Save with Smart Meters and Appliance Timers

The following post is from contributing author Laurel Gray.

Variable electricity rates may be coming to your neighborhood in the near future. Nationwide, many utility companies are rolling out “smart meter” programs that are designed to measure and report their customers’ usage throughout the day. The goals of such smart grid systems are to better track demand and usage and also enlist consumers’ help in reducing demand on the system during peak hours.

In some places, smart meter programs are voluntary and in others participation is mandatory. Even if your state or area is not talking about smart meters yet, the writing is on the wall. According to the The Edison Foundation’s Institute for Electric Efficiency, by the end of the decade there could be as many as 65 million smart meters in use nationwide.

Even though smart grid programs may start out only tracking peak-hour usage, you can bet that eventually these programs will aim to reduce overall peak-hour usage by charging more for electricity during high-demand periods. According to a New York Times article:

“Using digital technology and computer networking, smart meters can transmit real-time data that is supposed to enable utilities to conserve electricity and better allocate power during parts of the day when overall demand is high. Utilities can also then vary the price for power, by time of day or time of year, based on when it is being used; some are already offering this option to customers.”

One way to charge more for power based on time of day is with a time-of-use (TOU) meter. A TOU meter charges customers a higher rate for designated peak hours and a reduced rate for off-peak hours. Conversion to a TOU meter can be a good idea for consumers who are aware of the rules and are able to alter their consumption patterns to maximize plan benefits.

Outside the U.S., it’s not uncommon for utility companies to charge more per kilowatt hour during high-demand periods. In Costa Rica where I live, customers have the option to install a smart meter that charges different rates for peak, valley, and nighttime usage.

While the peak rate is more than double the rate charged to customers with the old-fashioned meters, the valley rate is 9% cheaper than the standard rate and the nighttime rate is a whopping 63% cheaper.

We decided to switch to the new meter and to try to modify our consumption to align with off-peak hours. By running the dishwasher, washing machine and clothes dryer only after 8 p.m., we were able to lower our overall monthly bill while still consuming roughly the same number of kilowatt hours.

Appliance Timers vs. Energy Hogging Appliances

Even though we modified our behavior to lower our bill, we still had too many kilowatt hours during the peak period. So the next step was to modify the behavior of our appliances. Figuring that the refrigerator was probably the biggest peak-hour energy hog in the house, my frugal husband went online to research appliance timers.

Appliance timers are relatively inexpensive (models on Amazon range from $10-20) and range from simple mechanical units with a single stop-start function, to more sophisticated digital models with multiple on and off settings that can be programmed by the day or week.

The model we use was actually marketed as an aquarium timer. We set it to turn the refrigerator off during the costly peak hours between 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and between 5:30 – 8 p.m. During each power-off interval, we set the timer to turn the refrigerator back on for 15 minutes to ensure that the temperature inside stays low.

Keeping the fridge off during the spike period made a measurable drop in our peak kilowatt hour usage, and knocked our bill down another few dollars per month.

Think Outside the (Ice) Box

Even if your region is not transitioning to a smart meter system, appliance timers can quickly pay for themselves. While the refrigerator is the most obvious candidate for an appliance timer, consider using a timer on any electrical device that is running (or even just plugged in) when no one is home or when not in use.

Items such as printers and other office equipment, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling devices, hot water heaters, and aquariums can all be placed on timers to help save on electric bills.


  1. In Ontario Canada the Time of Use, ahem, “smart” meters are being viewed as yet another tax grab by a tax grabbing provincial government. First they force Harmonized Sales Tax (13% on goods/services) down our throats then try to silently add “environmental tax” to seemingly everything (w/o announcing this tax) and in addition not-so-smart meters (which don’t even seem to work properly – people pay premium prices even during off-peak!).
    Anyhow, I wrote about it here:

    I like the IDEA a bunch but the implementation has been a joke, a tax grab and just one more reason we’ll see a new government in Ontario in the fall.

    • Not all Ontarians are whiny topic derailers. I have no problem paying taxes for reliable public services.

      Thanks for the interesting post!

      • Uh huh. We are already taxed, by FAR, much more than our American friends on pretty much everything. McGuinty is adding tax after tax after tax w/o REAL justification.
        – his rates on TOU are out of wack
        – his TOU system bills people incorrectly
        – his microfit program pays people WAY more to feed the grid than he charges for power
        – he loaded the “enviro” tax on us w/o even telling us
        – the HST has been brutal on Ontarians (and has nothing to do w/ reliable public service)

        Please educate yourself prior to calling people names. I was not derailing the topic I was adding to it by showing the system has flaws. But if mindless Ontarians like yourself can’t be bothered to research things and enjoy cluelessly paying taxes on things they shouldn’t, no wonder our province is in debt and supporting a tax gouger “leader”.

  2. I had not really heard of this for homes although my husband said at the industrial facitily where he works, they get charged different rates at different times of the day.
    I can see how understanding this when it is implemented could make a big difference.
    Not the same thing, but we love having a programmable thermostat to help us with costs of heating and cooling when no one is home or we are sleeping.
    The Gifts of Imperfection- A Giveaway!

  3. We also use a programmable thermostat but the on-coming TOU as implemented scares me. The Ontario Energy board has seen an increase in the bills for Toronto residents. Yes, they need to adjust their usage behaviour but the utilities also MUST have trustworthy hardware before rolling out this kind of “tax”.
    If you tell me I can run my dryer or dishwasher @ 9:00:01 for 3.5 cents less per kw/h then you’d better bill me correctly! Also there has been little/no communication on how the rates were actually determined. From what i’ve read the rates do not reflect the costs incurred by the power companies during peak or off peak times! That’s why I call it a tax.

  4. Sustainable PF: Excellent point regarding the implementation problems and consumer education issues in your area. There have also been smart grid implementation problems in similar systems rolled out in Texas and California, resulting in class action lawsuits, and general heartburn.

  5. Interesting concept. I never considered putting my fridge on a timer…and I thought I was a frugalista…interesting. I do have all of my other items on power strips that are shut off when not in use…but I never ever considered a timer for the fridge. Can you please tell me, does food spoil more quickly when you do that? I’m in a pretty warm climate in LA…and we do get rolling blackouts here in the summer months. It would defeat the purpose for me if I lost all of my groceries and had to replace them…does anyone have an experience with this???

    • Socal, I live in Costa Rica, where the temp fluctuates between warm, hot, and pizza-oven-hot on any given day. I have had no problems with spoilage, and I think the key is the 15 minute ”on” phase during the power-off interval. If you are out of the house during the day and the fridge remains closed, you should have even less variation in temperature.

  6. I experienced the different pricing for peak energy hours when I lived in the south of France. We put a timer on the washing maching and dishwasher so they would run in the middle of the night at the cheapest rates. This has been in practice for over 20 years in France.

  7. I have used a programmable thermostat for years and it has definitely saved me some money. I highly recommend using one. Thanks for the great ideas!

  8. We just discovered, to our dismay, that our meter had been replaced by a “smart” meter. There have been alot of problems with the so called “smart” meters here. So far I have yet to know anyone that has gotten a SMALLER bill after the switch. Most peoples bills have been going up. There have even been cases in which owners of vacant apt homes were suddenly getting bills in excess of $200 after receiving the meter.
    We have been taking steps to reduce our usage in anticipation for the meter swap (fluorescent bulbs, power strips, timer for the water heater, etc), hopefully we will have outsmarted the smart meter. 😉

    I wish solar panels weren’t so expensive.

  9. looking at Costa Rica to live with less technology saturating microwaves. Is that possible there, to live out a ways from cell towers, and not have smart meters or wireless broadband, etc.????
    Please email me.

  10. Do you know of other “regions” not planning to transition to smart meters, even if they are more remote or poor? Please email me. Thanks, again.