A Common Energy-Saving Device that I’ve Never Seen in the US

I tend to think of the US as ahead of most of the rest of the world when it comes to energy efficiency. Maybe not in the Germany or Japan league, but at least above the median. After all, our utilities are spending billions of dollars per year encouraging energy efficiency and our policy makers talk about it a lot.

But, I’ve stayed in hotels in France, Singapore and Kenya over the past six months and seen an energy-saving device that I’ve never seen in the US. Maybe you’ve seen them. It’s a simple fixture, pictured below, where you insert your key to activate the electricity in the room.

2014-07-11 07.48.17This doesn’t mean that you get charged for the electricity you consume while at the hotel. The device is basically a master switch that turns everything off as you take your key out and leave the room. (In my Singapore hotel, this worked with a lag, giving me a couple seconds to get out with the lights still on.)

To me, the energy savings to the hotel are ancillary and the main benefit is that there’s a single, default spot to leave my key. No more hunting through my purse and looking on every flat surface in a room as I rush out the door. The key is right there, on the wall next to the door, ready to go. I would pay extra for a room that had such a pocket even if it had nothing to do with electricity.

This is a clear example of what the energy efficiency community labels a “non-energy benefit.”

So, why don’t we see these in US hotels? It’s not because I’m staying at fancy new hotels in city centers in the other countries. Both my recent hotels in Western Kenya had the devices – in Kisumu and overlooking the Ugandan border in the town of Busia (population 52,000), where I took the photograph above, and pictured below.

An aerial view of Busia, Kenya

An aerial view of downtown Busia, Kenya

But, maybe I stay at nicer hotels in the US than when I travel abroad? The device has a penny-pinching feel to it, and there are drawbacks. For example, you cannot leave your computer charging while you’re out of the room. I don’t think that’s the story, though, since at least the hotel in Singapore was quite nice, and I’ve stayed in some real dives in the US and still not seen a key pocket.

It’s also not the case that electricity is extraordinarily expensive in the countries where I’ve seen the key pockets. They all have commercial rates in the 14-20 cents per kWh range, which is higher than the US average, but no higher than California. So, the hotels outside the US are not facing larger monetary savings from installing the master switches. (See here for Singapore prices, and here for French prices. I got the Kenyan prices from a recent presentation I saw by a former regulator. Admittedly, the true costs in Kenya should average in the occasional cost of running the diesel generator when the grid goes out.)

We talk about an energy efficiency gap, meaning that consumers and firms may be failing to invest in energy efficient technologies even if the payback in terms of lower future energy bills clearly outweighs the upfront investment. The typical explanations for the energy efficiency gap are that there is a market failure at play, like a split-incentive problem or lack of information. Certainly, hotel guests do not think about the effects of their actions on the hotel owner’s energy bill, so there are elements of the split-incentive problem here. But, this device is explicitly designed to address that problem and force the guests to save energy for the owner.

I am also hard-pressed to see US hotels’ failure to adopt the key pockets as an example of the energy efficiency gap, since the devices have been adopted in other countries. I can’t see why market failures exist in the US that don’t in Singapore, France or Kenya.

So, is it possible that Hilton contemplated installing these in their US hotels, and decided that their guests would be turned off, meaning that lost business would outweigh any energy savings? I suspect that’s the case. Even Starwood’s new Element hotels, which are branded as green and use low-VOC paints and carpets made from recycled materials, opted not to use the “master switch.”

This article quotes an Element executive describing how they surveyed customers before deciding whether or not to use the switches.  “’Some,’ he recalled, `said they would suffer discomfort because they would get back to their room and it would be extremely hot.’”

hotel ac

Always on?

One lesson is that I am not a typical US hotel customer. I like having a place to keep my key, and I don’t like walking into what feels like a 65-degree hotel room, even if it’s 95 degrees outside. But, other US consumers apparently like a lot of AC.

This example highlights that saving energy can come at an economic cost. Sure, there may be energy-saving technologies – simple ones installed in remote Kenyan hotels – but if people like walking into 65-degree hotel rooms, businesses will be unwilling to adopt them. And, if a utility program or government standard pushed the hotels to adopt them, all those hotel guests with polar bear tastes would be less satisfied customers.

I am curious. Have you seen these devices in the US? If so, in which hotels? Where? If not, why is the US so different from other parts of the world? Do you agree that US consumers’ love of AC is part if the explanation? I, for one, would love to get to the bottom of this!

About Catherine Wolfram

Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, Co-Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Director of The E2e Project. Her research analyzes the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets and the effects of electricity industry privatization and restructuring around the world. She is currently implementing several randomized control trials to evaluate energy efficiency programs.
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35 Responses to A Common Energy-Saving Device that I’ve Never Seen in the US

  1. John Proctor says:

    Ms. Wolfram I too have seen these devices overseas, in Kenya I saw one that the “card” was a small piece of wood. However unlike you I have seen these in US hotels for a number of years. I cannot remember a hotel recently that has not had one.

  2. Farah says:

    Hey! This is an awesome thing to highlight, and I totally agree we need more of these in the US! I have seen them in a few Starwood (e.g. Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc) hotels, but I can’t remember offhand which ones in which cities. It might be interesting to reach out to them and ask whether or not they plan for utilizing those more!.

    • Farah says:

      For the record, I also do not enjoy walking into icebox hotel rooms! But I think they could easily set programming to have the HVAC default to like 70 or 72 without the room key. This is one in a list of things I think hotels could improve regarding EE. I’ve rarely stayed in places where the windows don’t leak like sieves. I think building envelope improvements + setting the AC a bit higher would do wonders for their demand charges. 🙂

  3. If you follow chunk-chunk sound of the switching relays when you insert your key, it will usually lead you to a circuit breaker panel in the closet.* That might be a clue to some of the differences; I’ve never seen a US hotel room with a per-room breaker panel, but all the international hotels I’ve visited with the system you describe had them. That could be due to electric codes varying internationally. But if the cost of adding this feature in the US also means requiring an extra panel that would otherwise not be necessary, that could explain its lack of popularity here. Also, those breakers that are remote-controllable I’m sure are more expensive and less reliable than simple ones. My own experience with electricians is that they tend to be exceedingly conservative about “exotic” setups, so they might be disinclined to do it, too.

    The A/C problem is probably relatively easily solved. You simply put the A/C on a circuit that you don’t switch. There is more than one circuit in the room, so this should not be that big a deal.

    * — Yes, I am such a nerd that I inspect things like this in hotel rooms. It’s just interesting to me. In the last year I have been in Beijing and Jerusalem, both of which have enough differences in wiring standards to be obvious to even a casual inspection, but they both had panels in the closet, with three three separate breakers in the room.

    • Laci says:

      Well, this (the master switches) are very much dependent by different scenarios. And here is why I say that: I am a Building Engineer in a high-rise hotel in Florida (high temperatures and very high humidity environment).

      My hotel rooms have windows of a size of the whole wall (top to bottom and from left to right) and you can’t open them; they are sealed shot and the fresh air is coming from an air handler from the roof. The air-handler does cool the air and it takes most of the moist out. When the room is vacant the A/Cs are in “Unoccupied” mode and they don’t run; when the room is occupied then the A/C is turned to “Occupied” mode and they are set to 71-73’F and the guests change the Set-point for their needs.

      Well, I am in Florida, as I said before and when the guest leaves the room in the morning and if the A/C is cut-off (lost power) it can damage the A/C electronics (by powering on and off many times from the breaker) and the rooms during the summer times warm up quickly above 90’F – and at night when the guest comes back the A/C would not be able to make a comfortable temperature for hours!!! This is because not only the air in the room but all the walls, furniture, bedding etc are all at 80-90’F and this is a huge backlog to cool off. So, for a guest who would stay a week or more (or even a day) it would be very uncomfortable… Note: I keep pressing the room maids to keep the sheer-curtains closed and the curtains half closed to ease on the A/C…

      Each room has a small fridge (a beverage cooler) that some guests use and some not. If the guest keeps some drinks and/or a sandwich there and the fridge would loose power for a whole day… would create upset. Similarly, the fridges are turned off by the maids when the rooms are vacant.

      Each room has an alarm-clock, some guests don’t use them and some do, but if the power comes back after power loss the display is flashing… so it would be annoying for the guest to reset them all the time they enter the hotel room… Also, their gadgets would not charge all day.

      -And if some lights are left on… well, they are turned off by the maids after they clean the rooms for the day or after the guest’s departure.

      Beside the above: I am from Eastern Europe and I never had and A/C until I came to US 20-years ago. In Europe very often we didn’t have A/Cs. Actually, 80% of my Italian guests are turning the A/Cs OFF, as they don’t like them and they like warm temperatures and my Nordic guests (Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Russia etc) they like the cold and they sleep at an average of 64-68’F – so, to have the A/Cs off in Florida when the room is rented… it just doesn’t work.

      So I am an Engineer and Floridian and this would be my standpoint on this. This is why I think that in my opinion the “master switches” very much depend on different scenarios that everyone has. This, to cut the power, would be very much usable in Chicago area and in the upper states…

      Regarding water: I am all for the dual-flush toilets, I have seen them and used them all around Europe. In my hotel all my toilets are Niagara toilets using 1.5 gal/flush and that is better then most places. All my faucets have aerators and the shower-heads are also economy type and on overall water usage we never exceeded the minimum limit set by the city, but we pay more compared what we use, as we pay by the “bracket” – no mater how much we use unless we don’t exceed the quota set.

      So, this is my viewpoint on this.

  4. dcwolfson says:

    I have also seen them at recent hotels in the US… quite rare however.

  5. Jun Ishii says:

    If you are looking for a local example, I believe Hotel Shattuck Plaza has this feature.

  6. tlmurray says:

    I’ve seen these devices in several newer US hotels, e.g., Homewood Suites in Philadelphia. Some link all systems to inserting the card, but I noticed that one hotel (I forget which) had changed its setup so that A/C did switch on/off with the card, but limited lighting could remain on (perhaps for safety), when the card was removed.

  7. Lyn Corum says:

    I saw them in one hotel in a small town in Guatamala in December 2012.

  8. Azmat says:

    I guess the point is key or NOT key master switch, the point is attitude. We in the US are just not accepting of ANY inconvenience in our set ways; it just takes small behavioral changes to make huge energy savings .. I know people in the cold of winter get up and open ALL windows while it is snowing outside to ‘freshen up’ the house, and then turn the heater up full blast, ‘just because’ they did that when the lived in the tropics.

  9. Mike says:

    Like others concerning the in room switch that is activated by the card key, I haven’t seen this in US hotel rooms. I first saw this in mainland China in 1990. The key switch served two purposes in hotel that were frequented by foreigners. It may have had an energy saving role in 1990, but I think the biggest reason was surveillance to tell the front desk if someone was in the room. In 1990, my luggage was regularly searched when I was out of my hotel room. I knew this because of the tell tails I put into my suitcase. In 1990, hotels and quest houses frequented by only Chinese didn’t have card keys switches. Now virtually all Chinese hotels have them. There are ways of getting around the surveillance side of the card key system.

    As to air conditioning, this is an issue in areas where the climate is hot and humid. In many places overseas the air conditioning is a unit in the room. In large US hotels the air conditioning is central. The idea makes sense from an energy saving standpoint, but I suspect that most US hotels are wired such that there is a capital cost involved with making a change. One can be sure that when a hotel adopts such a cost saving measure, it will be added to the resort fee that you don’t find out about until you check into the hotel. The early adopters in the US will be the large lower priced motel chains like Motel 6 or Super 8. This feature can be built into new construction rooms with little in the way of additional capital cost. These are the US hotels that don’t charge resort fees and have free internet.

  10. Grey Staples says:

    They have them at the Hyatt Place in Carlsbad, CA although I would point out that the front desk asks if you would like two keys in the event you want to leave one in the key card slot when you leave the room …

    • Mark Trexler says:

      Exactly the point I was going to make – but you made it! That’s what’s happened in the U.S. where I’ve seen these slots. Even if not, it turns out that you can often stick a variety of cards into the slot with the desired effect – spare airline mileage card perhaps.

  11. nboccard says:

    great post. One sad consequence of yankees’ (and Canadians) insistence on AC being on at all times is that you can’t get into a hotel anywhere in the world nowadays without freezing to death. In Lugano (22C outside in August, no risk of insolation!), my hotel had an automated AC system running at full power whenever i left even if i manually set AC off. I had to ask the desk to switch off with the computerized system. A bit of mandatory change would be good for electricians and the world, if not the hotel chains…

  12. Michaela Ballek says:

    Thank you for this article! I have noticed these “card holders” as well, and have really liked them. Not sure whether I have ever seen one in the US. Often rooms have switched on all kinds of things when you walk in – lights, TV (at least standby, but sometims even running), and AC. I tend to switch off the TV standby and the AC as soon as I get into a hotel room – but it really should be the other way round!

  13. Michael Waterson says:

    They are indeed widespread in Europe, even in the UK, which has different electrical codes. I suspect its all part of a keycard/ lock/ switch package that many hotels upgrade to. And normally in European hotels the AC (where available) is completely separate and centrally run. If you have been to Toulouse, you may stay in a hotel with a single separate socket specifically for things like charging laptops!

  14. art2science says:

    I’ve seen these in many hotels in the US. Across from the UCSD campus is a “luxury spa and resort (sic)” which has these in all rooms. It was built about 10 years ago. As for names, all I can recall is “conference hotels,” so Mariott and the like. Obviously they require re-wiring the room, so they will be tied to the rate of new hotel construction or renovation. That is one possible explanation for why you have not seen them as much in the US.
    I expect they are also correlated with key-card entry systems in place of physical keys.
    I have always assumed that the main purpose was to shut off heating/air conditioning, since that is the big load in buildings. Another approach, which is harder to observe, is that in some hotels the HVAC is tied to the central room allocation system. If no guest is checked in to a room, it remains dormant. In a very hot area (East facing rooms in a Dallas hotel?) I expect it would be optimal to have both.
    Now, if we could just get my classrooms to regulate lighting and HVAC this well… it pains me to see empty classrooms with the lights on and the AC set at 68F.
    The general point here is that both (slow) diffusion of innovations, and capital stock turnover, limit the rate of conservation adoption. Time scale = decades.

  15. policywonk says:

    David: I’d be quite surprised if a CB in a hotel commonly protected more than one room: that would mean your shorted coffee heater would turn out the lights in other guests’ rooms! The panel doesn’t have to be in the room…
    The gadget-charging problem is easily overcome by having one or two outlets not switched by the card slot, especially including the minibar refrigerator’s; they don’t even have to be on a separate circuit. I have low-voltage switched lights in my house that meet code from a remodel back in 1995, and GE RR7P & 9P mount in an ordinary junction box: just have the card slot switch the lighting outlets/fixtures.
    Turning off the air conditioner actually doesn’t save that much if the windows are double-glazed (little conductive heat gain): the important heat gain in an empty room with the lights off will be from the sun through the window that will happen no matter what; almost all the latter will have to be pumped out by the AC when it comes on again in any case, whether from the unit in question or the next-door and above- rooms it leaks into.
    More mysterious to me are (i) the number of hotel rooms that still have incandescent lamps, and (ii) those that have upgraded to CFLs or LEDs, but are still dim and gloomy, even though decent lighting is so much cheaper.

    • Policywonk, all of which is consistent with what I wrote. Hotel rooms in the US don’t share CBs, they share panels. And in every case of one of these automated systems I have seen, there has been a panel in the room.

      One could imagine a system where the remote breakers are all aggregated in one large panel, but that’s not how they did it where I’ve seen.

      Getting back on topic, taking this thought a bit further, once you make exceptions for device charging, the mini fridge, and, potentially, the A/C, you really aren’t left with all that much load to switch: lighting and the TV. The former is getting much more efficient. So this energy savings approach may not be all that interesting after all.

  16. John Gdowik says:

    I recently returned from a vacation trip to Italy and experienced the same practice of using your room key – card to activate the electricity for the guest room. Both hotels, one being a four star and one being a a three star hotel, utilized the card activation method to power the room. The three star hotel also used motion detectors to light the hallways. I agree with Catherine, there is an ancillary benefit of knowing where you left the room key/card when leaving the room. I also experienced the card activation process here in the US at some Westin hotels. As stated in the blogs there are different reason for using the card activation system. It could be for conservation or it could be used by the staff to determine if the room is occupied or not. My guessis that in most countries outside the US, use this practice for conservation because electricity is scarce and or very expensive. There are wholesale and retail Electricity Market incentives in the US that encourage the conservation of electricity. If the hotels in the US would practice this type of conservation and pass on a portion of the Market savings to the customer in the form of a lower hotel charge, you may see some hotel guest behavior changes. Money is always a great motivator.

  17. Gary L Hunt says:

    These key systems are not yet common but growing. I’ve found them in both Hyatt Place and Homewood Suites. They actually do several useful things for the hotel beyond turn on the power in the room. They turn the power OFF if the room is unoccupied. They match the key card with the authorized user of the room. If the door opens and the key card is not inserted after a set period but the motion detector senses movement it triggers an alert—no more missing TVs. . .

  18. http://theEnergyCollective.com says:

    I’ve only ever seen these overseas — in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Mexico — but never in the United States. Every time I see this simple device, I’m baffled why they aren’t ubiquitous in the U.S. as well. Thanks for the thoughtprovoking post.

  19. I’ve only ever seen these overseas — in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Mexico — but never in the United States. Every time I see this simple device, I’m baffled why they aren’t ubiquitous in the U.S. as well. The over-reliance on AC here is one likely explanation I suppose, but even then, you could put the lights/TV etc. on one circuit wired through this master switch, and the AC unit (and a pair of plugs for a charger even!) on another circuit so you can leave it on when you’re out. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  20. These were in place in 7 out of 7 hotels in a recent trip to Shanghai and surrounding areas in China (bus tour stopped in different town/city every night).

    This article says it’s not just the A/C or an outlet for charging electronics – apparently people leave their TVs on for theft deterrent! That’s a lot of electricity use…

  21. art2science says:

    It appears that Calif and specifically the CEC were considering building codes that mandate this. A comprehensive study, paid for by the utilities, is at: http://www.energy.ca.gov/title24/2013standards/prerulemaking/documents/current/Reports/Nonresidential/Lighting_Controls_Bldg_Power/2013_CASE_NR_Guest_Room_Occupancy_Controls_Oct_2011.pdf
    Excerpt: The purpose of this CASE report is to calculate the incremental costs, potential
    energy savings, energy cost savings and life cycle costs resulting from controlling HVAC, lighting,
    and receptacles in unoccupied guest rooms.”
    At the other extreme, this site has a long thread stretching from 2008 to 2014, on how to defeat hotel systems that shut off the AC. Among the suggestions: stick a random credit card in the slot. http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/travelbuzz/810192-disabling-motion-detector-pir-thermostats-hotels.html
    It also has a lot of winging about temperatures, such as one person saying “I can’t sleep in rooms where the temperature is above 68 degrees!”
    Finally, the technology is now available as wireless, which makes retrofit more feasible. And in some cases, it is one part of a comprehensive solution: door lock, fire alarm, infrared occupancy detector, bathroom light shutoff, open-window detector (which shuts off HVAC), hotel refrigerator charging, TV, and so forth. Honeywell’s system is sold under the Inncom brand: https://www.inncom.com/en-us/Pages/Category.aspx?cat=ECC-INNCOM&category=Products

  22. Manuel Sosa says:

    In Mexico that kind of devices are very popular as for example in Holiday Inn hotels…

  23. Steven Rudnick says:

    Anyone who does not know the answer to this questions is invited to take the course in sustainability that I am currently teaching. Any action that would impinge on the lifestyle of an American citizen is clearly unacceptable, majorly evidenced by our response to global warming. Or perhaps by our obesity rate.

  24. Steve Rowley says:

    I stayed in hotel rooms in Indonesia in the 90s that had this feature. I for one loved entering a 65-degree hotel room in that climate. This device is pretty easy to defeat for that purpose. You ask for two key cards, and leave one of them in all the time. That would seem to be the selling point to me if I was worried about customer response – customers that really dislike this can opt-out easily. Customers that don’t care won’t bother with this solution

    I also really liked having a designated place for my key; if I was in a hurry and lost my real key, I could grab the spare out of the holder, leave, and ask for a new key when I got back.

  25. PBR says:

    More costly likely … but develop a remote control for each room … allowing guest to select and leave on an outlet(s) for recharging devices … and the facility for starting up the heat or AC about 30 mins before returning to the room.

  26. Austin says:

    Hi, I am a grad student at the Kennedy School and I’m actually working specifically on a project that is targeting this. I can be reached at austin_slaymaker [at] hks16 [dot] harvard.edu if you’d like to either know more or be involved!

    • Steven Rudnick says:

      I have not read the entire comment so this might not be fair. But in New Mexico, PNM is not encouraging efficiency They have encouraged people to switch from swamp coolers to air conditioners to save water. What they forgot to tell anybody that the water that they use to generate the power at the coal-burning plant, 70% of NM generation, exceeds that used by the swamp cooler for the equivalent electricity. I am almost guilty in saying this of the same criticism that I would have about this comment. “Billions of dollars per year…..” Citation please. I can actually dig out the math for the comment that I just made.

  27. x10 lighting says:

    It’s hard to find experienced people on this subject, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about!


  28. Anonymous says:

    These things are a terrible inconvenience. You want to leave the room and charge your cell phone or laptop while you are out. Guess what? You can’t. I wish agoda had a “don’t need room key for electricity” filter. I would totally use it.

  29. Judson L Moore says:

    I have also seen this card holder all over the world but never in the US. Now I work in the hotel industry and am doing research on this technology for a blog post on the trivago B2B blog and it is really interesting to see what a prolific observation this tech is. I for one think it is brilliant, but usually I just forget the keycard in the holder and the power stays on all day, resulting in me frantically searching all my pockets for the key and having to request a new one. I think it is a great system though, even if user error can still cause waste.

  30. Bill [AD8BC] says:

    I for one love walking into a frigid hotel room after a long day of heat. I have run into those key card switches a few times over my 1200+ nights in hotels. Most of them I could easily defeat with a business card, one of them required a trip to the front desk to ask for an extra key. I usually like to leave my laptop and tablet and ham radio equipment charging while I’m out.

    Most of the energy saving thermostats I have run into are easily defeated by “VIP” button codes. Those that aren’t can sometimes be completely disabled by programming the wall unit to disregard the external thermostat in lieu of the local control panel on the unit. Many times I have had to reprogram them to leave the fan on all the time (instead of cycling the fan with the AC compressor.) That fan cycling is annoying when I sleep.

    Only once have I had to physically jumper out a thermostat with a piece of wire to get the temp below 74.

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