I Think Someone Is Stealing My Electricity … or the Power Company Is Making Up Numbers
Okay, it’s not that I think someone is stealing my electricity per se, it is that I have eliminated nearly all other possibilities and have narrowed the situation down to a handful of unlikely scenarios that are the only ones left left on the table. At this point, I’m simply baffled and unable to make the numbers work which is, itself, an unusual experience for me.
Let me back up and provide some context. As part of the technology and minimalism projects, I’m getting all of my household data consolidated into a single place, where it can be accessed on demand, in a few seconds. As I do it, I’m using it as an opportunity to run an analysis on things and find out if I can be more efficient, freeing up more investment cash to fund blue chip stocks, bonds, real estate, or whatever else is going to throw off dividends, interest, and rents while I sleep, go on vacation, read, or play video games. The small things add up over time, and I’m always looking for a way to pull one of the two levers I have at my disposal.
Examining my kWh usage from the electric utility, I noticed something is going on with my household energy usage that makes no sense. I don’t think it ever crossed my radar because in terms of dollar costs, the annual electricity bills are a rounding error; literally less than a fraction of 1% of my household income per year. Plus, electric energy is stupidly cheap in the Midwest (power from an electric utility costs 10.38¢ per kWh while an equivalent amount converted into natural gas from the gas utility costs 1.9¢ per kWh). But now that I see the actual energy usage figures, it’s driving me nuts because the numbers indicate something is happening that isn’t being accounted for in the analysis. I have been walking around for the past two hours, measuring appliance usage and writing it down in a book, calculating everything that is using electricity or could use electricity (even plugged in but turned off as it draws power from the wall).
Here is what the power company says shows as my draw from the electric grid over the past 24 months:
They say that over the past 12 billing cycles, my household used 19,901 kWh of energy, or roughly 54.82 kWh per day. That’s 54,820 Watts. That means I’d have to be running 2,284.17 Watts, at all times, 24 hours a day, 363 days in a row.
These numbers simply are not possible. First, we only rely on electricity for part of our energy needs; natural gas covers the rest (central heat, cooking, fireplaces). Second, not only is the house half built into the ground, requiring far less energy due to natural cooling, it’s covered with a forest on the back half so it’s always naturally shaded, it was built within the past seven years at near commercial standards (there isn’t a crack or crevice anywhere to the outside – you can sit near the windows in winter and not feel even the slightest bit cold), and has energy saving appliances (our large load energy efficient dryer requires only 1.8 kWh to be running for 60 minutes; we do 204 dryer loads per year so it consumes 374.4 kWh of energy per annum). The energy efficient washer uses 253 kWh per year, the energy efficient refrigerator uses 610 kWh per year). We turn off lights when leaving a room, several of the already-efficient appliances are on built-in timers so they turn themselves off automatically, the computer systems are the 27″ iMacs that exceed the Energy Star standards (PDF data). I don’t even have any electric clocks as there is a huge old-school style spring-wound grandfather clock in the dining room! Plus, look at the average temperature for my area.
The power company says that I’m using 500 to 600 kWh more every single month than my neighbors but I’ve run all of the numbers, everywhere. It cannot mathematically work. Even if I assume crazy inputs – like we leave fans running all day, always keep the temperature at 68 degrees, and never shut off the lights – it is still hard to get there, and none of those things are true!
The Water Heater Does Offer Some Room for Electricity Savings But It’s Not Enough
After discussing it with our friends during a game of Civilization V – I was slightly late for our regular standing online meeting as I was too busy running kWh numbers – they suggested we go look at the water heater. This was sage advice. Sure enough, the house has an 80 gallon water heater that consumes 5,106 kWh of energy per year, which accounts for 25.66% of the household electricity use over the past twelve billing cycles. Were I to buy a gas or hybrid unit, I could easily drop that to 1,884 kWh per year, saving 3,222 kWh per year. At 10.38¢ per kWh that is $334.44 in savings annually, plus I’d get a one-time $300 tax credit on my Federal tax bill as an energy incentive. In any event, it’s a no-brainer that this now has to happen, especially when I can buy the water heater through Upromise at Home Depot or Lowes and get 10% cash back using the incentive programs I utilize.
Still, this would only lower our electricity usage to 16,679 kWh over a twelve month billing cycle, or 1,390 kWh per month. That’s 45.7 kWh per day. That’s way too much for half our energy needs. I’m telling you, I’m looking at the figures and this is not in the realm of mathematical possibility.
The natural gas bill makes much more sense. I understand the numbers. One Therm, or CCF, represents 100 cubic feet of natural gas. This time of year, we might use 8 CCF per month. A single CCF is roughly 29.3 kWh for comparison, which would work out to 234+ kWh equivalence. Since natural gas is almost free, it doesn’t even register, hardly – they are charging us $0.56529 per CCF. As I mentioned earlier, that works out to $0.019 per kWh. In other words, electricity through the power company is 546% more expensive than energy brought in from the natural gas utility based on this month’s rates.
In fact, natural gas is so ridiculously cheap due to the discovery of huge reserves north of here in the Dakotas that during the heart of winter, when it is -10 degree Fahrenheit windchill outside, we’ll turn on the fireplaces by pressing a button and burn them all day instead of using the central heat much. This results in 154 CCF of energy usage per month. That works out to 4,512+ kWh equivalence. I’ll gladly pay $85 a month or whatever it is for a few months out of the year to have multiple fireplaces roaring at full blast as the Christmas trees twinkle and the snow falls outside. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. (Even our Christmas lights are LED, by the way, so this is what I mean when I say the power utility figures cannot be real.)
I pulled another chart that shows, over a 24 month period in a slightly different presentation.
Having run the numbers myself, looking at the energy efficiency of our light bulbs and appliances, building spreadsheets … I think there is a very real possibility that someone is either stealing electricity from us (doubtful – it would be hard to get access to the property and not be caught), there is a neighborhood power drain being recorded on our meter, or the meter itself is broken. There are people in my town with houses 2x the size, much older, with far less efficiency, that are 100% electric using barely more kWh than we are.
I’m going to get to the bottom of this because it’s the only thing I can think about right now. And what’s worse, even the large fluctuations make no sense – look at 04/19/2012 through 06/21/12. There is nothing to account for that variance. In fact, that was the period when we were renovating the house, so there were more lights on, not less, as people were coming in and working all the time.
I’m at the end of my analytic rope. This is not possible. Not even remotely. In fact, I just went and flipped the master breaker switch on the house and went outside, with an LED lantern, to look at the meter. It stopped spinning, so there’s no direct connection that has by-passed our breaker box.
I realize the potential savings here are, at best, $1,000 per year, which would result in an extra $15,000 to $17,000 in wealth over the next decade if I were to put it to work at average rates of return. It may not be a huge amount but if this is a mistake of some sort, it’s stupid to just leave that cash sitting on the table. I don’t care how successful I am, to walk by that when it’s just there, waiting to be pocketed, is dumb.
I have to solve this mystery. This whole experience also has an odd side-effect: I’m half tempted to go replace the already efficient appliances with gas versions. It would drop the expense of a single dryer load from the $0.1868 it costs now to $0.034 + a few extra pennies for the electric systems to run on the circuits, which is still a large reduction. I doubt it would ever have a good enough pay back period to justify it though as we’re talking about degrees of perfection here. But that’s secondary. First, I have to find the reason for this massive discrepancy. I’m at the point of thinking there is none. I’ve exhausted nearly all avenues of possibility.
You can look at the per-state average monthly consumption in kWh (the data is two years old, but it’s what the U.S. Energy Information Administration has finalized), in this great Excel spreadsheet. They should be on your bookmarks, anyway, if you have an interest in viewing data on topics as fun as coal extraction rates.
Update: The energy investigation continues! …
Update II: Almost a year later, we’ve significantly cut our energy usage! …