A high electricity bill is never a fun surprise, especially if your utilities have been reasonable during the other months of the year. After your blood pressure returns to its normal level, what’s your next step?

Determine what caused your power usage to spike.

In some cases, you may know exactly what did it; in others, you may have a harder time sussing out the cause. Living in the DC metro area, with its wide range of home ages (and even wider range of weather conditions), means that you may need to look to an energy auditor for help. Your HVAC system or a lack of insulation could also be to blame.

But before you spiral any further down a black hole of what ifs, let’s break down some possible causes of a high electricity bill and what you can do to prevent another.

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Why Is My Electric Bill So High?

close-up image of electric meterMy husband and I wondered the exact same thing at the beginning of 2010 when we opened our January electric bill to find that we owed the power company over $400—more than twice what we had been paying in the fall and early winter.

What on earth had happened? The weather had been unusually cold—teens and twenties—for several days in a row (I know that’s nothing for you mid-Atlantic residents, but it’s unusual here in Georgia), and the house we were renting had exclusively electric utilities.

The house was also not what anyone would consider energy efficient. In fact, it was the complete opposite. I could stand in front of any window or door in the house and feel cold air blowing into the room.

This meant that when the temperatures dropped, the heat pump struggled (and ran constantly) to keep the temperature we set at the thermostat—a perfect recipe for a stunningly high power bill.

With the DC metro area experiencing even colder temperatures than we do here in Georgia, could you encounter the same problems I did? Absolutely.

If you’ve recently received a high power bill, take some comfort in the fact that you are not the only one, and then look over these possible causes to figure out what happened.

1. Your home has an older heat pump.

heat pump on outside of a houseHeat pumps are great in the right climate and when they’re sized and operated correctly. However, the freezing winter temperatures of the DC metro area are no match for an old, inefficient heat pump.

The biggest downside to a heat pump is that it uses heat from the outside air to heat your home in the winter. When the outside temperature is too cold, the heat pump isn’t able to extract enough heat from the air and will either turn itself off or switch to auxiliary heat (also called emergency or resistance heat).

Why might you have a heat pump in your DC-area home? Well, heat pumps are less expensive to install than natural gas furnaces, and in multi-unit housing buildings or areas where gas service is very expensive or unavailable, a heat pump is often the only option.

They’ve gotten a bad rap in parts of the country that experience cold winters, but if you need to replace an old, inefficient heat pump and a gas furnace isn’t feasible, ask your HVAC contractor about a new, high-efficiency model that can handle colder temperatures.

2. You’re using your heat pump’s emergency heat setting.

Because traditional heat pumps lose efficiency (or may turn off altogether) when outside temperatures reach freezing levels, most units are equipped with a backup emergency heat feature. The emergency heat setting uses a lot of energy to create heat, so if at all possible, try to reserve it for genuine emergencies only.

When my husband and I gave some thought to how we had used the heat during the winter of 2010, we realized that we had been relying far too much on emergency heat. Our rental home’s heat pump was both undersized and inefficient, and the house leaked air from all windows and doors. To heat the house, we unwittingly ran the heat pump on emergency heat for days at a time, which was undoubtedly the cause of our shockingly high electricity bill.

Here’s how to avoid using your heat pump’s emergency heat:

  • Install a smart, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat.
  • If available, manually override the temperature at which the heat pump switches to emergency heat.
  • Keep your thermostat set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • If you’ve lowered the temperature while you’re away from home, warm the house up slowly. Don’t raise the thermostat more than one or two degrees at a time.

3. Your home lacks adequate insulation.

fiberglass insulation in attic storage spaceOlder homes are notorious for their lack of insulation in the walls and floors as well as in the attic, but luckily, this is a relatively easy fix. A dead giveaway of poor insulation is feeling outside drafts as you stand in the middle of a room, but there are a few less obvious signs to watch for.

Contact an insulation contractor if you notice any of the following:

  • Extraordinarily dusty rooms
  • Cold or hot spots around the house
  • More bugs than usual making their way inside
  • Frozen pipes
  • Ice dams

Inadequate insulation contributes to spiking utility bills because when heated and cooled air escapes your house (or cold or warm air enters the home), your HVAC system must work harder to maintain a comfortable inside temperature. This causes the HVAC system to run almost continuously, therefore increasing your electricity bills.

How to Save Energy

hand adjusting the knob on a thermostatSaving energy goes hand in hand with lowering your electricity bills. A quick search for ways to save energy brings up an overwhelming number of recommendations, so I’ve broken it down into more manageable chunks.

Habits

 
  • Turn off lights when you leave a room.
  • Unplug small appliances (toaster oven, coffee maker, electric kettle, etc.) when you finish using them.
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Put on a sweater instead of bumping the heat up a degree or two.
  • If you can, open a few windows for a cross breeze instead of turning the A/C down in the summer.
  • Change furnace and central A/C filters at least once per quarter.
  • Determine your power company’s off-peak hours, and try to use your dishwasher and laundry machines then.

Household purchases

 
  • Replace incandescent and CFL light bulbs with LED light bulbs.
  • Replace standard faucets, shower heads, and other plumbing fixtures with low-flow alternatives.
  • If you have a yard, plant shade trees on the west- and east-facing sides of your house.
  • Install a programmable or Wi-Fi-enabled smart thermostat to keep temperatures under control while you’re away from home.
  • Install timers or use a home automation system to control lights.

Investments

 
  • Replace inefficient or single-pane windows with energy-efficient, double-pane windows.
  • Install additional insulation in the attic.
  • Encapsulate your crawl space.
  • Gradually replace old, inefficient appliances—start with your dishwasher, refrigerator, laundry machines, and water heater.
  • Replace uninsulated entry doors with insulated fiberglass doors.
  • Install a home energy monitor to determine exactly how much energy your household uses.

You don’t have to tackle this list item by item. It’s perfectly OK to make incremental changes and lifestyle adjustments—the goal is to create change you can stick with, so be realistic about your daily routine.

If you always forget to turn off your porch light before you leave the house, put it on a timer or install a dusk-to-dawn sensor to take yourself out of the equation. If your family members are notorious for adjusting (and readjusting) the thermostat unnecessarily, hold a family meeting to explain the ground rules, and then place a sticky note at the thermostat as a reminder.

DC-Metro Power Company Energy-Saving Initiatives

power cords plugged into outlet on a green wallYour power company is probably not the first place you’d turn to for information about reducing your electricity usage, but you may be surprised at the valuable information you can gather with a quick glance at their website.

Pepco, for example, offers an Energy Wise Rewards program that offers monetary incentives to DC homeowners who give the company consent to remotely turn off their air conditioner or heat pump at peak times.

The DC Sustainable Energy Utility is an excellent resource for ways to save energy and reduce your electricity bills as well as information about product and service rebates and discounts.

Dominion Energy provides energy-saving tips as well as energy calculators to help you determine the best steps to take to reduce your energy consumption (and your power bill).

The Bottom Line

The DC metro area is fortunate enough to experience four distinct seasons, but if you live in a drafty, inefficient house, your electricity bill could spike during the coldest (and warmest) months of the year.

Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to keep your energy usage to a minimum and your power bills at a reasonable level. The key to sticking with energy-saving habits is to take them on slowly and make them easy to live with.

Consult a reputable HVAC contractor for advice, and then evaluate your own habits. With just a few small changes, you’ll see your utility expenses take a nosedive.

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