Why is my electricity and gas bill so high?
February 1, 2019 9:27 AM   Subscribe

My electricity and gas bill is suddenly like $100 more than it used to be each month for a few months. The PG&E website gives me some info like “We think your heating usage is higher” and “the difference is mostly due to electricity rather than gas” and it gives tips like “Try setting your thermostat lower” (no way. I’m freezing all the time). I would still like to ask you folks if there’s anything you’ve successfully done to bring these bills down once they go up like this.

I am in a pretty spacious townhouse in the Bay Area that I’ve been renting for 4 years. The landlord is inaccessible.

The graphs on the website show that the bills are also higher compared to this time last year so I don’t think it’s just that it’s winter?

The graphs also say that our usage is extremely high compared to similar homes.

My husband uses an electronic oxygen concentrator which runs 24/7 and I thought maybe that’s why? But the website graphs say that the heating is the most costly rather than appliances so I dunno.

Any suggestions? Thank you!
posted by bleep to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is your actual usage higher than a few months ago (or this time last year), or has there been a rate change, or both?

What new appliances have you had since the bills were lower? Are there any new gaps in your insulation, have your windows deteriorated?
posted by plonkee at 9:30 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

What kind of heating system? If it’s gas, then you can tell how much of your cost is due to heating and how much is from other sources. If it’s electric, you won’t be able to tell directly.

Is there a label on the oxygen concentrator that says the wattage, or current usage? If so, you should be able to calculate kWh/month, and pull your $/kWh from your bill, and you can see how much it costs.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:32 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I was going to suggest looking at your current rates compared to last year and see what the difference is. They can change pretty significantly with little notice. Natural gas is still relatively cheap but the "delivery charges" tend to fluctuate.

You could try having your furnace cleaned and then replace or clean the filters on anything that use them (furnace, AC, the oxygen concentrator if it has one). It won't completely explain an increase of that magnitude, but it'll help a little bit.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:37 AM on February 1

If you qualify for the income limits, PG&E has a program that sends a specialist to your apartment to figure out where you're losing energy and make improvements. The income limits are very low, but there may be other services like this from different agencies or paid services from someone. There are also tools you can plug in that show you where you're using energy (a smart outlet, for example).
posted by pinochiette at 9:37 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]

so far as I can tell, the graphs on the website always show that the usage is extremely high compared to other similar homes. We run a combined electricity+gas bill of $60-100 (summer vs winter) for a household of two, and our graphs say that.
posted by straw at 9:49 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Is your heat gas or electric? It would be unusual if it were a combination of the two. If your bill has doubled (for instance), is the actual number of kilowatthours (kWh) on your bill double what it was last year? Or, is it close to the same but your rate has gone up? On preview, definitely compare your current kWh rate and other charges on your bill.

For your electricity there are devices that you can use for any plug-in appliance (this won't work for built-in electric heat) that will let you track the energy usage. This is an example (not a recommendation, just the first thing that popped up on Amazon) of such a device.

You can also just look at the wattage on any appliance to estimate how much energy it's using. For instance, I see a home oxygen concentrator online that uses 100 Watts. If that's on 24 hours a day then it's using (100 Watts X 720 hours/month) 72 kWh per month. To give you an idea of how much that is, I used 260 kWh last month. So that one appliance was equal to 1/4 of my own energy usage.

None of that explains why your gas bill would go up though. If you have gas heat and you're setting your thermostat high, like 76 or 78F, that could explain some of the usage. And yes, bad insulation, or even an open window somewhere could increase your heating costs.
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:53 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Are you on a budget billing arrangement with PG&E and this is your "settle-up" bill? Ours was always in January.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:04 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]

Seconding runcibleshaw, get a kill a watt meter or something similar and measure your devices. Cable boxes and other devices my be drawing full power when ostensibly 'off' as well. Unless someone has tapped into your electric service, it's something in your dwelling.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:07 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Can you see on the 24-hour graph if the usage is higher all the time? That would give a clue as well.
posted by wnissen at 10:19 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Do you have estimated billing? Sometimes they don't actually read your meter every month, they just make something up, and then when they do get around to reading it, if their earlier estimate was off, they have to make up for it.
posted by jcreigh at 10:23 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]

Has it been colder in the past month? My utility bills show the average monthly temperature, and that usually explains oddball bills for me.
posted by momus_window at 10:31 AM on February 1

Some of the Bay Area has now started offering renewable energy service, and depending on where you live, you might have automatically been enrolled in a plan that is more expensive than your prior PG&E service.

For instance, in our case, we were automatically enrolled in a new plan that is now about $20 more per month than our old plan. However, it's still distributed, billed, etc. through PG&E - everything except the amount itself is exactly as it was before. If this is what's going on with you, you can opt to return to your prior PG&E service at the same rate as before.
posted by Owl of Athena at 10:51 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Gas and electric heaters are not uncommon. The auto-igniters on most gas heating systems run on electricity as do the computers/sensors that tell the heater when to turn on and turn off, as do the blowers. If you are running your gas heater (more) you are using more electricity.

Gas and electric being used as the actual heating source is rare.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:17 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Look into PG&E's Medical Baseline Program
posted by tinker at 12:21 PM on February 1 [5 favorites]

This is all great advice, and that medical baseline program looks amazing! Thank you!
posted by bleep at 12:48 PM on February 1

Gas and electric being used as the actual heating source is rare.

Yes, I wasn't specific. I meant most homes don't use a combination of electric heat and gas heat. My old crappy oil furnace definitely had an electric pump and igniter.
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:21 PM on February 1

When my heat bills went up by a certain percentage the gas co had no answers. I had gas water baseboard radiant heat. I got a cold water leak into my heating loop and that was what raised my gas consumption. Sometimes in a rental situation, you may be sharing a heat source and not know it. You may have been doing it all along, but maybe there is a new, other tenant with higher use.
posted by Oyéah at 1:41 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

One thing to check is whether you have a fridge or freezer getting to the end of its life. When they start to fail they drink electricity like crazy.
posted by merocet at 1:45 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

> My husband uses an electronic oxygen concentrator which runs 24/7 and I thought maybe that’s why?

It sounds like a likely culprit, especially if that is something that has changed.
If the unit uses 300W, then it will cost at least $25 / month to run (calculation).
Do you know how much power it uses?

> But the website graphs say that the heating is the most costly rather than appliances so I dunno.

Those graphs will be for the general population, not for your specific situation.
posted by richb at 4:03 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

If you have neighboring townhouses that you share walls with, are they unoccupied and/or unheated, and weren't before? If so, some of your heat could be lost through the walls.
posted by ShooBoo at 4:05 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

My wife shared an apartment with another woman before we were married. They though their electric bill was too high. They tried turning off everything electric, and the electric meter continued to run. Eventually, it was discovered that the culprit was an electric baseboard heater in the bathroom. They had never noticed it was there.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:33 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

It is also possible your meter is bad. Most places you can call and ask for it be checked. Not sure about California, but I’d call and ask since asking is free.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:30 PM on February 1

I installed a Neurio Home Energy Meter a year or two back to monitor my entire home's electrical usage, including realtime (833watts at the moment!), it's been really helpful about making me more mindful and solving my curiosity about what's eating the power and also justifying upgrading to new more energy efficient appliances.

It doesn't flag what exactly is using power, but you can infer all that pretty easily, and one of the important aspects is the 'always on' power (power that you're using 'by default' amps, routers, fridges, your o2 concentrator, etc) which you can then work on getting down lower.

Kinda tough to spend $220 to learn how you're also spending money, but for me it helped save money overall.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:04 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

What Owl of Athena is describing is called Community Choice Energy - most people's bills are not increased by the switch (unless you opt-up to the 100% renewable option, which isn't automatic, so you'd know if you did) though a few people's bills increased by a few dollars. I'm surprised by the $20 cited by Owl, that seems like something else is going on there. Your bill should not have increased by $100's from the switch the CCE.

Is the electronic oxygen concentrator a new addition? I found this link that can help you calculate how much energy it's using. It may be pushing you to a high tier of electricity usage which costs more money. So then when you run anything else it costs more money. Maybe run some calculations - by my calculation, you would have run through your tier one (cheapest) electricity in under two weeks using only that machine 24/7. So anything else you use in the house would be additive and shorten that time...and then any days after that is $$$. Of course, check my math :D
posted by Toddles at 8:51 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

A couple years ago I left a window wide open in my apartment from September until February without noticing. It was a very cold winter.

My electric bills were on autopay and I somehow didn't notice that I'd been charged over $1200 total during those few months. It was a dumb mistake and I don't mean to imply that this is what's happening to you but personally I'd double check that all your windows are firmly shut.
posted by bendy at 3:17 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]

The energy company knows your total usage based on your gas/electricity meters. They don't really know what's using the energy, since they don't have meters on all your various appliances. So while their suggestions area good starting point, it sounds like you pretty much ruled them out.

If the Oxygen concentrator is relatively new, that's a very good place to start. Check its energy usage. It may have energy usage stats in its documentation (though the documentation might list the energy used at a lower setting). Best case would be to get a device like Kill A Watt or similar. You'd be able to plug in that meter between your Oxygen concentrator and the wall, leave it for 24 hours, and see the energy used (in Kwh) for one day. Find the rate you pay per Kwh (on your bill) and you could estimate the monthly cost to run it.

Are there any other appliances or devices you've begun using in the past year that generate heat, move air, create suction, or produce a lot of light?

Also, do you have access to your electric meter? If so, try turning off (and unplugging if possible) everything in your home. Check to see if the meter is still running. If so, calculate the rate at which electricity is still being used (i.e. leave everything disconnected for one hour, and measure the usage over that hour. If you used 0.5 kwh in that hour, that would represent 500w of usage that you can't track down to anything in your house).
posted by reeddavid at 3:33 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]

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