Electricity Challenge

We have lived in our new house for nine months. Over that time I have attempted to keep the electricity bills in check. I banished a lot of appliances - I don't use a tumble dryer, a dishwasher, a TV, a vacuum cleaner, or a bunch of small appliances. When I moved to the new house I bought the smallest, most energy-efficient refrigerator I could find that wasn't a bar fridge. I heat with wood, and we use a couple of small heaters on a cold morning.

I have had three electricity bills during that time, each of them tells me I use about 16kWh per day. That is 5.3kwh per person per day, or 486kWh per month in total for our household, or 5840kWh per year. This puts my electricity uses squarely on the Australian average per household of 5817kWh per year. But when you take a closer look at the figures, this is not taking account of national energy use, merely electricity use. In most states houses and hot water are heated with gas, whereas in Tasmania we mostly only have the option of heating with electricity - so Tasmania's figures (you can see the breakdown of electricity use between states if you scroll down the page in the link above) are for practically all our energy needs. At our place, as I mentioned, we heat with wood, and we also use bottled gas for our stovetop - we go through about 2 barbeque gas bottles per year - but everything else is achieved with electricity.

The average electricity usage for Tasmanian households in 2014 was 8813kWh. So I use 34% less electricity than the average Tasmanian. This is a very similar percentage in savings to my driving numbers - there I discovered that I drive 38% less than the average Tasmanian. There seems to be a theme here..

Now most of that electricity saving is because I don't heat with electricity. But that 16kWh per day seems awfully high for a household with so few electrical gadgets. I drilled down into my electricity bill and discovered that 60% of my electricity use goes to hot water. Sixty percent!!

Three things stand out here:

1. Yes, I admit it, we all love our very long, hot showers. We definitely need to do something about that. And yes, by 'something' I mean we could all have shorter showers.

2. Our hot water is hotter than it needs to be. We tested the temperature of the hot water at our kitchen sink, and it is 56C (133F), which is 6C (43F) higher than it needs to be. It's even higher in the bathroom, including the shower, which is nearly 60C (140F). In order to lower the thermostat though, we need to move an armchair and a heavy cupboard which are in front of the secret trapdoor which hides our hot water cylinder.. and probably call the nice plumber to do it, as the hot water cylinder needs to be at least 60C (140F) to kill bacteria and I have no idea what I am doing. Presumably lowering the thermostat will lower our electricity consumption, while using the same amount of water which seems like a good deal. But yes, of course we will have shorter showers. Of course.

3. We are excellent candidates for solar hot water. Does anyone out there have a solar hot water system? Does it heat up the water enough? I suspect that winter in Tasmania is not great for solar hot water, but I am willing to stand corrected on this. I am also quite interested in the idea of connecting my wood heater to the hot water system, but have no idea what is involved. The fact that my wood heater is inside the chimney space will probably make that more difficult..

I would also like to put some solar panels on the roof. But we have an awkward roof for solar panels - gables all over the place, and no long flat run of roof with the right aspect. I will get the solar panel people to have a look and see what is possible. But first, I need to use less electricity. To start with we will tackle the showers.. and then.. well, I am sure I will think of something but there is not a lot else that we use. We have a tiny oven that we could use more efficiently by batch cooking. The girls have their laptops on all the time, and are forever charging up their phones. They also use the hair dryer and make rather a lot of smoothies in the blender. I give the electric kettle an excellent workout and use the washing machine a lot. I am pretty sure I can't use it any less though, because already we re-wear our clothes a lot, and probably wash sheets and towels slightly less than we should:)

Tell me what you do to save electricity.. and how I can save more at mine.. there are probably dozens of small things that I haven't thought of that would add up to savings over time.

By the way, if you are in Australia you can enter your postcode here and discover how your electricity usage compares to the rest of your suburb. The residents at my post code use even more electricity than the Tasmanian average. Apparently. My neighbours must be taking long showers as well.


Hazel said…
We heat with wood too, although everyone in our village heats with oil as there is no mains gas connection here.

Instead of shorter showers could you shower less frequently? I have short fine hair that is not presentable unless I wash it every day, so on roughly alternate days I have a wash and wash my hair over the bath instead of a shower. I'm in the UK, so I think broadly a similar climate to you.
Jo said…
Hazel, yes, I am thinking the same thing! None of us here wash our hair every day, and certainly in winter we don't shower every day. I think that might be balancing out our averages over winter/summer. In winter we don't shower every day, but we do use electric heaters for an hour or two, in summer we shower more. But it mostly doesn't get hot enough that we need to shower every day. I was just thinking this morning of those old jug and basin sets that people used to use to wash in their bedrooms.. your wash over the bath would accomplish that with a lot less mess! Imagine how luxurious our bathrooms would be to a Victorian housewife.. drains for taking water away! We take so much for granted. I remember my mum washing my hair over the sink with a jug when I was little..
Evi said…
I'm not sure how much we use but I will make an effort to find out now that you've brought it to my attention :)
We connected to gas for our hot water about 2 years ago and regret it immensely - when we researched, it seemed like a cheaper option but with 6+ people in the house, we go through a large bottle every 2 months, 6 weeks in winter.........another long shower casualty, me thinks ;) And with regards to turning your wood heater into a hot water heater, it might depend on what sort you have. I think thats something we will have to address too as we have ready access to firewood with a couple of our fellas in the tree trimming industry! No pun intended ;)
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

What a challenge you have set for your household! I'm impressed. Seriously impressed.

Solar hot water will work for about 7 to 8 months of the year, if here is any indication. Is it worth it? Yeah, that system will produce more energy than solar electricity relative to costs. The water here is toasty hot today and the air temperature has been quite cool today. Incidentally, you appear not to have a temperature limiter on your hot water system which they put on new houses these days which mixes cool water in with the hot water so that babies are never scalded. A nice and worthy idea, but not pleasant if one enjoys hot baths / showers! A mate of mine always complains about the hot water temperature in their new house…

It will be complex to retrofit a wet back (i.e. the technical name for these gizmos are heat exchangers) wood heater to your wood heater arrangement because the water tank has to sit above - or near to above - your wood heater. Unless, this is a possibility in the nearby roof space above the current wood heater? The water tank here is 400Ltrs. The reason for that is because the wet back inside the combustion chamber works on a thermo siphon principle in that hot water rises and cool water falls through two different pipes. You can put a pump between the wet back and a hot water tank, but if it ever fails, the wet back may fail catastrophically due to a build-up of steam pressure. The plumber and I had long discussions about this matter. Does a wet back produce toasty hot water? You betcha! Toasty as, but a very complex system. It is far easier, not to mention far cheaper to have a wood heater and oven combination with which to cook as that doesn't require fancy plumbing and can generally use the same space as your present wood heater.

That is what I'd do if I did this system over again: solar hot water for the summer, and an electric element (and LPG backup) for winter. A much cheaper and simpler system. If you were really clever you could have the solar electricity off-setting your electricity usage for heating water (and hair dryers and hair straighteners! Hehe - yes, they are here too and don't use as much electricity as you'd think but you have to remember to turn them off and not leave them running for excessive time periods whilst you are doing other things).

By the way postcode 3434 has an average of 19.9kWh per day... We've never used that much electricity here, although if I stressed the system out completely it could probably get there on a cool day around about now. I struggle to find new and interesting ways to use electricity. Seriously.

With the electricity, when the house here has nothing on and we close the door, it uses only 25Wh (19.9kWh is 19,900Wh!) To get to that low level of energy usage you have to learn what each appliance uses. I have a fancy meter on my system which tells me what the system is generating and what it is using and how the batteries look, although it is very old school technology nowadays compared to what I saw locally a few weeks back. You may want to consider obtaining a small device which sits between the power point and the appliance and watching how much each items uses. The results of that test may surprise you and it is the only way to know who is who in the zoo! If there was another way... well, there isn't. Hehe! I wish there was and if you discover it, please let me know. Is it a painful process? Yeah, but it may surprise you how many little devices use power just doing nothing much at all - and you are paying for that luxury. Then you learn to... well it is your households journey and not mine. Think of me during the winter solstice having to get by with only 4.8kWh for each and every day for about 6 weeks and we run a business here too.

The devices are called “Energy Meters” and can be found on eBay for only a couple of bucks.

The new fridge was a good idea and they are very good indeed.

Cheers (and best wishes for your journey)

Anonymous said…
Our heat and hot water are from natural gas. Our electricity rates are increasing.We are on the "time of use" discount so we try to do all the heavy usage at off peak times, weekends and evenings.
I'm afraid I don't know the numbers of our usage, I will look it up.

I'm not sure if I have mentioned this before but I no longer take showers or baths. I wash at the sink just like in the old days, it is quicker and my skin isn't as dry, and it uses lots less water.
My husband takes a shower once a week.
You know I don't tell people this,most think it is disgusting. I wonder how much of this (mandatory showering mindset) is a construct of the corporations selling soap etc.
Anonymous said…
I wash everyday. Often twice in summer. People who say you don't need to wash everyday don't get out and about in a Sydney summer.

That you use the average, without a pool (what gobblers of electricity, they are), dishwasher, heater, microwave etc, does suggest you do need to do something about your hot water system.

Last year our hot water storage system died and we moved to an instant one. We have saved so much electricity. We no longer keep a large quantity of water not just in case. And in summer that's a lot of waiting. My husband swims in our pool several times a day rather than showers. Or we might be away on holidays or at work. Also in winter storage systems have to work harder to keep the water hot. So if your system dies, that's the replacement model to go for.

As to daily emerge savings, can you use a thermos so you boil the water once and then pop into a thermos for cups during the day? To heat up water for the hand washing of dishes, put water in a black plastic bag out in the sun on the lawn for the day, bingo. Hot water! You can buy thick black plastic systems at camping stores. (I know you don't like plastic but it will save electricity.)

I thought you were such a kanny user of water. I often think of you when I waste water in a bath or run the kitchen tap to rinse dishes. Your comment about your friends on a farm in SA and how they wash less frequently and how it taught you to appreciate water, has lived with me. I'd be having shorter showers! Cheaper than installing a solar system or buying anything. You can buy an egg timer that suction cups to the tiles and you spin it. Although I shower every day and wash my hair every second day, I have rather quick showers. For me it is less about the electricity and more about the water. Though I know I'm hypocritical with my baths in winter. I justify them by saying the impact on my mental gelato for relaxation is cheaper than paying for outside providers.

Besides our pool, our biggest drainer is offspring leaving electronic things on to charge even when they are fully charged. There's always something humming in my son's room.
Anonymous said…
Just read my comment. Mental gelato!!! Spell check has a sense of humour. I typed mental health. But I prefer mental gelato.

On solar systems, our pool's heating is solar. Does a fantastic job. The water runs through black tubes on the roof. Comes out piping hot. Of course it needs electricity to pump it up there. Still cheaper that other forms of heating. And you know there's been a lot of energy consumed in the making of solar photovoltaic cells? Would be interesting to hear if they ever recoup the energy used in the making of them by creating energy for domestic consumption!? We had a friend decades ago worked on development of them. He said they never produced the energy they consumed in making of them but were excellent for countries and places who couldn't access big power infrastructure or had no gas and oil. May have changed since then.
Jo said…
Evi, you and I can tackle those long showers together:)

Chris, I knew you would come through with the goods on this one! Yes, I have a very old water heater. The plumber says it will just hold on until such time as I want to put solar hot water in. So possibly it is running very inefficiently. It is certainly quite huge! When you suggest an 'electric element' for winter hot water - do you mean solar panels, or something else? I had a goo look at my roof yesterday, and I think there might be space for both solar hot water and some solar panels..

I have seen those energy meters on-line. I have a vague feeling that it is possible to borrow one from the council. I know a friend of mine did that some years ago. I will have to look into that..

4.8kWh during the depths of winter? That is so impressive! Right, well, clearly I have some work to do!

Marieann, we don't get an off-peak electricity tariff, otherwise I would be timing all my electricity use too. It's a great idea though, encouraging people to use power during times other than the peak power load. It must make it easier for the energy companies to manage their electricity production.

Thank you for being brave and confessing your washing habits! This is the kind of thing I want to know. There must be many habits that we think of as 'normal' which are just cultural constructs. I know that my hot showers are drying my skin out. I often try to go two days between showers, and the truth is, especially in our mild climate, I don't get particularly dirty or sweaty, especially if it is a work day and I am swanning about inside in an airconditioned environment all day.

I am definitely going to be considering ways to extend time between showers..

Lucinda, yes, we have a very old hot water system. I am beginning to think that might be part of the problem. Funny, I hadn't even thought of that before I read the comments. Love this community and all your great life experience that you share!

I love the idea of 'solar hot water' in a black plastic bag. So simple and brilliant! And confession, I am a water hypocrite.. I save water in a myriad of ways, until I get into that wretched shower.. which is why it is possibly safer for me not to get into the shower at all. Which is possible as I don't live in Sydney.. I absolutely understand - that humidity, combined with the heat, yes it can be unbearable.

I love mental gelato! We will go with that. Yes, I am very aware of the energy that goes into making solar panels. However, i did a bit of reading, and since 2010 solar panel manufacture has become much more efficient, and it now takes between 1 and 4 years to recoup the energy used in manufacture, while the solar panels last for 20 or more years.


So I think I can go ahead with that project - but first to reduce, reduce, reduce..
Darwin Girl said…
Thanks Jo for leaving me a message. Where in Tasmania are you? Roughly, you don't need to be too specific 😊
North or South ?
heather said…
I too crave long showers. My solution is to shower less frequently (every third day in winter, usually every other in summer- just frequent wash-ups), most times to shower as quickly as humanly possible (in summertime I do what my dad called navy showers, turning the water off while soaping up), and then maybe a couple times a month to have a luxury shower and fully enjoy it. I got this idea years ago from Sharon Astyk's blog, when she wrote about this exact topic in the context of radically reducing her family's consumption of everything without losing all the things they really enjoyed altogether. One can still use a LOT less without completely forgoing the bliss of an occasional treat, as you have often suggested in other areas.

Sounds like you have already picked all the low-hanging fruit in terms of electricity savings. I'll be interested to see how your solar hot water investigations go. You might post your question about it on the Green Wizards site as well.

--Heather in CA
heather said…
Reading backwards through a few of your posts that I had missed- now I see that of course you have already been inspired by Sharon et al's Riot for Austerity too. Teach me to comment before catching up!
--Heather in CA
Jo said…
Frugal in the Valley, hi:) I am in beautiful Launceston, near the CBD, in walking distance of nearly everything. I love it!

Heather, ok, tell me about Navy showers? Turning off to soap up seems like a good idea in summer, but our bathroom is freezing in winter! An idea I had this morning is to separate hair washing and leg shaving from showering. My mum used to wash my hair over the sink with a jug when I was little, and I have done the same for my children occasionally. I wonder if it is possible to do that without someone to help? I will give it a go. Although my 12yo would love to do that for me! Also, if I get a small stool for the bathroom I could shave my legs with just a bowl of water.. then, showers could be super quick. But I love your idea of a blissful luxurious long shower a couple of times a month. Luxury isn't necessary everyday, but so nice on occasion:) My girls have a bath for luxury, but I am not a bath person. Give me a shower any day..
Anonymous said…
Jo, I have always washed my hair in the kitchen sink, even when I took showers. I seem to loose hair a lot, and it plugged up the drains all the time, even with a strainer thingie.
I'll let you into a little secret as you get older your hair thins that includes the hair on you legs, so the shaving part gets easier.
fran7narf said…
Solar is excellent in summer but not so good in winter. My friend, who is totally off grid (not actually her choice but remote living meant she didn't have the option of services available to her) has a water jacket on her wood stove (so do we) which heats all of her cooler season water for her. Surprisingly we did an experiment and found that our electric kettle is much more energy efficient than using the gas stove to boil a kettle. I just headed over to the website and we use just over half the electricity that our neighbourhood uses. We don't use electric heating (Brunhilda more than suffices over our winter period) or cooling (we just put up with the heat) so I am guessing that is what keeps our bill so low.
fran7narf said…
By the way, do you want any thornless youngberry plants? Sanctuary is overrun with them at the moment. Let me know if you want some and I can deliver them to you.
Jo said…
Marieann, good to know that there are positive aspects to ageing:) Also, I will get to be a scary cat lady. I am looking forward to that. Ok, washing my hair over the basin, will give it a go and report back.

Fran, water jacket, is that the same system as a wet back with a different name? I am going to have to wrap my head around all these technicalities. That is fascinating that the electric jug is more efficient than kettle-on-stovetop. How did you work that out? I am currently hunting for a kettle to put on our woodstove in winter to boil water for my tea and the dishwashing. I would ideally like one of those big cast iron ones. The more iron I consume, the better!

Hmm, I would like youngberry plants, but I will probably move them several times before they find their final home. Do they cope with that? If so, yes please and thank you very much. Email me and I'll let you know my new address:)
fran7narf said…
A water jacket is the same as a wet back. The electric jug boils a lot quicker than the kettle on the gas stove (less than half the time) so we figured that made it more efficient in the long run. I also make sure to boil a full kettle of water and when we have made our hot drinks I pour the rest of the kettle of boiling water into a thermos. The next time we need hot water I just pour the thermos into the jug and it boils almost instantly. Try allgoods for a kettle. We bought ours from there (stainless steel). I can't, for the life of me, find your email address! Please email me so that I can get in touch with you about the youngberries. Don't worry about moving them as they tend to move themselves if you don't keep an eye on them. That's why Sanctuary is full of them!
Anonymous said…
You should go to facebook and join the riot for austerity facebook group.

As far as hot water, First, I was told to turn down my electric hot water on the tank so it only heats to 120'F so I did that. Second thing to do with an electric hot water heater is to put it on a timer, so that way it only turns the element on and heats the water when you would want it, for us this was from 4pm until 8pm each day. Second is to reduce how often you shower, and your hair and skin will be happier too. SO, in between times, you can wash under your arms in the bathroom sink, for example. We generally shower once or twice a week in the winter. In summer when it is hot and sweaty or on days someone does sports, it can be more often, but hten has to be short.

I had a loop thru the wood stove, but that is likely not worth it for most of us ( long runs to the tank, pumping, etc....) for the expense entailed, and I have given this up. Solar hot water is worth it, much more worth it than solar electric.

Your electric tea kettle is an energy saver. I use that plus a thermos to keep the tea warm.

Change all your light bulbs to LED's; put all computers and other electrical devices plugged into a power strip (including the internet modem/wireless) and TURN OFF the switch every night at 11pm, for example. Tell the kids their homework should be done by them anyways. If you might forget, set up a timer.
heather said…
Hi Jo-
Inspired by you, and in the spirit of research, I tried washing my hair in the sink today. I used a 2L pitcher, a smaller cup, and a rag, along of course with shampoo, conditioner, and a towel. Here is what I did:
1. Ran the water until it was warm, because I am a giant chicken about cold water. I caught the water in the pitcher to measure the flow rate- 1.5L of water in the 25 seconds it took the water to run warm.
2. Washed the toothpaste splatters, etc. out of the basin with the caught water and the rag. (The 1.5 L of caught water was more than I actually needed for this step.) Put the stopper in the sink.
3. Ran another 1.5L of warm water into the pitcher. Poured it over my head into the basin, wetting my hair. Squeezed out my hair, and scooped most of the same water back into the pitcher with the smaller cup.
4. Shampooed just my scalp, then rinsed with the water in the pitcher. I was surprised that less than 1.5 L seemed to get the shampoo out.
5. Put conditioner on just the ends of my hair (where it gets tangly). Drained the basin of the soapy water, bent over and rinsed the conditioner out of my hair with running water. This took about 30 seconds and so probably used about another 1.5 L of water or so. (I found that the water in the pipe had gone cold by this point anyways, so I will probably skip step 1 next time. It wasn’t that bad [squawk, squawk!] and warmed up partway through, so I finished warm.)

My hair feels as clean as it does after a shower, and only 4.5L of water! I can probably do it with a bit less next time, since I will run only enough water to wipe out the basin at the beginning. Now hair washing, body washing, and leg shaving can all be independent of each other, each getting done only when it needs doing! I’ll still spring for my nice warm shower now and again, though.

BTW, my hair is a medium length- it just touches my collarbone. I might go a bit shorter to make the process less drippy, and to reduce the need for conditioner too. Thanks for the inspiration to burst out of my unthinking assumptions about ordinary life routines. I feel more than a little silly describing such a simple process, which our grandmothers wouldn’t have thought twice about, in such detail, but maybe another spoiled first-worlder like me who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about “breaking down the shower” will try it now.
--Heather in CA
Jo said…
Heather, thank you, and I love this comment. Why? Because at the same time you were doing this experiment, I was doing the same thing, and like you, it turned out really well. I also like your comment about breaking down those first world assumptions - like you I imagined that washing my hair in the sink would be a second best alternative, but as it turns out, not at all!

Anonymous, thanks for your information rich comment! I don't have a facebook page, and am kind of set on not having one, due to the fact that I might not ever be able to get off it! I need to ration internet time as it is! But I will consider it. Thanks for your thoughts on the wet back - between you and Chris I think I might just opt for solar hot water instead.

I really like the idea of a timer on the hot water heater - I think one of our problems is that we have a huge hot water cylinder which is constantly heating water..

We do have LED bulbs, and actually no appliances which remain on over night except the fridge. We might keep that running:)

Hmm, except the internet modem. And a router. I guess we could turn that off..
OurTopia said…
After reading this post last week, or so, I was tempted to come back and report. I've been using less than 5KWh this last 4 days. A tad more yesterday due to 3 loads of washing in the front loader, cold only of course. I can tell this because my off grid solar system measures moment by moment input and output, as well as daily input.

Due to the offgrid thing, I'm pretty savage with appliances and usage. I have two main power points that run discretionary use such as music/tv and satellite web, both of these are connected to remote controlled power points and should I be going outside or to bed a single click turns off everything not needed, at the point.
Jo said…
OurTopia, I had a peek at your short but hopeful blog, and I am imagining from your comment that you did escape from corporate life and make it to an off-grid wilderness paradise in Tasmania? I really hope so:)

I am fascinated by off-grid living, and would love to hear more about yours. What are the challenges you live with? Do you have solar hot water, and can I have a review? So many questions:)

Your electricity usage is tiny - 5kWh/day is amazing. Well done you - and I am determined to get there as well:)

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