Natural gas prices are going up all the time. At what point does it
make sense to replace my gas water heater (40 gallon) with an electric
one? I live by myself and my July gas bill was $28. I take 1 quick
shower a day, do 2-3 loads of laundry a week, and run 1 dishwasher load
per week. I also rarely, if ever, use my gas stove during the summer.
The same CCF usage last year cost me $11! This is already bare-bones
usage. How astronomical is my heating bill going to be this winter?
What can do I to save on natural gas? Barbara Columbus, OH
Barbara asks a question that's on many people's minds as we head toward
winter. How will rising energy prices affect my budget and what can I
do to limit the damage? Let's begin by looking at water heaters and
then follow-up with some ideas on reducing energy bills.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) says that 14% of our home energy usage
is for heating water. By comparison, 44% is for heating and air
conditioning. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute over $15
billion is spent by Americans each year to heat water.
Should Barbara consider switching away from natural gas? Probably not
now or ever. Generally it has been cheaper to heat water with gas than
with electric. In February, 2005 the Metropolitan Utilities District of
Omaha NE estimated that an electric water heater cost 75% more to
operate than a gas heater.
But that doesn't mean that Barbara can't reduce the amount of energy
she uses to heat water. The Rocky Mountain Institute claims energy
saving techniques can reduce the cost of heating water by two thirds.
The four biggest savers are using efficient showerheads, washing
clothes in cold water, insulating the water heater and lowering the
water heater thermostat to 120F. Combining those would reduce a bill by
Two of the techniques don't require Barbara to spend any money. The
other two are inexpensive. Installing low-flow showerheads is a
do-it-yourself type project. Barbara can put a blanket of R-12
insulation around the water heater herself. She should check the
manufacturer, since some recommend against extra insulation.
Although a little more expensive, Barbara might also want to check out
the cost of installing a timer on her water heater.
Ok, what about her winter heating bills? Should she consider replacing
a gas furnace? Again, probably not.
What makes comparing furnaces hard is getting an apples to apples
measurement. DOE estimates that 1 kWh of electricity is worth 3.3 cubic
feet of natural gas in terms of generating heat. A common method of
comparison translates everything into how much energy is needed to
produce a BTU. But even that still just measures heat generation. It
doesn't take into account how efficient the heat delivery system is.
We won't get into the formula details. If you're seriously shopping for
a new furnace or water heater you'll need to get estimates based
specifically on your own home and lifestyle. That will be better than
generic estimate anyway.
Even after the current increase in prices, gas is still cheaper than
electric for generating heat. And, electric prices will probably rise,
too. About 20% of electricity in the U.S. is generated from natural gas
and petroleum. So an increase in those prices will tend to raise
electric costs, too.
That doesn't mean that Barbara is helpless. The DOE suggests an energy
audit as a good way to find out where you're using energy. Often your
local power provider will do an audit free of charge. Or you can do a
simple audit yourself. An internet search will uncover instructions.
In most cases, the best thing a homeowner can do is to make sure that
they're not wasting energy. The DOE says that if you total up all the
leaks around windows and doors it's the same as leaving a window wide
open. Weather-stripping is an easy, inexpensive way to eliminate those
leaks. A $3 tube of caulking could save you quite a bit.
The other key to winter heating, especially when there's only one
person at home, is to only heat the areas where you are. You don't need
to heat the entire home.
Yes, a central furnace will be more efficient than a space heater. But,
only if they're heating the same sized area. In most cases the space
heater only has to heat one room, while the furnace will heat the
entire residence. So even if the space heater is less efficient, it
will still use less energy than running your furnace.
Winter energy bills will always be a challenge. Especially when prices
rise and you live in a cold climate. Fortunately there are things that
consumers can do to reduce their bills short of replacing water heaters
Gary Foreman is a former purchasing manager who currently edits The
Dollar Stretcher website <www.TheDollarStretcher.com> and newsletters.
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