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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!



Catherine Wolfram View All

Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. ​She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.

She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.

37 thoughts on “A Common Energy-Saving Device that I’ve Never Seen in the US Leave a comment

  1. 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 …

    • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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!.

    • 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. 🙂

  7. 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.

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