It’s happened to just about everyone at one time or another: an electric bill arrives in the mail that leaves you wondering if you have enough to cover what appears to be an abnormally high amount. You’re not alone, and while everyone is keeping a closer eye on their various bills, a high electric bill can leave you uneasy and concerned. Your first instinct would be to call customer service and give them a piece of your mind; take a moment to read this article first, and you may soon understand why this may have happened. So, why is my electric bill so high?
Summer and Winter
Blaming the seasons on a high electric bill may sound crazy, but it’s absolutely true. In the south, up to 80% of your yearly electric utility costs can come from cooling your home during the months of June to September. Virtually every air conditioner made today is rated up to a 20 degree (Fahrenheit) difference between indoor and outdoor temperature. If you have the thermostat set at 75, and the outdoor temperature is in the high 90s or triple digits, the AC is going to run throughout the majority of the day seemingly non-stop. Your air conditioner takes a lot of electricity to run, and if it is having trouble keeping up with the cooling of your home, your energy usage can skyrocket. If it typically reaches the high 90s and above outside during the summer, you should expect your electric bill to increase to two to three times its normal amount.
This can come as a surprise, especially to people that have recently moved from a more temperate climate where air conditioning is an optional addition to a house. Unfortunately, it’s one of the costs of living in the South.
On the other side, people that live in the frigid North have to deal with extremely cold temperatures in the winter. While most may opt for a natural gas furnace, homes that are heated by electricity can expect a substantial increase in their utility bill. Luckily, homes are easier to insulate from the cold, and human activity in the home (as well as various appliances) are heat generators. Still, an electric bill can see a significant increase.
Purchasing a new big-screen television or set of speakers can have a direct impact on your electric bill. While you may not be using that 300w amplifier every moment of every day, it draws energy as long as it’s on, and this energy adds up to an increase in cost. The same goes for your big-screen television. Some electronics go into a standby mode that keeps power going to them, even when it appears to be turned off. This allows televisions to fire up faster, toasters to heat up quicker, and speakers to be constantly on the ready. One way to combat this so-called “vampire energy” is by shutting power off to these devices when they’re not in use at the power strip level. A single flip of a switch can save you several KWh per day, in some cases. This can translate to dollars per day, and dozens per month in energy savings.
This can be a difficult energy cost to discover and even harder to predict. An air conditioner or refrigerator may still keep you and your food cool, but it could be working twice as hard if it’s experiencing technical problems. A clogged air passage, weak compressor, condenser, evaporator, or any other component of the cooling process can still operate fine at first glance, but may require twice as much operating time to provide the same level of cooling.
The same can be said for many other appliances. Just as your car may gradually lose gas mileage over time, your appliances could waste more and more electricity as they go. This isn’t true in all cases, but it happens frequently enough to warrant being added to this article.
Cold Things in Hot Places
Do you have an extra refrigerator or freezer in your garage? Is your garage climate controlled, or does it get hotter than a sauna in the summer? Keeping a refrigerator, which is charged with cooling its freezer contents down to 10 degrees F, and other contents to 40 degrees F in a hot garage means it has to work harder to keep its contents cool. Like an air conditioner, a refrigeration unit benefits from being in an environment where its internal and external temperatures aren’t extremely different. If you take a close look at the Energy Star ratings, you’ll notice that many of these units are rated to run within 10 degrees above or below normal room temperature.
Sometimes, a misread can happen. Meter readers have to brave a lot to get anywhere between 80 and 120 readings per day. Aggressive dogs, locked gates, dangerous debris, and protective property owners with shotguns are just some of the things meter readers have to deal with. During my five years working for an electric utility, we had several readers bitten, and one even mauled and hospitalized during seemingly routine readings. For this reason, readers have a lot they have to look out for during their routes. Misreads happen from time to time, at a rate of about once per 500 readings. When the reader submits the reading to the utility, the reading is checked against previous results to determine if something is amiss. If you think about the 1:500 ratio, consider half of those to be lower than the previous month as misreads can actually happen to the benefit of the customer. Another percentage are off on a high dial, which immediately raises the red flag at the utility. When this happens, a reread is usually ordered and the customer is informed. A single bad reading will be corrected on the next bill if it isn’t caught by the utility before billing takes place. In many cases, a difference of US$5-10 is the actual impact of an uncaught bad reading.
That said, a small misread against the customer is possible (at this point, roughly 1:2,500 reads). All too often, the least plausible cause of a high bill is the one that is taken as the only likely cause.
Thanks to smart meter technologies, readings are done daily and digitally in some areas, eliminating the possibility of a bad read on the part of a human technician. Calibration must still be done, but the chances of a bad reading not being caught become much less likely. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it’s worth taking a look at other factors that might be in play before making that angry call to the utility.
Photo by Zuzu.