The square footage was the same, so when I moved from an apartment to a house I expected a similar utility bill. They were both in Tampa Electric Co. territory, after all.
A $210 bill in September proved me wrong.
How could my usual summer bill — around $75 — spike that much? We had great insulation. We hiked our thermostat to 85 before we left the house and only dropped it to 81 when home.
We used fans, took quick showers and turned off lights when we left rooms.
I called Tampa Electric to dispute the bill. It's likely correct, they said before offering me a free energy audit.
I was still suspicious a few weeks later when a Tampa Electric employee walked through our garage, peeked into the attic and asked us about our habits.
I could stop unplugging electronics, he said. Those "vampire" devices don't contribute much to the bill.
Our biggest culprits: The windows, air conditioner, refrigerator and water heater.
Using his tips — and a few other tricks we learned — we got our bill to less than $100, even in the hottest months.
With this early summer weather, I know we're in for another challenge. This time, I'm ready. You can be, too.
The air conditioner
AC — can't live without it in Florida. And the math is simple: The less you run the air conditioner, the lower your bill. But everyone has a comfort level they won't compromise. When fans don't cut it, crank your thermostat to the highest temperature you can handle. And when you're gone, turn it up even more.
Tampa Electric's auditor told me to stop running our AC at 85 degrees when we're gone. Try 90, he said. Just watch out if you have pets.
The duct system
One of the biggest energy wastes in Florida homes is the leakage of air from duct systems. About 20 percent of cooled air is lost this way, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If you plan on sealing them yourself, make sure you use longer-lasting mastic sealant or metal tape, not duct tape. Not sure you have this problem? Some electric companies will appraise your home's duct system or provide discounts. Tampa Electric will do an inspection for $50 while Progress Energy pays half the cost. Check your electric company's website for more information.
Let's be honest — we would all tune our thermostats to the low 70s if we could afford it. Try some other tips for staying cool:
• Forget the jeans. Wear shorts, skirts or dresses around the house, and go barefoot.
• Try not to run the oven. If you need to bake, try to do several items at the same time. That banana bread can go in at the same temperature as the roasting vegetables.
• Stick pajamas and pillowcases in the freezer before bed. It will help you drift to sleep, even in the heat.
• Eat cool items. In my house, ice pops are a summer favorite. Even ice water — heavy on the ice — helps.
The water heater
Turn it off when you don't need it. Some models heat enough water for a shower in 15 minutes. By turning our water heater off, we saved about $15 a month. If you're in the market for a new one, there are plenty of energy-efficient models available. Or pick up an insulated blanket — a cheaper option that's especially helpful in the winter. It can save you up to 9 percent in water heating costs, according to the Energy Department.
There wasn't much we could do about our refrigerator, except buy a more energy-efficient model or follow my mother's sage advice: "Don't stand there with the door open!" But if you're not ready to upgrade appliances, try these tips: Vacuum the refrigerator coils. Run the washing machine and dishwasher only when you have a full load, using cold water when possible.
This is important — especially in older homes, which often have less insulation. And though it can be expensive up front, like many upgrades, it can pay for itself over several years.
Keep your blinds closed — or partly closed — to ward off direct sunlight. And consider installing tinted film on windows that have direct sun exposure. The main problem in my 50-year-old house? The balances that help the window track open and close were breaking down. When I closed the windows, there were still gaps at the bottom. Like holes in air ducts, we were essentially paying to cool the outdoors. Our landlord installed new ones.
• Turn computers off.
• Replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, compact fluorescent lights.
• If you get home after dark but want to give the appearance you're home earlier, buy a timer that will kick on at a specified hour.
• Caulk and seal air leaks around windows and doors.
• Regularly change air-conditioning filters.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.