Free Stuff and Good Advice

Last Updated May 29, 2009 10:25 AM EDT

Normally there's a catch.

But when you ask your utility company for an "energy audit" you're actually getting something valuable for free--and they give you nifty parting gifts too. (It's kinda like going to one of those elegant kid's birthday parties, where your child gets a "goodie bag" worth more than his gift.)


My story starts with the seasonal warning from Southern California Edison. When temperatures rise in the summer, some people's energy bills double and triple, they tell me. The biggest energy hog is your air conditioner, fast followed by the fridge. But you can head off higher bills at the pass.

Want to save money, they ask? Surprisingly, they'll help. (One utility spokeswoman quips that they're the only business that spends time and money getting people buy less of their product.)

Southern California Edison and hundreds of other utilities around the country offer free energy audits, where they'll have you fill out an online questionnaire--or send a real live expert to your home--to help you figure out whether you can cut you bill without cutting your comfort.

My energy auditor, who arrived promptly at the appointed hour (something that I think is worth noting with a service person), not only helped fill out a questionnaire about my energy use, he examined both my electric and gas bills to figure out whether there were obvious problems.

As the result of the audit, I learned:

  • The fridge in the garage costs $25 a month. (I unplugged it after learning this, and it really does.)
  • running a fan costs 2 or 3 cents per hour vs. an air conditioner, which costs $1.50 per hour.
  • those cute little space-heaters that you think are saving money by heating just one room instead of the whole house are huge energy hogs. They'll cost you $10 to $12 a month if you use them just a few hours a day--considerably more than what it costs to heat the whole house.
  • Plasma t.v. sets require three-times more energy to operate than LCD televisions.
  • If you leave your computer on all night it'll cost you about $12 to $18 a month.
  • Edison has a summer program that gives big discounts to those willing to put shut-off valves on their air conditioners, which Edison can trip if the energy grid gets overloaded. The auditor thinks its a great deal because the utility didn't shut off the power at all last summer--and only shut it one time the summer before. But everybody who participates gets the discount anyway.
  • changing your air conditioning filters regularly and clearing the debris away from the compressor will also save a few bucks.
Other cool things that come with your energy auditor:
  • Light bulbs. To encourage use of compact fluorescent bulbs, the auditor brought 10 of them in different wattage and proceeded to install them where ever I directed.
  • Water-saving valves for the sinks. I got three
  • A new shower-head, which also helps save water.
It turns out that the auditor installs all this stuff as part of the service

How much did all this cost? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. And a conservative estimate says the freebies that they installed were worth at least $25.

Energy audit programs are largely underwritten by grants from state and federal government, as well as the utilities themselves. The sort of free stuff you might get will vary based on where you live and whether your local utility companies are working in concert to provide the audits. They almost always bring light bulbs, but one consumer said her energy auditor offered to put in a new digital thermostat, too. That wasn't free, but it was about half the cost of buying it retail--without the installation.

As for the advice: I'm now spending about $30 a month less on my electric bill.

How do you get an energy audit? Call your utility company. It's simple and free