Patrons abuzz over library district's energy meters

Devices have been in high demand

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When Megan Dugan first brought home an energy meter last month, she didn’t test every gadget in her house. She didn’t need to.

“I tested like four or five things,” Dugan said. “And then I started unplugging everything.”

Dugan used the meter to measure the energy usage — and cost — of mostly idle, plugged-in household items: her toaster, coffee maker, phone chargers and the like. Every one of them added to the electric bill just by remaining plugged in, even if not in use.

What she found wasn’t exactly surprising, Dugan said. But it was enough to change the family’s behavior.

“I thought, ‘When you’re not even using it, why would you leave it plugged in?’” Dugan said.

The Fort Vancouver Regional Library District in November began allowing patrons to check out the meters — dubbed “Kill A Watt” readers — after they were donated by a local Wells Fargo call center. Dugan, a Vancouver resident and circulation services coordinator for the library district, received one to test out early on.

The devices have been in high demand since. The library received 26 meters, but the waiting list to check one out topped 80 people earlier this month, Dugan said.

The meters are available to patrons at all 13 libraries in the Fort Vancouver district, which stretches from Clark County to as far east as Goldendale. Wells Fargo donated the devices following a similar arrangement with Oregon’s Multnomah County Library system.

Wells Fargo’s “Green Team” program wanted to bring the resource to Southwest Washington residents, said education impact committee chair Debra Kennedy, calling the meters “a really powerful tool.”

The Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation gladly accepted, said its director, Rick Smithrud.

The meters themselves aren’t much bulkier than a TV remote control. They work simply by being plugged into a wall outlet, with another device plugged in through them. A digital display then shows energy usage, plus cost per hour, day, month or year.

An accurate cost reading first requires the user to input the local energy rate. In Clark Public Utilities’ case, that’s 8.16 cents per kilowatt hour.

Dugan’s results didn’t produce eye-catching numbers. The seldom-used blender measured a cost of $2.15 per year. The toaster, $4.30. A cell phone charger clocked in at $2.87, slightly less than an iPod charger at $3.59 — both without actually charging their respective devices, just simply remaining plugged into the wall.

A few dollars here and there doesn’t seem like much. But they add up, Dugan said, and why pay extra for no reason? Small or not, those numbers make people more conscious of the gadgets they may not otherwise think about, Smithrud said.

“You wouldn’t leave the faucets running. You wouldn’t leave a vacuum cleaner running,” Smithrud said. “There are devices that you need to be aware of.”

Dugan did, however, draw the line at her kitchen’s coffee maker. It’s used often, and includes a clock that depends on staying plugged in. Dugan said she’ll pay the annual $2.87 to not reset it every morning.

The meters are available to any cardholding member of the Fort Vancouver library district, but can’t be renewed after the three-week checkout time. Many library patrons learn all they need to know sooner than that.

“It makes you think sometimes about how dependent we are,” Dugan said. “The modern lifestyle is very driven by electricity.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.