How I Zeroed My Energy Bills & Kept the Spa (and other luxuries)

This story was submitted to negergy by Martin Holden. An edited version is reproduced here with permission.

I am a 59 year old diesel mechanic who has been looking at doing something about reducing my bills for retirement.

I always thought that electricity was a good one to get rid of if I could. I started researching all sorts of magnetic devices, none of which really ever got off the ground. I really did not want to go solar as solar was so bad back in the 70s and I wanted something with horsepower to fuel my more than modest electricity usage.

The price hikes in electricity in the last few years made me look more closely at solar - even more so when my power bill went up to $800 for the quarter.

The end result with solar hot water and solar PV panels on the roof.

An accidental start with a bargain on batteries

I started looking at what I could buy for the budget I had available. I found a set of 12 x 1,250 Ah new gel cell batteries on eBay for auction. These just happened to fit in my wardrobe perfectly and with a storage capacity about the size I needed to run my house if I cut down on consumption where I could.

I was the only bidder and they finished on Christmas Day a year ago now so I bought them and thought, OMG what am I going to do now!

First thing was to find a solar installer that would even look at a stand-alone plus grid-connected system let alone wire one up for me. Whilst looking for someone to do the job I got into a panic about getting my electricity usage down from 28 kWh a day to something I could realistically achieve with solar panels and my batteries.

Lighting upgrades the first step

I was back on the internet for LED lights, fluoros by the box from Australia, all other lights from China.

  • For the kitchen and office type areas I used cool white lights and for the lounge and bedrooms I used the warm white ones.
  • I found that they are best used as up facing lights to give you really good light coverage in a room.
  • When fitting these, energy savings of 75% or more are easily achieved.

I have a big house and we used to turn on 8 x 40W flouros to get from one end to the other. These are now replaced with a system of LED lights that can be turned on or off from anywhere in the house. We use mostly 3W and 5W LED bulbs with a 15W bulb in the kitchen so I can get up and make a cup of tea during the night and come back to bed without disturbing my wife. I replaced the floodlight over my barbeque from 500W halogen to 18W Cree LED.

It was a real eye opener doing this as we were savings heaps of electricity. I reckon if you invest $350 in LED lights you will save that much in a quarter power bill through winter when you use them a lot. I got a better lighting system that runs for very little.

I was really starting to kick a goal with this and could see that I might just be able to get this to work after all.

Finding and replacing the energy hungry appliances

I then lashed out with a plug in kW meter which tells you what every appliance is using.

My big old GE fridge with an ice maker came up the worst. It was a family favourite, but it had to go at up to 9kWh a day.

We bought a new, smaller fridge that was using about 1.25kWh a day. It was $1,300 at Harvey Norman, meaning it will pay for itself in savings in a year. So now I have no instant ice for my Bourbon - I have to make it in the ice trays instead.

I bought a new front loading washing machine and now only use the big old top loader for blankets, etc. I also have a twin tub that I use for my dirty work clothes, this is about 5 years old, it died a few weeks ago and the new one I replaced it with used ½ the power of the old one.

As you can see, getting rid of old wasteful appliances is really a good thing if you shop around and find something efficient. I found that going into the appliance shop and asking for the cheapest running appliance is a waste of time as you are met with blank looks.

More efficient ways to cook

I bought a new compact 20 litre oven, new induction cook-top, and kept the old ones for when we have family for dinner.

Thermal Cooking PotI also bought a thermal pot for about $80. It is a great power saver - just boil your veges and put them in the pot for 40 minutes and they are done. Rice is the same. Pot roasts are brilliant: boil up the roast and in the pot, after 2 hours or so re-boil and back in the pot, another 2 hours re-boil and back in the pot, then it is done. A cooked pot roast for less than 15 minutes hot plate time!

I will let you work out how much that saves, but it is a good 6 hours in a slow cooker. The other advantage is that nothing can burn, no stirring, no problem if the meat is a bit slow to cook, just leave it in the pot for a bit longer. These are just great things if you want to save electricity around the house and have a relaxing time cooking as it cooks itself.

Switching off at the wall

Another electricity saving thing to do is turn everything off at the wall when not in use so TVs, computers, stereos, appliances don’t drain electricity when not in use.

When I did all this above my bill went down from $800 to under $400 per quarter and I still had the hot water to go. So getting this much power from solar panels was looking easier and easier, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Solar electricity goes in

I got a solar man to do the panels and batteries for me. As it was the first installation of this sort in the Essential Energy area [grid connected with batteries], the technician was not happy that he was going to lose money not only on power sales but on the nearly free power I should be selling him to make a killing off. He came up with all sorts of ventilation issues and other gobbledegook as to why I couldn’t do it. I told him he would have to take out all the batteries in banks, service stations, supermarkets, mobile homes, caravans, etc, and when he had done that to come and see me and by that time I would be off grid and his essential energy would no longer be essential to me or anyone else who wanted something cheaper and less polluting.

The solar installer wanted to be as kind to my batteries as we could. Buying a bit of electricity didn’t really matter as we had to pay the connection fee anyway and if we only bought 1 kWh then it would cost us over $100 so we may as well buy a few kWhs to make it worthwhile being connected. This caused the inverter to think that the batteries were flat when a load came on and was just buying electricity from the grid rather than using what was in the batteries.

When we got this sorted out the system started to operate properly. My last electricity bill came in at $40 for electricity, $100 for the connection fee and a few dollars credit for the electricity I sold them that I had left over. Selling clean, green, renewable electricity for $0.05 a kWh and buying it back for $0.35 when I need it or selling it to my neighbours who also have to pay the connection fee is nothing short of fraud or theft in my opinion.

Saving electricity is really very easy when you put your mind to it. Start with a few hundred on lights, replace your appliances with the most efficient ones you can find as they die, turn things off at the wall when not in use.

The spa, sauna and hot water system

I built my house about 15 years ago now and one of the things I bought with the house was a spa pool which was great but used a heap of electricity to run. The heater element finally burnt out and I bought a heat pump heater for it, this was a lot cheaper to run but didn’t work too well in cold weather. It finally died about 3 years ago and I gave up on the spa.

Like all things I have done on the house I have always got a little luxury thing for myself for doing the work to get the project completed. So my 'wages' for this (the solar power system) was to get my sauna and spa working again, only this time for free.

The sauna was easy: it just plugged into my batteries and runs for free whenever I want it to.

The spa was a bit different as it needs to heat up 600 litres or so of water to work properly, plus keep it hot for the time you are in the spa. This take a lot of electricity especially in colder weather when you need it most. I played around with this for ages before coming up with a solution to the problem.

Large Solar Hot Water TankI bought a 600 litre mains pressure hot water tank with 2 heat exchanger coils inside it. I put 48 evacuated tubes on the roof thinking these would be enough to heat my water tank for my house and pump my spa water through one heat exchanger coil to heat my spa.

Great idea but evacuated tubes are not nearly as good as I was led to believe. On hot sunny days it works great but cooler cloudy days they really struggle to make enough hot water to keep the house going, let alone enough to heat the spa. I am going to have to save up some money to buy some more tubes to really make the hot water system work the way I want it to.

I cannot explain just how good it feels to sit in my spa with a stubby and know it is working for free. This is really living in my opinion. When I do eventually retire I can see living with a luxury $2,000 a quarter electricity bill without the $2,000 bill. That is the goal and I am very happy it is looking easily achievable from here.

Having said that the tubes were not as good as I would have hoped, I have not had to buy any electricity for hot water or had a cold shower for nearly 4 months now.

An alternative solution to solar hot water

One thing to consider when looking at solar hot water is the total cost of the tank, tubes and installation. Depending on where you buy from, who installs it, and how much hot water you want to use, it can be far more cost effective to buy extra solar (PV) panels to heat the hot water tank you already have, rather than buying the evacuated tubes.

I pondered this for some time and came to the conclusion that as I wanted to heat my spa for free to save on huge inverters, wires, etc it would be easier to have a large hot water tank than a heap more electrical infrastructure to heat the spa. But for a more normal household - using a few more PV panels on your roof would be a cheaper way to go.

Further ideas and improvements

The future, well who really knows, but this includes buying some sort of plug in electric car for which I will have to put up some more solar panels, run a couple of air conditioners, and eventually look at going completely stand alone / off grid and getting rid of my connection fee. I have a semi-rural property so running a generator a few days a year will not be a problem, but need to get the system running really sweet first.

I started out with only an idea and look how far I have come in a year since buying my batteries! Hopefully in the next few years the project will be finished and life will go on very well indeed. This is something everyone can do even with a small budget, all the people who have already got solar panels can buy some batteries and get rid of an even larger chunk of their electricity bill by using all that they make for themselves.

The thing to remember is that we are talking about free energy here and free means free. If you have some ideas share them with others so they can benefit - the world does not need another Rockefeller, it needs free clean energy.

My stainless steel drinking water tank, this overflows from the bottom to keep the water fresh.

A future proof solution

The best thing about this is that once you reduce your bill to zero it is future proof. You literally cannot improve on it no matter how far technology goes or what new things come out.

Thank you for your time for reading this, I really do hope you get some ideas from it to reduce or eliminate your electricity bill. It is not that difficult to do and is rewarding not only financially but peace of mind as well.

You can plug something in without feeling guilty and enjoy it.

- Martin Holden

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Reduction Revolution Pty Ltd (ABN 74 141 672 764) is an Australian-owned company focused on energy efficiency and sustainability.

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