The start of a new year provides us with a time of reflection and resolutions. Today, with the end of the old year on the horizon, I find myself going from room to room turning out lights in an attempt to keep my electricity bill reasonable. I remember my father performing the same ritual, probably for the same reasons.  That’s when I started to wonder why.

 My parents tried hard to prepare me for my life. My mother gave me a love of books, my father taught me troubleshooting techniques that I still use today. Neither of them understood the issues I would face as an engineer but they tried their best to prepare me for that life. Both of them taught me that I should always understand the why behind my actions.

When I was young my father used to go on rampages through the house turning out all the lights. This was probably because he had just received of the power bill and it had exceeded the family budget. It was only after I found myself going through the house turning out all the lights that I started wondering how much I was saving.

Back in my father’s day incandescent lamps were your only choice for home lighting. A lamp rated at 100 Watts, actually used 100 Watts. I realize that Watts means almost as much to you as perennial means to me but stay with me.

Watts is a measure of energy used to measure electricity. If you use one Watt for one hour, you’ve consumed one Watt hour. One thousand Watts for one hour (or one Watt for a thousand hours) is a kilowatt hour and how your electric bill is calculated. In the US, depending on the state you live in, your electric bill varies from $.10-$.30 per kilowatt hour. I’m going to pick on New Hampshire because they come close to having twenty cents per kilowatt hour, a nice round number.

Diving directly into the math, at today’s rates that means that my father was saving two cents per hour for every light he turned off. Back then the efficiency of incandescent lights was low so it was not unusual to see two or four 100 Watt lamps used in each room. Given the number of lights he usually turned off, he was probably saving about forty cents an hour in today’s dollars every time he went through the house.

Well, the savings are certainly not earth shattering but considering how far I’ll drive to save $.02 a gallon for my 10 gallon gas tank, nothing to sneer at either.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp

Running through the math, I realized just how much had changed. Eight years ago, I replaced all my incandescent lamps with CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps). I hated them, yellow tint, slow turn on and despite all the marketing claims, short life. Still Congress felt they were saving the world by making incandescent lamps illegal. CPLs use one fourth the electricity to provide the same amount of light. Nobody bothered to explain to Congress about disposal issues and short life from the associated electronics.

My father’s forty cents an hour savings would be reduced to $.10 an hour if CFLs existed in his time. Fortunately for me, LED light bulbs finally became affordable and I replaced all my CFL’s with LEDs. Although it had nothing to do with my reasons for replacement, LED bulbs use less than half the energy of a CFL to produce the same amount of light. This week, when I ran through the house turning off all the lights, I was only saving five cents an hour.

That seems awfully low. Spreadsheet still open, I decided to see what I would be paying if I simply left all those lights on. Looks like about $36 a month. Given that my lights are seldom on more than six hours a day, following in my father’s footprints isn’t saving enough to treat my wife to a meal at Whataburger.

Knowing how much time I spend at my computer, I decided to calculate my power usage there. I don’t have a huge entertainment center but my home computer is a gaming machine with three monitors and multiple hard drives. Fortunately, my UPS gives me an easy way to see how much power I’m using. Two hundred watts for my computer, add a hundred watts for my wife’s computer and another fifty watts for all the modems, routers and chargers. Three hundred fifty watts with about fifty percent utilization, about $25 a month. Nope, not going to change my computing habits.

What would make a difference? Unfortunately, the answer is right at my feet. During the winter, mornings tend to be a bit nippy at my desk. I usually have a small space heater running under my desk. At 1500 watts, it’s drawing more power than all my lights and computers put together. Four hours of warm feet every day is costing me almost $36 a month. Add that to the space heater in the bathroom and the one in my wife’s greenhouse and I start to see where my money is going.

Turning out all the lights made a lot of sense for my Father’s time. Then again, if spreadsheets had existed back then, I might have realized the damage my home brew arc welder was doing to the family budget. Turning out all the lights doesn’t have the same impact today but in asking why I was imitating my father I got a better idea what was driving my own electric bill. Maybe that’s the best lesson my parents gave me, always question why I’m doing something.

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