10

I recently bought a 900 sq ft house (84m²) and the electricity bill is insane, saying I'm using 4000 kWh per month. Winters are mild, the temperature floats to around 25°F (-5°C) at night, not much lower ever.

I'm examining all possible reasons; one potential is that a neighbor is stealing power. When I bought the house, there was zero landscaping, only bare dirt, so running a cable and kicking dirt over it would be easy, no need to repair any lawn.

I checked the area around the power meter and cannot find anything except cable TV and satellite TV cables. There is only one exterior outlet. Are there other potential places an electricity thief could plug in to steal power? Could they connect, for example, at a back-alley behind the house?

1
33

Understand how much power you are using

4000 KWH per month... 720 hours per month... that's 5600 watts on average all the time.

This is the equivalent of a dryer running continuously... 24 x 7...

If this was heating water, that is enough energy to heat nearly 1 gallon per minute continuously - nearly a low-flow showerhead. A pretty big leak in the hot water system would do that. A big leak!

If someone tapped an outdoor circuit, the most they could draw is 1800 watts or about 1/3 of your draw. That wouldn't explain this.

Since you don't have gas, the #1 probability is your heat. Resistive strip electric heat is CHEEEEAP to install and expensive to run. (However in many locations where electric heat is popular, the power company often offers special electric tariff rates to make electric heat beneficial - so talk to your power company about rate plans).

To give you an idea how much heat this is, this is 19,000 BTU/hr continuously on average. That's about right for heating a house.

10
  • 5
    Is 19,000 BTU/Hr about right for the OPs 900 sq/ft house? Honest question, I haven't a clue what it takes to heat a house. (Gonna find out this spring as we add on and upgrade all the HVAC, though!) – FreeMan Jan 21 at 12:03
  • 2
    @FreeMan -- for a 500ft2/HVAC ton construction, yeah, that's about right -- modern building methods can double or triple that number easily, though, with good air sealing and insulation – ThreePhaseEel Jan 21 at 12:37
  • 8
    Harp: Good comments and calcs. there are other possibilities than just tapping off an existing outdoor outlet. If the house was open they could have run a line directly to the panel. I doubt it though...tweakers aren't that bright. Also, if it is theft, they could pull up to 2,400 watts from an outdoor circuit if on a 20 amp breaker. 1,800 watts (like you said) on a 15 amp circuit. I'm going to guess the OPs issue is not enough insulation, inefficient windows and electrical resistance space heating. – George Anderson Jan 21 at 13:27
  • 5
    @FreeMan OP said their night lows get to 25F(-4C), so for that climate zone you'd probably spec around 40BTU/h per sq.ft, or 36,000 BTU/h. In a winter month, then OP would be running at just over 50% capacity (or duty), on average, which is about typical for a home heating system. Maybe a bit high, but we're also attributing 100% of OP's bill to electric heat when, in reality, they will have other loads also (including electric hot water!). I think the numbers make sense. – J... Jan 21 at 14:03
  • We should be explicit that you're talking about resistivity heating ("cheap to install and expensive to run"). I think it's worth mentioning that a lot (most? IDK) of new electric heat installed is heat-pumps, which cost more up-front but use much less power. – ShapeOfMatter Jan 21 at 16:43
29

Below is my original answer - which is still valid when looking for hidden or stolen energy usage.

However, given that your house is all electric, it is quite possible that your usage is normal. Taking some very basic Google'd round numbers, a 900 square foot house might have a 30,000 BTU furnace. That translates to almost 9 kW! If it runs only 4 hours per day, that's 1/4 of your billed 4,000 kWh/month. Colder weather = longer runtime = more kWh. Plus electric hot water, electric clothes dryer and all the regular loads, and 4,000 kWh does not appear to be unusual.

Stolen electricity is a thing. But I suspect much more common in certain areas of the world where temperatures are not measured in F. Plus much easier in apartment buildings - in fact sometimes accidentally if a building started as one tenant and was later split but the circuits not all moved to separate panels/meters correctly. Simply using a lot of power is the more likely situation, and Occam was very well-shaved.


When it is a nice day (you need to do this in the day, so you can see, and you don't want to do this in the rain or snow), do the following:

  • Turn off or unplug everything electrical in your house that you can - lights, computers, hot water heater (if it is electric), phone chargers, clocks, heat & air conditioning, etc. I would probably even unplug the refrigerator, for just an hour that would be safe (just don't open it while the power is off).
  • Read the meter. Read it again an hour later. There should be very low usage, if any at all. Actually, there will probably be a little usage, because there will inevitably be something you can't unplug - e.g., hardwired doorbell or thermostat transformer.

If that still shows significant usage, the next step is to turn off your main circuit breaker(s) (you could have up to 6 breakers or big fuses). Read the meter again an hour later. If the usage is down to 0 then the problem is somewhere inside your house, or at least drawn from your panel. If you get a question or complaint from one of your neighbors during this time then you likely have your answer.

If the usage is still not down to 0, then you have something wrong between the meter and your panel - likely an illegal tap of some sort. That is much harder to pin down because there is usually no safe way to cut power at that point other than to pull the meter - but that requires cooperation from the utility.

9
  • 7
    @GeorgeAnderson You may be right. But I see three possibilities, and this would help narrow it down: Unexpected usage within the house, stolen electricity from the main panel, stolen electricity before the main panel. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Jan 21 at 4:42
  • 1
    Some have the main incoming fuses prior to the meter and those can be pulled and are allowed to be pulled for testing purposes. The electricity supplier then has the right to test the installation for safety before re-sealing the fuses. – Solar Mike Jan 21 at 8:50
  • 6
    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact Agreed, but I still believe the 1st diagnostic step would be to just turn off the main breaker and see if there still any usage and go from there as you mentioned. – George Anderson Jan 21 at 13:19
  • 5
    Good trouble-shooting steps! Regarding the last paragraph: "then you have something wrong between the meter and your panel - likely an illegal tap of some sort." It could also be that the meter is broken. But in any case, contacting the utility company is the right solution at that stage. – jpa Jan 21 at 17:30
  • 1
    Lol'd at shaving Occam! – FreeMan Jan 22 at 14:33
16

I used to live in an 800sq foot apartment in Seattle which has extremely mild winters. It was heated with electric baseboards. We're billed bi-monthly and I was appalled to find out our bill was just under $1,300 for 2 months. What gives?!?!?

Turned out, we had thin single pane windows that were marginally better than just a hole in the wall. The heater was running more or less continuously for 2 months while we heated up the air around the house. Also the bedroom was an addition and cheaply built, and the walls were very thin and always cold. We were losing heat there.

We got a plastic product that goes over windows and then seals with a heat gun. Then some heavy curtains to pull over the windows. We also turned down the heat in the bedroom since heating it was futile, and bought some warmer blankets. This cut the bill down to less than half of what it was before.

You should check for any of those things. I couldn't fix them in a rental but if I lived there I'd be renovating.

4

Is a neighbor stealing? Early evening, dark but still activity going on, grab your flashlight, flip the main breaker, and have a look around the neighbors for sudden onset of darkness. May not serve if you have a long run between the meter and the main breaker where you could have been tapped. Also, map all your breakers and leave off any you can't find actually running what they say they are running. Have any legitimate utilities marked, and dig some trenches where they are not.

Given you are "all electric" that may not find anything. Fix the insulation and air-sealing (the boring, relatively inexpensive stuff that works wonders, if, as usual, it's been ignored.)

Change electric resistance heating out for cold-climate mini-split heatpumps, which is expensive (once) and saves a lot on heating. Unlike the old, incapable heatpumps mentioned in comments, a cold-climate unit will heat down to -15F, and very efficiently at 17F (efficiency decreases to 100% at the extreme low end, but is still typically 180% at 5F and 300-400% at 17F.) Electric resistance is 100% efficient, but that's not nearly as good as it gets with electric-powered heating.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.