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I was in Las Vegas recently and saw a rare slot machine operated with actual quarters. It is hard to find this type of slot machine now because most of the new ones take credits that are loaded on in-house debit cards. Instead of holding a cup of quarters as you sit at a slot machine and noticing when the cup is almost empty, it is easier and faster to spend money from the card.
With the card, your spend rate becomes a little foggier. The casinos take steps to obscure the financial impact of the decisions you make, bringing in more money for the house.
In some ways, this is similar to the way that American energy companies present our house-hold energy consumption. How many of us are even looking at, let alone analyzing our monthly energy bills? For many, this has gone the way of the coin-operated slot machine and recurring payments have become our casino debit cards. This obscured cost of energy is one of the reasons why the United States uses so much of it.
I’ve been in the heating industry my entire life and if you asked me how much energy I used to heat my house for a specific 24-hour span, I wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer. With my current utility company information, I could run the numbers a month from now and put together an educated guess, but I wouldn’t have the tools to give an actual dollars-and-cents answer for that narrow window of time.
It also is hard to figure out the price of the energy used because so many charges on utility bills are service-related, not simply the units of energy.
For the most part, Americans don’t pay a ton of attention to energy prices because they aren’t as expensive as in other parts of the world. If my electric utility bills doubled next month, I wouldn’t have to sell my car to pay the bill. I may not even notice if I didn’t go back to see the auto-pay draft from my checking account.
However, if I could see how much money I was spending on utilities, as if I had a cup of quarters in my hand and each decision made change fly out of it, I probably would change some habits.
I once went to a jobsite where the head of the maintenance department was looking at upgrading major mechanical components. He was talking about issues they had with water usage in the building. They noticed extraordinarily high water and gas bills one month and looked around for a major leak, but didn’t find one. The apartment complex was a few stories tall containing many units, but had no tenant-specific water metering.
After asking around, they eventually found the runaway water use. During the winter, one of the residents decided to run the hot shower with the bathroom door open for a few hours a day to increase the humidity levels in the unit. The resident claimed he didn’t want to buy a humidifier because the rent already included water. Technically, the resident was right; there was no stipulation for water use and it wasn’t measured at the unit level to even quantify how much hot water was being used to humidify the room.
The conversation was something like, “Please stop using so much water or we will have to raise everyone’s rent.” I hope the building owners just bought that resident a humidifier to save money and resources. Raising the rent for everybody wouldn’t have been fair to the rest of the residents, either.
Energy use transparency
There are ways to make energy use per consumer more transparent. A 2015 Washington Post article talks about a specific pay-as-you-go utility program. The Salt River Project is a utility company in the Phoenix area. They introduced a system where customers use a card to reload individual electricity meters, which have a display placed in the living area of a house with a remaining credit number, similar to holding a cup full of quarters at a slot machine.
They found that customers saved 12 percent on their energy bills by having more energy transparency and directly relating money to the activities they were currently doing. This is how many other countries in the world use energy, and the Salt River Project isn’t the first group to ever do this. They did make a splash in the United States by effectively rolling out these submeter displays.
The article continues to discuss gas stations as good examples of increased energy transparency. When you fill up your car, you know what the price per gallon cost is. You also have a better idea of what you were just doing to use the gas you are replenishing. Did you drive all over town to run errands? Are you on a road trip?
Additionally, the average person could tell you the price of a gallon of gasoline in their neighborhood at any given time, while they may be unable to nail down a unit price of the energy that heats a home.
A few different thermostats on the market allow you to see your heating and cooling hours in a month and extrapolate your energy performance, as compared to other people in the area with those thermostats. This adds some transparency to the energy used for space conditioning. However, it can't tell you how much it costs to maintain specific setpoints.
There is good news for energy nerds like me. Electrical submetering devices are becoming more common and are frequently coupled with the ability to see more frequent updates of energy consumption. Nothing is quite as clear as the pay-as-you-go systems but they are getting better.
While writing this article, I logged into my electrical and gas utility websites. The electrical utility had an option to receive alerts every time a configurable amount of energy has been consumed in a day. My gas utility provided only historical data, so I sent them an email to see if they offer any other active insights.
What about submetering heating energy? ASTM E3137-18 Standard Specification for Heat Meter Instrumentation gives manufacturers specific guidelines to follow to build and certify devices that measure and extrapolate thermal energy use. Thermal energy submetering is more complex than electricity unless you have an individual gas meter for every unit in a complex. However, a couple of temperature sensors and a flow meter could give you the ability to see the real-time cost of heating specific areas.
Measuring the amount of energy you use, in real time, gives you the ability to make informed decisions. If I walked over to my thermostat and turned up the heat set point a degree for a few hours hold and it said, “Based on current conditions, it will cost $5,” I may still do it or I may turn the setpoint back down and grab a blanket. With the right submetering, we can make more informed decisions and, I hope, waste less energy.
This article probably cost $10 for me to write, based on local electrical rates, natural gas pricing, internet fees, coffee prices and applicable taxes. However, I’ll never know for sure if that number is correct, which is a problem. We can best address energy waste with submetering and simple, real-time consumption dashboards, allowing energy users to make informed decisions and keep a closer eye on their cup of quarters.
How could you incorporate better energy metering into the services you provide or your daily life?
For more information, read this Washington Post article on smart meters and why they haven’t changed Americans’ energy habits: https://wapo.st/2HOOPJU.