Slash your electric bill

Spend less on electric bills. Put more in your pocket.

Lowcountry residents can expect some large electric bills in July, as the heat index has been topping 100 degrees day after day.

Unfortunately, lots of the money spent on electric bills will be wasted, paying for conditioned air that escapes through poorly sealed duct work and poorly sealed homes. That’s a shame, considering how many households struggle to save money for emergencies or retirement.

The good news is it may cost nothing to have a professional come out and help you discover why your bills are so high. I shared this information a few days ago with a caller from Charleston who told me she has monthly electric bills in the $400 range for her 850-square-foot, one-story home. My electric bills are less than half that much, for a two-story home more than twice that size, partly thanks to some extensive insulation and air-sealing work done years ago.

Of course, learning what’s causing high electric bills and fixing the problems are two different matters. For those who can afford the up-front cost, money spent on insulation and air-gap-sealing will pay dividends for years to come, and the savings grow each year as utility rates increase.

There are some limited ways to get free help, for those with lower incomes, and for people of all income levels there are loan programs and rebate offers that can help with the cost of improvements.

Customers of SCE&G can have a professional come out and inspect their home, from caulking to cooling systems, and recommend efficiency improvements, at no cost. To learn more about a free “Home Energy Check-up” call 877-510-7234.

Not an SCE&G customer? The Sustainability Institute (724-9014) will do a visual in-home inspection for $99 in Charleston County. Full energy audits, where companies connect a large fan to the front door of a home to learn how tightly sealed it is and where the air is going, cost hundreds more.

Once you learn what the problems are, consider what improvements you can manage yourself. Some are pretty simple if you’re handy with home repairs. Some of the least expensive steps include:

Caulking or weather-stripping around doors, windows and attic drop-downs to keep conditioned air in the house. Insulating an attic access panel can make a particularly big difference.

Installing a programmable thermostat. This can really help if you’re not home during the day. You can set the thermostat so that the temperature will be comfortable when you’re home, and will use less power when you’re away.

Larger projects will, for most people, involve a contractor and more expense. For example, blowing additional insulation into the attic and sealing ductwork, or replacing an old HVAC system, would cost thousands of dollars.

If you’re considering such projects, be sure to investigate programs offered by your electric company. I’ve listed a few helpful ones below.

For low-income households, the Palmetto Community Action Partnership offers free weatherization help, but there is a waiting list up to a year long for such assistance (call 720-5336 for information). The Sustainability Institute also offers free assistance to a limited number of lower-income households through the S.C. Energy Conservation Corps program (call 747-5885).

SCE&G: The utility offers $150 rebates for sealing or insulating existing ductwork, $300 for replacing ductwork, up to $300 for installing qualifying air-conditioning systems or heat pumps. Work must by done by Nov. 30. Applications are required. For details call 877-510-7234 or visit sceg.com.

Berkeley Electric Co-op: The cooperative offers “HomeAdvantage” loans to improve a home’s efficiency or replace a failed HVAC system. The interest-bearing loans are repaid through electric bills and, ideally, the loan charges are offset by savings from using less power. An application and an energy audit are required and a contractor must do the work. Visit berkeleyelectric.coop or email donnac@bec.coop.

Santee Cooper: Through the “Reduce the Use” program, Santee Cooper offers an extensive list of rebates, including rebates for insulation and HVAC systems, plus a financing program. For information, visit santeecooper.com, email energy.advisor@santeecooper.com, or call 843-347-3399, ext. 3910 (Horry and Georgetown) or 843-761-8000, ext. 3910 (Berkeley).

For small but lasting energy savings, replace burned-out light bulbs with new LED bulbs. They can be expensive, but I’ve found them on sale for less than $5, and, over the decades they should last, they save lots of money. Incandescent bulbs are cheap to buy but expensive to use and throw off lots of heat.

Also, don’t forget about energy vampires — electronics that draw power when they are plugged in but aren’t turned on. To save money, plug large televisions and video-game systems into a surge protector, and when you aren’t using them, simply turn off the power by turning off the surge protector.