Steve Scott is finding a way to beat the high cost of heating his and his wife Sonia’s Orchard City home. So far this season, Steve has trimmed hundreds of dollars from his monthly home heating bills compared with the last two heating seasons.
That remarkable result is due partly to the mild fall weather this year. But it is also the result of Steve’s change from using propane as the primary source of home heat. Now the Scotts are using a well-thought-out plan of thermostat-controlled electric space heat combined with DMEA’s low “time-of-use” rate as the primary means of space heating their home.
By using most of their electricity at the low time-of-use rate, and by focusing their electric space heating usage in the most occupied areas of their 2,700-square-foot home, the Scotts have switched propane to their backup source of home heat and so far this year have saved hundreds of dollars.
Normally during the months of October and November, the Scott’s combined propane/electric bills would be in excess of $400. Three-fourths of that amount would be for fueling the 244,000-Btu, propane-fired boiler that feeds the hot water baseboard heating system in the home.
This October and November the Scott’s home heat bills were right at $100, and they burned virtually no propane either of those two months.
On some days, 80 percent of the electricity they use is at the time-of-use rate, less than half of DMEA’s normal residential rate.
Steve had made a previous try at saving on energy bills, but he found out the propane costs were still a killer.
Steve explains, “From October 2006 through March of 2007 we paid a total of $2,175 for propane. At the end of the winter of 2007, we paid $1,787. The cost per gallon during this period ranged around $1.89 to $2.50 per gallon.
“What made it scary is that during that time I had installed auto setback thermostats in the upstairs area, and the downstairs den/bedroom thermostat was set as low as it would go. We were expecting propane costs to approach $3 a gallon this winter.”
Some winter surprises
Steve, a retired corporate manager, and Sonia decided to relocate in Orchard City a couple of years ago because they have relatives who live in the area, because they love back country touring on ATVs, and because of the mild climate.
But after a couple of wintertime surprises in the form of high propane bills, Scott, who loves to work with high-tech gadgets of all kinds, decided he had a “real money situation” on his hands with high heating costs.
It was about that time that he noticed an article on DMEA’s time-of-use electric rate discount and decided to investigate further.
Steve has set up a spare to help him monitor the home’s energy usage. He also takes the time to read the new electric meter installed for time of use and enters data manually into his programs. He can print out charts and graphs that display energy use and dollar savings.
The electronics and computer aren’t essential for realizing the cost savings. Anyone else can benefit from Steve’s home heating ideas without any of the high-tech stuff involved. But the real savings will require some forethought, planning, discipline, the ability to adapt as conditions may require, and at least a few changes in lifestyle.
A few adjustments
The Scotts are retired and probably have some advantages in their ability adapting to the limitations imposed on the time-of-use electric rate. They have a lot of flexibility in their daily routines which, for example, a working couple with three or four kids wouldn’t have.
The time-of-use rate offered by their electric supplier gives a significant discount in the kilowatt-hour rate it charges for electricity consumed in off-peak demand times. But the time-of-use rate is available only during certain “off peak” hours. For its time-of-use rate customers, DMEA charges a much higher premium rate for electricity used during peak system load times, so timing electric usage is essential for realizing cost savings.
Another potential drawback that anyone wanting to emulate Steve’s system would want to investigate is their propane supplier’s business policy. Some suppliers may penalize customers if their propane purchases fall below a certain minimum level.
The Scotts have managed so far with a relatively few, simple lifestyle adjustments including setting thermostats a bit lower; wearing sweaters inside; and doing laundry once a week when the low rate is in effect.
They have several thermostat controlled 1,600-watt electric heaters in the home that are set on timers to warm specific areas of the home before they get up. A space heater in the bedroom is set on 52 degrees days and 62 degrees nights, and keeps the room comfortable.
By using these electric heaters set on timers in strategic locations in their home, the Scotts do increase the amount of electricity they use in their home when needed while lowering their monthly cost of electricity and decreasing the actual amount of propane they use.
“We are using more electricity, but it is mostly bought at the 3.8-cent rate,” Steve says. “Combined with that, we are not using the propane nearly as much and that magnifies the savings. Instead of heating the entire house with the propane fired boiler, we heat room by room as needed with electricity, almost entirely at the off-peak rate,” Steve explains.
Adding a note of caution on the use of high-wattage space heaters, Steve says, “You must make a careful assessment of your home’s outlets, circuit breakers, and wiring capacities before you connect high-wattage heaters. Even though the circuit breaker does not trip, the wiring between the outlet and the breaker can overheat if too much current is drawn over a long period. You should check with a professional electrician before connecting a number of large-wattage units around your home.”
Call for backup
When the Scotts bought their 1970s vintage home, the primary heat source was the propane fired hot water baseboard system. The boiler takes 10 minutes to heat up and begin pumping hot water through the house. Scott calculates the unit burns 2.67 gallons of propane per hour.
In addition to the normal electric conveniences in their home, they have four computers which serve as part of Steve’s electronics hobby activities, and an outdoor, electric heated hot tub. The hot tub, though well insulated, can be a big user of power when family house guests arrive for the holidays. They no longer run this unit during the winter except for special occasions.
Steve explains how he realized the money savings. “What I wanted was a way to track exactly how much propane is being used on an hourly/daily basis. This furnace is rated at 244,000 Btu, as mentioned earlier, which translates to about 2.67 gallons of propane per hour. That is $6.70 per hour at $2.50 per gallon!
“At that rate of consumption, it is really important to know when it is running and for how long. Once we knew what it was actually costing on an hourly/daily basis, we could start using alternative methods of heating.”
Steve explained how his new system was working during November this year. “Since Nov. 8, we have used timers to turn the space heaters on and off. They only operate during the off-peak time. The outside temperatures have dropped below 25 degrees at night for five nights. As of Nov. 22 the propane furnace has not turned on once since Nov. 9.
“As the afternoon temperatures drop (daily highs had averaged around 55 degrees at that time) we may have to use the furnace some. But, it is clear to me that we can look forward to some serious reduction in propane consumption this winter. Our cost of electricity during November averaged just $3.93 day. December’s average has come in at $4.71.”
Steve explains, “The cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity off-peak just over three cents, whereas the equivalent cost of propane is approximately $.09, or about triple. The furnace heats one or more of three zones, whereas an electric heater is only heating the specific room it is placed in.
“Dynamically, it will get down to heating individual rooms separately until the outside temperature becomes so low that they will not keep up. At some point the furnace will be necessary to offset this and bring a zone up to a certain point. I become concerned about water pipes freezing. This whole process will take trial and error to determine the right mix of heating processes. But, in the final analysis, combining electric heat with propane will clearly result in a lower heating cost for us over time. The beauty of this system is there are no capital costs involved — just a little ingenuity.”