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March 2014 EnergyWise Tip: What's a Watt?

If you’re like most people, when you get your electric bill, the first thing you make note of is how much you owe the power company. Next, you most likely will consider whether the total cost is higher or lower than the previous month’s without considering the “watts” that you’re being charged for. Unfortunately, cost is not a good way to tell if you used more or less electricity than you normally would.

To start, let’s consider what a watt is. By definition, a watt is a measure of power. The more watts, the more power. That’s why a 1,500 watt microwave oven cooks about twice as fast as a 750 watt microwave.

But when you examine your electric bill in greater detail, you will notice you are being billed for kilowatt-hours. Kilowatt-hours, abbreviated kWh, are a measure of energy and time. For example, if you run a 100-watt light bulb for one hour, you've used 100 watt-hours, or 0.1 kilowatt-hours, since a kWh is 1,000 watt-hours. In other words, 0.1 kWh is the amount of energy you need to run a light bulb for an hour.

It is very common for people to underestimate the power needs of an appliance or light, as well as to not realize how many hours a month some appliances and lights operate.

Now consider: While all watts are the same, not all watt-hours are created equal! During summer months, demand for electricity increases. Large-scale storage of electricity is generally cost prohibitive, so utilities must operate more generation to meet that higher demand. This additional generation costs more to operate per kWh produced. Consequently, utility companies must charge a higher price per kWh to cover their costs during the summer.

What energy-using item operates and for how long will naturally change in your home, too! Most homes in Nebraska have central heating systems. As the weather gets colder, units run longer and the system blowers consume more electricity. If your home also uses electric resistance or a heat pump to keep the “inside” comfortable, significant increases in billed kWhs are normal.

As daylight hours change throughout the year, more or less lighting is used in the home. Depending on the number, type of lights, and hours operated, sizeable changes in energy consumption can occur.

Over 97 percent of Nebraskan homes have some form of air conditioning. As temperatures rise, air conditioning typically operates for more hours each month and causes the number of electric kWhs consumed to increase. By the time the electric bill arrives in September, which includes electricity used in August, cooler weather is often upon us and we tend to misjudge how much the air-conditioning ran.

When you open your next monthly electric statement, consider some of these points after looking at the kWhs billed and not just how much you owe. Reviewing your energy use patterns and understanding where the energy goes just may change how you use electricity.