Lessons Learned From Conducting Electricity Audits: Ten Ways We Can Do Better

By Chris Hunt *


1. We Must Crush Inertia  
The majority of consumers appear to accept their high energy bills passively, mostly, I believe, because they don't know what they can do about it. Consider this: Is there any other area of your life where you pay a high monthly fee and still have no idea what generated the final figure? Even among the consumers who do take action (i.e., they have started down this road on their own or they are working with a firm like mine), there is still an inertia at play that prevents them from taking complete steps. We are not doing nearly enough to educate consumers about the benefits of undertaking steps to make their homes more efficient, to move them from inertia to action.

2.  Utility Bills Are Complex and Not Well Understood
Most consumers do not know what the utility bill is telling them. Base rates? Tiered rates? I’m being charged 38 cents an hour from this point on in the month? And now 44 cents? Are you kidding me? How did the base rate get determined and why does it change all the time? Most people don’t have a clear grasp of the difference between the electricity portion of the bill vs. the entire bill or the gas-only portion. In part because it's so complicated, many consumers are unwilling to continue to monitor their bills after an audit - even though it would show savings of up to $100/month. In order to be able to effectively monitor the results of the work it's key to have access to these data in a meaningful way, like utility companies do.  

3. Education is Everything
Consumer education is crucial here. It reminds me of the multi-year, multi-effort, no smoking campaigns, the no-littering or no drunk-driving campaigns that spanned decades. Consumers have been behaving one way for so long that 1) they do not realize it is detrimental to their economic health or the planet's health and 2) they do not know where to start even if they are concerned. There is no way to read your utility bill and be able to figure out what you need to do. We need to make it easier.

4. Communicating Financial Impact Is Critical
People respond to price bargains (even false ones, like 20% off of an elevated price) rather than considering the big picture.  At the same time, people can be contradictory. If saving 20% on the audit was the compelling call to action that got them moving, why wasn't the basic opportunity to save hundreds per year enough to spur action? Homeowners will pay high bills month after month - in part because they do not know what they can do about them. This contradiction extends to the investment in things like windows and renewables. Solar installers are very good at representing a favorable return on investment. But even a 7 year pay back on a $15-30,000 investment feels out of reach for all but the wealthiest home owners. We need to do a better job of communicating the return on investment on some of the less expensive but valuable services we offer.

5. Turnkey Installation is Key
One of the most valuable components of my audit service is that someone comes to your house, does the detailed analysis, installs the energy monitor - and all the other energy-saving devices - on the same day. The task is scratched off the To Do list where it has sat for 7 years.

6. There Typically Isn't One "Demon Appliance" (Maybe Demon Kids...)
Homeowners with high electric (and gas) bills believe that something is wrong with their setup. They jokingly believe their neighbor has somehow tapped into their circuit breaker box or at least one major appliance is causing the high bills. They are all genuinely surprised to find that there is no one evil appliance (pool pumps excepted) nor is there something wrong with their set-up. Inevitably the problem is a cumulative one and each piece contributes. The washer and dryer, which may be relatively new, still can cost 50 cents each to run (if using hot water) so a dollar a load. They have 3 kids and they run 3 loads a day (w/ hot water to get out the stains) causing $90 month to appear on their bill from “nowhere”. Same with the dishwasher; it is not as expensive to run but some households run 3 - 4 loads a day. Kids are expensive.

7. Background Noise = Big Bills
Aside from the discretionary events like the above washer/dryer situation, the biggest problem is the “background” noise or baseload. I have clients who unknowingly run up almost half of their $700 monthly bill before they even get up in the morning. It’s not just the 2nd refrigerator in the garage, it’s the fact that they have multiple CPU’s running 24 hours a day – not in Standby mode either. (I'm in Silicon Valley after all.) Combine that with the scheduled 6-8 hours daily pool pump circulation and you have 1 kilowatt per hour running 24/7 by 31 days. Since the house is now running in the top two tiers from the local utility (PGE) at .38 or .44/kwh, they get nailed for $282 or $327 before they even fire up the coffee machine (800 watts / hour and they leave it on for three hours!).

8. Aesthetics Trump Efficiency
Inefficient design causes energy problems. Multiple recessed (can) lights in kitchens and great rooms with incandescent bulbs can result in a sizeable background cost. So do appliances (TV sets, Wii game controllers, cable boxes) that are automatically set by the manufacturer to Standby mode when “Off” so the Remote can start up the unit. But …. aesthetics trumps economics. If a homeowner is forced to choose between quality of life vs. saving money, most will go with the lifestyle issues every time. (E.g., Working dimmer lights in kitchen with bright incandescent bulbs are much preferred to the less costly but less bright CFL bulbs that only dim partially.) It's critical for the manufacturers of energy efficient products to bring their products up to par on aesthetics, design, functionality and usability.

Ten out of ten homeowners (particularly those who have put some effort into the desired look of the house) will not go with a less than equivalent product if it means giving up a preferred look. Many won’t consider putting up with a (perceived) lesser amount of light from a CFL bulb or even the minor time delay when starting a CFL bulb in the kitchen or their bathroom. They will, however, put the CFL lights in the kids’ rooms, kids’ bathrooms and the closets. But many people will not even put pool covers over their pools because they like the look of the sparkling blue water and not the less-than-crisp, dark pool cover.

9. Real Time Information = Power
People often don't know how to change the hours on their pool pump timers and have to rely on “the pool guy” who does not want them to reduce the number of hours it runs every day because it makes his job harder at the end of the month - so he will tell them not to cut back. However, people are fascinated by the meter monitoring devices I install (the TED 1001 or 5000); they absolutely love being able to see the spike when some appliance is turned on. Education is power here and the Smart Meter's approach -   "go to your website and see what happened 24 hours ago” is not worth much. The user needs immediate and accessible feedback – web access from anywhere and Smart Phone access as well.

10. Share Savings With the Kids to Get Traction
Even after making some reductions, homeowners still could be using more electricity than they need. I have cut my own electric bill from $125 to $65 using the same techniques I advise everybody to use. Making changes to the way we think about electricity usage, and simply increasing our focus on turning stuff down or off helps.  Splitting the savings with the kids is a great incentive to get them to turn off lights, and over time those small changes make a difference. 

* Prior to starting an electricity auditing firm in Northern California, (PowerDownUs) Chris Hunt completed a successful 25 years in high-tech, holding various management positions at Silicon Valley Bank, Adobe and Oracle in addition to several startups.  A long-time advocate of alternative energy and energy efficiency, Hunt's emphasis is on helping homeowners cut out the unknown and wasted energy that can drive half of the monthly electric bill.

Electricity audits are comprised of circuit-breaker-by-circuit-breaker analyses of a household's electricity usage, including both "background" usage and also discretionary high-usage areas, to help homeowners identify problems and make changes. Hunt's firm identifies issues and installs monitors and powerstrips to address issues on the day of the audit.

By Chris Hunt *


1. We Must Crush Inertia  
The majority of consumers appear to accept their high energy bills passively, mostly, I believe, because they don't know what they can do about it. Consider this: Is there any other area of your life where you pay a high monthly fee and still have no idea what generated the final figure? Even among the consumers who do take action (i.e., they have started down this road on their own or they are working with a firm like mine), there is still an inertia at play that prevents them from taking complete steps. We are not doing nearly enough to educate consumers about the benefits of undertaking steps to make their homes more efficient, to move them from inertia to action.

2.  Utility Bills Are Complex and Not Well Understood
Most consumers do not know what the utility bill is telling them. Base rates? Tiered rates? I’m being charged 38 cents an hour from this point on in the month? And now 44 cents? Are you kidding me? How did the base rate get determined and why does it change all the time? Most people don’t have a clear grasp of the difference between the electricity portion of the bill vs. the entire bill or the gas-only portion. In part because it's so complicated, many consumers are unwilling to continue to monitor their bills after an audit - even though it would show savings of up to $100/month. In order to be able to effectively monitor the results of the work it's key to have access to these data in a meaningful way, like utility companies do.  

3. Education is Everything
Consumer education is crucial here. It reminds me of the multi-year, multi-effort, no smoking campaigns, the no-littering or no drunk-driving campaigns that spanned decades. Consumers have been behaving one way for so long that 1) they do not realize it is detrimental to their economic health or the planet's health and 2) they do not know where to start even if they are concerned. There is no way to read your utility bill and be able to figure out what you need to do. We need to make it easier.

4. Communicating Financial Impact Is Critical
People respond to price bargains (even false ones, like 20% off of an elevated price) rather than considering the big picture.  At the same time, people can be contradictory. If saving 20% on the audit was the compelling call to action that got them moving, why wasn't the basic opportunity to save hundreds per year enough to spur action? Homeowners will pay high bills month after month - in part because they do not know what they can do about them. This contradiction extends to the investment in things like windows and renewables. Solar installers are very good at representing a favorable return on investment. But even a 7 year pay back on a $15-30,000 investment feels out of reach for all but the wealthiest home owners. We need to do a better job of communicating the return on investment on some of the less expensive but valuable services we offer.

5. Turnkey Installation is Key
One of the most valuable components of my audit service is that someone comes to your house, does the detailed analysis, installs the energy monitor - and all the other energy-saving devices - on the same day. The task is scratched off the To Do list where it has sat for 7 years.

6. There Typically Isn't One "Demon Appliance" (Maybe Demon Kids...)
Homeowners with high electric (and gas) bills believe that something is wrong with their setup. They jokingly believe their neighbor has somehow tapped into their circuit breaker box or at least one major appliance is causing the high bills. They are all genuinely surprised to find that there is no one evil appliance (pool pumps excepted) nor is there something wrong with their set-up. Inevitably the problem is a cumulative one and each piece contributes. The washer and dryer, which may be relatively new, still can cost 50 cents each to run (if using hot water) so a dollar a load. They have 3 kids and they run 3 loads a day (w/ hot water to get out the stains) causing $90 month to appear on their bill from “nowhere”. Same with the dishwasher; it is not as expensive to run but some households run 3 - 4 loads a day. Kids are expensive.

7. Background Noise = Big Bills
Aside from the discretionary events like the above washer/dryer situation, the biggest problem is the “background” noise or baseload. I have clients who unknowingly run up almost half of their $700 monthly bill before they even get up in the morning. It’s not just the 2nd refrigerator in the garage, it’s the fact that they have multiple CPU’s running 24 hours a day – not in Standby mode either. (I'm in Silicon Valley after all.) Combine that with the scheduled 6-8 hours daily pool pump circulation and you have 1 kilowatt per hour running 24/7 by 31 days. Since the house is now running in the top two tiers from the local utility (PGE) at .38 or .44/kwh, they get nailed for $282 or $327 before they even fire up the coffee machine (800 watts / hour and they leave it on for three hours!).

8. Aesthetics Trump Efficiency
Inefficient design causes energy problems. Multiple recessed (can) lights in kitchens and great rooms with incandescent bulbs can result in a sizeable background cost. So do appliances (TV sets, Wii game controllers, cable boxes) that are automatically set by the manufacturer to Standby mode when “Off” so the Remote can start up the unit. But …. aesthetics trumps economics. If a homeowner is forced to choose between quality of life vs. saving money, most will go with the lifestyle issues every time. (E.g., Working dimmer lights in kitchen with bright incandescent bulbs are much preferred to the less costly but less bright CFL bulbs that only dim partially.) It's critical for the manufacturers of energy efficient products to bring their products up to par on aesthetics, design, functionality and usability.

Ten out of ten homeowners (particularly those who have put some effort into the desired look of the house) will not go with a less than equivalent product if it means giving up a preferred look. Many won’t consider putting up with a (perceived) lesser amount of light from a CFL bulb or even the minor time delay when starting a CFL bulb in the kitchen or their bathroom. They will, however, put the CFL lights in the kids’ rooms, kids’ bathrooms and the closets. But many people will not even put pool covers over their pools because they like the look of the sparkling blue water and not the less-than-crisp, dark pool cover.

9. Real Time Information = Power
People often don't know how to change the hours on their pool pump timers and have to rely on “the pool guy” who does not want them to reduce the number of hours it runs every day because it makes his job harder at the end of the month - so he will tell them not to cut back. However, people are fascinated y the meter monitoring devices I install (the TED 1001 or 5000); they absolutely love being able to see the spike when some appliance is turned on. Education is power here and the Smart Meter's approach -   "go to your website and see what happened 24 hours ago” is not worth much. The user needs immediate and accessible feedback – web access from anywhere and Smart Phone access as well.

10. Share Savings With the Kids to Get Traction
Even after making some reductions, homeowners still could be using more electricity than they need. I have cut my own electric bill from $125 to $65 using the same techniques I advise everybody to use. Making changes to the way we think about electricity usage, and simply increasing our focus on turning stuff down or off helps.  Splitting the savings with the kids is a great incentive to get them to turn off lights, and over time those small changes make a difference. 

* Prior to starting an electricity auditing firm in Northern California, (PowerDownUs) Chris Hunt completed a successful 25 years in high-tech, holding various management positions at Silicon Valley Bank, Adobe and Oracle in addition to several startups.  A long-time advocate of alternative energy and energy efficiency, Hunt's emphasis is on helping homeowners cut out the unknown and wasted energy that can drive half of the monthly electric bill.

Electricity audits are comprised of circuit-breaker-by-circuit-breaker analyses of a household's electricity usage, including both "background" usage and also discretionary high-usage areas, to help homeowners identify problems and make changes. Hunt's firm identifies issues and installs monitors and powerstrips to address issues on the day of the audit.

Comments

Wow. This is amazing information! #7 in particular was disturbing. I'm Tweeting and blogging about this posting today and emailing it to all my friends. Next post should be where do we find "your" audit services in places like Nashville TN.

Thank you Chris!

@vshart. I agree. Our own experience has been that the big spikes tend to be the wow factor when people start monitoring, but knowing your demon appliances is just one part. An equally critical part of the story is the baseload, always on or, as Chris calls it, background noise. (I write about baseload in this post: http://www.energycircle.com/blog/2009/06/18/electricity-monitoring-the-i...)

Many of these vampires are the obvious ones--entertainment centers, game systems and the like that draw in sleep mode. And then there are appliances like DVR's for which there is a reason they should stay on, but which are so far poorly engineered for energy, and draw as much in off as they do in on. Still, as conscientious as we are about this (we've individually kill-a-watt-ed every device in our house), there is still a baseload gap that remains a mystery. That's where experts like Chris Hunt come in.

The specialist concept of an Electricity Auditor is a relatively new idea in our experience, and Chris is a pioneer. I'd suggest researching the Energy Auditor community, and looking for someone who has Chris's level of electric expertise. Let us know if we can help.

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