since they put TED on the market, they have sold several hundred units over their Web site, mostly through word of mouth. They also have arranged to sell the device in some local hardware stores.

But Rodenberg, like most inventors, harbors bigger ambitions for his creation, noting there are 3,700 electric utilities and 117 million power-consuming households in the United States. He and Borden also are awaiting approval of an international patent.

"This is the market," Rodenberg said, pointing to a map of the world behind his desk.


-- Continuously measures electricity consumption, based on local utility rates, allowing consumers to monitor their usage.

-- Shows in both dollars and kilowatt hours how much power you're using at any given moment. Also, it can show the amount used that day and billing cycle.

-- Projects what your next electricity bill will be.

-- An alarm can be programmed to sound when you use more than a specific amount of power, giving you the option of turning off unneeded lights or appliances.

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