Check For Energy Oinkers Lurking In Your Home
They say change is constant and that’s certainly true of your electric bill. When you get it where you want it, along comes January. Or July. At your electric cooperative, it is the seasonal—and sometimes unseasonal weather—that often prompts calls from members, all asking a familiar question, “Why is my bill so high?”
If your bill takes an uncomfortable turn, consider these suggestions from cooperative energy use specialists who help members investigate abnormal kilowatt-hour use. While it’s natural to blame your meter for an unusually high bill, the perpetrator is almost always hiding inside the home.
“High bills are generally the result of something someone overlooked or some sort of hidden problem such as a short in household circuitry,” says Greg Goetz, general manager of Alfalfa Electric Cooperative in Cherokee, Oklahoma.
The escalating cost of natural gas is also increasing the cost to generate electricity, Goetz points out. Electric co-op members may see this price volatility reflected in the power cost adjustment on their monthly bill.
“From gasoline to grocery prices, there’s nothing out there that isn’t going up, and it’s all inflation related. Generating fuels are another variable beyond our control,” Goetz says.
But what if your high bill is unrelated to the genning of electricity and the whims of fuel prices? What if your kilowatt-hours are disappearing like mom’s famous fudge? When that happens, experts say, best take a close look at the other mother. Mother Nature’s polar winters and scorching summers trigger higher usage and higher bills. When temperature extremes and a member’s billing cycle fall within the magic window of seasonal transition, the result is often a perfect storm of high usage calls.
“When the weather shifts or the seasons change, people tend to remember when it’s nice outside and forget about the other half of their billing cycle when it was really hot or really cold,” says David Freeman, energy advisor at Central Rural Electric Cooperative in Stillwater.
Auxiliary Adds Up
Located in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, Choctaw Electric Cooperative (CEC) experiences, on average, milder winter temperatures than other parts of the state. For that reason, many CEC members rely on air source heat pumps that extract heat and cold from the air to make homes comfortable.
Brad Kendrick, CEC energy use specialist, says problems arise when temperatures dip below freezing for prolonged periods, forcing air-source units to rely on a less efficient auxiliary heat source, such as heat tapes, to warm the home.
“Heat strips can use as much as 14 to 20 kW an hour. That can add up to a $500 bill very quickly,” Kendrick warns.
To help members understand how weather affects their kilowatt-hour use, cooperatives such as CEC rely on a software application known as SmartHub. Members who log on to SmartHub through the app or their co-op website can view their account usage daily and, in some cases, hourly and overlay it with the outside temperatures during the same period. The software also allows members to set text alerts that notify them when their usage climbs above an established setpoint.
“SmartHub truly puts members in control of their usage,” says Kendrick, who encourages members to check their kilowatt-hour use through SmartHub weekly.
CEC also flags unusually high usage every month and notifies the account holder as soon as possible. Kendrick says members appreciate the advance notice and feel more confident knowing their co-op has their best interests at heart.
Still, energy hogs lurk, often right beneath the homeowner’s nose. When Kendrick eliminates foul weather from the list of high-bill suspects, he performs a thorough on-site inspection. His findings reveal common culprits such as faulty well pumps, auxiliary heat tapes stuck in the “on” position, and thermostat settings flipped to emergency heat by mistake. Forgotten space heaters left running in the wellhouse are frequent serial violators; also hidden hot water leaks and corroded water heater elements that fail to cycle off.
“These problems can rack up a high bill in no time,” he says.
To illustrate, Kendrick recalls an elderly member who contacted CEC, alarmed about her $500 bill. He scheduled a home visit and brought along the co-op’s infrared camera. A tool of the energy inspection trade, infrared cameras reveal warm and cold air regions in and around the home that typically indicate drafty windows and doors, poor insulation, holes, leaks, and other hidden energy loss problems.
“When I shot the camera at the house, it showed hot spots under her floor where the hot water was leaking. She called a plumber who confirmed the leak. After he fixed it, her bill dropped down to $80,” Kendrick says.
Second Home Conundrum
Among the mishmash of residential accounts, seasonal homes experience usage issues unique to their part-time occupancy. For example, Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative in Vinita serves hundreds of cabins and vacation homes around Grand Lake. Darryll Lindsey, manager of member services, says it’s not unusual for seasonal homeowners to discover that guests failed to turn down the thermostat upon departure, left a window open that caused the HVAC to work overtime, or forgot to shut the hot tub off.
“Most often, the problem is something they simply overlooked. The key is taking the time to listen and do an investigation with them,” Lindsey says.
While happy endings may be hard to come by in a high usage saga, let your electric co-op help you by reaching out to them before an energy hog becomes a serial oinker.
“We want to help our members find solutions that will lower their usage,” CEC’s Brad Kendrick stresses. “We don’t want them to have outrageous bills. That’s not good for them or us.”