Something I have always erred on the side of caution with—without ever truly knowing the impact on our budget—has been residual electricity use on electronics that are plugged in, but not turned on. My nearly tyrant policies with unplugging any and all electronic devices when not in use began several years ago when I heard a rumor from my friend Aurora that even though an electronic device is not plugged in, it still is tapping into a reservoir of kilowatts and adding dollars to your electricity bill. Turns out it is not just a rumor; Yahoo recently featured an article on this you can read about here.

I must confess, however, that my boyfriend and I have had an ongoing debate about just how much doing so actually matters in dollars and sense. We religiously unplug the following after each use in our household: lamps, coffeemaker, television, DVD player, Xbox, internet and router, air conditioners (we still have wall units), washer and dryer, printer, computer, phone charger, bathroom nightlight, and practically anything else that could be sapping the life out of our bank accounts. But how much money does this actually save us? I decided to find out if it is worth the effort.

I chose April to begin the experiment, and was going to try to duplicate my electronic use from the month of March, except this time without unplugging any of the electronic devices listed above (well the fish will finally be happy—just kidding, ofcourse we keep the fish tank running 24/7!). This included an allotment of 3 loads of laundry per week, 4 dishwasher loads per week, and the use of AC for 4 days (in March we had used the heater for 4 days, so I rationalized that the electricity use was about the same).

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The only problem is that we had very hot and humid days near the middle to end of April, and so we finally gave in and turned on the AC. We ended up needing the AC for longer than 4 days. Also, something even more extra-ordinary happened: after keeping all of our appliances plugged in for a month, our electricity bill came in and was only $24 (typically we pay $70-$80)! Paul gleefully took the opportunity to argue that plugging in electronics must actually save on electricity costs, but I told him that it was a nice try, and that we needed to call our energy company to figure out what went wrong with our bill. Needless to say, I called the experiment off.

Still, I learned quite a few things about reducing electricity bills.

Best Time of Year to Lock in a Kilowatt Rate

Start by reducing your per kilowatt price. Here is a chart that shows the average electricity costs per Kilowatt hour by state (click on the link within the website to get an excel spreadsheet for 2007) to give you an idea of whether or not you are paying too much, or getting a really good deal! Prices per kilowatt typically go up during the summer months, and down during the winter months. If you are stuck in an electricity contract at too high of a price, you may have to pay your locked-in rate for several more months unless you want to pay a hefty fee to get out of the contract—our termination fee would be $150. But once you are at the end of your contract, it may be best to do a month-to-month flexible plan until you get to the wintertime and can lock in a lower rate for 12 months. You may pay more per kilowatt in those few months than you would like, but it will pay off in the end. Our current rate is $0.14 per kilowatt, and our contract will be up in November. Typically February is the best month to lock in a new contract, so we will probably do a month-to-month variable contract between November and February.

Find Out if there is a Demand Charge

Some electricity companies charge something called a Demand Charge which is determined by your highest peak demand of electricity during an on-peak. Check with yours to see if they have this charge. If there is a demand charge, the trick is for you to lower your highest demand rate. During your peak hour usage, make sure to only use one-two appliances at once. For instance, if you would like to run a load of dishes, and a load of laundry, load up the dishwasher, but don’t turn it on until after the load of laundry is complete. Check here for an example of a company who has a demand charge for more information.

Behavior Modification Based off of Evidence: When to Unplug

The Kill-a-Watt device will help you to pinpoint exactly what is running up your electricity bill, what might not be, and how much passive energy different appliances are eating up when still plugged in (a real treat for frugal people like us!). This nifty $20-$25 device gives you exact measurements of kilowatt usage from any appliance that can be plugged into a three-prong outlet. Here are some of the readings I measured in my own household to give you an idea of what might be costing you, and where best to put your efforts in reducing your own bill (take the kilowatt hour and multiply it by your price per kilowatt, found on your energy bill). Please note: these costs are for one hour only. In order to figure out monthly consumption, multiply the price by an approximate number of hours your appliance is used each month.

While In Use Price Per Hour (@ $0.14 per kilowatt) While Not in Use, but Plugged In Price Per Hour (@ $0.14 per kilowatt)
TV in Guest Room TV in Guest Room <0.5¢
TV in Living Room TV in Living Room <0.5¢
Floor Lamp 2.4¢ Floor Lamp <0.5¢
Air Conditioner Air Conditioner <0.5¢
Laptop 0.5¢ Laptop <0.5¢
Xbox 1.2¢ Xbox <0.5¢
Wireless Router <0.5¢ Wireless Router <0.5¢
Cell Phone Charger <0.5¢ Cell Phone Charger <0.5¢
Fish Tank (filter/heater/lamp) <0.5¢ Fish Tank (filter/heater/lamp) N/A
Floor Heater 20¢ Floor Heater <0.5¢

Run the Dishwasher and Washer/Dryer in the Morning or Evening/Night Hours

Because these appliances are large and generate excessive heat, using them during cooler hours will reduce your overall AC/Central air conditioning costs for the summer. Also, check with your electrical company to see if they charge less in the night hours for your electrical consumption because it is off-peak. If so, try to run dishwasher loads and possibly laundry before going to sleep to save some extra money. (FYI: I checked with Reliant Energy, and they do not offer this currently. See “Improved Technology” below).

Maintain Appliances

Help your current appliances run most efficiently by vacuuming them clean (cooling coils in back of refrigerator), and possibly changing or washing their filters (AC).

Turn your Water Heater Down

Now that the hot summer months are here, you probably will not notice a drop in your water heater temperature. Most experts suggest turning the water heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. See photo below for where to locate your own temperature gauge on your water heater.

Use Cold Water to Wash Laundry

I have been doing this for about a year, and have noticed no difference between clothes washed in cold water versus hot water.

Pick One Night/Day a Week to go Off-the Grid

This family chooses to go off-the-grid every Saturday by unplugging all appliances and using candles instead in order to spend more quality time together and also to save money. Could be a fun experiment for you and your family!

Purchase Energy-Star Rated Appliances

Check out this link for products that offer an Energy Star Rating, meaning they will use less energy than their traditional counterparts. As you need to replace older appliances over the years, be sure to buy more energy efficient ones for long term savings in energy costs.

Improvements in Technology

Finally, electricity costs for residents in Houston should decrease in the next few years with improvement of technology that is taking place right now. According to a representative of Reliant Energy, Centerpoint Energy has begun (December 2008) to install new, enhanced meters into every Houston residence with the last installation planned for 2020. These new meters will send a signal to electrical companies every 50-60 minutes to show kilowatt usage. Your use of electricity during peak usage hours when demand is highest (between 4:00-6:00 pm) will be charged at your contracted rate. However, your electricity use during non-peak hours will be charged a lower per kilowatt rate.

As a result of this learning, we have incorporated some changes into our household for more efficient energy use. I have decreased the temperature on our water heater significantly (and Paul has not noticed yet!). We will continue to unplug after using appliances (even though it appears to only save a few dollars a year), but it will be much easier now. Our fish tank and wireless internet are always plugged in (24/7), and the other appliances in the entertainment area do not need to be. I have these two categories separated out into two different power strips, so now it will be easier just to unplug one plug at night. I am currently looking into purchasing a more energy efficient bulb for my floor lamp in the living room, as its watt usage is more than the watt usage for our television! Also, I was very surprised to learn how many watts are used for the little floor heaters that we have, and will be looking into replacing these with more energy efficient models.

After a month of pure, unheeded kilowatt use, it will be a bit of habit-changing to go back to unplugging. What sort of habitual changes will you be making in your own household?

7 replies
  1. Preston
    Preston says:

    There aren’t any ‘energy efficient’ electric heaters. The inefficiency is what gives you the heat, basically resistance. If you buy a heater that uses less energy, you’ll get less heat. You might find using ceramic or oil-filled to be slightly better but not worth to replace your current units. If you want to save even more on your heat, use heating pads on yourself wherever you are sitting. MUCH less energy and warm you up directly.

  2. Laundry Sorter 
    Laundry Sorter  says:

    air conditioners are really needed specially if you have people with respiratory problems-`’

  3. Female Reproductive System
    Female Reproductive System says:

    using branded air conditioner is the way to go, also make sure that they use earth friendly refrigerants.      

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