Some handy tips for reading home electrical use

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In their presentations at the November Winnebago Renewable Energy Expo, both Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and Doug Scott, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, expected that electrical energy demand would decline or remain flat over the next few years.

Additionally, new appliances are expected to be much more energy efficient than in the past. For those planning purchases, that is good news. But if your plans include keeping old ones, energy use can be monitored and limited, and new purchases planned to first eliminate those that use the most energy.

Many small appliances, such as light bulbs, have their wattage printed on them. Some, such as refrigerators, list amps, or the “flow” of electrons (tiny bits of electricity). The voltage, or “push” of electricity, of a standard grid-connected system is 120. Multiplying amps by volts provides the watts; dividing by 1,000 results in kilowatts. Multiplying this by the number of hours an appliance runs in a month reveals kilowatt hours used, which is what electric bills are based on. Assuming the average family in Illinois uses about 1000 kWh a month, at 10 cents per kWh, the bill would be $100.

Some large appliances such as gas furnaces use a small amount of electricity to initiate a flame, but use considerably more to force the warmed air through the duct system. Electrical consumption is based on how many hours the blower is on each day.

If one wishes to determine the consumption of appliances, a watt meter can provide a visual display. It is a device that reads watts, volts, hertz and kilowatt hours. It is designed to work with appliances that can be plugged into the meter, which in turn is plugged into an electrical outlet. The meter then is read to determine the rate of electrical consumption. To read the number of kilowatts the appliance draws over time, leave it plugged in for 24 hours.

Some results can be surprising. Our computer and printer together use only one-tenth of a kWh per day. Our 18-year-old humidifier, which runs continuously during the heating season, only uses 1.1 kWh per day. While these are small amounts, if people are careless with many small appliances, cumulative consumption across an entire population could be significant.

Watt meters may be purchased and also are available at some libraries. The Oregon Library has two that can be checked out for up to a month. Ask your local library if they have any, or buy one and let your friends and relatives use it after you are done establishing your home electrical consumption.

Another way to estimate electrical consumption is to search the web for a list of appliances and their hourly rate of consumption. But with that approach, you may fail to identify an appliance that is using an extraordinary amount of electricity. A student who used our kilowatt meter found out the refrigerator that came with the home he bought was an energy hog. The ice maker was malfunctioning and ran continuously, although no ice was being made.

A free on-site energy audit providing a more definitive assessment can be performed by Nicor or ComEd. The Citizens Utility Board will track actual energy usage. We had an audit done years ago and were pleasantly surprised that our personal consumption assessment was similar to what the audit established.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Feb. 12-18, 2014, issue

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