Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tips for lowering your power bill

I pull back the curtains to reveal a beautiful and unseasonably warm February day here in Napa. Opening the back door, I can hear our chickens waking up to greet the day and breathe in the the fresh, crisp morning air that will soon heat up to over 70 degrees. There are many thoughts going through my head - including that I must add an unplanned stroll downtown to today's to do list - but chief among them is that it's time to get the laundry started because this gorgeous sunshine is about to lower my power bill.

Probably not what you were expecting but, well, no one has ever accused me of being impractical.

It was not until recently that I experienced what a big impact lifestyle choices can make on energy use. While I've always done little things to conserve gas and electricity, like turn off lights and keep the furnace set a reasonable temperature, there wasn't incentive to do much more as our usage was already very low.

Then we had a baby. And, as all parents know, with a baby comes laundry - mountains and mountains of it, especially if you're using cloth diapers like we are. What was once a one- or two-times-a-week-thing quickly became a daily occurrence - often snowballing into multiple loads. The dryer seemed like it was running constantly and, needless to say, the first bill we received from PG&E after our son was born was a painful one. Although I expected our costs to go up, my jaw hit the floor when I saw our electricity bill had increased by nearly 100%.

After recovering from the initial shock (I had NO idea the dryer used that much energy), it was time to figure out how to get things back within the budget. Enter into the equation much trial and error and a newfound passion for our PG&E SmartMeter and, I'm pleased to report, our energy use is back to, and some months even lower, than our pre-baby bills.

You know you're a little crazy when you do a dance of joy when your power bill arrives. Bonus? What's good for us is good for the environment.

It's been a bit of a long road getting here and along the way I discovered ways to conserve energy - some big, some small - that have made a big impact on our bottom line. Here are a few things that have worked for us.

Know your enemy: Identify the energy hogs in your home. For us they are the electric dryer, electric stove, and gas furnace. Now, everytime I use these I mentally see dollar signs and think about how to conserve energy. Another potential culprit? Your hot water heater - we replaced our old electric one with an on-demand gas hot water heater a few years ago and the $1500 price tag has already been paid for. Yep, that was a good investment.

Become friends with your SmartMeter: I love this new contraption. I can log into my MyEnergy page online and see, virtually in real time, my energy use down to the hour. I even kept an energy log for a week and compared it to the online graphs to identify our above-stated energy hogs. I. Love.It. (No, I have not been paid for this endorsement - though that's not a bad idea...)

Be a master of the obvious and use your energy hogs less: I'm all about bang for the buck so I stared with the big guns. Here are some tips on reducing your use of the oven, dryer and furnace. (We do not have an air conditioner, so unfortunately I can't offer any good tips to that end except the obvious - don't use it. I know we're lucky to live in California where that is an option.)
  • Use your slow cooker or toaster oven more often.
  • Plan fewer meals each week that require the oven - for example salads, sandwiches, etc.
  • When you do use the oven, take advantage of the cost to preheat and and piggy-back your dishes.
  • Line dry your clothes. Seriously. The first month you do it you will see a big impact. I guarantee it. If you don't want to put an ugly umbrella looking contraption in your back yard to do this, I'm right there with ya. Invest in a retractable clothesline for all of $10 and you'll be saving money in no time.
  • Be strategic when you do use the dryer. Obviously the winter months make it difficult to harness the power of the sun so when you do need to use the dryer, be smart about it. For example, as we do a load of cloth diapers everyday, I wait to dry the diapers until I have another load of laundry that also needs to go on the dryer. If I dont have another load that needs to go into the dryer, they get put on the clothes rack in the garage to dry which leads me to...
  • Line dry inside. You know that pop-up clothes rack you have for your delicates? It's also a great way to save money. Put things that you don't need to be dried immeately on the rack. Even if they don't dry completely, the dryer will not need to work as hard.
  • Spin, spin, spin. Let the spin cycle on your washing machine get out as much water as possible.
  • Pay attention to the temperature setting. I was using low heat and the temperature sensor to dry our clothes, but noticed that things were not getting dry and I needed to keep the dryer on longer - thus using more energy. I switched to medium heat and now do a 30 minute (or less) cycle to start. Often that does the job but if the clothes need more time, I add it in 10 minute increments.
Over the last year I had some major 'ouch' moments with our gas bill as I figured out how to set the thermostat with a baby in the house. As a new mom, the last thing I wanted to do was make our home uncomfortable for our little boy. While it was easy to monitor his temperature when he was in our room either in a co-sleeper or our bed, after he moved to his crib and the cold winter months ensued I didn't know how to keep him warm - but not too warm - at night.

To make a long story short, after a few very high bills I called PG&E to see if they had any advice. I spoke with a sweet mother of five kids, and she told me, in not so many words, that I was over-thinking the situation (me? Never). Here are some tips I gleaned -
  • Keep your heat set at 62 at night - if your child is too cold, he/she will let you know it.
  • During the day set your thermostat at 67 or less when people are in the house, and have it turn off when no one is there. If you are cold - or worried about your child being cold - get out a sweatshirt.
  • Things you can do to help keep your child warm at night are use a footed sleeper and/or a sleep sack, put socks on under the sleeper and, if need be, put a cap on your child.
  • As SIDS has been linked to overheating at night, be careful not to put too many layers on your child. Err on the side of slightly cool rather than too warm.
So, that night I put our little guy in a sleeper and sleep sack and turned the thermostat down to 62 degrees and, wouldn't you know it, he slept through the whole night and we all woke up refreshed. Go figure. Problem solved.

Energy Tiers: Here in California we are on an energy tier system. The lowest electricity tier (for us, an average of 11 KW per day) is the cheapest, once you exceed that you get bumped into the second tier, once you exceed that it's into tier three, and so on. After I understood how the system works, it was easier to manage our energy costs and shoot for the 11 KW average that would keep us in the lowest tier (though I think it's just about impossible to live on 11 KW a day - even with our 1,000 square foot house that doesn't have AC). Call your utility company to find out how your plan is set up and see if there are other pricing plans you can try - for example, many power companies offer a 'time of use' plan that, as you might imagine, charges different electricity prices based on the time of day. The lowest prices are typically at night, so that is the best time to run the dryer, heat up the stove, etc. If you're religious about it, I hear the savings are significant - I'll be able to let you know soon as we're going to give it a go.

These tips have made a huge difference for us in trimming our power bill and I hope they are helpful for other frugal mamas out there. How do you conserve energy and keep your costs down? Please share your ideas in the comments section!

1 comment:

  1. I've had a great exchange with a friend over Facebook about energy use and on-demand hot water heaters that I wanted to share with my blog readers -

    Carmen: I know the feeling! I easily do about 10 full loads of laundry a week, and there are days when my drier is constantly running. Also, when we had our windows replaced a couple of years ago for energy efficient ones, the contractor told us that the biggest energy-eater in the house for most people is the fridge. Of course, he told us that right after we said that it was the one appliance that we hadn't had to replace yet.

    Me: I think we moms need some sort of medal for all of the laundry we do! Great tip on the fridge - that is one I hadn't thought of as we had ours replaced with an energy efficient one when we moved into the house. Isn't it incredible what a difference energy efficient appliances can make? I'm still in awe of our on-demand gas hot water heater, which from the very start saved us at least $150 a month in electricity. Can I post your comment on my blog?

    Carmen: Of course you can post the comment! Question about the hot water heater- can you run 2 things at once, or do you have problems getting enough hot water for both? We replaced ours with a smaller tank model about 7 years ago when we moved in, and we've had to replace the elements a couple of times already. I'm wondering if we should go tankless when this one finally kicks the bucket. It wouldn't be a big deal to me, if I had to wait until the laundry was done before I could run the dishwasher. Just curious as to how well they really work.

    Me: You know, we've actually never even run into an issue with the hot water heater not producing enough hot water. You can get them sized for different size households - ours, I think, is supposed to have the capacity to run at least two things at the same time (for example, two showers). It is a WORLD of difference from when we had an electric hot water heater, and we would often run out of hot water. Not to mention the fact that it cost us at least $150 a month to heat the darn thing over the winter, vs. less than $10 in gas to run the on-demand unit. I highly, highly recommend!