I'm new to blogging on Mapawatt but have lurked behind the scenes building the infrastructure behind Mapawatt.com. I share Chris' vision of providing users with a trusted source of energy information and tools that will help us learn how we use energy. For my first blog posts, I'd like to share with you three tools I use to reduce my household energy usage.
Tool Number One: Tracking Monthly Utility Usage
One of the first challenges I faced when I decided to evaluate how to green my household was that I have no idea how much energy I use every month. I'm talking energy units, not dollars. I could tell you that in the summer, my bills get to $2-300 dollars per month but I couldn't tell you the energy unit used on my Georgia Power bill, much less the price per unit they charge. It was time to read and understand my electricity bill for the first time!
After carefully reading the bill, the first thing I noticed is that Georgia Power uses kilowatt-hours (kWh) as the energy unit for electricity usage. If this term is not familiar to you, read Chris' post on "What is a kilowatt-hour" for a good primer on this topic. In addition to the kWh energy unit, I discovered that Georgia Power doesn't show the rate per kWh on my bill. Amazing. I guess I'm not the only one who doesn't read their bill closely. There must be enough people ignoring this factor that GP decided to save the ink and not encourage their customers to drill down into actual rates. More fuel for the fire on why we need to educate ourselves on energy usage!
The most effective way for me to entice myself to start reading my bills is to build a spreadsheet and transcribe the information into MS Excel. I'm a technnologist, so I know the value of having numbers in a spreadsheet. I knew that once the data was in Excel, I would be a couple of clicks away from pretty visual charts. Visual tools that will help me to understand and measure my energy usage!
Here is a mini-web version of my spreadsheet with the three types of energy and resource I track in my home:
Once I had a handle on reading my electricity bill, I did the same for natural gas and water since I live in the Southeastern United States and these are the primary utilities other than transportation fuel. Now, I track Electricity, Natural Gas and Water usage by monthly units and total monthly cost. This allows me to generate nice line graphs that show year-over-year energy usage.
Natural Gas Usage:
The graphs above give me a visual way to analyze the numbers in the spreadsheet above. Without any additional data, the first thing you can see from the natural gas chart is that I don't appear to use any natural gas from May to mid-September. The interesting fact about this is I have a gourmet kitchen with a gas cooktop and like to cook. However, I have a solar hot water pre-heat system with a backup electric hot water heater. Therefore, we can deduce from this chart that a gas cooktop uses very little natural gas. For me, natural gas usage equals home heating. If I had a natural gas hot water heater, I think this chart would have a very different shape.
In addition to entering my monthly data from my bills, I also try to keep track of any changes I make to my household and behavior. For example, I decided to have a plumber come out to my house in mid November 2007 because I noticed a frequent sound from the toilet in the master bedroom. He replaced hardware in all of my four toilets explaining that several of them had slight leaks into the bowl that was causing my fresh water valves to cycle on and off. See if you can see the difference on the line chart above year-over-year starting in mid November. Notice the precipitous drop in water usage that levels off through the next year. If you hear periodic noise from your toilets, call the plumber and make a difference!
Just as a quick comprehension test, take a look at my water usage in July of 2009 compared to previous years. What do you think might have happened to change the shape of the chart this year? (hint: I put in a victory vegetable garden this year) Get the picture?
In summary, learning how to read your utility bill, keeping track of the data in a spreadsheet and charting it visually will send you on your way to becoming a Green Energy Expert! If you're not a spreadsheet person, we hope to provide an easier way for you to keep track of your monthly utility bills online and chart it for you too. Stay tuned for some new tools coming soon on Mapawatt.com!
In Part 2 of this blog series, I'll cover Tool Number Two: Realtime Energy Monitoring. This is the next step to help you drill down on how you use energy in your household!