Pack Up Energy Savings
May 28th, 2010 by Ruralite

When taking a vacation, do you think about giving your meter a break, too?

packupIt’s easy to forget about conserving electricity when you and your family pack up the car to head off on vacation or a lengthy trip. But if you don’t think about it before you leave, you could face an unpleasant—even irritating—surprise when you return.

While it seems to make no sense, your energy bill can be the same or even higher when your home is unoccupied. Some equipment, motors and electrical devices use power, whether or not anyone is home.

Let your meter know you are gone by preparing your home before you leave. Then you can enjoy your vacation knowing you are not wasting energy—or your money.

Preparing the Home for Your Absence

Air conditioning and heating are the top users of electricity. Before you pull out of the driveway, you turn the thermostat to its lowest possible setting, thinking you have effectively turned off the system.

In reality, you have only turned it to the lowest setting—generally 55 degrees. That means it will come on each time the temperature inside the house drops below 55 degrees. In the fall, winter and even spring, that could be every day. The same principle applies to your air conditioning system.

To really disable your heating and cooling system, shut them off at the breaker panel. Before you do that, though, make sure the house won’t get so cold your plumbing is at risk.

If you fail to shut off the breaker, your heating costs could actually rise when you are not home. That is because clothes drying, cooking, bathing and human activity give off heat that contributes to a home’s temperature. Without a human presence, the heating system must work harder.

The second-biggest user of electricity is your water heater. Because it is out of sight, it is easy to forget. If you will be gone for more than two days, turn the heater off at the breaker. Left on, the water heater will work to keep all 50 or more gallons of water in the tank heated to 120 to 140 degrees, 24 hours a day.

Refrigerators and freezers draw electricity to keep your food cold and frozen in your absence. If you will be gone for a prolonged time, empty them out, shut them off at the breaker and prop open the doors to prevent mildew from growing inside.

Anything that uses clocks, memory, remote control, microprocessors and instant-on features—such as televisions and VCRs—consume small amounts of electricity even when turned “off.” Unplug those items before you leave.

Rather than leave lights on all day, use a timer.

Detecting Other Reasons for High Bills

Staying home and trying to figure out what is behind an increase in your electric bill? Consider these possible causes:

  • Did your bills go up dramatically at the beginning of summer or winter, when you regularly began running the air conditioning or electric heat? Perhaps temperatures are extreme. Your system also may need help. Change filters and check window caulking. If that doesn’t stabilize your bill, call your utility or a heating/air-conditioning professional for help with more complicated things, such as thermostat operation and compressor cycling.
  • A defective water heater thermostat can prevent the heating element from cutting off, causing continuous operation. In two-element heaters, failure of one element can cause the other to operate more.
  • Do you live in a rural area and have a well? The cushion of air above the water in the pressure tank can be lost, or waterlogged, causing the tank pressure to drop rapidly when the pump cycles off. When this occurs, the pump continuously cycles on and off, causing higher-than-normal electric usage.
  • Consider your living habits. Do you love gadgets? Most are powered by electricity. Perhaps you have a growing family, and you recently purchased a computer and a dishwasher. Do you love to cook? Do you and your family spend hours surfing the Internet? Did you have guests who stayed for weeks on end, and who left on the lights and did laundry? All of these activities add to your electricity usage.
  • Has anything changed in your household? Spring or fall cleaning, holiday activities, sickness or convalescence at home, and changes in the size of the family—for example, a new baby or a college student returning home—often result in increased electrical usage.
  • If you have moved into a new home, consider whether your new dwelling is larger than your former home, is in a location with more extreme temperatures or wind, has a larger water heater and/or heating equipment, is less well insulated, has fewer draperies or has manual heating controls.
  • Billing periods can vary from month to month. Note whether the month contained five weekends or a holiday—time when usage tends to be greater.
  • Other causes of bill variations are defective appliances, frost on a refrigerator unit, home repairs, lack of good appliance maintenance, defective house wiring, exposure of pipes and the water heater to cold air, and leaking hot water faucets.

What’s Up With My Electric Meter?

Often consumers faced with higher-than-usual bills wonder if their meter is wrong, if it was read improperly or if it has a short and is running fast.

While those things can happen, they are rare.

Your electric meter is a finely calibrated device that is almost always within the plus or minus 2 percent tolerance range. Meters are regularly tested to ensure accuracy.

High bills rarely are due to a faulty, fast-running meter. In fact, a meter tends to gradually slow with age, benefiting the consumer.

The most common cause of high bills is an increase in electrical usage.

When you are home, you use electricity for lighting, heating and cooling, cooking, cleaning, operating electronics and powering your computer. But the electricity is on even when you are gone, powering your water heater, refrigerator, pumps and all of those electronics that have a built-in clock and automatic “on” function. They are “phantom” power users, drawing a small amount of electricity whenever they are plugged in, regardless of whether they are turned on.

Do the Math

To better understand how you use electricity, read your meter at about the same time each day for one week. Note activities done one day, but not the next, and special circumstances, such as overnight guests. That will help you identify reasons for varying usage. Subtract the previous day’s reading from the current reading to see how many kilowatt-hours of electricity you use during a 24-hour period.