My House Is Robbing Me Blind

I’m embarrassed to say (writing the financedude blog and all) that I never realized that my own house was stealing from me.  The house I lavished so much care (and paint) on was robbing me blind.  For those of you that made it this far, congratulations, you are probably saying get to the point already.  Well, every month it is taking me to the cleaners in the form of high utility bills.  Your probably saying, aren’t you the kind of guy who makes sure the lights are out when he leaves a room.  And you would be correct.  However, lights are penny ante.  The real silent killers are your hot water heaters, your crappy insulation and (though they are not so silent) your air conditioning (really a silly phrase when you think about it, “conditioning”) system.

I was playing poker at a friend’s house a couple of months ago when I noticed a piece of paper taped to his thermostat.  The paper said, “our electric bill was $176 last month (November) . . . no one touch the thermostat upon pain of death”.  Well, I was intrigued, you see, in our best month, our electric bill hasn’t dipped under a whopping $350/ per month (and can top $700 in the summer) and we don’t live in a mansion.  I still haven’t completely figured out why my electric bill is so much higher than my friend’s, but I have made some progress.

Morally, it bothered me that higher utility bills were 100% bad.  I was using some sort of scarce resource for power.  Inefficiency didn’t “get me” anything, it was “Money for Nothing” and not in the good way.  The high bills were an unnecessary source of conflict. “Why is the thermostat down so low” and “why don’t you turn off the light when you leave the room” are a couple of old chestnuts I have said more times than I’d care to remember!

First, as I live in Florida, I fantasized about going solar and selling power to the local utility (kind of a 21st century fantasy of, “sticking it to the man”).  I quickly realized that solar technology i snot very efficient and is very expensive; it has a long way to go and is no anywhere near economically viable without heavy government subsidies (which we don’t have in Florida) and could damage my (older) roof.  I didn’t necessarily want to make a big investment to save money, period.  I don’t know how much longer I’ll live in this house and home improvements with 3+ year paybacks never seem to work out.  Therefore, I wanted to make common-sense changes that would help cut my bill by a noticeable amount.  Here is what I learned:

  •    Your hot water heater radiates heat to the outside 24/7, but is only used a couple of hours per day (for showers in the morning and whenever you run your dishwasher).  You can get an insulator (basically a large blanket made of a fiberglass type fabric) and wrap it around your hot water heater.  That should save you about $100/year.  More importantly, you can get a timer, and strategically shut off the hot water heater, except for times before use.  That should you about $250/year (you will likely need a 220 timer and, if you are not handy, an electrician).  I looked into “tankless” water heaters (they “flash” heat your water), but they are significantly more expensive and seem to be highly troublesome and don’t deliver the (hot water) goods in sufficient volume.  Also, cover the pipes that carry hot water (and your a/c) with insulation.  These exposed piples can reduce efficiency/increase costs by 1%-3% (up to $100 per year- that is worth a few bucks for insulation and a few minutes for installation).
  • If you have an option, always go for the natural gas-powered appliance.  Gas is currently cheaper than electricity and thanks to tons of new gas that has recently been found, will likely be signficantly cheaper (in percentage and unit terms) for your lifetime.
  • Unless you live in a house build in the last 10-15 years, you probably have less-than-optimal insulation.  Depending on where you live, it probably makes sense to add attic and wall insulation.  Windows, which can be hugely inefficient, are too expensive to replace for anything but cosmetic reasons.  I would also suggest having your duct work checked.  Crimped ducts can cost you a lot in comfort and money (imagine blowing through a coffee stirrer vs. a jumbo straw).  One trick I used when I lived “up north”, was to make sure all of my door openings were sealed.  A southern trick is to make sure you have an attic fan that is operational.  The fan pushes the hot air (that accumulates from the sun beating on the roof) out of the house, making the house a little cooler and the air conditioning system a little more efficient.  This helps quite a bit (and makes the house a lot more comfortable).  The various savings initiatives are probably good for $200-$500 per year.  You will have to make an investment.
  • Timer for your a/c (and heating) unit.  Though, this can save you big bucks, most people have already figured this one out.  The simple logic is, when you are at work or sleeping let the temperature rise (in the summer; or fall in the winter).  I recommend an “apartment” thermostat, as it can be programmed with minimum and maximum temperatures, thereby avoiding unpleasant exchanges with your spouse or kids about why the thermostat is set to 49 (in the summer) or 90 (in the winter).  Prudent timer use is probably worth $300-$600 per year (depending on where you live and the size of your house).
  • Close the door.  I can’t tell you how many people go outside to the pool deck and leave the door open . . . or come in from the garage and leave the door open . . . or let the dog out and leave the door open.  Temperature naturally equalizes, so every time you open the door, the hot air outside will come in, negating hours of your a/c units finest work.
  • The green folks love this tip- use mini flourescent bulbs whenever possible.  Yes, they cost about 1/3 as much to operate as incandescents.  A no brainer.

I’m still working on getting my bills down to neighborhood norms, but until I do, at least I will be better off than last year.