Electrical Bill Woes

Tim says:

The day starts out great.  You got a good nights sleep, the birds are chirping, and there was bacon for breakfast!  Then the mail comes and you notice an ominous little dark cloud start to form.  The electrical bill has arrived, and when you open it you can distinctly hear Beethoven’s Fifth playing somewhere, and off in the distance, a dog howls… D’oh!

So, what caused your electric bill to inflate like the national debt?  Excluding the obvious change of seasons, here are the top 5 common causes:

1.) Faulty equipment: The two biggest electrical loads in most households are the A/C system and the hot water heater.  An unusually high bill may be indicative to a problem with either of them.  For example, if the A/C system develops a small refrigerant leak, the condenser will have to work overtime to maintain the same temperature and most folks won’t realize that it’s running any differently.  It’s even worse with the hot water heater due to any lack of noise to indicate it’s running.  If the elements are dirty or there is an excess buildup of sediment in the tank, the hot water heater will use a lot more energy to maintain the same tank temperature.

Another item to watch out for is an appliance like the dishwasher or  washing machine that has an “automatic” setting that allows it to base it’s cleaning cycle time off of the amount of food or dirt present.  The idea behind these types of systems is to actually save electricity by only running the device long enough to attain proper cleanliness.  This is achieved by use of sensors in the drain line that detect particulates in the water.  The problem is, if the sensors get dirty the system may always see a certain level of filth and keep the appliance running much longer than it needs to.  Similar to this is the electric clothes dryer:  if the lint trap is full, or the exhaust line is clogged from years of use it will greatly cut down on the efficiency.

Although refrigerators and freezers don’t use nearly the amount of electricity as the aforementioned appliances, they can still have an impact on the utility bill.  If the seals around the door are leaking,  the unit is low on refrigerant,  or if the door gets accidentally left ajar, it will cause the compressor to run much longer than it needs to, increasing the appliance’s consumption.

2.) House Guests: Yes house guests – I’m not saying that they’re thieving your precious kilowatts in the dead of night, but the simple increase in household occupancy leads to more dishes, more laundry, more cooking, and hopefully more showers and baths.  Not much can be done here except to be aware of this when the bill arrives next month.

3.) New electronics: Did you just treat yourself to a new Plasma or LCD flat screen?  Possibly with the addition of a 1000w surround sound system?  How about that new gaming computer with the latest and greatest cpu and graphics card?  They’re all power hungry devices and due to the “newness” they’ll probably get used a lot more in the first few months than normal which will lead to an increased electrical usage.  To help this, it’s a good practice to shut down any computer or completely turn off any TV/stereo when not in use due to the constant electrical drain caused by a device in standby mode.

4.) Utility Company: It may not be your fault.  Utility companies may change the cost per KWH (kilowatt hour) without you knowing.  This can be verified by close examination of the bill.  Another trick they like to do is if they’re unable to get an accurate meter reading for a certain month (for various reasons), they’ll bill you on what’s called a forecast amount.  Depending on the clarity of their crystal ball, the estimate may be grossly inaccurate and the difference will be applied to your next bill.

5.) Bad Karma: Yes bad karma… Have you forsaken Ohm’s Law?  Repent by hugging an Electrical Engineer (though do yourself a favor and announce your intentions, as most are unfamiliar with this practice and could get quite twitchy).  On a serious note, if you live in an apartment, townhouse, or neighborhood with extremely close neighbors, one of them may have questionable scruples.  An extension cord going from an outside outlet on the back of your utility shed may be providing power for someone else’s indoor horticulture project or other nefarious lab experiments.  I only mention this because it’s happened in the past.

Submit questions to Tim@home-ec101.com

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Comments

  1. @MusicCityFoodie says:

    Interesting 5 reasons. Our electrical bill soars when it's cold outside because we have poorly sealed windows and substandard insulation under our house. i can't stand to be cold so I crank up the heat. The insulation we took care of..the windows are next. Check with your local electric company about getting an in home energy inspection if you own your home. You may be eligible to get partially reimbursed for repairs or upgrades to make your home more energy efficient.

    • Leaky windows and poor insulation will cause higher energy bills, but for this article I wanted to address problems that fall outside the normal seasonal fluctuations and focus more on the unexpected "OMG big bill" issues.

  2. Jenny King says:

    Hub has been using a small heater in the shop and I didn't realize it. He thought it was fairly economical but it really wasn't. Our electric bill is usually $115, which I will admit is very good when you consider it runs everything except the heat, even our well. But this last month, the bill went up to $159! The increase is equal to 2/3 of our weekly grocery bill!

  3. One additional thing to consider (or perhaps it is a subset of 3… maybe a 3A), with the newness of electronics is the ever increasing amount of energy used even when these devices are not in use, a sort of trickle of electricity that, like a leaky faucet doesn't seem like much, but over time adds up (plus multiply that by the number of "trickles" you now have).

    For example, unplug the charger when you take your mobile phone or computer off. Otherwise that "brick" is still drawing a charge even when there isn't a device on it charging.

    Some people I know have those circuit breaker sort of power strips in their kitchen, so when not in use, the toaster, microwave, coffee pot and other electronics that are not used throughout their day in the kitchen are actually off and not drawing power for clocks and lights and other trickles of electricity that is displaying or working for nobody (except the Power Company Shareholders).

    The same goes for TVs and stereos. DVRs are a bit hader, because they do need to be running to keep their schedule to record those shows when you are not around… but just be aware, they ARE running and drawing power even when you aren't there.
    My recent post Archos 70 Internet Tablet

    • It is estimated that approximately 10% of our electrical bill is an accumulation of this trickled energy. Anytime there is a remote, phone, game controllers, etc. charger plugged in – even if the device is not attached to the charger – it is using electricity. Not only do those electrical cords draw power on their own but think about the things we have plugged into the outlets!

      Most appliances have an indicator light that shines all the time. We often have certain lights in the home or even night lights that are on all the time….even the coffee pot usually has a clock! Appliances not in use still drain energy like the blender or toaster. It is also my understanding that game consoles and computer towers should be turned off when not in use which is often NOT the case.

      Unplugging cords and using power strips (so everything can be turned off at once) really do help.

  4. Our biggest electric bill was caused by a faulty line between the meter and the breaker box.

    • In this case were you responsible to pay for the expense of rewiring? Did you electricity company give you any credit on the steep bills and costs of rewiring? I’m having an electrician come tomorrow to verify all of this. Something is not right with our sudden extreme electric bill.

  5. In 2003 we built our dream home — and the air/gas (depending on the season) was about $1,200 per month. Seriously. We just finished a new dream home in October. The gas this winter is about $150. The house is still big, but it's concrete block and super efficient. LOVE IT!
    My recent post Michelle Obama and the Food Police

  6. As an electrician for 35years I can tell you this;
    An A/C unit will draw more juice if the indoor or outside coil is dirty.  The indoor one usually will stay clean from the condensate it produces.  The outdoor coil needs to be hosed down, from the inside out if possible.  Make sure the fan switch on the thermostat is set to auto.
     
    I disagree with the comments on electric water heaters.  Lime buildup does not hurt an electric heater.  A gas heater IS affected.  With an electric heater the heating element is in the water directly, so the heat produced has to go into the water.  What will run up your bill is a leaky faucet.  Wrapping the water heater with insulation will help cut costs.
     
    Electronic transformers running when the device is off draws very little power.  It is not worth the trouble unplugging them.  You might save a dollar a year for all the devices in your house.
     
    Don’t use an electric space heater if your house is heated with a gas furnace.  It will cost many times more than running the furnace.
     
    In general, any appliance that gets hot, ie. toaster, coffeemaker, electric dryer, electric water heater, uses a lot of power.  Look to reducing the time these are left on.   

  7. I think the writer is wrong. What’s causing our electric bill to go up is the salaries and bonuses for these electric companies’ bosses and employees. If they stop raising them, there won’t be any reason for the rate increases. Most appliances and equipments are energy efficient, it’s just that the bosses and employees of these electric companies are not efficient but GREEDY, and all they want is higher pay and more bonuses and benefits with less work.

  8. rhonda trimble says:

    I use to live in a 3 bedroom with TV’s in each room, 1 full bath, 2 half bathroom, basement with washer, dryer, TV, computer with 4 n 1 printer, living with TV and paid gas and electric that townhouse large.
    I down sized to a small 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom, kitchen, dinner room townhouse everything is electric so I only pay electric how come my bill $300.80 I call the gas and electric company question my high bill first they told me need to cut down on usage I explain I use to live large townhouse and paid gas & electric bill never came to 300 around 175 to 190 I said I live in a very small townhouse she look up my history from old place and said I see what you are saying she does a history check on the last tenant live here and said wow something going on because her bill ran very high October – February between 300 to 339 I just move here October 1 , 2013 apartment complex said change provider

  9. Bruce Leroy says:

    100% correct regarding the faulty water heater dramatically increasing the electric bill!!
    We had a water heater that was malfunctioning and the thermostat was not working properly which caused the water heater to constantly heat. It would essentially throw the internal reset (thankfully so it didn’t blow up) and we were going round and round with the manufacturer to get it replaced. Meanwhile, we just kept resetting it so we could have hot water for showers. I ended up just buying a new water heater and replacing myself but this was after 2 months of this crap. Electric bill was $400 per month because of this!! We just bought this house so I did not have any historic data on what the monthly bill should be all though I thought it had to be wrong or something. Anyway, just wanted to comment that a faulty water heater can hike up the bill in a hurry!

  10. Electric hot water heaters and their thermostats are the culprits in my experience. A blocked pipe to a boiler kept tripping the thermostat, also used lots of electricity almost caused a fire! In another building the water wouldn’t heat unless the immersion heater was running. The thermostat wasn’t triggering the gas fired boiler.

  11. We live in an older house split into 4 apartments. We are upstairs and have baseboard heat. It has been the coldest winter here in like 80 years. (0-35 degrees most of the time lately) We have never used more than 900 kwp a month, in the last 2 months we used over 4,000 each month…. over triple the norm. We’ve also been having short showers because the hot water keeps running out after maybe 5 minutes… the water heater is located in the unheated basement. Could a bad element cause it to be THAT much higher?? Or is it literally because it’s just been that cold? BTW the hot water problem started after it quit working completely over the summer, than it was “fixed” by the landlord. But it has never worked right since…