Reducing spending is my favorite pastime, more fun than a Pokémon or any other video game. Finding new ways to reduce costs provides me more pleasure than any other activity I engage. I bike to work as often as feasible, blasting my transportation costs to a minimum. Our home hot water is supplied by a geothermal heat pump. In the summer there is no reason to keep the geothermal on except for hot water so we put it on a timer, reducing our electric bill to almost nothing. (We use hot water in the evening to hand wash dishes and wash up after working outside.)
There is one more energy hog in the house we need to address: the clothes dryer. We launder our clothes in cold water. Most people drop the wet clothes into an electric dryer and crank the beast to the highest setting for an hour. Not me. We have devised a system where we dry our clothes, even on vacation, without a clothes dryer.* The energy cost of running a clothes dryer has been known to send frugal people (like me) into epileptic shock. The first time Mrs. Accountant ran the dryer I went outside to watch the meter. I hurried Mrs. Accountant to the meter to see the damage with her own eyes. She agreed. The dryer stopped and the clothes lines were put to work.
Before you start sending nasty emails on why you can’t air dry your clothing, listen first. I agree I have it made living in a rural setting. I have clothes lines outside, in the basement, and a clothes drying rack. I have pictures in this post on some of my setups. Living in town can be a challenge, especially in an apartment. It is hard to have clothes lines in the basement if you don’t have a basement. Bare with me.
Starting with the easiest and best way to dry clothes, the outdoor clothes line is cheap and efficient. Two trees can do the job. Clothes lines can be strung between any two objects. There are traditional poles you can use to string line between, too. Witness my rural setup. Not pretty, but effective. Three unused treated 2×2 fence posts, a few hooks, line, and the detached garage did the trick. You need land to set up an outdoor clothes line. Without land you need to apply other methods.
In NE Wisconsin it gets cold in January. Clothes hung outside tend to get stiff
rather than dry. This is where the indoor clothes line comes into action. Rainy summer days or frigid January afternoons are no reason to fire up the sinkhole of money called the electric dryer. The indoor clothes line works great in the coldest winter months and during wet outdoor weather. My basement is kind of a junk collecting area the kids use; welcome to old farmer central. Still, the basement has a few great uses. We cycle the cool air around the home in the summer for free air conditioning and dry clothes in the winter. Once again, the setup is less than pretty. Since I am not trying to impress anyone other than my wallet, I don’t care. A few hooks and one package on line solved the problem.
Many readers here don’t have access to outdoor or basement setups like I have. The laundromat is your only option for washing clothes. The cost of drying clothes at a laundromat is massive! For you the clothes drying rack is an investment with an annual 1000% return. Mrs. Accountant used a clothes drying rack from the day we met. She is an awesome lady! Now you know why I married her. Clothes drying racks can be set up anywhere: in the living room, balcony, porch, or side room. We use our drying rack mostly in the winter when outdoor clothes drying is out. (The clothes line is usually under snow or we would use it.)
Indoor use of a drying rack has multiple benefits. Clothes dry fast when placed by a furnace vent adding moisture to the dry winter air. No need to buy a humidifier when you dry clothes naturally indoors.** Personally, I think air dried clothing feels better on the skin. The greatest advantage of all is how long your clothing lasts. Mechanical dryers twist and tumble the clothing causing damage. Natural air drying allows clothes to last a really long time, another money saver.
Get ready to fire some hate mail; you’re gonna like this one. Up front, I really do this stuff. Good thing I’m married. Considering my lifestyle I doubt there would be many takers for an old farm boy who travels like this.
First, you realize most hotels have a clothes line near the shower, right? I use mine. I travel light and launder clothes along the way. And I don’t stink (unless I ate goulash for lunch). On the road Mrs. Accountant and I hand wash our clothes and hang them on the line provided or over a chair.
Second, I frequently wash my clothes by either wearing them into the shower and soaping up good or washing them while I shower and immediately wearing them when finished. Hint: It is best to shower wearing your skivvies first, then rinsing, followed by putting on your outer clothes and showing them. (Please use the comment section below to indicate your opinion of my level of intelligence.)
Mrs. Accountant prefers to air dry her clothes; I prefer to wear damp clothing until it dries. My way is faster. Body heat and the air movement while I walk around have my clothes dry within an hour or so. Cold weather is even better. Cold air is dry air. Combined with body heat, damp clothes is dry in twenty minutes when the temperature dips. Hot, humid environments are a different story. My clothes were dry in the aforementioned twenty minutes in Edmonton, but took over half a day in Costa Rica. (Come to think of it, my clothes were never dry in Costa Rica.) Yeah, yeah, the guy who does not like to travel has been to Costa Rica and Edmonton. Deal with it.
Money in the Bank
The math is clear, electric and gas clothes dryers dry your wallet faster than your clothing. The machine does make great, if not expensive, nouveau art. You can drastically reduce your energy costs by eliminating the clothes dryer. Invested in an index fund, your savings could turn into a nice nest egg. You can also travel much lighter (no more baggage fees) when your mindset includes naturally dried clothing. I am sure there are a few who will disagree. Don’t care; I am right.
I have included several photos of clothes drying setups around my farm. I also included a few links to clothes drying racks from Amazon. Hint: the old fashioned wooden drying racks were sturdy; the new ones are frequently too flimsy. I am fortunate enough to have an old wooden rack from grandma. The metal racks are the best option today. My advice is to spend a bit more upfront for quality; you do not want to buy a new rack twice a year because the old one keeps breaking or falling apart.
* I did make the mistake of buying a dryer many years ago when we remodeled our old farm house. The washer and dryer was a set and Mrs. Accountant said the dryer would be nice to have, just in case. To date, the dryer has been used a total of three times in fifteen years. The last time the machine ran was several years ago. The dryer does make a great shelf in the laundry room, however. A bit expensive for shelving, but one uses what one has on hand.
** Don’t vent a clothes dryer into your home. The moisture comes out too fast and tends to cause mold and it is a fire hazard. I had renters many years ago who tried this stunt and caused serious mold issues.
Utility bills left unattended can put a serious dent in your budget. There is good news. You can reduce your electric bill 80% or more in a few short steps. Heating, water, internet and other utility bills can also be reduced by massive amounts with a few tricks.
The old adage ‘A watched pot never boils” is an apt place to begin. Before you can reduce your utility bill you need to know how much energy you are consuming. I get invited to seminars periodically that promise massive energy savings. They offer a free meal and Mrs. Accountant and I are always up to learning something new when a free meal is involved. The seminars are all the same. They try to sell over-priced products, many of which will never work if you understand even a small amount of science.*
Back by the ‘watched pot’ we are beginning our journey to energy reduction. The first step is to record your energy usage. For some reason, when I ask clients to record their energy usage the amount they use seems to decline. Like the ‘watched pot’, energy is still consumed. The water will boil, it just seems to take forever when you are watching the darn thing. Scientists know when something is observed the results can be affected by the observer. In medicine it is called the placebo effect (if you think it will work, it sometimes does, even if it is a gelatin pill). By watching your energy consumption you become aware of how much you are using and start to take steps to stop waste.
You will all think I am crazy when I tell you this, but I know how much electricity I used on any day going back nearly three decades. My morning routine includes feeding the animals, feeding the fish, weighing myself, and checking the electric meter and recording the stats. When I am on vacation I check the meter when I return and prorate the daily usage. To prove I am as insane as I claim I have included a picture in this post showing the hand written pages of records I have going back years.
Not everyone is into the insanity routine. I get it. What I will ask you to do is record your usage on a daily basis for one month. One month only qualifies you for crazy, leave the insane to me. The goal here is to get you to feel your daily energy usage. At the same time I want you to pull out your utility bills for the last year. What we are looking for here is your energy consumption per month. To make an accurate comparison, we need to compare your energy consumption to the same month of the previous year. Recording your electric meter reading each day may actually affect your electric use. Just watching the darn thing can make a difference.
Bring Out the Ax
Now we can roll up our sleeves and start chopping that electric bill down to a nub. I will use examples I have used in my office, home, farm, and with clients. Some of my recommendations are available around the net, many procedures will be new. So you understand my home electric bill, I need to provide some background. I live in northeast Wisconsin. We get really cold in the winter; our summers are cool, but humid. My home does NOT have a furnace, air conditioner, or hot water heater. I have a geothermal heat pump to cover all heating, cooling, and hot water needs. My electric bill is much higher in the winter because the heat pump uses electricity. Since I live in the country and have my own well, I do not have a water bill. I do not have a heating oil or natural gas bill either because the heat pump handles that. Our electric use for cooling is near zero because we circulate cool basement air to cool our home.
The reason I record my electric use daily is because I will know instantly when something is consuming an abnormal amount of energy. The first steps to reducing energy use are easy. Most lighting needs to be LED. Some low use lighting areas can wait for an upgrade. I updated security lighting around the office and barn lighting when LEDs were really expensive. The math still made the transition worth the investment.
Example, per lighting unit:
Lighting 12 hours a day in the barn for the animals or security lighting around the office on a sensor:
100 watt incandescent: 12 hours a day (1.2 KW) x .14 per KW x 365 = $61.32 per year
24 W CFL: 12 (.288 KW) x .14 x 365 = $14.72 per year
7 W LED: 12 (.084 KW) x .14 x 365 = $4.29 per year
I found the wattages on lighting available at a local hardware store. An LED is more expensive upfront, but uses $10.43 less in energy per year than a CFL. LEDs have come down in price significantly and are frequently the better deal. I always compare lifetime cost of a product before buying. The estimated fuel and maintenance costs of a car can take an original purchase price and increase it many times over. Light bulbs are the same.
Once lighting costs were under control I moved to other energy offenders. For me, the farm takes a lot of electricity. The steers require an electric fence, lighting, and heat during the dead of winter for water pipes and water feeders. In the barn I refuse to use a fire source to heat the utility room so only electric heating tapes on pipes and electric space heaters would do. I sealed and insulated the barn utility room and created an insulated box where the water works entered the barn. This simple move eliminated all use of electric heating tapes, a major savings. Today, only one space heater in the barn is needed. It runs on low and only a short time in January and February.
My personal experience is different from yours. Without a farm or barn to keep warm your electric needs require a different strategy to reduce your utility costs. The geothermal heat pump in the house is a low cost way to reduce home heating costs, but most people either don’t have a geothermal or live in a warmer climate where it is not needed.
Where the Tire Meets the Pavement
Because we each have different issues to resolve in lowering our electric bill, I will share a few tricks you can tailor to your personal situation for maximum savings. Simple ideas like lowering the temperature in the winter or closing off (and not heating) unused rooms is something you should already have implemented. What I refer to is eliminating energy vampires and wasted electric use.
There are two important steps you must take to reduce your electrical usage by the maximum amount without sacrificing lifestyle. The first is to record usage. In this instance I am not talking about recording your daily or monthly usage. What I refer to is the usage of specific appliances. To do this you will need a Kill-a- Watt monitor. They are fairly cheap, but I went to my library and borrowed theirs. The monitor is plugged into the wall and the appliance is plugged into the monitor. What you are specifically looking for is how much electricity the device is using when turned off. You might be surprised by how much money you are throwing out the window even when appliances and TVs are not on. A quality power strip (invest in a quality power strip, cheap power strips do not always work well or for very long) will resolve the problem. You can turn off the appliance at the power strip and stop the energy vampire. You will also want to test other appliances for usage. A refrigerator may suck more current than your think. A newer appliance with lower energy use might pay for itself in short order.
The second step sounds a bit weird at first. I assure you this really works. Almost all devices, including lighting, make noise when consuming electricity. I perform a regular energy audit of my office, farm and home by getting rid of all noise and listening. As you identify each energy use by sound, unplug it. You will be surprised by how many things are running. A large part of your electric bill goes to devices you didn’t even know were consuming your money, ah, electricity.
One final example before we call it a day. Seven or eight years ago a business client in the office wanted me to help him identify electric use in his commercial building. I explained how I used sound to identify electric use. When I finished my energy audit his electric bill dropped 73%. The guy just shook his head and told me I spoke with demons. I found over 100 items in his building sucking electricity he had no idea were running. We swapped out some lighting, installed timers on some devices and turned off unnecessary equipment.
I guess I could have given you a standard ten point list of stuff to turn off, but my way works better and adjusts to fit most needs. For the most part we are not talking about heating costs here; we are focused on electrical usage. Heating and cooling bills are the topic of another post.
Excluding the farm and geothermal heat pump, my home uses 7 – 10 kilowatts per day. This number does include the hot water produced by the geothermal. The winter months bring larger electric bills, but the weather determines usage. The farm is also weather dependent. There are ways to reduce those farm costs and I would be happy to write about them if enough of you would benefit from the dialog; let me know in the comments. I suspect most readers have a home or apartment and maybe a business. You can also apply this knowledge to rental properties, especially if you are paying the utilities.
There is more to the ‘cut your utility bill’ discussion, but. I have flapped my lips enough for one day. In the near future we will dig deeper into this topic. Until then, check your library for a Kill-a-Watt monitor and listen for the sound of money leaking from your home.
* High quality aluminum foil in the attic will cut your heating/cooling bill a bit, but not worth a $3,000 investment. You can do it yourself for around $100 here. You do not pay $80 for an LED lightbulb; you do know you can buy LEDs from Amazon at a reasonable price. A capacitor pack does provide some surge protection for your home, but will not lower your electric bill much. My research indicates the energy savings with one of these devices is limited. Some people claim they really make a difference in lowering your electric bill. You can save $100 or more at Amazon if you want to do it yourself.
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I grew up on a small farm in rural northeast Wisconsin. We lived in a shotgun shack which is more familiar to the U.S. South. If you don’t know what a shotgun shack is, it is a home with so many holes you could shoot at it with a shotgun and the pellets would pass right through without hitting the building.
A shotgun home in NE Wisconsin has problems in the winter months. The small furnace kept the pipes from freezing and not much more when the temperatures dipped below 0 F. My upstairs bedroom had no heat. As luck would have it, I had an electric blanket. There was one more advantage: I kept ice cream under my bed for two or three months a year and it would not melt. Those are wonderful memories.
Things changed. My parents started an agricultural repair business and started to flourish. The homestead was remodeled and filled with comfortable warmth. So I moved out. (Hey, I was an adult and needed to spread my wings. Besides, all that comfort was making me weak in the middle.)
Years later I bought my own homestead complete with my very own shotgun shack. Now married, I had other considerations and plenty of training to do. Not everyone takes to a shotgun shack as fast as I do. The homestead was remodeled before we moved in. (The softness stuck with me.) When we bought the homestead (10 acres) the furnace and water heater were caput and there was no air conditioner. (I never had air conditioning growing up so I avoid the unnatural cold air whenever I can.) We installed a geothermal heat pump (this is back in 1995 and still have the same heat pump) which replaced the furnace and hot water heater. As a bonus we had air conditioning.
The air conditioner rarely gets used. In the summer our electric bill is very low. We use about 20 kilowatts a day and much of that goes to pump water for the steers. The winter is a different story. A geothermal heat pump does not sip electricity, it gulps. Sure, it is more efficient than most other heating methods. It still adds up.
The electric bill in the winter causes me to shutter. We have electric heaters in the barn to keep the water open. Heating tapes wrap the water pipes and the chicken waterer sits on a raised heated disk. Now add the home heating and I am ashamed of my energy usage. (There are several days in the dead of winter where we use over 100 kilowatts a day.)
My childhood memories provided a partial solution. I put on my salesman’s hat and sold my family on a colder house. No more 67-68 degrees for the tough Accountant family. No, we were going back to a 50 degree house during the winter. As I gave my sales pitch I could see I was losing the sale. The look I got from my dear loving family was, to put it politely, rude.
A good salesman does not hear the first “no” or even the twenty-second. I had to reformulate my proposition. I started turning down the thermostat a degree or so. There was push back. However, the clan adjusted. That was my opportunity to cut another degree off the top.
By the time I played out my goodwill with Mrs. Accountant and the junior Accountants, I had the house at 60-61 all winter long. I guess we call that a compromise. I did not get the 50 degree house I wanted, nor did I get a full force revolt. (There were a couple of coup attempts we will leave out of today’s story.)
There were several benefits from the cooler house. We seem to sleep better at night. Of course, the light bill dropped significantly. I even remodeled the barn where the water works were and cut my utility bill further. The barn remodel paid for itself in one winter. The surprise came from our health. We don’t seem to gets colds the way we used to.
We bump the heat when entertaining guests. It takes getting used to and I do my best to treat guests with respect; we turn up the heat to 65. (A man has his limits.)
We have a cold house. It is not about the money. A larger utility bill would not change my lifestyle. It does go against my constitution. Spending money in a wasteful way bothers me to no end. Humans can easily handle colder temperatures. I have not died (yet) from working outside in 20 below weather with a 30 mile an hour wind. The more you practice, the more your body adjusts.
My annual spending hovers around $30,000 per year. A cold environment could bump that number up, but does not for me. When you allow your body to adjust to seasonal weather you are no longer a slave to human modified environments. In the summer we use open windows for air conditioning. We knuckle under when the humidity becomes oppressive. The air conditioning unit of our geothermal heat pump runs two or three times a summer; some summers it never gets used.
Why all this so-called craziness from a wealthy accountant? Simple. When I cut my needs (really wants), my cost to survive becomes low. It does not take much for me to cover the basics. My $30,000 a year lifestyle allows me massive amounts of frivolous spending. If things got tight I could cut to $10,000 – $12,000 before it would really hurt, as I did before and in the early years of my marriage.
The real benefit is the tax-free money. If I spend an extra $1,000 per year over-heating my house because I am too soft, I need to work long enough to earn $2,500 to pay the taxes, pay for the transportation to work, pay for work clothes and any extra cost of not eating at home. A frugal guy like me might get it done for $2,000 and if I bike to work, $1,750.
How long does it take me to earn $2,000? How long does it take you? When you spend time away from your family to earn this money, do you think about what you will do with that money? Would you burn a $100 bill? No? Let me end with one last question: What are you doing this winter if your home is warmer than 60 degrees?