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Monday, April 2, 2012

Energy-Saving and Safety Tips for Electricity in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Electricity Safety Tips

(posted by James Marshall Black - March 24, 2012 - 

As everyone knows, the cost of living definitely is not going down and we are entering times in which money saved can be put to better uses. The costs of electricity are certainly no exception at a time when our energy requirements are also on the rise.

The nice thing about all this is that it is possible to whittle those monthly electric bills down and make your house or business a safer place; according to the fire department, the majority of residential fires are caused by electrical problems.

This article, written by a States-licensed electrician and former instructor of power mechanics, is meant to give you a better understanding of some of the basic facts about the electricity you use, and how to use it more safely and efficiently.

The electrical grid here is designed for Ticos, who generally use comparatively less energy than is consumed in other countries. Here, a very minimal amount is a bargain but the higher the consumption, the more it costs per kilowatt hour (kW h).

Energy Audit and Safety Inspection
The first step is to locate the nearest power transformer; if it is more than 200 meters away and you are in a fairly densely populated area, you may not be receiving full voltage especially during peak hours of electrical consumption. Also, it is very common that through coincidence, a majority of houses and businesses end up putting heavier loads on one “leg” or phase. Normally ICE installs a nominal 240-volt service, with two 120 volt phases. Because of the way your house and your neighbor’s houses are wired, the voltage on one phase might be 122 volts and on the other one, only 114. This is a fairly frequent occurrence.

Next, go to your meter. Very near your meter will be either a knife switch or a circuit breaker. Take the covers off these and give the wires and connector screws a very close inspection, looking for any kind of evidence that the wires or connections have been heating up. Look for molten insulation, black or charred screws, and discolored wire when it meets the screw. Take a close whiff as well, to see if you detect any charred odor.

If everything looks shiny and new, then you’re probably in good shape. If you are familiar with electricity, make sure the screws are tight. If not, don’t. If they are very loose, then you will see signs. But know that all these connections and indeed, all the ones in your house, should be periodically tightened, because with the cool nights and warm days here, the connections constantly expand and contract and eventually loosen themselves! You might want to turn the power off, and then inspect all the wires and tighten all the screws in your breaker box (if you are unsure, consult a professional).

If the connections at the knife switch of circuit box look tight, but there are burned or discolored wires, it might be that you are receiving low voltage on one phase. In that case, read your voltage on each phase during peak usage hours, around 7-8, 11-1, and 5-6. If this IS the case, ICE will come and put a monitor on your box to confirm; just be sure they install it to the weak phase and not the strong one. Here, 122 volts is normal and below 114 is a problem.

A note of explanation: think of a volt as a measure of pressure, and an amp as a measure of quantity. Using a water analogy, you could have a half inch diameter water line with a pressure of 10 pounds and that would deliver x number of gallons per minute. You could also have a 2 inch diameter pipe with 10 pounds of pressure, and that would obviously deliver considerably more.

When anything electric does not receive sufficient volts, it tries to compensate by sucking more amps and everything in the circuit overheats. Insufficient voltage is caused by voltage drop over distance, bad electrical connections, and improperly sized wiring.

Costa Rica had no electric code until just recently, and there were no licensed or certified electricians. I believe I may safely state that at the very least, half the homes and businesses here have wiring violations. ICE is now trying to remedy this by requiring an inspection before reconnecting service if it has been cut because of non-payment.

Next, inspect every plug for every appliance looking for black or charred areas. Typically, outlets are never changed until something happens. But screws loosen, as we have seen. Any plug that appears burned probably is because the outlet is either very loose from decades of use, because the wire connections have become loose, or because the circuit is overloaded: too many amps connected to too small a wire. Many house outlets are wired with only lamp cord.

By international law, every electrical appliance has a tag indicating the required voltage and its power consumption, expressed either in amps or watts. Watts are volts multiplied by amps. So you throw the clothes into the electric dryer (40 amps) and you are using 9,900 watts or about 13 horsepower.

A regular outlet is safe for 15 amps and maybe up to 20, but depending on how many outlets are on that same circuit and which breaker controls which circuits. A circuit breaker that is constantly popping is a sure sign of overload, and too large a breaker (i.e., a 40-amp breaker on a 20 amp circuit) affords no safety. Here, you run into all these conditions, plus the problem of wire size or gauge. Most wires (cables) are marked with their AWG rating. A number 14 cable will carry a maximum of 20 amps, a number 12, up to 25, and a number 10 up to 35 here, but only 30 in the States. Many, many electric showers here, for example are connected with 10 gauge cable, but can draw 37 or so amps on “high”, which is running it too close for me. It would be better to run 9 gauge wires, which will safely carry 40 amps.

But because in Costa Rica there was no code that says, for example, on each wall you should be no more than 12 feet from an outlet, there are lots of houses with rooms containing only one or two outlets. Consequently, people devise ways of getting more access to electricity by adding extension cords and plug extensions. These practices should be carefully avoided, and you should know how many outlets are on a given circuit, which breaker controls the circuit, and how many amps the breaker is. If you do as I recommend and inspect and tighten all outlets, also note the wire gauge and note its maximum amp value, which was mentioned earlier.

Any time you feel a wire while it is under a load and it feels warm or hot to the touch, something is trying to draw more amps than the wire can safely carry.

Notice if any of your lights dim at night when your electric hot water heater turns on, or when you fire up the clothes dryer or electric range. Having to frequently replace light bulbs is another sign of trouble.
Your major energy centers are anything with resistance heat, such as a toaster, electric skillet, electric range, electric water heater, coffee pot, and rice cooker, and anything with a large motor, like an air conditioner, swimming pool pump, and water pump. Incandescent light bulbs contribute generously to your electric bill and also throw off heat. Change to the new compact florescent bulbs or install florescent tubes.

The location of the water heater is frequently not ideal, and the hot water lines are not insulated, resulting in much heat loss. Make sure the heater’s thermostat is set at the minimum for your uses, and wrap it with insulation to avoid further heat loss.

If you can’t take a halfway decent shower with your electric shower on “low” (only 20 amps) it probably means someone didn’t install the special water restriction inside the inlet of the shower. This happens many times because of no installation instruction and it is thrown away, unrecognized for what it is. It’s basically a plug with an eighth inch orifice that compensates for high water pressure.

Check your air conditioner’s charge by feeling the amount of heat the condensing unit is throwing off; the air temp should be about 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the ambient temp. Turn it on in the morning, before the floors, ceiling, walls and furniture get warm, and put the comfort control at the minimum you are comfortable with. Clean the filters on the evaporator frequently. An air conditioner is called that because half of its job is to cool the air and the other half is to dehumidify it. You might be better off with room dehumidifiers that use far less energy.

If you are cooking on an electric range, be aware that once water begins to boil, you should reduce the heat to a slow boil. More heat only makes water boil faster. You cannot make it hotter by adding more heat, just like you cannot heat ice. Put a flamethrower on a chunk of ice, and you will not heat it; you will only make it melt faster. Always use lids on your pots when you can.

If you have a gas stove, use it to re-heat foods instead of the microwave (15-20 amps). Leave the microwave unplugged when not in use; the heat generated by the circuit board that stays on to power the clock attracts cockroaches.

Read one of your electric bills to see the day of the month your meter is read. Especially in bad weather, the meter reader may not actually read your meter but instead, only estimate your usage from past bills (your account is then brought up to date in December). You should become intimate with your meter, and make changes in your consumption habits and then check out the results by reading your meter once a week or so. Keep a record to monitor the changes you have made.

Your month starts from the minute your meter is read. From there, the first 200 kW h’s cost you ¢13,600 (¢68 each), then from 201 to 300, you pay ¢125 for kW h, and above that, ¢133. So if you are now consuming more than 300 kW h’s per month, your work is cut out for you.


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