Too hot to handle? This summer’s A/C bills take a bite out of telecommuters’ budgets

Stacy Wescoe//August 29, 2019

Too hot to handle? This summer’s A/C bills take a bite out of telecommuters’ budgets

Stacy Wescoe//August 29, 2019

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A federal report from Energy Star, which was released recently, raised eyebrows when it suggested programing home thermostats to save money.

It wasn’t the idea of programming the thermostat that gained so much attention. The main source of contention was the suggested temperatures.

After a summer of record-breaking heat, Energy Star was suggesting home thermostats be set to 78 degrees as a base, and turned up another 7 degrees, to 85 degrees during the work day when nobody is at home to save money on escalating electric bills.

Energy Star, which has a mission to promote electricity efficiency said such changes could save an average household about $180 per year.

Most people balked at the notion that the 78- to 85-degree range was a comfortable one.

Of course, one doesn’t have to go to such extreme lengths. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that people could save about 1 percent on their electric bill for each degree of thermostat adjustment per 8 hour work day.

Still, even if a cooler option was chosen – say keeping it at 72 and turning it up to 80 during the day – the recommendation still leaves out a growing segment of the population, telecommuters who work from home.

According to the 2017 State of Telecommuting Report, 3.9 million people or 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce work out of their homes at least half of the time.

Unless they want to be significantly uncomfortable during the work day the thermostat likely stays put.

Normally, it wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, but this past summer had record-breaking temperatures taking electricity use even higher than the prior two summers, in which PPL Electric Utilities of Allentown also reported high usage.

On Aug. 20, for example, PPL customers had peak load electricity use of 6.43 million kilowatt hours.

Compare that to an average seasonable day in May where the peak load was 4.37 million kilowatt hours.

That’s a lot more electricity being used, most likely for air conditioning.

While the 90-plus degree days may be behind us, some forecasters are already calling for extremely cold weather this winter, putting electric and other heating sources on high use in the not too distant future.

In past years it may not have been such a big deal. Those working from home could simply take itemized deductions for the extra electricity they were using to cool or heat their home office space.

But last year the tax law changed, and those options aren’t available for most telecommuters, said Andy Kahn a CPA and partner with Concannon Miller & Co. in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

“Unless you own your own business those deductions no longer exist,” Kahn said. He said such itemized deductions have been eliminated in the same way as mileage reimbursement was for work-related mileage not compensated by the employer up to the standard federal mileage rate.

Ultimately, it does leave work-from-home corporate employees paying more out of their own pocket.

“The level of your expenses is now higher and you’re not getting the tax benefit for incurring that expense,” he said.

But has the extra expense sent workers streaming back into their corporate offices to save on their home electric bill?

It doesn’t look that way said Tina Hamilton, CEO of myHR Partner in Upper Macungie. Not only has she not heard any complaints from her own staff, many of whom work from home, she said none of her corporate clients have come to her asking for help with the issue.

“It’s a reasonable thought, but nobody has mentioned it yet,” Hamilton said. “But, if costs continue to rise it’s something people will need to weigh.”

Right now, though, she said most seem to agree that the extra expense for home air conditioning during the day is worth the perks of working from home.

She notes telecommuters save money in other areas such as the gas they would use to drive back and forth from work, which was never deductible. Other money savers include dry-cleaning bills, packing lunches and then there’s simply the joy of not having to dress up for work.