Posted by Michele Redmon ● August, 2020

Understanding & cutting your home energy bill

electricity use  (1)

Lights are on, tablets and smartphones are charging, online school is in session for most kids, and in the US, working from home has become the new norm for many of us. We're home more, which means we're using more energy than usual, and have probably seen that reflected in our energy bill. Now, more than ever, people are looking for better ways to regulate their energy consumption.

THe us POWEr grid

Looking at your energy bill, you may have noticed that energy is often cheaper late at night or early in the morning. These are typically considered off-peak hours when not as many people are pulling electricity from the grid. Official peak hours vary from state to state and between utilities but are usually between noon-6 pm on weekdays. Use too much electricity during peak hours, and you could see a high usage surcharge on your bill. 

The electricity grid is a complex network of centralized power plants and decentralized generation units that transport electricity through a system of substations, transformers, and transmission lines that deliver energy to users.  The US has three power grids: one that covers the eastern U.S., another through the western states, and a third covering most of Texas. These grids comprise thousands of power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers, connecting 145 million customers throughout the country. 

power plantsA map of power plants in the United States, 2016. 
Created by Daniel V. Schroeder, Physics Department, Weber State University

Because large amounts of energy cannot be stored, electricity must be produced nearly simultaneously as it is used. For example, the electricity you are using now was probably made less than a second ago. The electricity going into the grid must always balance the electricity that leaves the grid, or there's an increased risk of an outage. With the increase in renewables used to generate electricity (which can vary greatly depending on the weather), balancing production with consumption has become more complex. 

How Home energy use is measured

It can be difficult to decipher your energy bill if you're unfamiliar with the terminology or units of measurement used in the industry. Here's a general overview:

  • Power consumption of large electric devices and appliances in the US is measured in kilowatts (kW) or 1,000 Watts. On your electric bill, electricity is measured in kilowatts per hour (kWh). For example, a 40-Watt (0.04 kW) light bulb left on for seven hours uses 280 Wh, or 0.28 kWh, of electrical energy.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, the average residential customer uses approximately 909 kWh per month of energy. Using the current national average price of 13.3 cents per kWh, that's roughly $118.
  • US consumers use about 25 Bcf of natural gas each year, but the wholesale price of natural gas right now is around $3.85/MMBtu, and your natural gas bill is likely priced in units of dollars per therm. Confused? Let's clear it up. Essentially, it's all about the way natural gas is measured, or the volume. Most US residential homes will see their natural gas usage in price per therm (100 feet of natural gas), an appropriate unit of measurement given the size of most residential homes.
    • 1 cubic foot (cf) = 1,027 Btu (British Thermal Unit. One BTU refers to the amount of energy that's required to increase the temperature of a pound of water by 1° F.)
    • 100 cubic feet (1 hcf) = 1 therm (What you likely see in your energy bill)
    • 1,000 cubic feet (1 Mcf) = 1,027,000 Btu (1 MMBtu)
    • 1,000 cubic feet (1 Mcf) = 1 dekatherm (10 therms)
    • 1 million (1,000,000) cubic feet (1 Mmcf) = 1,027,000,000 Btu
    • 1 billion (1,000,000,000 cubic feet (1 bcf) = 1.027 trillion Btu
    • 1 trillion (1,000,000,000,000) cubic feet (1Tcf) = 1.027 quadrillion Btu

About half of residential consumers use natural gas to heat their homes and water, cook, and dry clothes. In 2019, residential consumers accounted for about 16% of total US natural gas consumption, and natural gas was the source of about 24% of the US residential sector's total energy consumption.The electric power sector uses natural gas to generate electricity, and that use accounts for about 36% of total US natural gas consumption. Finally, natural gas was the source of about 31% of the US electric power sector's primary energy consumption (EIA, 2019).

How to Conserve energy & save money

Get smart. Some energy conservation recommendations result in either very minor improvements or require a significant investment that isn't always feasible for several reasons. Smart home automation is comparatively less expensive and requires less time than many often quoted ways to cut energy consumption, plus it allows for more customization. Here are just a couple of ideas that can lead to significant savings in energy spend and less work for you:

  • Smart Thermostat: That same home weather system making your sprinklers more efficient can also integrate with your smart thermometer to adjust indoor temperature based on conditions outside. 
  • Smart Power Strips & Outlets: The term "energy vampire" refers to appliances that suck power anytime they're plugged in, even when they're not in use. The worst energy vamps are smartphone and laptop chargers and devices with active-standby modes, like printers. You can avoid this energy drain by unplugging each device when not in use, but that's a bit of a hassle. A smart outlet or power strip automatically detects and cuts off power to devices that are in standby mode.

    "According to the US Department of Energy, an appliance constantly draining 1 watt of electrical current is equivalent to 9kWh per year, adding up to $1 in annual costs (basically $1/watt/annually). An average household, full or appliances and electronics, could see a savings of $100-200 a year."

  • Smart Lighting: This might be the most tricky, as there are some nuances to consider (for example, keeping an outdoor light on all night can offer some security, but at 100% brightness, it might annoy neighbors and waste energy). CNET provides a handy guide to help you navigate the many options for smart lighting, from color-changing bulbs to IFTTT tricks. 
  • Shower Smarter: Hot washer use is a significant energy drain in most homes, with hot showers often the worst culprit. There are many different types of smart shower tech, from simple alerts, shower heads that display water usage in gallons per minute, and integrated hardware that stops water from flowing when your time is up.
  • Smart Sprinklers: While your home's lawn may not require much energy to keep it thriving, it usually requires lots of water. A smart sprinkler system allows you to put your irrigation schedule on a timer and takes the guesswork out of home irrigation. Take this a step further and pair your smart sprinkler controller with a home weather system to ensure water is not wasted on days that it rains or when rain is forecasted.

The more you know

When it comes to energy use in your home, knowledge is power. The more you know about where your energy comes from and how it's being used in your home, the better equipped you'll be to identify areas of improvement. Not sure if you're paying too much? It never hurts to do an audit of your current energy plan to ensure there's not better options for your needs. Simply visit your energy company's website or call to speak with a representative. 

tempest weather system outside next to Rachio sprinkler controller


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