U nited Illuminating is in the business of distributing energy. At the UI-managed SmartLiving Center, however, the goal is to get customers to use less.
The Center, a small museum of sorts dedicated to energy conservation, is located amidst the strip malls, furniture retailers and big box stores on Boston Post Road in Orange. If you don’t know it’s there in the first place, you’re not likely to notice it driving by.
But notice it you should. The Center houses interactive displays, pictures, literature and a knowledgeable staff that can help you save your money and your planet.
SmartLiving is free and open to the public—including school field trippers, senior center cadres, boy and girl scout troops, and, of course, UI customers hoping to reduce their bill—although we all help fund the Center: it’s a beneficiary of the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, which works with the state’s utility companies and generates money for programs through small charges on customers’ bills.
Joel Williams is a Public Educator at the SmartLiving Center. He’s got energy conservation communications down, from talking fossil fuels with eight-year-olds to convincing customers that installing LED bulbs will lower their monthly bill.
During the typical tour he gives to a school group, he begins in the 40-seat-capacity front room with a presentation covering coal, oil and natural gas, explaining how the three major types of energy are harvested, transported to your home and utilized once there. Then it’s on to the forward-looking stuff, like sun, hydroelectric and wind energy, as well as a multitude of more mundane ways to amp up a home’s energy-saving features.
Tours go mobile from there, with guests following Williams or another guide through several rooms of hands-on exhibits. There are switches to flip, buttons to push and materials to touch—and child or adult, there are a lot of exclamation-worthy moments, especially as you realize exactly how much energy you’re using and how easy it can be to reduce that amount.
The first room features a large sign asking, “How Do You Stack Up?” Below are lists of common household appliances and the typical wattages required to run them. Williams points to another sign with more numbers: 15,000 watts a day indicates a “smart user.” At the bottom of the list, 25,000 watts a day signifies a “high user.”
“It’s not bad,” Joel clarifies looking at the higher number. “But let’s be smarter,” proceeding to suggest alternative ways of meeting your heating/cooling/lighting needs.
Other displays are just as enlightening. I touched insulation made from various surprising materials, from sand to recycled jeans. I turned a crank to generate the energy needed to light incandescent and CFL lightbulbs (four cranks for the former, just one for the latter). A wall of lightbulbs shows the different sizes, shapes and tones of CFL and LED lightbulbs, useful for those who want to envision what would work in their own homes.
There’s more: an “outdoor room” featuring “smart” patio lighting and a calming fountain; a model home with solar panels and a rainwater bin; small displays proclaiming the benefits of other earth-friendly ideas, like composting and using natural cleaners; a kilowatt-usage meter projected onto a television and activated by turning on appliances on a nearby table (whoa, try to curb that hair-drying habit).
When children are touring, the talk is tailored to the age group; high schoolers might spend a bit of time on circuitry, kindergartners, not so much. For a child, these observations might be true revelations regarding energy usage, climate change and more; for adults, the Center likelier serves as a good reminder of a better way to live.
But there are still plenty of revelations to be had. “We’re one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets,” says Priscilla DeStefano, Supervisor at the Center. “Everyone leaves here and goes, ‘I didn’t know that.’”
Now you know.
297 Boston Post Road, Orange (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.