Take Your Average Utility Bill and Learn Where to Save Energy

by Don Ames,   www.detectenergy.com

Dollars and Cents

At the beginning of a home energy audit, I make it a habit to ask the homeowner if I can see their current utility bill. I can get a lot of valuable information about the energy use of a home by looking at the utility bill. The average utility bill will provide current energy use and indicate how that compares with the energy use for the previous year. With a little knowledge about energy use in comparable sized homes constructed about the same year, a judgement can be formed concerning how energy efficient the home is and how much energy waste might be going on.

Since I am aware of how much valuable information is on a utility bill, I am always amazed at the number of homeowners that cannot locate their current bill. They have either misplaced it or it has already been recycled with the trash. Reminds me of the student that tells the teacher, "The dog ate my homework." It is possible that the people simply do not want me to see the utility bill because they are behind on the payments. I understand, if I had a $300 utility bill every month and I was behind $500 bucks, I would not want some stranger nosing around my bill that was possibly going to make sour judgments.

The homeowner that impresses me is the one that say's, "Just a minute, I will pull it up on the computer." This is a person that has learned how to make technology work for them. Too bad I don't see the average utility bill on-line more often.  Technology can help people save energy too, so if you have your power bill on-line, there is a good chance you will welcome and understand energy saving technology like programmable thermostats, Blueline Energy Monitors, and phantom killing power strips.

What's on your average utility bill?

Electricity and natural gas, which comprise almost 90%

energy audit

of residential energy use, are distributed by central utilities that bill us for the monthly service. Utility bills contain a bucket load of information in addition to the amount you owe. Energy consumption, rate information, the time period, amount paid in service fees and local taxes, delivery fees, this months energy use, the previous 12 months usage, the average daily use, and other interesting information.

About 40% of  your homes energy use is for heating and cooling. This energy use is called seasonal energy consumption. Depending on the season and the outdoor temperature, seasonal energy use can vary widely from season to season and month to month. Many utility bills will show a high spike in energy use in the summer indicating the cooling load and a high spike in winter indicating the heating load.

To save energy, if the home becomes more energy efficient because of added insulation, air sealing, or high efficiency heating and cooling equipment, the seasonal base load will decrease and the spikes in energy use during the middle of summer and winter will not be as high.

The remaining energy that we use contains all the other energy users in the home and is called the baseload. Baseload consumption varies from season to season, but not nearly as much as seasonal energy use. Contributing to the baseload energy use are items like the refrigerator, lighting, big screen TV, and the washer and dryer. To lower baseline energy, more efficient appliances are needed and household energy behavior needs to be make some adjustments. Sorry to say, baseline energy is influenced by household behavior as much as anything. You can't teach a water heater to take a shorter shower, but you can educate Missy why a shorter shower reduces baseline energy costs.

The Foreign Language of Energy Units.

utility bill

Flour is measured in cups and weight loss is measured in pounds. We know about cups and pounds and have a basic knowledge of just how much vinegar is in 8 ounces. What most of us don't know is how a light bulb can use watts and how many watts are in a kilowatt hour. Nor do we know how a gas furnace can use something called British Thermal Units. I thought that's why we came across the ocean and wrote a great document in 1776. The whole red coat, blue coat thing was to get away from the British.

The nice part is, you and I don't really need to define kilowatt hour. What we do need to know is how to find the amount of kilowatt hours we used for a given time period on our power bill and then learn how to control that usage so we can pay less for energy. The same with the therms for natural gas. A therm is approximately equal to 100,000 Btus. One Btu is about the same amount of energy that is in one good wooden match. So, if you have a 70,000 Btu furnace, your furnace will provide the same amount of heat energy that is in 70,000 matches. Now, that is one heck of a birthday cake.

Here again, I'm not sure it matters if we understand what a therm is or not. If we have a gas water heater , furnace, range, and dryer, we'd better know where to find the therms on the gas bill. The more therms you use the more you pay and the more carbon you release to the atmosphere. The object then is to look at your gas bill and your seasonal and base load consumption and organize your energy saving efforts accordingly.

Utility bill

Time Period and Meter Reading.

The utility bill will have a starting and ending date of the billing period. There will be a meter reading from the beginning of the billing period and a reading at the end of the period. The difference in the two readings will be the amount of kilowatt hours or therms that were used during the period. Some bills will then provide the average usage and cost per day.

The time period information is important because it gives us a comparison between consecutive months and between the same month a year earlier. For most of us, the only place we have to look to see the success of our energy saving measures is our utility bill.

So here's my recommended process:

  • Instead of feeding your dog the utility bill, receive your bill electronically and save all of them for reference.
  • On each bill, look past the dollars and cents and recognize the units used for the time period and the average use per day.
  • Recognize the amount of energy that was base line usage and the amount that was seasonal usage.
  • Perform an energy audit of your home and establish a priority for energy saving measures including behavioral changes.
  • Complete one or more energy saving measures and check the next utility bill to see if you can recognize a reduction in energy usage.
  • Continue with additional energy saving measures.

Rates and Demand charges.

Whatever you do, do not turn the average utility bill over and check out the small print on the back.  At least on my bill, this is where all the taxes, fees, and line charges are listed. It is amazing how many different causes a portion of my payment gets to support.

utility bill

Whether on the back or somewhere on the front, some of us will have a rate code listed. The code will specify one price for the first block of kilowatt hours or therms and another price for the second and another price for the third block. Some power providers grant a reduction in the cost of power if you use more. Other power providers will increase the price for each additional unit which favors those that use less.

Even more important than the block pricing is the time of day pricing. Some power providers, in an attempt to encourage reduced energy usage during  peak times of the day, will charge us more for the energy used during the time of day when people need to use the most power. During the time we are getting ready for work and in the evening are the times when we pay the most.

This time-of-day pricing is very important information that is found on the average utility bill. If we concentrate our energy saving behavorial efforts on the time when power costs the most, we can realize additional cost savings.

Energy saving starts with the average utility bill.

Energy savings doesn't start with a new refrigerator or closing off the register in the unused bedroom. Energy saving starts with getting to know and understand your utility bill. Once every month, you get this reminder of why you need to save energy and how you might go about it. Every month you get this piece of paper, or electronic file, that gives you a pep talk that will help you focus your energy saving efforts.

It's OK if you want to keep your utility bill hidden from a stranger, but let's face it, the dog is full of homework and probably doesn't have room for more.

Thanks for stopping by Detect Energy, hope to see you soon, but I won't leave the light on for you...

More from Don Ames and Detect Energy at www.detectenergy.com, sign up for my free eNewsletter, the Energy Spy Insider.

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Tags: bill, company, energy, kilowatts, power, save, therms

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Comment by Don Ames on January 15, 2012 at 9:44am

Bob,  Glad to hear you are getting a real benefit from the data provided by the Smart Meter. My fear is that many people will have access to real time energy usage and not take advantage of the energy saving opportunities. An interesting study would be to document which households can benefit the most from real time usage data. I would think there would be two types of households that could benefit the most. Those that have high energy usage and those that are located in an extreme climate, whether it be extremely warm or cold.  Don

Comment by Bob Blanchette on January 15, 2012 at 5:10am

Yes it has help a LOT with power reduction. We have time of use rates in summer and can immediately see what works to reduce power use and what doesn't. The majority of Oklahoma City has smart meters installed, not sure how widespread they are on a national basis. I don't think the average consumer cares/has a clue about energy conservation unless they get some high utility bills. I tend to go the other direction, making improvements that probably have too long of a payback period. As a family of 4 there are a lot of compromises to be made between "living frugal" and not driving my wife to nutty :)  I suspect the hotter southern climates that use the most electricity have the most to gain by going to smart meters.

Comment by Don Ames on January 14, 2012 at 9:46pm

Bob, I was wondering how many households have the opportunity to see real time energy usage as a result of the new Smart Meter technology. Glad to hear that you do. So, does the additional usage information help you control  your power consumption? Are you able to lower your power bill?  Don Ames

Comment by Bob Blanchette on January 14, 2012 at 8:47pm

Our electric utility allows you to pull real useage data online. 15 minute blocks for the past 2 years or so (when they installed the smart meter). you can see hour by hour how much power is being used, very cool.

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