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Electric Bills are Crazy, need advice!!

M Br
January 22, 2019
Help me figure out why my house is using so much electricity! Any ideas on what could be causing it or what to check/troubleshoot are appreciated!

We moved into our current house 18 months and the electric bills are OUTRAGEOUS and we can’t figure out why! Our house was originally a split level built in 1969 over a basement. In 1999 a large addition was added on a slab. The house is about 4000 square feet total. The exterior is brick and stucco. Windows are casement and in good condition generally, as are exterior doors. We could stand to caulk and reseal them but it’s not like there are huge gaps and drafts. Kitchen appliances are a little older, but nothing crazy, probably 10 years old (do have an older fridge in garage). HVAC was just replaced though its gas heat anyway and it’s January. Almost all bulbs are LED. We have a whole home generator but I understand that wouldn’t be an issue.

I seriously can’t figure out why our house is using THREE TIMES the amount of energy as similar houses in my area, it’s insane (our old house was the same size, though newer and our bills were 1/3 of current bills). See pic of report from electricity company. I’ve read every “save on electricity” article out there and just can’t figure out what’s causing this. Our monthly bill looks like some people’s mortgage bill - HELP!! What am I forgetting? What could be causing this?

Comments (300)

  • Ig222

    I have been following this thread with a lot of interest, and am happy you have been able to find the breaker that caused your problem. We' ve had similar problems a few years ago in a rental and it was a real pain.

    I also agree that you probably still have to find the final source of your problem, but you' re now at a stage where you probably keep this breaker off until you can get an electrician to figure out what exactly is the guilty party.


    Good luck.

  • simmtalker

    PS - I’m sorry the mystery was boring and there’s not an FBI raid at my
    neighbors house right now to dismantle the grow house that was being
    supported by the electricity they were stealing from us - that’s a much
    better story that an old, crappy heater.

    Are you kidding?!?!?!?! This is PROOF that aliens are using your detached garage heater as a communication device to organize their invasion of Earth....you saved the planet!!!!!

    Okay, now back to your regularly scheduled helpful posts.....

  • M Br
    I totally agree with everyone saying that there might be something else on the breaker. It’s totally possible that the floors are heated, but because the breaker has been off for over 24 hours now, you can’t really tell. And I’m not going to flip it back on for a day just to see if the floors heat back up - I am currently basking in my energy savings!! :) but we are going to have an electrician come out very soon to take the heater out, and we will have him test the breaker to see if there’s anything else drawing from it. That should give us final answers.

    I inspected all sides of the heater this morning and there is no label anywhere on the thing, not even a manufacturer name, but also nothing about the electricity usage, so unfortunately you electricity math whizzes won’t be able to take a look at that. There does appear to be some sort of sticker or label on the equipment inside the heater (on the backside - see pic), but there is no way for me to access that before it’s taken down. Here is also a picture of the breaker and a photo of the cord going from the heater into the wall. Those were the only numbers anywhere near the heater. Here’s alps a photo of the outlets on the ceiling. To answer someone’s question, the ceilings are 10 feet, so not that tall.
  • M Br
    Also, the more I think about it, the more the garage floor being heated - and on the same breaker as the heater - feels like a strong possibility. We know that the former owners that added the home addition and this detached garage in 1999 also owned car parts stores. I assume that means they were car people, so it seems somewhat logical that they might have done something quirky like add heated floors to the detached garage where they were working on cars?? Also, based on what everyone is saying, that much energy would have had to have put off some form of heat. It was not the actual heater that was putting off heat - it was definitely off the vast majority of the past 18 months. However, I can see where a heated garage floor, in a garage that we were rarely in, could have gone unnoticed. I assume a heated garage floor doesn’t do much to heat up the air in the actual garage (so it wouldn’t have felt warm in the garage) and we were never out there barefoot to feel the actual floor.

    Having said all of that, I’m trying not to jump to conclusions because I’ve done that about 500 times - all being wrong - over the past two weeks, so I’m trying to just be patient and let the electrician tell me the real answer!
  • Matt

    That grey label inside the heater near the top is the one your looking for. With zoom and a flash you might be able to capture it.

  • M Br
    Matt - Good to know. That’s the backside of the heater, so I had to take that photo in selfie mode while I was essentially hugging the heater, haha. But I’ll see what I can do tonight and try to get a picture where you can make out the text.
  • armoured

    @M Br: this may seem a stupid question, but have you ever seen that heater turned on and generating heat? I suspect with a unit like that, you would hear it and see it pretty soon.

    If not, hope you don't mind small request, turn that circuit on, turn the heater up to full on the unit, and let us know. (Then turn it off to save of course).

    What am I getting at? I know the one circuit is labelled 'heater' but it's possible there are two circuits with heat, and the other one was not labelled or mislabelled (may have made sense to those who did it for some other reason). Let's make sure that's the circuit that ceiling-mounted heating unit is on.

    Separate thought, before your electrician comes, you may want to ask and see whether turning on that circuit a day before would help - heating in a concrete pad may take more than several hours to be noticeable, and could help be sure what's going on.

  • sdello

    also looks like a hinge on the bottom of the heater. does that panel swing down for access to the blower motor/ access to the label inside?

  • M Br

    armoured - Not a stupid question, but yes, we have seen the heater on and generating heat. The normal state of things is that the breaker is flipped on, but the little black knob is turned off. However, we have used the heater on occassion, which we did by turning the black knob on the heater to the "low" or "high" position. When you do that, the heater makes noise like a fan and puts off a good amount of heat. That's why I said above that it's impossible the heater has actually been on for the past 18 months - it's very obvious when it's on versus off. I actually played with the breaker night before last by turning the heater on and then flipping the breaker - this turned off the heater and confirmed that the breaker in question, which is labeled "heater" does in fact control that heating unit. So the question now, of course, is - what else is on that breaker? I totally agree with the suggestion about flipping the breaker on before the electrican comes - I'll do that so that we can gague the floor temp while the electrican is at our house.

    And a related question - does anyone have heater garage floors and have a sense of how it takes them to heat up/cool down? As a reminder, I turned this breaker off on Sunday night. Then, Monday night (last night) was the first time I felt the floors to see if they felt warm. They did not feel warm, but they were not nearly as cold as my regular garage floor - I had my husband check for a second opinon and he agreed. The breaker had been off for 24 hours, so if there is floor heat, it hadn't been on for 24 hours, but I'm wondering if the floor was still retaining some of the heat? I would guess that a concrete slab takes awhile to both warm up and cool down, but I'm just curious if a slab could retain some heat for a full 24 hours. I know all of this is speculative and the only way to know for sure is to flip the breaker back on or have the electrician come out - both of which I'll do - but I'm going to want and do that at the same time.

  • M Br

    sdello - Not sure, I will check this evening.

    bevthebritt - The one in that link looks identical to my heater. Mine may be an older model, but it has to be essentially the same thing. So I would guess the specs there are the same as my heater.

    For those of you asking, what do these specs tell you?

    I also just emailed my realtor asking if he can introduce us to the owners that built the garage (2 owners ago) or at least ask them about the heating in the detached garage. He had mentioned in passing that he knew them, so we shall see. Maybe they can provide quick answers.


  • Izzy Mn

    My sister has a heated basement floor in a cabin not used much in the winter , in Minnesota. It has a separate electric heater, like a small water heater type set up that feed the pipes under basement slab filled with a antifreeze type solution. They don't turn off in winter just set at lower setting. The "mass" if the cement slab would stay "warm" for a long time, probably a month or more because if the mass (I guess that's some kind of engineering term besides meaning sheer volume, but I guess it really does mean that) In other words you would not have any noticable change in temperature in a few days.

    I would have your electrician look for that type of hook up for slab heating.

  • armoured

    @M Br: okay, so heater on same circuit. I do not have heated garage floors, but have other heated floors, and they can take a long time to heat up - 12 hours wouldn't be unusual. I wouldn't be surprised if some residual heat could still be felt a day after turning them off, but it would depend on conditions (and like your experience, probably not be certain).

    If you turn it on for a full day and it is indeed a heated concrete pad (and it's got some protection from outdoors), both floor and the room should be noticeably warmer if not hot. The difference might be noticeable after 12 hours.

    Here's my attempt at math on your mystery: the 'extra' 100kwh of usage a day is about 4kw an hour, or about 15-20A on that 230V circuit. Let's assume that's the heating for the floor.

    Your fuse is rated 30A, so that heater likely rated at 10-15A, 10A would be safer, and that would be ~2-2.5kw. That's less than the rated for the dayton heater someone put a link to above, but presumably models of all sizes available.

    Both of those together would add to 6-6.5kw - a bit below the 6.9kw a 30A/230V would trip at.

    If you could use the ammeter on the panel there, you could turn on the circuit breaker with heater off, and establish that it uses about 4kw. Then turn on the heater - expect another 2-2.5kw on top of that.

    Doing this by reading the meter would be the same - just do each for an hour - with only the vagaries of your whole-house consumption throwing measuring error in.

  • Jake The Wonderdog

    So no matter if the heat is in the floor or coming from the heater (or both) you would be putting a little over 14,000 BTU/h into that room continuously. It would indeed take a while for the floor to heat up and cool off, but you should notice the overall effect on the room in a 24 hour period.

    It does make me crazy not being able to put a meter on it. We are coming at this from every direction except head-on.

    The total load (if it's all on the one breaker) is about 18 amps.

    BTW: That Dayton heater in the link has several settings. The medium high setting matches our calculated amps / btu/h (if it was on). But think about how warm that garage would be if the heater was on constantly - you would know it because the garage would be hot.


  • armoured

    Another oddity that someone mentioned above, I think: I would think almost any concrete heating pad would have a thermostat somewhere. Have you looked around or seen anything? I would think with a dial or temperature adjustment (and on/off switch). It's precisely because they are slow to adjust that you need a thermostat - otherwise they get too hot/cool because you're constantly guessing and they don't react quickly. (Note the thermostat part could have failed which might explain it being on all the time).

  • M Br
    Armoured - yes, I did see the comment asking about a thermostat and on/off switch. When I was feeling the floors last night, I also looked for these things and didn’t see anything anywhere. However, when we first moved into this house, there were lights at our driveway entrance that were on a timer and it took us a couple of months find where the timer was located (we actually had to have our electrician look and find it!). So again, this house is a little quirky and it wouldn’t be shocking to me if a thermostat and on/off switch was hidden somewhere weird.
  • weedmeister

    From what I've heard, when someone heats a garage floor in a cold climate, it is not to raise the room temperature but to keep ice from forming on the floor when melt water dripps off the car. So it may not be over 45F. Trying to heat that much concrete to 65F-75F would definitely be costly.

    It's possible that the rotary switch is faulty such that 'OFF' does not mean 'OFF' but really low. I've seen heaters like that where they go from 55F to 85F. You set them to 55F to turn them 'OFF' when inside a structure. But in this case that would not be 'OFF'. It would still cycle in cold weather.

    That receptacle and antenna plug on the ceiling would make me think someone had a TV hanging up there at one time.

  • Jake The Wonderdog

    weedmeister


    That cable and 120v outlet was for a screen that showed a video of a fireplace. Only later did they figure out that it didn't put out any heat --- that was when they replaced it with the electric heater.

  • kudzu9

    I can explain about what to expect with radiant floors as my house is on a slab and I have this form of heating for the whole house. The slab takes quite a few hours to heat up and quite a few to cool down so, for purposes of heating the house, one has the thermostat set at a constant temperature (no night setbsck). When the heat is on, you might notice the floor being slightly warm if you are in stocking feet, but nothing pronounced. Our house is very well insulated, and when the house loses power in an outage the ambient temperature goes down slowly. We recently had about a 2-day outage and the inside temp dropped from 68F to about 60F in above freezing weather (there was also a little solar gain during the day that moderated the drop in temp). When the power came back on, it took about 10 hours for the house to get back to normal. Bottomline: if you have slab heating going on, it may be heating pretty continuously but the slab will not seem significantly warm to the touch. Again, putting something insulating, like a stack of newspapers or a folded up blanket, on the floor for a number of hours will be a test to see if heat is being produced.

  • armoured

    Just to note, in a garage with (presumably) less insulation, the slab will lose heat faster/take longer to warm up. That may make it easier to notice temp differential with the rest of the building. But would be far, far better to measure the temperature with a pyrometer (laser thermometer - other thermometers may work), the difference in temp between a heated slab and unheated objects/walls should be immediately obvious in a way it may not be to the hand.

  • kudzu9

    armoured-

    Good points....

  • DavidR

    I'm skeptical. I'm not a code expert, but if I understand the NEC correctly, a permanently installed appliance like that heater can't use more than 50% of the capacity of a circuit that also supplies other loads.

    So if I'm right about that, a competent electrician would dedicate the breaker to that heater. He wouldn't put any other load on it, certainly not something as high-power as a heated floor. In fact, I'd expect the breaker would trip with both the floor and the heater on.

    I suppose it's possible that a former-homeowner hacker double-tapped the breaker. But unless the floor heat is pretty weak (assuming it even exists), I still think it would trip the breaker with the heater on.

    Very interested to learn what your electrician finds.

  • toxcrusadr

    ^^ I was thinking the same thing. Two big heaters on one circuit is a lot. If we had the amp info off the ceiling heater it would tell the tale.


    As an alternative to the high tech thermometer, I wonder if the power co. or whoever they get to do energy audits has one of those thermal imaging gadgets. That floor would light up like a UFO landing pad if it was heated.

  • Jake The Wonderdog

    ^^ Or we could hold a seance and ask the spirits.


    This is getting nutty... Put a dang amp clamp on those wires and find out with real numbers exactly what's going on.

  • simmtalker

    We don't need spirits, we don't need clamps...we already have the answer, and toxcrusadr confirmed it...


    That floor would light up like a UFO landing pad if it was heated.


    THEY ARE COMING!!!!!!

  • M Br
    DavidR & toxcrusadr - Are you skeptical that there are two heating devices or that a single breaker is the culprit? Regarding what’s on the breaker, I still don’t know - it’s definitely the heater but not yet sure what else (if anything) might be on it. However, I know without a doubt that the outrageous energy usage is related to that single breaker, so clearly something on it can pull a LOT of energy. In the app from the electric company, I still can’t see real-time usage (the device comes tomorrow) but the usage data shows up in the app about 3 days later, which means that I can finally see a comparison of usage from Sunday (when the breaker was still on) and Monday (after I turned it off). I flipped that breaker around 10pm on Sunday. See the attached - HUGE difference in usage and the only difference is that single breaker being off. That represents about a $300/month difference in my bill. Crazy.
  • M Br
    Oops, I posted before I was done. Here’s the Monday usage. And I also wanted to mention that the red circles on the Sunday usage are when I was doing my breaker experiment and were when I had that garage breaker flipped off.
  • littlebug zone 5 Missouri

    Wow! You reduced your usage by 2/3! :)

  • M

    At this point, I'd open the panel and have a look inside. There should only be one wire (or a pair of wires for 240V circuits) connected to the breaker. But this wire is going to go somewhere. And if you are luck, you can see where it goes. There also should be a matching white wire from the neutral bar.

    At some point, the wires probably go into a junction box. And when you see the junction box, you can see if the wire splits into two branches or stays the same.

    For finished spaces, this is hard to trace. But garages are frequently unfinished, so you can often follow wires. Even if the wires are in conduit, you should be able to make an educated guess, as this wire is likely thicker than normal 14 AWG gauge wires used for lighting circuits.


    A multimeter would also help. If you have identified a wire that you suspect might be the one that you are tracing, check if it has power. Then flip the breaker and see if it turned off. If it did, then you know you are following the correct wire; otherwise you try again.


    A non-contact voltage detector should in principle work as well. But in practice I find they are frequently unreliable and send you on a wild goose chase. A clamp-on amp meter would work, as long as the heater is powered on (i.e. as long as electricity flows). But you have to make sure you put your clamp around an individual wire. If you put it around a bunch of wires (e.g. as part of a Romex cable), then it should always read zero no matter whether current flows.

  • w0lley32

    The cable going to the heater shown on your pictures is 10-3, which is rated at 30 amps, and it matches the 30 amp breaker you pictured. Since permanently installed fixtures shouldn't pull more than 80% of circuit capacity, and thinking nobody would install 10-3 if smaller cable will suffice, I would be tempted to estimate the capacity of the heater around 5760 watts at maximum setting. My humble guess is that the heater is the only thing on that circuit.

    Since it has a low and high setting, it probably has two elements, and perhaps only the smaller element is energized all the time, which is why you didn't feel the heat from the heater?

  • armoured

    It just being the heater does seem more likely.

  • kudzu9

    But if it's only using the smaller element, it's hard to explain where all that electricity has been going. I still want to hear what an electrician says.

  • Trisha
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  • Jakvis

    My guess is that the heater has a heating element short. I'm thinking the unit is designed to only shut off one side of the 2 power legs. If everything is working correctly this is fine, but what I've seen happen if the element shorts part way through the circuit it will draw constant power but not enough amps to pop the breaker because of the load the element creates.

  • toxcrusadr

    Obviously you can't see what's happening inside the wall, but if you shut off the breaker and remove the cover where the wire comes out of the wall to the heater, you can see whether this is the end of the run or whether there are two cables in there, one coming in and one going out to somewhere else. I agree with the above, it seems this heater should be the only thing on the circuit, but that would be further evidence. And you can't assume whoever did the work followed all the rules or even knew what they were. "I can overload this circuit as long as I don't turn on both things at once, it'll be OK."

  • DavidR

    Jakvis's idea makes some sense. Still, though, there should be 5000 or so watts worth of heat rising from that heater. You'd think the OP would have noticed that.

  • kudzu9

    Yup....

  • Jakvis

    I don't think the heat would be noticable to the OP because the unit is mounted high and the OP would have to stand on a ladder or chair to notice any heat output. Especially if the element was only 2/3's shorted.

  • kudzu9

    Well, it would be pretty easy to test that theory by turning on the breaker, standing on a ladder after a few minutes have passed, and seeing if there is any noticeable heat. I'm still of the opinion that that amount of heat is going to be quite noticeable in its effect on the ambient room temperature. Even if the heater is malfunctioning, and heat is still being produced, a watt is still a watt.

  • Mrs. S

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  • DavidR

    If the short to ground were 2/3 of a 240 volt element, let's see how much power that would waste. Say the heater is 5000 watts. That means the element is about 11.5 ohms, so if it went to ground 2/3 of the way that would be about 8 ohms. P = E^2 / R = 120^2 / 8 = 1800 watts.

    I calculated above that the excess load is probably something over 4000 watts. So we're a little short of that in this scenario.

    However, a short to ground involving about 1/3 of the element would chew up twice that, 3600 watts. Now THAT I'd believe -- except that it STILL would be making lots of heat.

    It's a fascinating riddle, that's for sure!

  • rrmarks

    I have read most of this conversation and I keep wondering if her old refrigerator is in that garage... on that same circuit??

  • Matt

    I still vote that circuit was powering the heater inside the neighbors grow operation!

  • Waynette Bailey
    My electric bill was sky high immediately before my hot water heater broke. It was Winter, so I just thought it was a really cold month, but after my water heater broke, I spoke with the electric company and they stated that my bill the previous month was really high because the hit water heater was constantly running before it burst.
  • toxcrusadr

    How would the power company know that it was your water heater using all that power? They just know the total registered by the meter. I speculate that they were speculating.

  • armoured

    Don't know details in this case, but in some places, electric companies commonly rent water heaters, so they might have lots of info and experience with this..

  • Jane Davila
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