If you are among those who trade rainy Northwest winters for extended visits to sunny southern climates, it's important to take steps to avoid wasting energy and money while you are away. Otherwise, your house may use almost as much electricity as when you're here.
"Don't be surprised if you come home and your bill hasn't changed much if you haven't done anything with your thermostat, refrigerator and hot water heater," said DuWayne Dunham, a Clark Public Utilities energy counselor. "Those are the biggest energy users in the house."
Here's a checklist for those heading out of town for the winter:
• Heat: This is the biggest chunk of your energy bill in the winter months. Turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees. If you have zoned electric heat, set room thermostats to the same low temperature and leave doors to the rooms open. If you have someone checking on your house regularly, you can consider turning the power off.
• Moisture: If you decide to turn your power off, the person checking on your house should turn the power and heat back on if the weather turns really cold. If outside temperatures drop into the 30s or lower, it's a good idea to have the heat on to avoid moisture buildup that can breed mold and mildew. Leave the power on and use a dehumidifier, which doesn't draw much energy, if your home is older, poorly insulated or prone to water condensation.
• Water heating: Water heaters continue to operate even if no one is there to take a hot shower. For electric water heaters, turn off the power at the circuit breaker. For gas water heaters, set the thermostat to "pilot" or "low." It should only take an hour or so to get the water warm again upon your return.
• Water: Shut off the water supply at the main valve and drain the pipes, but be sure to open the valve back up before turning your water heater back on. It's smart to drain faucets, too, in case of an extended freeze. Water that freezes in supply or 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, so 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. If you decide to leave the fridge on, turn it to a warmer temperature, remove perishables and fill it with several gallon-size jugs of water 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. Rather than leaving lights on around the clock, use outdoor security lights that automatically turn off at dawn or use motion-detector lights. Put indoor lamps on a timer.
"Compact fluorescent bulbs are great for this. It only costs a penny to light a CFL for eight hours," Dunham said. "That's really cheap security."Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.