How I cut my energy costs more than half — without giving up anything!
Remember back in the spring of 2008, as world oil prices were exploding? Did you have visions of hundred-dollar bills going up in smoke? I did, and decided then I was not going to let it happen to me. So began my mission: I took a good hard look at the costs to heat my house as well as the cost of its overall operation. This is what I found, and how I reduced my family’s household energy consumption by more than half without sacrificing our lifestyle or comfort. Thus far, our annual savings are more than $3,000 and continue to rise.
Getting Started—Spring 2008
In early 2008, with oil costing over $4.00 a gallon, the first place to look for savings was the heater. I put together a spreadsheet and entered the amount spent for oil each heating season over the previous several years. By putting the numbers into the spreadsheet, it was obvious where things were heading. I could not afford to keep paying over $3,000 a year to heat my house.
My next step was a call to the plumber in order to find out the cost to replace the oil burner with a new, high-efficiency gas boiler. While it rarely pays to upgrade equipment that’s working well, when you have to replace it, it is usually worth spending extra to get the most efficiency. Sure enough, the replacement cost for the gas boiler seemed pretty expensive – until I plugged the number into the spreadsheet and found that it would pay for itself in about five years, at then-current prices. It was like putting money in a savings account paying 15% interest. Where do I sign?
Four years later, our heating bill for last winter, admittedly very warm, was just over $800. The last three years combined have cost about the same as that horrendous winter of 2007-2008. Though the price of oil is down a bit from 2008 prices, it is not likely to get better, so I expect the savings to continue.
I took another step and had an EnergyWorks assessment done on my house. [updated -- EnergyWorks was a subsidized program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, now discontinued.] The energy auditors turned up several opportunities for air sealing and additional weatherization. The suggested improvements were made at modest cost and have had a noticeable impact on comfort and energy use, both heating and cooling.
My next step was to add my annual electricity, gas, and water usage to the spreadsheet. The information I had was dollars spent and not the actual quantities of each utility used (kilowatt-hours (kWh) for electricity, hundreds of cubic feet for gas, and gallons for water). To determine usage, I looked at current rates, guessed at the rates for previous years, and had Excel calculate estimated usage. Though not very accurate, it did not need to be. I was looking for trends based upon my family’s usage.
The problem was evident – the cost of all utilities was trending up. Even if I saved on heating, it was just going to get more and more expensive to maintain the status quo in operating my home. Electricity, powering all of our electronics, appliances, and air conditioning, was problematic and likely the place where most of the hidden waste would likely be found.
Thus began my four-year quest to find the energy wasters, power hogs, and assorted “vampires” inhabiting our house. It would seem a daunting and formidable task, but the reality was that I did not need to find all of them (and likely never will). Notably, every vampire I found made a substantial difference.
First, I figured out what utility usage was dependent on the weather and what was due to our habits of use. I started with my monthly PECO bill, looking at the usage graph on the last page. The idea was to get a picture of the “base load” in my house, i.e., how much we used each month without seasonal disturbances like heating and air conditioning. I noticed that my lowest usage months were October and May, but even still, my family was using nearly 1000 kWh of electricity (or about $160 worth) those months. I also calculated the cost of air conditioning and other summertime adjustments. Surprisingly, while air conditioning always seemed like a huge cost, I found it was only between $300 and $400 annually (maybe due to big trees that shade my house and infrequent use).
Then I made another spreadsheet listing all the electric devices in the house. Room by room, I put down lights, electronics, ceiling fans, appliances – everything. I added the heater, A/C, washer, dryer, and dehumidifier. Where I had wattages for items, like lights or from manuals, I put them down on the spreadsheet. I estimated other appliance and electronic wattages and I calculated the number of hours each month that my lights, TV, and electronics were in use.
My estimates and actual usage did not add up – it was not even close. I refined my estimates and added a few forgotten things, but the comparison was still way off. I was not discouraged. On the contrary, I was delighted because this meant I had lots of hidden waste to find, and the electricity my family needed to use was much less than what we were actually using.
My Sherlockian instincts aroused, I went in search of vampires. I purchased a plug-in watt-meter, the Kill-A-Watt, for about $25, and measured the power actually used by various appliances. It allowed me to make “snapshot” measurements of watts consumed (for things that are either on or off) and “average” measurements (for the refrigerator and other things that don’t always use the same amount of power.) I plugged these figures into my spreadsheet.
One vampire jumped out: the 14-year-old refrigerator. The Kill-A-Watt demonstrated it was using more than 100 kWh per month – over 10% of our entire baseline bill. The door gaskets were shot and it was overdue for replacement. Given that new Energy Star models are much more efficient than even the best of the older ones, I went shopping.
New Energy Star refrigerators are expensive. Here is the bright side: our new one uses less than 40 kWh a month, for a saving of about $11. Over a period of 10 years, that comes out to $1320 – enough to fully pay for many models, including the one we chose, just from the energy savings. Plus, it's a whole lot nicer than the old one.
More vampires surfaced as I continued to take measurements with the Kill-A-Watt. The cable set-top box, turned off when not in use, pulled in 25 watts, on or off! I found that the “standby” light on the front signified only that the display output was off and saved a trivial amount of power. Meanwhile, the thing eats 18 kWh a month, about three bucks worth, but if you have several TVs, the amount multiplies. I learned that you can’t do much about the power the cable box uses, but I evaluated whether all of our TVs need to be connected to cable. Because we used the TV in the basement only for DVDs and video games, we dropped that box and saved on both our PECO and cable bills.
The next energy waste I found was our home’s computer system. Over the years, we had accumulated several large desktop computers, including one running 24/7 as a file server. It was using 100 kWh each month but was needed for business purposes. My solution was new technology: a miniature file server called “Network Attached Storage,” that reduced power consumption to a mere 6 kWh/month and eliminated a large computer in favor of a small desktop box. Additionally, we have since retired all of our desktop machines, in favor of a laptop, an Apple Mac Mini, and an iPad. All of the new devices are made to conserve power (some due to batteries) and save about 75 kWh per month.
Also, around my home office, I found a motley collection of backup power supplies, routers, and other gear that we needed in the old days when a momentary power blip could mean disaster. These gobbled between 25 and 50 watts even with nothing connected, so I eliminated them and saved about 100 watts, another 72 kWh a month (or more than $12.)
Some things we have maintained and/or keep on in “standby” mode, like the laser printer, fax machine, and the network gear. The potential power savings from eliminating these devices are small and the loss of convenience significant. It’s important to keep things in perspective, and I did not want to make life difficult for the rest of the household.
Slaying the Vampires
One thing that I noticed as I evaluated our household was the degree to which electronics had proliferated. For the most part, they were always on, or in “standby” mode ready to receive a remote control signal and come to immediate attention. Also, there were the ubiquitous battery chargers, for cell phones, iPods, battery-powered vacuums, tools, and other items, all of which consumed power as long as they were plugged in. Some, like newer phone chargers, used only a fraction of a watt, but many others took five watts or more. Taken together, these devices added up to 25 watts of continuous load, or 18 kWh per month.
There were two ways of dealing with these additional vampires. The first, and easiest (but not necessarily most convenient), was to simply unplug them when not in use. For anything that needed a remote control, however, I brought in the heavy weapons in the form of a “smart” power strip. I found it perfect for the TV, DVD, VCR, game console, and sound system – I plugged the “primary” device, like TV, into the control outlet and everything else into the remaining slots. Now when the primary device is turned off, everything else goes off too.
Prior to 2008, I had converted most of the ordinary light bulbs in our home to compact fluorescents so easy energy savings were out. Most of bulbs left either used dimmers or had different kinds of bulbs. I checked out new LED bulbs at Home Depot, and found some that were fairly inexpensive. I experimented with some of the LED bulbs, particularly replacements for the little MR-16 low-voltage halogen floodlights used in many decorative lamp systems. Because prices for LEDs are still high and the payback period can be several years, I decided to replace the bulbs with the halogens only in the fixtures I used most. The LED lamps are quite satisfactory, so as prices come down they will become a better choice. Until then, I buy LEDs selectively – only when I see a particularly good price or a solution to a specific problem. [Updated -- prices have come down substantially since this was written and are now a great choice for many uses.]
In response to the replacement bulbs, illumination in the family room, our most-used room, dropped from 200 to 40 watts, with no noticeable loss of light. My savings in that room alone are about 25 kWh a month, and I don’t have to replace the bulbs. In addition to the energy savings, I’ve reduced the heat impact of the higher watts, which is quite noticeable when sitting right below the lights.
Getting the Freebies
One easy decision saved me big money even if it did not reduce my family’s energy use. PECO pays me to NOT use the air conditioning when I was not using it anyway. You heard me: for the privilege of shutting down the unit for 15 minutes at a time, every half hour, on a few hot weekdays each summer (when demand is the highest, particularly for offices), PECO pays me $120 a year per unit. Since the house has two systems, one for each floor, I get $240 back. This was a no brainer for me as the upstairs unit is never on anyway in the daytime, and the downstairs unit hardly ever runs, being insulated from the heat by the second floor.
While this sounds too good to be true, there’s a real logic to PECO’s program. It is all about “demand reduction.” The extra power needed on those extreme days is the most expensive to produce, and PECO has to be able to provide whatever is needed, or face brownouts. If less is needed, the overall cost comes down, benefiting all consumers. PECO pays me part of the savings in exchange for making my units available for reduction.
Unfortunately, PECO’s current plans call for the program to be dropped this year, in the absence of new requirements for demand reduction. It is too soon to know whether this decision is going to be temporary or permanent. [Updated -- the program is still in effect as of 2013, but with a lower rebate.]
The (White) Elephant In the Room
By Fall 2011, I had gotten our annual electric usage down from 14,343 kWh to 10,209kWh, a reduction of nearly 29%. My non-cooling consumption was down to 700 kWh per month. But there was still “unaccounted-for” usage, and I was guilty of harboring a convenience item, the basement refrigerator, which I had been thus far unsuccessful in shutting down.
Compared with many old and inefficient refrigerators, my basement refrigerator was not a terrible energy hog. Still, it was consuming about 75 kWh a month, or more than $12. Had my family really needed it, I could justify its use because energy conservation is not about making life inconvenient. But after perusing the spare beer and soda in the refrigerator and some steaks in the freezer, I knew better inventory management was all I really needed.
Over the next few months, I cleaned out the freezers of both refrigerators, by using up stuff that had been around longer than we thought and throwing out the “science projects.” I stopped cooling beverages until my family needed them. Shortly after the holidays last year, we unplugged the basement fridge. (We kept it, though, as we may want to use it from time to time, especially if entertaining.) One hidden bonus we’ve found is that we are eating more fresh food and less frozen.
I had reached my limit at this point, though a couple of hundred watts of usage were still escaping me despite the fact I had measured just about everything. Then I heard about The Energy Detective, or TED. TED is a watt-meter that is hooked inside the electrical panel to continuously measure the power consumption of the entire house. The information, including graphs, projections, and detailed historical data, is viewed on either a small wireless readout or on a computer.
I ordered the TED 5000, to give me readings down to the watt. Installation was not difficult, but not for the faint of heart, either. It involved opening up the electrical panel and working inside while part of it was live. Most people would hire an electrician, and I strongly recommend it, for anyone not properly qualified.
Oh, what excitement when I saw those graphs unfold on the computer! I watched the refrigerator cycle on and off during the day, and a bit slower at night. I saw the air conditioner kick on precisely at 5 PM when the thermostat hit the cool evening cycle. I knew when the TV was turned on, and when my daughter turned off the last lights and went to bed. There were no secrets; TED told all.
I checked the graph every morning to see the lowest overnight usage and found things I had previously missed, like ventilating fans in the basement, lights accidentally left on, the battery charger for my drill. More vampires lived behind the basement TV so we put them all on a power strip. After checking the wattage, I prowled the house looking for any device that was on but should not be. Slowly I worked on reducing the overnight usage: first 400 watts, then down to 350. Finally, I achieved a low of 275 watts when “nothing” is running, though this number climbs in the summer when ceiling fans and air conditioning are in use. Some of that usage is unknown but I will keep trying to uncover the source. Every 100 watts I find save about $150 a year. And, you know, it has been sort of fun!
How’s My Carbon Footprint?
As mentioned above, I embarked on this mission to save money, not the planet. Nevertheless, the consequence of this project is my carbon emissions were reduced. The total carbon emissions of my home stood at 16.3 tons for 2008. This number dropped dramatically, to just over 12 tons, when we changed over to gas heat; gas is the least carbon-intensive of all the fossil fuels. Gradual declines followed as I continued to cut my family’s electricity usage.
This year, I decided to invest about an extra half-cent per kWh (less than $45 per year) to buy 100% Pennsylvania-generated renewable power, out of our electricity savings. Without all that coal being burned, the emission rate of my home has plunged to less than 6 tons a year, a reduction of 65%.
The Bottom Line
Although I confess to being a bit of a fanatic, anybody can do this energy-saving, cost-reducing stuff. Every single thing you do makes a difference, a lot of the steps are free, and it does not need to be done all at once. I spent four years doing a little at a time. My reward is that I get to keep all that money, instead of giving it to the energy barons, and spend it on myself and my family.
Interested in seeing the numbers? Click here.
The Energy Detective is produced by Energy, Inc. The TED Model 5000 and Footprints software were used for my tests and measurements. Further information is available at the company’s website, www.theeenergydetective.com. Professional installation is strongly recommended.
Pure Pennsylvania renewable electricity is available from several sources. Find current information at www.papowerswitch.com.
David Director is a founder of aFewSteps.org and chairs the Technical Team.