Seven gadgets to smash your power bill

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 05:00 28/05/2014
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SAVINGS FLOW: A low-flow head costs anywhere from $100 up to $300, which means it will pay for itself in roughly one to two years.

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Many a frustrated parent has resorted to putting an egg-timer in the bathroom in an attempt to rein in their teenagers' long, luxurious showers.

The draining of the hot water cylinder is particularly painful with winter approaching, and power bills on the rise.

Few will be aware that technology has moved a long way from the humble egg-timer.

Overseas, households are using all kinds of clever gadgets to slash their power bills by hundreds of pounds, euros and dollars.

Global manufacturer Efergy is one of the companies leading the charge.

Efergy New Zealand's managing director, Jason Moult, says the key is education - and it's sorely lacking.

"There's nothing there," he says. "Overseas, they push these products massively. In New Zealand you just don't see it."

In Canada and Europe for example, power companies are doing everything they can to help consumers reduce bills.

"The whole thing in New Zealand is I get my power bill, and I pay it," says Moult. 

"There's got to be some sort of corporate responsibility as well. Power prices have been going up for years now, and consumers just can't afford it any more."

To be fair, the main retailers do at least publish tips and guides for reducing power consumption. Contact offers a full check-up with its Home Energy Assessment Tool, for example.

But most of the responsibility falls on you. Here are seven gadgets which could just about cut your power bill in half.

1. Timed showerhead

Hot water is one of the biggest expenses on your power bill, and most of it gurgles down the shower drainhole.

Efergy makes a showerhead with a built-in gauge measuring how much water your are using, accompanied by a timer.

When you turn on the shower the timer visually displays your use, and sounds an alarm once you hit either the time or water limit you have programmed in.

If you have grown attached to your current shower-head, you can get a standalone shower timer that sticks on the wall.

It's slightly more high-tech than the average egg-timer, in that you can calibrate it to match the exact flow from your showerhead.

After a certain limit is reached, say 35 litres, it will sound the klaxon to get you rinsed off and scrambling for a towel.

A family of four showering for a total of 24 minutes a day (six minutes each) would be spending about $550 a year, based on Consumer NZ figures.

By reducing their shower times to four minutes, they could slash a third off their bill, or $183.

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At $80, the showerhead pays for itself in less than six months, while the $22 timer will pay off in six weeks or so.

2. Low-flow showerhead

The next step is to reduce the amount of hot water going down the drain within your allotted time, whether it's two minutes or 10.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA)'s senior technical advisor, Christian Hoerning, has a simple rule of thumb.

"If your shower fills a 10 litre bucket in less than a minute, it's wasting water," he says.

If your shower fails the test, it's time to look into low-flow showerheads. Consumer NZ handily produced an entire report on them a few years ago, which you can read here.

Volunteers showered over and over until they were squeaky clean, and found at least three different heads that were perfectly comfortable and did the job.

Switching from a 12 litre head to an 8 litre one reduces your shower spend by another third. For the family of four already using a timer, that's another $121 knocked off the bill.

A low-flow head costs anywhere from $100 up to $300, which means it will pay for itself in roughly one to two years.

3. Towel rail timer

When you step out of the shower, the first thing you do is grab a toasty warm towel off the heated rail.

But if you leave your towel rail on all the time, EECA estimates it's costing you $180 a year.

Installing a timer that limits it to eight hours will save as much as $120.

Timers are cheap - Consumer approved some which were little over $30 - and easy to install.

However, you will still need an electrician to safely wire it up. Even though it only takes a few minutes, most sparkies have a minimum call-out charge of $90 or so.

At an all-up cost of $120-$150, this gadget might take 18 months to two years to pay for itself.

4. Eco light bulbs

Everyone knows about energy efficient light bulbs already. While some people don't like the glow they produce or grumble at the cost, we are starting to see the light.

Hoerning says energy efficient bulbs now make up 23 per cent of all sales, compared to 17 per cent in 2012.

This EECA Energywise link shows you just how much you stand to gain by making the switch.

Changing a standard 60 watt bulb to its CFL equivalent will save $13.40 a year.

Standard bulbs are three to five times more expensive to buy, but they also last about five times as long, so there's no real extra cost.

Our family of four probably has 10 bulbs burning for three hours a day, and possibly more. That's $130 a year, banked.

5. Media standby eliminator

If you wander around a house in the dead of the night - not recommended, unless it's your own - you will see a dashboard of blinking lights in every room. 

These are the standby lights of dozens of appliances, allegedly switched off, but secretly still guzzling electricity.

Mostly it's small or negligible, but running 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it all adds up.

UK research suggests standby use accounts for about 9 to 16 per cent of the average electricity bill.

In New Zealand, that could be $200 a year.

Home entertainment systems are the worst offenders, taking up around half of standby electricity use.

Another one of Efergy's gadgets is the Media standby eliminator, which is a plug that fits between the television and the wall socket.

It senses when a device has been turned "off", then after about 20 seconds cuts power completely. 

At $29, it's probably best used when plugged into a multi socket, so you can turn off your TV, set top box, DVD, Playstation and Hi-Fi all at the same time.

6. Remote controlled socket

The more obvious (and free) solution is to just switch off everything at the wall.

Trouble is, some power sockets are not accessible unless you have the flexibility of a Hungarian circus contortionist.

Others are downright impossible. You are not going to heave a dishwasher out from under the cabinet just to turn it on and off.

Enter the Remote controlled socket, another Efergy gadget. By plugging it in between your appliances and the wall, you can use a remote control to switch it off without putting your back out.

However, at $80 a pop, this is going to be of limited value unless you use a multi socket board to hook it up to a bunch of power-thirsty, out-of-reach appliances.

7. Energy monitors

One of the gadgets making a splash overseas was dreamed up by Aussies, then developed right here by Christchurch's 4D Electronics.

Called the OWL, it's an energy monitor which gives you real-time updates on how much power you are using, and which appliances are guzzling the most.

The company boasts savings of up to 20 per cent, simply from the greater awareness it fosters around energy efficiency.

The OWL can be installed in most meter boxes by using a small clip-on sensor that requires no wiring.

Efergy's solution is slightly different. Because of the hodge-podge of different meter box connections, it has opted for an eGO smartplug which connects to your Wi-Fi.

With the accompanying smartphone app, you can track your power usage from anywhere in the world.

You can also actively turn individual appliances on and off from your phone, set timers, view the costs, and crunch the numbers of your hourly, weekly or monthly usage.

Again, this is an imperfect solution. You need a plug for each appliance, and at $59 each, you would want to be connected to a series of plugs at once.

If you have done all other steps, an energy monitor might not be able to tell you much. However, it can keep identify faulty appliances and power-drinking ones you might not suspect.

Old fridges and freezers are notoriously thirsty, for example, and could be using twice as much electricity as newer models.

New Zealanders are often world leaders in adopting new technologies. Painful power bills should make it even more of a no-brainer to get smart about energy efficiency too.

- Stuff

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