Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Not So Smart

If you believe the guy who sold us this house, we weren't supposed to even look at it. Its inclusion in the list of houses we toured was "an oversight" for which he was "very sorry".

The regret and dismay sounded sincere, but then much of that experience seemed sincere at the time. It was only in hindsight that we realized we'd been played, a little. Since we were happy with the outcome of the game--this was the only house of the four in the list that felt like 'home' to both of us--we didn't complain. I wouldn't recommend the agent we had to any first-time homebuyer, though. It wasn't that he did anything wrong, exactly...but he didn't do enough right. We were treated cordially, but we never quite lost the impression that we were small fry, just a little amuse-bouche on the way to the million-dollar sale across town.

And we "weren't supposed to" see this house, this house that ended up being home. Despite it being first on the list--and any psychology student will tell you the first (and last) items in any list stick in the mind--the agent seemed upset that his secretary had included it in our package. And why?

Because it had (and has) electric heat.

Electric heat is right up there with swinging corpses in the attic and rats in the walls for attractiveness to the home-buying public, it seems. You've got two choices: freeze to death or go bankrupt. And so this place was significantly below market value (which, I gotta admit, was the first thing that drew my eye). We went through four houses, and predictably enough liked this one most. Well, to be fair, Eva liked one down the street a tad better, on account of it being a bungalow...but I outright hated that place because of its claustrophobic floor plan. This house was a welcome compromise...but for that electric heat.
We came back to look at it again, this time with some sort of comb. I can't say it was a fine-tooth comb on my end: I learned a lot touring a whole whack of houses in my teens with my parents, but not enough for fine teeth. But a comb nevertheless. Eva's dad has built houses from scratch, so she knows more than I do, and she's got powers of observation several orders of magnitude above mine.
The then-current residents of the house had prepared for us. They'd staged this place as well as could be expected, and having evidently been told the electric heat was giving us pause, had produced a year's worth of utility bills. We were quite surprised at how low the electricity bills actually were. At least, I was. Eva had noticed that every personal appliance in the house--everything that prospective buyers presumably wouldn't touch--was unplugged.
The home inspection yielded a damn good reason for that. We were told that the wiring in this place was so substandard that plugging too many things in at once could very easily cause a fire. Of course, fire prevention had the added benefit of lower utility bills.

We had an electrician here the day we moved in, bringing everything up to code, and we've since replaced the cheesecloth windows with the most energy-efficient models we could find. That, and the fact we like it cool in our house, offsets the considerably more...electrified lifestyle we live, as compared to the previous owners. (As far as we could see, they had one TV, and Eva's laptop screen is bigger.)

Now as it turns out, we do pay more for electricity that our FAG neighbours. (FAG: forced air gas, of course. What did you think I meant?) But not a lot more: about twenty or thirty bucks a month, averaged out over the year. Certainly not worth the estimated twelve thousand bucks it would cost to duct this house. And electric heat has some advantages, one big one being the ability to control the heat in each room.

But things are going to get all kinds of interesting in the coming months. Last week, a woman from Waterloo North Hydro was here for about a minute installing a smart meter.
Oh, joy.
This is one of those initiatives that looks great on the surface, and only starts smelling bad if you think about it. It looks great because you can find out how much juice you're using at any given time and you're given what looks like control over your bill.

But this control is almost entirely illusory, unless you're willing to take the draconian steps the previous owners did here, and unplug absolutely everything you're not using. Even then...well, I'll get to that.

We're encouraged to move our electricity use to off-peak hours. Now I don't know about you, but I'm asleep during off-peak hours. And I for one refuse to get up at 1:00 a.m. to do my laundry, cook the next day's supper, and watch TV or surf the Internet.

If you run through the list of electricity hogs on the linked website, you'll note some glaring omissions. They don't mention refrigerators or chest freezers, for example. What are you supposed to do with those, anyway? Unplug 'em during the day and only plug them in at night? I don't think so. Even assuming food safety--a shaky assumption--any savings you'd glean would be pissed away nightly bringing the unit back down to temp. The same goes for our water cooler and to some degree the electric heating.

Air conditioning is on the list, along with the asinine recommendation to keep it pegged at 25 degrees Celsius (77F). At that temperature, you might as well not even have an air conditioner. I apologize to any econazis out there: I'll pay whatever rate you set to ensure myself a decent night's sleep, but don't expect me to be happy about your jacking the price of my decent night's sleep through the roof. (Yes, as noted above, I sleep during off-peak hours. But the room has to get down to something liveable for me to get to sleep...and that's where all the energy use comes in. Maintaining a temperature isn't difficult. Getting to it can be.

We're told on that website that turning a computer and its associated peripherals on and off frequently not only saves money but also reduces wear. Huh? That directly contradicts everything I've ever heard on the matter, not to mention common sense. A computer is most active booting up...that's why it's called booting, as in "pulling itself up by its own bootstraps". If anything's going to fail, it'll probably fail on startup.

In short, we're told to conserve wherever possible, which is a laudable goal, but only so much conservation is feasible, and as for the rest of it, so solly, Cholly. Basically, this "smart meter" nonsense strikes me as an ecologically motivated cash grab and nothing else. Kind of like the Kyoto accord, in a way. We're living by and large normally for the first billing period to set a benchmark: if that benchmark is terrifying, then we'll have to make adjustments to our lifestyle. Like working night shifts and using the snowbank in our back yard for a fridge and freezer.

Not so smart.


Rocketstar said...

I wonder how much you'd save if you did the 'unplug' method? Pain in the ass but maybe worth it...

Ken Breadner said...

Yeah, pain in the ass is right. All the clocks would need to be reset daily, and we'd have to remember to leave the TV plugged in if we wanted to PVR something (which we do, almost daily). Obviously the fridge and freezer would have to stay plugged in, and I'm not keen on pulling out the stove to plug/unplug it, ditto the washer and dryer. I've tried to remember to shut my computer down at night, but that's the only change I've made so far.
It ought to get *really* fun in the summer, because that's when the electricity use skyrockets thanks to the a/c. This past summer was cool enough we only had it on twice. What are the odds of that happening again?

Anonymous said...

The installation of those Smart Meters gives me chills. (Quick aside, wear and tear on a computer during shutdown is nowhere near what it used to be. Shutting down is actually better from energy efficiency and wear and tear, your computer wears faster when its "hot", ie when its on. Letting it cool down is actually a good thing. Are you going to see the benefits on your hydro bill? Unlikely. Unless 2 whole cents a month means that much to you.)

My wife is a stay at home mom. Which means my home is never empty, period. These smart assume a dual-income family that works 9-5 Monday to Friday. It punishes shift workers, and other stay-at-home workers. Yes we are using more electricity keeping the house air-conditioned during summer days, BUT my wife isn't burning through 80 Litres of gas of week commuting to work.

I understand we need some stick in our legislation to effect the necessary social change, but damn it, I would like to see some carrot too.

My house is only 10 years old, any efficiencies gained through renovation are likely to be minor. So that's why I'd like to see something like the initiative(s) in California. There some cities will install solar panels on your home for "free". Well actually they are leased, but you pay them back based on the energy produced and its value on the grid. No cash outlay required by the home owner.

For my 10 year old, south facing home without any natural shade, this is an ideal solution. So rates go up, well great, I may pay more for my AC, but that's offset by the fact I'm earning more revenue for the electricity I'm generating.

We need some Quid to go the Quo.

Ken Breadner said...

Catelli: Amen to that, and thank you for the heads-up re: computers. I'd never have guessed.
You know what I think? I think some, maybe most, factories should run night shifts--only night shifts. It would balance out the stress on the grid. As it stands now, working nights is probably the best thing you can do to save money with a smart meter. Work all night, ergo you're away from home; sleep in the afternoon and early evening, right when power peaks. Alas, that's not possible for most of us.

Anonymous said...

And here you go:

Ken Breadner said...

Thanks, yeah, I caught that this morning. Doesn't look too onerous even if our bill does rise. (Though I wonder if any kind of a summer would have skewed the results.)
Love that Californidea you cited. You're right, that's just the sort of initiative I'd appreciate.