Need advice to best approach ridiculous electric bill.
February 21, 2011 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Ridiculous electricity bills: what is our best next step?

My boyfriend and I live in a one bedroom apartment (probably c. 500 sq ft) in Boston. We are one of two top floor units in a 5 unit building, which is a old brownstone probably built before 1900 (and probably not upgraded much since then either). We haven't added any new electronics, and have in fact connected our computer and tv systems to those power plugs which you can turn on and off (eg so no real "vampire" appliances).

We have regularly experienced spikes in our electricity bills in mid-winter and mid-summer due to heating and air conditioning (both of which are electric). And by "spikes" I mean 1,500-1,750 kwh, or c. $300/mo vs non-heating/cooling season usage of <500 kwhs or <$100.

This month we got a bill for 2,700 kwhs, or $406. It has been cold in Boston, fine, but I find it completely unacceptable that we are paying about $1/sq ft to heat this apartment to 64 during the day/ 60 at night, when all out our windows have also been winterized. This now means that our apartment is essentially costing us 25% more over rent because of electric.

Am I right to be outraged? Has anyone else ever experienced electric or heating bills like this for such a small space? What I want to do is a) call the electric company and schedule a free "energy audit" so that I can have proof that the cause of these bills is the ancient HVAC system the building uses and then b) somehow get our realty company to reduce our rent during months like this or replace this godawful system sometime soon.

We are good tenants - always pay rent on time, rarely contact them about apartment issues, have been living here for c. 20 months. Regardless of their reaction, we are going to move this summer, because I can't take these ridiculous bills anymore - we could live in a luxury building with electric included for these costs. They don't know we are leaving, and we don't have to tell them until June (our lease is up at the end of August).

I know they don't technically have to do anything, but I'm trying to figure out what the best way to present this to be the most persuasive is. Do I need their permission to get the electric company to do the energy audit? Should I call the realty company before the electric company? Should I try to get my neighbors to tell me about their energy bills to see if it is a building problem or specific to our apartment?

Thanks for any help you can provide. I hope I explained all this clearly - I'm almost to angry to think. Tried to call them today but both offices are closed for the holiday so I get a day to cool off and figure out the best plan of attack.
posted by CharlieSue to Work & Money (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sadly, when I lived in a rental that was an energy hog (very poorly insulated) in fact, such an energy hog that my rental turned into a hot-box every summer and my air-conditioner regularly died (in CA!), the management told me, essentially, "You pay the bills, therefore it's no skin off our noses. Tough luck. We won't do a thing." And they didn't have to, because "habitability" covers heat and air conditioning, not whether these are efficient.

I too was a good tenant, paid the rent on time every month and so on. This was a large, corporate rental company, so for all I know their hands were tied by decrees from on high. But they didn't give an inch despite my being persuasive (I'm a good, stable tenant; installing more insulation and double-paned windows is good for the environment; etc.) It was homemade makeshifts ("ghetto wrap" and so on) or move. And this being the SF Bay Area, tenants are easy enough to come by that most landlords don't have to go to much trouble to get or keep them - for every dissatisfied tenant, there are five who are pathetically grateful just to HAVE a place with an actual dishwasher where repairs get done before a month has gone by.

You might have much better luck in a place like Boston, which has four seasons, one of which involves snow and cold, and thus habitability can be brought into stronger play. Use the habitability card, the good-for-the-environment card, and the we-are-good-stable-tenants card. Emphasize how a little retrofitting now will pay off way down the line (keeping good tenants happy and thus a monthly flow of cash to their coffers). Tell them "we could live in a luxury building with these costs" and back it up with hard evidence.

Especially if they are a small landlord and really want that monthly rent check from you and don't want to go to the hassle and lost income of finding another tenant, and they are not hamstrung by corporate policies, pushing the "it's good for your bottom line" and "it's good for the environment" cards might get you somewhere. Good luck!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2011

I don't understand why you think your apartment management company has anything to do with the rate your electric company charges for your electricity.

I mean, sure, maybe their electrical systems are outdated. Maybe there is a more efficient way of heating the place. But it's not your management company's concern that you feel you are being assessed an unfair price. Their obligation is to provide you with a habitable place, not an efficiently heated place.

Boston is an old city with a lot of old housing stock, which means that its buildings are often inefficiently heated as compared to newer buildings in other cities. Consider this a cost of living in Boston.
posted by dfriedman at 7:41 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

You shouldn't be "outraged". That's a waste of energy no pun intended. You should call the electric company and tell them you think the bill is high. Ask what they can to to find out if you are being charged for common areas or if someone is "stealing" your electricity.
posted by andreap at 7:49 AM on February 21, 2011

I used to live in a very cold apartment and our bill for the electric heater was insane in winter. My husband went out and watch the meter spinning wildly. He came back in to the cold apartment and turned that thing off. We stopped using the heater and got a little oil- filled space heater. That kept the tiny apartment warmer than the central heat for way less money.
posted by artychoke at 7:50 AM on February 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

Go ahead and do the energy audit, it can't hurt. However, I would estimate your chances of getting your rent reduced to be approximately 0. The best you could hope for is that if they had been on the fence about replacing the HVAC they might go ahead and do it, but that probably wouldn't help you if you're moving out.

For what it's worth my gas+electric is about 20% of my rent in the winter
posted by ghharr at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: Your electric company may be able to tell you how your usage compares with the previous tenant's usage. If you are using dramatically more than it is worth investigating the possibility of shenanigans but my guess is that your apartment is just poorly insulated. The landlord knows this and they have priced the apartment to the point where tenants are willing to accept that, at least for 20 months.

You have very little leverage in this situation, your best bet is to just check the energy records for every apartment you consider moving in to and budget accordingly.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:58 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: $300+/month isn't uncommon for electric heating in Boston. I know a couple that, also in a one bedroom, would have electric bills in the $500 range for December-February, even when they weren't keeping the temperature high. But, yeah, it isn't unheard of.

The best things you can do in the future is:
- Whenever you're looking at apartments, always ask what the utility bills are like. The previous tenant or landlord may not always know, but always ask.
- Boston has a lot of old buildings with steam radiators, that not only heat incredibly efficiently, but heat is usually included in rent. This is something to seriously consider if you plan to stay in Boston. Radiators can get a little clangy sometimes, but it pays to have rent-included heat when it's so cold for more than half the year. In my one bedroom, old 1920's building, my electric bills range from $16-21/month (granted, I don't have a dishwasher or use air conditioners in the summer)
- Go ahead and give the electric company a call for an audit, but I'm not sure what it'll do.
posted by raztaj at 8:01 AM on February 21, 2011

Get copies of your bills, and then go take a look at your meter yourself. Check to see if the current reading is based on actual or estimated use. What can happen is that the power company will bill several months based on estimated usage, then when they actually read the meter, they'll adjust your bill to compensate.
posted by evoque at 8:12 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Happens a lot up here in Canada, and we act accordingly by taking steps to keep our places thermally tight - thermal plastic over the windows, caulking up floorboards/mouldings where air is coming in, etc. If there are any big heat loss areas that can't be handled within the apartment, there's a conversation with the landlord, but realistically we just take as many precautions as we can ourselves. It's our job to work to minimize our heating bills and if we don't put in the work, we suck it up and pay the extra 'cause it's our own fault for not taking the time.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:15 AM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: Okay. I'm getting the sense I was, in fact, overreacting. Which makes me happy I posted this before calling the realty company/ electric company in a controlled rage.

This is the first apartment I've ever been required to pay utilities on, so the advice about finding out those details ahead of time will definitely be followed in the future (and obviously not something that occurred to me at all two years ago).

I think I was just talking to the wrong friends about this - everyone I have talked to about this in Boston has been blown away at how high my bill is - they all claim to pay no more than $50-$100 a month which is I think what got me all riled up. But then again, none of them live in 100 year old brownstones.

Thanks for calming me down a bit everyone! I'll take your advice to heart. I'm going to try to give them a call anyway (we had some issues with the AC this summer, and they claimed that they would be replacing the system soon, so I'll used this as a gentle push to try to get that to happen sooner).

PS evoque - these are actual readings - they come and do them every month, probably because the ground floor of the building is a restaurant so they want to be sure to charge them correctly since I'm sure their usage is huge.
posted by CharlieSue at 8:22 AM on February 21, 2011

That came out a bit harsher than I meant. The point I was trying to make is that you should take this as a lesson-painfully-learned and winterproof your place in future - I think every Canadian has a first horrendous electrical bill that spurs all future winterproofing.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:23 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you aware that MA is part of that Cap-N-Trade nonsense? It is hidden in your electric bill. The same with 9 other Northeastern states. Maybe that is part of it.
posted by JayRwv at 8:30 AM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: @ L'Estrange Fruit - point well taken. We made our best efforts - winterizing the windows, buying those door sand bag things to keep the breeze out from the hallway, etc - but I think it's just the lack of insulation in the building in general that is causing the biggest issues - for example, if we keep their doors closed we can use our closets, which are part of an exterior wall, to keep beers cold for parties.
posted by CharlieSue at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2011

If you have access, you could probably upgrade the attic insulation with fiberglass for $100 or so.
posted by idb at 8:53 AM on February 21, 2011

Are you absolutely sure that all that energy use really is yours? It is not terribly uncommon for wiring and metering to be screwed up in old buildings, and it never gets fixed until someone figures out that they are paying for their neighbor's electric. Be sure to have the person who comes out check that only the things in your house are going to your meter; you will probably have to flip the circuit breaker(s) if you have them and then confirm that the meter stops moving.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:57 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, power bills across the country are on the rise. I'm paying over 50% more than I was this time last year. Oil has gone up about $30 a barrel since last summer. Power is just more expensive these days. It's certainly worth looking into some of the other advice here, but the biggest part of the increase is probably just rising commodity prices.
posted by valkyryn at 9:30 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: (Writing in Rhode Island, raised in Minnesota.)

The only thing more expensive than electric heat is a pile of blazing twenties on your hearth.

Our gas bill last month blew my mind -- but it also noted the number of degree days as 1163, which is calculated by counting the number of degrees below 60 (64? whatever) of each day's average temperature, and then adding that up over the month. It's like wind chill for your wallet. Anyway, we were getting an energy audit on our 25-year old house the day after the bill came so I discussed it with the engineer. He whistled in sympathy, but then he asked the number of degree days at the same time I started to say it -- and we both knew in our hearts, baby, it's cold outside.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:34 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ah, then you are sadly stuck in a porous apartment, and now you know why the utilities are in your name. I sympathize: the wall behind my desk might as well be a piece of cardboard.
Things that can help a little:
- caulking around the bases of the walls (I had a full-on wind tunnel blowing up my back)
- hanging stuff on the walls, like the castle folks did with tapestries in Ye Olde Dayyes
- piling stuff up against the walls, same principle as above. You have boxes of stored stuff sitting around? Pile them against the windiest wall.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:41 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: Top floor in an old building with electric heat is kind of a worst-case scenario, so it's no wonder that your bills are higher than your friends'. It's likely that you have little insulation between your ceiling and the snow sitting on the roof. Units below you have to tolerate the noise of your footsteps, but your heated apartment is their insulation. Leaky, single pane windows, if that's what you have, are an additional insult. Electric heat is inherently expensive, whether the system is new or old.

If you can find a better apartment for less money, you should probably do that.
posted by jon1270 at 9:45 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: I (Canadian) passed up loads of otherwise nice apartments back in the day because: yikes, electric heat! I mean, you'd go in for a showing, see the tell-tale baseboard heaters, thank them for their time and take off, because unless the rent was crazy-cheap nobody in their right mind rents a place with electric heat here, etc.

I would be surprised if your rent was not at least slightly lower than comparable units with gas heating. Possibly not as much as it looks like it should be right now given the warmer months of the year, but, slightly?
posted by kmennie at 10:02 AM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Compare your electric bill to what a gas or oil bill would be for that area. It's going to be more per btu, but not outrageously more. I live in a 12 unit, mostly uninsulated condo building, and the gas bill for the heating season can reach $2000 on the coldest month. (For the whole building.)

Just for curiosity- how much are you paying per kwh? $100 seems awfully high for a bill in non-heating, non-cooling season. That's (guessing 15 cents / kwh) 1000 watts every second of every day of every month. That's a TV and 8 100 watt lightbulbs running 24/7. A 5150 btu air conditioner only uses 530 watts.

You might do your own energy audit. Turn everything off, check the meter. It shouldn't be spinning. If it is, figure what else you are paying for. Then, turn things back on and see how they affect the spinning rate. In particular, check the refrigerator.
posted by gjc at 10:08 AM on February 21, 2011

Seconding those above that are suggesting that you might be paying for hydro usage that isn't yours.

Your first step should be to completely disconnect (unplug) every single electric appliance and turn down all heaters. Don't turn off breakers because you might turn off a potentially "shared" breaker thus hiding any devices that aren't yours.

Now check your electric meter - if it is still moving, then you are paying for usage that you shouldn't be.

Perhaps try this at a few different time periods (i.e during the day when the restaurant is in full swing, then again in the evening.

If you find that the meter still moves when your stuff is shut off you have definite ammo to take to your landlord/utility company.

Please report back with your findings!
posted by davey_darling at 10:34 AM on February 21, 2011

Oh - and you can also confirm that you are getting billed for the correct meter - you should be able to match up a number from your bill to the meter. If I'm reading correctly there will be six different meters on your building - perhaps you are inadvertantly getting billed for the wrong one?
posted by davey_darling at 10:36 AM on February 21, 2011

2nding what jon1270 said about top floor apartments in old buildings. You freeze in winter and bake in summer. By not being sandwiched between other conditioned spaces the heat loss is mainly yours in winter and you’ve got the oven in summer.

Not sure I would invest much in insulating this late in the heating season. If your windows are so loose they rattle then maybe some cheap weatherstrip but I wouldn’t go too crazy. Especially if you can use you closets as coolers.

Electric heat though efficient is almost always the most expensive way to heat. But if it’s any consolation everyone no matter how they heat is paying more this year.

When you look for a new place make sure it's one where you need to keep the beer in the fridge.
posted by PaulBGoode at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2011

See if your electric company will average your bills and charge you the same each month. That means you will pay more in your low-use months and less in your high-use months. I did this when I lived in NYC. The A/C would cost a fortune for a few months, but the rest of the year the electric bill was very low. So Con Ed averaged my bill over 12 months and charged me the same each month. They would monitor use and adjust the bill as necessary, but it was never outlandishly high. It was never really a landlord issue. I think if you had broken windows or a hole in an exterior wall it would be a landlord issue.

Where I live now I have NO A/C and NO heat. I do not use an oven or stove. Only major electrical devices are refrigerator and hot water heater. My electricity bill each month is about $200. People who run A/C get bills for about $800. oy!
posted by fifilaru at 1:55 PM on February 21, 2011

2,700 kWh/month ÷ 30 days/month ÷ 24 h/day = 3.75 kW.

A standard fan heater will dissipate something of the order of 2 kW. So if you turn off the central heating, and run a couple of fan heaters inside instead, you'll be using electricity at about the same rate; and if the fan heaters don't get the room warmer than the central heating did, you can be quite sure that the problem is down to crappy or missing ceiling insulation.

If that's the case, your cheapest fix is going to be using radiant heaters to warm you instead of air heaters to warm the air around you. Typical radiators dissipate around 600W. Get one each, and amuse yourselves by (a) feeling nice and warm even as your breath condenses into fog and (b) listening for the howls of outrage from the apartment below you when their electricity bill arrives.
posted by flabdablet at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2011

By the way, the above fan-heater comparison assumes that the central air is directly heated by an electric element just as it would be in the fan heater. If the central air is heated by a heat pump (reverse-cycle air conditioner) that's working properly, it should normally be good for at least twice the heating per kW that a fan heater would give you.

If you do have a central heat pump but it's working no better than a fan heater, then you'll probably find that the cold (heat-gathering) side is simply not capable of getting colder than your ridiculously cold outside air (iced up, perhaps) and that most of the heat being delivered to your apartment is in fact coming from a glorified fan heater in the shape of a booster element.
posted by flabdablet at 10:17 PM on February 21, 2011

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