Figuring out cost of utilities easier with device

Kill A Watt EZEvery month when its time to pay my gas, electricity and water bills, I'm curious to see how much I've used my utilities and how that compares with what my household used for the same month a year ago.

I'm always looking to save money, and the usage comparison is a quick look at if we're doing anything to lessen our consumption, and thus, what we pay for utilities. Last month, for example, our home's kilowatt usage per day dropped almost three kilowatts, or 39%. That's quite a drop, but I attribute it to being out of the house on vacation for a little more than a week.
But now I don't have to guess where our savings are coming from, or wait for the bill to arrive. The Kill A Watt EZ, sold by Ace Hardware for $49.99, does it one plug-in appliance at a time, instantly measuring how much power something is using for an hour, day, month or year.

You just punch in your cost per kilowatt, in my case 11 cents per kilowatt hour in California, and you can see how much electricity that toaster, stereo, lamp or anything else uses.

A light in a spare bedroom that is plugged in but hasn't been used for years is costing me $6.74 in electricity per month, according to the Kill A Watt. The lamp is so old and inefficient that it's on the next trip to the dump, and I've learned plenty about vampire power and how much juice devices suck, whether they're on or off. Keeping our laptop computer in sleep mode costs $1.92 a year, which seems too good to be true.

Granted, paying $50 for the curiosity factor of seeing how much energy an appliance is using is a steep price, as Lou Manfredini, Ace Hardware's home expert, admitted to me in a telephone interview. But it can help save energy once you understand how much energy is being used, Manfredini said. The device also can do some electrical readings that an electrician would want to use.

With the average home spending $2,200 on utilities every year, according to the federal government website Energy Star, there are many places to save money.

Game consoles such as the PS3, which are used as a high-definition video disc player, use from four to seven times as much power as standalone Blu-ray players, and as much as 24 times the power of a standalone DVD player, according to Energy Star. Plug a Kill A Watt into it and find out how much money that PS3 costs per year to run.

Vampire power, or devices that are plugged in but not being used, can save $20 a year in a typical house if those things are unplugged or turned off on a power strip, Manfredini said. That's not much money, but it's a start to a lifestyle change.

"Yes, it's only pennies," he said. "But you know what, if you walk down the street and you see a quarter on the street, you pick it up."

One thing I quickly realized when testing out the Kill A Watt around the house is how many plugs are behind chairs, couches and other furniture, or are low to the floor and make the reading difficult to see. One reason more people don't unplug or turn off appliances may be that electrical outlets are often far enough out of reach to forget about or get lazy over. I'm not going to move a bed every time I want to plug in a lamp that's rarely used, although now that I know how much it costs to keep it plugged in, the lamp is going out the door.

For my water usage questions, Ace has a device to help save water when flushing the toilet, called a Hydroright Dual Flush Converter. For $25, it converts a standard flush toilet to a dual flush toilet. So if you go No. 2, you push the bottom button. The top button is for No. 1. I put it on the upstairs toilet, so as not to confuse guests or our child.

The tank doesn't have to be removed to install the flush converter, although a standard flush valve that uses a flapper is required. The converter replaces the flapper and lets in less water -- 15,000 gallons per year, according to Ace, which is enough to fill a typical pool.

The manufacturer has an online calculator to determine how long it will take in water savings to pay for the device, depending on how many people live in the house and how many toilets there are. It estimated it would take 26 months in savings for the device to pay for itself. That seems too long. Next month's water bill might give me a better idea.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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