Most consumers can find ways to conserve energy around the house

PERSONAL FINANCE

March 19, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE | EILEEN AMBROSE,SUN COLUMNIST

It looks like Marylanders will need to take a hard look at how they use electricity and find ways to conserve now that rates are headed up in July.

That could take some getting used to.

"We have enjoyed in this country for far too long very cheap energy. When a commodity is cheap, you tend to use a lot of it," said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

Conservation alone can't wipe out the 72 percent increase - $743 a year on average - in electric bills for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. residential customers.

"But we found you can get pretty far," said Jennifer Thorne Amann, co-author of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. California was already energy-lean, but residents managed to cut their power use by 20 percent after the 2001 brownouts, she said.

Marylanders seem to have room to conserve. Households here use more than twice the power as those in California, the most energy-efficient state, according to 2002 figures from the Alliance to Save Energy.

Here are some tips:

Are you gone most of the day? Does your heaviest use of power occur at night or on weekends? Consider switching to BGE's time-of-use rate plan. It rewards customers with cheaper rates if they use electricity in off-peak times.

"This is a program that really is for a household that is very energy-conscious," said Darlene Buchholz, BGE's manager of customer accounts and metering services. "They have to be very careful of when they use certain appliances."

Basically, the plan charges three different rates during the day. In the summer, the highest rate is in effect between the power-hungry hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. The cheapest rate kicks in from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and throughout Saturday, Sunday and holidays. All other times, a mid-cost rate applies.

Run the dishwasher at 8 a.m. in the summer and the cost is 6.173 cents per kilowatt hour, according to BGE's Web site. Wait until 11 a.m., and the rate jumps to 8.491 cents.

Do the dishes at 11 p.m. and the rate falls to 3.667 cents.

In comparison, someone not on this plan would pay 5.851 cents throughout the day. (Of course, these won't be the rates this summer.)

The time-of-use plan requires a different, more expensive meter. You'll pay $12 a month versus the usual $7.50.

This plan can save consumers money, but only if they diligently use electricity in off-peak times. If not, they can end up paying more, BGE said.

Drafty residence? Add insulation, seal leaks and caulk windows to keep heat in during winter and out during summer.

These efforts may be rewarded on your federal tax return. Homeowners may qualify for a 10 percent tax credit - not to exceed $500 over two years - for adding insulation or installing energy-efficient windows and doors.

A state program weatherizes homes for free for low-income residents. To be eligible this year, gross income can't exceed $14,700 for a single person, $19,800 for a couple or $30,000 for a family of four, said Richard P. Doran, executive director of the Community Assistance Network in Baltimore County. Call 800-638-7781 for information.

When replacing appliances, look for the Energy Star label, the government's seal of approval for energy efficiency, Callahan said. Energy Star products might cost more, but they use about 30 percent less energy, she said.

Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs cost $4 to $6 apiece, but they last more than six times longer than regular bulbs, Amann said. And they pay for themselves. Putting fluorescent bulbs in the five most-used lights in the house saves about $60 a year, she said.

Give your central air conditioner a tuneup so it's running at top efficiency. It may cost about $100, but you should more than recoup that over the season, Amann said.

For another $50 to $100, install a programmable thermostat. This would allow you to set the time for the air conditioner to turn off in the morning when you leave for work and switch back on just before you get home.

Or, just remember to adjust the thermostat each day as you come and go."If you go from 70 [degrees] to 80, you can save 10 percent," Amann said.

Many consumers will keep air conditioners running while they're away during the day on the theory that it takes more energy to cool a hot house. That's a myth, Amann said. Air conditioning systems work well when operating at full force, she said.

Avoid activities that will generate heat during the hottest part of the day and cause the air conditioner to work harder. Don't bake, do the laundry or run the dishwasher in the middle of the day.

Many plugged-in gadgets in the home are using power even when they are turned off. That includes televisions, VCRs, CD players, DustBusters, electric toothbrushes and other appliances. They account for about 5 percent of a household's power usage.

If you don't want to unplug all of them every day, at least pull the plug when going away on vacation, experts said.

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