By Amanda Morrall
I am prone to flip-outs but I had a doozy the other day when I opened my power bill having recently returned from a two week holiday.
Despite my absence in the heart of winter (when all power use save an energy efficient bulb on my front doorstep was in hibernation) my bill had exploded by about $150 from the month before. Unless someone had set up an hydroponics operation in my absence I thought surely there must be a mistake. Sadly, neither appears to have been the case.
According to my power company, which estimates the bill every second month, the estimate for the month previous was way out and therefore the extra costs were added to my bill which I was expecting to be half given my absence. An explanation of this on my bill would have been nice.
I'm no power hog. I routinely turn out the lights, the kids bath less often than they would like, and I don't have any major power sucking appliances. The prime culprits as far as I can tell, are an oil-column heater and an electrical heater that are used in the morning and evening. The other suspect of course is the power company itself.
After the "Big Saturday" incident which saw wholesale prices spike 200 times because scheduled maintenance work (see our banking and finance editor Gareth Vaughan's story here) my consumer confidence in the electricity market was shorted.
Apparently, I am not alone.
In June and July of this year, more than 86,000 power customers flicked the switch on their provider because they could get a better deal somewhere else.
Since the May launch of a Government-sponsored campaign meant to stimulate greater competition in the industry, budget conscious Kiwis have been getting plugged into the concept of people power.
The number of changes registered this past June, represents a 58% increase in switching rates from the previous June. July's rates are similarly striking. The 11,474 consumers who changed power companies in July was a 37% increase from July 2010.
I was surprised by these numbers, reported by the Electricity Authority, a key driver of this push to promote greater consumer activism.
I had looked into switching power companies a year ago and determined, after a very tedious and probing conversation with my then power company, and a potential competitor, that the difference would be marginal. With that in mind, I have been mostly ignoring the consumer campaigns. The latest, "What's my number,'' had gone unnoticed until today, with the bill shock lingering.
Time to take a closer look.
According to the Electricity Authority, the average annual savings to be had from switching power companies is $150. They also estimate a potential national savings of NZ $240 million if all consumers were to switch to the cheapest provider.
The on-line guesstimate for my own household is just shy of $100 a year. It's not quite enough to compensate for last month's winter assault but $100 is a $100.
Andrew Hubbard, policy adviser for the Citizens Advice Bureau, says consumers would be silly not to take advantage of the savings.
He said the "What's your Number?" website (which logged more than more than 431,500 visitors in two months ending July) made it easy for consumers to shop around. The website allows users to profile their household consumption patterns and shop for the best price.
Before making an active switch, which is also possible on-line by linking through to another Website called Power Switch, Hubbard suggests giving existing companies the opportunity to match the savings.
Since the introduction of the campaign, he said power companies have become a bit more eager to please and therefore flexible on price.
Hubbard also cautioned consumers to check the fine print on their contracts or else get some clarifications about any potential break or connection fees that could negate potential savings. He said consumers should be careful not to get locked into any long term contracts given the elasticity in electricity prices and intensifying competition.
"It's worth going back again after six months to see if pricing has improved even further.''
Heating your house accounts for about 29 percent of your bill.
- Only heat rooms that are being used.
- Draught-proof doors and windows.
- Seal off open fireplaces when not in use.
- Use curtains, preferably those that are lined and floor-to-pelmet (or touching the window sill), and close them at night.
- Maximise the sunshine into your home in winter by keeping curtains open during the day and cut back trees that shade north-facing windows.
- Because polished strip-timber floors leak air through the joints, reduce draughts and heat loss from these floors by insulating underneath them.
- Use thermostats and timers on electric heaters.
- Insulate ceilings and, if possible, walls.
For more information on home heating options and products, visit www.consumer.org.nz
If you have an electric hot water cylinder, water heating uses up a whopping 30 percent of your power bill. But there are simple things you can do to make your hot-water system more efficient and save you money.
- Fix dripping hot taps.
- If your hot water cylinder doesn't have a 'Grade A' label, wrap it with a cylinder blanket.
- Insulate the first metre of hot water pipe from your cylinder.
- Have a user-adjustable thermostat fitted and set it to 60°Celsius.
- Use a low-flow shower head to supply water at 6 to 9 liters per minute.
- Limit showering time – a short shower uses much less hot water than a bath.
- Wash clothes in cold water.
- Fill the kettle or jug from the cold tap and only heat the amount needed.
For more information on water heating options and ways to save money visit www.consumer.org.nz
Lighting makes up about 8 percent of your power bill.
- Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs in high-use areas.
- Turn lights off when leaving a room.
- Maximise the use of natural light.
For more information on lighting options and energy efficiency, visit www.consumer.org.nz
Cooking and refrigeration
Cooking makes up about 7 percent of your bill and refrigeration makes up about 11 percent.
- Use a microwave or pressure cooker where possible.
- Use a steamer over a pot to cook more than one dish at a time.
- Buy energy-efficient appliances.
For more information on cooking and refrigeration, including the best appliances for your needs, visit www.consumer.org.nz
Washing machines, dryers, televisions, power tools, computers, and other electrical appliances make up 15 percent of your bill.
- Rather than use a dehumidifier, ventilate the house and extract moisture at its source using rangehoods and bathroom fans.
- Buy energy-efficient appliances.
Helping you make energy efficient lighting choices.
Practical information and advice to help you make energy efficient choices at home and on the road.
Saving energy at home – the Consumer guide
Simple ways you can save energy without blowing the home maintenance budget.