High electric bills could be due to electric company errors

While I don't usually highlight news stories, this one – passed on by one of my more well-read readers and coming all the way from Australia's Central Coast Press Advocate – shows how your best attempts to make a home more energy efficient can backfire.

According to the news source, Peter Mottershead is a conscious homeowner. He has his television hooked up to a timer, switches lights off when they're not in use and has even had the lighting change in his house to decrease his energy use. He also doesn't use an electric dryer or an air conditioner.

Still, the report says that Mottershead racked up almost $1,600 in energy costs – roughly the same in American dollars – during the autumn season. Over the same period the year before, Mottershead only paid $407. Not knowing where to turn, the homeowner contacted his electric company and even had his property inspected to make sure nothing was amiss.

Further, the electric company has stated that his energy use was consistent over the same period, the Advocate reports. While no determinations have been made in the case, it goes to show that even careful planning can be thwarted by seeming divine intervention, and while Mottershead is still experiencing problems with his bill, the practices he uses should still set an example for other homeowners out there.

With time and perseverance, hopefully he can reduce his bill. As a result, even readers who purchase energy-saving devices such as portable heaters or new discount thermostats may want to double check their bills. By comparing last year's bills and electricity uses, some individuals may find that something is amiss, or at least be able to sleep easier.

Shopping online for deals on electric heaters

In my last post, I talked a bit about drafts and one reader's battle to secure his manual thermostat from a particularly pesky gust from the outdoors. However, since I haven't heard anything back from this faithful reader – good luck Bob! – I decided to profile energy-saving tips and how they relate to one of my wife's favorite activities, shopping.

More than a few readers didn't end up going to bed early on Thanksgiving, and consequently, they missed out on some early-morning Black Friday big deals. As a result, most were worried that they wouldn't be able to find the same savings on essential home heating and cooling products such as air conditioners, portable heaters and electric fans that they want to purchase for themselves or others this winter. (Who can blame them, as these products are capable of providing big savings.)

However, I want to assuage those who are worried about missing out on the holiday deals. Savings can always be found by those who look for it (cue dramatic music and shining light). Joking aside, while Black Friday and its compatriot Cyber Monday offer impressive deals by retailer standards, other avenues may offer comparable products for less any day of the year.

The best online sources may even throw in a free gift with every purchase along with guarantees retailers wouldn't dream of offering. As such, I recommend that before you readers go online to scour web pages for the same merchandise on secondhand sites – like Cragislist and eBay – you explore the offers at discount websites that have gotten good feedback from customers.

By taking this route, consumers can rest assured that the product they intend to give as a gift (or use to reduce their heating or cooling bills themselves) will remain in top condition for some time, without putting a dent in the old wallet. 

Protecting manual thermostats from drafts

Yesterday's post inspired me to survey my yards to see if any of our trees had in fact grown to obstruct the amount of natural sunlight our house was getting. However, after a few loops around the old house, I couldn't find any use for my hedge clippers. So, I turned my focus back to reader comments and questions.

One entry caught my attention as it made me reconsider the placement of my manual thermostat – I use a high-quality Honeywell with a light-up display for those late night snacks. In his email, Bob from Minnesota writes about how he found out his thermostat wasn't giving him the most accurate reading. (It turned out that another thermostat his house had installed on the far-side of the same floor was giving a different reading).

After a few different tests to determine the root cause – which included switching the devices to see if one was broken and checking the exterior for damage – Bob found his reading in his main dining room – no matter which interface he used – was consistently lower than in the rest of the house. As a result, the false reading this thermostat had been giving him had been causing him to adjust the heat levels more often than necessary.

If this is the case, the culprit is likely a small draft that happened to be in the vicinity of the thermostat. One that isn't big enough to affect other areas of the house. But, as a result, Bob wasn't able to correctly set the temperature for his house. This could have potentially cost him hundreds of dollars – depending on how long the problem had been ongoing.

Still, Bob hasn't found the draft, but I told him to keep us informed. For now, it may be best to check your thermostats to make sure the readings are correct. Even if no drafts are involved, it can help you rest easier to know that this device is doing its job and helping to save you money. 

Winter heating tips: Proper yard care

Well, here we are again, fresh from Thanksgiving and some much needed pie, football and relaxation. I hope all you faithful readers had a great time – even if you had to put up with the in-laws for a few hours. What did I do for the holiday you ask? I went with my wife to visit her sister Barbara and their family, which was about an hour drive with traffic.

Either way, once we arrived, we ate and then the adults settled into conversation. Barbara and her husband Mark – who sells insurance I believe – voiced some of their concerns about their winter heating bill after a few glasses of wine. Being the expert – and having imbibed a few drinks myself – I resolved to look around the place, analyzing every nook and cranny for a draft or other potential cost raiser while the kids watched "Elf."

However, after about a half an hour or so, I found that I couldn't readily identify anything that they weren't doing to decrease their heating bill. That's when I looked up to the heavens – and coincidentally – through one of their skylights. This opening was almost completely covered by the shade of tree branches, which had grown thick over the glass.

As it turns out, my in-laws were obscuring a lot of the natural heat that the winter sun can bring into their home simply by not paying attention to their lawn maintenance. As a result, I advised them to put some time into landscaping, or at least cutting down branches that could be reducing this cost-saving natural heat.

In addition, I encouraged them to consider specialty shades that can help them reduce their cooling bills in the winter. Together with tried-and-true methods such as purchasing electric heaters and using them to efficiently heat spaces, readers with skylights can see your savings increase in all seasons.

Cleaning a portable humidifier filter

I'd like to start this post off by thanking my readers for their feedback on a recent piece. I've been shying away from repair articles of late – hey, if ain't broke… – but, thanks to the positive feedback on the recent article I wrote on cleaning a humidifier base, I figured I'd offer another round of advice for these trusty machines.

My portable humidifier has been pretty reliable since I bought it three years ago. However, even reliable products require routine maintenance. Since humidifiers use a filter to take allergens, dust and other airborne irritants out of a home's air, these parts often tend to need attention.

By not cleaning this item frequently, you could be using a humidifier that is actually reducing the air quality of your home – blowing back as many particles as it takes in. Luckily for you humidifier owners out there, cleaning this filter is a relatively simple process.

1) After removing the base of the humidifier and extracting the filter, most experts advise you to fill a large bucket with water and a cleaning solution. (While the exact mix of the solution to the water is often debated, I use about 2 gallons to around 80 ounces of the solution, or in a pinch, white vinegar.)

2) Soak the filter in the solution for around 20 minutes.

3) Rinse the bucket and filter, then refill the bucket with a mix of chlorine and water. The amount of chlorine you use should be significantly less than the vinegar. In most instances, no more than a teaspoon of the chlorine is needed.

4) Let the filter soak for around 20 minutes. During this time, the solution will work to dissolve the dirt and grime that have built up in this part of the machine.

After this, you're finished, and your filter should be clean and ready to reuse.

Tips for setting up a home humidifier

If you're like most people, you probably bought your last portable humidifier and installed it without even cracking the plastic on the manual. This is because many people think that simply because they've set up the product before, they can get their new model to work. This notion is often true, but it can leave the humidifier operating at less than peak efficiency.

For example, nearly every manual I've come across has directions for proper installation, which are given to ensure that the model functions to the best of its ability. By neglecting to take some of these steps during the installation process, homeowners could be experiencing a lower level of air quality than their current model is capable of attaining.

All humidifiers need to be given a clearance space, which allows them to properly take in air. My humidifier advises for at least 12 to 18 inches of space to be given. However, I've seen many friends and relatives back their portable humidifiers into tight corners where dirt and dust can collect and hamper the machine.

In addition, most manuals tell users to not store gasoline or other potentially flammable liquids near the machine, and to avoid starting or stopping the machine by using only its power plug. The latter method could cause a perfectly functioning humidifier to experience sudden problems.

Most manuals also indicate how power plugs should be treated. For instance, many don't recommend that you use an adaptor plug or extension cord to power the machine. Also, manuals indicate that humidifiers shouldn't be in use if their power cord has been compromised.

This is because a faulty cord could cause a fire in extreme circumstances. As a result, if you haven't take any of these steps into consideration, you may want to take some time to reevaluate whether your machine needs to be set up differently. 

Dehumidifiers can be used to safely store collectibles

Dehumidifiers can be used to help heal dry winter skin and mitigate poor air quality, as we've talked about in recent posts. But, they can also be useful for non-health-related tasks. For example, since I store my vintage baseball card collection in cardboard boxes in the basement, and I make sure to position a dehumidifier in the vicinity. By taking this precaution, I'm able to preserve the value of these keepsakes, which I started collecting when I was still in grade school.

Depending on the type of items in your collection, you may need to research the proper heat setting. In most cases, however, it's safe to store collections at mild temperatures, simply ensuring that they aren't subject to extreme heat or cold.

In the past, I unfortunately lost a portion of my collection to mold and mildew. This was due to the fact that I had stored them in cardboard boxes, which are more susceptible to water damage. According to a recent article by Washington state news source The Herald, the best temperature for storing cardboard boxes is at a humidity level of between 45 and 65 percent.

This type of humidity level is usually no problem for dehumidifiers – even affordable models that consumers can find online. (My personal dehumidifier is capable of creating 90 percent humidity). If this post has suddenly alerted you to the possibility that your collectibles may be being compromised by their conditions, there are remedies to take.

For example, mildew can be removed from cardboard and other thin papers by using a mixture of chlorine and bleach. Individuals who want to better protect these items may want to purchase a dehumidifier specifically to maintain their valuable collections. This can fit within any budget, provided consumers shop online and keep an eye out for big discounts. 

Simple steps for cleaning a humidifier base

Once you purchase a portable humidifier – whether it's for its energy savings, portability, price or any of the other reasons we talked about in recent posts – you likely won't need to clean the base for quite some time.

Now, the reason this process needs to be done often is the dirt and residue you find in your base could be making their way into your air – reducing the quality that you paid for when originally purchasing your product. As such, to best protect the purchase, this cleaning should be done regularly. Certain steps are pretty much self-explanatory (but, I'll repeat them here as they are important).

Always ensure the machine is unplugged when cleaning the device, as the resulting injuries, while certainly not life-threatening, could make the remainder of your day unpleasant. Also, even though my advice has helped me clean my product year in and year out, refer to your manual before you begin. There may be specific parts of your humidifier that differ substantially from mine, and these are usually worth noting, lest they cause unnecessary complications.

So, without further ado, here is my secret process.

1) Remove the wick filter from the base (If you can't find where this is, refer to your manual. If you've lost this item, the manufacturer may offer a PDF link of this document online).

2) Fill both sides of the base with white vinegar or an approved humidifier cleaner (I recommend pouring and measuring with a standard measuring cup).

3) Let stand for about 20 to 30 minutes.

4) Use a soft cloth or brush to scrub away any visible residue.

5) Rinse and disinfect the base.

6) Repeat as often as necessary.

How to choose a humidifier for dry skin

In my last piece, I talked a bit about how quality humidifiers can help clear up dry skin problems, and how the added moisture produced by the machine helped with a host of other problems. (After I made my purchase, my nasal cavities and sinus passages felt much better than they had in previous winters). I also discussed how I shopped around for the best prices when making my purchase.

However, what I didn't get into was how I ultimately chose the right humidifier. While I don't have my handy list for you all exactly – I misplaced this months ago, go figure – I do remember some of the factors that I considered heavily when making my purchase. For example, since all humidifiers offer virtually the same skin benefits, the only thing that separates one model from the next are the unique features that make them more energy efficient and easier to use.

Looking for a small, dishwasher safe humidifier can make cleaning easier. While these models may lack in stature, some pack a serious punch (mine allows me to set humidity levels as high as 90 percent). The filter is also important to consider, as some need to be replaced or cleaned more often than others.

As for shape, choose what you like best. Smaller, more compact models will allow the machines to be more easily transported from room to room (remember, they do get heavy when full of water). If you're buying a model for a child, you may want to buy one of the animal-shaped models. But, this will probably cost you a few extra dollars, and not provide anything in the way of real benefits.

While your child may not love a high-quality Crane, Hamilton Beach or Honeywell humidifier for its aesthetics, it will certainly do the job, and once more, your child won't outgrow it's sleek appeal (which is more than I can say for my son's now unused Mr. Frog humidifier). 

Improving your skin condition with winter humidifier use

While some parts of the country enjoy relatively mild and stable temperatures throughout the winter, those who live in certain other regions (myself included) often experience a number of discomforts associated with the substantial time we spend indoors during this time of year. Even though many of the side effects are well documented, shoveling and wearing gloves and hats among them, other ramifications are less talked about.

For instance, I often experience bouts of dry skin during the winter, and after consulting my doctor a few years back, I found out I wasn't alone. Dr. Zuckerman, our family physician, told me the dry winter air often depletes our natural moisture more than we expect. When carrying around a water bottle wasn't enough, he advised me to start using a humidifier.

After a few weeks of procrastinating (and much scratching), I eventually began my online search. I looked a number of providers, comparing their shipping policies, selection and customer satisfaction guarantees. (I'm a serious shopper, and I suggest you adopt similar strategies. After all, no one wants to pay more for an item they could have purchased on the cheap.)

I entertained a few more expensive options, thinking they would provide better solutions – such as whole-house humidifiers. But, ultimately I decided to pursue a more cost-effective solution with a portable humidifier.

Since then, I've found that my dry skin problems have been substantially reduced. (Which my wife is also very happy about.) Since we purchased the item, we've found that it's pretty much useful all year round. My wife suffers from seasonal allergies and during parts of the year the area we live in experiences droughts that make the air dry and uncomfortable.