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'Vampire' energy use is taking a bite out of your wallet

Electronic devices and appliances that use electricity even when they're idle may be costing you hundreds of dollars a year, experts say.

April 26, 2009|Kathy M. Kristof

Are vampires sucking the life out of your household energy budget?

Almost every household has at least one electricity vampire that sucks up power and costs you money.

"You need to do a home energy audit," said William Tauber, chief executive of Progressive Lighting & Energy Solutions Inc. in Tustin and host of "The Green Energy Show" on KRLA-AM (870). "Things in your house are draining energy and you're not even aware of them, but they cost you hundreds of dollars."

The good news is that an energy audit is a lot easier than it sounds. Many utility companies, including Southern California Edison, will do it for you for free. However, it may take some time to get an auditor to your door, so here are a few things you can do now.

Unplug. About 15% of the average household's electricity use is from electronic devices such as televisions, computers, printers and DVD players. A good portion of that is what energy experts call "vampire" use, devices sucking the power grid when you're asleep, said Vanessa McGrady, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison in Rosemead.

What is vampire use? It's when the TV is still on when you're dozing, or when certain electronics are plugged in even if they're not in use. (You might notice it when you touch a cellphone charger that's not plugged into the phone but is plugged into the wall, and you realize that it's warm.)

It's easy to take the cellphone charger out of the wall, but few people want to pull out the entertainment center and unplug each component at night, McGrady admits.

The solution: Buy a $10 power surge strip and plug your electronics into it. Flip the off switch when they're not in use.

Got a spare refrigerator in the garage or attic that's holding a six-pack of your favorite beer? It's probably costing you about $300 annually to keep it cold, McGrady said. In addition to being unnecessary, old refrigerators are often energy hogs, she said.

But what if that six-pack -- or a case of soda -- won't fit in the house fridge? If it's not going to spoil, it doesn't need to be refrigerated until a few hours before you want to drink it. Unplug the refrigerator until you need it. That saves about $25 a month.

If you realize that the extra fridge is no longer needed, Edison will recycle it and provide a credit on your electric bill. Or if you do need it, keep it full. An empty or nearly empty refrigerator uses way more power than a full one because all that cold food and drink helps keep the thing cool, lessening the need for electricity. Tauber maintains that his bill went from $150 to $60 a month by just filling the refrigerator.

If you have a central air-conditioning system, a $2 filter and a hose can save you energy costs along with wear and tear on your air conditioner, said Kathleen Kuhn, chief executive of HouseMaster, a New Jersey home inspection company. Air-conditioning filters in the house get clogged with dust and lint, forcing the air-conditioning unit to work longer and harder to push cool air through the dirty filter.

You don't need a handyman to fix it, Kuhn added. Just open the screen, pull the filter out and bring it to Home Depot to find a matching replacement. It will take 10 minutes and cost about $2.

On the outside of your home, there's also a compressor unit. You should clear the area around it of brush and hose it off to make sure it's clear of clogging debris too, she said.

A drafty house loses heat in the winter, but it also loses air conditioning in the summer. Kuhn suggests that you inspect all window frames to make sure there aren't gaps. If you can't tell where the draft's coming from, close the doors and windows and light a candle. Follow the flicker and caulk the leaks.

Fans can make a room feel about 5 degrees cooler and are far cheaper to run than an air-conditioning unit, McGrady said.

It's also important to set the timer on your air-conditioning unit. It makes little sense to cool an empty house. If you're gone during the day, a programmable thermostat can turn on the unit an hour before you get home.

Many experts also urge consumers to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, maintaining that the fluorescent bulbs will save energy and last longer. This reporter's experience belies that advice, though. I saw little savings from switching to fluorescent bulbs, but that may be because I found them to be too dim and turned on more lights.

Utility companies all over the country are willing to help you save power, McGrady said. Some perform energy audits over the phone, asking a series of detailed questions about your use to make suggestions about how to save. Others do audits over the Web or will send representatives to your home. Edison does all three. McGrady makes no promises about savings. But Tauber maintains that most consumers can save 30% to 40% on their energy bills by taking all the suggestions to heart.

If you're trying to cut costs because you've lost a job, make sure you call your local utility and see whether it has a cut-rate plan for low-income families, McGrady added. Most do. These plans are not new, but people who have never been out of work before probably aren't familiar with them, she said. Those who qualify save 20% or more.

"We're really trying to reach out to people in these tough economic times," McGrady said. "It's really kind of funny how much money we spend telling people how not to buy our product."

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kathykristof24@gmail.com

Kathy M. Kristof is a personal-finance author and syndicated columnist.

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