Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Do You Like Running Water? Enjoy It While It Lasts!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 37 - water wizard

It seems that even one of the richest counties on the U.S. East Coast isn’t immune to massive water main breaks. Thanks to some shoddy pipeline materials, Montgomery County, Maryland (home of yours truly) is now under mandatory water restrictions and boil water advisories for the third straight day. What has this meant for area residents?

  • No tap drinking water. Because of the break, water pressure is low. For some residents and businesses, this means a higher risk of contamination; thus the water restrictions and boil advisory. For others, it means no running water at all.
  • A run on bottled water. In less than 24 hours, most area grocery stores ran out of bottled water due to expectations that the water advisory will last until the end of the week. That means those who got to the stores first have been hoarding whatever they could grab, leaving others high and dry.
  • Water use restrictions. Prohibitions you normally only see during severe droughts were immediately enacted, including bans on outdoor watering, car washing, and even flushing your toilet.
  • Restaurants ordered closed. Nearly every restaurant in the county was ordered closed for two straight days. There are also rumors that grocery stores are removing some produce stock they normally use water misters to help keep fresh.
  • Everyone smells bad. Today is the first day I’ve been grateful that most of the people I work with come from the counties north and west of this one. I bet there are lots of smelly places in Montgomery County today!

Fortunately I live in the one city in Montgomery County with its own water system, and it isn’t affected by the break. Unfortunately, while my workplace is in the same city, it gets its water from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) which is impacted by the break. That means we’re stuck with bottled water, hand sanitizers, and a closed cafeteria. But at least I can go home and suck on the kitchen faucet like I normally do.

We’ve had plenty of similar water main breaks in Maryland over the last decade. Most have been small and only affected a few blocks at a time. Others have been as large as this one, but they typically struck poorer towns where residents drink beer instead of water and only shower for major holidays. The fact that a break of such magnitude has hit the wealthiest county in the state may finally push Maryland to confront the need for serious utility infrastructure reform.

For half a century, utility operators in Maryland and most other states have generally taken a “wait and see” approach to maintenance. If it isn’t broke, they ain’t fixin’ it. This has been especially true for water and sewer lines which, being buried underground, have been out of the sights and minds of utilities, residents, businesses, and politicians. As a result, a good portion of water and sewer lines running throughout the U.S. is approaching triple-digit years in age.

So whose fault is this watery mess? Well, I’d share the blame equally between three parties: local and regional utilities, local and state politicians, and you. Why is this partly your fault? It’s because we whine and complain whenever our utility rates go up. Water, the cheapest of all public utilities, has been dirt cheap for far too long. As a result, most utilities don’t have the money necessary to perform regular maintenance and reconstruction of major water and sewer lines.

With utilities’ wallets empty and the suddenly realized need for massive water main replacements, that can only mean one of two things: either our water utility infrastructure will experience even worse breakdowns, or your super-cheap water utility bills are going to skyrocket in ways that’ll make rising gas prices look like normal inflation. And if you’re a fan of regular running water, you better not complain one bit when your $50 a month water bill becomes $500 a month.

Whatever happens with your bills and utility lines, any solutions are going to take a while to implement. In the meantime, we’ll all experience more utility breakdowns—possibly even worse than this one. So stock up on bottled water (larger containers are cheaper), keep some hand sanitizer nearby, and figure out the best places to install a waterless outhouse on your property.

Oh, and if you’re in Montgomery County and can’t find any water, feel free to stop by my house. I’ll sell you some for 50 cents a gallon—a steal compared to those 16-ounce bottle prices.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Freeze Your Butt Off to Save on Your Winter Heating Bills?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

save money on winter heating without feeling like this

Packed snugly in a recent local utility mailing—somewhere between the return envelope and that electrical extortion invoice our supplier calls a “bill”—was their monthly newsletter offering sound advice to help keep us safe and save us money during the upcoming winter. (Sidebar: I’ve always wondered why utility companies send newsletters with tips for saving you money on your utilities; shouldn’t they send you tips for spending more on utilities or perhaps saving money on groceries and health care so you can spend more on gas and electric?) One of the tips in this newsletter was a little startling because it runs contrary to every American home in which I’ve ever set foot:

Set your thermostat at 68 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night, if health permits.

First, let’s look at the 68 degrees during the day recommendation. Thinking of the homes of random family and friends, here’s a sampling of the various daytime winter temperatures I recall seeing on their thermostats:

  • 75 degrees
  • 74 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees

I cannot ever recall seeing any thermostat in any home set at below 70 degrees during winter days. The only exception is our own home whose thermostat currently sits at a cozy and warm 68 degrees. People who enter our house when it’s 68 often complain that it’s chilly. On the other hand, when we enter someone’s house at 75 degrees, it feels like a sauna.

So if you’re currently running your home at 70+ degrees in the winter, try dropping it a degree each week and be amazed at how well your body can adjust to the temperature change.

Now how about that 60 degrees at night recommendation? Once again, let’s look at a random sample of nighttime winter temperatures from the homes of friends and family.

  • 75 degrees
  • 74 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees

Holy crap, it’s the same list from above! For some inexplicable reason, these five households need their 70+ degrees while their bodies are in bed, asleep, inactive, totally unconscious. My utility’s advice to drastically lower the thermostat setting at night is a good one; it can save a boatload of money on heat your body doesn’t even need.

I’ll admit that the 60-degree recommendation surprised even us. We keep our nighttime thermostat set at around 64 during the winter months. We find that any colder than that is enough to wake us in the middle of the night.

If you’re a member of the 72 Degrees At All Times Club, you might be wondering how we survive in consistently sub-70-degree temperatures. It’s pretty simple, actually.

  • Lots of clothes. It’s not hard to pile on an extra layer or two. Each one seems to allow us to tolerate an extra degree or two below 70.
  • Mini heaters. We have a portable electric heater that we can set in whatever room we’re currently occupying. That way, we can keep that room as toasty as we like without wasting heat in other rooms. It’s fuel-free, simple to operate, weighs just a couple of pounds, and costs just pennies an hour to run.
  • Ceiling fans in reverse. Over the summer, we equipped our four most-used rooms with ceiling fans to keep rooms cool. When operated in reverse (clockwise motion), the fan blows the hot air that would otherwise rise to the ceiling and out the roof back down to the floor. Yes, it really works and can help maintain a room temperature a lot longer.
  • Smart thermostat use. While we have a programmable thermostat, we typically operate it manually, setting the temperature at 68 when we’re home and awake or 64 if we’re away or asleep. If you have a predictable schedule, you can use a programmable thermostat to boost the temperature just before you wake or return home from work.
  • Lots of cuddling. There’s nothing cozier in the winter than a warm body, and keeping one really close to you ensures you two are exchanging heat with each other rather than losing it to the air. Just be sure to ask before cuddling someone, though they’ll usually agree once you give a detailed presentation on the fuel savings cuddling can provide.

Now it’s your turn to provide your wintertime stats. At what temperature do you set your thermostat during winter days and nights?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Why Our Water Bill Is $9 a Month, And Why Yours Isn’t

Author: Nick
Category: Money

dramatic water drop to emphasize the importance of this article

When we moved into our house about ten months ago, we received a copy of the previous owners’ final water bill. Since we’re billed for a three-month cycle, we were shocked to see the previous owners averaging around $60 a month for the last three months in water and sewage fees. This means their family of four (three adults, one toddler) were using about 12,000 gallons of water every month, or 400 gallons each day.

To put that into perspective, a 10-minute shower uses around 30 gallons with a low-flow shower head (which our house has), our clothes washer uses about 30 gallons per load, our toilet uses 3.5 gallons a flush, and our dishwasher averages 15 gallons a load. Even assuming 4 showers, 20 flushes, and a load of clothes and dishes every single day, that’s only 240 gallons. Perhaps someone enjoyed hour-long showers, or the toddler found the sound of flushing toilets amusing. Or worse… our house had an undetectable leak somewhere.

Unfortunately our first six months of water bills were estimated on previous usage, so we had to cough up around $150 every three months to pay our water and sewer bill. A couple of weeks ago, we finally had our first actual water meter reading. Our latest amount due? About negative $220.

That means our actual water usage since we moved in averaged $9 a month, or just under 2,000 gallons of water every 30 days. How do we manage to use only 70 gallons of water a day? It’s really nothing you couldn’t think of yourself:

  • We run full dishwasher loads only.
  • We take five-minute showers.
  • We don’t wash a shirt just because we wore it for two minutes.
  • We don’t run water unless it’s being used for something.

Maybe you’re thinking “why isn’t my water bill that low?” The reason is simple, and it’s not all your fault: water is cheap. A gallon of gasoline runs over $3 now, but a gallon of tap water goes for less than a penny. If something costs less than a penny, most people see that as “virtually free.” They might wonder why their water bill is $60 at the end of the month, but that isn’t enough to change the typical family’s water usage habits.

But don’t worry, you’ll soon be paying a couple hundred times more for that water. By 2050, much of the world will face water shortages–even parts of the United States. Maybe when you’re paying for water what you’re now paying for gas, people will start making every drop count.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This Article Is Absolutely Free; Pay Only Shipping and Handling

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

warning, hidden fees and wet floor ahead

Fortunately for you, there are no shipping and handling costs for this article (unless you’d like me to print it out for you and send it to you in a lovely decorative box). Some consumers in Florida and California, however, are learning the hard way that “free” doesn’t always mean “no cost.” As the Washington Post’s Caroline Mayer points out…

I called the Florida-based Email Discount Network to find out how these charges could have occurred. Supervisor Kristine Morales patiently explained that most consumers who were charged had agreed to take a survey–for a chance of winning a $1,000 online shopping spree. In the terms and conditions of the survey (which I think most consumers probably never read), there is a $12.95 nonrefundable initial fee, imposed after a 72-hour trial period, unless the consumer drops out and notifies the company by e-mail before then. Then, there’s a $14.95 monthly fee for the online shopping service.

It looks like consumers had plenty of chances to pick up on the fact that they wouldn’t be getting a free lunch here. In case you run across a similar offer in the future, follow these three simple steps to help determine if you’ll incur hidden charges for participating.

  1. Read the terms and conditions. In both of the cases Mayer mentions, the offer very clearly spelled out the fees in the lengthy but thorough fine print. Most people skip over this part since those pages of conditions can be long and boring. But a little reading now can save you from an unexpected charge later.
  2. Be wary of giving out credit cards or checking accounts. If an offer asks you for your account numbers, it’s a clear warning sign that there may be a conditional charge tucked away somewhere. Read the full terms of the offer and only give out your billing information once you’re certain you understand what you’re getting into.
  3. Search the internet for clues. Pick a few choice words from the offer and send them through any search engine to see if others have been burned by similar offers in the past. Oftentimes you’ll find that someone has already been pinged with hidden charges and that they took to the internet to lament their monetary mishap.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Breaking Financial Gender Inequality: Helping Women to Become Financially Independent

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

a piggy bank is running a great feature on financial tips for women, but one tip in particular caught my attention:

Train yourself to be financially independent.

Uh-oh. I think my wife and I need to have a talk. And it gets worse…

While women are the ones who handle most of the day-to-day finances, the majority of women leave long-term financial planning to their husbands. Mistake.

Right now, I’m handling the day-to-day and long-term financial planning. This isn’t looking good.

Get an idea of exactly how much is coming in, where it’s going and what the two of you are saving or investing for specific future goals.

Okay, okay! I get the idea! After this Blog Marathon is over, I’m going to spend some time with my wife and go over our present financial situation and where I expect we’ll be in the coming years. And I would advise any husbands reading this to do the same with their wives.