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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

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Low Temps Yield High Bills

As temperatures fell this winter, residents may have increased their energy usage to keep homes warm resulting in higher utility costs.

Polk County residents have taken to social media and made calls to local utility providers due to alarming bills, with some residents observing bills doubling in charges.

As residents receive their February bills, Rich Mountain Electric offices report experiencing extremely high call volume due to last month’s cold stretch in the cooperative’s five-county service area.

According to the local weather reporting station, the Mena area experienced an average low temperature of 32.5 degrees in January compared to 37.1 in 2020. The average monthly high for 2021 was 51.8 degrees, while it was 55 degrees in 2020. 

According to a press release from RME, the dip in temperatures along with additional time that consumers were at home resulted an overall increase in kilowatt hour usage of 18,297,186 in January, a sharp increase from the 16,698,695 of energy used for the same time frame in 2020.

“When cold snaps occur, your HVAC unit and water heater work harder and cycle on and off more often, making member usage much higher,” RME representatives explained. “Higher usage of electricity means a consumer’s bill for the past 30 days will be much higher. Even when members use other sources of heat, such as a space heater, those items only contribute to higher usage.”

To ease the stress of higher bills, Rich Mountain Electric suggests residents be sure to monitor your usage, make sure any emergency heating settings on your thermostats are not turned on, and be aware that space heaters and similar auxiliary devices are highly inefficient. 

Members who heat their home with a heat pump should check thermostats and make sure it is set to HEAT and not EM.HEAT (emergency/auxiliary heat). Accidentally setting a thermostat to EM.HEAT mode is an easy (and costly) mistake to make during cold weather. Modern heat pumps are designed to keep you warm all the way down into single-digit temperatures automatically. If your heat pump is malfunctioning, contact your local service company and only use EM.HEAT temporarily until your unit is repaired. 

The amount your HVAC system works to heat or cool your home depends on the difference between the outdoor temperature and desired indoor temperature. The greater the difference, the harder it works.

“As a not-for-profit organization, you can rest assured that Rich Mountain Electric will never make a profit off of our members’ added burden. Remember that the power used at this time is billed the following month,” the press release continued. “We often forget about extreme temperatures that occurred in the previous month. While Arkansas has some of the lowest overall energy costs in the nation, the Natural State also deals with extreme weather changes in certain months of each year that directly impact usage.”

SWEPCO representative Peter Main also suggested customers be vigilant in minding how electricity usage may increase this time of year.

“You might see an increase in your SWEPCO bill amount, and this is often related to the drop in temperatures mixed with the holiday season. The colder it is outside, the harder a heating system has to work, and the more energy it takes to keep a home warm,” Main said. 

“There are a lot of factors at play—how well a home is insulated, a furnace working overtime—to combat the colder weather we’ve experienced. Homes with electric heating systems can see especially large jumps. The fuel surcharge on your bill increases proportionally to the number of kilowatt hours you use. This charge covers the cost of fuel to generate the electricity used in your home. Fuel costs are passed directly to customers with no profit to the company.”

Main said even if you rely on your natural gas furnace as your home’s main heat source, your electricity bill can still increase. Your natural gas furnace most likely relies on an electricity-powered blower to help move hot air through your home’s ductwork. That electricity-powered blower is operating longer and harder to keep the same temperatures in your home when the outside temperature plummets.

He also said many people supplement their normal heating system with portable electric space heaters. Electricity to run just one 1,500-watt space heater can cost more than $3 a day, or $20 a week and $108 a month.

The current forecast shows that the area will experience severely cold weather in the coming days and customers may desire to be mindful.

Winter Electric Savings Tips

• Lower your thermostat setting – For economy, start by setting the thermostat at 68 degrees, as comfort permits. Adjust it lower at night or when you’re not at home. Or consider lowering it a degree each week as you acclimate to colder weather. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that a one-degree reduction maintained for eight hours can reduce a home’s energy bill by one percent. Also, check into programmable thermostats, which allow you to adjust settings for when you’re at home, away or sleeping.

• Keep filters clean – Change your filters regularly. Dirty filters cause your heating equipment to work harder and use more electricity. Disposable filters should be checked each month and replaced when dirty (typically every one to three months). Permanent filters should be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s directions.

• Close the gaps – Weatherstrip or caulk around doors, windows and other parts of the house to prevent air leaks. From the interior, with the door closed, if you see light, you should repair or replace the weatherstripping. Keep doors and windows closed to prevent heat from escaping.

• Have your HVAC system inspected – Ideally, the entire heating and cooling system should be inspected and serviced each year to operate at maximum efficiency.

• Inspect the attic – Heat rising through the ceiling into the attic is another major source of heat loss. It’s recommended that attic insulation be 10 to 12 inches deep. Check the insulation around ducts and make sure it is wrapped securely. Look for obvious air leaks around duct joints and seal as needed. Over time, ducts located in the attic that are not properly sealed can leak as much as 25 percent of heated air into the unconditioned space.

• Check the fireplace – When the fireplace is not in use, be sure the damper is tightly closed. Glass fireplace doors are also good for additional savings.

• Reverse your fans – Set your ceiling fans to the clockwise direction – the opposite from summertime setting. This will help move warm air from near the ceiling into the rest of the room, without creating a wind-chill effect.

• Let the sunshine in – Open curtains or blinds on the sunny side of the house and allow sunshine to help warm the room. On the shady side of the home, keeping shades closed will help keep the warmth inside.

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