For many Baltimore-area residents, the start of this heating season brings a first: the first full winter of having a smart meter tally gas and electric use.
With heating accounting for about half of annual home energy consumption and electricity use a year-round worry, now is a good time to start learning to use the home energy report and other feedback generated by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. smart meter as a helpful guide.
The detailed reports give customers a crack at what the smart meter, despite its name, can't do: discern what's devouring gas and electricity, and respond with changes.
Starting with the home energy report, a summary that includes a comparison of usage among nearby homes and energy-saving tips, information enabled by the smart meter is available on paper and in a variety of formats.
For those who create online accounts, the report is provided with greater detail in weekly emails, including bar charts that show the prior week's energy usage. Also in the online accounts is a longer history showing detailed graphs that drill down into recent hourly gas and electric tallies. Among other features, customers can be warned when they are heading for a super-size bill.
On energy-savings days, smart meter customers receive credit to their bill for using less electricity. Homeowners can experiment to see how much they save by lowering the thermostat while determining their willingness to put on a sweatshirt. They can see results a day or a week later, or wait for the home energy report and its overview and comparison of theirs to other homes.
Customers can match usage peaks on online graphs to a mini-journal of what was going on in the home at the time and then turning off some of those electronics or lights.
"Understanding and seeing your energy consumption in close to real time hopefully will be some incentive to make some changes," said Dan DiClerico, a senior editor with Consumer Reports.
The commonly recommended heating season thermostat settings are 68 degrees when someone is home, and 60 overnight and when nobody's there. Experts say that every degree the thermostat is lower can save about 2 percent in heating costs.
Say a person keeps a home at 75 degrees when home and 70 when away. "Now that you have sort of real-time access to your energy consumption, you could do a little experiment," DiClerico said.
Turn the thermostat to the recommended settings for a week or more. "Look at the usage. It should go down by 10 percent," he said.
Ruth Kiselewich, BGE director of energy-savings programs, said that "it does help customers to see what they are using."
Like them or not — some people have privacy, health or security concerns that utilities, for which the meters are a boon, have worked to allay — smart meters are becoming part of the landscape. BGE plans to complete residential installation in 2015, and customers will have to pay not to have them.
For some users, the detailed smart meter reports might amount to overload.
"It's not clear to me that smart meters are going to convey lots of information that we don't have," said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents the interests of residential customers in matters of electricity, gas and phones.
"For many people, they are not going to pay attention to it or may not have the means to respond to it," she said. "They may be able to replace light bulbs with CFLs but may not be in a position to replace a severely inefficient refrigerator or heating system."
Health or other personal issues might preclude lowering the thermostat, Carmody and Kiselewich said.
The difficulty for Jennifer Gilbert of Anne Arundel County, and others like her, is that she and her husband work shifts; some days someone is always home and awake. She's a captain in the sheriff's department, and her husband is a firefighter. They just sprang for solar panels.
Teacher Matt Krist paid scant attention to home energy reports about his Baltimore rowhouse. He kept the thermostat very low, and felt chilly air coming in. But his interest in his home's energy use has since been piqued.
Krist opted for a morning-long $100 BGE Home Performance with Energy Star audit, done by Home Energy Loss Professionals, a Dundalk company that receives an additional $300 from BGE for each audit performed.
Company president Bob Logston determined that up to 30 percent of the heat from Krist's efficient furnace blew out through ductwork so poorly connected that Logston could poke a finger in more than one seam.
Estimates indicate that Krist will recoup the $2,600 he spent in retrofits in less than five years — another $2,000 will be paid by BGE. Krist said he will probably increase the temperature this winter, program the thermostat and monitor his energy consumption online.
Krist and his girlfriend were tickled on a recent day to attribute a rise in electricity use the previous morning to running the dishwasher. "I think it would be fun to experiment. The graph of use prompted me to look more closely at this," he said.
Adam Van Bavel plans to use the home reports and the weekly email updates to help guide heating of his Reisterstown home. Over the summer he invested in attic insulation, recommended during a one-hour free Quick Home Energy Check-up through BGE, to help his house retain heat and hopes to recoup his investment in two years.
Van Bavel said that with the insulation, vigilance in turning off lights, shutting down electronics, and keeping the baseboard heat lower, he estimates he will use less electricity than last winter and be closer in energy use to nearby homes.
When a report arrived in March that said he used nearly twice the electricity as his neighbors, Van Bavel immediately lowered the heat from about 69 degrees to about 67. He later turned it to 60 when nobody was home. His June report put him 63 kilowatt hours lower than his most energy-efficient neighbors.
He called the weekly updates "a pretty good gauge of when you're using your energy," and said that "if you get one of those reports and you haven't turned lights off, you see [the difference]."
Check out programs that give homeowners a starting point at no charge. The Baltimore Energy Challenge, for example, open to all city dwellers, supplies and installs a variety of energy-saving items. Among them are hot water tank insulation, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and programmable thermostats. BGE's free quick checkup for homes is free for all BGE customers, but the full audit costs $100. The new Baltimore Energy Initiative is infusing more than $52 million over three years into expanding energy-saving efforts, outreach, education and services for residents, and assistance to nonprofit organizations and businesses, courtesy of a Public Service Commission grant, said Alice Kennedy, director of sustainability. Some programs are open to all residents, others have income limits or other requirements. Information: 311.
Experiment with usage. BGE's Ruth Kiselewich suggests this experiment to gauge power use by appliances and electronics. At 9 a.m., turn off appliances. At 10 a.m., start turning them on, one an hour. Make a record as you go. The next day, use the hour-by-hour energy graph provided by BGE to match the items to when they went on again. That may help you decide if you really want to keep that old fridge in the basement running 24/7 when you only use it one week a year.
Make the most of savings. A dirty furnace filter can eat up those hard-earned savings on heat by almost doubling a heating bill. Your furnace will run better and last longer if you replace dirty filters promptly. Civic Works' Kelley Ray, director of the Baltimore Energy Challenge, advised that if you can afford to buy an LED bulb, put it in the lamp that's on the most. The pricier LEDs last more than a decade and use less electricity than the more affordable CFLs.
Get paid to use less energy. BGE's summer-only Peak Rewards program, in which customers elect to swap bill credit for allowing BGE to cycle off their air conditioning, can help some participants in another way. Those who receive a BGE thermostat for Peak Rewards can adjust it online or from a smartphone. If you're going to be late getting home, for example, you can reset the thermostat from afar. There are other thermostats that allow remote access, as well as "smart thermostats."
Sources: BGE; Civic Works; Baltimore Office of Sustainability; Home Energy Loss Professionals