While the winter holidays may be over, frigid weather continues to impact much of the country. With the cold comes higher electric bills, and the increase typically brings some not so happy utility consumers.
“Frustration is probably more frequent than anger,” says Jeff Marshall, communications specialist with Clearwater Power in Lewiston, Idaho. “The most common calls we get are from people who went on vacation during the winter and came back home to higher bills than they were expecting. They say they turned everything off, and that’s when I have to tell them, ‘The home doesn’t know whether or not it’s occupied.’”
While lights and electronics can be turned off, many home devices operate completely independently. Refrigerators, water heaters and central heating systems continuously draw power from the electrical grid.
“We are very conscious of TV, lights and the devices we constantly use, but they just aren’t a significant part of the power bill,” Jeff says. “An unoccupied home loses its TV, light and washer load, but it is still keeping the home warm.”
According to Jeff, the lion’s share of an electric bill comes from the water heater and central heating unit, which continuously draw energy even when the thermostat is turned down.
“People will think their heat is off,” Jeff says, “but it’s pretty rare for it to actually be off. 55 degrees tend to be as low as the thermostat goes. You can turn both of these appliances off at the breaker box, but a lot of people think that not using something electrical is the same thing as being turned off.”
Another common misconception is when consumers keep their thermostats at the same temperature year-round and expect the bill to remain consistent.
“We get a lot of snowbirds who leave their home around 60 and expect their bill to be drastically cheaper,” says Kelly Jackson, senior member services specialist with Mt. Wheeler Power Inc. in Nevada. “But it gets so cold that their heater works hard to maintain what they think is pretty cold to begin with.”
However, there are some cases where excess energy consumption does occur.
“I was getting ready to bill a member when I noticed her bill went from $210 in September to $500 in October,” Kelly says. “I spoke to her, we investigated it and turns out the heater in their home needed to be replaced.”
What Kelly did was not unusual, according to Christina Sawyer, internal communications specialist at Mt. Wheeler Power.
“We do take the time to look at the higher bills before they go out to the member so we can discuss what might be happening,” Christina says. “It’s part of our customer service procedures, so they are prepared for these larger bills and we can have a discussion about how to make things easier for them.”
A common complaint utilities face is when consumers claim their bill is much higher than it was in previous years or previous months when temperatures were similar. Comparing past bills with the consumer is a common industry practice.
“A lot of people come to us very confused as to why their bill is so high,” Kelly says. “But when we compare their most recent bill to the previous year’s usage, it turns out to be pretty comparable. I think most people just forget because of the lower bills in the summer months.”
“Another part that leads to confusion is that we bill them for the previous month’s usage. They get their September usage bill in October and assume that because October and November had similar weather, their bill will be about the same.”
Many consumers are surprised when their new, energy-efficient homes cost far more to power than they were expecting.
“It’s called Jevons Paradox,” Jeff says. “When you have a more efficient device, you tend to use it more freely. For example, heat pumps use less power than a furnace, so people with heat pumps will make their home warmer than they would with a less efficient system. This eats into their savings and ends up costing them more in the long run. Newer houses have better insulation and windows. All of those things have savings, but the alarm in the back of your head is just quieter. You use it more and you’ll light places that aren’t normally lit.”
Vampire or phantom loads from smart TVs, gaming consoles and other electronics may also drive up the electric bill.
“Manufacturers are invested in creating devices that load more quickly and efficiently,” Jeff says. “On the flip side, these devices are always turned on and absorbing power from the grid. When you turn a dishwasher off, it’s off, but a lot of electronics are never turned off.”
An easy solution to vampire loads is buying a smart power strip. Jeff recommends the Trickle Star advanced power strips. These smart strips detect when electronic devices are in an off or standby state, and cuts their connection to the outlet.
Another way to reduce the electric bill is by inviting friends and family over. The ambient body heat produced by each person will heat the home, allowing for a much lower thermostat setting.
“I was at a conference once where the staff lowered the heat below 60 36 hours before the event in anticipation of what happens when you have 500 people in a room,” Jeff says. “If the thermostat had been 68 degrees, the room would have easily heated past 80. Don’t underestimate the cost savings of people in your home.”
Lastly, Jeff wants everyone to know that lighting isn’t that big of a deal.
“Don’t be afraid of lights,” he says. “They really don’t use up a lot of energy. Switching CFLs to LEDs, the savings are only about a quarter. It would take years to recoup that investment.”
Tips for Reducing Your Electrical Bill
- Lower the temperature when you are not at home and before going to bed. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates 1% savings for every eight hours you lower the thermostat.
- Dust your refrigerator. Your refrigerator is working much harder if the coils are covered in dust.
- Replace your filters. Dirty filters force your air conditioner or heater to work harder to push air through the vent and uses more energy.
- Nuke it. Cooking with a microwave or an electric skillet consumes far less energy than your oven.
- Plant trees. Plants around your home generate shade during the warm months of the year, reducing your air conditioning needs. Planting trees with leaves that fall during the winter will increase sunlight and reduce your warming needs when it is cold.
- Buy energy-efficient appliances. Replacing decades-old inefficient appliances with smart ones can save hundreds of dollars a year.
- Install a ceiling fan. Fans move air around the room without actually cooling it. This provides a significant reduction in energy use while keeping your home comfortable when it is warm.
- Cover air leaks. Caulk cracks and openings in your home to keep the warm air in during the winter and out during the summer.
- Seal air ducts. Air loss from unsealed ducts can be responsible for up to 30% of your electric bill.
- Don’t open the oven. Opening your oven door while baking or cooking can reduce the internal temperature by 25 degrees. Turn your oven off 5 minutes before your meal is done to allow the ambient heat to finish the cooking.