Why You Should Read Your Energy Bills – Natural Gas

Be thoughtful and thrifty with your therms.

Perusing your natural gas and electric bills each month could help you be a more savvy energy user, which is good for you, other people, and the planet.

We Americans expect power and heat to be at our fingertips 24/7.

Every time you flip a light switch, push the television remote button or turn a gas range knob, you are anticipating immediate light, entertainment, or flames. Even while you are sleeping, your home is consuming energy; appliances and equipment are standing by ready to power up, digital displays are illuminating the dark, and heating and cooling systems are humming along.

All this instant gratification is taking an enormous toll on Earth, people, and the other living beings sharing the planet.

Extracting, transporting, refining, storing, and burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) is a dirty and dangerous business that is jeopardizing the health and well-being of people everywhere, especially the people who live near fossil fuel extraction sites, rail lines, refineries, pipelines, and power plants.

Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes - Photo Credit Kim Sorvig
Fracking Well and Wastewater Pits among Rural Homes – Photo Credit Kim Sorvig

17.6 million Americans live within 1 mile of at least one of the 1.1 million active oil and gas wells that are spread across 34 states.1, 2 Millions more live near one or more of the 834 active coal mines on mountain tops and deep beneath the ground in 25 states.3 Others live in the vicinity of one of the 3,288 fossil fuel burning power plants distributed across the country.4

You could be one of these Americans and so could your relatives, friends, and coworkers.

Clearly, we need to get off burning fossil fuels but fossil fuels make our daily lives possible, at least for most Americans. So what can we do?

One thing that each one of us can do is to take responsibility for decreasing our fossil fuel use. Our homes present us with opportunities for consuming less energy and using it more wisely year after year. Even small changes can make a big impact. Imagine the energy savings if everyone in the United States turned their thermostats either off or at least down a few dgrees when they go to bed this winter.

In this 2-part post, we will explore how you can use your natural gas and electric bills to educate yourself about your energy use and to make smarter choices about when and how much energy you use in your home. We will start with natural gas bills and cover electric bills in the second post.

I live in California near the central coast and my utility providers are SoCalGas for natural gas and PG&E for electricity. Your bills may look different but I think the basics will be similar.

Natural Gas Consumption in the United States High-Level Overview

Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA - Photo Credit Marcellus Protest
Fracking at Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, PA – Photo Credit Marcellus Protest

In 2016, natural gas accounted for 29% of the total energy consumption in the United States. Of that, 16% was used in our homes mostly for space heating, water heating, cooking, and clothes drying.5

After natural gas is extracted and processed, it moves through a series of pipelines to storage areas nearer to where it will be used. Large volumes of natural gas are stored underground in defunct oil and natural gas fields, salt caverns, and even aquifers. Smaller volumes are stored in above-ground tanks in either gas or liquid form.

What is a Therm of Natural Gas?

Residential natural gas is billed by the therm so you need to understand what constitutes a therm.

A therm is a unit of heat energy that is equal to 100,000 British thermal units (Btu) and is the equivalent of burning 100 cubic feet of natural gas. So what is a Btu? A British thermal unit is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.6, 7, 8 Many people, like me, will not be enlightened by these technical definitions so now what?

Fortunately, appliance manufacturers provide Btu information so you can get some idea of how much natural gas various items in your home consume per hour. You can find this information on the guides that came with the appliances or look it up on the Internet. Here are some ballpark Btu figures for common natural gas appliances.

  • Range Burner – 5,000 to 18,000 Btu
  • Clothes Dryer – 20,000 Btu
  • Range Oven – 25,000 Btu
  • Water Heater – 36,000 Btu
  • Furnace – 60,000 to 120,000 Btu

As an example, you could run a 20,000 Btu rated dryer for about 5 hours for 1 therm of natural gas.

Gas appliances do not necessarily consume a consistent amount of natural gas when they are on. For instance, once a thermostat detects that the target temperature you set has been reached, your furnace will cycle on and off to maintain that temperature.

What Can You Learn from Reading Your Natural Gas Bill?

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

Natural Gas Bill with Pen and Eyeglasses - Photo Credit iStock/kgeijer

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


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

Climate Zone

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

Baseline Allowance

The climate zone assigned to your home is used determine your baseline allowance, which is an amount of natural gas intended to cover the minimum basic needs of an average household. The allowance changes monthly. Not all gas companies use baseline allowances.

Billing Period

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

Meter Reading

Your natural gas usage is calculated by subtracting the previous month’s meter reading from the current month. The difference is the number of therms you actually used.

Billing Factor

You may or may not find a billing factor on your bill. Gas companies with large territories use a multiplying factor to adjust for differences in elevation and delivery pressure to ensure all customers are charged equally. For example, last December, each therm of natural gas we used was multiplied by 1.050.

Customer Charge

This monthly charge is to cover the cost of gas delivery including reading meters, billing, and payment processing. The amount is calculated by multiplying the number of days in the billing cycle by a fixed rate per day.

Therms Used and Rate per Therm

You are billed for the number of therms you used after the billing factor has been applied. If you used more therms than your baseline allowance, the additional therms are billed at a substantially higher rate per therm. Some companies use tier pricing, meaning as your usage goes up so does the rate per therm.

The rate per therm includes the monthly commodity price for the natural gas procured by the gas company and the infrastructure to deliver gas to your home.

State Regulatory Fee

As a customer, you are funding the public utilities commission that regulates natural gas companies in your state. This fee is calculated by multiplying therms by a fixed rate.

Public Purpose Surcharge

Surcharges on your bill cover financial assistance to low-income customers and energy efficiency programs. This fee is calculated by multiplying therms by a fixed rate.

Gas Usage History

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


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 Natural Gas Reduction Goal

Dart Board with Dart in Bullseye - Goal SettingNow that you have familiarized yourself with your bill and your natural gas consumption for last December, it is time to set a reduction goal for this December and decide what actions you are going to take to help you achieve your goal.

Here are a few easy suggestions to help get you started.

  • Change the setting on your thermostat – set it lower than you normally do in the winter (higher for summer).
  • Wear clothing layers inside.
  • Wash your laundry in cold water.
  • Take shorter showers or turn the water off while you soap up.
  • Hang some or all of your laundry outside to dry (inside in inclement weather).

Get more ideas by reading Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Saving Tips.

When you get your December 2017 natural gas bill, compare it to last year. Did you use less or more gas? If it was more, you need to make more changes. Repeat this process each month.

I envision living in a country where all Americans use natural gas sparingly and then not at all. Where farmers grow food on their land and do not have natural gas fracking pads in their fields. Where drinking water aquifers are protected and not exempted from toxic fluid injection in the name of energy security. Where people can feel safe in their homes and not live in fear of pipeline and storage leaks, ruptures, and explosions.

What do you envision and what are you willing to do to make that vision come true?

In part two of this post, we will attempt to unravel the mysteries of our electric bills.

Featured Image at Top: Natural Gas Fracking Rig and Storage Tanks Adjacent to a Residential Neighborhood in Colorado – Photo Credit iStock/milehightraveler

Related Posts


  1. 17.6 million Americans live close to active oil or gas wells, Phys.org, provided by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, 08/23/17
  2. 34 states have active oil & gas activity in U.S. based on 2016 analysis, by Sam Rubright, DrPH, FracTracker Alliance, 03/23/17
  3. Annual Coal Report – U.S. Energy Information Administration, 11/03/16
  4. How many power plants are there in the United States? – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  5. Natural Gas Explained: Use of Natural Gas – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  6. Therm – Wikipedia
  7. British thermal Unit – Wikipedia
  8. Energy Units and Calculators Explained: British Thermal Units (Btu) – U.S. Energy Information Administration


Energy Awareness Month – 10 Energy Saving Tips

You have the power to conserve energy.

This October, fulfill the promise you made to yourself earlier in the year to get serious about saving energy and reducing your carbon footprint.

October is an ideal time to address your energy use for a number of reasons. First, you still have plenty of time to put energy saving ideas into action before cold winter weather arrives in earnest and the holiday season diverts your attention. Second, if you enjoy challenging yourself during national awareness days or months, you are in luck because October is Energy Awareness Month (it should be Energy Action Month). Third, reducing your energy use can also save you money.

I realize that switching to LED light bulbs and putting on a sweater instead of cranking up the heat will not stop Americans from burning fossil fuels. However, if millions of Americans take these and other seemingly small actions, it all adds up and can make a significant impact.

For instance, if each American household tackled their energy vampires for Halloween we could save 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and use it to provide the annual power needs of 35 million Americans.1

I believe that taking action, even a tiny action, acts as a strong antidote for inertia. The first action may be difficult but each subsequent action is easier because you gain momentum.

Are you ready to take action to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint? If you are, below are ten tips of varying degrees of difficulty and expense to help you get your creative juices flowing. Most of the tips include links to other posts where you can get more information and find useful resources.

Light with LEDs

If you have not made the switch to LED light bulbs yet, now is the time.

Residential LEDs use 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs and they do not contain hazardous mercury as compact fluorescents do.2

The cost of LEDs has dropped dramatically over the past several years and now you can purchase an LED light bulb for around $2.00 maybe less (depending on wattage and type).

If you put LED bulbs in your indoor and outdoor light fixtures this month, you may not need to change a light bulb for a couple of decades and you will immediately reduce your energy use. You can even decorate your Christmas tree with a few strings of colored LEDs.

Snug House

Snug House - Scarf Wrapped Around Miniature HouseKeeping cold air outside and warm air inside during winter months and vice versa during the summer is a good idea, right. What you may not realize is how even small air leaks can wreak havoc with your heating and cooling bills. For example, a 1/8” gap under your front door lets in as much air as if the door had a 2 ¼” hole.3

Fortunately, you can shore up your home’s air defenses with a caulking gun, door sweeps, and weather stripping. You may be able to reduce some air leaks with things you have on hand like rolling up a bath towel to minimize door drafts. I folded up a piece of cardboard and stuck in a crack where the weather stripping on the fixed side of our double front door did not quite reach the threshold.

Read more in Seal Air Leaks to Reduce Home Energy Use and Cost.

Take Advantage of Your Thermostat

A thermostat is a useful device for moderating your home heating and cooling system. Turning back your thermostat 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day could save you 10% on your heating and cooling bills.If you frequently forget to adjust your thermostat when you leave for work, try hanging your keys on a hook next to it.

Learn more about thermostats, recommended temperatures, and thermostat options by reading Use Your Thermostat to Save Energy and Money.

Staying Warm Indoors

On average, home space heating consumes a whopping 42% of the energy Americans use in our homes.5 Hot air rises and cold air sinks so during the winter we are living in the coolest layer of our homes.

You probably take care to dress appropriately for the weather when you go outdoors in the winter so why not carry that theme indoors. Instead of ratcheting up your heater consider wearing clothing made of warmer materials or trying one or more of the tips in 7 Ways to Stay Warm Indoors in the Winter and Be Green.

 Shower Power

Low-flow showerheads are water and energy saving devices. Using less water also means using less energy to heat water. A standard showerhead sprays out at least 2.5 gallons of water per minute even when you are lathering up your body or washing your hair.

Low Flow Handheld ShowerheadWhen you switch to a low-flow showerhead that puts out 1.6 gallons of water per minute you can easily cut your water use by 25% and reduce the energy needed to heat your shower water. If you buy a model with a “trickle” button or a shut-off valve you can reduce your water and energy use even more by restricting the water flow while you are soaping up.

Even non-handy people like me can easily install a low-flow showerhead for under $50.00.

Use Your Dishwasher

Washing dishes by hand is not a water or energy saving activity. A kitchen faucet pumps out 2.5 gallons of water per minute so you may be using more water than you think filling up the sink or a dish tub and then rinsing dishes.

Cramming a bunch of dishes in a dishwasher willy-nilly may result in some items not getting clean so do pay attention to where the spray jets are and learn to load your dishwasher efficiently.

Green and Lazy Laundry

Doing the laundry is a habit that you learn and then repeat thousands of times over your lifetime so you may find energy and water savings hiding in your laundry room.

I did not think much about my own laundry habits until my kids went away to college but if you have children at home you do not have to wait that long. If you are interested in evaluating your laundry habits, you may find the posts Laundry – Laziness is Good and Greening Your Laundry Habits useful.

Extra Credit: Using the sun to dry your clothes on a clothesline is a significant energy saving action, but I admit that I do not do it, at least not yet.

 Tackle Your Energy Vampires

Energy Vampire - Cell Phone ChargerAn energy vampire is a piece of equipment that sucks power even when it is not in use; this is called standby power. For instance, a cell phone charger left in a wall socket or a television both draw power just standing by waiting for you to use them.

Our Halloween activity for 2013 was tackling our energy vampires. It was fun, easy, and inexpensive. A few weeks after we completed our energy vampire project I learned the hard way that cable boxes must be on standby power to receive system updates. Our cable television service was abruptly discontinued without notice because our cable box had been going offline each evening. Now I leave it on.

Energy and Water Efficient Appliances

I am not advocating buying new appliances unless you need to replace a worn out or un-repairable appliance or piece of equipment. However, if you are in the market for a new refrigerator, air conditioner, or television, consider adding energy and water efficiency to your list of must-have features.

Look for the ENERGY STAR and WaterSense labels to identify and compare appliances and equipment. I wrote about my search for a high-efficiency replacement dishwasher in Dishwashers – Top 3 Eco-Friendly Features.

Go Solar

There is no better time than right now to go solar. Solar panel prices are low, tax incentives are available, and the summer rush for solar installers is over. You can increase the value of your home with solar panels while reducing or eliminating your electric bills. If you do not want to buy a rooftop solar system, then consider leasing.

Purchasing solar panels for your home is a sound financial investment and even more importantly, it pushes the ball forward in creating a clean renewable energy future for all our children.

You can learn more about home solar panels and our real life rooftop solar experience by reading Go Solar with Home Rooftop Photovoltaics – We Did, Rooftop Solar Costs Less than You Think, and You Can Increase Your Home’s Value with Owned Solar Panels.

My energy saving action for Energy Awareness Month is washing our laundry with cold water. I know, I know, why did I not make this change years ago? My only defense is that old habits stick with you. The good news is that you and I can change our habits today or any day and make a positive impact.

I hope one or more of the above ideas has struck your interest and helped inspire you to take action to reduce your energy use and carbon footprint. Please share what you are doing to reduce energy use with other readers.

Featured Image at Top: Coal-fired power plant looming over a residential neighborhood in West Virginia – Photo Credit Wigwam Jones

Related Posts


  1. Energy Vampires and Phantom Loads – Standby Power, Green Groundswell
  2. LED Lighting – Energy.gov
  3. Energy Advice for Owners of Historic and Older Homes – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  4. Thermostats –U.S. Department of Energy
  5. Use of Energy in the United States Explained: Energy Use in Homes – U.S. Energy Information Administration