Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Should you Unplug from the Grid?

Paying for services when you are not using them is a waste of money.

No, I am not talking about going back to nature and using a "hippie shitter" to recycle your own human waste. Nor am I talking about the crackpots who spend thousands of dollars on solar panels, wind generators, and car batteries, so that can save a few hundred bucks on utility bills. What I mean is that you can save hundreds of dollars a year disconnecting utility services when they are not in use.

Again, this blog is about how to live better on less money, not how to live like a pauper.   We have a vacation home on a lake in New York, and we do this on a budget. It does not take a lot of money to live large, if you are careful with your spending. Most people spend recklessly and end up living impoverished lives. Which is better, having a vacation home or leasing a new Lexus every 3 years? It is a lifestyle choice. I'll take the former. One way to do this economically is to pull the plug on utilities when you are not around. Sad to say, I was slow to pick up on this.

Here are some tips:
1. Seasonal Disconnects: In Florida, the cable companies offer a "seasonal disconnect" to snowbirds. Instead of disconnecting the cable every time you move North for the summer, they offer you a seasonal disconnect for a nominal fee per month. When you move back, you call them (or the service is automatically reconnected at a certain date). In most cases, they do not actually disconnect service, but rather just charge you less. They offer this, as having 100,000 people connect and disconnect service twice a year is just staggeringly expensive for them.

2. Power Disconnect: We have a camp at the lake which has power. Even if the circuit breakers are turned off for the winter, the power company (NYSEG) charges us $15 a month for service. I found out recently that we can disconnect service in the Fall and reconnect in the Spring, with no service charges. This saves $90 a year or more. If we did the same thing for our barn (which has separate service) we'd save another $90 a year, for a total of $180 a year. In the five years we've been there, this comes to nearly $1000 in savings we've missed out on. Bummer.

3. Winterize: Many people do not winterize their homes and instead rely on keeping the heat on over the winter (set at 50 degrees) to keep the pipes from freezing. The problem with this approach is that if the heat goes off (power failure, mechanical failure) the pipes will freeze, with catastrophic results. In addition, you will end up spending hundreds of dollars a month to heat an unoccupied house. So the savings in winterizing and "going cold" can be over $1000 a year, or a big dent toward your property tax bill.

4. Internet Service: This varies by provider. Some, such as telco DSL services, require you to disconnect service and then pay a reconnect fee, at whatever prevailing rates are offered when you reconnect. This can be a big hassle, as it requires you to reconfigure your modem and start over (which usually requires a call to India and an hour on hold). But others, such as Hughsnet satellite, will disconnect for six months and then automatically reconnect at a certain date, with no fee or charges. It is worth exploring either way.

5. Telephone Service: Our local telco offers to put telephone service on a vacation mode, for a nominal fee every month ($5). This way, you keep the same phone number, and don't have to hassle with a complete disconnect, reconnect and new phone number every time. But often such vacation disconnect will trigger a disconnect on your DSL service as well. So you have to be careful. I did this vacation mode one year and they never started billing me for the full rate for nearly two years. Under the law, they could only recapture three months back billing, which of course, was too bad for them.

6. Going All Cellular: Of course, cell service is one alternative to having a land line at all. For the cost of two land lines at each home, you can pay for your cell phone, which, chances are, you have anyway. I use a cell phone amplifier and a docking station to connect my cell phone to my house phones and have disconnected from the local telco. This allows me to have one phone number for both houses (and while traveling) and also use my house phones like a land-line, but in fact be making a cell call (and no more running around to find the cell phone when it rings, or having bad service). These are just a few ideas on how to handle owning a vacation home in an economical manner. You can save a lot of money on utilities (nearly half) by unplugging or putting on vacation mode while away. Live better by spending more wisely.

UPDATE 2021:  The greatest cost-savings was ditching the vacation home and spending our summers traveling by RV.   You can vacation, even on a cruise ship or at a resort, for less money than "owning" a vacation home.  It makes no sense to "own your vacation" and this is especially true for timeshares.

However, I did learn a lot from this experience.  Today we have only cell phones - no cable TV, no landline, no Internet connection.   This cut our communications expenses to less than one-quarter of what they were.  Not only that, it means we have robust Internet service (via cell phone hot spot) when traveling.