Energy-efficient and high-performance building have dominated the construction industry for the last few years, but one piece of the equation rarely mentioned is perhaps the most important: human behavior.

For example, if home buyers select the most energy-efficient HVAC system, choose compact fluorescent lighting, and buy the highest-rated water heater, they still will need to use these products correctly in order to gain the maximum benefit. Unfortunately, many consumers are not mindful of the fact that how and when they use the products affects the desired results.

According to a 2010 Energy Pulse survey conducted by the Shelton Group in Knoxville, Tenn., more Americans are buying energy-efficient appliances, installing insulation, replacing their incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and adjusting their thermostats. Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the company, says, however, “Most Americans—despite their efforts to conserve energy and control costs—are seeing their energy bills rise.”

Shelton says rising electricity rates and more plug-in electronic devices are partly responsible, but behavior is also a culprit: “Consumers can get lulled into thinking that because they installed CFLs, they can leave their lights on all the time, or because they bought a high-efficiency water heater, they can indulge themselves with longer, hotter showers,” the group’s survey concluded.

The bottom line is that all the features in the world will not save energy unless humans change their behavior, as well. So, new energy-monitoring devices promise to help accomplish that.

An energy “dashboard” is a device that lets homeowners know how much power they are using in real time. The idea is that if people know exactly how much energy they are consuming and when, they may change old habits and reduce consumption.

The “Advanced Metering Initiative and Residential Feedback Program: A Meta-Review for Household Electricity-Saving Opportunities,” a 2010 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington, says such feedback initiatives “are opening the door to potential energy savings that, on average, have reduced individual household electricity consumption 4 percent to 12 percent across our multi-continent sample. Feedback is proving a critical first step in engaging and empowering consumers to thoughtfully manage their energy resources.”

Devices such as the touchscreen-based energy dashboard from Orem, Utah–based Vantage quantifies specific energy usage and offers strategies for direct savings. Andrew Wale, vice president of marketing, says, “We’re now offering homeowners the ability to see real-time energy usage and the effect of strategies that manage energy usage in accordance with their own lifestyle requirements.”

Still, in its analysis of feedback studies, ACEEE concludes that significant savings from energy-monitoring devices are possible, but the group says it depends on the type and how well it is implemented. “Past studies suggest that daily/weekly feedback and real time plus feedback … tend to generate the highest savings per household,” the report says. “Median energy savings, across all countries and decades, for studies employing these two approaches were both above 10 percent.”But simply installing a gadget is unlikely to maximize energy savings. Instead, the group says the best systems include both the device and specific guidance on how to decrease usage.