Does grandma need an electric submeter?
February 22, 2009 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Help my grandma lower her utility bill by installing a submeter for the downstairs tenants.

My 77-year-old grandmother unplugs her appliances to eliminate ghost loads, doesn't keep bulbs in all the lights, and keeps the heat at 68. But she keeps getting ever-increasing electricity bills. This month her bill was $540. Meanwhile, her friend lives in the same townhouse complex, across the parking lot, in a bigger house, with her husband, and they keep the heat high, leave all the lights on, and run a full-fledged office out of the basement (5 computers, which she never turns off). Her bill for the same time period? $360. It's like this every month, with my grandma's bill around 1/3 higher, with no obvious reason why.

The only explanation that I can think of is that Grandma has a couple living in the basement apartment. They do have a range top and refrigerator, a tv and computer, bathroom with heat lamp, but that's it. No space heater, so they say, and it appears from her occasional impromptu visits downstairs that this is true.

Grandma's in the suburbs of DC, and electricity is running about a dime a KWH. She had her heating system checked out and the tech said it was fine. I bought her a Kill-a-Watt last year and she goes around testing everything trying to figure out what is wrong. I am trying to convince her to get a submeter for the tenants downstairs. Maybe its NOT them, but I feel the more variables you remove, the more progress you are making.

So, here are my questions. I see that submeters run around $250 online, but how much is it on top of that to get one installed? Also, given the facts as I've described them, is there any other course of action you would recommend? These bills are really hurting her.

Thanks, Mefites.
posted by letahl to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Does she (and do her neighbors) both have electric heating systems? Assuming so, what are her electric bills like in the late spring / early fall, without either heating or AC running at all?

For reference, in a small house with gas heat and water heater but electric everything else (oven, clothes dryer, mostly incandescent lighting, computer, etc.) , my wife and I only pay about $50-$60/month and my rate per kWh is about the same as your grandmother's. I don't think that the electricity used by the couple in the basement is likely to be the source of your troubles.
posted by jon1270 at 5:03 PM on February 22, 2009

Best answer: How well insulated is her house? I'd look into heating and air conditioning costs. Even if the heat is low, if that little heat is leaking it will eat up a lot of power.

My parents just got a new smartmeter (installed free by the hydro company). They can go online and look at how much electricity they're using each day at different times of day. I was going through the reports with them online and you could absolutely tell what was causing the spikes: Dinner-cooking=spike, washing clothes =spike. Most interestingly, there was one day when it was high all day long. Checking into it, it was a day when it was particularly cold outside. And they have good insulation and windows.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:04 PM on February 22, 2009

Best answer: Call the energy company and ask that they do an energy audit. Most energy companies will do these for free or a very modest cost, especially for seniors. They'll make recommendations about insulation (especially around sockets and doors), weatherproofing, replacing old and inefficient appliances (which will often qualify the customer for a rebate), and passive solar heating.

Also if there something really off, they'll see it. If someone is tapping into her line (in townhouses, not terribly uncommon) or the sweet couple downstairs is running growlights, the energy company will see that the consumption is out of whack.
posted by 26.2 at 5:18 PM on February 22, 2009

Response by poster: Her electric bill ranges over 2008 from 118 to 445. In 2007, 110 to 366. In 2006, 80 to 225. In 2005, 79 to 280. In 2004, 66 to 217. Lowest month tends to be April or September (no AC or heat).

Having said all that, I don't think the charge per KWH has gone up all that much.

The reason that I thought it might be the tenants was because when she had my cousin living in the basement the bills weren't bad.
posted by letahl at 5:29 PM on February 22, 2009

Best answer: The cost of having the submeter installed could be quite substantial.

If the home was built as a single family dwelling and later converted to multi-family, it is quite likely that there are shared circuits in use.

Metering the basement could require a completely new circuit panel for the basement and wiring modification to ensure that all of the circuits were run separately. I would ballpark that this would cost around $1500 minimum if perfect wiring conditions exist, all the way up to around $5000 if the wiring is shared and has to be rerouted.

Is the hot water heated electrically? She would have to have another tank installed for the basement apartment in order to get this off of her bill as well. This goes for any major electrical appliances - who would pay for the central air if any? Is the furnace electric?

Back to the hot water heater - if it is electric, is it set quite high? It is possible the tenants adjusted it if the like taking nice long hot showers.
posted by davey_darling at 5:38 PM on February 22, 2009

Are they growing anything that requires a lot of light? There is something going on with the downstairs apartment that is using all that electricity.
posted by JayRwv at 7:32 PM on February 22, 2009

One more thing to think about: the electric company charges per kWh vary (at least where I live), starting low and increasing as more kWh are used. So accurate charges are hard to calculate for a sub-meter. On the other hand, a sub-meter gives both the owner and the tenant insight into managing their use of power.
posted by anadem at 8:10 PM on February 22, 2009

If the cost of installing a submeter is too high another option would be to split the utilities the next time the lease is up. When people aren't (directly) paying for utilities they don't have much incentive to be conservative in their usage.
posted by 6550 at 8:41 AM on February 23, 2009

« Older Where's this Late Night music from?   |   Looking for ideas for a presentation on Web 2.0... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.