I had the opportunity recently to speak with WhiteFence.com's CEO Franc Arbride about home utilities and how we might trim these expenses. He describes his site as "a comparison shopping engine for utilities and other home services," which allows the user to input his address and receive detailed comparisons of terms offered by competing utilities.

I called Arbride after reading a WhiteFence report that showed the huge difference in utility bills from city to city.

Who pays the most? This is one crown that I doubt that those of you in Baltimore, Maryland will enjoy wearing, but the average bill, according to WhiteFence.com, in the summer quarter of 2009 was $390.44.

The same report should put a smile on the faces of those of you in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Denver and San Francisco. L.A. was the least expensive at $192.97, less than half of those in Baltimore. Fortunately for the East Coaster, the cost of housing is skewed in the opposite direction.

The cost of electricity is the villain in Baltimore's case, running a whopping $220.58, compared with only $57.42 in L.A. Other cities paying high prices for electrons include Houston ($203.65), Dallas ($191.18) and San Diego ($156.20). Others getting bargain juice include Denver ($71.48) and Minneapolis ($70.88).

I asked Arbride about this disparity, and he told me that the difference in the cost of electricity comes from a number of factors:
  • Weather: Temperature swings in Baltimore are much broader than L.A., requiring more electricity for AC in the summer and natural gas for heat in the winter.
  • Building quality: Older cities naturally have more older homes built before modern energy-saving materials were available.
  • Building size: New McMansions and old brick homes large enough for several generations of a family are more difficult to heat than modest-sized ones.
  • Cost per kilowatt-hour: This varies from state to state by as much as 400% (in 2007, Idaho electricity cost $0.057 per kWh, Hawaii $.2129). Two-thirds of the kWh price comes from the cost to produce the juice. Hawaii generates most of its electricity from oil ($$$), while Idaho uses hydroelectric dams.
  • Some states are deregulated, which can drop the price by as much as 20-25%.
Natural gas prices also vary for many of the same reasons. Bostonians get a great deal on natural gas ($5.74) when compared to those living in the Big Apple ($36.75). Telephone prices are much less volatile, ranging from $26.71 in Phoenix to $43.66 in Boston. Television also had a tight spread, $45.09 in Minneapolis to $65.46 in Las Vegas. High-speed Internet access could be had as cheaply as $26.48 in Boston, as dear as $57.42 in L.A.

I asked Arbride about trends he had spotted in the utility market. He said there was a steady increase in the number of people abandoning land lines altogether in favor of their cell phones. Where telephone services was the top seller for WhiteFence when it began in 2001, it is now number three and he expects it to drop to number four this year.

Cable television, by contrast, has has been on the rise. Arbride explained that during a recession people find it cheaper to stay home and watch HBO than go out for entertainment. His company has also seen a boom in high-speed Internet access purchases.

I asked Arbride how WalletPop readers could cut their utility bills. He suggests shopping for bundled telephone, Internet and cable services. Many vendors offer discounts for bundles. Arbride said he did this himself earlier this year and cut about $55 a month from his bill.

I tried out WhiteFence, which Arbide said differentiates itself by working with all willing vendors and drilling down to street address location to present a wide range of services available. I was pleased to discover a new Internet service provider and a couple of natural gas companies that beat the rate I'm getting currently.

The most important info I came away with from talking to Arbride? Don't leave money on the table by turning a deaf ear to competition. You've put up with the grief of deregulation, so why not take the cash that it has made available?

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