SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If there’s a silver lining to working from home to help stem the spread of coronavirus, it’s the money you save by cutting a commute to the office. And with a little bit of planning, you won’t need to give any of your newfound cash to the electric utility keeping you comfortable all day. Indeed, you can even save money.
While working from home the past few years, I’ve cut more than $100 a month off our power bill, on average – and much more during the sweltering Arizona summers. Incredibly, we installed solar panels during this period, and they’re not even responsible for half our savings.
Of course, we were able to tap savings that may not be available in your area. For one, we changed our behavior to take advantage of our utility’s peak-pricing scheme, where power is very cheap except on weekdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., when it is very expensive.
But even without so-called “time-of-use” pricing, anyone who pays attention to how much power their appliances draw, and how the electric company charges for that power, can make money-saving adjustments while working from home.
Keep appliances in check
The more you know, the more you can save. At the outset, I knew that our two air conditioners and the swimming pool pump were three of our most power-hungry appliances, so I started there. I bought a variable-speed pump for the pool, and a pair of smart thermostats to control our two HVAC units. All three devices featured rebates from APS, our electric company.
As it turned out, the pool pump was a smart purchase. Setting the pump to run at lower speeds for part of its daily 10-hour run made a noticeable dent in our bill.
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The two thermostats did work more efficiently to save some power on their own. And through trial and error, I was able to save much more.
Now, I’m learning a whole lot more than I thought was possible, thanks to a new device called the Wiser Energy Smart Home Monitor from Schneider Electric. The monitor sits inside the power panel, and attaches to the lines coming into the house and, optionally, to lines coming from the solar system. So at any given moment, I can look at the smartphone app and see how much power the house is demanding – even a real-time look at what some appliances are drawing. I can also dig in to see trends over time.
It’s not perfect, though. I’ve noticed a few mistakes. And Schneider’s AI has yet to identify the pool pump. But I’ve been able to prove that the pump dominates the “Other” appliance category. So I can still make decisions for how to manage the power-hungry device.
How to manage power consumption
Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way:
• Go as low as you can. I’ve found that little changes to settings can make a big difference. Hike the thermostat one degree. Use a lower heat setting on the dryer. Drop the speed of the variable-speed pool motor by a couple hundred RPMs.
• If your utility offers time-of-use pricing, give it serious consideration. Time-of-use pricing affords you lots of opportunities to save. Our peak period is only five hours long, but prices are only about two-and-a-half times higher than off-peak. In some areas where the grid is particularly stressed, it’s not unusual to see peak periods lasting more than 10 hours, with pricing 10 times as high.
• Make small adjustments. Thanks to the Smart Home Monitor, we learned that our washing machine doesn’t draw much power – but the dryer does. So if you need clean clothes for an early morning videoconference call, don’t worry too much about starting the washer during the peak period. Just be sure to wait until after peak to turn on the dryer.
• Workaround the high-price times. If your peak period starts in the afternoon like ours, we found that chilling the house in the summer for a couple hours beforehand makes it easier to keep it cool during the premium-priced time.
• Solar completely changes things. Utilities typically pay much less for your excess power than they charge. So if you have solar, move as much consumption as you can to daylight hours. It might even make sense to do laundry during peak period, if you’re still producing more power than you’re consuming.
Obviously, these tips were borne out of our situation. So they may not all apply to you. But everyone can save on their electric bill by finding out how your utility charges for electricity, and much power your appliances demand. You may have an electric water heater. Or a basement sump pump. Or a standalone freezer. Or something else.
Regardless, working from home affords a great opportunity to take control of your power bill. So make the most of the time. You’ll be doing the commute again before you know it.
Mike Feibus is a USA TODAY columnist, and president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. You can follow him on Twitter: @MikeFeibus.