2009/02/02–Energy and Economics

Everyone reading this has been affected by the economic meltdown. I’m no different. My employer—who also provides my housing—has mandated a 15% reduction in energy consumption, along with other cuts. This is divided between fuel (fuel oil for some of the housing and buildings, fuel for vehicles and equipment), and electricity (offices, residences, and all other buildings).

In July 2008 I posted about some ways to save resources because they’re good for the environment. At this point I feel it’s a good time to give some tips that make not only sound ecologic sense, but sound economic sense as well. These are all things I am currently doing at work and at home to help with the budget crunch.

Keep in mind I still have my copy of 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth (Earth Works Group, 1990) that my brother got me for my birthday in ’91. I looked through it for tips—some things are always good information—and felt a little vindicated for my years being an ecologic nut-job. Finally this info has come in handy.

It’s nice when the ecological and economical work together.

In any case, here is what I did in no particular order. I:

  • Turned down the thermostat. When I’m not here it’s at or below 60 F (15.5 C) and while I’m at home it’s around 65 F (18.3 C). As I get used to it, I will turn down the temp more. Also, in the summer I won’t be cooling the house as much, no less than 72 F (22 C). In the winter this DOES mean that I wear a sweatshirt and socks in the house. I grew up in a drafty old farm house on the IN/MI border, so this seems like a normal part of winter. Also, as a knitter, this is happy fun time for me because I get to wear crazy knitted gear.
  • Hung curtains on windows that didn’t have them. This insulates the house from the cold outdoors. In the summer it should help block out sunlight and keep my home cooler. I haven’t done plastic on the windows yet. That’s on the agenda for my next day off. I’d really like to get blackout curtains, but at the moment I can’t afford them. A cheaper alternative (and what I used on my bedroom windows while growing up) is light blankets between the plastic and the curtains.
  • Put in a clean air filter in the furnace (every month). The furnace (and AC in the summer) doesn’t have to work as hard to push air through a clean filter as a dirty one.
  • Use “green” cleaners—vinegar, baking soda, and peroxide—when I clean around the house. They’re cheap and do a really good job at cleaning in the kitchen and bathroom. If I do need to disinfect I use regular bleach, diluted to label directions for disinfection.
  • Cleaned out the car. My Jeep (and my work vehicle, which gets much better fuel economy) has only what I need in it. Extra weight inside the vehicle means extra fuel to move it down the road.
  • Tuned up my Jeep (and also the work-owned vehicle). Better oil means less friction and less fuel to move. I made sure the brakes are hanging up (again less friction). I made sure the air filter is clean so the engine gets better air flow, which means it will use less gas. You get the idea.
  • Put jugs of water in the back of my toilet (in the tank). I used empty 1L sports drink bottles, onw per tank. This displaces a small amount of water from each flush. This is not a huge amount—and shouldn’t be done with a low-flow toilet—but it will eventually add up with less water used and less sewage going down the drain.
  • Switched all my lights to compact fluorescent bulbs (Meijer recently had them on sale). I would like to try LEDs when the CFLs finally die (in 7-10 years). LEDs are more expensive initially, but will last me the rest of my life (I’m only 27), don’t use mercury and are pretty close to indestructible. As a plus, both types use less electricity (and carbon and money) to operate.
  • Turn off lights not in use. If I’m not in a room, I don’t light it. If I’m in the room I use the minimal necessary light to keep it lit (desk lamps and the like) The only exception is my bathroom, which has a string of white LED Christmas lights as the night light. That goes on at bedtime. The entire string uses 4.3 watts, while my old incandescent night light used 7 watts—it has a photo eye and would turn off if other light was bright enough. The LED string is 4 times as bright, meaning I can usually get ready for work without turning on my 2 CFLs above the sink (13 w each).
  • Compost and recycle. This doesn’t do anything for my energy/fuel consumption, but it’s less garbage in the landfill, and a smaller trash bill. I do have to take my recycling to town to the bins, and if I make a special trip the carbon/money offset is probably a wash, so I need to make sure I’m only going to the bins when I’m also doing other errands.
  • Trip chaining. If I don’t need to go out, I don’t. I make a list of everything I need around the house and make one trip once a week or less. This also helps cut down on impulse purchases.
  • Learned to drive smarter. This means not jamming on the accelerator or brakes and reducing my fuel economy (and saves on the wear on my brakes). I miss having a stick shift, which I used to drive. I coasted a LOT in a stick and saved gas that way.
  • Checked my tires. Improperly inflated tires make your car use more gas and they’re unsafe. A tire gauge is cheap, but can save you gas money, and could save you from an accident.
  • Avoid drive-thrus. This saves me gas wasted while idling. It also saves me from eating junk, so there’s a cost saving.
  • Cook at home. If I’m making something in the oven (rare because I live by myself), I can prop the door open after the cooking is done and help warm the house. If I’m not using the oven, I’m using the smallest cooking appliance I can to heat my food. I don’t regularly buy coffee, but I love GOOD coffee, so I grind my own for a fraction of what I would pay for “on the go” coffee. My best purchase lately is How to Cook Everything, 10th Anniversary Edition (Mark Bittman, Author, John Wiley & Sons, 2008). If you’re unsure how to start cooking, the title on this one says it all. You can make inexpensive, tasty, nutritious meals at home, quickly. The amount you save in driving and at the drive-thru will more than pay for the book in short order.
  • Closed off all the rooms I’m not using and don’t heat them—they’re around 45 or 50 F (7-10 C).
  • Have a low-flow shower head, which uses less water. Again, less water used and less sewage sent off to the treatment plant. Another savings with that is that I’m using less hot water, so again, less electricity.
  • Wash my laundry in cool or cold water whenever possible to conserve hot water.
  • Hang my clothes to dry on a drying rack inside the house. Once it’s warm out I’ll dry stuff outside. If I do use my electric clothes dryer I use the “low heat/auto off” setting, which senses how dry my clothes are and shuts off automatically, saving electricity. I also do this when I need to help heat my house. In the summer I will do it when it’s dark out so my AC (if I’m using it in the summer at all) doesn’t have to work as hard to keep the place cool.
  • Installed “Smart Strips” power strip/surge protectors. These sense when your appliances aren’t in use and turn them off to save electricity.
  • Once something is charged (rechargeable batteries, my laptop, power tools at work, etc), it’s unplugged. This also goes for appliances that eat just a little energy—my coffee grinder, my laptop speakers, printer, and so on. The Smart Strip mentioned above turns off my DVD player, antenna, and digital converter box. Pretty much everything besides the TV and stereo that work on remotes are off when the TV is powered down. This is because those units need to be on, using a very small amount of electricity, to be able to receive a remote signal. A little can add up to a lot in a hurry.
  • Use reusable shopping bags. I found many stores are giving 5-10 cent refunds for every bag used—sometimes for each bag you have, even if you don’t use them. Even at $1 per bag, the bags will eventually pay for themselves and save you money. And, of course, use less plastic/oil.
  • Sweep my driveway. This is more a summery thing, but I don’t use a hose (wastes water) or a leaf blower (wastes gas). It takes a little time, but I need the exercise anyway.
  • Turned off the caller ID. I get few calls on my house line, so I’m not worried about this. It saved $11.50 a month. I use my cell phone for nearly all my calls, including long distance, so I have no long distance bill. I have the land line because I have DSL, and because my employer requires I have it. Depending on your situation you may be able to kill your land line completely.
  • I use reusable dishes. This is water bottles (BPA-free), travel coffee mugs, and my regular dishes. In the off chance I need to use disposable plates, I use a compostable plate that’s made from corn, soy, and limestone (Earth Shell brand). Another bonus to these is that, if microwaved, they don’t give off any carcinogenic gases.
  • Use a water filter. I don’t drink bottled water (no oil or extra cost used for bottles, shipping, marketing, etc). I refill reusable bottles.
  • When I listen to music or movies on my laptop I use sound-canceling earbuds instead of my speakers. The speakers use an external power source, the earbuds do not.
  • I have a laptop rather than a desktop because it’s more portable. They can also use less electricity to operate and can operate just fine on the built-in battery to conserve electricity.
  • When possible, I buy music downloads rather than a CD. There isn’t as much overhead on production, shipping, storage, liner notes, and so on. Also, I can buy just the track I want to listen to instead of an entire album. You can go cheaper and just listen to streaming or terrestrial radio.
  • Buy locally. This has a couple of layers. First is that the item doesn’t have to be shipped in from thousands of miles away, using fuel, raising prices, and adding to carbon emissions. This is true even if the food is labeled organic. Ask yourself, is organic better than nearly organic when the organic food is shipped across the continent, when the nearly organic sustainable farmer is growing it two miles from where you bought it? Second is that the money spent locally tends to stay within your community and helps your friends, neighbors, and coworkers instead of a corporation far away.

The next step for my water heater is to put on an insulating jacket. These are $10-20 (US) and help keep the water heater warm, thereby using less energy. Another thing in my near future is sealing up any cracks in my home—doors, electrical outlets, and so on.

In the spring I plan to start a small vegetable garden. It’s been too many years since I had one and it should help somewhat with my food bill.

When I was growing up we set out buckets to catch rain water for our garden. This is better than city water for plants because there’s no chlorine in it. Even if you’re on a well this is a good idea because you’re not using the electricity to pump it up.

I hope these tips have helped you a bit. So far these have all been painless adjustments that I hope will add up to a big reduction in my energy consumption.