True North is:

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Michigan, United States

Monday, April 27, 2009


It was at the beginning of November 2008 when we decide to get serious about reducing our debt...and in order to do that, we had to get a hold on our monthly expenses. Our electric bill was at the top of the that's where we started. At this time though, I was still truck driving cross country, so what follows is really a testament to Melissa's and Gabrielle's willingness and determination to lower one of our most costly bills.
Our entire house runs on electric; heat, air, lights, well pump. We have two meters. One is the Main meter and the other is called the Dual Heat meter. Only our furnace runs on the Dual Heat meter, and everything else is on the Main. The good part about that is we get a slight discount on the Dual meter. Needless to say, our electric bills were quite high, especially in the winter and the hottest parts of summer when we ran our air conditioner.

One of the first things, and the most important, that Melissa decided to do was turn the thermostat down to 63 degrees, bundle up, and supplement the heat with our fireplace. Of course we had never seriously used the fireplace was more for decoration and mood, so there was not exactly a lot of wood laying around for her to burn. Luckily, I had a few days off and was able to cut up some wood before I hit the road again.
Yes it was cold. The fireplace did an ok job of warming the living room, but the rest of the house was quite chilly. Yet, my wife and daughter persevered; extra clothes, big comfy blankets...and very rapidly the electric bill began to plummet.

The second thing we discussed and put into action was our appliances and such. We of course switched all our light bulbs over to CFLs...and then we started doing some in depth research on other ways we could save when it came to our appliances. Most of them (fridge, oven, washer...etc) are older models and there was no way we could replace them with newer, more energy efficient ones, so we had to find a way to deal with what we had.
I looked into the water heater and learned that we only needed to have ours set at 120 degrees. The installer had ours at 130, and with a little turn of a dial I reduced the electric bill. Amazing. One article I read said you could save as much as 6-10% by reducing your temperature setting in this way.
Next was the washer. We always had it set on hot/cold cycle and again...with a flip of a switch...turned it to cold/cold, and set the wash cycle to the quickest setting. I can't be sure how much this has saved us, but using less hot water (hot water heater) and having the washer run for a shorter period has to be doing something. Amazingly, our clothes are just as clean as they where before the changes!
There wasn't too much we could do with the dryer. It was winter and we couldn't hang anything outside to dry even if we had something to hang them on. We did debate unhooking the dryer vent and letting the heat circulate inside the house (another article suggestion), but opted not to do that. However, we did set drying time to 20 minutes and would check the clothes to see if they were done, resetting the time if needed. We used to just put them in for an hour whether the needed that much time or not. Btw, I'm in the process of putting a clothes line up right now...the dryer will be semi-retired very soon.
The dishwasher was easy...we just decided to not use it anymore. There where some conflicting points of view as to whether or not hand washing dishes is more economical then using a dishwasher, but I have no doubts that with judicial use, hand washing is way cheaper than having that machine chugging away. Not to mention our dishes are cleaner now then they ever were before.
Electric can opener...Gone! Seriously, I swear I had more problems using it than the hand held one we use now. Maybe not a huge hit to our electric usage, but now it's not any hit at all.
Refrigerator was next. We had read that a fridge should be 36-40F, and the freezer should be 0-5F. If a fridge is set 10 degrees lower than needed (or freezers set 5 degrees lower than needed), it can increase energy use by as much as 20-25%. Since the fridge is the second largest user of electricity...right behind the air conditioner, we got on this one right away.
With the research we had also learned that having appliances, lamps, TVs, computers, etc...plugged into the wall...even when not on, still used electricity. someone had coined the phase as "Ghost Amps". Apparently, these devices, while plugged in, sit there sucking your hard earned money right from the wall. Solution...we unplug them now when not in use. Some of our stuff, like the entertainment center that has multiple devices in one area, all got plugged into a power strip. That way we can flip just one switch and they all get shut down.
Then there are the other things. We shut off lights when we leave a room, take quicker showers, use towels more than once, watch less TV, use candles, and probably a number of other things I can't think of, because now, in just a short period of time, using less electricity has become second nature to us.

Our electric bill used to run us anywhere between $275 and $350 per month depending on the season. Last year at this time we were using 130 Kwh per day. Almost immediately we saw a savings. The first month we had dropped our daily usage drastically and now we average 70 Kwh per day. For us it's a big difference...our eclectic has been cut in half! Since we wont be using the air conditioner this year we believe that we can get the electric bill down below $100 this summer. When winter comes we'll have a real wood furnace, so hopefully that savings will continue. All that savings and it doesn't really seem like we're doing that much different.


  1. It sounds like a huge part of what made this work was just being more conscious of what you really needed and what you were actually using. Most of us just take for granted that the way we do things represents the way it should be done.

    Kudos, True Northers, and keep it up!

    Jonathan - GR, Michigan

  2. In regards to clothes drying, we installed an indoor retractable clothesline last fall. We put it up in our bedroom where it would be the least obtrusive. Works great, saves a lot on our electric bill. We bought ours online, just Google retractable clothesline. They're kind of spendy, but pay for themselves in a hurry. I enjoy reading your blog, good luck with your endeavors.


  3. I like what you have posted here.
    I do have a concern though.
    You might do some research on how much "emissions" a candle puts out in a closed environment like your home. I seem to remember an article somewhere about a lady noticing her white ceiling turning black for her love of having candles.
    Rimforest Ca

  4. First, thank you for your blog! As far as the candles go....I used to burn alot of them and eventually noticed that everything in my place became covered in a sort of thick sticky substance. Like very thick grease. After I stopped burning so many candles I noticed that the accumulation of said sticky substance began to slow. Maybe from the candles, maybe not but I just thought I might mention it. Again, thank you for your blog, your lessons, sharing your trials, tribulations and victories with us!

    Louisville, Ky

  5. I enjoy reading the blog, and some day would like to follow in your footsteps. A few other optimizations I can recommend are:

    1) Hot water tank cover

    2) Low flow shower head, Moen makes some good

    3) Low Flow Aerators

    4) Toilet Bladder
    Reduces water consumption for each flush.

    You've already got the CFL's and the thermostats set right. You might also look into getting a kilowatt device to measure electricity usage of different devices. I was shocked to learn that our tivo, tv, stereo, and dvd player while "off" was still pulling 130 watts!

  6. Glad you're getting a real wood stove this's scientifically proven that using a fireplace actually makes a home colder...the draft pull lowers the temperature in the surrounding rooms.

    I love your blog! Keep up the great work!

  7. You can pick up a Kill-a-watt for about $20 on ebay. It may help. As for a toilet bladder, a half gallon milk container filled with sand works great!

  8. Another heating solution is to go the Japanese route and buy (or build) a kotatsu. Basically, it's a low table with a small space heater under, and a quilt under the table surface that goes down to the floor. You need another quilt under it as well, but it's great if you're indoors studying, napping, doing paperwork, or anything else where you'd be at a table. Japanese use this because very few Japanese homes are heated or even insulated, so it's a very economical way to keep yourself warm. Looks like your living room is handled with a fireplace, for the winter months, but this could go elsewhere.

    Again, best wishes toward your endeavours.

  9. Great tips so far!

    I heated -- or "het" -- with wood for several years in a place with electric baseboard heat. At first I saved money by burning dollar bills in the wood stove -- crisp new ones are best -- but found that burning wood was even cheaper.

    You don't need a masonry chimney. I put an insulated metal chimney right through a window in place of the upper sash. Insulated metal pad on the floor. There was NO damage, or permanent alteration to the house at all. Just make sure the chimney is higher than the peak of your roof so it will draw properly. Mine was a single story house, so it wasn't particularly difficult.

    Clothes Drying
    In winter I simply lay/hang the wet clothes all over the house. The water in the clothes evaporates HUMIDIFYING the dry, heated air. Don't use the exhaust fan while you shower; you are just paying to blow that expensive, warm humidity outside. Just leave the bathroom door open after your shower. Who wants to see what they look like in the mirror in the morning anyway?

    Fire Places
    Are great for heating one room, but suck the air out of the house pulling COLD air from outside in. Some people run a duct from outside directly to the fireplace for this reason.

    Please, please tell me you are burning DRY hardwood. Hardwood is from trees that have leaves. Dry is important because you don't want to waste the BTUs (energy) in the wood to boil off the water IN the wood simply to go up the chimney. Drying wood for a year is a good rule of thumb. Those guys in the quaint, old prints were cutting wood to be burned the FOLLOWING winter. At LEAST dry it for a whole summer.

    Dry is VERY important, because it greatly reduces the build up on the inside of the chimney of organic, flammable guck called creosote. You want that to burn in the fire place, not inside your chimney some cold dark night. A little known Law of Thermodynamics is that chimneys only catch fire between 3 and 4 in the morning.

    If some cold night you hear a roaring sound, and/or you see a red glow on the snow it COULD be ET back for a visit, but it's more likely a chimney fire. Get one of those chimney fire extinguishing things, but do call the fire department.

    Which is why you NEVER want to burn softwoods like pine, spruce, etc. Softwoods are evergreens. They burn fast, without much heat, but with a LOT of the aforementioned guck.

    Keep the fire burning HOT so that the unburned guck goes all the way up the chimney, and OUT, rather than condensing on the inside. A good hot fire in the morning should help a lot in re-evaporating whatever guck may have accumulated over night.

    Have your chimney CLEANED, and INSPECTED before doing any of this.

    Dry Wood
    is NOT about water on the OUTside of the wood. DRY is about the water IN the wood which you want to get rid of before burning it. Cut it, split it, and stack it where, and so air can circulate through the pile. Do NOT wrap it in a freakin' TARP to "keep it dry." All that will do is keep it WET! A piece of something rigid laid on top of the pile is OK. Don't stack it against the house. It won't dry as fast, and the critters in the wood will think you want them to come on inside.

    If you hear hissing when burning it, your wood is wet.

    You have to SPLIT the wood. It's not just to make it easier to handle, it's mostly to enable it to dry. Bark was designed to keep the water IN, after all. Some, like birch, will rot in a year if you don't split it.

    I find splitting, and stacking wood to be a very enjoyable way to exercise. Very elemental, and more useful than raising and lowering iron.

    Old Masters or I, Too, Love Candles
    I find it highly amusing to read occasionally about the howls of anguish when some famous old painting has been cleaned, and its true, original BRIGHT colors are revealed. What was covering the painting -- and everything else -- was centuries of the products of combustion from CANDLE wax and oil lamps. (See Simple Green below.)

    Is the lost art of trimming candle wicks so that they produce the brightest flame, which means the most complete combustion, which means the products of combustion will be mostly CO2 -- AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! (not) -- and H2O (water) rather than so much exotic, organic guck. Have you ever seen liquid dripping from your tail pipe? It's water, a product of combustion. The bubbles in your diet soda and Designer Water are CO2.

    Dish Washing
    There is an absolutely marvelous product called Simple Green. It cuts grease in COLD water the way hot water cuts ice. It must be used in cool or cold water only. It was originally meant for cleaning commercial coffee brewing equipment, so it's safe for food surfaces, and does a great job degreasing engines, and mechanics' hands as well.

    Clean dishes do NOT need to be dried with a bacteria resort otherwise known as a damp, or formerly-damp-from-the-previous-use towel. The dishes will dry themselves.

    These are heat pumps. They suck heat out of their interiors, and radiate it into the surrounding air, which is nice in winter. That's what those coil/tube things on the back are for. Don't block their air circulation or you'll make them work harder (more $$). Some families have the fridge on the back porch in summer.

    If you have a spring, or stream on your property consider building a spring house. This is where people used to keep things cold, either in a crock in the water itself, or just on a shelf in the stone/concrete walled structure.

    Bill Smith

  10. Another thing, Gas stoves.

    Older ones have pilot lights -- little flames that burn gas constantly just to save you the trouble of striking a match. Turn off the pilot lights. A drawback to this is that the gas can be turned on by little, uncomprehending hands without lighting the gas. This can ruin your whole day.

    In summer I wear one of those tubes full of something that you soak in water for about ten minutes. The stuff absorbs many, many times its original volume of water. You wear it around your neck, and it keeps you cool.

    ALL of the blood in your body flows up to your brain through big arteries, and back down through big veins, and these are close to the surface on either side of your neck.

    The skin over your scalp is thin, but just FULL of blood vessels, which you already know if you've ever gashed your scalp. Their purpose is to radiate your body heat out into the air, and keep your brain cool. But, on hot days, these tube things around your neck make an amazing difference! Even indoors.

    Yes, they're permanently a bit damp, but so are you if you sweat, and these things absorb an amazing amount of heat, and last for days.

    They do not work -- that is, they are not cool -- because you soaked them in cold water. They work because it takes a lot of heat to make water evaporate, which is another way of saying water absorbs a lot of heat. All the heat that warms the tube -- it will sometimes feel warm -- is heat that WAS in your body/blood, which means it is no LONGER in your body, which means YOU are cooler. Just turn them once in a while so the cooler side is toward your skin. If you're really hot, take it off, and wave it in the air, or let it sit for a minute or two, and you'll be back in business.

    You may find, as I did, that as long as your head is cool, or less hot, you don't really care how hot your elbows are.

    Now, if you break up a gallon of water into almost microscopic little spheres called mist, you GREATLY enlarge its surface area over what it would be in, say, a gallon jug, or the tube around your neck. And, all that misty surface area absorbs heat at a phenomenal rate.

    If you have a deck or patio, those tubes -- you've seen them in home catalogs -- that spray a light mist around the perimeter absorb an amazing amount of heat, because when liquid water changes into vapor, it does so by absorbing a LOT of heat, which cools the air.

    Here are some fire fighters using this principle. They don't really get to the point until 3:00, but it's worth watching. Also, I am NOT suggesting that you have mist like you will see in the video on your deck! But, the principle is the same:

    If mist can put out a gasoline fire in a couple of seconds, it can probably cool off the air on your deck.

    Bill Smith

  11. I agree with others that simply hanging your clothes in the basement or around the house in the winter works well. I usually do my laundry early evening and hang them up for overnight drying. By the morning they are almost dry, a little wrinkly and I just throw em in the dryer for 10 or 15 minutes and they come out great.

    You can also vent your dryer into a bucket of water. the water will catch the flying lint and you also get heat value from it. I believe they are sold somewhere but you can easily set one up with a 5 gallon bucket.

    If you could afford an insert for your fireplace, I guarantee that you will get much better heat from it. Just make sure it has a good high quality blower on it. A ceiling fan in the same room will help circulate the heat throughout your house.

    I installed a small wood stove two years ago, about $4000 which included about 30 ft of stainless double wall pipe (about half the cost). I figured it has saved me at least $2000 the past two winters and I keep my house much warmer than I normally would. I alternate between my stove and forced air furnace(gas). Wood in morning, furnace afternoon, wood evening, furnace overnight. An insert for your fireplace should run about 2K, no SS pipe needed as they just run a liner through your existing chimney. A big expense but something you may want to consider.


  12. Who is this Bill Smith guy? Awesome tips on the post AND in the comments! I'm off to unplug all of my electronics and lower the temperature on my thermostat and water heater!

  13. I agree Stephanie! The comments here have been great...Thanks all.

  14. Just found your blog and I intend to get back often for updates. Lots of good info here, keep up the good work. You set an encouraging example for others to follow. Bill Smith seems to know what he's talking about, great info in his comments too.

  15. I like the positive comments and suggestions. We need that for times like these. I'm going to follow your blog. Thanks.

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