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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cutting the natural gas bill: Summertime success!

So, it's been 4 weeks since my husband came home and announced the income reduction. We began shaving expenses immediately. And we have now received the first natural gas bill since those changes.

This bill really only reflects about 2  1/2 weeks of our more fervent efforts of reducing use (out of a 4-week billing cycle), but still the results were impressive.

Adjusting for length of bill cycle, we saved $10 off the gas bill, from the same time period last year!! Last year's bill, for the same month was just over $40. This year's -- $30.79. Woo hoo!

We use gas for the cook top (but not oven -- it's dual fuel), the furnace and water heater.

Common sense with the cook top

With the cook top, I've been doing all the things commonly suggested -- careful to use just the amount of flame needed, turn the flame off entirely a minute before items are completely cooked and allow to finish cooking in the hot pan/pot, and using lids always.

I been using my microwave oven more. I made a very delicious corn bread in the microwave last night. I had planned on making some corn cakes on the gas griddle, but the microwave was quick and easy, and saved on gas.

Obviously, in summer, we're not using our furnace. We shut it off in early May, and leave it off until October. But we do use natural gas for the water heater.

The water heater

A few months ago, we set the water heater to its lowest safe temperature (where bacteria and other microbes can't become a threat to our health). Oh, I heard a couple of grumbles in the house, about how the water wasn't quite as hot. But I knew I was doing the right thing. And it turns out, this measure was important after all.

One thing I have yet to do, as I just haven't researched it yet, is to drain the water tank, to remove sediment, so the water will heat more efficiently. This has never been done on our 17 year-old water heater. So I think it's in order. Has anyone here done this before? Have any advice?

Going cold-turkey with the wash water

To curtail the use of heated water, we have switched to doing all of our laundry in cold water. Good Housekeeping did a study and found that in many washers, a cold wash gets clothes as clean as hot. They also noted that a cold wash is actually better at getting out mud, grass, egg and mascara stains. I would add that cold water is also better on blood stains. Anyone with young kids, ripping around the playground with constantly-skinned knees, already knows the cold water trick.

My one complaint concerning cold-water washing, is cheap, powdered laundry soap (Dollar Tree Sun brand) doesn't dissolve thoroughly in cold water. This isn't as much a problem with light-colored clothing, or when using the tumble dryer. Light-colored clothing hides any streaks of laundry detergent, and the tumble dry will remove the white residue of detergent from the dark loads.

But I am also now air-drying all our laundry, including darks. I was finding streaks of detergent on some of our clothes. However, I have found a workable solution for my budget.

As the washer fills with water, I heat a half mug of water in the microwave, for about 30 seconds. It doesn't need to be boiling, just hot. Then I stir in the laundry powder, until dissolved. I pour this over the wash load, shut the lid and allow the machine to wash. This seems to do the trick ( I have yet to find any undissolved laundry soap streaks on the darks since), and is minimal work for me.

Shortening the hot showers with a kitchen timer

The shower situation is another area that we've addressed yet again this year. (With teens I think loooong showers are just an on-going situation.) We use a kitchen timer, in the bathroom, for showers. I'm not sure this timer has ever seen a kitchen. We've just had it in the bathroom for as long as I can remember.

Anyways, here are the alloted times we've come up with for teenage girls.

My girls have uber-long hair, and it takes several minutes to wash and condition. When washing their hair, they get 15 minutes from the time they turn the water on, until they *have* to shut the water off. (One of my daughters has agreed to try turning the water off while lathering up her hair. It's working okay for her.) When not washing hair, they get 5 minutes from the time they turn the water on.

For myself, I find I can get in and out of the shower in about 3 minutes, if not washing hair. But I do have to implement one trick to get myself out so quickly. I bribe myself with a treat for getting out so quickly. I either plan a pleasurable outing, like a walk down to the beach, or a treat (preferable a hot one, as that's the main reason I linger in the shower) like a nice cup of tea, or my second cup of coffee, or a cup of cocoa, for when I get out. This seems to motivate me to get in, get it done, and get out.

And we've found Sunday mornings to be the most efficient time for our hot-water use. We are all trying to get ready for church in a hurry. By taking showers one right after the other, the only person who has to wait for the hot water to get down to the bathrooms, is the first person in. The rest of us have the luxury of just turning the shower on, and hopping right in.

Hand-washing in cold water

We've all been training ourselves to use the cold tap when washing hands, rinsing dishes or hand-washing a pot or pan. The tap water temperature is actually fairly comfortable in summer. I'm not sure how well this will go over in winter, when the tap water feels icy. But for now, cold water washing is a help.

With our current situation, it's important for me to celebrate every success we have. Sometimes I feel quite beaten down by this struggle to reduce our expenses, and try and make the ends of our budget meet. It feels like a strap of rubber, around a large object, when pulled very tightly, both ends can meet for a second at most, then it springs back to its original size.

This $10 savings may just be a drop in the bucket, but I have to celebrate it.  I always ask my kids and hubby, "if you saw a $10 bill on the ground, would you just leave it there, or would you pick it up?" The answer is always  a resounding "pick it up!"  I trudge on with the knowledge that every last little bit will help.

So, electricity savings of $35/mo, plus natural gas savings of $10/mo totals a savings of $45/month.


  1. Lili,
    Your efforts clearly are paying off. I suggest, however, that you move to using a plastic dish bin when handwashing pots/pans. Fill 1/2 way, wash and let the hot rinse water collect in the basin. Use that soapy water to wash hands. I recall an "experiment" done during my Girl Scout days: we covered 3 scout's hands with some cooking oil and sprinkled cinnamon on top (to represent dirt). Scout # 1 washed her hands in just cold water. Poor results. Scout # 2 washed hers in cold with soap, better results but not great. Scout # 3 used warm water and soap-she got clean. The lesson was to use warm water and soap when cleaning. This applies to hand washing hygiene as well as dish cleaning. Washing laundry in cold water is a great $ saver that we also follow, except I continue to wash towels and whites in warm. When I dropped down from Hot water, I saw no difference in cleanliness.

    We used to drain our hot water tank annually. Attach a rubber garden hose (or 2) to the bottom spout, trail the house out the door and go. You may be able to use the initial water to wash a car, if not water the garden. Eventually, rusty sediment will follow. This greatly extends the life of a hot water tank.

    1. Hi Carol,
      You'd be proud of me -- when I went to wash out my tea balls (I have 3 and will wait until all 3 need washing before taking care of them), I filled a clean cereal bowl with warmish water and soap, and washed them in there, following with 2 rinses, instead of my usual washing the tea balls under running water. I guess I used 2 cups of water, instead of likely 1 o 1 & 1/2 quarts.

      Interesting experiment with the cinnamon. Most of my pots go into the dishwasher (I am totally spoiled, I know already, I have 2 dishwashers, one just for dishes, the other for pots/pans/mixing bowls and equipment -- my eczema gets quite bad on my hands from dish soap and latex or rubber gloves), so I don't wash many by hand. But when I do (I have a couple that shouldn't go into machine), I fill that bowl or pot with soapy water, and use that for keeping my hands clean while I'm cooking. Then by the time dinner is finished cooking, that bowl or pot is clean, from all the agitation.

      Thanks for the info on draining a water heater. I've been thinking we might try to line the empty rain barrel up in the driveway, within reach of the hose, and save some of the water from the water heater for garden watering. You've given me the confidence to try this, so thanks!

    2. Lili,
      I've lived with private well water and septic systems since 1990, any water conservation is a good thing! : )
      I assume that you pay for your water.
      Yes, repurpose the clean to rusty water from the water tank. Not that hard to do, once you've done it, you'll feel more confident!

    3. Yes, we have to "buy" water. I've never lived with a well/septic system.

      I'm just a tad nervous about flushing the water heater. Afraid we'll somehow wreck it altogether! But we're going to give it a go this weekend.

  2. Wow. When you started this project, I honestly didn't think you'd save more than about $5/month. Good info to know.

    I have not had great success with using cold water for laundry. I end up with smells, especially with pillowcases. However, I have a washing machine style which is probably no longer available--I have a sud saver--if I'm not washing anything with "gross" potential (sheets, towels are ok) the water from my washer drains into my laundry tub and then can be re-used in the washer for the next load. The washer uses fresh water to rinse everything (it's a cold rinse). It saves on both water and heating costs, as well as not putting as much stress on my septic system (which ultimately saves money as well).

    I appreciate your comments to me previously about the cost of running appliances. That might be good information to post in a sidebar--it's really quite shocking, the difference in appliance costs.

    If you want to expand your microwave repertoire, has a yum-a-riffic microwave blueberry banana oat cake recipe which takes 4 minutes to cook up AND is super healthy (I only add 1/2 as much sugar as is called for and it's plenty sweet). I have made a peanut butter pudding cake recipe in my crockpot to rave reviews (ok, from my family) and I think there are a lot of crockpot cake/dessert recipes out there (I don't know about you, but I find that something sweet curtails that "why don't we have more money to spend" feeling--the joys of sugar!).

    1. Hi Kris,
      Interesting set-up for your wash water. I like the idea of reclaiming gray water.

      Great idea on posting appliance cost in a sidebar. I'll get to that later this week.

      I've been checking averiecooks since you mentioned it a week or two ago. She has some really delicious-looking recipes. I've been doing more and more of my cooking in the microwave. Last night I did both corn bread and rhubarb sauce in the microwave. And my family really loves the sponge cake/pudding recipe that a reader added to the comments back in January. Cake solves a lot of my problems! Probably not the healthiest way to go through life, but for now, it's working for me. Also, having home-made snacks ready to eat, keeps us from feeling "there's nothing to eat in the house".

  3. When we had an energy audit last year, they told us that our water heater was not hot enough to kill most of the bacteria. Ours was around 118F and should be 120F to 125F. Sounds like you've taken that into account, but in case there's anyone out there like us that just thought they were saving energy, be careful.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      You're absolutely right. The bacteria that causes Legionnaire's Disease thrives at temperatures below 120 F.
      Most water heaters have a bold marking or indent at the spot for 120 degrees F. But these thermostats can be faulty. The best test is to run the hot water in your house, at the nearest tap, for a few minutes. Capture some hot water and use a thermometer to see what the temp of water coming out of the faucet is. Ideally, you'll want the temperature at the nearest tap to read a couple degrees above 120F, so that water going to further taps will still be hot enough.

      For anyone with a compromised immune system, the temperature of the water tank should really be set higher, near 140 degrees F, according to most experts. Legionella can live in 120 F water. It's just that for most healthy folks, this small amount of bacteria can be fought off by their bodies.

      When we first bought our water heater, I was told the magic number was 124F, so that's what we strive for.

      And in case you're curious, the WARM setting on water heaters is about 95 degrees F. If you go out of town, and use the VACATION setting, it could take several hours for the water to rise to the ideal temperature, depending on temperature of water as it enters your house, and how much the water had cooled while you were away. For most tank water heaters in the US, the VACATION setting on your tank will save you about 75 to 85 cents per week of use. But the reheating of water could cost you about 50 to 60 cents, so you'll only net about 25 cents, using this feature. (The math is on this page: ).

  4. We just replaced our 16 year old hot water heater... It had sediment real bad because we had never drained it either... It only gave us 5 minute showers and had to wait 20 minutes to heat back up before the next one could take a shower... because it was heating all that sediment to... We just got our first gas bill since the water heater was installed and we saved $10 this month and we have been taking longer showers.. We have a gas furnace to and the pilot lights stays on all the time...I am sure we would save more if we turn it off...

    You have had great tips and I enjoy your blog... Have a wonderful night...

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Ouch! Your comment has reinforced my feeling that we have to do this now! I'm hoping that our water heater is not too far gone.
      That is fantastic, though, that you are now saving $10 every month. Your new water heater will have paid for itself in no time -- and you get the benefit of a plentiful hot water supply.
      Furnace pilot lights cost just a few dollars/month when the furnace is not actually running. Some people turn theirs off in summer, for the savings. But I've heard that keeping it on prevents moisture build-up (reducing corrosion), and keeps spiders and other critters out, both problems that could cause a costly service call. So some people (myself included) keep theirs lit.

      I'm glad you're enjoying my blog -- thanks for your kind words!

  5. I fear I'm not great at saving hot water. One of my vices is long hot baths. But I often wonder how water use compares between showers and baths. It takes way less than 15 minutes to fill the tub, and I get to luxuriate for nearly an hour... seems like a better deal than taking a long shower.

    I need to do some experimenting with laundry. I used to wash everything in cold, but when I switched to warm things got noticeably cleaner. Have you ever done a cost comparison on those homemade laundry detergents? It's never seemed worth it to me, but then again, it takes me 2-3 years to use up one bottle of detergent.

    I too need to clear the sediment out of my hot water heater. I think I read that you don't need to empty it, and that a bucket or two will be plenty to get rid of the stuff, but maybe that's wishful thinking. Let us know how it goes... not sure why, but this is one job that makes me really nervous. Maybe I should turn the temperature way down before I tackle it so there's less chance of injuring myself or others!

    Anyhow, congratulations on yet another success in the savings department.

    1. Hi Cat,
      You may be right on a bath possibly more cost-effective than a looong shower. It all depends on how deep the bath is, do you top off the hot water during the bath, to keep it hot, and compare to a shower that's quick, and maybe uses a conservation shower head. Keep in mind, that a tub faucet doesn't have a flow restrictor, so your water into the tub is running full force. I do love hot baths, as well. I've compromised and limited myself to one long soak a week, and my daughters have the same privilege. I think we need to pamper ourselves from time to time.

      I make laundry soap in a pinch. But I just grate a bar of soap and mix in some Oxy Clean and baking soda, without any formal recipe. It is a lot of work, when the dollar store sells detergent that works fine enough. But who knows, I may revisit this as we continue to cut costs.

      Yes, turn down the water heater several hours before you flush it, so you don't have to deal with uncomfortably hot water. One site I read said to turn the water heater down to it's lowest setting the night before, if we plan on saving the water in buckets/rain barrel, to use on the yard. It makes me nervous, too. I think because it's dealing with a gas appliance (I have these fears that the house will blow up), and because I'm afraid we'll wreck the whole thing, and be forced into a decision of tankless or with-tank right now. And I'm not ready for that decision. I'll let you know how it goes.

  6. Congratulations Lili,
    You are doing fabulously in finding every way possible to cut back on bills. And I'm so happy that you're also creating celebration moments whenever and wherever you can. Keep up the fantastic efforts -- if anyone can do it, it's you!!!!

    1. Thanks, Jayne!
      Yeah, celebrating small wins keeps me motivated. Sometimes, the pressure to reduce so much, is crushing, like being told you have to lose 100 pounds in 5 months or risk a heart attack. At first I had oodles of motivation. But now, I waver between pumped-up and frozen with anxiety. Thanks for your vote of confidence.

  7. Once again, terrific inspiration for everyone.

    You can try liquid detergent in the cold water. I've used cold water only for years and it works just fine for us. I use liquid detergent only.

    1. Hi Judy,
      Thanks! We were using the liquid from Dollar Tree, and I can't remember why we changed to the powder. I'll have to give the liquid a chance again.

      I know for some circumstances, cold water just doesn't work for some people. But it's funny that we've been sold the idea that everyone should wash in hot or warm. I remember when my kids were babies, the salesman who sold us our machine practically insisted that we use the hot or warm setting on children's clothing. Really, I thought he was going to come home with us and monitor which setting I used. I can see for diapers, yes on hot, but for the rest of the kids' clothes, sometimes HOT actually sets the stain.

      Thanks for your words of encouragement!

  8. We have a cistern for our water and I used to greatly resent the loss of water while waiting for the shower to heat up. So..... I fill a bucket (pail?) with the cold water from the bath tap and when it starts to run warm I (in one swift move) remove the bucket while switching to the shower. That bucket full of water is one and a half toilet flushes! So now I feel better.

    Some great ideas, thanks so much for sharing this journey!

    1. Hi Jessica,
      A cistern, very interesting. I've never known anyone before with a cistern for their home. Is this common in your area?
      Good solution for the water that would've just gone down the drain! I get annoyed over the water wasted, as the shower heats up, because we're paying for that water, as it's city water.

    2. The bedrock is so close to the surface here that most of my neighbours outside of the immediate town limits have one as water pipes cannot be laid. I'd never heard of it before I came to Canada from England.

      It's a creative challenge and we can really track our water use as we have to order a delivery when it gets too low. It's a balancing act between not ordering too early and having the excess just pour out of the top, and not leaving it too late so that we, um, run dry. (once!)

      Currently we reorder about every 6 weeks, the previous owner of the house (just one person compared to our four) apparently had a delivery every month! I like to see how far I can stretch the time.

    3. When you said cistern, I thought of rain cisterns. But you have to have water trucked in. Wow! Now that would be a pain. And I can definitely understand why you'd not want to waste a single drop.

  9. I have been using powdered homemade laundry soap in cold water (I grate it on the smallest setting on my Kitchen Aid attachment) and I don't have problems with dissolving.

    I have a bucket in the showers to use while the water heats up. I use it for cleaning and for watering outdoor potted fruit trees. It is an ice cream bucket, so I didn't buy the bucket.

    We have used a timer; my oldest daughter has waist-length hair and aims for 5 minutes. She uses a homemade leave-in conditioner that is pennies to make and so she only has to wash her hair. She has been using a timer for several years. I like the idea of permanent timers in each bathroom; it is a son who takes the longest showers (and the hottest ones!) We have been working on getting him to take shorter showers.

    I think it's pretty amazing that your water heater has lasted that many years; they usually don't last more than 10.

    1. Hi Brandy,
      I'll have to see if I have a grater attachment any smaller. I have hand grated bars of soap before, and the flakes didn't dissolve well in cold. Maybe my flakes were too large, or my incoming cold water too cold (our cold water hovers around 49-50 degrees year round, here). But I'm always willing to try something new. It could have been the brand of soap, as well. Thanks for the tip on using the smallest setting.

      I believe I read that water heaters tend to last longer with soft water (which is what we have in Seattle), than hard water. And that could account for ours lasting so long. We did drain it last weekend, and there was very little sediment, even after all these years. In reading up on buying a replacement, I did read that most new water heaters never need flushing.


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