Energy Tools for Beginners - Part I - How Much Energy Do I Use?

Energy tools beginners

Learning how to track your energy usage

I'm new to blogging on Mapawatt but have lurked behind the scenes building the infrastructure behind  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.

Electricity Usage:


Natural Gas Usage:


Water 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!

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!

Part 2: Energy Tools for Beginners: Real time energy monitors

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Thanks for this! Where is Part 2?
ckmapawatt's picture
Here you go Charlene: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Energy tools for beginners - real time energy monitors</a>. You might also like our post on the <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">future of home energy monitoring</a>.
Warren -- What you are doing is great, especially the solar! I have discovered that I learn new things that change my actions continuously. Here are a couple of things for you to think about. If you are burning trash, you are probably creating some pretty nasty air contaminants. Think about what can be recycled, or how you can reduce the amount of trash you produce. It is amazing how much packaging and disposable items an average family uses, and how difficult it is to find alternatives. It is a continuous challenge for our family. It would probably be better if you take what you cannot recycle to the dump. Another point: Although most people will tell you that any biomass is carbon neutral, that is not the case. I still think it is better than using natural gas or grid electricity, on a household level. I continue to change my opinions and learn about this one. Congratulations on your worthwhile efforts. We would all be better off if everyone was inspired to look at their energy use as you do.
A couple years ago we used over 3000 kwhrs per month on average. We are now down to about 750 kwhrs per month with 250 kwhrs attributed to hot-water. Our three boys have moved out (for a warmer home) so its just the wife and I to point the finger at. We also have 3.6 kW of grid-tied solar that produces on average 500 kwhrs per month. Most of the 3000 kwhr average went for winter heating as we have an all electric home (no gas). We are now into our second winter heating primarily with wood-pellets with backup electric heat. We built with conservation in mind some 18 years ago. We have around a dozen thermostats for zone heating. We have a TED5000 and have become addicted to watching our usage. We are in Iowa and have enjoyed a mild summer this year. The solar actually produced more than we consumed for most of the summer. But the winters will eat up my our credits. I installed the solar about 6 months ago and we've been very happy with it. We used about 1.5 ton of wood-pellets last year. We both work during the day and the house can get down to 58 degrees mid winter before we get home around 5 PM to start the stove which we run until about 10:30 PM. The house gets down to the mid to low 60's over night. Not for everyone but also not a huge inconvenience. Our water bill is $ 25 every 3 months. We burn or recycle all our trash so we have no garbage pickup. We've started to convert lighting over to LEDs. Future plans are to add solar thermal water-heater to bring us to near net-zero in 2010. We also plan on removing the central air and going to high efficiency zoned mini-spit heat pumps for air conditioning. We wish to leave a very small footprint without working real hard at it. I work with customers on reducing their energy usage and the first thing I recommend is tracking their usage. Typically they know their bills are high but they never relate it to units used. I enjoy this blog and it's many examples and great advice.
Warren, I hope I can get to where you are in your carbon footprint some day. I have solar hot water but not the best location for optimizing solar fraction. It's an AET Drainback system that pre-heats an electric hot water heater. It's extremely reliable. I'm going to do all that I can to my current home to be more efficient but will have to relocate to a better location for net-zero dwelling. Better attic insulation is next on my list. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge!
Great Tools!
Thanks. They worked well for helping me to understand how much electricity I use. Part 2 will cover realtime energy monitors. This is what helped me really start reducing my energy usage with simple upgrades or minor modifications to how we use energy.
Hi Warren, I bought my house without knowing anything about energy efficiency. I have three teenagers, two are girls and we have five people in our home. I also charge an electric golf cart for local driving. I'm also located in the SE United States where we use a lot of electricity for AC in the summer. I hope that helps.
Why and how do you use so much electricity?
Warren, How much do you use and where do you live?


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