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Self help energy savings

Without making significant investments, tenants can make some savings in energy costs
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The real estate website Trulia has just done an analysis of utility costs for owners or renters of single family homes. Compared to other states, Ohio did OK, but even so, the data show a single family home in Ohio costs about $250 per month, over and above the mortgage/taxes/insurance. And, keep in mind, rent is higher than mortgage/tax/insurance because landlords need to cover maintenance and a profit. This example shows that utilities are a big chunk of a renter's shelter costs. Another surprising finding of the study is that climate did not seem to have much effect on what owners and renters paid for utilities. The big factor was location, in other words, the rates you pay for gas, water & electricity.

Here's the takeaways for tenants who are figuring out the Total Cost of Rental.  

1. Ask to see copies of actual utility bills for an entire year before signing a year lease. Another way to get this data is to ask the utility provider for a "budget billing" amount for the property. A new service, UtilityScore, will let you look up addresses of prospective homes and get an estimate of utility costs. Note that RHINO tested two addresses, one seemed correct, the other wildly wrong!

2. Make sure that you are buying the cheapest utility available.  In Ohio you can select among several utility providers under the Energy Choice program. Make sure that the energy provider that you inherit from the landlord or the previous tenant is giving the best rate. Just this week the Columbus Dispatch ran a story about tenants who didn't understand Energy Choice and ended up paying enormous utility bills. PUCO fined the provider for misleading consumer practices.

3. Avoid utility reselling schemes. Increasingly landlords are passing on marked up utility costs with hidden fees sometimes unregulated utility resellers which sound like regulated utility companies. Utility resellers are not licensed by the State Public Utilities Commission. You could lose your right to benefit programs like PIPP Plus, HEAP and HWAP protections if you contract with a utility reseller.

What else can tenants do to control utility bills? Two weeks ago rhino!UP gave a quick summary of some cost savings strategies. This week we got an expert's advice. Patrick Stuart manages the energy programs for the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA) so he has a lot of experience with cost savings improvements. "As far as the weatherization program and energy-saving measures we install, the biggest short-term payoff items might include the following: LED/CFL bulbs, Low-flow water aerators, Caulking/air-sealing, Duct sealing (furnaces), Water heater blankets, and Pipe wrap...."  Low income households may be eligible for these kinds of improvements through the Home Weatherization Assistance Program (HWAP). Patrick says that "Programmable thermostats can have a big impact, but this requires a lot of effort on the part of the tenant.  We [ODSA] rarely install them anymore because they tend to confuse more people than they help.... " Patrick also recommends that tenants can contact the local HWAP agency. You can find the map at: Eligibility is basically the same as for HEAP or PIPP Plus.

Some utility companies have programs to provide energy savings improvements at no or low costs even for tenants. Chicago's Elevate Energy offers similar advice. Check the websites of your utility provider to see if you can qualify for energy savings improvements. Example: RHINO got free LED and CFL light bulbs and shower flow regulators from our electric provider.

Patrick also suggests that if your landlord is making improvements, you could encourage her/him to install energy savings improvements like high efficiency furnaces and Energy Star appliances. and electric heat pumps.  The landlord's investment will pay off over the long term for him and save you a little money in the short term. Keep in mind that items like replacement windows and water heaters don't have much impact on energy usage.

And, as always, a little common sense can help. Keep the thermostat turned down and adjust your clothing to be comfy at a lower temperature in the winter and a higher temperature in the summer. You don't need a programmable thermostat tell you to turn the heat down when you will be out of the home for an extended portion of the day. And, reduce the temperature of your hot water tank. You won't notice the difference between 140 degrees and 120 degrees, but your wallet will. Remember that utility costs are apart of the affordable housing equation.

posted November 6, 2016

 Self help savings from simple measures.  Even if landlord is unwilling to make utility savings investments, there are things you can do.

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