Dads, Electric Bills, and Polar Vortexes

The Set-Up

I was recently anally violated with suprised by a $450 electric bill covering the period from roughly the middle of November to the middle of December. This was definitely NOT in the budget. So I did what any rational, sane father would do: ran around and turned off all of the lights, and then blame the children for yet again ruining my life.

You see a snack, I see the exterior siding on my house

We’ve tried hard to conserve energy. We keep the thermostat to 64 during the cool months, 74 during the warm months. There are 6 of us in a 1979, 2000 square foot colonial on a slab. True, the washer and dryer seem to run almost constantly, and maybe we could do less dishes, or take fewer showers… but I hardly feel we’re emblematic of American excess.

Unlike this guy, who is Ruining It For Us All

So I had to figure out a few things, like how much was I paying for electricity, anyway…Hold this thought, we’ll come back to it.

Polar What?

I am not normally a prepared person.

For anything really.

There are folks who come by it their preparedness naturally, because they had some especially prepared great-grandparents, who saw the wisdom in marrying likewise.

Then there are folks who are conditioned from a young age to a life of organization and preparedness. Perhaps your father was a Marine, for example.

Then there are people for whom finding their pants still on their lower 48 at the end of the day is a pleasant, if somewhat unexpected surprise.

I definitely fall into the latter group.

I am okay with this, because I am really, really good at Making Stuff Up As We Go Along. But basically, in a disaster/emergency scenario I am what you might refer to as “zombie fodder”.

This is about as prepared as I get

Fast forward to this week. The Polar Vortex strikes. My Father in Law (who only lives a few miles away) loses power. Somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my consciousness, I start to think…

Perhaps… perhaps we could lose power, too. In the winter. Man, that would be bad. The kids couldn’t play Minecraft. Nah that wouldn’t be so bad. Something else though… cold… we could be very cold. Perhaps someone should do something about that.

Crap, I’m someone.

A quick trip to Home Depot, and I am now the proud owner of one of these:


Now we’re cooking with gas

All of my life I’ve been a Heat Pump kind of guy. I have never lived any further north than Maryland, so I’ve never really been in a climate where having an oil-burning furnace was a necessity. Heat pumps are pretty inefficient, and get even less efficient the colder it gets, so they are a horrible answer for any serious cold weather. By contrast, a Kerosene heater is remarkably efficient, if a little low-tech. It’s a fire in a can.

Setup and assembly was pretty easy, so I filled it with fuel to allow the wick to soak for a while, and then gave it a test fire in the garage. All went well, so I move it into the house and let it rip. When you were in the space adjacent to the heater, the sensation of warmth was just like a good fire. Because that’s what it was. In a can. What was more surprising was that it raised the temperature of the whole house by about 1 degree per hour. Given we had been living in the frozen food section the past few months, it was soon sweltering uncomfortably in the house and I had to turn the thing off. But I was intrigued… could this be our primary heat source? Was it really cheaper than our electric heat source?

Stand back, I’m going to try Science.

The Experiment

I just recently got a “smart meter”, which has a digital readout and looks very smart up against my house. This would give me a reasonably precise way to figure out how much electricity I was actually consuming (or at least being charged for) over any given period of time. I could take that info and compare it to my Kerosene costs.

Kerosene is $4 a gallon. I can run the heater for roughly 12 hours on a gallon. For the sake of simplicity, I am assuming I am just running it enough to make me warm, which is what I expect my thermostat to do automatically.

First, I needed to figure out what my baseline electric usage was. I set the thermostat to “off”, bundled up, and went to go stare at my meter to see how long it would take to roll over one Kilowatt-hour (Kwh), which is the standard unit of billing for electricity.

Step 1

I got lucky and caught the meter rolling over as soon as I got outside, which was good because it was 11 degrees outside, plus wind chill of -Whothefuckcaresmynadsarefreezing. I waited at least 13 minutes and didn’t watch it roll over, so I assumed about 15 minutes, which I am okay with because I went back outside sometime between 2-5 minutes later for Step 2 and it was on a different number.

Step 2

Turned the thermostat to “Emergency Heat” and set the desired temperature up by 10 degrees (wanted to simulate high usage). Went outside and watched the meter roll over to a new number, and then 3.15 minutes later it changed again.

Step 3

Turned the thermostat to “Heat”, which engaged the blower outside (Heat Pump) but not the Emergency Heat unit inside. This time, it took 2.83 minutes to consume 1 Kwh.

Then I went back inside, turned on the Kerosene heater, and thawed out.  With The Science over, it was time for The Maths.

You too, can take Math 011 and learn the secrets of the line chart
You too, can take Math 011 and learn the secrets of the line chart

At Baltimore Gas and Electric’s current rate (9.623 cents per Kwh), my heat pump costs me $2 for every hour it’s running. That is more than 6 times the cost of an hour of heat out of the Kerosene heater. As the rates go up, it just gets more absurd. I mean, no one would really be paying 17.5 cents per kwh, right? That’s almost double what BGE charges…

Supply and Demand

Well, I’m paying that, actually. Or I was up until I wrote this post.

Over the summer I had gone with one of the “deregulated” power suppliers (Energy Holdings, LLC if you’re curious). At the time I switched the rate was cheaper than what BGE was charging, and I was getting airline miles to boot. There’s practically no downside!

The downside is is that their rates change without warning, because Regulation Is Socialism, and the Free Market is Best, Always.

BG&E (which we all know is a bloated inefficient dinosaur with bad breath) is compelled by law to only change their rates gradually, and on a set schedule, with plenty of notice. Not so with these other guys! But that’s what capitalism is all about right? Free market, supply and demand, caveat emptor, etc?

In a normal market, I get to know what the price is before I buy something, and if I don’t like the price, I can –and this is a critical detail — not buy it. This is how the balancing act of supply and demand plays out. The problem, of course, is that while I have some control over my consumption, I have no control over the rate, and I don’t know what my rate is going to be NEXT period. I can’t opt out of my monthly bill with my electric supplier, and because I have already consumed the electricity, I am on the hook for whatever they decide to charge me.

I do not blame Energy Holdings in the slightest for marking up the cost of their product by almost 100%. It was clearly spelled out in my contract that the rates would change, but didn’t I want these sweet sweet airline miles? Of course I did. I just never envisioned that the more efficient de-regulated supplier would charge me double the going rate. Fortunately, one phone call later and I was connected with a very nice gentleman who offered to extend to me “commercial pricing”, which is supposedly closer to reality, and to send me a check for 50 bucks as a consolation prize.  Depending on how long it takes for the check to get here, we may or may not be customers for very long, and I’ll be slightly smarter and several hundred dollars poorer for it. On the plus side, with what they’ve overcharged me I now have enough frequent flyer miles to go to Australia.

I hear it’s warm.

So why doesn’t everyone use Kerosene?

Good question.

First, it’s messy and smelly. You have to refill the heater outside somewhere, because WHEN you spill (not if), the last thing you want is to be forced to inhale Kerosene vapors an arbitrarily long time. While I maintain that it’s no worse than inhaling a wood burning fire in a fireplace, there are smells involved on startup and shutdown.

Second, like many things from your grandparent’s generation (including your grandparents) it’s kind of a pain in the ass. You have to remember to turn it on, and then if it gets too hot you have to remember to turn it off. You have to refill it, etc. Wicks need cleaning, and eventually replacing.

Third, it’s a little scary. All combustion of carbon-based fuels (of which Kerosene is one) produces some amount of Carbon Monoxide as a byproduct. Kerosene tends to burn very cleanly, and we have it in the middle of our large, drafty house, but we’re not sleeping with it on. If we had to (like in a real emergency), I would only do it if I had a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector in every room and if I left a window open. I think it’s a low risk and safe enough while we’re keeping an eye on it and staying awake, but the CDC estimates that, on the low side, about 500 people die due to CO poisoning every year (although the Consumer Products Safety Commission is far more worried about indoor generator use).

Fourth- availability of quality Kerosene. I have a pretty reputable supplier nearby, but any variations in the quality of the Kerosene could have an immediate effect on the effectiveness of the heating strategy. Burning clean fuel creates very little soot– but any contamination in the system could change that pretty quickly. Not everyone has the same access.

We’ll keep the experiment going for a little while longer and see what the net impact is on our overall electric bill, but I am optimistic. At the very worst, I now have a feeling of rustic preparedness about me, and I have to say I like it.

Also, I am pleased to report that my pants are still where I left them. On me.

Always a pleasant surprise, that.


5 thoughts on “Dads, Electric Bills, and Polar Vortexes

  1. I usually keep my thermostat at 78 in the summer and 68 in the winter, and my electric bill is about $50-$60 every month all year round. Granted, my house is smaller, there’s less people living in it, and I do lots of frugal things like take Navy showers. The heat also cuts back to 60 at night in the winter, but in the summer the AC kicks back to 75 to make it a little cooler at night to make sleeping easier. I also have gas heat, which kicks butt.

    I would keep my house a little warmer in the winter if I had small children. But I remember growing up you and I around the house always wore a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, and a sweatshirt during the winter. This probably saved a lot of electricity by being able to keep the thermostat at say 69-70. 74 seems/feels like spring, in which case when it’s winter the person probably needs to wear more clothes.

    Also also, they make new, more efficient heat pump water heaters that cost about $.55 a day to run. They also make more efficient heat pumps for house heating, too. If if you throw a solar panel on the roof (or in the backyard) you could take maybe $20 of the bill every month.


    1. The non-electric source of heat makes a drastic, drastic difference in BTU production. The only major drawback to combustion for primary heating is transportation of the fuel. With CNG you’re lucky in that it’s piped in, but any way you look at it you’re still moving more than electrons. Our heat pump is only 6 years old and was one of the higher SEER models out there.

      Solar is always an option, but in Maryland if you tie into the grid, BGE currently requires you to have an automatic shutoff switch, rendering you helpless in an emergency, which seems really bass-ackwards. Source: neighbor got a solar city install.


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