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Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Combat Increased Utility Bills

When we moved into our house just over 6 years ago, our electricity bills averaged about 120$ per month.  That figure climbed gradually, and after about a year we began installing compact florescent bulbs a few at a time.  Once we had one in every socket we noticed a nice drop in the bill.  But over the years the bills began to creep back up again.  Now our local energy company has announced a %17 rate increase at the beginning of the year!  Yikes!  Sure solar power is ideal, but for the regular Joe that is not always practical or affordable.  So what does the average family do?

Well, last winter our electricity bills ran about $200 per month for our 1800 square foot house.  I called the power company to ask what was up and they claimed it was my heating costs.  But our heating costs were zero, right?  I shook my head and figured that once winter was over the artificial inflation of electricity costs would level out.  Did this happen?  Of course not.  The $200 bills kept on coming!

Steve and I heat our house with wood stoves in the winter and we have a couple of high efficiency window units for particularly sweltering days in the summer (being from New Orleans, we are pretty tolerant of the North Carolina summers).  As long time treehuggers, we always felt that we did a pretty good job at saving energy, but the larger than comfortable bills and impending costs meant that our monthly utility bills were going to run nearly $250 per month forced us to take a harder look at our wasted energy.

The first thing we did was explain to our girls, ages 10 and 12 what was happening with our energy costs.  I think we've done a pretty good job at teaching them to not be wasteful, but explaining the actual dollar cost hit home with them.  Simple trickle down economics means that the more money we spend on electricity means less money we can spend on them.  They limit their television use to about an hour a day now and do a bit better job turning the lights off in their rooms.  

We finally dismantled the prehistoric desktop in the family room with the non-wireless printer that ran out of ink.  The computer stayed on far too much and actually got used far less than our other devices, so we uploaded all of our photos from that computer to an online photo website and we recycled the lot.  

We installed surge protectors on the two televisions (I've been threatening to throw these things out for years!) and other audio/video equipment.  Those switches are kept off unless they are being used.  Many modern appliances draw a small current when they are "off" because they really more "asleep".  One electronic device might not draw a whole lot of current, but when you add together all of these "sleeping" devices around the house it adds up.  

Steve and I love our ceiling fans.  We literally have them in every room.  Not only does it circulate fresh air, but it helps to distribute the air from the wood stoves and keep rooms more comfortable.  We used to keep them running 24/7 but now we turn the ceiling fans off in each room when no one is in there.  Although turning off the fans more often should save us money, the drawback is that now we will be able to see the dust so I will have to clean them much more often.  

We also delayed replacing the hot water heater because we were hoping to install that solar hot water system sooner rather than later.  Our intentions are good, but time and money are short around here so we decided to go ahead and replace that too.  Steve removed the old hot water heater from under the house (turns out the thermostat was broken and it never was insulated) and ran new lines and installed the new hot water heater inside the house.  We wrapped it in an insulated cover and wrapped the new copper lines under the house.  If all goes right, the $350 we put out for the hot water heater should be recouped within a year.  If we do get to install that solar hot water system (we have a used system we purchased from a homeowner a few years ago for $250 - but that's another story) then we already have a brand new holding tank!  We also turned the heat a few degrees lower than the previous unit, and kept the size of the tank to 40 gallons.  With a family of 4, we can all get a shower one after the other if we don't linger.  This not only saves on electricity but water as well!

When I was younger, my mother always used to keep a lamp or two on in different rooms in the house when we went out.  This was in case we got back after dark passers-by would think someone was home and also we wouldn't stumble into a pitch black house.  I somehow inherited this practice and have since abandoned it.  No one can see our house from the road so passers-by are irrelevant, and I've discovered stumbling in a dark house is really not that big a deal, not when you know where you're going.

We have an electric clothes dryer in addition to our solar dryer outside.  Steve and I both work full time jobs outside of our home, so hanging our clothes out isn't always conducive to our schedules.  Most of our washing takes place on the weekends so we are trying to use the sun to dry our clothes as often as we can.  

What we haven't done but plan to do in the coming weeks is to blow another layer of insulation into the attic.  We rented a hopper and used the bagged insulation made of recycled materials shortly after moving in, but that original layer has settled quite a bit.  We would have done that by now, but yet again, time and money.  

One thing we can do to combat the high costs of electricity is to reduce our consumption, but an even better option is to find cleaner alternatives.  We do think that some solar options are in our near future, beginning with the solar hot water.  We already have the panel and the heat exchanger, but what we are lacking is the schematics.  Luckily a neighbor friend  is a machinist and seems to think he could help us with that in the coming month.  We also want to experiment with some solar electric panels and have room in the new hot water heater closet for both a heat exchanger and some batteries.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, time and money - again.  

The day we installed the hot water heater, we received our bill from the previous month.  It was already down to $120, and that was without the improvements of our hot water system!  I couldn't believe that the few changes we made, that anyone could make, would add up that much!  And we still need to wait another month before we see the impact of the hot water heater.  This is adding up fast.  Maybe what we can do is bank the money we save off our electricity bill and put it towards an off grid or partially grid tied system?  Now THAT sounds like a plan.....

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