4 Ways to Win the War Against This Summer’s Electric Bill

By Linsey Knerl on 15 June 2009 (Updated 17 September 2009) 24 comments

Energy increases are common this time of year, and with many families already struggling to pay the utility bills, it can seem more burdensome than ever.  There’s no one-size-fits-all method to kicking your increase to the curb, but these four tips are sure to put a sizeable dent in next month’s “total amount due.” 

Avoid the A/C – Yes, I said it.  I wasn’t too popular when my first Wise Bread post suggested that consumers leave it out of their summer routine, but no one can deny the negative energy impact (and wallet distress) that the window A/C or whole-home cooling unit can bring.  If you’ve managed to make it this far into the season without turning it on, read my tips for keeping it off a bit longer.  If you’ve already turned it on for the year and are rethinking that payout of $40-180 a month for cold air, there’s still time to make some adjustments to your routine.  It’s not for everyone (especially those in certain climates and at risk for health complications), but many of us grew up without air-conditioning.  We can probably get by without it in a pinch, and for those who are finding it hard to put food on the table, it’s a decision that should be seriously considered.

Attack the other Major Offenders – With the air-conditioning issue already addressed, you can look forward to systematically tackling the other energy suckers in your home.  Common ones include electric clothes dryers, electric stoves, and your water heater.  While no one is suggesting that you quit using them altogether, adjustments can be made to positively affect that utility bill, and many of these habits are complimentary to warmer weather behavior.  Some things I do specifically in the higher-rate months include: 

  • Replace my electric clothes dryer with a Spin Dryer and a clothes line. (I’m still mastering the art of this, and crunchy towels are common.  I love the >$15 a month in savings, however, and my clothes are lasting much longer!)
  •  Skip the stove.  If I can’t BBQ outside (which is a flavor-enhancing summer hobby I love, anyway), I choose the crock pot, instead.  Slow-cooking is a delicious way to make cheaper meats more flavorful, and clean up is a breeze.  (My kitchen doesn’t get as hot, either, allowing me to keep my A/C off even longer!) 
  • Wash clothes on cold.  My “green” friends are doing this anyway, and with the exception of truly mucky farm clothes, we find it to be just as effective as washing with warm.  By keeping showers brief and letting my dishwasher handle my cleanup (with a shorter cycle), I’m using my hot water heater much less.  (Those of you with “time of use” rates might want to consider putting your water heater on a timer, so that you’re heating your water when it is cheapest.) 
  • Using power strips with smart controls.  It’s not enough to have a power strip plugged in if you’re too lazy to turn it off.  My power strips all have master outlets that control the others.  (When my PC is off, for example, the printer, speakers, and fax machine turn off, too!)  The Lazy Environmentalist, Josh Dorfman, recently told me about remote-controlled power strips.  They might be worth checking out! 

For additional information on some of the gadgets you can use to identify the energy wasters in your home, see my Green Your Home with Tech: Electricity over at Tom’s Guide. 

Pay Your Bill On Time – This one should be a no-brainer, but it amazes me how close I come to the due date every month!  Because my electric bill is one of my most expensive home costs, and my utility company is the only bill that doesn’t offer an online payment method, I find that it almost slips my mind each month.  Late charges will vary by provider:  Some charge only a percentage of your bill, others can slap on a $15 fee or higher.  Because electricity is something you can’t do without, it’s easier to pay that fee than to argue – so be sure you get that bill paid on time!  (Many utility companies offer level payment plans, so look into this if you find that it’s harder to pay during certain months of the year, or check into non-profit assistance programs in your area.) 

Bribe the Kids – I admit to motivating my kids with money from time to time.  Since I pay the electric bill, it pains me to see lights left on, the TV buzzing in an empty room, and an unattended dryer lint trap.  It does me no good to run around the home and trying to undo all the wastefulness of my children, so why not have them see what I see?  Currently, my husband has offered my daughter 20 cents on every dollar of savings over last month’s electric bill.  She is VERY excited about the opportunity, and I see her dutifully turning off lights and appliances around the house each day.  Sure, I could pocket all the savings for myself, but would there be much to save if I had to do it alone? 

Tackling the electric bill is a high-priority in many homes this year.  I have just experienced a 7% rate increase, and there’s speculation of more straining energy costs in the near future.  Take some time to learn about your energy use, make some adjustments, and keep doing what works.  You really only need electricity when you’re using it… so be diligent about conserving it when you’re not.

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Guest's picture

In your post about controlling electric costs this summer, you said that your utility does not offer online payment.

However, many banks have this service for their depositors. My Chase account, for example, allows me to set up a creditor to be paid by the bank simply by me logging into my online banking site. I can pay a specific amount, as I would with an electric bill, or if it is a recurring payment of the same amount each month I can set that to be paid automatically on the date I specify.

(Unfortunately, I can't use it as I live abroad these days). Were I back in the U.S. again, I'd make use of it in a flash.

It is a free service included with the account--and many banks offer it these days. If yours does not, check out the competition. Not only is this easier, it's cheaper, too--no check to write and no postage to pay.

Guest's picture
SimpleLife

I know you mentioned it, but I feel that it must be repeated. If you live in certain states, turning off the AC in summer isn't an option.

There are states like FL, TX, AZ, that if you try to live without the AC to save money, you would end up with a moldy house or with people dying of heatstroke. I rather spend on AC than on repairs or doctor's fees!

Practice safe-frugality.

Linsey Knerl's picture

@Dave

Most certainly an option, and I appreciate you bringing it up.  If you can find online billpay for free in your area (we currently do NOT have it for any local banks), it is a very good way to be sure that you pay on time and aren't imposed any additional fees.  As a self-employed person, I don't have automatic deposit for much of my income, and setting up bills this way is a bit more of a hassle.  I would definitely consider it if I was getting paid with direct deposit from an employer, however.  (For now, I've been able to pay via my debit card over the phone in a pinch.)  Thanks!

@SimpleLife

It does bear repeating.  We have been fortunate to not have to turn on our A/C for much of the summer these past few years.  It gets very hot and humid in Nebraska, but my  husband and I would rather sleep in the living room, where it is cool, than upstairs in our stuffy attic bedroom and fork out the extra $150 a month.  Since health, age, and geographical considerations are important, I would certainly take the decision to forgo A/C seriously.  For many, however, it is a modern convenience alone.  Appreciate the reminder!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Very nice article.

I think the tip about purchasing smart power strips is extremely important. These can help cut down on costly phantom electricity.

Phantom electricity refers to electric power consumed by electronic appliances while they are switched off or in a standby mode.

It is money spent that is wasted. Some of the biggest offenders are computers and there peripherals.

Some experts estimate that and around 10 percent of total residential consumption is related to phantom electricity use.

Some of the devices that draw this phantom electric power even when they are turned off include DVD players, set-top boxes, computers, monitors, printers, and video game monitors.

A simple solution is to simply by power strips or surge protectors that allow you to cut the electric current to devices. In this way you can truly cut off several products at the same time.

Guest's picture
bogart

My DH is a more enthusiastic a/c'er than I am. I've recently noticed that if I turn our (central) a/c fan on and the a/c itself off without (ahem) mentioning to him what I'm doing, he doesn't (ahem) notice and, oddly enough, the house continues to cool down (I typically do this around 6 p.m. as the outdoors is starting to cool down naturally a bit here in central NC). I'm not quite sure why this works or what the effect on our bill will be, but it seems like it must be an improvement, cost-wise. Time will tell. I then turn in back to a/c shortly before we go to bed, allowing it to run cold (again) for ~30 minutes and then to shut off while we sleep.

Those committed to reducing hot water use and in an area where such behavior is practical can do what I sometimes do on (car) camping trips -- fill a couple of clean gallon jugs with water and leave them in the car with the windows rolled up, ideally in a sunny spot. Let the interior of the car (and thus the water) get hot. Find a private spot, pour 1/2 of one bottle over yourself. Soap/shampoo up. Use the remaining 1.5 gallons to rinse.

On the crockpot tip -- ours gets hot to the touch (it's a combination crockpot/deep fat frier, depending how it's used), however, any crockpot can easily be placed outside in a safe, covered location (like a screen porch) and works just as well outside as in.

Guest's picture
Emily Lauren

About your last suggestion... how nice of you! But turning the lights off/conserving energy generally doesn't earn someone money, but rather it saves them from paying more bills.

When I was growing up (I'm only 26!) my mom would CHARGE me if I threw any recyclable cans in the trash when the deposit system was first implemented in Maine. If she caught me, I'd have to pay her a nickle AND I'd have to dig the can out of the trash and she would also get the deposit. I learned very quickly to stop throwing cans away and to recycle them for the deposit myself.

What about charging kids when they leave lights/TV/etc on and they aren't using it/leave the room? A quarter or a dollar every few days, and they'll learn... right?

Guest's picture
Jan

For years we did NOT have A/c and I hung my clothes to dry. But with late onset asthma, this year particularly bad I need to both the A/C (to clean the air coming inside and the dryer (to keep pollen off my clothes.) Its a bummer but its reality. Being healthy is very important and going to the hospital is far more expensive than using these ywo items.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I agree that for some families, billing is a more suitable option.  However, my kids are still very young, and except for the 10-year-old, don't earn much more than their weekly allowance (which they work very, very hard for.)  I don't think my almost six-year-old would understand the concept of docking his $1.50 a week allowance as well.  But it will depend on the family.

I also find that running our home like a business I'd want to work for suits us best.  I personally would not respond well to a boss who told me, "If we can't cut costs by X%, I will start docking your pay" -- especially since these things are hard to prove on an individual basis. But if my boss said, "If we decrease costs by X% you'll all be treated to a big fat bonus" -- you better believe I'd be happy to participate.  It's all a matter of perspective, and what motivates an individual.

Thanks for bringing that up!

Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl's picture

YES!  This is a very easy way to cut costs!  Thanks for your recommendations!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Michelle

I grew up in Philadelphia -- BEFORE A/C. I now live in Denver, where last summer it was over 100 for over 2 weeks; I did not use my A/C at all last year -- BECAUSE I did what my Dad used to when I was a kid.

I have also used this approach for 20 years in Washington DC and Dallas without any lasting negative side effects.

I used 2 large exhaust fans (bought at Sam's club years ago), ran them all night in 2 windows to push out the hot air inside the house and pull in cooler air through other windows. I watched the news and internet weather to see when the outside temp got below 75, and turned on the fans then.

I set my alarm to turn the fans off before sunrise, and at the same time, I closed the windows, shades, curtains, and went back to sleep. Sometimes, the house was under 60 in the morning, depending on the cooling overnight. Since I keep my house at 65 in the winter, I was happy with 60. My house stayed at least 20 degrees below the outside temp.

I also had a box fan blowing across my bed for a cooler feel. Since I work at home, I use the same fan to move air as I worked.

As a kid, before we went to bed, and throughout the day, we sprinkled baby powder on our bodies or on our sheets which made us feel a lot less sticky. Now, I also wet my hair and let it air dry -- feels much cooler, and sometimes I even dampen my clothes to feel cooler! When your bodyu uses energy to evaporate the water in your clothes, you feel cooler.

Yes, I was hot, and I $aved a lot! For me, the discomfort was worth the $aving$.

In Denver, our utility company tells us to keep our air about 78 to save money. Raising the temp in the summer is like lowering it in the winter.

Guest's picture
Khürt

I grew up in the West Indies (Anglophone Caribbean for geography challenged Americans) with no air-conditioning. We had the temperatures that never exceeded 83 degrees (we have no seasons), low levels of humidity, and breezes (the Trade Winds) that never stopped. No need for air conditioning.

Now I live in New Jersey. Near 100% humidity, summer temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and no breezes. Yes, I want .. no, need my air-conditioning to survive.

References:
http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761555176/west_indies.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglophone_Caribbean

Guest's picture
Michelle

Last year, I scored a $25 reduction in one electric bill for permitting the electric company to install a smart "attenuator" on my A/C system. The device would reduce A/C when local demand peaked, thus preventing rolling power outages.

It was installed on the outside unit of my A/C system in under 30 minutes.

Guest's picture
Alli

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned using a Budget Billing plan. Many utility providers offer this. Based on your past usage, the company has you pay a fixed monthly rate, regardless of how much you actually use. If you use more than the allotted amount of energy, your account goes into negative numbers, but if you use less, you get credits applied to your account.

We use the heating in the winter much less than we use the A/C in the summer (Virginia is an unforgiving place to summer!), so things usually end up balancing out by the end of the year. Right now, we pay $50 a month, but we have a $30 credit in our account. Not bad for June in the Mid-Atlantic!

Guest's picture
Alex E

I like the bit about bribing the kids with a portion of the profits. I wish apartment roommates could "see the light" so easily.

Guest's picture
Justin

Great tips Linsey. Many homes need to evaluate these tips as they prep for high utility bills. Thanks for sharing.

Linsey Knerl's picture

"Budget billing" is a GREAT idea, and I think that is the same as what we call "level payment plans" as mentioned in my article.  I agree that it can be sort of a mini-savings plan for those months when costs can skyrocket.  Thanks for bringing it up!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Guest

As others have noted, depending on where you live, you really, really, really have to have the AC on.

I live in NYC in a small apartment. We only have one AC unit, in the bedroom. We just replaced it (after 23 years!) with a new, energy efficient model.

It doesn't cool as strongly (Before, we could actually cool the living room and bedroom and the bathroom with it on in the bedroom) as before, but we're saving a lot on the overall KWH.

We have ceiling fans and other fans (Those vornados are incredible. We've had a couple, which we use almost constantly in the spring/summer, for a decade.), but the reality is, in the summer, it's just hot (we can't have people over, it's that hot).

Shop around and if you possibly can, shell out for the most energy efficient models. It will make a difference.

The other thing is to NOT leave the AC on when you leave (it's a temptation, even if it's only for 15 minutes) and to set up the auto temperature if you have that feature, for as high as you can stand.

We sometimes run it for a couple of hours, shut down and crank up the fans. It makes a difference. And we can often go for several hours with the fan keeping the cool air in the room.

Those of us who have to ride subways, walk hot streets and live in apartments where the indoor temperature can frequently go into the mid-90s (yes, it can), must have AC and it is a true struggle for many families financially each year. (I know people who literally cut back on food and lots of other stuff in the summer due to our high Con Ed rates (currently something like 26 cents a KWH, including "delivery") and many cannot afford and do suffer heat-related health issues.

We don't have the option to head off to the malls (as many people in the suburbs due). Even our libraries have reduced the AC temps due to cost.

And going outside, when it's hot and humid, it's like asking for a heat stroke. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. The city is not great in the heat and humidity.

The summers are just to be endured, on so many levels.

To suggest no AC is to risk the lives and health and ability to work, sleep and function.

When i first moved into this apartment, we didn't have an AC for two years (wasn't home much; traveled for biz).

Then, after having to sleep over at a friends (try sleeping in a wet tee shirt with the fan blowing on you...Doesn't work), we got the unit that ended up lasting 23 years.

Wish they made models like that with high energy efficiency ratings.

FYI: It's been said before: Keep your blinds down, and windows covered as much as you can. Sun beating in will really up the temp very quickly.

Apartments are a real challenge compared to most homes.

Layouts, size, ceiling height, etc.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks to the last commenter, who noted that the height of some apartments can make it impossible to go without.  I would strongly recommend a portable rolling A/C for this type of cooling.  We had one for the room that our new baby slept in when we first moved here, and we would turn it on for an hour or so before going to bed.

I appreciate you mentioning that it's possible to cut way down on A/C use and still keep things safe.  It doesn't have to be a 100% all or nothing decision.  (We try to keep it off until we can no longer do without... but there are days when it is more necessary than others.)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
LizzieK8

Add about 1/2 cup white vinegar to rinse cycle of laundry. Hang towels to dry. Once they are dry, put in dryer on tumble only (no heat) for about ten minutes. Nice soft fluffy towels. It's the friction of them moving against each other that works.

The white vinegar removes all traces of soap from the fabric making the towels absorb better and alleviating skin irritation of residual soaps.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I was using various types of fabric softener, with poor results.  Why am I not surprised that vinegar works for that, too!  Bless you for this tip :)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Hannah

two tips that work for me to reduce the energy needed for cooking (and help us get by with very little AC use in the house):

cook in a crockpot or toaster oven (works great for a small pan of meatballs or chicken), and place the toaster oven in a porch, unused room, or outside

bake a batch of granola in your car- spread the mixture out on a pan and place on the dashboard or in the back window (whichever is on the sunnier side) for 3-4 hrs.

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

Last summer I kept the A/C off as long as I could stand it and several pieces of furniture developed mold (as well as shoes, purses...). Gack! So I'm not going to those extremes this summer.

Ceiling fans are great -- but turn them off if you aren't in the room. Moving the air with a fan doesn't lower the temperature, it just makes YOU feel cooler. If you aren't in the room to enjoy it, it only wastes energy.

Guest's picture
Nicole

I bought one of the smart strips in January, and set the TV to be the primary, with all the peripherals, Wii, speakers, etc to only get a current when the TV is on. It seems to be savings us at least $10 per month. I made several energy changes at the same time, so it's a little difficult to determine which change resulted in which amount of savings.

I also started keeping the heat lower in the winter, and am trying not to use the AC if I can help it. DH and I are in a battle over the AC, however. He is home during the day while I am at work, and I frequently come home to see the AC set to 70. I end up putting a sweatshirt on, or wrapping up in a blanket because I'm cold. He doesn't seem to understand how much money is being wasted by keeping the house that cold. How can I convince him to raise it up to at least 75 and to make better use of fans, and closing the blinds facing east in the morning so the house doesn't heat up in the first place?

Guest's picture
Nicky

Good ideas Linsey! laundry and AC savings can go hand-in-hand. Especially since using an electric dryer on a hot day does add some heat to your house that then makes the AC work harder to get rid of that heat. A dreaded double whammy!

If you dry your laundry and clothes on a clothes drying rack like this one that is set up outdoors or indoors under a ceiling fan you will have saved a ton of energy by not using the clothes dryer at all AND not adding heat to your house in the summer.