‎How technology can help you fight rising energy bills (and not)‎

‎How technology can help you fight rising energy bills (and not)‎

‎Thermostats like Nest go a long way toward helping you consume less energy, but the real problem solvers are people.‎

‎The price of almost everything has gone up. But there is nothing that produces ulcers more than the basic need— the skyrocketing value of energy.‎

‎The price rise has been due to the many disruptions of the pandemic. Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest power supply company, recently said that natural gas prices have increased by 90 percent this winter compared to a year ago. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, electricity prices increased by 11 percent in January compared to the previous year.‎

‎On social media apps like NextDoor and Twitter, thousands of people have complained about their rising gas and electricity bills during the winter, some of which have quadrupled to $900 a month. This is equivalent to buying a fancy new smartphone every month.‎

‎So this winter, I started testing energy-saving technology. In January 2021, my energy bill reached $370. I wanted to see if I could do better.‎

‎For my experience, I adjusted my Nest Smart Thermostat to control my heat and reduce my gas emissions. For electricity, I experimented with internet-connected plugs that can be programmed to shut down devices and devices at certain times to avoid energy wastage.‎

‎The big news: My winter energy bills dropped from an average of $250 to about $310 a month. The bad news: An energy-saving expert visited and came to the conclusion that the bill could be reduced by 1.5 times more, said that there is a lot to do for my house that gadgets will not solve.‎

‎”Technology is definitely helpful, but most likely won’t benefit too much from the bills,” said expert Mickey Souza, owner of Emerger, a home energy auditing firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. He added that improper insulation is usually the main culprit of high energy costs at home.‎

‎Here are three key lessons I learned.‎

‎There is no one size advice for energy saving. I learned this in December 2020 when I first started using Google’s Nest Thermostat, which can schedule heating and cooling on your usage habits throughout the day.‎

‎The Department of Energy and utilities such as PG&E and Consolidated Edison recommended keeping the thermostat at 68 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. So I programmed Nest for 68 throughout the day.‎

‎A month later, when the $370 bill arrived, I realized that the thumb rule was terrible for my two-bedroom home, built in the 1960s. Once the house reached 68 degrees, it could not maintain this temperature for long, so the furnace started running again after about 20 minutes.‎

‎All this is to say that some independent thinking is needed to save energy with technology. Ben Brown, Google’s product manager at Nest Thermostat, says that while leaving thermostats throughout the day at age 68 may make sense for small apartments in well-insulated buildings, it’s common advice that many homes probably won’t benefit from.‎

‎Instead, ask yourself a few questions. What’s the size of your home? What do you know about insulation? How long does it take to warm up a few degrees? And most importantly, at what temperature will you and your family feel comfortable?‎

‎In November, I decided to try to improve Nest’s work with my home this winter. After tinkering with Nest settings and studying my energy expenditure every day for a month, I concluded that this was the best schedule for my home:‎

‎6:30 am: Raise the temperature to 66, when it’s time to get out of bed.‎

‎8 am: Set the temperature to 60 so that the temperature continues to fall throughout the day. She made the house a little cool but tolerable by wearing a sweater.‎

‎8 pm: Raise the temperature to 66, because when it is cold at night (and after the peak period of PG&E prices).‎

‎11 pm: Set the bedtime temperature to 57.‎

‎During this experiment, Nest Thermostat also gave me a “head-up” warning that my furnace was going on and off every few minutes, which meant something was wrong. I hired an HVAC professional who diagnosed the problem and fixed it: the gas pressure was too high, causing the furnace to overheat and shut down automatically.‎

‎This solution, combined with a programmed heating schedule, caused a significant reduction in my bills.‎

‎In December, after finishing my experience with gas, I turned my attention to electricity. The results were less remarkable.‎

‎I tested SmartPlug from TPLink, which offers a smartphone app to program light switches and devices on schedule to turn them on and off. I also plugged devices that were often guilty of so-called vampire energy, which sucks power even when not in use. These included a large speaker, a laptop charger, and a phone charger, for which I programmed the plugs only when I was likely to use them.‎

‎In a few weeks, I studied my bills. The difference in energy expenditure was marginal.‎

‎This does not mean that we should not try to avoid wasting small amounts of power. But if your goal is to cut your bill, look elsewhere.‎

‎After the test, I brought Ms. Souza of Enerner, who visited my house for two hours and gave the sad news: There were major problems with the “shell” of my house, the roof and walls.‎

‎”The shell is naturally the most important piece of performance,” he said. “Like a shell on a turtle, it will keep everything you don’t want from coming into your house.”‎

‎Using an infrared camera, Miss Souza showed that my ceiling lacked proper insulation and there was none in the walls. He also found that some drains lacked insulation. There were also holes in the entire house from where the air was coming out.‎

‎Ms. Souza estimated that it would cost $7,000 to $10,000 to hire a contractor to prevent leaks and install appropriate insulations. I’d be eligible for a discount of about $2,000, but great.‎

‎”If I did this, my average winter bill would have dropped from $165 to $250 a month. More importantly, my wife, our dogs and I will be more comfortable.‎

‎Finally, technological options such as smart thermostats are important and necessary products to help us fight rising energy costs. But they are just tools that give us a deeper insight into our energy use. The real problem solvers are still people, like you and your local HVAC professional.‎

‎”Technology can significantly help around your home, but it’s not a replacement for your own smart,” said Google’s Mr. Brown.‎

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