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An Electrical Engineering Geek's Advice on Reducing your Energy Bill
April, 2006 - Issue #18
"Trevor - turn off the darn lights!"

If we had a nickel for every time we've barked that at our kids, well... it'd be a lot of nickels. Truth is that we should be more concerned about the fridge door left open for the trip to the cupboard to pour a glass of milk and really concerned when we inch the thermostat down to 70 degrees. Electricity has been a hot topic lately and we should all be very concerned about saving it, not just for the immediate satisfaction in our wallet but to prevent a crisis in the future. Remember the '70s and those lines at the gas station? How about mandatory black outs?

Most of us look at one thing when the monthly electric bill comes: Amount due. Why? While that's simple, the rest is Greek. The Electrical Engineering degree on my wall gives me geek-status enough to understand the other terms on the bill like kilowatt-hours, baseline and demand. Keep reading; I promise that's the last time I flash my geek card.

We can't see electricity so it's natural to overlook what we are spending money each time we turn on a light. Is that a pun or a conundrum? Anyway, kilowatt-hours or kWh measures electricity. Think of it like a "gallon of electricity." Unfortunately, selling electricity is not as simple for our utilities as selling a gallon of gasoline is for the corner station. There is a tremendous amount of money spent on producing and transporting the electricity to our homes and businesses and unfortunately those of us who use more will pay more for that same "gallon" of electricity. For example, Edison basically says that you can use five gallons of electricity this month for $10 (that's your baseline), but the next five gallons are going to cost you $13 and the five gallons after that are going to cost you $17.

Last month our bill was $172 and we used 948 kWh (or gallons of electricity). Overall we paid about 18 cents for every kWh. Based on those numbers, it costs me:

  • 73 cents every hour I run my air conditioner
  • 30 cents for every load of laundry (washed and dried - not including the cost of gas - that's a whole other article)
  • 12 cents for every load of dishes in the dishwasher
  • 10 cents an hour for the decorative lighting in my front yard (that's $12 a month for four hours a night)
  • The refrigerator plays a large role also; count on around $200 a year
  • I pay about a penny each hour for a 60-watt light bulb
We can do some very simple things to save money each month:

Keeping the thermostat at a reasonable level will by far have the largest impact. I won't presume to tell you what is a comfortable temperature for you but if you're setting it at 70 degrees in the summer, I know of a gas station where you can fill up for $3.75 a gallon. Run those ceiling fans and install an attic fan, or better yet, a whole house fan. Open windows to let the cool morning air in and close the blinds to keep the afternoon sun out. Keep the fridge and freezer full of food; it runs less often when keeping food cold than it does when chilling air, and of course, close the door! Remember, only run full loads of laundry and fill the dishwasher before running. Make sure the outdoor decorative lighting isn't running all night (that alone will fund your Starbucks habit). All those pennies for light add up - turn off the lights when you leave the room.

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John Ahrens is a Valencia resident and energy consultant for Matzinger-Keagan, Inc.
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