Efforts at home can cut utility expenses

Devvi Walter knows that living in a more energy-efficient home has drastically cut her electric bill in the heat of the summer.

"Last year, we were in a trailer in Cheney with almost no insulation," Walter said. "It was like living in a metal box."

Although last summer brought cooler temperatures, the utility bill for her, her fiancee and their five children ran from $200 to $250. But after moving to a house in Wichita last month, their bills dropped to between $50 and $60.

That's not the case for most Kansans, although utility experts said more people could cut their summer cooling costs by just being smarter about their use of electricity.

"It's going to get worse in the next couple of weeks," said David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board.

"We had a little bit of a cool spell last month. But in a couple of weeks people are going to be getting the bills for the hottest part of the summer."

Calls to Westar Energy's efficiency department from people asking how to cut their costs are up about 20 percent.

"They're asking, 'What can we do to make a difference?' " said Sherii Farmer, an account manager with Westar's energy-efficiency department.

Farmer said Westar customers can get a free programmable thermostat to help better control their homes during the day. Programming the thermostat to drop by just 4 degrees when no one is home can add up to big savings, she said.

Springe suggested keeping the thermostat at about 76 degrees when people are home, and 81 degrees when away.

Walter said her fiancee stays at home with the children all day, and they keep the temperature at 71 to 73 degrees.

But Walter finds other ways to save, such as keeping drapes closed during the hottest part of the day.

"And I go around after people and turn the lights off," she said.

Such actions can cut costs by 30 percent, Farmer said.

The average household pays $100 or more in utility bills during the summer, Westar reports.

Earlier this summer, Westar began increasing rates for households using more than 900 kilowatt hours. After that, the cost of each kilowatt hour goes up 2 cents.

The average home uses 1,300 kilowatt hours a month during the summer, Westar officials say.

"Once you get into that higher rate, your bill can go up pretty quickly," Springe said.

CURB and Westar agree that cutting electric bills can be as easy as turning off the lights or unplugging unused electronics.

Plasma and LED televisions continue to use power, even when they're turned off, Springe said.

"So do game systems and cable boxes, even if they're turned off," Springe said. "Two to three cable boxes is like adding another refrigerator. And if they're plugged in, it's like having them on 24-7."

This is what utility watchers call vampire or phantom power — the invisible electricity sucked from appliances when they're not in use.

"Just unplugging the TV and the phone chargers can save $30 or more on a $100 bill," Farmer said.

The number of people on payment assistance plans is up 14 percent this summer over last, Westar officials say. But they added that the number has dropped by nearly half since May, when a cold winter put many more behind.

"If customers are having trouble paying their bills, we ask them to please call our customer service line," said Erin La Row, a spokeswoman for Westar. "We can put them in touch with agency assistance or other programs. But we need to really know if they're struggling to pay their bills."

Living more efficiently helped Walter save money. But she's still not happy with the hot Kansas summer.

"From a utility standpoint, it's great," she said. "But I lived in California before moving back to Wichita. And now I'm still wishing for a little California weather."