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Saturday, March 27, 2004

Electric Bill Cut in Half!
My March 2003 electric bill: 610 kilowatt-hours over 29 days, $56.84.
My March 2004 electric bill: 284 kilowatt-hours over 29 days, $25.66.

I have gas heat, hot water and cooking. So while it was slightly warmer this winter than last, I don't think that was much of a factor (the furnace fan is a big KWH user, so warmer weather would be part of the story). The main savings? Probably the compact fluorescent bulbs, which I have installed in most of the lamps and fixtures in my house. But I also bought a high-efficiency washing machine last April, and I've put most of my "phantom" loads onto power strips so I can cut their power off completely when I'm not using them. Anything with a remote has a phantom load, usually three to five watts. Anything plugged in with a clock, like a microwave, is also a constant phantom load. I found that my 19" CRT monitor also draws about 55 watts when it's on, even in blanked-out "power-saving" mode. So even if it is more convenient to leave the computer on sometimes when I'm not using it, I try to shut off the monitor.

I expect even bigger savings this summer, since with a little research I discovered that my biggest energy hog over the course of a year was the dehumidifier in the basement. It's control mechanism is pretty worthless, so I had been letting it run almost constantly during the humid summer months. But it draws about 480 watts, and that adds up to a lot of KWH when run constantly! I bought a humidity guage at the hardware store so that I can more accurately judge when the dehumidifier is needed. I will also stop using the bathroom and shower that I have in the basement, and make sure that all clothes drying in the summer is done on the outside line.

Is the $30 savings on my March bill worth it? I think so, even just from an economic point of view, although I'm not poor (and I'm really not giving up much of anything). But DTE Energy supplies that power by burning coal, oil and natural gas and through nuclear fission. [Ed. Note: I mistakenly had "fusion" there for a week!] And these are things that we have to cut down drastically on or stop completely. Unless you've already carefully analyzed your energy usage and taken a lot of steps to cut it down, chances are that you too can cut your bill in half or more.

One very useful tool for ferreting out your power hogs is a wattmeter. Here's the one I bought, which works just fine and was about $100 less than I could find anywhere else. (For some reason they are not easy to find in stores.) You just plug the wattmeter into the wall and the electrical device into the wattmeter, and it tells you how many watts it is using. For appliances which cycle on and off a lot, like refrigerators, it will tally up the total kilowatt-hours while keeping track of the time so that you can determine an average wattage. If you live near me (Ann Arbor, MI), I'll be glad to loan you my wattmeter for a day or two--it should only take a couple of hours to check most of your stuff.

Another key to saving energy? If you've got natural gas, use it anytime something needs heating. Gas furnaces, hot water heaters, and ranges are much more efficient than their electric counterparts. Reheating on a gas stove is more efficient than in the microwave (microwaves are huge energy hogs, drawing 500 to 1500 watts).

I did all this research because I wanted to install some solar panels. I still plan to, but since I've already cut my bill in half, there's no way I'll save as much through solar as I will through some simple conservation methods. From a strictly personal economic viewpoint, the solar panels and batteries are unlikely to pay for themselves for a very long time unless electricity costs skyrocket (albeit a very real possibility). Solar power will be my new toy. But I hope that the panels on the roof will at least get my neighbors to ask me some questions, and I can tell them just what I've told you here: you can probably cut your electricity use in HALF without giving up a thing.