I’ve seen websites list cost for electricity, gas, and water in Milwaukee, WI, but these are generally robo websites without any real-world experience. Having been a (nearly) life-long resident, homeowner, and landlord, I have a decent idea of what it costs to purchase utilities in the city. However, since there are some tricks and odd variables, even someone like me can only offer a guesstimate for those of you looking to rent or buy in the Milwaukee area.
Like most cities, you actually have no choice. It’s WE Energies for gas and electricity. Milwaukee Water Works for water. Or you can go off the grid. Probably not a good idea when the temperature drops below zero and you only have nine hours of daylight. In fact, because of the danger, you can’t lose your heat during some months, even if you don’t pay your bill. I’m not suggesting this method, and I’m sure you can still ruin your credit, but at least someone out there has a heart. In fact, I guess it’s me, since my last We Energies bill included a charge of $3.15 for low income assistance. I’m not sure if water can be turned off, but if it is, you can always walk outside and grab some snow.
I own a 1500 square foot home. Ranch style, built in the 1950s. It has a full, mostly finished basement. Basements, especially if used, can add to the summer electricity bill (dehumidifier) and the winter gas or electric bill (heater). You will run the air conditioner in the summer months, and you’ll run the heater starting in October and ending in April, generally. Some people pride themselves in not starting the heat until November, but those people sit around in a cold house to save a few bucks. Older homes in Milwaukee tend to be two-story bungalows or Cape Cods, and those will often have similar square footage as my ranch but be less efficient, unless someone super-insulated them. If you happen to rent an apartment on a second or third floor, you might get lucky when the first-floor tenant cranks up the heat, so keep that in mind when looking for a rental--I’ve known some people who never had to run their own heaters because of the laws of thermodynamics. You can also get creative in the summer by opening basement windows on one side of the house and main floor windows on another, but I never really got that scenario working properly. Let’s just assume you’re in a single family house and want to be comfortable most of the time.
For me, the gas and electric was usually between $160 and $320 each month. Let’s say $160-$175 per month in spring and fall, often leaving windows open. The hottest summer months were usually around $300 because of air conditioning, while the coldest winter months could go as high as $320, mostly spent on heat. We usually set our heater to 68 degrees and our air to 72 during the day. We’d let the heat go down to 62 at night but run the A/C down to 68...my wife likes it cool when she sleeps.
Of course, it’s kind of silly to even give out averages, since each house is so different. Our old 1920s bungalow with no wall insulation whatsoever cost us as much to heat as our much larger ranch. Conversely, you might be able to get a newer construction two-story house with more modern insulation that would cost less to heat and cool than my ranch. And it’s also about the individual: I was able to sleep in the sub-60s basement of my house through the winters without heat, all covered up, and I can now sleep in a 74-degree main level while my wife runs the upstairs A/C down to the high 60s. Basically, if you have a family to consider, you’ll probably have to pay more for utilities.
Our water averaged nearly $70 a month over the course of the year. You’ll pay a snow plow fee in the fall sometime. I’d say our family was fairly average: a family of four taking showers each day, along with a bit of watering when it gets dry outside. Wisconsin doesn’t get the drought of other states, but you’ll want to have a hose handy for some weeks of the year. Laundry once a week. Dishwasher.
Taking all the averages in order to plan for one entire year, I’d say our 1500 square foot house with a family of four cost us about $300 a month for utilities. If you budget $3600 a year for utilities for your family, you’ll at least be in the ballpark. I took a look at a Reddit addressing We Energies bills, and it’s all over the map, so it’s going to depend so much on windows and insulation that any article you read about this will likely not apply to your experiences completely.
Back when I was really interested in doing the solar thing in Milwaukee, maybe in 2012 or so, it would have taken 15+ years to pay for the cost of putting a system in, based on my rough estimates. With advancements in the technology, it might be under a decade today. Compare that to my 3-5 year estimate for my home in Florida, and you’ll see why it’s a harder sell in WI. I have a relative who works with solar hot water heaters, and that might be a legitimate compromise, especially if you can’t get a natural gas unit.
I’ve used the We Energies off-peak rates once in the past. Basically, rates are dirt cheap when no one is awake and then super-expensive when demand is the highest. We kind of tortured ourselves to try to make it work, but it might be a good option for people who like to do laundry at night or have an electric hot water heater that can be set to kick in at odd hours. I can remember running the A/C all night long in order to get the house cool for a hot day (which is probably when my wife started liking Arctic summer sleeping). If you’re very disciplined, this can work, but it was too much for my family, resulting in basically zero savings.
Milwaukee is not like where I live now (Jacksonville, FL), where you can be in the city and hooked up to a well. Oddly-shaped portions of Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, or West Allis are based on when the houses joined the water system, but I don’t think there are many options in Milwaukee County to avoid city water. You can move into the western suburbs if you want your own water with arsenic, radium, and other chemicals from farm runoff.
Most of the problems you’ll have with outages will have to do with electricity. In fact, I don’t think I ever had the gas or water go out in 40 years of living in Milwaukee. Thunderstorms will knock out the power lines, which are primarily above-ground in the city. In four decades, we had three electric outages that lasted more than one day. I bought a generator because two of those outages happened in successive years, but then I never really needed the noisy machine. Power surges and short outages occur each year, and it’s wise to have a battery backup power outlet for your computer or other favorite devices that might be messed up by a sudden loss of power.
Unlike other places I’ve lived, people in Wisconsin tend to use garages for storing cars rather than for an added living space or storage room. While you won’t heat this room, not using your garage for cars will result in more complicated snow removal, the potential for cars not starting in the morning, and an increase in fuel costs for you car because you’ll be warming it up in your driveway. Attached garages also provide many opportunities for house heat loss. Some people will heat their garages. If you want to work a side job as a mechanic, you’ll find out (like I did) that working on a car in an unheated garage in January will be painful, and those little ceramic heaters won’t do much to help. I only mention this because of how many more people I see working on their cars outside in the South.
Alternative Heat Sources
My aunt married a guy who used a pellet heater. I’ve seen people use outdoor wood furnaces with tunnels to their homes. Older homes will have fuel oil (Diesel). People will seal windows with plastic in the winter months. I even tried a black reflective material meant to capture heat from the sun. Electric space heaters can be used, too. However, the most efficient heat you will find will generally be a natural gas furnace. When the cold gets painful (and it will), you’ll look into other options. We all do. But a wood burning stove in your living room is a real smokey hassle. Fans set to winter mode seem like a good idea to help, but I never found them as effective as I’d hoped, and the air movement is kind of annoying. Some people will load their attics with insulation to keep the heat in, too. I always took the screens off all windows and opened the shades on the south side of the house to get an extra bit of solar heat, but some people will even use the sun to heat large, black barrels full of water. It’s like some sad experiment with us as the guinea pigs. Mostly, you’ll probably work very hard and be disappointed with anything but natural gas.
Utilities in Milwaukee fluctuate with the seasons, probably like in most cities. The cold will be a problem if you try to use electric heat or have substandard insulation and windows. The heat gets annoying, but it’s not as oppressive as in other parts of the country. You will save a lot of money by opening windows in the spring and fall, as long as you live in a safe and pollution-free neighborhood. Like death and taxes, you’re going to have to pay for home utilities.