A telephone rings in the electric co-op office. It’s early in the morning. After hanging up his trench coat, the energy advisor reaches across his desk and answers. “Hello… Yes, speaking… High bill?… I’ll take the case.”
Although they’re not detectives in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, electric co-op energy advisors come equipped with the investigative skills needed to solve the energy mysteries that can send your electric bill suddenly higher. The culprit can be a simple case—like a heat pump left running in the emergency heat mode—or as complicated as the latest CSI episode.
It’s a process that includes high-tech equipment, keen observations, and knowledge of such varied topics as water heaters, energy usage, and heating systems. Energy advisors examine the evidence, survey the scene, and often leave the home with another case solved and lower energy bills their reward.
Just another day at the office…
Case of the Leaky Attic
Kathy Brown was not a happy homeowner. Her heating bill was running $200-$300 a month and she was still cold. She first turned to a local HVAC contractor in Nicholasville, who examined the equipment in her home.
“They couldn’t find anything wrong,” Brown says, “but I was having to run a space heater to keep my bedroom warm. I had checked my insulation, all the usual things. I couldn’t figure out why I was paying all this money and not getting warm. I was even thinking about selling my house.”
Her next stop was Blue Grass Energy Cooperative and Residential Services Coordinator Roy Honican. A blower door test, which checks for air infiltration in the home, led Honican to the attic, or more precisely, the pull-down stairs leading to the attic.
With the help of a laser thermometer, airflow meter, and a powder puffer, the disappearing heat mystery was solved.
“In the winter,” Honican explains, “warm air rises and is trying to get out through the ceiling.” He discovered air coming into Brown’s home from a utility room, which opened into a garage. It traveled through the utility room, to the kitchen, down a hallway, where the thermostat was located, and into the attic through the pull-down stairs. The heated air never made it to the back of the house, where Brown’s bedroom was located.
The solution was a door sweep and weatherstripping for the utility room door and an attic hatch cover for the stairs.
“I bought less than $10 worth of stuff,” she says, “and lowered my budget payment by $30 a month and got warm.”
“She cut $360 off her yearly bill with only a little effort,” Honican says, calling the audit solution a sizeable return from investing a few dollars in weatherization products.
Case of the Circulating Money Pump
Sometimes, the answer to a few questions can solve the energy mystery.
Phillip Crabtree II built his new Daviess County home with all the latest energy-saving features—lots of insulation, energy-efficient windows, and a geothermal heat pump, a heating system that uses the constant temperature of the earth to provide low-cost heating and cooling.
Crabtree says his electric bills were varying quite a bit from the usage he expected for an energy-efficient home. He contacted Kenergy cooperative’s Scott Heath, an energy and technical service advisor.
Heath began with a home’s largest energy user, the heating system, and also quizzed Crabtree about other electric usage.
“He also wasn’t getting enough hot water,” Heath says, “and the geothermal system helps produce hot water.”
The energy advisor asked to take a look at the geothermal equipment and discovered that a circulating pump was improperly installed. Heath says the faulty pump increased Crabtree’s bill by about $100 a month.
“Scott didn’t let it rest until he figured it out,” Crabtree says, recalling that he tested equipment in his home’s electric panel twice before turning to the geothermal system. “He gave me fast attention and after he helped me find the plumbing issue, my bill dropped down to where it should be.”
And how did Heath know it was the circulating pump? Years of experience working with heating systems, he says. One look, and he knew. Another energy mystery solved.
Case of the Overworking Heat Pump
Deborah Morris and her family had used wood to heat their Crofton home for years, and decided it was time to switch to something easier, and also economical. The family began the search for another form of heat, and found their answer at their local electric cooperative, Pennyrile Rural Electric. Pennyrile members can purchase a heat pump through their electric cooperative.
“We had our heat pump for a couple of months and our bill was just a lot higher than I thought it should be,” Morris recalls.
“That’s when the frustration came… This heat pump was driving me crazy.”
She called in an energy detective from Pennyrile. “This was in the fall,” recalls Member Services Advisor Mark Lindsey, “and she was still using some air conditioning at her home.” Lindsey started with the standard inspection, looking for leaks around windows, checking the temperature on the hot water heater, and checking insulation.
It was the technical tools of the trade that helped him solve Morris’ mystery. He installed an amp meter on the heat pump breaker to measure energy usage. The numbers told the story.
“Normally,” he says, “a heat pump would use 10 to 11 amps when it’s running, but this one was drawing 18 to 20, about double.”
The problem turned out to be in the heat pump wiring. Every time the compressor came on, so did the auxiliary heat. After the wiring was corrected, Morris says her bill went down an average of $30-$50 a month.
“They were very determined to get this taken care of for us,” she adds, “and that means a lot.”
Case of Elementary Solutions
Solving the mystery of a high electric bill doesn’t always involve electronic equipment and laser thermometers. Sometimes it’s a simple solution.
Peter Stoll, a Warren RECC member in Franklin, says his high bill came from leaving the furnace blower switch in the “on” position. Warren energy sleuth Scott Duvall heard a noise coming from the furnace combustion vent when he was checking the outside equipment.
“I went to the thermostat inside the home and found the fan switch in the ‘on’ position,” Duvall says. Moving the switch back to “auto” allowed the furnace blower to kick off when the unit wasn’t operating and lowered Stoll’s bill by about $30 a month.
Other culprits can be old appliances, according to Mary Beth Nance, Fleming-Mason Energy Cooperative director of Member Services. “Members forget about old freezers they have on the back porch or in the barn and they can use a lot of electricity,” Nance says, “and so will a dehumidifier, which can use up to approximately 225 kWh (kilowatt-hours) per month.”
Ann Beard, Taylor County RECC’s manager of Member Services, says checking insulation levels is always a priority for an energy audit. She went to one home on a high bill complaint and the member told her there were 12 inches of insulation in the attic and plenty under the floor, but it didn’t seem to help.
“When I looked in the attic,” she says, “there were maybe three inches of insulation in most spots, and none in others. And when I looked in the crawlspace, there was extra insulation, all right. I found the insulation rolls piled up in a corner. They just needed to finish the job.”
And sometimes, simply thinking about recent changes in a home can answer the question of why an electric bill is high.
Tim Gossett, Meade County RECC’s vice president of Member Services, recalled one complaint that was quickly solved over the phone. After talking with the member for a few minutes, he learned that some relatives had recently moved into her home.
“She suddenly had eight people living there,” he says, “and they were all taking showers and baths.” After the heating system, the water heater is the appliance that uses the most electricity in a home.
While co-op energy advisors can solve the mystery of a high bill, it’s often up to the homeowner for the final solution.
“There’s never been a penny or a kilowatt-hour saved from an energy audit unless you act on it,” Gossett says.
As another famous detective would say, “Elementary, my dear homeowner, elementary.”
ENERGY CHECKUP QUIZ
Can you make your home more energy efficient and lower your heating bills? Answer “Yes” or “No” to the questions below. The more “Yes” answers you have, the lower your heating bills.
• Are there 12 inches or more of insulation in your home’s ceiling?
• Are the side walls of your home fully insulated?
• Are floors over unheated areas and crawlspaces insulated?
• Do you keep curtains closed in the winter when the sun is not shining?
• Do you keep curtains closed in the summer to keep direct sunlight out?
• Are all doors and windows weatherstripped to prevent drafts?
• Have you caulked around windows, outside faucets, and electrical openings?
• If there’s a fireplace in your home, does it have glass doors?
• Do you check your furnace filters monthly to clean or replace them?
• Is the heating equipment in your home serviced annually?
• Do your family members take brief showers instead of baths?
• Are hot water pipes insulated?
• Do you look for a high energy-efficiency rating, such as Energy Star, when buying new appliances?
• Do you use fluorescent lighting whenever possible?
For an online energy audit of your home and more energy-saving recommendations, log on to www.touchstoneenergy.com.
And if you have additional questions about energy audits or ways to make your home more energy efficient, contact your local electric cooperative office.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ENERGY TAX CREDITS
For a list of energy-efficiency upgrades and tax credits available, click here: energy tax credits.