Kitchen Appliance Face-Off

by Gary Foreman

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Dear Dollar Stretcher,
How can I figure how much I am saving using small appliances vs. the oven? I am trying to use the Crockpot and the convection oven more. For example, this morning I baked biscuits in the convection oven rather than mess with (and wait for) the stove.
Paula in Austin, TX

Dear Gary,
My friend says her husband will not let her use the dishwasher (even on a full load) because it is too expensive. So she said if you want to do it by hand then HE has to do it. And he does. He also uses paper plates so there is less to wash. But you have to buy the plates and styro cups. Doesn't make "cents" to me. Is he right?

Many of us "frugal-types" wonder about these kinds of questions. What does it cost to run some of our appliances? Would we really save money is we used them less frequently? After all, our goal is to save enough money to make any change in lifestyle worthwhile.

Let's start with Paula's question. Most of us have a number of choices available for cooking. It's not uncommon to find a kitchen with a convection oven, microwave and a regular oven. Which should we be using if we want to save energy and money?

To find our answer we went to some information provided by Lincoln Energy System in Nebraska. They've provided the cost of operation for a number of kitchen appliances.

Before considering individual appliances, we'll want to discuss some basics of electric consumption in the kitchen. Our appliances consume energy in two basic ways: producing heat and running motors.

The most common use of electricity in the kitchen is to produce heat. And fortunately, it's fairly easy to compare cooking devices. Each appliance has a wattage rating. In layman's terms, wattage is the amount of electricity that an appliance uses. Your slow cooker will be rated at 200 watts. Most microwave ovens are between 500 and 1,000 watts. Toaster ovens are in the 1,500 range. And, as you might expect, the biggest user is your range oven at about 2,900 watts. You'll find the wattage on the appliance label where it tells you the model number. If you can't find the label, look at your owner's manual or just estimate based on a similar appliance.

At first glance, you'd say that your big oven consumed three to six times as much as the microwave. And you'd be right, at least partially right. There's a second factor to consider. That's how long the oven is operating. Depending on what you're cooking, the microwave may only take one quarter of the time of the conventional oven. So if your microwave was rated at 1,000 watts (1/3 of your big oven), you'd actually only use 1/12 of the energy (1/3 wattage x 1/4 time).

That wasn't so hard. Now let's see if we can convert that into dollars and cents. Naturally the cost of electricity varies from region to region. We'll use the rates supplied by Lincoln Electric. Their calculations were based on 5.2 cents per kWh. You can get the exact cost from your electric bill or use these estimates. In either case you'll be pretty close.

Rather than quote the cost to run each appliance, let's learn how to do it. Then we can calculate our own answers. If electricity costs 5.2 cents per kWh (which means a 1000-watt appliance would use 5.2 cents of energy in one hour), then a 100-watt appliance will cost 0.5 cents each hour it's running. A 500-watt appliance will cost 2.5 cents per hour (0.5 cents x 5). Our stove will be about 14.5 cents per hour (0.5 x 29).

Take our microwave vs. conventional oven example. We'll assume food that's cooked in one hour in the oven compared with 15 minutes in the microwave. The microwave would consume about 1.3 cents in electricity (5.2 x 1/4 hour). The conventional oven would use about 15 cents.

Interesting, but let's put it in perspective. Most of us use our ovens three or four times a week for about two hours at a time. We probably total 30 hours a month. That's about $4.50 a month in electricity. We probably should decide which oven to use based on how well it can meet our time and cooking needs, not how much money we can save.

The other big user of electricity in the kitchen is motors. Some are fairly small, like in your garbage disposal or dishwasher. Others, like the compressor in your refrigerator, are bigger consumers. We won't get into how to calculate usage. Let's just take Lincoln Electric's word that the dishwasher consumes about 6.9 cents for every hour of use.

So what should BC tell her friend? Depending on the cost of water where they live, each load in the dishwasher probably costs less than 10 cents. If you figure one load per day, that's about $3.00 each month. So unless those paper plates and Styrofoam cups are really cheap, they're not saving much money. Washing dishes the old-fashioned way might be a great time for the family to gather together and share the day's events, but it's not a big money saver.

Thanks to Paula and BC for helping us to explore the costs of operating our kitchen appliances.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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