Interesting comparison of utility bills

| March 27, 2007

Today’s Washington Post has an article about the resignation of Lawrence Small from his post as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The following paragraph (on page 2 of the story) caught my eye:

Small has also received $1.15 million in housing allowances over a six-year period in return for agreeing to use his 6,500-square-foot home in Woodley Park for Smithsonian functions. To justify those expenses, Small submitted receipts for $152,000 in utility bills, $273,000 in housekeeping services and $203,000 in maintenance charges, including $2,535 to clean a chandelier. The home-repair invoices show $12,000 for upkeep and service on his backyard swimming pool, including $4,000 to replace the lap pool’s heater and water pump.

Now, $152,000 in utility bills over a six-year period works out to at least $2,100/month (that presumes the sum covers a full 72 months). Hey! That’s almost as much as Al Gore! And for a smaller house (6,500 sq ft vs. 10,000 sq ft), to boot!

For the record, we live in a 6,000-square-foot house here in Parker, Colorado. This house has a lot of windows and sits on a ridge, where we have frequent winds (the wind is howling outside even as I type this). It gets a lot colder here than it does in DC; I know because we lived in northwest DC (Friendship Heights and Cleveland Park, the latter just a few blocks north of Woodley Park, where Small lives) for six years before moving here to Colorado in 2005. And we’re about 6200 feet above sea level, roughly 20 miles southeast of downtown Denver. To wit:

This sums up December through Februrary

I work primarily out of our home, and between myself, my wife Sandra, and our daughter Salem, we own and use nine (9) computers, at least a few of which are on at any given time, along with a router, several wireless access points, a few gigabit network switches, at least three printers, and a couple of network/external hard drives. (Total hard disk storage when everything is powered up is something over two [2] terabytes.) We have three TVs, each with its own satellite box and separate Panasonic DVR. With the exception of our water heater/house heating system (integrated, runs off propane), all of our appliances are electric: fridge, small chest freezer, dishwasher, oven, stove, microwave, washer and dryer. Heck, even our water is electric — we run off of a well.

And yet our electric bill runs between $200 – $270/month.

Propane costs have run from a peak of around $500/month during the Great Denver Blizzard to about a fourth of that during the summer months. And I spend about $500/year on firewood (we have a wood-burning stove in our living room). So that means our utilities vary through the year from $350 to $800 a month. I may go back and analyze the actual bills, but my guess is that the average works out to roughly $500/month, or about 25% of Small’s monthly utility bill for a house of roughly the same size.

Now I will say this in Small’s defense (for the utility bills, not for his expensing them to the Smithsonian): he lives in Washington DC. This means that his air conditioning is likely running 24/7 for at least two months (July and August) and is on a good deal of the time in May, June, and September. But that’s only a couple of months each year — I’m still trying to figure out how he averages $2,100/month in total utilities. ..bruce..

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Category: Blizzard, Climate Change, Environment, Main, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (3)

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  1. BWJones says:

    The utility bills are only part of the problem. His principal compensation package has also ballooned during his tenure from over $400k to close to a million dollars. This is for a tenure that has rubbed the core fundamentals of the Smithsonian the wrong way and integrated shameless corporate promotion into the very core of our educational systems. Take for instance my last visit to the Air and Space Museum where I was horrified to find that the Flight Line Cafe had been turned into the biggest McDonalds I’ve ever seen with tasteless eight dollar hamburgers and four dollar milkshakes. Thank God the Smithsonian Natural History museum still had a decent cafe.

    No, the director of the Smithsonian institution should have been an academic. Someone with the cultural awareness of the scientific and historical process that underlies the foundations of the institution and the scientific method.

  2. bfwebster says:

    Bryan:

    I know that the utility bills have little to do with Small’s resignation — again, the WaPo article lays out the problems on Small’s tenure at the Smithsonian in detail. What I remain curious about is how someone living in Woodley Park in a 6,500 sq ft home runs up over $2100/month in utility bills. Does he have a year-round ice skating rink installed somewhere? I just found this to be an interesting follow-up to the whole Al Gore flap. ..bruce..

  3. BWJones says:

    Sorry about the little rant there Bruce. I understood your point, but got a little sidetracked in the heat of the moment. It is a valid point and entirely within questioning given the apparent disparity in energy costs.