Take advantage of your smart meter to save on your electric bill

Cool weather has been giving us a nice break on our electric bills, but we all know what's coming soon.

So now may be the time to try out a free online tool tied to your home's smart meter that tracks your electricity usage by 15-minute intervals, provides charts of usage over two years and allows you to analyze how many kilowatts that old air conditioner and that new big-screen TV are sucking.

Accessing the tool is easy and can lead to savings on your monthly bill.

Arlington homeowner Nick Schroeder embraced smart meter technology and checked in daily as he made energy changes to his house and his usage habits.

The results? A 33 percent savings on his electric bill.

"A lot of my changes were little things to save on energy that added up to a lot," said Schroeder, facilities engineer at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Oncor has installed smart meters in most of North Texas over the past two years. If you don't have one yet and are in Oncor's territory, you will get one soon. The electric transmission company has installed close to 3 million smart meters, covering most of its customer base, said Chris Schein, Oncor's spokesman. Remaining customers will have the new meters by year's end, he said.

While the utility can use the meters to determine outages and track usage without meter readers, most Texas consumers have yet to take advantage of the new technology. Just 14,000 homeowners in Oncor's territory have signed up for free access to smart meter data, Schein said. Statewide, 30,000 of about 4.5 million customers in deregulated areas have logged onto their accounts via

Signing up takes just a few minutes. With a recent electric bill in hand, you can look at data from 48 hours earlier to up to two years prior, depending on when your smart meter was installed. The charts showed that my house averaged around 40-50 kilowatts a day in March, well below more than 100 kilowatts a day I burned through last August.

Schroeder, who came in second in Oncor's Biggest Energy Saver contest last year, said he began checking his usage and making changes to his house (built in 2005) before he entered the contest. He spent around $2,500 on energy upgrades, he said.

Among the big changes was adding 6 inches of attic insulation ($600) and a full radiant barrier in the attic ($800); buying an Energy Star front-load washer ($350), solar screens on his east and west windows ($300) and a programmable thermostat with Web interface and iPhone application ($100). He installed a more efficient blower motor on his builder-grade heating/air-conditioning system for around $150.

All of his other changes were relatively low-cost, including compact fluorescent light bulbs and timers and caulk and weather stripping around windows and doors.

Schroeder also said he changed some of his usage habits and used ceiling fans more, ran fuller loads in the dishwasher and laundry, set his computer to automatically shut down and barbecued more outside instead of using the oven or microwave.

"Once people go to take a look at their usage on the website, it's got a pretty high retention level," Schein said. "They may not go back daily or weekly, but they do return on a semi-regular basis."

Oncor is planning an educational/marketing push later this spring to encourage people to tap into their smart meter accounts. The utility will also hold another Biggest Energy Saver Contest (last year's prizes included a Chevy Volt and Energy Star appliances).

Another option for electric customers is something known as "time-of-use" rate plans. Because smart meters can calculate when we use energy, along with how much we use, electric retailers will be able to offer plans that charge different rates at different times of day.

I could only find two time-of-use plans available in North Texas, through Reliant and TXU. They offer lower rates in off-peak hours, allowing savings for customers who want to switch some of their activities to other times in the day.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays.