MARQUETTE - What do your utility bills come to every month? Imagine cutting that amount nearly in half.
That's what Joe and Tabitha Ostermann of Norway did this summer -with help from their children Bradley, 16, Debra, 13, Naomi, 10, Heidi, 9, and Joanna, 7. Their efforts won a national contest sponsored by the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners.
The "Anybody Can Serve, So Let's Conserve" contest asked families from around the country to lower their energy bills using common sense behavioral changes and a simple energy efficiency kit containing compact fluorescent light bulbs, a power strip, a water-conserving shower head and other items.
Throughout April, May and June, the Ostermanns were able to reduce their energy use by more than 42 percent. Although winning the contest means NARUC will pay their utility bills during those three months, their experience in the contest has given the Ostermanns the ability to continue to keep their bills low.
"Our city (utility) bills were always $300 or more. Now they're $250 or less and that's money in our pockets," Tabitha Ostermann said.
Working together to replace lightbulbs in every room of the house, take shorter showers, add an insulating blanket for the hot water heater, replace the shower head with an energy-efficient model, wash clothes in cold water, turn off unnecessary lights, and remove an old freezer, the family was able to drastically lower their energy use.
"It was easy; it was fun. The kids got into it with me," Joe Ostermann said. "We just paid attention to how we took our showers. Everyone kind of worked together."
For the kids, that meant remembering to turn off lights when they left a room.
"I started walking through the house and saw lights on and turned them off," Bradley Ostermann said. "You save a lot of energy that way."
Was it hard for the five youngest members of the family to remember to switch lights off? "It really wasn't," Bradley Ostermann said. "You just have it in the back of your mind."
Although the family said at first they were skeptical the contest would result in any real energy savings, after the three months, they said they saw a significant difference.
"We were thinking, 'this isn't going to matter that much,'" Tabitha Ostermann said. "After we did it for a month, we were impressed."
The Ostermanns and the Michigan Public Service Commission are hoping that their efforts can prove to other families that small energy efficiency steps can make a big difference, both for individual families, utility providers and the environment.
"Energy efficiency helps customers reduce their bills," said Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman Orjiakor Isiogu.
Especially for low income families, taking steps to reduce energy use - and bills - can make a big difference.
"If a family can save 40 percent on their energy bill, that's a big deal," said Linda Bigelow, director of programming in Dickinson and Iron counties for the Salvation Army. "Right now we have so many families who are coming in whose utilities have been shut off. That's a real concern."
Bigelow recommended the Ostermann family for the efficiency contest. "For us to pay their bill is essentially a bandaid. We have to make it a manageable part of their life," Bigelow said.
Making energy bills and efficiency manageable is one of the goals of Efficiency United, a state program designed to help customers and utility providers reduce their energy use. The program can provide energy profiles, appliance recycling, incentives for purchasing more energy efficient appliances and energy kits.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.