Energy Adviser: Case of the space heater mysteries

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Follow the money seems a sound axiom for a detective — unless he investigates energy waste.

DuWayne Dunham has spent 13 years as an energy counselor solving energy mysteries. His gumshoe twist on the adage is: find the space heater. Dunham found them running in homes when the homeowner has forgotten all about them.

Clark Public Utilities advises using space heaters to help cut energy costs by moving them from room to room and turning them off at night or other times when they aren't needed. Running one 24 hours a day, seven days a week wastes energy.

"A 1500-watt space heater running 24/7 for a month raises a utility bill about $90 monthly," said Dunham, who often responds to calls from frustrated customers demanding why their energy bills have increased suddenly. More often than not, the smoking gun turns out to be a space heater.

Many times he can help customers by researching their past electric usage. Other times, he drives to the home to perform the utility's free in-home energy reviews. Often, he scrutinizes both.

Once Dunham went to a home whose owner was quite critical of the past month's bill he'd received. Dunham reviewed the past usage on the house before he went out and it showed a marked increase in usage. He spoke with the homeowner, who claimed that he'd done nothing unusual and made no changes to his programmable thermostat.

"OK, I'll come over and let's figure this mystery out together," Dunham said.

During the home audit, Dunham looked around inside the house trying to discover any energy-stealing culprits. He found none. Then he opened the inside door to the garage. A wave of warmth washed over his face.

Curious about the source of the heat, and suspecting a space heater, he entered the toasty garage and poked around. He caught the offender. Columbo-like he queried the owner why the space heater was running on high in an uninsulated garage.

"To keep my tools warm," the homeowner said.

"Are warm tools worth $90 a month?" Dunham asked to the homeowner's embarrassment. "That heater kicks in any time the temperature is below 60 degrees. There's your usage felon." Case closed.

Then there's the case of the serial space heater abuser. A woman called Dunham with a concern about her bill, which had jumped several hundred dollars a month. Of course, she insisted she wasn't using space heaters and leaving them on. Or, so she said. A trip to her residence proved otherwise.

Just past the front door Dunham saw the first space heater. One, it turned out, of many. Touring her home, Dunham found space heaters a plenty. In her son's room, he found one running and another knocked over. "He never uses 'em," she insisted as she righted one and turned the other off.

In her master bedroom, he found another directly in the path between her bed and the bathroom.

"Oh, I never use that one either," she said. "Then why store it in such a central location?" asked Dunham gently.

Moving to the attic, he sleuthed out two more space heaters running full blast. "I forgot I had those," her guilty voice sighed.

Finally, in the final case of forgotten space heaters, Dunham once tracked down five in outside buildings of one customer's home. She was keeping her cats warm but was shocked to find out how much it cost.

"You might want to cut back on space heaters," he counseled.

Another case closed.

A jump in an electric bill isn't always because of an extra space heater, or three, but if it's possible you have one hiding it could save you a significant amount on your monthly bill to go track it down.

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