We have been living in our house for over five years now. It’s a big place – around 3,200 square feet. Our previous home was much smaller at around 2,000 square feet which was definitely more than enough, especially because it was just the two us back then. We fell out of love with that home when we discovered how noisy the neighborhood was because of the adjacent road and how we could not walk anywhere because of the the lack of any sidewalks in the area. Unfortunately, both issues were overlooked by us in the excitement and the pressure of the bubble real estate market of the mid-2000s. After (luckily) selling the old house at the peak of the market we were able to get a good deal on our dream home as the market started to tank. Our current house is perfect in all the areas that are important to us (good schools, quiet location, private yard, walking trails, open layout, neighborhood pool) but it certainly came at a price since they don’t build smaller houses that meet our criteria in the neighborhood that we liked.
The bigger the place the bigger the bills… most of the time. I have been keeping meticulous records of all the utility bills that we’ve been paying monthly for about 8 years. The way I track utilities is not only by the amount paid each month, but also by the quantity consumed to adjust for pricing fluctuations. For example, I will record the number of cubic feet of gas and the number of kilowatt hours of electricity consumed each month. There is a spreadsheet, updated monthly, that contains a running monthly average for each utility in dollars and quantity used along with the yearly totals for each.
Both houses were built around the same time in the late 90s using similar construction methods i.e. frame, faced insulation in the walls, blow-in insulation in the attic, mostly vinyl siding etc. Both are located within a few miles from one another. Both have a central HVAC system with electric AC and gas heat. Both have a 50 gallon tank gas water heater. Really, the only significant differences are the size of each house and the usage habits of the people who live there. When we moved to the new house I was expecting our utility bills to jump higher due to the 1,200 extra square feet that required heating and cooling. Indeed, the first year there was a significant increase in the costs of utilities. But as the years passed I saw the trends starting to reverse. Every year when I looked at the totals, each category dropped compared to the previous year! Each year we lived in our current house we consumed less natural gas, less electricity and less water. At the end of 2012 we consumed about the same quantity of each utility as we did at the end of 2006 when we still lived in a much smaller house.
So how is this possible? I don’t feel like we drastically changed our behavior. It’s not like we used to keep the lights on when we left the room and then had an epiphany and stopped doing that. We always kept the house at a comfortable (to us) temperature through the seasons. We continue to take daily showers using hot water… After thinking about it I came to the conclusion that the difference lies in learning about the house that we live in and consciously and constantly optimizing the home, the yard and our behavior through a series of small tweaks. On its own, each project’s impact would be hard to discern on a graph showing utility expenses through the years. Taken together, however, these tweaks are paying off big time not only in monthly utility bill savings but also in knowledge that we are able to greatly reduce our consumption without any negative impact on our quality of life.
We will explore some of the tweaks in the upcoming articles!