Energy Adviser: Keep energy use low when you’re away

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As fall weather begins to coast into winter chill, many Northwest residents head south to warmer and sunnier climates to avoid the worst of the season. While unoccupied houses may still use some power, there are many ways to reduce your electric bill while you are away.

Heat is the biggest energy expense during winter, so turning the heat to 50 degrees is the best way to cut the power bill.

“The idea is to lower the inside temperature as much as possible,” said Bob West, energy counselor at Clark Public Utilities. “Homeowners can even turn the power completely off, if they have someone in the area who will regularly check on the house, and turn the heat on a bit if the weather turns really cold, say into the 30s.”

Without heat, some homes may suffer from moisture condensation inside because of temperature swings outside. On a sunny winter day the outside temperature may climb as much as 30 degrees from the overnight low while the house remains cold inside, West said. The cold interior air sucks moisture into the house.

Older, poorly insulated homes may have a bigger problem with water vapor condensation than newer, better-insulated homes. To deal with the problem, West recommends using a dehumidifier, which does not use much power, to keep things drier. Newer dehumidifiers will do the job even with interior temperatures as low as 40 degrees, he said.

“As long as there’s not a lot of air exchange, a house without power should stay dry,” he said.

Other winterization steps

If you have zoned electric heat, set room thermostats to the same low temperature and leave doors to the rooms open. “If one room is set higher, the system may try to bring the entire house to that temperature,” West said. Also unplug space heaters and close fireplace flues.

Tips for keeping energy use low when away from home include:

• Water heating: If your home has an electric water heater, turn it off at the circuit breaker panel. If it has a gas water heater, set the thermostat to “pilot” or “low.” It will only take about an hour to get hot water when you return.

• Water: Some utility customers turn off the water supply and drain the water out of the pipes. If you’ve shut off the water to the house, remember to turn it on before turning on the water heater. It’s smart to drain faucets, too, in case of an extended freeze. Water that freezes in supply lines or traps in drainage lines can cause pipes to crack. Open all outdoor hose bibs. Drain water from flexible spray hoses in sinks, tubs or showers. Leave valves at all fixtures partially open. Use nontoxic antifreeze in toilet bowls, sinks, tubs, showers, washing machine drains and floor drains.

• Electronics: Many of today’s electronics continue to use electricity even when turned off. To stop this, unplug printers, computers, cable boxes, TVs and home audio equipment.

• Refrigerator/freezer: Turn off the refrigerator after emptying it and the freezer compartment. Prop the door open. To absorb odors, place an opened box of baking soda on a shelf. “Some people prefer to leave the fridge on, but set it warmer than usual to save electricity,” West said. In that case, he recommends removing all perishables and putting several gallon-size containers of water inside to reduce temperature swings.

• Unplug all other appliances, such as coffee pots or microwaves. They continue to use electricity to operate clocks and timers.

• Home security: Have a neighbor or friend check your home occasionally — inside and out. Leave a lamp or two on timers to give your home a lived-in look. LED or compact florescent lights will cost less to use than incandescent bulbs, West said. Use outdoor security lights that automatically turn off at dawn or use motion-detector lights.

While most of these tips have been around for a long time, newer technology is beginning to have an impact, West said.

“Some automated utility computer software really does allow you to be in Yuma but still turn the heat up in your house in Vancouver,” West said.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.