Home Electricity Audit - University of Alaska Fairbanks

Home Electricity Audit - University of Alaska Fairbanks
Home Electricity Audit
by Leif Albertson
Electricity is vital to the health, safety, pro­
ductivity and quality of life of the modern
Alaska family. It’s an amazingly versatile
energy source that can be used for heat,
light, powering appliances and even play­
ing video games. For many of us, it’s easy
to take electricity for granted in our mod­
ern life. Consequently, many families may
be using more electricity than necessary.
A home electricity audit is a systematic
survey of the home that can be performed
by anyone. It can cut electric bills, empower
families to cope with fluctuating energy
prices and reduce the environmental impact
of electricity production. Many learn that it
is easy to reduce their electrical use without
impacting their daily lives. This publication will
help you look at some of the most important ways
you can conserve electricity and lower electric bills.
One of the most obvious uses of electrical power
in the home is lighting. American homes devote
about 15 percent of their electrical budget to light­
ing.1 The simplest way to save on lighting costs is,
unsurprisingly, to be vigilant about turning out
lights when they are not being used. This works
best when the whole family is on board. “Last out?
Lights off!” Some homeowners, especially those
with large families or children, have taken the ad­
ditional step of putting timers or motion sensors on
some of the lights in their home. These devices are
available from home improvement stores and can
easily be ordered online. Porch lights are a great
place to put a motion detector. Motion detectors
can help provide the light you need for safety and
convenience while conserving electricity.
Perhaps the most important advancement in residential lighting in recent
years has been the wide-scale adoption
of the compact fluorescent bulb.
When looking at different parts of your
home, consider how much light you need
for different activities. Perhaps fewer
bulbs or less intense bulbs could be used
in some areas and bright, energy-intensive
bulbs could be used for areas requiring
more light, such as sewing tables and work­
shops. Consider supplemental lighting for
specific tasks.
Also, don’t forget about making the most of natural
lighting. Surprisingly, windows are often over­
looked as a lighting source.
Most Alaska consumers are already aware of the
benefits of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).
If you haven’t made the switch, you’re missing out.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs use about 75
percent less energy than a traditional incandescent
bulb. They also last at least six times longer than
traditional bulbs. Early CFLs had problems such as
unpleasant light quality and a delayed “warm-up”
time, but these issues have been resolved in recent
years. Additionally, the price of CFLs has dropped
dramatically. Compact fluorescent bulbs are perfect
for most uses in the home, but CFL performance
suffers at very cold air temperatures. Also, fluores­
cent bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury,
so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommen­
dations for disposal of bulbs.
In recent years, LED light bulbs have become
popular in both commercial and residential set­
tings. They are more efficient than CFLs, last longer
and do not contain mercury. While prices of LED
bulbs have dropped, they are still more expensive
than CFLs. Fortunately, the long life of the bulbs
(some boasting a lifespan of 50,000 hours) offsets
the up-front cost. LEDs likely represent the future
of residential lighting.
Heat trap
Cut-outs for
heating coil
Hot Water Heater
Electric hot water heaters turn electricity into heat
by running an electrical current through a large,
resistive heating element. This element heats the
water inside an insulated tank. Voilà, hot water
on tap! In general, electric heating appliances are
extremely power-hungry devices and, it turns out,
electric hot water heaters account for about 14 to
18 percent of a home’s energy use.2 Hot water is im­
portant for comfort and health, but there are things
we can do to reduce the amount of electricity we
use to heat water.
Cut-outs for
combustion air
Electric water heater blanket. Photo from
in a layer of insulation. Water heater blankets are
available commercially from home stores or online
and are intended to be installed on electric water
heaters. (They can be dangerous if improperly in­
stalled on other types of water heaters.)
One of the simplest steps is to check the thermo­
stat on your electric water heater. Residential water
heaters usually have an easily accessible thermostat.
Turning down the temperature of the hot water
heater reduces the amount of electricity needed.
You may need to experiment with your water
heater to find the temperature that works best for
you. Try starting at a setting of 120°F. If you find
yourself running out of hot water, turn it up a bit.
Some people save electricity by putting their elec­
tric hot water heater on a timer. In many homes,
hot water usage is fairly predictable. Often, little hot
water is needed during the middle of the day or the
middle of the night. An outlet timer will run your
water heater only when needed. You may need to
experiment a bit to get this right. Remember, it can
take over an hour to heat water, but once hot, water
inside the water heater will stay hot for many hours.
Another energy saving hint is to turn your electric
hot water heater off when you are travelling.
When it is time to replace your water heater, con­
sider a more efficient model. Not all water heaters
are created equal. Research your options carefully
and look for the ENERGY STAR logo. Speak with
a professional to decide what kind of water heater
will best meet the specific needs of your household.
Many households in Alaska have made the switch
to tankless water heaters. Tankless, or “on-demand,”
water heaters save energy by heating water as you
need it instead of keeping water hot all the time.
When a hot water tap is turned on, water is rapidly
heated by the heating element, which stays on until
the water stops flowing. Switching to a tankless sys­
tem can be an expensive upgrade, and installation
is generally more complicated than for an electric
water heater, but they are a great solution for many
homes. Tankless water heaters are usually run by
propane, natural gas or fuel oil.
Water heater blankets are another way to make
your electric water heater more efficient. Your water
heater won’t have to work as hard if it is wrapped
Finally, remember that one of the simplest ways
to save on water heating is to use less hot water.
Consider low-flow shower heads and other water
conservation strategies to limit the amount of hot
water used in your home. The less you use, the less
you have to heat.
Compare the energy efficiency of different dry­
ers and the look for the ENERGY STAR logo.
• While we’re in the laundry room — modern,
front-load washing machines not only require
less water than top-loaders, they spin your
clothes very fast, which means your laundry is
less wet when it goes into the dryer. This saves
money on washing and drying.
Dryers and Space Heaters
Electric dryers and space heaters are two examples
of electric appliances that can greatly impact resi­
dential electric bills. Electric heating appliances are
extremely power-hungry devices. They turn elec­
tricity to heat by feeding electric current through
a large, resistive heating element; in general, this is
not a very efficient way to produce heat.
Electric space heaters used for prolonged pe­
riods or as a primary heating source can be very
expensive, depending on the electric rates in your
region. Because the price of electricity varies greatly
throughout the state, it’s important to know what
the best heating options are in your community.
Electric clothes dryers use a great deal of electric­
ity. While using an outdoor clothesline is a great
way to avoid the electricity costs, it is not a conve­
nient solution in Alaska for much of the year. Here
are a few simple tips to efficiently use an electric
In communities where most heating is done with
fuel oil or natural gas, electric heaters might still
have a place. Used sparingly, electric space heaters
can be an economical option because they allow
you to keep individual rooms warmer than the
rest of the house. For example, some people like to
keep the bathroom warmer when they shower, and
they use an electric space heater for this. However,
in most of Alaska electric space heaters used as
a primary heat source or for prolonged periods
are almost always more expensive than other heat
sources, such as boilers.
• Clean out lint buildup regularly. Lint in the
filter and vent pipe can result in slower drying
and greater electricity use.
• Don’t run your dryer longer than you need
to. Many people tend to turn the timer to the
maximum time. If the dryer isn’t equipped with
a moisture sensor, consider experimenting to
find out how much drying time your clothes
actually need. Try setting your dryer at 30 min­
utes and then checking to see if the laundry is
still damp. If so, give it a little more time.
• When it is time to purchase a new dryer, re­
member that not all dryers are created equal.
While there are different kinds of electric space
heaters (e.g., ceramic, oil-filled and infrared), they
all function on the same basic principle of resis­
tive heating. The main difference between different
types of plug-in heaters is how the heat “feels,” but
An electric space heater uses about the same amount of electricity as 20 60-inch LCD televisions.
this might only be a small amount of electricity,
the typical household has many appliances slowly
slurping down electricity 24 hours a day. The costs
add up to almost 10 percent of residential electric­
ity use.4
Consider this: Over the life of a typical DVD player,
more electricity will be used to power the clock in
“standby” mode than is actually used to play DVDs.
Depending on usage patterns in your home, this is
likely also true for many more appliances, such as
game consoles, microwaves and cable boxes.
Power Strip
this doesn’t change the amount of electricity the
device uses when it’s plugged in. While some heat­
ers claim to be energy efficient, the numbers don’t
lie. Check the label on the back; it will tell you how
much electricity it uses. Fifteen hundred watts, or
1.5 kW, is pretty typical. That’s more than enough
juice to power 20 giant, 60-inch, LCD televisions.3
Unplugging appliances when you are not using
them allows you to prevent the slow drain of phan­
tom power. Using a power strip is more convenient
than unplugging appliances. Power strips (some­
times called “surge protectors”) can be conveniently
located and will disconnect appliances from the
electrical circuit in your home to eliminate phan­
tom power. When you switch off a power strip, you
can “unplug” several appliances at once. An enter­
tainment center is a great spot to use a power strip
since televisions, cable boxes, DVD players, stereo
systems and video game consoles are notorious us­
ers of phantom power.
Remember, regardless of your heating method,
lowering heating demand is the most effective
means of reducing your heating needs. This could
mean improving insulation, sealing drafts or turn­
ing down the thermostat. If you’re finding that you
need to rely on electric space heaters to keep parts
of your home comfortable, it may be time to ad­
dress some larger issues with your home’s heating
New products such as “smart” power strips make
it easier than ever to combat phantom power. They
have circuitry that will automatically cut power
to appliances that are not being used. Remem­
ber, phantom power is electricity you are paying
As a general note, anything that gets warm when
you turn it on is an example of resistive heating.
Some appliances do this intentionally (e.g., stove
tops); others do this as an unintended side effect
(e.g., computers and light bulbs). Either way, this
process uses a great deal of electricity to produce
heat. Finding “hot spots” among your electrical ap­
pliances is one way to reduce consumption.
Phantom Power
“Phantom power,” also called “standby power” or
more ominously, “vampire power,” is electricity
that is used by an appliance while it is turned off.
While this seems counterintuitive, many devices
continue to draw power even when they are off.
Televisions, cable boxes, stereos, DVD players and
video game consoles are some examples of electric
appliances that use phantom power. As a general
rule, any appliance that has a clock or turns on with
a remote control uses some phantom power. While
ances have improved dramatically
in regard to energy efficiency. It may
be time to replace that old washer
or refrigerator with a newer, more
efficient model.
When purchasing a new large ap­
pliance, you’ll have to weigh many
factors such as price and personal
preference. From the perspective of
electricity consumption, the most
important information will be print­
ed on a large yellow sticker attached
to the appliance at the time of sale.
This “EnergyGuide” sticker gives
details about the appliance and gives
By comparing the EnergyGuide label from two refrigerators, it’s easy
estimates of electrical use based on
to see that one uses much less electricity than the other. The estimated
U.S. government standard tests. This
yearly operating cost (the top number) is based on an national average
sticker also gives an estimate, in dol­
electricity cost. Since many Alaska communities pay higher rates for
electricity, it costs more to operate these appliances. To get an idea of
lars per year, of how much it costs to
how much it will cost to run an appliance in your area, multiply the esoperate the appliance. It’s important
timated yearly electrical use (the bottom number) by the electrical rate
to understand that this estimate is
in your community. This can be found on your electric bill. For example,
based on a typical usage for a home
if electricity costs $0.20 per kWh in your community, the refrigerator on
paying the average U.S. electricity
the left will cost $126 per year to operate ($0.20 x 630 kWh) and the one
on the right will cost $74 to operate ($0.20 x kWh). Quite a difference!
rate. Because of varying appliance
use patterns and the fact the elec­
tricity is more expensive in most
parts of Alaska than in the rest of the United States,
for when you’re NOT using your appliances. This
this dollar amount is not accurate for most house­
makes it one of the easiest targets for most families
holds in the state. But, because the sticker is based
trying to save money on electricity.
on standard tests, it is very useful for comparing
Large Appliances
similar appliances. Use this EnergyGuide sticker
whenever you are shopping for new appliances to
Large appliances such as refrigerators, washing
make informed decisions.
machines, dishwashers, dryers and freezers tend
to be major sources of electric use in most house­
When shopping for large appliances, you may also
holds. These large “whiteware” appliances support
see an ENERGY STAR label on some appliances.
quality of life in the home. It is, therefore, difficult
The U.S. government offers this label to appliances
for many families to limit their use. In some cases,
meeting set criteria for energy efficiency. Due to
however, an extra freezer or refrigerator could be
our high electricity prices, many Alaskans will only
eliminated entirely. If you operate more than one
consider ENERGY STAR labeled products when
refrigerator or freezer, take an inventory of what is
shopping for new appliances. While the ENERGY
inside and consider if your family could do without
STAR label has done much to promote the sale of
it at least part of the year. For many families, an
efficient products, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
extra freezer becomes an unopened tomb for yearsCheck the EnergyGuide sticker to get a more de­
old food.
tailed picture of the electrical needs of an appliance.
Another important consideration with large appli­
ances is their age. Over the last decade, large appli­
Last, freezers and refrigerators use electricity to re­
move heat from inside and transfer it to the coils at
the back of the appliance. For this reason, freezers
and refrigerators can cool more efficiently if they
are placed in the cooler parts of the home. Many
Alaskans choose to put freezers outside in the
winter to save on electricity costs. Unfortunately,
many modern freezers are not designed to be run
in ambient temperatures below 50°F. This can dam­
age them. Check with the manufacturer for more
information about specific models.
matically; others have remote
controls so you can switch off
power strips in hard-to-reach
places with ease.
Electricity usage meters: These
devices are widely available online
and at home stores and are even
offered through some electrical
utility companies. They plug in
between the wall outlet and the
appliance and tell you how much
electricity is being used. This is
useful for measuring phantom
power and for assessing how much electricity our
favorite appliances draw. Many models can be pro­
grammed to give both real-time usage and a record
of usage over a period of time. Many can also be
programmed to calculate
the cost of the electricity
you are using. This can be
useful in explaining conser­
vation strategies to family
Small Appliances
Smaller appliances use less electricity than the large
appliances, however, most homes use a greater
number of small appliances. Now is the time to
perform a walk-through of your home. Examine
every electrical outlet and what’s plugged into it.
Ask yourself if this device could be unplugged.
Consider if it is using “phantom power” even when
it is turned off. Also, consider if this device could
be put on a timer, motion sensor or power strip.
Many homes have a computer. Here are some
things to remember: Turning your computer off
when it’s not in use is the best way to save electric­
ity, but setting your computer to go into “sleep” or
“hibernate” mode automatically after a few minutes
of inactivity can help reduce energy use. Remem­
ber that monitors use power too, so make sure the
monitor is off when you are not using your com­
puter. Computer “screen savers” are a notorious
waste of electricity. Generally speaking, laptops use
much less power than desktop computers. For this
reason, many electricity conscious consumers will
opt for a laptop instead of a desktop computer.
Timers and motion sensors: Replacing a traditional
wall switch with a timer
or motion sensor can help
many families conserve
electricity. It’s a relatively
simple project and is perfect
for interior lighting and
bathroom fans. Outdoor
Power usage meter
motion sensors are great for
porch lighting and security lights. Outdoor timer
switches work well for engine block heaters and
other outdoor appliances. Thermostatically con­
trolled outlet switches are also great for heat tape,
engine block heaters and freeze protection. They
allow a heating element to turn on automatically
when the temperature drops.
Tools and Devices
While the greatest opportunities for saving electric­
ity can be identified simply by careful consider­
ation and common sense, there are a few tools and
devices which can help families to save money.
Power strips: Sometimes called “surge protec­
tors,” these devices are an inexpensive way to avoid
phantom power and to “unplug” several appliances
at once. Home stores offer a wide variety of power
strips and many new models are available with
added features. Some models will switch off auto­
A traditional wall switch can be replaced with a timer
(left) or motion sensor (right) to save electricity.
Outdoor timer switches work well for engine blocks and
outdoor appliances.
Motion sensors are useful for porch lighting and security
Thermostatically controlled outlet switches allow a heating element to turn on automatically when the temperature drops.
1 U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Frequently Asked Questions,” www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id+99&t=3
2 Energy.gov, “Tips: Water Heating,” www.energy.gov/energysaver/articles/tips-water-heating
3 ENERGY STAR, www.energystar.gov/productfinder/product/certified-televisions
4 Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, http://standby.lbl.gov
Home Electricity Audit: A Checklist
…… Turn off unused lights.
…… Use motion sensors or timers to turn off lights where appropriate.
…… Make sure lighting intensity is appropriate for each room/task.
…… Maximize natural lighting (windows).
…… Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs.
Electric water heater
…… Set temperature appropriately for household needs.
…… Put water heater on a timer, if appropriate.
…… Install low-flow or water-saver shower heads.
…… Turn off water heater when house is vacant.
Electric clothes dryer
…… Clean out lint.
…… Run only until clothes are dry, not longer.
…… Consider replacing with a more efficient model.
Electric space heaters
…… Use sparingly for specific tasks.
Phantom power:
…… Unplug appliances such as TVs, DVD players and game consoles when not in use.
…… Purchase power strips to turn off many appliances at once.
…… Consider outlet timers or thermostatic controls for outdoor applications.
Large appliances (washer, refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, etc.)
…… Eliminate unnecessary extra freezers or refrigerators.
…… Upgrade old appliances to new, ENERGY STAR appliances.
www.uaf.edu/ces or 1-877-520-5211
Leif Albertson, Extension Faculty, Health, Home and Family Development
Published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in cooperation with the United States Department of
Agriculture. UA is an AA/EO employer and educational institution and prohibits illegal discrimination against any individual: www.
©2017 University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Revised August 2016
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