Light Savers

Finding the hidden culprits that are zapping your utility bill.

Who would have thought that Norma Esperanza's fish are such freeloaders. Never mind the cost of food, gravel, and faux flora. The energy needed to light and heat her four tanks costs Esperanza close to $180 per year. Not exactly a fortune, but rather expensive considering she can't even teach the darn things to fetch.

Esperanza caught on to the truth about the fish during an audit of her Daly City, California, home. Not one of those scary IRS audits, but one provided by Pacific Gas and Electric. "I called PG&E and complained about my high bill," explains Esperanza, who gladly accepted when the utility company offered a free home energy audit.

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The average American family spends nearly $1,500 per year on utility bills. Audits can show you how to short-circuit those bills -- often with measures that cost nothing or pay for themselves in a couple of years. And by saving energy, you'll also lighten the environmental load: Less energy use means less pollution generated by power plants.

Energy auditor Rick Grech has been poking his way through homes for 16 years. Today he is at Esperanza's to investigate her rather hefty electricity bill (up to $130 a month). Armed with a ladder, thermometer, and flashlight, Grech sweeps through the 1,500 sq. ft. home, noting every appliance, fixture, and weatherizing opportunity.

Most things seem to be in order. Esperanza has compact fluorescent lights, which last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use about 75 percent less energy. Her refrigerator is fairly new -- fridges more than 10 years old use up to 30 percent more energy than current models. The water heater is set at 120 degrees, which provides ample heat and a safety measure against scalding. Water-saving showerheads and faucets are present, and for good reason: "My daughter showers three times a day," Esperanza laments.

The culprits? A peek under the fridge reveals dust- covered condenser coils. A good cleaning would knock up to $15 a year off her bill. A foray into Esperanza's attic reveals it's as bare as a baby's bottom. Adding insulation would save her up to $40 per year. And to save a whopping $200 a year, Esperanza should trade her electric dryer for a gas one. "It's things that heat and cool with electricity that are major," Grech says.

All told, Grech found ways for Esperanza to save up to $400 a year and gave her a written summary on how to do it. As he headed out, Esperanza said something few IRS auditors ever hear: "I'll recommend you to my friends."

Many utility companies offer energy audits for free. While it may seem counterintuitive for an entity that sells energy to want you to use less of it, conservation ends up benefiting utilities in the long run: Lowering demand at peak times cuts down on the need to build pricey new power plants.

Some utility companies offer energy audits over the phone or Internet in addition to, or in place of, on-site audits. While these can be helpful, nothing beats a house call. "I go through the house and talk with them," Grech says. "There are certain things that cannot be answered over the phone." Indeed, PG&E customers who have on-site audits on average save $100 per year; those who do it over the phone save an average of $50 per year.

If your utility does not offer home audits, many private companies provide the service for about $50-$100. To find energy auditors in your area, contact state or county energy offices, or the National Association of Energy Service Companies in Washington, D.C.

For those of you who don't have the time -- or energy -- to get audited, try these steps: Install a 2.5 gallon-per-minute showerhead; set your thermostat to 68 degrees, and when you leave or go to bed, knock it down to 55; insulate your water heater; reduce drafts by caulking leaks around windows and doors.

Remember, audits can show you how to save energy, but decisions on what measures to take are left up to you. And when it comes to advice, even auditors like Grech draw the line: "I'm not going to tell someone to get rid of their fish."

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