33

I would like to know how to understand my digital home electrical meter.

This picture shows what my home meter CURRENTLY reads. I intend to unplug everything in my tiny apartment in order to get another read.

My reason?

My apartment consists of 1 SINGLE room, a kitchen, and a TINY Bathroom. That's it. Nothing else. Yet my electric bill is upwards of 370.00 a month. I calculated it should be no more than 190 at its highest possible amount. I believe my downstairs neighbors might be using electric (unknowingly) from my electrical supply.

Photo of digital meter displaying 32676

My entire apartment is so small it only has 6 TOTAL outlets..

  1. My refrigerator & a bedside alarm clock for time of day viewing
  2. Nothing
  3. An unused toaster, I have used it 3 times in a year
  4. A microwave that gets used 10 minutes a month if that, otherwise only displaying the time of day on the front
  5. Nothing

Outlet 6 is the "big one":

A. A 32" LED smart TV
B. A PS4
C. Cell phone charger
D. Your regular every day home stand up lamp (100W bulb)

Extras: A hot water heater which I believe is gas.

And depending on the season:
Winter: 1 single electric baseboard heater, JUST ONE, in the entire apartment 5 feet long.
Summer: 1 single 6000 BTU air conditioner

That's it. Even if everything is used to excess I calculated less than 190 a month yet my bill is nearly twice that. What I personally want to know is if something is going on that I don't know about. Currently all I want to do is unplug everything and check the meter while that is going on. It will take a whopping 10 minutes to do.

Can someone tell me what those numbers mean on the display? Should it read almost 0000 if I unplug everything? I even plan on unplugging my fridge, everything..

Please help. I need to find cause to get my landlord to act. I could lose my place to live over this.

  • 9
    You should also pick up a Kill-a-watt (or equivalent). You can get your price per kWh from your electric bill, plug in your appliance(s), and know exactly how much each of them uses. Granted, it only works for 110v - if your AC isn't a window unit, or plugs into a 220v/otherwise wired into the mains, you won't be able to calculate that, and they do take a lot of power. – Wayne Werner May 22 at 0:04
  • 6
    Call power company give them your address then read them the number on your meter. If the don’t match you are getting the wrong bill. – Kris May 22 at 1:03
  • 8
    Can you take a photo of your circuit breaker panel? Include the breakers and any labeling describing what each circuit does. If you don't know what I'm talking about, get googling. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 22 at 1:36
  • 4
    If you don't know how to read the meter, are you sure that you are billed correctly? Do you even get the bill, or does the landlord pass the expenses to you? Insist to get the bill and check the figures. – IMil May 23 at 0:17
  • 6
    You say your bill is 370 when you expect 190, but you don't specify what this means. Is this usage (e.g. kWh) or currency (e.g. Euro, CAD, USD, etc.)? – yoozer8 May 23 at 14:46

10 Answers 10

41

They're kilowatt-hours. If you use 1000 watts for 1 hour, it'll add one to the current number displayed.

It's like an odometer on your car. It only counts up, and will never be at 0 except when it was brand new.

Where is your neighbor's meter? If you can't find a second one, chances are you're paying for their power too.

If your neighbor has their own meter, they will have their own circuit breaker panel too. If they're separate, then just turn off your breakers randomly and see if it affects your neighbor. If he complains that his heat or fridge keeps turning off then you know it's on your electrical service.

Best time to turn them off would be when they're home and trying to cook. That way they'll notice if their oven or fridge loses power.

If there is only one meter, then don't turn any breakers off. You're definitely paying for both homes if there is only one meter.

  • 5
    That number will move slowly. Even if you are using 1000w of electricity it would take an entire hour to click over one number. Based on the test you want to do, unplug everything and leave the house for a few hours or sleep on it overnight and then check the readout again. – JPhi1618 May 21 at 19:28
  • 12
    Do note that on older meters there is a disk which turns near the bottom of the meter, and one can time one revolution (or ten) to get a relative measure of current usage. The above meter apparently is all digital and doesn't have this feature, though, and also doesn't appear to have a separate current meter. (But see Greg Hill's answer for a sort of replacement.) – Hot Licks May 21 at 23:57
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    @HotLicks on most electrical meters I've seen a digital equivalent - they'll have some kind of blinky LCD block or meter that "counts up" like the disc did. – Wayne Werner May 22 at 0:01
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    My modern meter (in UK) has a red LED that blinks once per Watt-hour used, so once every 3.6 seconds if a kilowatt is being used. Can't see one on that photo, but maybe top or bottom or a blinky symbol at the bottom of the LCD panel? – nigel222 May 22 at 12:47
  • 4
    @nigel222 Not $300/month. Lots of people have electric for primary water heating and it doesn't cost like that. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 22 at 14:45
25

Dotes's suggestion for detecting whether any of your circuit breakers serves equipment for the neighbors is a good one.

There's a web page which describes how to read instantaneous current through an Itron meter. The meter model there is not the same model as in your picture, but they appear to be from the same family and are likely to display similarly. In a nutshell it says this: the three squares in the lower right corner of the display show an animation corresponding to power consumption. Each time one of these squares changes light to dark or dark to light it represents 1 Wh consumed.

It stands to reason that you could turn off or disconnect everything in your apartment and then watch these squares on the meter for several minutes to see whether power is still being consumed. If it is, start turning off breakers until you identify the circuit where the power draw happens. Then evaluate whether you can make do with that circuit left permanently turned off.

The photo seems to show another meter to the left of the one pictured. How did you determine which meter is yours? I assume they're labeled by address or unit number. Your electric bill may have the meter number printed on it. I suggest you confirm the number on the bill matches the number on the meter face -- or whether it matches one of the other meters instead.

When you do the power consumption test watch the animation on the other meters too. If the "wrong" meter shows zero power consumption, or if you're not able to match up numbers between your bill and the meter you believe is yours, then call the utility and ask for their help in confirming that your account is paying for consumption on the correct meter. I imagine it's a rare thing for the billing to get crossed, but it must not be impossible.

  • 4
    "At 12 o'clock on the face (direction, not time of day) - directly above the meter an infrared light is omitted at a rate of one pulse per watt-hour usage. Okay, probably does not help you." Msny smartphone cameras will be able to see that. – wizzwizz4 May 22 at 18:32
1

Air conditioning uses quite a lot of power; varies of course, but you've quoted a capacity of 6000btu - a weird use of units - BTU = British Thermal Units.

On maximum, that's about 1.75KW each & every hour.

How much heat do you use in winter? - that's normally the major cost.

In the UK, its normal to be charged a fixed daily rate to cover the cost of providing the supply plus an amount related to your power consumption.

  • 13
    Its amusing that BTU is a "weird use of units" to someone in the UK. In the US, that's how smaller A/C units are sized/sold. Retail boxes list the BTU rating in the largest size font, then normally have a square footage recommendation. Large central AC units are sized on their "tons" of cooling (ie. 5-ton A/C for a large home) and I can't even tell you what that means. – JPhi1618 May 22 at 4:02
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    @JPhi1618 using BTU to specify power is actually a very weird use of units anywhere in the world, as BTU is a unit of energy, not power. It is like using miles to describe speed: I can easily walk 50 miles. However, that does not make me fast, I probably need about a week to walk so far. – Hannebambel May 22 at 11:05
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    @JeremyBoden BTU is a unit of thermal transfer. When you are measuring machines that transfer heat, it is a reasonable unit because that is what you are actually measuring in the lab test. Regardless, watts is out, because "watts" is a unit being used for something else in the context of selling air conditioners. You do understand that for an air conditioner to move 1000j/sec of heat, it does not need 1000j/sec of electricity, right? Air conditioners are over-unity. Look up SEER number. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 22 at 14:58
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    I agree that its not a great measurement. I was just pointing out its funny that the "British" unit is more common in the US and an actual Brit wouldn't use it. – JPhi1618 May 22 at 15:40
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    @JPhi1618, a ton of heat is enough heat to melt one short ton of ice in 24 hours. A ton of refrigeration is enough air conditioning to remove that heat. (This is a perfectly sensible unit of measurement when you're trying to get someone to replace their industrial icebox with a refrigerator, and isn't too different from the BTU's "enough heat to raise the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree F.) – Mark May 22 at 20:22
13

Find your breaker panel and turn off every breaker (except the main). The meter should register no increase even after an hour. If it is still counting up, you have a problem.

Turn on one breaker and see what comes on, then turn it off and do that again for the next one. After you have done that for all of your breakers, see if there are any that you cannot identify. If there are, leave them off. If your neighbor complains about things not working in their house, you have found the issue. If they were PURPOSELY stealing electricity, they will not say a word, but your power bill will go down. If that's the case, call the utility and report the theft, let them deal with it.

If you find nothing either way, then most likely you are calculating something incorrectly, but I don't think so. You don't say where you are or what rate you pay, but I am in California where the rates are the highest in the nation (37 cents/kWH) and my 1500 sq. ft. house is costing me half as much as you are reporting. So something is definitely wrong. Normally my first suspect is the water heater, because a faulty thermostatic switch can result in it running continuously by venting excess hot water through the blow-off safety valve. But you say it's gas? Are you sure? Can you see a gas valve on the side of it and do you get a gas bill? It would be unusual for an apartment to have electric baseboard heat, but a gas water heater. It's expensive to run a gas line to a residence, so they (the gas company) will not do it unless the space heater and stove is gas too, because a water heater alone doesn't make them enough money.

  • 3
    Depending on location you can have gas appliances powered by replaceable gas tanks rather than a connection to a central gas utility line. – nick012000 May 22 at 4:21
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    The meter registers kilowatt-hours. Even with everything except the baseboard heater and the air conditioner running, it'll probably only tick over every three or four hours. – Mark May 22 at 20:17
  • 1
    "It's expensive to run a gas line to a residence" It is, but in the UK that cost is paid by the person connecting the property to gas for the first time. Depending on the location, winter heat requirements may be so low that it's not worth running pipework for the few days a year that it is needed. (Particularly in a well insulated new-build.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 24 at 9:19
5

It looks like other answers so far have given good tips, but haven't answered the question "How to read the meter" very well.

You could measure the power usage like this:

  1. Take a note of the current reading, e.g. 32676 kWh in your photo.
  2. Wait one hour.
  3. Take a note of the new reading, it could be e.g. 32679 kWh.
  4. Subtract the two values and you'll get the usage in kilowatt hours. E.g. 32679 kWh - 32676 kWh = 3 kWh. Because the time was 1 hour, this means average usage was 3 kW during this period.

But there is a severe limit on accuracy here: a small home might only use about 0.5 kW on average. So you wouldn't see if you have a small amount of extra usage, but a huge amount would be visible. You could get more accuracy by waiting for e.g. 10 hours, but I doubt you want to leave your fridge off for 10 hours.

You can check how many kWh you were billed for in your invoice. Divide that by the number of hours in the billing period and you'll know how many kW the electric company says you are using on average. For example, if your bill for 1.4.2019 to 31.4.2019 is 400 kWh, you'd calculate 400 kWh / (31 days * 24 hours) = 0.54 kW average usage.

You can then compare that average usage to your set of appliances. For example this site has many of the common appliances listed.

  • 1
    For the apartment described, power draw with the heater and air conditioner off should be less than 400 watts. If you want to measure power draw, you'll want to wait at least a day, not an hour. – Mark May 22 at 20:18
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    I think the one hour mark was used to illustrate what a kilowatt-hour is vs a kilowatt. – PhilippNagel May 23 at 14:29
12

The first thing I would suggest is to carefully read your monthly bill. There should be a place where it tells you last month's reading and this month's reading; the difference between the two are what you are charged for, plus any standard monthly fees. You should be able to do the math pretty easily: this month - last month = kWh used; kWh used x rate = power cost; monthly fees + power cost = total bill.

Assuming power consuption isn't the problem, I can think of a few other reasons your bill may be high, all of which should be revealed by reading through the bill itself:

  • Whoever (or whatever) read your meter read it wrong. If this is the case, you'd only see a single month of error; it will correct itself next month, resulting in one high bill and one low bill (or even a credit). You may follow up with your power company just in case; having a documented picture of your current meter reading should be enough to reverse a bad reading.
  • Similarly, it may be that your meter wasn't read at all, due to weather, inaccessibility, or laziness; in that case, the bill used an estimate, possibly based on an average for your address, but possibly based on average power usage in the neighborhood! Again, this will be marked on the bill, photographic evidence will help refute it, and the charges will be corrected the next month.
  • If this is your first bill, it may include a "new service" fee; again, this would be a one time charge, and wouldn't show up next month.
  • If your bill is in someone else's name (ie, your landlord), there is a chance that it has some sort of "bill leveling" - bills are often high in summer and low in winter (AC vs gas-powered heater), so the power company will over-charge you in winter and under-charge you in summer, resulting in similar bills. If the last occupant used a lot of power, you may be paying off their bill. Again, this should be on the bill itself, and is something to talk to the power company (and your landlord) about.
  • If you aren't getting an actual bill (ie, your landlord gets the bill, then tells you the amount), ask for one! It may be that he is overcharging you, either accidentally or on purpose.
  • This is an underrated answer. Here in NY every bill will tell you if it's based on an estimated reading, either because they don't do real reads every month, or because your meter was inaccessible (sometimes meaning: the meter reader was lazy or didn't do their job). I've seen this result is huge swings in bills, especially when you're a new customer. The other points are all good too in terms of what can throw of a utility bill by a large amount. – briantist May 24 at 16:46
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    Actually, that's a good point - I'll edit that in! – ArmanX May 24 at 18:52
  • These days the electric meters actually have conversations with the power company. The power company can remotely shut off your meter, and of course the meter can tell how much power you used this month. Anybody who walks around neighborhoods checking meters every month really ought to sharpen up their resume. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 24 at 21:44
0

Call your utility! It's their responsibility to maintain the meter and make sure it's reading properly and wired properly, so they should be able to help you troubleshoot over the phone or send out a technician to check out the meter. Tell them you have an abnormally high bill and go from there.

It's also their responsibility to investigate electrical theft, so mention your suspicions and see if they can suggest further actions. What they can actually do varies by location.

Other than that:

  1. As other answers have suggested, turn off your breakers and verify that nothing is running (so that, for example, you don't have to actually unplug your fridge).
  2. If you can, turn off heating/cooling at your thermostat (do this early or late in the day so that the temperature change won't be as bad).
  3. Take a picture of the meter every 15 minutes, and record the time at which you took the picture. The difference between the previous reading and the current one is how much energy has been delivered to the meter. If it's anywhere above 0, there's an energy drain somewhere.
  • 1
    There's a need to be informed of the regulations in the local jurisdiction before contacting the utility. I would suggest that this should be reserved for after any steps fully within your control are performed, because if the meter is determined to be accurate, you may be subject to a fee for their time/labor investigating what turned out to be a non-issue. If the meter is determined to be inaccurate, you may be entitled to a credit (meter reading too high) or additional liability (meter reading too low), so it's potentially a double-edged sword. – Michael - sqlbot May 24 at 20:06
2

What is that power?

The big number is like an odometer - it is not instant demand (like speed on a car), it is total usage (odometer).

The little 3 squares on the lower right keep changing. 1000 little changes = 1 big number. You can guesstimate how much you use by timing out how many changes in 3.6 seconds (or 36 seconds and divide by 10) - that tells you how many kilowatts you are using at that point.

Kilowatt is a "rate of speed" - how much energy you are using right now.

The "odometer" measures how much energy you have used in the past - exactly what they want for billing. The unit is "kilowatt-hour" or 1 kilowatt for 1 hour.

An average house uses around 1.0 kilowatts averaged 24x7 (much more by day, much less at night). It sounds like your house uses an average of 3-5 kilowatts, which is an average of 12-20 amps at 240V, or 24-40 amps at 120V. Again much more by day, much less by night.

Wow!

Hunting it down

You need to find your breaker panel. Shut off every load, and check the meter and make sure flow has stopped. If it hasn't stopped, you got the wrong panel! (or a subsidiary panel that is fed from another panel). If the neighbor complains, tough beans, that's what they get for stealing power.

Now, turn on one breaker at a time (all others off) and go back to the meter and do the kilowatt test mentioned above. Do all this on a notepad, keeping notes.

Quite likely, one or two breakers is going to be responsible for almost all your draw.

Now, go switch everything on but those, and go search for what is shut off in your house.
It's quite possible nothing is out, and someone is stealing power somehow. Who knows, maybe a neighbor figured out that power is "free" to him, and set up a Bitcoin server farm or some grow-lights. Or sometimes, pot farmers just hide some wires and blatantly steal power.

Now you've identified particular circuits, you need to go see what that circuit goes to. Turn on everything but one of the problem circuits, and go see what's out. If it's a receptacle circuit, you can then check each appliance plugged into it. This is where a meter like a Kill-a-Watt is rather handy, because it can give you an instant readout of power draw. Keep in mind many appliances "cycle" on and off, and will draw near 0 when off, and quite a lot when on.

Honestly most people don't have a strong grasp of how much power a particular appliance draws. So you may get a "reality check" about that water-bed you didn't think was worth mentioning :)

If it turns out to be neighbors, be bloodthirsty. They may want to split the bill 50/50, but that still means they only pay half price for their power hoggery. Since you're paying, leave those circuits off and tell them to arrange their own electrical service. Generally, when a panel is shared by multiple units, the landlord is supposed to pay the bill himself, not leave tenants to fight over it.

0

Extras: A hot water heater which I believe is gas.

What if it's not gas, but an immersion heater? They can use a LOT of electricity and be really expensive to run (which is why people prefer gas).

If it's gas, you should get a gas bill. If you don't get one, it's almost certainly an immersion heater (or your landlord is giving you free hot water, which would be unusually generous).

  • Looks like you finished mid-thought. Please edit your post or it might get deleted. – mike65535 May 30 at 15:28
1

First I would cut the problem in half as I have seen 2 different scenarios on 3 occasions over the years. Turn the power off at the main, now record the meter reading, wait an hour or longer and check the meter reading it should not have changed at all. If it did change call the land lord and tell them the wiring from your meter to your main is tapped (I have seen this 2x where remodels ended up powering more than 1 area) the other case was in a condominium where a drug dealer tapped the dryer circuit of a friends unit I told him to kill the main he did and the meter did not change. He went a step further and put dry ice in his fridge and left the main off for a weekend while camping, still no change on his meter, he called again , I went over and we turned everything off I pulled the dead face off the service panel and started checking for a current draw with an amp clamp meter, the 240v dryer circuit was pulling a solid 20amps so I turned it off and called the superintendent, he said crap more power problems, I told him my friends dryer circuit had been tapped and he turned his main off for the weekend the superintendent said that’s when the neighbor started calling (he had forgotten he was stealing power) to shorten the story the police were called and that’s when we found out he was growing pot using my friends power for the lights and fan. The tap was hidden well and the circuit he ran looked professionally done to a small sub panel, the drug dealer went to jail for the pot and theft based on power company records this had been going on for 2 years. So the usage can be from bad remodels or theft, cut the problem in half by turning off the main, if power is still being used contact the land lord, if power is not being used now a quick check of each circuit with an amp clamp meter may point to the circuit being used we got lucky when I checked it was being used, it may take several checks to find when the power is being used, but if it is a large amount and it sounds like it is you will find the loaded circuit in a short time. Good luck and if you find theft turn that circuit off , and contact the land lord it could have been done by a prior tenant and in my friends case he did not know the neighbor was a drug dealer until the superintendent called the police.

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