©2000 Melissa Kaplan
It isn't only herp keepers who need extra electricity - and sometimes natural or propane gas - to keep their pets warm. Birds, while warm-blooded, are closer to herps in that they will get sick if their environments are not kept within the species optimum temperature range. Smaller animals lose heat faster than large animals, putting even small mammals such as hamsters at risk when their room air temperatures fall below their optimum range. People themselves often have special needs when it comes to their own health. They may require more electricity than an otherwise healthy, abled person due to equipment and other needs. Some may require more gas for their central heating, water heaters, and stoves due to special health and dietary needs. Thus it is that there are many people who may find the following information useful and helpful in identifying and managing their energy costs in this time of increasing demand and cost.
Since I myself am ill, and it is taking a lot of energy and other resources (no pun intended) to write this article and get it online, I am writing only one single article rather than one for my herp site and one for my Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases site.
Hidden Cost of Keeping Herps (and Birds and Plants)
It is easy enough to calculate the cost of getting a herp. to the price of the animal itself, you add in the price of the enclosure, lighting and heating equipment, substrate, furnishings, food, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, first aid supplies, initial veterinary visit, etc. The prices for these can all (except the vet) be found by visiting your local pet stores, hardware stores, drug stores, ranch and farm supply stores, or comparable online merchants.
The significant hidden cost, especially in these days of escalating electricity, natural gas and propane prices, is the cost of keeping your herps at their required temperatures.
A Refresher Of The Importance Of Temperature and Gradients
Reptiles and amphibians are not warm-blooded animals like our pet mammals and birds. Like fish, each species has a specific required thermal range that must be provided and maintained, regardless of the ambient room air temperature, day and day out, every day of the year. Each species has its own thermal requirements; read the care articles to find out what they are for the species you are interested in. If you already have a herp and you haven't read about required temperatures, you need to find out what they are.
Keeping a herp too warm is just as dangerous for its overall health and wellbeing as keeping it too cold. Keeping a herp at one single temperature across its entire accessible environment is also just as dangerous. Herps must be provided with their thermal gradient that they can move around in throughout the course of the day and night to be able to maintain their needed core body temperature. Only in this way can they digest their food properly and keep their systems functioning.
Herps have to be able to access the thermal gradient, too. For example, if your thermal gradient is vertical (warmer at the top, cooler on the bottom), it is useless if the herp cannot move up towards the top to get warmer. A gradient is a three-dimensional thing: vertical (top to bottom or bottom to top, including within the substrate layer for burrowing herps ); horizontal (side to side); and across (front to back). One of the reasons why most of the commercially sold enclosures are worthless for most reptiles is because they are too small to be able to provide the necessary horizontal gradients for most species, and the vertical gradients required by climbing and arboreal species.
Many popular herps are from the tropics, neotropics. or deserts: green iguanas, red-tail boas, ball pythons, bearded dragons, various skinks and swifts, Uromastyx. water dragons, etc. For these herps. you have to provide their tropical, neotropical. or desert temperature ranges all year round. Sometimes that means you have to actually cool their enclosure down when it gets too hot outside and inside your home. Most of the time, however, it means you have to keep a steady supply of heat to keep their enclosures at their required daytime thermal gradient, and at their night time thermal gradient.
This is not an option: you have to do it. You cannot expect a herp to adapt to your environment. A major part of the responsibility of keeping herps is maintaining the temperatures they require. If there is any reason why you cannot do that - whether due to the cost of the energy required to provide the needed heating, the cost of the properly-sized enclosure, or the inability to provide sufficient humidity (which goes along with temperature as a key environmental requirement), then you should not have that herp. Better to stick with an appropriately sized mammal as they do generate their own body heat and so are easier to keep warm during seasonally cold periods and to cool down during hot ones.
Temperatures Are Important For Native Species, Too
Caring for native species from your own area still requires more than just sticking them in a tank. In the wild, herp species deal with freezing or otherwise cold winter temperatures by burrowing down to depths where the temperature is cold enough for them to sustain the circulatory and respiratory function required to stay alive, but not cold enough to kill them.
By the same token, if the area they end up hibernating in ends up being even a little too warm than the species optimal hibernation temperatures, they end up staying in hibernation but the faster metabolic rate means that they exhaust their store of fat and fluids much faster. The end result of this is that they may die of starvation or dehydration before spring or shortly after emerging from hibernation. (Why would they choose a bad place to hibernate? Because their habitat was disturbed or destroyed by humans who gave no thought to the long term effects of their moving rocks, clearing the ground, or paving "unused" land for parking lots or roadways, etc.)
So, even if you collected a kingsnake or box turtle (legally, of course, according to the laws of your state) from your backyard, you will still have to provide heat and a controlled captive environment for them that mimics the thermal terrestrial and aquatic environment the species would have lived in the wild. The same, obviously, is true of any captive-bred native species you buy or are given.
Gathering The Information
Many power company websites have an online energy calculator where you can just fill in the blanks and find out how much your household appliances (water heaters, washers and dryers, dish washers, stoves, refrigerators, heating and air conditioning, etc.) costs to operate per month.
In California, I found two of the four power suppliers I checked had online electricity calculators:
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Rate Analysis Tools
Southern California Edison (SCE) SCE Energy Cost Comparison Guide
Check your bills for your power company's website address, and then search their site for similar calculators. If they do not have one, you can build your own calculator in a spread sheet program. Using the basic information from one of the above online calculators, plugging in the electricity KWH and gas therms cost from your own bill or that you obtain by telephoning or emailing your own gas and electric supplier.
The above calculators are great for figuring out how much the various things in your house cost to run. For some reason, however, the power companies failed to include things we know to be critical necessities: ceramic heating elements, people heating pads, nocturnal reptile lights, misting systems, timers, etc. For people who keep fish and other marine life, there is also the cost of pumps, filters, submersible heaters, and lights. For plant people and gardeners, there is the cost of plant lights and germination mats. While each piece of the heating and lighting equipment we have seems to be a small thing, once you add them all up across the population of herps you are currently keeping, the total may be staggering.
In the past decade, many states have deregulated power companies which has fostered competition from new power companies and alternative energy providers. That means consumers in the deregulated states, and in pockets of communities in other states, can now choose between two or more power providers. ElectricChoice.com provides a tool so you can search for power companies serving your area, and has some great information on how to read power contracts, the importance of contracts, and more.
So, What's The Big Deal*
(*a question asked only by those who aren't paying the monthly bills)
When I lived in Los Angeles ten years ago, with 18 herps and 3 birds, my monthly power cost was about $50-60 a month.
I now have no birds, and only nine reptiles (one each ball python, blue-tongue skink, G. spengleri. Cyclura. green iguana, and two each desert tortoises and chaco tortoises) who winter inside. Two hibernate, and two brumate. All but the python and spengleri are free roamers who spend most of their winter in the iguana room, the only room in the house kept warm throughout the year. My PG&E bill for gas and electricity during November 11 - December 10, 2000 was, thanks to the failure of deregulation and Enron's machinations, $164.71. When
I used PG&E's online calculator, I found out that the 1500 watt free-standing closed-system radiant oil heater I keep running in the iguana room (a.k.a. the breakfast room) is costing $118 a month. Even so, it is less expensive than using my central HVAC that uses natural gas.
Back in the days of $50 monthly energy bills at home, the landlord of the building in which I had a store decided I would be much easier to push around than my male partner who left the country for several months. The way he did so was to inform me that, in as much as his cost for electricity was increased by the power company and I paid a pro-rated share in my monthly rent payment, that he would have to increase my rent. Uh-huh. So I sat down and figured out how much energy each of my lights and other electrical equipment (some of which had to be left on 24/7/365) cost to run on a daily/monthly basis. I then presented him with a spreadsheet of the final figures that showed how he actually owed me a rent decrease based on our electrical usage. Needless to say, he didn't try to hit me or my partner up for another rent increase the rest of the time I was there.
Calculating Energy Costs
Calculating the energy cost of an item is easy once you know the following two bits of information:
- The total number of watts it takes to run the item The cost per kilowatt hour (Kwh) your power company charges you
Every electrical appliance or object that takes electricity to operate will be marked - on the item itself, on its packaging, or in its instruction booklet/information sheet - with either the watts it uses or with amps and volts.
To Find Watts:
· Look for the watts on the item, package, or information sheet/booklet that came with it.
· If there is no watts figure, but there is amps and volts (often appearing as VAC), simply multiply the amps by the volts to get the number of watts.
On large items, like transformers, power strips, timers, etc. you will find the information molded (embossed) on the object or appearing on a plate or sticker on the object. The power strip I just checked, for example, says
15 A 125 VAC 60 HZ
To find the watts in this type of situation, I simply multiply 15 (amps) x 125 (volts) to get 1875 watts. In the case of the strip, this is the total load it can carry. (As a couple of engineering folks pointed out to me, empty power strips consume a negligible amount.)
Sometimes the information is printed on the item in such a way that it wears off after the item has been used for a while. My older heating pads don't have any embossed information on the back of the switch, nor on the pad, and I've long ago thrown out the packaging and accompanying information. But the new pad I just bought has printed on it something that I can use in most of my "inexpensive human heating pad - regular size" calculations:
Light bulbs are similarly easy: the watts is printed right on them. So, your 100 watt light bulb uses 100 watts. Your 15 watt UVB-fluorescent uses 15 watts. If you are using "energy miser" types of incandescent bulbs, you may need the packaging to remind you what it is. (For example, the 60 watt incandescent bulbs I used to use in my "security lamp" in my living room used only 55 watts. I replaced it several months ago with a screw-in fluorescent that only uses 12 watts.) So, you may need a trip to the store to make some notes if you don't remember or no longer have the information you need at hand.
To Find Your Power Company's Cost Per Kilowatt Hour
There are a four ways you can find this information or figure it out.
1. Look on your bill. In the section where your electrical account detail is spelled out there should be a line that indicates the electric energy charge with figure that shows the amount charged for each kilowatt (Kwh) hour. Use that figure in the formula below.
2. If your bill doesn't have such a figure, or you have having trouble finding it, can look to see the total number of kilowatts (Kwh) read off your meter for the month. Divide that by the total charge for the electricity for the month, and you will get the per Kwh cost.
3. If that doesn't work, head to your power company's website (the link should be somewhere on your bill or may be given out as part of the recorded information you get when you call their customer service phone number), and look for information on how to read and understand your bill. (This isn't meant to be facetious - sometimes they can be very confusing to read and understand.)
4. If none of that works, or you don't want to take the time, or don't have a copy of your last bill and don't want to wait for the other one, or you are on a different rate schedule than most customers are on, call your power company's customer service number. It will be on your bill, on their website, or you can get it from the yellow pages or telephone Information.
Doing the Calculation
Once you have the watts for each and every item and your power company's charge per kilowatt hour (Kwh), just run the numbers:
To find the cost to run one item:
1. Total up the watts per day for the item to get total watts/day.
2. Divide total watts/day by 1000 to get the total kilowatt hours (Kwh) per day.
3. Multiply the Kwh/day times the cost per Kwh* to get cost/day.
4. To find out the average cost per month, multiply the cost/day by 30. (Power company monthly billing cycles vary from 28-33 days)
If you want to find the cost of all items:
1. Total up all the watts per day for each item to get total watts/day.
2. Divide total watts/day by 1000 to get the total kilowatt hours (Kwh) per day.
3. Multiply the Kwh/day times the cost per Kwh to get your total cost/day.
4. To find out the average total cost per month, multiply the total cost/day by 30. (Power company monthly billing cycles vary from 28-33 days)
Example: 1 inexpensive regular-sized human heating pad = 50 watts, calculated at PG&Es standard rate, averaged:
50 x 24 hours/day = 1200 watts
1200 divided by 1000 = 1.2 Kwh
1.2 x 0.12 = $0.144/day
$0.144/day x 30 = $4.32/month
Pretty cool. and maybe pretty scary. In the PG&E region of California, the average cost per Kwh is $0.12. In actuality, if you are on the regular rate schedule, you are paying $0.115 for your Basic Kwh allowance and $0.133 for every Kwh in excess of your Basic allowance.
Power companies generally offer consumers a (free) rate analysis to see if there is any other rate schedule that, based on the consumers past pattern of usage, would save the consumer money over the long run. Power companies regularly include inserts in with their monthly bills advising customers of this service. For some reason, according to the PG&E customer service reps I've talked to through the years, relatively few customers take them up on this service.
I did about six years ago and changed to what PG&E calls the E8 Rate Schedule. Instead of paying 11.5 cents per basic Kwh and 13.3 cents for every Kwh over that, I pay 7.308 cents for Kwh during the winter, and 12.017 during the summer. This works for me since I use more electricity during the winter than I do during the summer. There is also something called by various names, but amounting to a time-of-use rate, wherein you pay more for energy resources used during peak hours, less during off hours. This is an unlikely one for pet keepers who have to keep their pets warm or during the peak hours, and for people whose illness or disability forces them to be home all day and whose energy demands for special equipment cannot be altered, but it something to look into alone with other possible rate schedule options.
In addition to perhaps finding a better rate schedule to fit your power utilization, you may want to ask your power company if they have a balanced payment program. What this program does is, instead of billing you your actual gas and electricity charges for the prior month, averages it out over the course of time (once a year, twice a year, or quarterly, depending on how the program is set up). The benefit of this is that your monthly payment tends to be lower and you can budget for it a little better.
The Federally Established Poverty Guideline (FEPG) for 2000 follows. The amount is increased every February; thus far, I have not been able to find out what the 2001 rate will be. Whatever it is, it won't be significantly higher than the 2000 guideline. For more information on the FEPG, see the DHHS Poverty Guidelines, Research & Measurement site.