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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cutting the electricity bill: Part 1 -- lighting the house

(If you don't already know, our family has been hit with a 30% reduction in income this month. Many of my posts will chronicle our family's attempt to trim costs and grow income.)

Recently, I have made it a habit to check our electricity meter each morning. I am tracking our use on a daily basis. I use this to motivate me to cut back just a bit more each day.

In the last 12 months, we have spent about $950 on electricity for our house. We heat with natural gas, have a gas water heater, no A/C, and no dehumidifiers. The electricity used here is lighting, tools and appliances.

Artificial lighting accounts for as much as 20% of the electricity used in US households. If this percentage is accurate for my own household, then we are spending nearly $200 per year on lighting alone.

So, what can we do? Plenty! If your budget is in a pinch, like mine, there are things you can do today, that cost nothing, to reduce your electric lighting consumption. Some of these things can be permanent solutions, while others may be more temporary. But either way, you will shave that electric bill beginning today.

Keep in mind, some of these reduced-use of electrical lighting ideas are coming from someone with a budget crisis, and targeted towards the financially desperate (like me). You may be thinking, "oh that sounds too weird for my tastes", but someone else may find these helpful or may be already doing these.

The obvious and well-talked about is to replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or LEDs, or lower wattage incandescent bulbs. As bulbs burn out, I'll buy even more lower watt CFLs.

How about some ways to save on lighting, that cost nothing, and can be done right now?

Turning off lights when you leave a room is something we have heard since we were children. It's something I work on with myself and my family. But when you just can't get others to turn off the lights, you sometimes need to help them out, by reducing the lighting available in the first place.

I took a light audit in our house. I walked from room to room and asked myself, "how much lighting does this space need for its use?" Some rooms, like the TV/media room, need far less lighting than exists. In some fixtures, I swapped out the higher watt bulbs already in place, for lower watt ones.  Easy to do, I simply stole a lower watt bulb from a room seldom used, and put it in the fixture in the room needing less lighting.

In multiple-bulb fixtures, I simply partially unscrewed one or more of the bulbs, if I felt less lighting would work.

Some rooms where partially unscrewing bulbs is saving in our house:

The light fixture over the kitchen table has 5 bulbs. The first day, I untwisted 2 bulbs. The next day, I did 1 more. Yes, to an outsider it looks like we have a bunch of burned-out bulbs. But when company is expected, I can quickly twist those 3 bulbs, avoiding any unpleasant comments about our lighting.

In the family room, there's a wall-mount fixture that holds 2 bulbs. I partially unscrewed one of the bulbs. These are covered by a shade, so it's not even noticeable that one bulb is not burning. In an upstairs bathroom, we really have overkill in the lighting department. I untwisted a couple of bulbs in there as well. There's a window that receives good light right next to the mirror.

In the garage, there are two ceiling lights. Most of the time, I just need one light. I simply pulled the chain on the other light, so only one will come on when the switch is flipped. (Update: I have since unscrewed the second bulb, as well. When I need garage lighting, I open the back door.)

Selectively reducing light in each room allows me to see if we really need all the lighting that is there, as well as saves us some money in the short term. When dark months of fall and winter return, I can easily increase our lighting, on an as-needed basis.

Another totally free thing one can do, is to choose to use artificial lighting less. The rule I've been following now is, "if there's natural light in the house, leave the artificial lights off". Obviously, I'm not advocating that anyone bump around in darkness. In fact, in our own house, we do have a couple of spaces that don't receive much natural light. And we do use artificial lighting in those areas. But we've found life to be just fine in the most-used rooms, leaving lights off.

I am having to break some of my own habits, as well as the family's. Every time I go into the pantry (which does receive light from the rest of the kitchen work area), I have a habit of turning on the ceiling light, even when I'm just grabbing something right off the shelf in front of me. I am retraining myself to not turn on that light.

For our family, it had become a habit to turn lights on whenever we entered a room. Now, we're giving consideration to whether or not we actually need additional light.

And do you know what we discovered? Sometimes less artificial light is actually preferred. Although we eat dinner fairly late, we now leave the lights off, altogether. It's quite pleasant. The dimmer light seems conducive to lingering conversation. Many evenings, we don't turn on any lights in the house, until we're readying ourselves for bed. Obviously, this will change with the shortening of days. But every penny saved now, can be allocated for electrical use later.

One adjustment I have made with regards to dinner, is to take care of pots/pans/equipment clean-up before we sit down to eat. Now it's just a matter of clearing our dishes to the dishwasher after dinner. And that can be done in the dimmer light of dusk. I can take care of anything left behind in the AM, with my regular morning clean-up.

Again, totally free way to save on lighting -- rearranging our schedule to fit the setting and rising of the sun. If we go to bed before it's totally dark outside, we don't need lights on in the evening. And this is a help for rising early with the sun. We had been in the habit of staying up late and sleeping long past sunrise.

Many late night activities not only require artificial lighting, but also use electricity in themselves, such as watching TV or playing video games. Contrast this to activities shared with family in daylight hours, such as a game of croquet or a walk in the neighborhood. Living by the setting and rising of the sun can save electricity two ways.

Before the advent of electrical lighting, folks lived by the setting and rising of the sun. Our family is finding that a change to this more natural way of living with light, can work well in the modern world, too. As luck would have it, my daughters now have to leave for work before 6 AM. So getting up with the chickens is required of all of us.

Use table and desk lamps instead of ceiling fixtures. If you have table or desk lamps available, choose those over ceiling lights for activities that require artificial lighting. You can typically use 1 bulb in a table or desk lamp, instead of the multiple bulbs in most ceiling light arrangements, and still benefit from the amount of light you need for your task.

There's no need to light the entire room, just for 1 person to read a book. In our house, the family room has 4 can lights (ceiling) all on the same switch. There's also a lamp right next to a chair and sofa. It's more economical to turn on the 1-bulb lamp than the 4-bulb can lights.

These are 4 totally free, electricity-saving ideas that we implemented immediately. All are common-sense things that folks having been doing for decades. I do think that our culture has gotten careless with energy use. We don't see a candle burning down, or the oil in a lamp diminishing, so we don't think about how much energy we are actually using, that is, until we get the bill. Checking my meter daily is a way for me to restore that consumption awareness.

By the way, my goal for the electricity budget is a cut of about 20%. I estimate that we will shave about $2 to $3 per month, off the lighting portion of our electric bill. I'll outline the other ways we are cutting back on electricity use in the next post.


  1. Love it. You know I read this, walked into the kitchen at 5 pm and turned on the overhead light! You are so right that in modern times we have lost sight of the costs of electricity and what we can do to reduce. I can't wait to see your results! (and I turned my light back off too)

    1. Hi Jen,
      This has been a hard habit for me to break. It's second nature to me to flip the switch when I enter rooms. But, now, with more on the line, I am trying to be conscious of the little things. (And I've already noticed that our electric meter is spinning more slowly! I almost can't wait to get the bill!)

  2. Lili,
    Your electric bill seems relatively low at approx $80/month. Understand your desire to reduce it, if possible. I am thrilled that mine has been under $100 for most of my tenancy in this rental home.

    While you use gas for heating water and your furnace, there probably still is an electronic starter. Appliances such as toasters, clocks etc such up vampire electrical charges. Put them on a power strip and shut off the strip when not in use.

    Can you get an energy audit thru your electric co? Do you already use CFL's? Here they have a program (costs $75 if not low income) and they will do several things, including installing up to 29 CFLs. That alone (the cost of the bulbs) makes it worthwhile.

    Agree to take advantage of natural sunlight vs turning on all the lights. I also believe in task lighting. Right now, there is no sun (rainy day) and I'm in the kitchen with one light on over the table as i type, the mini table top convection oven is cooking dinner. 2 kids are using one light in the LR. Also, do you have night lights with sensors that automatically come on when it's dark and shut off when it's light out? CFL's have greatly improved and there are now all different types, including dimable. CT had a program to reduce the cost of the bulbs for a certain period of time. that helped. Ideally, I'd only have LED's-those use even less energy. So pricey, however. One step at a time. : )
    Great post!

    1. Hi Carol,
      The Seattle area has had cheap electricity for decades, being primarily sourced from hydro-electric dams. But with rising populations in the area and increased demands, our rates have slowly ticked upwards, as well. I actually remember when electricity was a penny a KW hour, and people were incensed that the cost doubled to 2 cents a KW hour. We're now about 10 cents/ KW hour, once you add in the taxes. Our area is about 30% lower than many parts of the US.

      My cooktop is also gas, so I don't cook on the stove top on electric either.
      Yep, we've unplugged just about everything. And I'd say we're about half CFLs. Our local power company offers coupons for CFLs from time to time, available on their website.

      I'm looking forward to lower priced LEDs as well. It was just a few years ago that they were over $50 a bulb. Now I see them for less than half that. Just a few more years and I think they'll be affordable. So, CFL's for us, for the most part.

      Thanks for your input!

  3. The lights in my one bedroom apartment are all on the same switch (4 or five globes). When one of them blew recently I bought the wrong type TWICE, then gave up and switched the bulbs around so that the empty socket was in the corner I use least. To be honest, I haven't even noticed one is missing, so probably won't end up replacing it.

    1. Hi Economies,
      Very clever solution.
      Along the lines of what we've been doing here. We have under cabinet lighting in the kitchen, which my husband uses when getting his coffee in the early morning hours. It's actually 3 strips all on one switch. But the coffee maker is under just one of the strips. So, I turned 2 of those off, so just the needed one will come on when the switch is flipped. Just lighting the areas that need lighting can add up to significant savings.

  4. Good idea to unscrew lights to see the effect that they area would have without them. Leaves lots of options when they are just unscrewed but still in the socket.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      It came in handy last weekend, when we had people over, and didn't want to seem inhospitable. I just screwed them back in and we were set. The next morning, I unscrewed those 3 again. Although we're using the table lights much less now, I do like to leave some light on when a family member is out late, as we often come and go through the kitchen door. But we don't need the kitchen to be brightly lit for that.

  5. My kids are still young enough that following the natural rhythms of daylight makes sense for us, and unless we have company, that's what we tend to do. I bet it's harder with teens/young adults.

    I love the unscrewed lightbulb idea! Truthfully, I'm terrible at replacing lightbulbs, so now I can just tell people I'm being cost-effective with our electrical resources instead of, um, lazy.

    1. Hi Kris,
      It is a bit harder when your kids are basically adults. You want them to develop more responsibility for their own lives and schedules, but at the same time, they often can't see that staying up till midnight is going to make it hard to get up at 5 AM the next morning. Teens and young adults do seem to like to stay up late. It's us "old folks" who have learned the value of "early to bed, early to rise".

      You're not only being cost-effective, but you're being green, by not replacing burnt out bulbs right away! Just think of all the good you're doing! Keep up the good work!

  6. First of all, I totally LOVE the idea of going to bed when it gets dark and getting up with the light. I've been such a night owl my entire life that this seems almost impossible to me, but it fills my heart with longing just thinking about it. It's probably not real practical for me since CatMan is an even worse night owl than I am, and if we were on totally different schedules I'd never see him! But I'm really trying to get out of the ridiculous department in this area.

    At one point I was trying to avoid artificial lighting as much as possible both for environmental and health reasons, and I came up with a few interesting ideas.

    First I tried candles and oil lamps. The pyromaniac in me really loved this, but I concluded that it wasn't really a safe option especially with 4 cats who could easily knock something over.

    Next I tried a solar lantern. At the time I was doing this LED's were brand new technology and not really practical from a cost perspective, so I got a lantern that uses a little fluorescent bulb. It worked OK, but you had to remember to charge it every day. If I were to do this again I'd probably get a regular battery operated LED camping lantern and a solar powered battery recharger. I also wonder if there are little battery operated LED desk lamps out there, because that could work for them too.

    The other thing I thought about doing was finding some solar garden lights that could live in a window sill or something so they'd charge during the day and would provide some soft lighting at night. Or maybe a string of white solar powered Christmas lights that could be strung around the living room with the charger mounted in a south facing window. I sorta burnt out on the project before I got to that point, and it also seemed that with the cost of LED's at that point the payback period would be long. But it still strikes me that it could be fun.

    One thing that worked really well was getting a little portable LED reading light. It runs on one AA battery and only cost a dollar. It clips right onto the book making it easy to keep the room lighting dim and just use the little LED for what I'm actually working on.

    Anyhow, those are my crazy tips in this department! Good luck with your efforts! :-)

    1. Hi Cat,
      Brilliant idea to use solar powered outdoor lights indoors! We have 2 solar lanterns for outdoors. One hangs from an arch, so not super easy to bring in. But the other sits on a table outside in summer, and I bring in and often just leave it on the floor of the kitchen at the glass door (south facing window). I'm always meaning to wipe it off and put it away, but never get to it, and before I know it its spring again. I'm going to try using it as lighting on the kitchen table this fall. Put it in the window during the day and move it to the table for dinner. After dark it will stay lit for about an hour in winter, after a charge just sitting in the window.

      I always was a night owl, as well. then I discovered something magical about going to bed while the sky was barely light, leaving the curtains open and waiting for stars and moon to come out.

      My son tells me that human sleep patterns used to be very different from how we imagine them. In ancient times, people went to bed just after dusk, then woke in the middle of the night, went visiting to see who else was up for an hour or two, then went back to bed. I like the idea of going to bed early, waking in the middle of the night to check to see what else is up (we have owls in our area), then going back to bed for the rest of the night.

      Hmmm, those clip-on lights sound like a possibility. We can buy AA batteries at the dollar store 4 batteries in a pack for $1. So after the purchase of the light, basically the cost would be 25 cents for however long the battery lasts.

  7. Lili, I have always unscrewed bulbs where there are multiple sockets on one fixture. I am very much a night owl, but that worked for many years as we had a program (time of day) where you were charged less per kilowatt if you agreed to use most of your electricity at night, off peak. With natural lighting we didn't use any electricity during the daytime hours, and were usually outside most of the time. By doing all my chores at night saved us nearly 50% off our bill. I wonder if you have an option like that. We were able to keep our bills right around $36 a month.

    1. Hi Lois,
      I've heard of time of use programs, and they sound great. For the time being, nothing like that in our area. But I think that I'll write to our electricity provider and ask if they'd consider a program like that in the future.

  8. Target is clearing out their solar lighting. If they still have any left at your stores you may want to check. It could be all gone now.

    1. Hi Brandy,
      I'll check when I'm out that way later this week. Thanks for the heads-up!


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