Saving Energy

by Danny Zawacki

A month ago I received an unpleasant piece of mail. The energy bill arrived and it was $30 more than it had been. And its graph highlighted that the price of the bill was increasing a little each month, though never $30 all at once. It was a shock to the system, something needed to be done otherwise this monthly cost could easily get out of hand.

Back in March, when Ellie and I moved into the house, I set about replacing all the bulbs in the house with low energy bulbs. I opted for LED where I could and CFLs where I couldn't (some of the form factors required CFLs or the LEDs didn't have the right warmth for the space they were in). Great, I thought when I had finished replacing them all, I'll get ahead of this energy bill. No need to waste money on something that can be avoided. But then why did my bill keep going up every month?

We hoped to nip the energy use in the bud. In June, we replaced all the original windows with new, energy-saving ones. Going into the summer, we were concerned how much of the AC we would lose to the end of life windows. It's really hard to tell what kind of change we saw from this, considering we haven't had a summer without the new windows, but looking at the bill it seems to have done the trick. But then, this $30 bump still happened so it was time to dive deeper into the problem.

I had a hunch that I knew what the problem was. In July, my father-in-law brought over a new dehumidifier for our basement. Due to a number of factors, the basement was slowly heating up and getting musty. We didn't want it to get moldy so we put the dehumidifier down there. I set it up to run continuously and ran a hose from the dehumidifier to the floor drain. We went from near 80% humidity in our basement to more recently 50%. It worked, but it timed up too closely with the bump in energy use to be a coincidence. I did some quick math on the model of dehumidifier we had, running full blast for a month, and low and behold, it came out to an added $30/month to run the thing.

Yet somehow, I needed to prove it. And additionally, I needed to cut energy use elsewhere to make up for it. So I jumped online and bought a whole bunch of things to help stop the free flow of electricity in the house. In no particular order, they are:

Let me explain each. I'll start with the Kill A Watt. Basically, you plug this into an outlet and then you plug a device into it. It tells you how much energy is being used by that device. It gives you a second by second usage and will also tell you how long you have had it plugged in and how many kilowatts are being used during that time. I used it to find the devices that draw power even when they are "off" as well as finding which devices are drawing a lot of power when they're on. The results were interesting. You know how everyone always tries to scare you about leaving your toaster plugged in and how that is just wasted energy? Well, get the toaster we have (I think it's Oaster brand) because it doesn't draw any energy unless it's being used. Nor do most simple appliances in the house, which is great.

Which brings me to my next purchase, the Belkin Power Conserve switches. The idea behind these switches is to be able to turn off all power to a device or appliance when it is plugged in and not being used. I ended up using one on the microwave because it was drawing a bit of power to keep the clock running and my wife and I really only use it as a box to keep meat away from the cats while it defrosts. I also put one on the TV in the basement, because even though the Kill A Watt said no power was being used by the TV, I think it was lying because it at the very least has an LED on all the time to tell me that the TV is off? Plugged in? I don't know but now the switch has it off off and the lack of LED tells me it is actually off. Woo! I'm not going to lie, I wish I had more things I could plug these switches into because they're a great concept but I think if I had more plugged into them it would be annoying to turn the switch on an off every time I needed to use something as well as I'm genuinely happy there's no idle energy use on the majority of my devices.

And then there's the last buy, the TrickleStar power strips. I bought two of these because I liked what they promised. They have a control outlet and then slave outlets. The slave outlets only get power when the control outlet is drawing power. It's genius. Immediately, I plugged my TV into the control outlet and then the DVD player, Blu-Ray player, Wii, and the antenna booster into the slave ports. Now, when the TV is off, all power is cut from the devices which need the TV to be operated. It's beautiful. The second one of these I plugged into the computer. I was concerned it might not work because I put my computer into hibernate more than I turn it off but sure enough it did work (and there's a sensitivity switch on the side so if the computer wasn't in low enough power mode, I could raise the threshold). The computer now controls the monitors and the surround sound. I had to leave the printer plugged into one of the always-on outlets because every time it got the power it went through a very loud power-on sequence.

Ellie and I have also taken some further steps to cut the power usage in our home. Last night, we replaced the fan we use as white noise for sleeping with an actual white noise machine, a Marpac Dohm. It is basically a small device that makes a very similar sound as the fan did. And we can adjust the noise it makes with a twist of the cover. The best part, it uses a sixth of the energy that the fan did.

Also, I have my old computer from college set up always running in the basement serving as a home server. It's a beast and it draws a lot of power, especially since we only use its services occasionally at the moment. I've purchased a Kangaroo Pro to replace it. I need to finish setting up the services that we use the server for, but once I do and swap it with the beast in the basement it should cut energy use in half.

The last item on my energy-saving to do list was to tackle the issue with the dehumidifier. $30 a month is a lot more than I want to spend keeping the basement humidity in check. I toyed with a couple of options, including just turning the thing off. Another option was to hook it up to an outlet timer and only have it run a few hours here and a few hours there. However, the model we have doesn't have a physical on switch. Every time the power would be killed by the timer, someone would need to run and turn it on after the power came back. Less than ideal. What I ended up doing was surprisingly simple and what I should have done from the beginning. I set the desired humidity level and left it running. Now, instead of trying to remove all that moisture from the basement, a daunting task I'm sure, it maintains a 60% humidity level. This should lower the power usage a bit. I haven't yet had a chance to hook the Kill A Watt up to this to see what the difference is, but I have a strong hunch that it will be noticeable on the next bill.

In a perfect scientific experiment situation, I wouldn't have made these changes in the course of a few days. I would have made them one by one a month. Then I'd check the bill and see how it improved. But who has time and patience for that? I don't. I don't have the money to keep spending on the excess energy use (though I apparently have the money to spend on a bunch of gadgets to save money…they'll pay for themselves soon enough). I wanted to get that bill down and I wanted to do it yesterday. I will try to report back once I get the next energy bill and see how things will change. I would guess that any savings I see on the next bill will be doubled on the following bill since I think the changes are being made halfway through the billing cycle. 

UPDATE 11/6/2017

Just got the most recent energy bill and since this post was written two bills back, the cost of running our house has gone down $47. Looks like we went down not only the amount to operate the dehumidifier but another $17 on top of that.