Where the hell is my electricity going?!?
January 30, 2015 8:26 PM   Subscribe

We live in a 3BR townhouse. Our electricity usage spiked really dramatically in December, and it's stayed up in January. I cannot fathom what is causing such a spike, but I don't know a lot about electricity usage. Details below.

We're in Chicago, with ComEd, Integrys is the supplier. Our townhouse is all electric for everything, no gas service. It's an interior unit, so no windows on the sides, just front and back.

In May, June, July, August, September, October, and November, our kWh ranged between 720-990/month. Suddenly, in December, it jumped to a staggering 3191. I called ComEd and asked them to re-check the meter for error, since December wasn't that cold and we didn't have the thermostat set any higher, but they confirmed their reading was correct. I just got our January bill and it's even worse... 3386 kWh. Our electricity bills for the past two months are staggering. We can pay the bill, but some other things are going to be sliding until we're back in the black.

Here are some possible confounding factors which I wouldn't think would triple our usage, but maybe they would?

  • For three weeks of December I had a single string of standard Christmas lights on 24/7.
  • We started using a humidifier at night in December, which has a humidistat, so doesn't run all night but does kick on when the humidity is low.
  • We had five standard can lights installed in our living room in late November, which are on after dark, around 4-5 hours a day. My guts tells me this might be the culprit, but holy crap, 3x the electricity for just these five little lights?
  • We don't have many windows, but the ones we have aren't super well insulated. Three got frost in December, and as a result the rooms were sealed off, and heavy curtains were put in place to cover them.
  • Our thermostat has been set at 69 since November, no change. It wasn't much colder than November in December, on average, and it didn't seem like the furnace was cranking any more in December than it was in November.
  • I didn't bake or use the electric appliances any more particularly in December or January.
  • We did get an outside light installed, on a timer, in late December. It's just a regular bulb, goes on at dusk and turns off at dawn.

    In all fairness, we could be conserving energy better. We leave most of our things plugged in all day (though not on) including a TV and computers. We don't usually leave lights on but it happens from time to time. It's just that even with the above factors, I don't see how our energy usage has gone up that much.

    So, hivemind, I'm happy to take your suggestions for energy saving, but I'm more interested in what the hell happened and what the likely culprit is, and if it's possible that there is an error in the energy use reading. I don't even know what a normal kWh usage is "supposed" to be for a 3BR townhome without a lot of windows in Chicago, so please share your anecdotes too.
  • posted by juniperesque to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
    Does your utility have a web site that lets you see what day/time the electricity is actually being used? I would think that would make it much easier to solve the mystery. Turn the pot lights out for one night and compare to the previous night.
    posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:33 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

    #1 electricity user is heat. #2 is the dryer. Have you been using any of these a little more in December?

    These are the top users of electricity in your home
    posted by seawallrunner at 8:38 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

    The only thing in your house that can cause a 2400 kWh/month increase in electricity usage is your indoor pot farm or maybe an electric heater. Your oven could also do it if it was on continuously 24/7 all month. You're talking about a continuous 24/7 load at 27A, which is a rare thing. Forget your lights, forget your dryer or any other normal appliances. Maybe an electric hot water heater if it was leaking a lot of hot water? Do you have a rack of servers mining bitcoins?

    So that gives us a short list:
    1) your heater on A LOT
    2) pretty big hot water leak
    3) your/your neighbor's pot farm
    4) multiple large servers / computers
    posted by ryanrs at 8:44 PM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]

    Do you have access to the electric meter for your unit? How about circuit breakers?

    The basic way to begin tracking something like this down is to watch your meter while disconnecting various things by either shutting off the circuit breaker or unplugging stuff.

    Also, seconding seawallrunner about the dryer. My ex- once left it running in the basement for a week. Ruined the clothes and we had an outrageous electric bill.
    posted by doctor tough love at 8:46 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

    Oh you're in a townhouse...someone else is using a plug that's hooked up to your metre. Since they're probably no breaking into your house, is there an outdoor plug? Maybe in the garage. My pet theory is that someone is charging an electric car, but I have no idea how much electricity that would use up.
    posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:52 PM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

    Did you get a new neighbor in December? This is so extreme that it almost seems like some other home is somehow tapped into your electric.

    If your townhouse has shared areas with other units, check to make sure that the heating systems and hot water heaters are all divided among the properties correctly.
    posted by phunniemee at 8:55 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

    I don't think an electric car would use that much electricity. Really, we're talking pot farm.

    Also please realize this has implications on how you might investigate the situation. I'd leave it up to the power company and police. Once you rule out wildly misbehaving appliances in your own unit, call your electricity provider and tell them you suspect electricity theft.
    posted by ryanrs at 9:00 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

    I had tenants once who had a pot farm. This is pot-farm like level of activity. Unless you have a rack of servers grinding all day, or something that is generating heat or running a motor basically constantly, there is something either 1. broken 2. getting stolen. Are there any exterior outlets?
    posted by jessamyn at 9:09 PM on January 30, 2015

    Response by poster: Sorry to threadsit; we do not have any accessible outlets outside. There is one, but it is padlocked and has not been tampered with. No new neighbors, and no garage. Someone offline noted that this would be a pot-farm level of energy use in a house with gas heat; but we are an all-electric house and our furnace is electric, so it might be more normal than I think it is? ComeEd is unmotivated to investigate my high electricity use, and after I requested that they re-read my meter in December, they sent me a lovely form letter informing me that it was working just fine, and here are some form-letter ideas on to lower my energy usage.

    How, exactly, would I identify what things in my house are using the most energy? Does this involve flipping switches on my breaker box and then running outside and reading my own meter, back and forth? (It is really freaking cold outside and the meter is not adjacent to my house.)
    posted by juniperesque at 9:25 PM on January 30, 2015

    How, exactly, would I identify what things in my house are using the most energy?

    That much electricity? You would identify it by noting which room needed to have it's windows open to the elements 24/7 to keep the ambient temp under 80 F. I am not exaggerating. This electricity usage is equivalent to 2x large space heaters running 24/7. It's not some minor appliance like your TV.
    posted by ryanrs at 9:31 PM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

    I mean, it's not something you plug into an outlet because you can't pull 2400 kWh/month from a 20A circuit without popping the breaker. This isn't someone running an extension cord. If someone is stealing this much electricity, they've tapped your main circuit panel or a high power circuit like an electric stove, dryer, or heater branch.

    There are orders of magnitude to energy loss. This isn't happening because you leave your lights on or because you have crap weather stripping under your windows. This is bigger. So big you KNOW it's not some minor change in your own behavior that's causing the increase.

    If you call your electric company and tell them you suspect electricity theft, perhaps from a pot farm, you will speak to different people than if you call to complain that your bill is too high. I really think this is what you need to do.
    posted by ryanrs at 9:43 PM on January 30, 2015 [11 favorites]

    Watching your own meter is probably the most illuminating thing you can do at this point. You could buy a Kill-A-Watt or similar, but that will only tell you the consumption of things that you can unplug. As ryanrs says, though, the amount of extra heat should be noticeable (2-3 hair dryers running 24/7 would be my analogy).
    posted by Standard Orange at 9:47 PM on January 30, 2015

    You could buy a Kill-A-Watt or similar, but that will only tell you the consumption of things that you can unplug.

    There are more serious devices you can use to measure the consumption of electricity at the breaker box instead of individual plugs. A good multimeter with a current clamp/probe can help, but that's electrician-grade stuff and you probably don't want to be poking in a breaker box if you don't know what you're doing.

    You can also obtain something like TED The Energy Detective to measure whole house consumption in real time but again, tricky stuff.

    At this point, you're going to have do the "switch everything off and then turn the breakers on one-at-a-time" trick, but it will be meaningless unless you have a current probe or can be outside and read the meter as things go on. The newer ComEd meters also don't show minute movements of usage. There's no spinning dial anymore. So that might be useless anyway.

    Once you've eliminated the hot water heater (my first reaction), my gut says to call around and find an electrician that is willing to come out for an hour or two and help you probe the home's circuits to see if they can trace anything back. They will have the correct tools and methods to find it quicker than you will. A qualified technician won't be free, but it sure will be cheaper than another 3 megawatt/hours. Good luck.
    posted by JoeZydeco at 10:11 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

    My gut is also massive hot water leak, have you checked the heater?
    posted by fshgrl at 10:28 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Well, the first test I would do is to turn everything off in the house that you can turn off. Make sure that electric furnace is off, particularly. Flip the breaker for the electric water heater. Then go out to the electric meter... if it's one of the old electromechanical ones, see if the metal disk has stopped spinning. If it's not... you have an issue, because something is still drawing significant amounts of power. (If you have a new digital meter you'll have to watch the kWh reading tick up and sorta figure out by hand how fast it is increasing.)

    If you have a digital meter, you could even turn the electric furnace on (set temp to 80F) and watch the meter for an hour, noting the reading before and after, and then turn the heat off and repeat the process. That will give you an idea of how much electricity the electric heater actually takes.

    It is possible that your house is really poorly insulated, and the electric furnace is just running through a huge amount of juice. E.g. maybe there's ductwork in the attic that's allowing hot air to just blow away or something. It's hard to say. But if you could pin the usage down to something in particular (the furnace, etc.) then you'd be able to start working on the problem. I'd eliminate the electric furnace as the big draw first, then the water heater. If it's neither of those... then it's odd.

    But you'll need to do some legwork to figure out what is drawing so much. Methodical work with turning things on and off and looking at the meter should do the job. If it doesn't—if you can turn everything in the house off and the meter still shows you're pulling huge amounts of power—then it's time to get really suspicious.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 10:30 PM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

    When you turn everything off, make sure that includes UNPLUGGING everything possible, too. Including your dryer.

    Also... you mention that it's a townhouse, which suggests some shared walls with another unit or units. If so, it suggests the possibility of shared attics, crawlspaces, etc, which could allow someone to wire in to your unit - or that the wiring is screwed up somewhere, and something from another unit is actually wired into yours.

    But yeah, I'm in agreement that something is up, somewhere. I'm in a 3BR standalone in Oregon with not-great insulation, and that increase alone is significantly more than our total monthly.
    posted by stormyteal at 12:25 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    The most obvious answer is electric heating. I assume that you have either an electric furnace or else electric baseboards.

    If you are new to the home, the electric company should be able to give you past history for bills last winter to compare. If you see similar bills from last winter, then you can assume that is typical heating costs.

    If you are getting frost inside your windows, that suggests they are single-pane, which could be part of the problem.
    posted by JackFlash at 12:32 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Did you live in this house last December? If not, can you get the bill from whoever did? 3000 kWh/month is really a lot, but it's still worth comparing - it's not very likely, but maybe your November reading was too low instead of your December reading being too high.
    posted by Dr Dracator at 12:36 AM on January 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

    Argh. We're also two adults in a 3BR in Chicago, we run the dryer twice a week, and we somehow are managing to consume almost exactly the same amount of energy as you. ComEd cannot explain it -- we've concluded that perhaps it's the heating, since we're also fully electric. It dips dramatically from April through November, then spikes to just around 3000 kWh a month from Decmeber to March. It's baffling, but after talking to ComEd and the landlord, it seems that every unit in our building is consuming roughly the same amount of energy, so I'm afraid I can't blame it on bad wiring or thievery -- just bad insulation and two very cold winters in a row.
    posted by artemisia at 1:10 AM on January 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

    I had some super weirdness with electricity when I lived in Chicago.

    It had to do with estimates vs. actuals on the bill. (IIRC, a little 'e' was listed on the bill if it was an estimate.)

    The meter readers were unable to get in to do an in-person reading in November and December when it was really cold and we were using a lot of heat. But because there were no actual readings, we were billed based on the average of any 'actuals' in the previous three months. Which, being August to October, were fairly low. So when an actual reading was taken in January, they essentially pulled three months worth of heating in an epically cold winter and billed us for it all at once! (Ouch!) Then, when they couldn't get an actual reading again in February, they did the estimate thingy again, only this time January was the only 'actual' in the previous three month period, so we got nailed again.

    It took repeated calling and complaining and basically making a pest of myself to figure this out. (Comed are not exactly my favorite folks on the planet.)

    I've also heard rumblings that there have been some problems with the new smart meters, along the lines of the billing information for your one floor flat in a triplex being accidentally linked to the smart meter for the three floor single family monstrosity next door. (Yes, I lived in Lakeview.) But I don't have personal experience to relate there.

    So, calling Comed and not letting them put you off with BS is the next step. Because if it's one of the above two options they should fix it. And if it's not one of those 'oopsies' then I'm with the rest of the posters here that there could be something illegal and sketchy going on and then Comed should definitely be investigating, and the cops should probably be involved.
    posted by susiswimmer at 1:34 AM on January 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

    Just nthing the fact that there seems to be not only something out of the ordinary going on, but that the increase in power - about 80kWhr a day by my reckoning - is not something you could easily use yourself, even with a lot of effort. That much electricity is going to be producing massive amounts of heat somewhere, some way or another. Look for evidence of warmth where it shouldn't be.

    The largest electric element available in a domestic hot water system in AU is 4.8kW. If you have something like this and it were somehow running 24 hours a day it would use 115kWhrs, but they can only run at night (for 8 hours max unless there is a boost switch) here, which is 'only' 38kWhr. I'm assuming it would be similar in the US, but don't know.

    So, hot water is a possibility, maybe, but if there is a water leak, there will be a lot of water going somewhere and if not, your HW tank would be boiling and making a lot of noise. This should be quick to diagnose either way.

    I don't know what a domestic switchboard looks like in the US, but here we have number of separate circuits that can be turned on and off independently. Often there will be one for lighting and two for power plus one for hot water. Electricity meters here all have some way to see what power is being used, either by watching mechanical dials turn or by looking at a digital readout.

    If that sounds something like your meter box then try switching off circuits one at a time and see the effect it has on the meter. If the bulk of that power is being used by one circuit, it will be hard to miss the change in usage.

    Looking at artemisia's post, I see it is possible with all electric heating to use this much power - wow! - though that kind of usage would send many people broke here - most people pay about $0.30/kWhr - which is why we (mostly) don't use electric heating.
    posted by mewsic at 1:35 AM on January 31, 2015

    How, exactly, would I identify what things in my house are using the most energy?

    Could you tell us more about your electric meter? Can you read it yourself? Is it an old mechanical meter with a spinning wheel, or is it an electric meter with an LCD readout? Does it have any "Smart Meter" abilities that let you access your hour-by-hour electricity usage on the Internet?

    Your best bet is to flip breakers and count instantaneous wattage. That will isolate which circuit is using the power. Best done with two people who can hear each other. I actually bought The Energy Detective to try to do this more precisely in my house and it didn't work very well. Kill-a-Watt is great for telling you power usage of plugged in items, but won't cover big appliances and wired-in things. If you have an online smart meter this all gets way easier.

    Your mystery 2400 kWH works out to a continuous load of 3300W, or 50 light bulbs. That's crazy amounts of power; something generating heat or maybe a pump. Do you have a sump pump in the basement? Maybe your electric furnace is broken in a strange way? Your refrigerator? Honestly with that much mystery usage I'd be worried about fire hazard.
    posted by Nelson at 3:38 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    How is your fridge? We had an older fridge that started to die, and it spiked our bill one month into that range. The compressor was running constantly just to keep it cool.
    posted by buttercup at 3:59 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    I think all of this is pretty easily explained by your heating system.

    Ok, you said you have an electric furnace. If it's really an electric furnace, not a heat pump, then it just directly converts electric power to heat. Whereas a heat pump leverages a temperature differential and can potentially put out more heat than it consumes in electricity (the rest of the energy comes from it's surroundings.)

    Your January bill for 3386kWh minus your minimum "normal" range of 720kWH gives a net increase of 2666kWh. This works out to a base load of ~3.7kW (2666kWh/(30 days * 24hrs/day).

    The conversion factor for kW to BTU/hr (the normal unit in the US for measuring heating) is 3412 BTU/hr per kW. So, that gives an output of 12,633 BTU/hr, which is really not a whole lot. (I live in a large 140 yr old house with no insulation which takes 100,000 BTU/hr to heat when it's really cold outside.)

    I took a look at the heating degree days for your area using degreedays.net and found that October had 327, November had 849, and December had 938. So you're right, not a huge difference between November and December. So that makes me think you actually got underbilled for November.

    Practically, what you can do to track this down, is to turn off all of your breakers, and look at your meter and make sure it has stopped spinning. Then, turn them on one at a time and look at the meter. It should be spinning quite lazily even after you turn on the majority of your breakers. Save your hot water heater and your furnace for last. If you turn those on and the meter begins spinning like crazy, that's pretty much expected. At that point you could have someone out to look at the furnace and check that it hasn't failed in some way which causes it to consume extra power.

    Did you live here last winter? Your listing of power bills back to May makes me think not. In that case, make sure to get the usage for the winter months last year from the utility for comparison.
    posted by no1hatchling at 5:34 AM on January 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

    One last thought, the utility here charges a lower rate for those who heat with electricity. Does yours? Make sure you have the right rate category.
    posted by no1hatchling at 5:36 AM on January 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

    Good point. ComEd does indeed offer a residential rate schedule for electric heat.
    posted by JoeZydeco at 6:02 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    If you live in a townhouse chances are you share an attic with your neighbors. Someone may be jacking your electric up there.

    Here's an e-How about it.

    Have the electric company come out and inspect, they should be happy to do this. Or go up into the attic and see what you can see.

    I will bet you $100 that this is what's going on.

    So I too am going for "Pot Farm."

    You can also find out who, by checking the roofs. If everyone has snow on theirs, except for one unit. Bob's your uncle.
    posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:11 AM on January 31, 2015

    Yeah, I have to wonder about electric heat as well. It sounds like what happened may be winter temps. Even if your thermostat setting didn't change, the temperatures outside did, so your heater will be working harder to keep your unit at the same temperature. (For comparison, my October gas bill is usually ~$20, while my December gas bill is usually ~$65. Same interior temp, but the outside temp has changed, so the furnace has to work a lot more often to maintain.)

    If you weren't living there last winter, you just wouldn't know what the comparison is... and I second calling the utility company to ask them what your address used last year during the winter. My electric company is pretty good about that.

    Electric heat is HELLA spendy. I know someone from my area who was spending $600+/month to heat a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor (and that was a couple years ago, so before the rate hike this year in my area!).

    I would also suggest contacting your local gas provider to see if they service your area. If gas is available, they may have a program to help you carry the costs of converting to a gas furnace and hot water heater. There may also be local programs to help you conduct an energy audit and even replace windows with double-paned glass, add insulation to the attic or the walls, and so forth. Definitely look into energy auditing programs in your area!

    For immediate responses, assuming that it is electric heat causing this issue: I would look into a new thermostat that allows for setting the heat back at night and while you're away (the Nest is spendy, but there are cheap ones for ~$30 at Home Depot or Lowe's and they are easy to install if you have a regular thermostat). I would also suggest adding plastic covers to the windows, rope caulking to any cracks around the windows, and seeing if there are rooms you can close off and keep at a lower temperature. (Not rooms with pipes in them, though.) None of these are permanent solutions, but hopefully they will lower your costs for the remainder of the winter.
    posted by pie ninja at 6:17 AM on January 31, 2015

    I'm assuming your bills have increased by $250-$300 per month because of the increase in KWHs consumed. That's not an unreasonable heating cost for a 3BR house in a climate like Chicago's, even with oil or gas. The calcs by no1hatchling confirm that. It's not somebody's pot farm or Tesla; nobody is jacking your electricity. Invest in a professional energy audit to get recommendations on lowering not only your heating expense but other electricity use factors as well.
    posted by beagle at 6:41 AM on January 31, 2015

    One other thought - if you have a heat pump, most of them have what is termed "emergency heat". Heat pumps work OK down to a certain outdoor temp (35 or 40 degrees IIRC), then it is hard to draw enough heat out of really cold air. At that point the system kicks in the emergency heat, which is like the "electric furnace" described above, works much like an electric toaster with a fan on it.
    My system installed a couple years ago has an indicator on the thermostat to show when emergency heat is being utilized. Yours may or may not have this.
    posted by rudd135 at 7:21 AM on January 31, 2015

    If you have a heat pump, get that inspected. Mine was on the brink of failure last year and so it wasn't heating well and had to run auxiliary heat a lot. Combined with some poor weatherstripping around windows and doors, my electric usage got into the range you're talking about.
    posted by noneuclidean at 7:35 AM on January 31, 2015

    Is getting a licensed electrician out for an inspection a possibility?
    posted by jbenben at 8:29 AM on January 31, 2015

    This happened to us and it was because of estimated bills instead of actual usage. Our next couple of bills were $3 and $6 respectively. Call ComEd and see what they say before you try to hunt down your neighbor's "attic pot farm."
    posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:53 AM on January 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

    The largest electric element available in a domestic hot water system in AU is 4.8kW.

    Standard water heaters in the US will have two 4.8kW 240V electric elements. One is basically to keep the water in the tank hot, and the other runs when you start pulling a lot of hot water out (and thus pulling cold water in) to try and heat the water faster. There's no concept of a 'boost switch' here, the things are fully automatic, and can run all the time. They can consume a lot of power, but you'd have to also be going through a lot of hot water, and it probably wouldn't be seasonal. I suspect the electric furnace is much more likely.

    Anyway, the nice thing about electricity is that it's pretty easily to throw breakers and isolate what's using the power using the meter.

    I don't think the pot farm thing is likely. I think it's probably just the electric furnace coupled with poor insulation or bad ductwork or something.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2015

    I can't help diagnose beyond the advice already given here, but if it ends up being the heating, I have some suggestions.

    I have a gas heater but also experienced a huge jump starting in November (also in Chicago). It wasn't super cold but it was cold enough. In our case we noticed the heater running kind of a lot; not sure if you've noticed the same. I was also getting emails from People's Gas telling me I was using 33% more gas than my comparable neighbors. And this is with the heat set at 66-68 and being in a top floor unit!

    #1: ROPE CAULK. We have huge patio doors that are really challenging to do the plastic thing with. Rope caulk around all the edges have sealed the drafts and stopped the frost buildup. #2: Change your furnace filter if it's forced air and you haven't in a while. Ours was thick with dust and pet hair and stuff.

    These two things have significantly decreased how often our furnace is running. Haven't gotten a bill for last month yet but I'm expecting it to be lower just based on how much less often the furnace is going. Good luck!
    posted by misskaz at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2015

    As mentioned above, you can save a lot of the heat bill by getting a $30 Honeywell thermostat that automatically turns down your heat at night and turns it back on just before you get up in the morning and also turns it down during the day if no one is home. The more poorly insulated your house, the greater benefit you get from turning back your heat. Get a warm comforter for the bed.

    You could save as much as 10% to 15% of you heating bill. The new thermostat would pay for itself in the first month.
    posted by JackFlash at 11:05 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Check the bills to make sure they are using actual readings, not estimates.
    posted by theora55 at 2:16 PM on January 31, 2015

    Nthing caulking and the energy audit. Also, is it possible that one baseboard heater has been running non stop since December? Maybe someone came over and turned it on, unbeknownst to you, and never turned it off. Good luck.
    posted by leslievictoria at 5:48 PM on January 31, 2015

    My electric bill tripled when something happened to my HVAC and it began to use emergency heat ALL the time. Quick fix and my bill went back to normal.
    posted by Coffee Bean at 11:56 AM on February 2, 2015

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