Shrink Your Carbon Footprint with a Smart Thermostat

Make saving energy easy and fun.

You can stay warm (or cool) in your home, use less energy, and save money by replacing your old thermostat with an easy to use learning (smart) thermostat. The operative word here is easy.

With a little training from you, a smart thermostat will learn your household’s temperature preferences, adjust to changes in your schedules, and suggest settings to save energy.

For instance, during the winter a smart thermostat will learn what time to turn your furnace down at night while your household is sleeping. On a hot day, a smart thermostat will learn when to turn on your air conditioning so that your home cools down before your kids get home from school or you arrive home from work. If you sign up for an account and download the app, you can control your thermostat using your smartphone and get detailed information about your home heating and cooling energy use.

A smart thermostat is likely to cost you between $150-$250, plus sales tax and possibly shipping if you buy it online. You may be able to install it yourself or with the help of a friend, but if not, hiring an installer will add to the cost. Most manufacturers claim that a smart thermostat could reduce your home heating and cooling energy use by at least 10-15% and that the thermostat will pay for itself in energy savings in two years or less.

2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart
2015 Residential Energy Use Pie Chart – Source The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration

There are probably 100 million thermostats hanging out in hallways across the United States. Imagine if every household had a smart thermostat. We could be comfortable in our homes, save some money, and most importantly decrease our reliance on burning fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes. When millions of people make even a small change, it can really add up to make a significant positive impact.

That all sounds wonderful so smart thermostats should be flying off store shelves, right?

I am highly motivated to curtail my energy use and yet it took me five years to decide to buy a smart thermostat because I was evaluating the purchase using outdated cost/benefit thinking.

Is a Smart Thermostat a Good Investment?

I have been eyeing smart thermostats since 2012 when I wrote about them in the post Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money. At that time, I did the math and decided that replacing our old thermostat with a smart thermostat did not pencil out, meaning it did not seem like a good investment.

My spouse and I both work out of our home office so since we are home during the workday we use energy all day. However, we live in a temperate climate where the average winter temperature during the day is in the 50s and we do not have air conditioning. If we managed to save 10% a year on our natural gas bill, I estimated it would take at least four years or more for the energy savings to equal the cost of the smart thermostat.

So, what changed my mind?

First, I had to admit to myself that I was never going to learn how to use our existing programmable thermostat and that manually turning it on and off and adjusting the temperature when I thought about it was not an energy saving practice.

Programmable Thermostat Inner Workings
The Incomprehensible Inner Workings of Our Old Programmable Thermostat

Once or twice during the ten years, we have lived in our current home, I opened the thermostat cover and looked inside with the intent of learning how to program it. The inner workings seemed complicated and difficult to use. I sighed and closed the cover feeling defeated. I know I could have tried to find the instruction guide online, but I never did.

Then there was the argument that our current thermostat was operational so it would be wasteful to get rid of it. Eventually, I realized that using more natural gas than we need to is much more wasteful especially considering that extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels is harming people and the planet. We need to get off burning fossil fuels sooner rather than later and decreasing our own use is a step in the right direction.

The seemingly long payback period made me hesitant to spend $200 on a new thermostat. My only excuse for that holding me back is that I spent a couple of decades working in corporate America where every product purchase was evaluated based on how long it would take to pay for itself in either sales revenue or cost savings. Every decision was made with an eye on the financial bottom line.

My narrow thinking kept me from buying a smart thermostat until near the end of last year when I was researching and then writing about why you should learn to read your natural gas and electricity bills. My purpose was to empower readers to understand their own energy use and be responsible for decreasing their fossil fuel use. While I was editing my posts, I realized that I could and should do more than I was doing to reduce our household energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Smart Thermostat Installation

Fortunately, my spouse agreed that we should move the dial forward on our goal to reduce our home energy use by purchasing a smart thermostat.

Of course, there are many different makes and models of smart thermostats on the market in a variety of price ranges. We opted for a Nest Thermostat E for $169 because it has a cool looking design and seemed easy to install and to use (it was and it is).

The picture at the top of the post shows what comes in the box accompanied by an easy to follow instruction guide. My spouse installed the new thermostat, however, even though I am not mechanically inclined I think I could have done it.

An optional rectangular piece of plastic comes in the box so you can cover up the outline and screw holes left on your wall from your old thermostat. My spouse is very handy, so we decided to spackle and paint over the wall.

Sure, replacing our old thermostat with a smarter version is a small change but imagine if everyone did it. If we want to have a habitable planet to live on in the future, we had better expand our vision of what constitutes a good investment.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Nest Thermostat What Comes in the Box – Photo Credit Nest Corporation

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Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Electric

Everyone can elect to use energy efficiently.

Understanding your electric and natural gas bills could turn you into a frugal energy user and unleash your inner climate activist.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels and each one of us has a responsibility (if we choose to accept it) to do our part. Decreasing energy consumption in our homes is something everyone can do to help. When millions of people take a small action like switching to LED light bulbs, the energy savings can really add up.

This is the second in a 2-part post exploring how you can use your energy bills to educate yourself about your energy use and make informed decisions about when and how much energy you use in your home.

In the first post, Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Natural Gas, readers confronted the facts about the ubiquity of fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States and learned how much natural gas common appliances use, how to read and understand natural gas bills, and had an opportunity to establish a usage reduction goal.

This post is devoted to giving you a high-level overview of electricity use in the United States, helping you unravel the mysteries of your electric bill, and encouraging you to set your own electricity reduction goal.

Electricity Generation in the United States High-Level Overview

Currently, in the United States, power plants generate 65% of their electricity by burning fossil fuels (34% natural gas, 30% coal, 1% petroleum). Nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewable energy make up the remaining 35% of electricity generation.1

Coal Power Plant with Piles of Coal on the Edge of a Lake
Coal Power Plant with Piles of Coal on the Edge of a Lake – Photo Credit Dreamstime/Maria Dryfhout

Fossil fuel burning power plants are expensive to ramp up and down so operators try to run these baseload plants at levels where they can generate and distribute a consistent amount of electricity continually.

During peak demand times or when electricity use spikes unexpectedly, electric companies bring their peaker plants online and/or purchase electricity from other power providers with excess capacity. This is a bad deal all around. Peaker plants are often the least efficient, most expensive, and worst polluting facilities.

What is a Kilowatt-Hour of Electricity?

Residential electricity is billed by the kilowatt-hour so you need to understand what that means.

Technically a kilowatt-hour is a measure of electrical energy equivalent to a power consumption of 1,000 watts for 1 hour.2 That begs the question, “What is a watt?” which then leads to “What is a joule?” and so on. For the purposes of this post, we will simplify matters by saying a watt is a measure of the operating power of an appliance or a piece of equipment.

You can find the wattage of your electric appliances and equipment on product labels, in user guides, and on the Internet. The examples below illustrate how long you could use several common electrical items for a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

  • Dry your hair for 37.5 minutes or about 5 minutes a day for 1 week using a 1600-watt hair dryer.
  • Cool your home for about 15 minutes using a 3500-watt central air conditioning system or for about 42 minutes using a 1400-watt window unit.
  • Brew 6 to 7 pots of coffee each taking 10 minutes using a 900-watt automatic drip coffee maker (fewer pots if you leave the machine on to keep the coffee warm).
  • Use a 1200-watt microwave oven for about 10 minutes a day for 5 days.
  • Watch a 48-watt television for 3 hours a day for 1 week (less time if you have a cable box and/or external speakers).

You can do the math for any electrical item in your home using simple equations.

If your appliance runs at x watts, it will run for 1000/X hour.

1600-watt hair dryer example where X is 1600.

1000/1600= .625 hour

.625 hour × 60 minutes/hour=37.5 minutes

What Does a Kilowatt-Hour of Electricity Cost?

In 2016, the average price of residential electricity in the United States was 12.55¢ per kWh. Hawaii had the highest average cost of 23.87¢ per kWh and Louisiana the lowest at 7.41¢. The average price in California where I live was 18.28¢ per kWh.3, 4

Mountain Top Removal to Extract Coal - Photo Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment
The Obvious but Hidden Cost of Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining – Photo Credit Statewide Organization for Community Empowerment

How Much Electricity Does the Average Household Use?

In 2016, the average residential electricity consumption was 897 kWh per month or 10,766 kWh for the year. Louisiana had the highest consumption at 14,881 kWh for the year and Hawaii had the lowest at 6,061 kWh.5

This figure varies widely across the country depending on where you live, the weather, and the number, type, and efficiency of the electric appliances and equipment you use in your home. For instance, in my region, the average monthly electricity use is about 417 kWh in the summer and 474 kWh during the winter.6

What Can You Learn from Reading Your Electric Bill?

I live on the California Central Coast and my electric company is PG&E. After looking at electric bills for electric companies in several states, I concluded that there is a fair amount of variability but the basics are similar.

For this section, you will need a copy of your electric bill from last December. If you do not have a paper or digital copy, most if not all electric companies, make bills available online. If you need to, take a break to go sign up, retrieve your bill, and then come back.

Electric Bill with Pen and Calculator - Photo Credit iStock/Niyazz

Now look at your bill and find the following or similar items.

Rate

This field indicates what rate schedule is being used to calculate your bill. You can look up rate schedules on your electric company’s website.

Climate Zone

Your home’s location places you in a climate zone that electric companies use to estimate how much electricity you and other customers in the same area will use during various times of the day and during different seasons of the year.

Baseline Allowance

The climate zone assigned to your home is used to determine your baseline allowance, which is an amount of electricity intended to cover about 50-70% of an average household’s use. The baseline is adjusted seasonally. Not all electric companies use baseline allowances.

For example, our town is in the climate zone that covers most of the California coast and a short distance inland. Here the baseline is 7 kWh/day (about 210 kWh/month) May through October and 8.5 kWh/day (about 255 kWh/month) November through April.7

Billing Period

The number of days in the billing period is used in calculations on your bill.

Meter Reading

Your electricity usage is calculated by subtracting the previous month’s meter reading from the current month. The difference is the number of kilowatt- hours you used.

Electricity Charges

Here is where it gets tricky. Electric companies often charge different rates at different times of the day and/or charge higher rates if your consumption is above a certain number of kilowatt-hours.

Tiered Rates

If you are on a tiered rate schedule, your per kWh rate will vary depending on your overall electricity consumption. Your baseline allocation kWh is charged at the lowest per kWh rate and you pay more for each kWh over the baseline.

For example, PG&E customers on a tiered rate plan pay 20¢ per kWh for tier 1 (baseline allocation), 28¢ per kWh for tier 2 (100-400% above baseline), and a 40¢ per kWh high usage surcharge (above 400%). The baseline allowance of kWh is different in the winter and summer, but the per kWh rate stays the same.7

Time-of-Use Rates

For customers on time-of-use schedules, you will pay the highest per kWh rate during peak demand (usually during the workweek from the late afternoon to mid-evening) and pay a lower per kWh rate during off-peak hours. Some companies have an interim rate for part peak hours (usually just before or after peak hours). The times considered to be in the peak demand period vary by company.

For instance, during the winter season, PG&E customers on the time-of-use rate schedule pay 23¢ per kWh from 4:00-9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 21¢ per kWh for electricity consumed at all other times and all weekend. When the summer season begins in May, rates will go up to 36¢ and 26¢ respectively.7

State Regulatory Fee

As a customer, you are funding the public utilities commission that regulates electric companies in your state.

Other Fees & Taxes

Some costs are spread across all customers like financial assistance for low-income customers, efficiency programs, and rebates. States and/or municipalities may charge tax. In California, we are billed every month for nuclear power plant decommissioning and the cost of the bonds issued to buy electricity during our energy crisis in 2001.

Electricity Usage History

Hopefully, your bill will have a handy chart that shows your total electricity used each month over the past twelve months and a comparison with the same month in the prior year.

Messages

It is worth taking a few seconds to read the messages section as it contains information about new programs, rate changes, and rebates.

Establish Your Electricity Reduction Goal

Now that you are acquainted with your electric bill and your electricity use for last December, you are ready to set a reduction goal for this December and decide what you are going to do to achieve it.

Minimizing your electricity use during peak demand times is perhaps the most impactful action you can take in your own home. Keeping peaker plants offline is good for the environment, people’s health, and your wallet.

To help you get your creative juices flowing below are several no-cost ideas about what you can do to minimize electricity use during peak demand times. These actions may seem small and insignificant but if millions of people do them, it makes a significant impact.

  • Defrost food for dinner in the microwave oven while you are eating breakfast or reading the morning paper.
  • Turn off electronics when you are not using them. Most electronics come to life as soon as you turn them on and computers (even older models) only take a few minutes to boot.
  • Bosch DishwasherTurn your dishwasher on after 9:00 p.m. by using the delay button (if it has one) or turning the machine on just before you go to bed.
  • Leave your outdoor lights off completely or at least until after 9:00 p.m. If you are expecting guests after dark, turn the lights on near their arrival time and off after they do arrive.
  • During the summer, especially when it is hotter than usual, leave your air conditioning off or set it several degrees warmer than you normally would between 4:00-9:00 p.m. Use a portable fan in the room you are occupying (moving air helps you feel cooler).

If you are looking for more ideas, try reading Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Savings Tips and Tackle Energy Vampires and Stop Phantom Power.

Once you get in the habit of doing things that reduce your electricity and natural gas consumption, they become routine, meaning you do them without really thinking about it.

I hope this 2-part post has helped you become conversant with your energy bills and inspired you to challenge yourself to use electricity and natural gas sparingly and efficiently as if your life depended on it, which it does.

For readers interested in learning more about fossil fuel energy, electricity, and environmental issues, you will find links to articles and reports in the resources section.

Featured Image at Top: Coal Mining Operation in Tuscaloosa, AL – Photo Credit iStock/toddmedia

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References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. Kilowatt Hour – Wikipedia
  3. Electricity Explained: Factors Affecting Electricity Prices – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  4. California Electric and Gas Utility Cost Report, California Public Utilities Commission, April 2017
  5. How much electricity does an American home use? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  6. PG&E Residential Accounts 2016 Zone 5 (non-CARE) – California Public Utilities Commission
  7. E-1 Residential Services – Pacific Gas and Electric Company, 08/18/17

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