Save Energy. Save Money.

Archive for January, 2009

Starting Saving

I have been on a mission to reduce my energy consumption – questioning what I use and finding out where I waste. When I started, I found a bunch of tips on green sites. Some suggestions seemed big and some seemed so trivial as to be not worth the effort – with a lot in the middle.  I found myself wondering which ones I should start doing in my own life.

Any project management person, or self-help book would suggest making a list, then prioritizing it and starting on the most important one. In my quest, I found that a different approach worked for me: just pick something to do now. And, do it. Now.

I’ve had quite a few success stories.

For one, I learned about compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs a few years ago and decided to give them a try. The “daylight” variety sounded neat — what could be wrong with that? So I bought them, and tried them, and found that I had made a terrible choice. Daylight color looks bluish, and doesn’t flatter skin colors. Let’s just say my wife and I still preferred candles for mood lighting ;) But, I learned from my mistake and the next time, I bought CFLs with a “warm” color, or 2700K color temperature. Much better (though, I still use the “daylight” bulbs for reading). Since then, I replaced all the lights I could with CFLs – one or two bulbs at a time. And, as a reward, our electricity bill kept going down with each conversion – nice.

Another time, I felt a draft coming from the window by my desk. I bought a tube of caulk the next time I was at the hardware store and took a look outside of our house. To my surprise, I found about a zillion little holes to fill with goop. I now keep a spare tube and caulking gun at the ready and plug up other cold-air leaks as I notice them. Our heating bill keeps going down too – nice.

In the same manner, I’ve weaned my lawn from its chemical dependence to be totally organic. For snow, I’ve been trying to use a shovel instead of the loud, smelly snow-blower. To save water, I’ve changed my shower head (three times!). I’ve turned down my water heater. I’ve installed a programmable thermostat. I’ve educated myself about food and now eat a lot less meat. None of these things have taken time, a lot of money, or a big plan. I just did the ones that seemed easy, and I did them over the course of several years.

So, what’s next? I don’t have a deadline. I just keep finding new ways to save a little here and there. Maybe that new tankless water heater. I’m also thinking of saving a lot of bottles from recycling by making my own beer – environmentally friendly and fun!

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Behind the Times

“Time is what prevents everything from happening at once.”John Archibald Wheeler

Choosing Time Scales

One of the things we’re most proud of about WattzOn is that we allow our users to directly compare energy consumed on wildly different time scales.  Like, flying twice a year vs. owning a television for 10 years.  Simplifying the message of energy use to a single unit helps clarify the relative impact of each lifestyle choice. That’s why we measure energy impact in power (watts), which represents the rate at which you are using energy (just like speed is the rate at which you travel a distance).

To calculate watts, we are converting all profile answers into the amount of energy (in joules) you are using per time (in seconds).  Choosing the time scale, however, is not necessarily clear.  Are you driving 100 miles a week or 100 miles in 2 hours?  In presenting your energy data to you in power, we are often creating a constant rate out of something that is not constant — and, how we choose to do so has a significant impact on the watts we present.

There is no right answer for most of these calculations; tracking personal energy choices in watts is our unique concept.  So, we must make informed choices that seem to make the most scientific sense, while still maintaining the usability the website.

If I Could Save Time in a Paper Cup…

To demonstrate the time issue, let’s consider the energy use of a paper cup.  Based on estimates of the materials, manufacturing, transportation, and disposal, we have a reasonable assumption that a cup has an embodied energy of approximately 2.2 MJ (as is currently in the EED).  To convert that to watts, we have to divide by time.  But, what time scale best represents the duration of that cup’s “consumption”?  We’ve looked at 4 different options:

  • Usage Time – The amount of time you actually spend using the cup for its intended purpose (i.e. drinking out of it).  This seems to most accurately capture the idea of using watts to track energy consumption.  But, under this model, the paper cup watts should only be added to your total watts for the time you are using the cup and then be deleted, making it difficult to track the impact of choices.
  • Usage Rate – The rate at which you purchase a cup (in this case, once per day).  The time for this option is easily determined since it’s already in the number (1 day). But, asking people to estimate their usage rate of items, especially things they may use irregularly, adds to the difficulty of using the site.
  • Existence Time – This method spreads out the embodied energy of the cup over its own lifetime – the amount of time between manufacturing and disposal.  However, it is difficult to know how long the cup has been around.  Also, this method would give a higher wattage to the first cup out of the bag than to the last one.
  • Lifetime – This way would spread the amount of energy in the cup out over your entire life.  Perhaps the most accurate way to contemplate the energy impact our lifestyle choices, but I don’t have to tell you that it would be VERY difficult to ask people to accurately guess how many paper cups they’ve used since infancy.

Though there are merits to each, the option chosen has a tremendous impact on the wattage of items, as you can see in the following table:

Paper Cup Time Scales Watts
Usage Time (1 hour) 608
Usage Rate (1 day) 25.3
Existence Time (1 month) 0.83
Lifetime (70 years) 0.001

Right now, we are tracking disposable goods (like our paper cup) with the “Usage Rate” model.   It gives us the greatest balance of ease of information entry for users and understandable calculations.  But, as noted above, this model does not work as well for items you may use irregularly (like, say, a notepad).  Since nothing on WattzOn is static, we are continually exploring this concept (along with many, many others) .  So, as we contemplate time, we welcome you to join us and give us your thoughts on how to improve our data!

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I’m Tom, A Recovering Consumer

My name is Tom and I have been a recovering consumer for five years.  Since I’m new here, I’d like to let you know a little bit about myself.

Not long ago, I was a Typical American Consumer. I bought what I wanted, and threw out what I didn’t. I rolled my eyes at people who disapproved. I consumed. I drove a V6 car that got 21 MPG. I got an automatic lawn sprinkler and a snow blower. My wife and I bought every plastic item required to raise a happy, well-adjusted child in America. I took long showers. I flew cross-country every few weeks for work. I threw my towels on hotel floors. And yes, I used incandescent light bulbs.

But, in 2004 I read Paul Roberts’ End of Oil. That was the beginning of my awakening from the affliction facing so many of us Typical American Consumers. I learned that our American ways are not sustainable. I also saw why gas was going to become so expensive and bought a Toyota Prius. The Prius enlightened me, but, not because of the hybrid engine — it has a real-time MPG monitor, right there, in your face. The monitor has greatly improved my mileage. At better than 50 MPG, the Prius uses less than half the gasoline of the car it replaced. Could it be that I could make similar changes to the way I lived?

End of Oil says just five percent less could make a difference. Five percent seemed entirely reasonable and plausible. In 2005, I started a green blog named FivePercent, recording the changes I made. The blog’s name sucks, but the results are good.

As it turns out, conservation doesn’t require huge sacrifice, or cost, or effort. I turned out lights and switched to CFLs where they worked well. I figured out how to keep our lawn green without the sprinkler (and I mow less, too). I wash clothes with cold water. I have a great low-flow shower head. I think about my food choices. Simple stuff. Most of my changes have come from becoming aware of when I am wasting. I consume a lot better now: much less of what we don’t need, but also needing and wanting less. My household now uses 50% less electricity than before (yes, half as much!). It’s truly amazing how much you can waste without realizing it.

I am still a recovering consumer. My life isn’t sustainable by any measure (yet), but I’m moving in the right direction. And with the money I have saved, I can buy that 60,000 BTU Weber Grill. Or maybe a tankless hot water heater (how cool is that?)

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