Why is our power bill so high?
January 10, 2013 7:11 PM   Subscribe

We've been in our new house about 3 months, and our power bills feel a lot higher than they should be, based on our perceived usage. Looking for ways to track down errant usage.

My wife and I purchased a 3BR, 1BA, 1700sf 2-story house in the suburbs of Philly in September. Since then, our average monthly power bill has been around $300, which seems about 30% higher than what we'd expect to pay for this place (we'd figured we'd be in the $210-$240 range).

* gas heat
* gas dryer
* gas oven/stove
* we're pretty conscientious about turning off lights, etc., when not in the room
* we both WFH, but keep the thermostat set at 68 during the day

One other things of note - apparently, one of the previous owners was a HUGE fan of dimmer switches, and 5 rooms (kitchen, front hall, bathroom, bonus room, and upstairs hall) are on dimmers. Do dimmer switches draw more/less/the same power as their regular switch counterparts?

So... how can we go about tracking down things that might be using more energy than we expect? While we could pretty easily move some things (TV, PS3, the like) to a powerstrip that gets turned off when not in use, that would only make sense to do if those things are drawing a lot more power than expected when in standby mode.

I'm not necessarily looking for advice on actually cutting power usage; more like figuring out what's causing the usage we have. It would also be good to know if this is just in our minds and that our power bill is actually pretty much as expected.
posted by hanov3r to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Get a kill-a-watt meter.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:16 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is it the same each month? I live in Philly and my bill... quintupled what it was in September because of heat (i.e., keeping my apartment the same relative heat compared to the outside heat). It was low in September/October, and increased every month since.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:21 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's been close to the same every month. The variance across the three months we've seen so far is about $20.
posted by hanov3r at 7:23 PM on January 10, 2013

What size house did you move from?

How old is the roof?

Is your house freestanding or a row house? Was your old house freestanding, or did it share walls?

My power company offers a free energy audit that tells you what systems/appliances are using how much of your energy. Call and find out if you qualify for that.

Often the culprit is an old refrigerator. Fridges are energy hogs. How old is the fridge?
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on January 10, 2013

Could it be related to time? Where I live, you are charged a different rate based on the time of day and the season: there's Off-Peak (7 am to7 pm); Mid-Peak (time varies depending on the season, generally during mid-day) and Off-Peak (weekends and 7 pm to 7 am). Our bill is broken down by these times, so we know exactly what time the power was used, and the cost.
Using your dishwasher/washing machine ect. during off-peak hours signifcantly reduces your bill.
So..check your bill or call your power provider to see if they have a similar type of billing system.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 7:27 PM on January 10, 2013

I assume by "power" you mean "electricity"?

All those dimmers probably connect to incandescent lights (i.e., old-fashioned light bulbs). A typical dining room chandelier uses 6, 60 watt bulbs. A modern LED or compact fluorescent fixture would draw about 50 watts total.
posted by mr vino at 7:27 PM on January 10, 2013

Do dimmer switches draw more/less/the same power as their regular switch counterparts?

Eh. I've got a couple at my place, one of which is a little warm to the touch when running. I know it's not pulling 100 W (turning 100 W into waste heat), since then the faceplate would burn me.

I second the suggestion to use a kill-a-watt meter, from your local library. Along with a spreadsheet to total stuff up.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:31 PM on January 10, 2013

Something seems a little out of sorts to me, but...

There's probably a big something running away with power---maybe a water heater, I'm assuming you've got gas heat. Could be the furnace fan, could be a heat pump too. Could be an old appliance. Dehumidifier maybe? Anything with a compressor? Fridge turned too low? Sitting in the sunshine? Fan gummed up?

And yes, those electronics draw a surprising amount of power. You said you both WFH, big monitors, full sized desktops? That adds up fast. Big flat tv? Ps3? Stereo? We actually picked up a big power strip that has a little remote control to turn off everything, and that has made a surprising dent in our power usage.

But yes---the kill-a-watt used judiciously will help you figure out WHAT is drawing too much power.
posted by TomMelee at 7:31 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: Your first few bills are often estimated, and are usually padded to some ridiculous consumption level. After six months to a year, the actual readings come in, and you slowly drawn down what you've overpaid. The utility gets a nice little benefit of a few $00 gaining interest as a deposit, too.

If you want to watch your electricity use, get a Power Monitor. Unlike a Kill-a-Watt, it monitors the whole house.
posted by scruss at 7:33 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: We moved from an apartment, about 1050sf, with a high vaulted ceiling/loft. Our current bill is almost, but not quite, twice what the old bill was. The current house is freestanding, and shares no walls with other houses.

The roof is, IIRC, less than 10 years old. The snow we had the weekend after Christmas seemed to indicate little-to-no heat loss through the roof - nice, solid snow cover with no melting.

Based on the fact that the printed material that the previous owners provided for the fridge indicate a copyright date of 2008, I'll say the fridge is no more than 5 years old.
posted by hanov3r at 7:38 PM on January 10, 2013

So is your bill bigger than 160% of your former house bill?
posted by Miko at 7:39 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Current WFH setup for both the wife and I is a MacBook Pro and an external monitor. And my monitor's an Apple 27" Thunderbolt display, so that may be a partial culprit.

The combined suggestions of a Kill-a-Watt monitor and the B&D Power Monitor are exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Thanks, guys.
posted by hanov3r at 7:40 PM on January 10, 2013

Are you including the cost of gas with this bill or is it strictly electricity?

Do you have an older model chest freezer plugged in? What about power tools or electric heaters?
posted by saradarlin at 7:41 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: Did you ask the electric company for the high/low rates for the time before you lived there? Frequently you can get this data, or even a year's worth of bills, when you move into a new place. That could tell you whether it was going on for the previous owner or if it's something about your usage.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:43 PM on January 10, 2013

I got a Nest thermometer a few months back, which keeps track of our energy usage as we dial it up at home and dial it down when away. We pay a gas bill for heating and water every two months, and our August-September usage was higher than our October-November usage(!). It's nice to be able to open up the app and track when we're frugal and when we're enjoying a bit of warmth. Other newer thermometers may start doing the same thing soon. Definitely worth getting a smart thermometer, especially given the mercurial rates of PGW. Another tip that might help when tracking statistics is to get a window sheetwrap kit, where you tape clear plastic around leaky windowsills, but to do it a month after you get your last PGW bill, so that you can measure the impact.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:44 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: Lots of good ideas above, but here are a few additional ones:

- check whether your initial bills are estimates or actual readings - as scruss said, some utilities pad early bills
- you may be able to borrow a Kill-a-Watt from your local library or electric company, if not, there may be another local organization you can borrow one from
- do your own readings from your power meter while unplugging different devices to get a rough idea of consumption
- if you want a more sophisticated monitoring setup, look at something like the Brultech ECM-1240 (if you're willing to do some work to integrate it yourself), or TED-5000 if you want something more plug-and-play
posted by dttocs at 7:47 PM on January 10, 2013

I can't answer your question, but I wanted to sound a note of caution re: your suggestion to put the TV, etc on a power strip. Many televisions have an internal fan which needs to continue running for a while after the TV is turned off. If you completely shut the power off then the fan won't work, and this can have bad consequences. I don't know exactly what broke on my TV, but I do know that it cost $500 to fix it. That was about 5 years ago.
posted by number9dream at 7:50 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: Did you ask the electric company for the high/low rates for the time before you lived there?

This was how I learned that my tenants were likely running a grow op at my house. Having an idea of what your neighbors are paying and/or what the people in the house before you were paying is a big deal.

Other things like checking for drafts (esp relative to where your thermostat is) and making sure you're cranking the heat down at night (I assume electric blowers or pumps, might be worth checking). Do you have a basement with a dehumidifier or some sort of regularly cycling pump? I've been battling random electric drains at my dad's place and there are a bunch of wacky things that he put in as conveniences (warm water that goes into the toilet bowls so that water doesn't condense on the outside of them, regularly cycling AC/dehumidifier in the basement, big warm light bulbs in a lot of the fixtures) that I never would have even suspected were in the place, much less were actively sucking power. Check to see how your hot water circulator is configured. You should be able to check your fridge's energy rating online to see how it's rated, same with your washer/dryer.

Also make sure you're turning off your WFH setup when you're done working. Turn off TVs and big monitors at the wall, not just with the on/off switch (checking to make sure there's no weird fans that need to run). Good luck. With a kill-a-watt and some focused attention you should be able to figure this out.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. You folks are awesome! Thanks for all the tips - the wife and I now have a place to start.
posted by hanov3r at 7:57 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: TVs, set top boxes, and game consoles for high standby power (unplug when not in use); hair dryers, coffee makers/kettles, toasters/toaster ovens for high active power (use less of these). The kill-a-watt gets you this far. This stuff will be maybe 5% to 20% of your electricity bill.

Dominant electricity loads though are usually heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, large appliances (dryers, washers, dishwashers, oven/stove). If you have gas heat/dryer/stove that points to water heating as a possible big consumer.

It does take way way more energy to heat a house than it does an apartment. Shared walls make a big difference. But if you have gas heat, that should affect your gas bill more than your power bill.

Lighting-wise - if the dimmer switches are the old variable-resistor type then they will draw full power at any brightness, unless the light is switched off. Newer dimmer switches will make the light flicker at high speeds which will actually save you power. If you have a lot of lights that are incandescent rather than compact fluorescent then this usage could possibly add up.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:16 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

That doesn't actually sound surprising to me. Our power bills more than doubled when we moved from a 2br apartment to a 3br free-standing house, and our house is well insulated and very energy efficient.

Kill-a-watts are good - I used one when I first freaked out about our new power bills - but they won't help with the gas appliances. I'm guessing your heating is most of the cost. I'm in Australia, so our pricing for gas and electricity is different, but we cannot afford to keep the house heated at 20 C (68 F) with the central gas heating. We keep it at 16 C (61 F) during the day and set to come on only if the temp drops below 7 C (45F) when we are out or sleeping. We almost never had to use heating in the apartments we had lived in before: having neighbours on all sides keeps you very toasty.

Finally, our power company has a range of pricing schemes, and they automatically put us on the one that would cost us the most when we first moved in. It was their super green eco pricing that adds 30% to your bill in order to buy carbon offsets or something, and also has no difference between night and day use. It took us a couple of months to figure out that they had done that, and then when we changed to the more standard options it made a huge difference.
posted by lollusc at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2013

I work for an electric company, but not yours, and unfortunately, I don't know anything about measuring home usage. I did, however, take a look at the rate tariff for your utility company. I also live in a 1700sf house, and my bills are very high (we have a lot of nerd stuff). But money isn't really the best way to determine if something is wonky, it's better to look at the daily/monthly usage (kwh). I spend a large portion of my day at work reading Metafilter analyzing the consumption of electric customers and deciding whether or not that consumption seems too low or too high. A few things:

- Your electric company (PECO) does not have a time of use rate as an option- it only has a straight residential rate. Your rate is the same regardless of the time of day. But you should make sure that you are on a residential rate (not the residential heating rate or a commercial/industrial rate). Not to confuse you, but, due to deregulation in certain places, you can save money on the supply side of your bill so check out alternate suppliers.
- If measuring your home usage is not providing you the answers you need, then you should call and ask for a meter test. Fortunately for customers, 99.9% of electric meters that fail do so by slowing down or stopping completely (losing usage). It's very rare for a meter to speed up (adding usage). But have a meter test done anyway.
- Your electric company also allows for you to request a smart meter. In terms of keeping track of your usage, a smart meter is the best thing you can have outside of some sort of electricity monitor in your home.
- Neighbors and/or the previous owners of your house are really bad points of comparison unless they all use electricity in the exact same way that you do and have the exact same equipment.
- I've never heard of electric companies estimating a large portion of first bills, and though I'm sure it must happen somewhere, I wouldn't bet on that having anything to do with your high bills.
- Though I'm sure you would have noticed this after 3 months, make sure your electric bill doesn't also include your gas heat.
- Even though you have gas heat and appliances, the equipment that supplies the gas is run with electricity so if you're heating a larger home than before or the way your heat is delivered has changed (forced air vs radiators, etc) or your new home isn't as well-insulated, or your gas appliances are inefficient power hogs, your electric consumption will also change.
posted by eunoia at 10:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Going off of saradarlin's comment, was it the gas or electric (or both) portion of your bill that has ballooned?
A modern dimmer switch should use less electricity when the light level is lower.
Assuming you have the same electronics as your previous residence and you are being as conservative with lighting as you say you are, I would look at the efficiency of your gas furnace (and water heater) along with the insulation of the building and how weather tight your doors and windows are in your new home.
I just moved into a new house and with everything closed off it sounded like I had a window open until I put weather striping on the door and put the storm windows in place.
posted by tresbizzare at 11:21 PM on January 10, 2013

How many kilowatt hours (KWH) are you being billed for in a typical month? Your bill is at least 4 times what my wife and I pay in Pittsburgh. Even in summertime when we kept it comfy with central air, it was less than half what you're paying now. Only central air should be affected by the size of the house. You don't have electric heat, so insulation has nothing to do with it at this time of year. These bills are so high that it's hard to imagine they're being caused by niggling little stuff like computers and TVs and power supplies. Something sounds really off, unless these are estimated bills, or these are combined gas & electric bills, or Philly's electric rates are spectacularly higher than what I'm used to.
posted by jon1270 at 2:15 AM on January 11, 2013

Do you have a lot of exterior lighting?
posted by gjc at 4:40 AM on January 11, 2013

FWIW, Apple lists the absolute maximum power draw for the Thunderbolt display as 250 watts, which only happens while using the display to simultaneously view stuff and to charge a macbook pro. A September newspaper article puts your electric rates at 10.5 cents/kwh, so if you were running the display 24/7, charging laptops with it continuously for 30 days straight, that would be $18.90 worth of electricity.
posted by jon1270 at 5:15 AM on January 11, 2013

Do dimmer switches draw more/less/the same power as their regular switch counterparts?
Old ones (rheostats)- more. New, cheap ones- less. Good modern dimmers- way less, if you use them. If they're not warm and don't hum, you can save a lot of power by turning lights down.

The Kill-A-Watt is not expensive and can allow you to understand how much power your appliances use (is my flat-screen TV actually using more power than my refrigerator?), but you can't use it on 220V or anything hard-wired (like your dimmer switches). A more serious (i.e. -expensive) tool is a clamp ammeter, which you can use on the wires coming out of your power distribution panel. Maybe find an electrician to check this?
posted by MtDewd at 5:59 AM on January 11, 2013

This question seems pretty straight forward to me. If nothing has structurally changed in the house since the previous owner, then it really boils down to the changes in life style between you and the previous owner.

What do you know about the previous owner? Did they travel often? How young were they? The older they are, the less likely they will own game consoles or cell phones, which constantly draw power when plugged in.

we both WFH, but keep the thermostat set at 68 during the day

You work from home? If the previous owner commuted, then you would be using 40-50 hours of more electricity a week than them. It's all the little things you do at home, that someone else would do away at work, that add up. A couple cents of electricity here and there could mean an extra $100 on your monthly bill.

When you work, do you eat lunch at home too? Every time you open a refrigerator, your fridge will need to draw power to cool off.

Do both you and your spouse work on computers at home? The computers are also drawing a significant amount of energy.

Don't forget all the lights you are using during the day. Even energy efficient light bulbs can add a couple dollars to your energy bill if you use them 50 hours more than the previous owner.

Personally, I can easily see my electricity bill ballooning up to $300 a month if my spouse and I worked at home every day.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:09 AM on January 11, 2013

Are you a new PECO customer?

PECO did raise their rates in October, so this could account for some of the increase.

You can shop for another power supplier to save a little money.
posted by orme at 6:34 AM on January 11, 2013

freestanding house will always be more expensive than a townhouse (insulated on one or both sides) or an apartment (insulated potentially on two sides and above and below) just due to leakage of heat and cool, which means that everything has to run a lot more. if your roof isn't shaded by trees, start saving up for a solar array! :)
posted by acm at 7:32 AM on January 11, 2013

Is your heat forced-air gas? How old is your furnace? Our last house had a 50-year-old gas furnace, and our electric bills went from like $30 in the summer to $150 in the winter, and I think a large part of that was the furnace. Sure it's gas heat, but all the systems that spread that heat around your house are electric (fan/blower or whatever), and that might be a culprit. We also had an electric water heater though, and it was in the (unheated) garage, so that's something else that can potentially draw a lot more power in the cold months.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:53 AM on January 11, 2013

Keep in mind that if the heat is forced air electricity is still needed for the fan to work on the heat.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:53 AM on January 11, 2013

Also if you guys are working from home and keeping the entire house heated to 68 there may be a way to get some savings from keeping the ambient house temperature lower and finding a way to heat just your office to a level you are comfortable with. Obviously you'd have to do some cost-benefit analysis, but a super efficient space heater (or pellet stove, or who knows what) in a room that was well insulated might be a better choice than keeping the entire house set to a higher level. Might want to run some tests either when you are not home or when you are feeling rugged by turning the daytime temp down to 62 or 65 for a few days and seeing if you notice a real dip in how much electricity you are using. I'm one of those "sleep with 50 lbs of blankets on me" people and keeping the heat way down at night but warming the bed with an electric mattress pad warmer saved a lot of electricity without me feeling the pinch very much, another test you could try.
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 AM on January 11, 2013

DVR usage. Flat screen tv. We have started to unplug ours every night before bed and have seen a 20% drop, month over month.
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2013

Does electricity cost more per kWh than in your previous house? That alone could be why the bill is more than you would expect.

I'd start by looking at how the billing works, maybe they estimate the bill and only actually check the meter every few months. Learn how to read your meter.
posted by yohko at 12:49 PM on January 11, 2013

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