It all starts with your utility bill tracking - after you decode it. As an energy engineer, I have analyzed more utility bills than I care to admit (yawn), and so, I can definitely understand if you would prefer to swim in a shark tank than try to decipher the confusing language in your utility bills. BUT, overcome this impulse you must.
Before devising an energy plan, you should, at minimum, have an understanding of what the major components of your utilities are. Quickly review the drawing below that shows the average utility breakdown for an average household in the U.S.
This will give you a quick survey of your general household energy uses. Go a step further and write down what you have in terms of lighting, appliances, heating and cooling equipment, hot water heater, electronics and computers, and any household item that needs to plug into a wall outlet to work. Having this list and keeping it current is a good idea for the future, when you devise your energy checklist and ultimately, create your master energy savings plan.
The next and most important task is utility bill tracking: to track and trend your own utility bills over a span of at least one year (or enough to get a seasonal breakdown), to see what your average monthly and yearly utility costs are. This is all-important .
Without utility bill tracking, you can't set goals to trim your expenses; for example, if you know that June is when you prefer to start air-conditioning your home, but July and August are the absolute necessary months for cooling, then you can shift your cooling season, especially, if temperatures in June don't go over 80 degrees. Use ceiling fans instead, to circulate and cool or heat air for as long as you can. That can save a significant amount of energy and money.
Once you have tracked your expenses, you can start going through your home energy assessment and create a master energy plan. When your energy upgrades are complete, you can start tracking your new energy pattern and see how much you save from month to month, and year to year. By the way, if you can't find records of your utility bills, just call your utility company and have them mail, email, or fax you a copy of your records. They never "lose" your bills ;-).
Next, to get you on your way to your own utility bill tracking, download my Excel Utility Bill Tracking spreadsheet. It does all the analysis for you. You just need to enter your costs and energy use from your utility bills. This spreadsheet will automatically calculate your average monthly costs, and your savings after you perform your energy improvements. You get all the numbers and graphs to show you visually the impact your energy improvements are having on your pocketbook.
This spreadsheet is in a compressed (.zip) format; all you need to do is to download and extract/open the .xls file. I have included a picture of the spreadsheet below (click on the thumbnail to enlarge it).
All instructions for using it are included. If you have ANY issues with the download, or don't know how to use the spreadsheet, please contact me, and I will walk you through utility bill tracking step by step. It is really very simple.
While you are perusing through your past bills and looking at all the charges, we might as well get your bills explained. May be more information than you want to know about your utility company, but if you are thinking of changing fuels, or utility companies, this knowledge will help you make better choices.
You probably already have an idea about the types of utility companies out there, the types of charges, the types of fuels, and why energy efficiency is in everyone's best interest - in fact, utility rebates are BIG business. You are probably also aware that fuel costs fluctuate daily and have seasonal patterns. But, did you know that most of us also pay several types of tariffs for our power, and in many states, a small charge for systems benefits is added to every customer's bill each month?
In ordinary language, the systems benefits charge goes into a giant pot of money at the state level, and is used for various energy programs. Many of these run energy research and development, energy rebate and incentive programs, and even utility bill assistance for individuals in need. These funds are for homeowners and businesses.
While utility companies make A LOT of money from customers using their power, the costs and red tape for increasing production through more power plants is astronomical, not-to-mention, unhealthy. They much prefer to defray the costs and headaches of new power plants by promoting efficiency and conservation. Some of the ways they do this is by motivating us with rebates and incentives and penalizing those of us who use too much energy at certain times. Most utility companies actively promote renewable energy to businesses and homeowners, mainly for grid-tied systems.
I am of the firm opinion that renewable energy deserves the same kind of subsidy as fossil fuels; unfortunately it is now only a tiny fraction, though it is getting better in many parts of the country and the world. If, for example, alternative energies had half of this kind of subsidizing, I would probably be writing about the headaches of clearing off snow from my shiny, new solar panels, which I would finally be able to afford ;-) Oh, may it become so...
Anyway, when performing your utility bill tracking, get familiar with your energy rates and what you pay by reading about energy rates. This is where I talk about the common types of power, the difference between power generation, transmission and distribution, and demand charges.
Below is how a typical household in the US uses energy.(Source LBNL 2009)
Remember that electricity rates are usually the highest for homeowners(as high as $0.26 per kWh for Hawaii), since voltage needs to be stepped down via transformers to be usable by homes. Industrial customers can use electricity at higher voltages, so often, there is no need for step-down transformers; businesses also frequently get state credits and rate discounts for setting up shop in particular states.
Once your curiosity is satisfied with utility company trivia improve your understanding of utility bill tracking AND your power by reading the following pages:
What about for your heating fuel charges? Where the heck do those numbers come from?
How do different fuels compare? Is electric heat more efficient than gas? does a wood fireplace heat your home better than a wood stove? What about the different heating and cooling systems and their efficiencies? Just a few of the topics I discuss. Even for me, this page is eye-opening!
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