Reps spend much of their business lives selling new electrical products, but very few of them get involved with every aspect of an actual product launch. That's what makes this month's launch of the BERT (for “Best Energy Reduction Tools”) smart plug by Green Power Technologies, King of Prussia, Pa, so interesting.

Now that Bob Powell has turned over the day-to-day management of his rep agency, Kunz-Powell & Associates, Malvern, Pa., to his son, Brendan, he is free to work with a few select accounts in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and to help set up a rep network to sell and support BERT, a UL-listed wireless smart plug/timer that can save even the smallest facility real money just by simply turning off plug-in devices when they aren't in use for long periods of time.

BERT is kind of like having an “electronic mom” in the office. Your mother may have had to yell at you every day to stop wasting electricity by leaving the lights on in your room. BERT quietly turns off unnecessary electrical loads in a pre-programmed routine that's easier to set up than using your DVR remote to record your favorite shows. The first time you see BERT in action you will probably ask yourself why someone else hasn't already thought of it: Plug a device into a conventional wall outlet that's no bigger than the timers you use to turn a few lamps on and off in your home when you are on vacation, and then plug the electrical load you want to control into BERT. Using the facility's Wi-Fi network, you connect BERT devices to your computer, smartphone or tablet computer to remotely program the on/off schedule of that device or group of devices. Each device has its own IP (Internet Protocol) address, just like any computer, smartphone or any other electronic device that utilizes a wireless network to communicate. Users can program up to 100 on/off commands per week. An office manager could, for instance, use BERT's simple computer interface to program all water coolers in an office to be turned off or on at a set time. Once you program the BERT devices, they do their job independently of the building's Wi-Fi network. Manual overrides are pushbutton simple.

It all sounds so easy, but Bob Fiori, president, Green Power Technologies, says developing the wireless communications technology to utilize a facility's existing 802.11b/g W-Fi network to link BERT's brain to virtually any plug-in 15A electrical load, getting the necessary UL listing and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certification, being RoHS compliant (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) — and selling it profitably at a price that will ensure a ROI payback of one year or less — is actually pretty complicated stuff. The engineering brains of the BERT/Green Power Technologies outfit, so to speak, is Greg Puschnigg, the company's CEO and co-founder and an engineering graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who previously sailed with the U.S. Navy and worked for Intel before launching Green Power Technologies with Fiori in May 2010.

Puschnigg said in a press release that he believes BERT is the first in a new wave of energy-saving technologies that utilize the communications capabilities inherent in a common Wi-Fi communications standard. Another advantage of BERT is that once programmed via a building's Wi-Fi network, the devices operate independently of the network and don't have to tap into it until they need to be reprogrammed. “Unlike many new technologies, BERT leverages an enormous existing infrastructure,” he said. “Nearly all computers and most buildings already have Wi-Fi. BERT was built to utilize this existing proven infrastructure.”

The Powells believe BERT will be a fun product for their fellow reps to sell because they and their customers will quickly see how they can use BERT to centrally control any plug-in 15A electrical load. In an office that might mean all computers, computer monitors, printers and water coolers, while in a restaurant that may be a dozen flatscreen televisions, cash registers, bar lighting and vending machines. Brendan Powell says a big sales opportunity is eliminating an often overlooked waste of energy for virtually any type of customer — phantom loads. A phantom load is the energy used by an electrical device when it's turned off. For instance, according to a white paper explaining BERT's benefits at www.bertbrain.com, an LED television can consume 225W an hour even when it's technically turned off and in “standby mode,” and can be turned on by a remote control. When you think about all of the other electronic devices that often operate in standby mode — phone chargers, computer hard drives, computer screens and office printers are the main culprits — you realize why some studies on phantom power show that it accounts for six percent of all energy use. The Department of Energy estimates the United States wastes $10 billion each year because of electronically devices standing around aimlessly in standby mode.

Some of the first customers to try BERT prototypes included the Ambler campus of Temple University, Penn State University, an office of the Pennsylvania Health and Welfare Department, a YMCA and an Applebee's restaurant. The Pennsylvania Health and Welfare Department found that because its building is closed at nights and on weekends, some electrical loads such as water coolers were running for 108 hours per week more than they really needed to be. BERT helped fix that.

The Powells, Fiori and Puschnigg found each other through an interesting series of chance meetings. In another business life, Fiori worked with PowerMinders, an energy network for college students that promoted the use of compact fluorescent lamps and other environmental technologies and the elimination of phantom loads on their campuses. One of the students told Fiori he had to meet Puschnigg, their “crazy, brilliant, naval engineer uncle” who was working on a software product that would allow users to use their computer or smartphone to control electronic devices at scheduled times. And Fiori met Brendan Powell because he was coaching his daughter's high school basketball team in a CYO league where Brendan was volunteering as the league's commissioner.

It's not the first time Bob Powell has extended his role as an independent manufacturers' rep to include setting up a rep network and product launches. In the early 1980s he helped the late Jim Nolan expand his then-regionally based Shat-R-Shield lamp business nationally with the help of a nationwide rep network; he also advised Arizona-based tool manufacturer Ray Tools during their rep selection process. Powell has enjoyed working with Fiori and Puschnigg in BERT's initial rollout and is delighted with the quality of the reps who have signed on to sell the product. They will be training reps on BERT through webinars and visits to local trade shows. “We have gotten the best reps in every territory,” Powell says. “In each territory we have gotten exactly who we set out to get, except for one. We have set up reps in every territory with the exception of Utah and the New York metropolitan area, and it's only because we haven't really solicited anyone there. We have someone very interested in New York and we haven't gone to Utah yet.”