Utility bills left unattended can put a serious dent in your budget. There is good news. You can reduce your electric bill 80% or more in a few short steps. Heating, water, internet and other utility bills can also be reduced by massive amounts with a few tricks.
The old adage ‘A watched pot never boils” is an apt place to begin. Before you can reduce your utility bill you need to know how much energy you are consuming. I get invited to seminars periodically that promise massive energy savings. They offer a free meal and Mrs. Accountant and I are always up to learning something new when a free meal is involved. The seminars are all the same. They try to sell over-priced products, many of which will never work if you understand even a small amount of science.*
Back by the ‘watched pot’ we are beginning our journey to energy reduction. The first step is to record your energy usage. For some reason, when I ask clients to record their energy usage the amount they use seems to decline. Like the ‘watched pot’, energy is still consumed. The water will boil, it just seems to take forever when you are watching the darn thing. Scientists know when something is observed the results can be affected by the observer. In medicine it is called the placebo effect (if you think it will work, it sometimes does, even if it is a gelatin pill). By watching your energy consumption you become aware of how much you are using and start to take steps to stop waste.
You will all think I am crazy when I tell you this, but I know how much electricity I used on any day going back nearly three decades. My morning routine includes feeding the animals, feeding the fish, weighing myself, and checking the electric meter and recording the stats. When I am on vacation I check the meter when I return and prorate the daily usage. To prove I am as insane as I claim I have included a picture in this post showing the hand written pages of records I have going back years.
Not everyone is into the insanity routine. I get it. What I will ask you to do is record your usage on a daily basis for one month. One month only qualifies you for crazy, leave the insane to me. The goal here is to get you to feel your daily energy usage. At the same time I want you to pull out your utility bills for the last year. What we are looking for here is your energy consumption per month. To make an accurate comparison, we need to compare your energy consumption to the same month of the previous year. Recording your electric meter reading each day may actually affect your electric use. Just watching the darn thing can make a difference.
Bring Out the Ax
Now we can roll up our sleeves and start chopping that electric bill down to a nub. I will use examples I have used in my office, home, farm, and with clients. Some of my recommendations are available around the net, many procedures will be new. So you understand my home electric bill, I need to provide some background. I live in northeast Wisconsin. We get really cold in the winter; our summers are cool, but humid. My home does NOT have a furnace, air conditioner, or hot water heater. I have a geothermal heat pump to cover all heating, cooling, and hot water needs. My electric bill is much higher in the winter because the heat pump uses electricity. Since I live in the country and have my own well, I do not have a water bill. I do not have a heating oil or natural gas bill either because the heat pump handles that. Our electric use for cooling is near zero because we circulate cool basement air to cool our home.
The reason I record my electric use daily is because I will know instantly when something is consuming an abnormal amount of energy. The first steps to reducing energy use are easy. Most lighting needs to be LED. Some low use lighting areas can wait for an upgrade. I updated security lighting around the office and barn lighting when LEDs were really expensive. The math still made the transition worth the investment.
Example, per lighting unit:
Lighting 12 hours a day in the barn for the animals or security lighting around the office on a sensor:
100 watt incandescent: 12 hours a day (1.2 KW) x .14 per KW x 365 = $61.32 per year
24 W CFL: 12 (.288 KW) x .14 x 365 = $14.72 per year
7 W LED: 12 (.084 KW) x .14 x 365 = $4.29 per year
I found the wattages on lighting available at a local hardware store. An LED is more expensive upfront, but uses $10.43 less in energy per year than a CFL. LEDs have come down in price significantly and are frequently the better deal. I always compare lifetime cost of a product before buying. The estimated fuel and maintenance costs of a car can take an original purchase price and increase it many times over. Light bulbs are the same.
Once lighting costs were under control I moved to other energy offenders. For me, the farm takes a lot of electricity. The steers require an electric fence, lighting, and heat during the dead of winter for water pipes and water feeders. In the barn I refuse to use a fire source to heat the utility room so only electric heating tapes on pipes and electric space heaters would do. I sealed and insulated the barn utility room and created an insulated box where the water works entered the barn. This simple move eliminated all use of electric heating tapes, a major savings. Today, only one space heater in the barn is needed. It runs on low and only a short time in January and February.
My personal experience is different from yours. Without a farm or barn to keep warm your electric needs require a different strategy to reduce your utility costs. The geothermal heat pump in the house is a low cost way to reduce home heating costs, but most people either don’t have a geothermal or live in a warmer climate where it is not needed.
Where the Tire Meets the Pavement
Because we each have different issues to resolve in lowering our electric bill, I will share a few tricks you can tailor to your personal situation for maximum savings. Simple ideas like lowering the temperature in the winter or closing off (and not heating) unused rooms is something you should already have implemented. What I refer to is eliminating energy vampires and wasted electric use.
There are two important steps you must take to reduce your electrical usage by the maximum amount without sacrificing lifestyle. The first is to record usage. In this instance I am not talking about recording your daily or monthly usage. What I refer to is the usage of specific appliances. To do this you will need a Kill-a- Watt monitor. They are fairly cheap, but I went to my library and borrowed theirs. The monitor is plugged into the wall and the appliance is plugged into the monitor. What you are specifically looking for is how much electricity the device is using when turned off. You might be surprised by how much money you are throwing out the window even when appliances and TVs are not on. A quality power strip (invest in a quality power strip, cheap power strips do not always work well or for very long) will resolve the problem. You can turn off the appliance at the power strip and stop the energy vampire. You will also want to test other appliances for usage. A refrigerator may suck more current than your think. A newer appliance with lower energy use might pay for itself in short order.
The second step sounds a bit weird at first. I assure you this really works. Almost all devices, including lighting, make noise when consuming electricity. I perform a regular energy audit of my office, farm and home by getting rid of all noise and listening. As you identify each energy use by sound, unplug it. You will be surprised by how many things are running. A large part of your electric bill goes to devices you didn’t even know were consuming your money, ah, electricity.
One final example before we call it a day. Seven or eight years ago a business client in the office wanted me to help him identify electric use in his commercial building. I explained how I used sound to identify electric use. When I finished my energy audit his electric bill dropped 73%. The guy just shook his head and told me I spoke with demons. I found over 100 items in his building sucking electricity he had no idea were running. We swapped out some lighting, installed timers on some devices and turned off unnecessary equipment.
I guess I could have given you a standard ten point list of stuff to turn off, but my way works better and adjusts to fit most needs. For the most part we are not talking about heating costs here; we are focused on electrical usage. Heating and cooling bills are the topic of another post.
Excluding the farm and geothermal heat pump, my home uses 7 – 10 kilowatts per day. This number does include the hot water produced by the geothermal. The winter months bring larger electric bills, but the weather determines usage. The farm is also weather dependent. There are ways to reduce those farm costs and I would be happy to write about them if enough of you would benefit from the dialog; let me know in the comments. I suspect most readers have a home or apartment and maybe a business. You can also apply this knowledge to rental properties, especially if you are paying the utilities.
There is more to the ‘cut your utility bill’ discussion, but. I have flapped my lips enough for one day. In the near future we will dig deeper into this topic. Until then, check your library for a Kill-a-Watt monitor and listen for the sound of money leaking from your home.
* High quality aluminum foil in the attic will cut your heating/cooling bill a bit, but not worth a $3,000 investment. You can do it yourself for around $100 here. You do not pay $80 for an LED lightbulb; you do know you can buy LEDs from Amazon at a reasonable price. A capacitor pack does provide some surge protection for your home, but will not lower your electric bill much. My research indicates the energy savings with one of these devices is limited. Some people claim they really make a difference in lowering your electric bill. You can save $100 or more at Amazon if you want to do it yourself.
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Tuesday 5th of July 2016
I have been working on our electricity consumption mainly because AZ Summers are so darn expensive. Switched to LED lights, took advantage of local rebates and tax incentives for a solar water heater, stopped a freon leak, and fixed our insulation. Those measures garnered a 48% reduction in electricity.
Saturday 2nd of July 2016
Keith, what is your Myers-Briggs personality type? I get the sense you might just be an INTJ like myself! This level of optimization is impressive even by my standards! My electricity bill is never more than $35 (thanks to my preference for living in a nice space over a big space), so I haven't paid much attention to it. However, I might try to cut it down just for the fun of it now.
Saturday 2nd of July 2016
Todd, do they have an "insane" personality type. I am sure I would fit neatly into it if they do. Most important, Todd, have fun. If I did not enjoy the game I would do something else. For me, I like to record certain parts of my life. It gives me pleasure to measure my energy use and make constant efforts to optimize/reduce usage. It really is not about the money.
Friday 1st of July 2016
How do you circulate your basement air throughout the house? We live in Maryland and the summers here are hot and humid, but our basement is always nice and cool. Can we get the cool air up both stories of our house?
Saturday 2nd of July 2016
Vida,I use a cheap box fan to blow air up the stairs. Depending on your home's setup, there are blower fans with attachments to send air where you want it. Ceiling fans move the air around the house fine for me once I get basement air to the first floor. The upstairs does stay a bit warm at times, but nothing we can't work around. We end up using the geothermal's AC unit on average of two times every three years. For all intents and purposes we don't have an AC bill.
You might also want to consider using the furnace fan to circulate basement air around the home. If it is easy to close return air ducts, except for the basement, it could be an easy solution to get free AC. I encourage experimenting. It's fun and it can help the pocketbook. Its kind of like a tax-free hobby.