Archive for September 2011

Energy Vampires Beware! The Kill-A-Watt Meter Is Here!   Leave a comment

This week wraps up my personal energy audit and I have to say it has been eye opening. I’m in love with my Kill-a-Watt meter now (yes I am a nerd). I think I’ll probably keep using it to take some longer term measurements here and there, and I’ll make it available to any of my friends who want to borrow it as well. In a future post I’ll get into some of the surprising results that we got, but I’m still measuring my computer’s usage as I type this. What I have done is an analysis of what percentage of our home energy usage is heating, cooling, water heater, passive appliances, and active appliances. I did this through a combination of meter reading, bill analysis, and direct measurements. This is based on only one year, and I didn’t take into account heating degree days or cooling degree days, so the HVAC numbers have a rather high error rate.

I described in a previous post a simple method for estimating how much energy use use for heating and cooling. I forgot to mention that if you have both gas and electricity, you’ll need to convert therms into kWh. For the analysis at our old house I used the converter at For us: heating was 16% of the annual total and cooling was 20%.

The next task was a bit more challenging, and that was determining the passive electric load. The first step is really easy: read the meter. For a couple of weeks, every night right before I went to bed I grabbed a flashlight, pad, and pen and walked out to the electric meter to record the kWh display. And the next day my husband did the same as soon as he got home from work in the afternoon. During that time we had (almost) no active electricity use. I figure that the garage door, toaster, etc. are minor enough compared to 15 hours of passive usage that it didn’t significantly affect the readings. After dividing the difference between the two readings by the elapsed time, you get kWh/hr. Ours came to just over 5 kWh per day. That is our passive load, aka energy vampires, and includes things like the water heater, cable box, refrigerator, microwave and stove clocks, cell phone chargers, etc.

The second step was the step that I found so exciting this year, and that was measuring the contributions to the passive load from all of the applicable appliances with plugs. For several weeks I’ve been using my Kill-a-Watt meter to measure the daily electric usage for many of our appliances, including everything that is plugged in all the time. By subtracting out this measured total from the passive usage I calculated from the meter, I was able to estimate how much electricity the water heater uses and the non-water heater passive usage. For us: water heater uses 18% of the annual total and passive appliance use 13% (which means active appliance use is 33% of the total).

It is really nice to know that heating and cooling use less electricity than our appliances. Unfortunately it is probably easier to reduce energy used for heating and cooling (shade, insulation, sweaters, etc.) than appliances (turn of the TV and computer?). I did take a closer look at our passive load and I think we can reduce it by 15% by moving a few more things to power strips that get turned off at night. We found some surprising energy hogs that I’ll save for a later post.

Note that I didn’t bother using my electric rate to calculate $ spent on heating/cooling/water heating/passive/active appliances once I had the kWh, but for a lot of people that would be the desired end number.

Posted September 28, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

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Camping Composting   Leave a comment

Oh the joys of camping. We get out in nature where we enjoy the sound of the breeze through the trees, the smell of redwoods, the mesmerizing vision of flame and embers, and where somehow we create more waste than usual. At least some of it is organic waste, and therefore burn-able, so most of us throw it in the fire pit to burn away in the nightly fire. That works great for paper plates and napkins (especially if they’re greasy 🙂 ), but is an apple core doing the fire any good? What about an egg shell? This summer for the first time I decided to compost my wet organic matter and egg shells. On the first camping trip of the summer I felt very self conscious about it. While it felt natural to me to pull out a Ziploc bag and put my bits of vegetables and fruits in it, I also felt a little weird being in a campground with garbage cans yet packing my trash back home with me. It would have felt even more awkward if it had been at a campground with bear lockers. There’s nothing quite like putting a bag of stuff-to-compost in with your food and toiletries. For many backpackers and back-country campers this kind of action is nothing new. In some places you have to pack all your waste out, and I mean ALL your waste. For me, I think this will be a regular practice because it heightened my enjoyment of nature knowing that I was producing that much less landfill waste, that less of an inefficient fire (not that campfires aren’t already very inefficient fires), and that much more luscious compost at home (eventually).

Posted September 21, 2011 by mayakey in environment

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Tenth Anniversary of the Harkin-Engel “Cocoa” Protocol   Leave a comment

September 19th marks the tenth anniversary of the Harkin-Engel Protocol aka the Cocoa Protocol, which is an international agreement signed by major chocolate companies to end forced child labor on cocoa plantations in West Africa. To make the story short, that hasn’t happened. The protocol contained specific objectives with deadlines, but deadlines have slipped by several years, and little progress has been made. I’m not going to get into much background here since I’m not an expert on that side of the issue. As usual, Wikipedia has some info, and GreenAmerica has info and campaigns including a letter-writing campaign to Hershey (one of the worst laggards) and a film investigating the current status of forced child labor.

I’m not very consistent at advocacy, but do much better at action. In this case the major action is to buy fair trade chocolate, since the certification for child labor-free chocolate has not yet been developed. There’s plenty of fair trade chocolate available, although since I don’t shop at a mainstream grocery store I don’t know how accessible it is there. There are several companies and organizations that sell many varieties of fair trade including Dagoba, Green & Black (Maya Gold only), Divine, Theo, Sjaaks, Equal Exchange, SERRV International, Alter Eco, Global Exchange, and Grounds for Change. In our house we use only fair trade cocoa products. Even at work and movies I rarely consume “conventional” chocolate (although I must confess that’s also because I dislike milk chocolate and find most candy bars way too sweet and decidedly not satisfying). I’m not under the delusion that I could convince anyone else to avoid candy bars, but the way I see it any increase in market share for fair trade chocolate manufacturers and corresponding decrease in market share for “conventional” chocolate manufacturers is a good movement that will continue to build momentum.

With Halloween coming out I wish I could say: buy fair trade chocolate to give out to trick-or-treaters. But I won’t. We buy a container of mini-bars of fair trade chocolates because even though the kids who consume them will never even notice or care about the label (or as my husband points out, might actually throw it away since I can only get dark chocolate minis), I just cannot give my money to Hershey or any other objectionable chocolate manufacturer. But it is expensive! And frustratingly difficult to find. For the life of me I cannot figure out why there isn’t more marketing of mini-chocolates around Halloween. Instead there is marketing of “reverse trick-or-treating” in which you get a kit with fair trade mini-chocolates stuck onto postcards, and then as your kids go trick-or-treating they hand these chocolates and postcards to the people handing out candy. When I have a kid who goes trick-or-treating, I’ll probably do this, but for now all I can do is put my money where my mouth is for the candy I give out. I very much encourage anyone who does have a trick-or-treater at home to consider reverse trick-or-treating. You can search for it online to find kits (Equal Exchange and Global Exchange do it, and there may be others).

Posted September 19, 2011 by mayakey in advocacy, fair trade, food

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There Are Native Plants, And Then There Are Native Native Plants   Leave a comment

Okay, the Sacramento Valley California Native Plant Society fall plant sale is coming up September 24-25, and it’ll soon be time for me to get that native plant garden in the ground to replace the outer third of our lawn (aka the dead third). I have a grand plan that I’ve been developing all summer and a great plant list. Oh, wait a minute, I have done NOTHING. So instead it’s crunch time to develop a plant list, and I think I’m going to do the “wing-it” landscaping design strategy.

The hang-up on this yard project is the fact that I’m picky (I know, shocking). I don’t just want plants native to the US, or native to California, but plants native to right where I live! It’s a genetic diversity thing. Plan communities are local communities. Plants within a given area are different genetically than even the same species of plants living in a different area because they adapt to their local climate. And when selecting specific plants, if it is native to the specific place where the garden is located, accounting for the various microclimates even on a small lot, it will likely survive and thrive with less work/inputs. Unfortunately, the only way to get local cultivars is to propagate cuttings or seeds collected locally. I know I’m certainly not going to do that, and I’m assuming most people feel the same. Plus there may be legal issues with collecting from wild plants. The next best thing is a local native plant nursery that propagates locally collected cuttings and seeds. Fortunately, in Sacramento we have Elderberry Farms Native Plant Nursery, a project of the Sacramento Valley CNPS. I think that most native plant nurseries probably have a mix of local natives and broader-area natives.

You do have to be smart when it comes to a native plant list, though, and check what their native ecosystem is. This is especially true in the west where we have big states that have many different ecosystems. A plant native to shady mountain forests isn’t going to thrive in an open desert garden, at least not without a lot of water. So my plant list will be developed first from the list of plants found at Mather Field, then from a broader central valley list, then from anywhere in the state. And there will be at least a few non-natives that will probably find their way in, especially since I have a 5-gallon bucket of paperwhites that need to go somewhere!

Posted September 15, 2011 by mayakey in environment, gardening

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The First “R” is Reduce For a Reason   Leave a comment

A while ago I read a newspaper article that started with a statement something along the lines of: We’re all familiar with the three “R’s” reuse, recycle, and repurpose… It made me ANGRY to read that, and weeks (months?) later that anger is still festering. The three “R’s” of environmentalism are REDUCE, reuse, recycle. Besides, reuse and repurpose are redundant.

The order of those “R” words is not arbitrary but is in order of importance and impact. Reducing is the most important thing that you can do, pretty much across the board because the benefits multiply. There’s the immediate and obvious effect of reduction that you use less of whatever it is, be it electricity, water, paper, food, plastic, media, pesticides, or concrete. Depending on what was reduced, there is also a reduction in waste going to a landfill or incinerator with consequent reduction in soil, groundwater, or air pollution. Because of the (somewhat unavoidable) amount of loss and waste along the supply chain, that reduction on a personal scale leads to a waste reduction of many-fold moving up the chain. Some examples are a lightbulb left off not that only reduces the electricity to generate light but also the electricity wasted through heat generation (and losses in the transmission system, and losses at the power plant, and inefficiencies in the generation of electricity, and water consumed by the power plant); and a paper not used not only saves a piece of paper but the packaging, the paper trimmed off the roll, the bleaching/dyeing chemicals, the energy and water to make the paper, and the energy to transport it. Not using something therefore means not using a lot more of the raw materials required to make that something, and reducing the pressing need to mine/harvest/pump ever more of those raw materials at an ever faster rate.

In some cases there are other benefits. Printing less paper means that you have less paper that needs to be filed and stored somewhere, saving time and money. Having less junk means less of your house is taken up by storage space and more can be used for living space. Buying less whatever generally saves money. Watching less TV or spending less time playing video/computer games may mean more family time or sleep. Having less stuff or fewer commitments can mean a much more peaceful life. For people like me who hate to shop, buying less stuff means I have to shop less. On a larger scale using less pavement means more infiltration, healthier plants, more groundwater storage, and less pollution in surface waterways.

At a time like this when jobs are a hot topic and the unemployment rate is scarily high, is it “unpatriotic” to talk about reducing consumption of anything/everything? I don’t think so. For one thing, an economy that is mostly based on excessive consumption is not sustainable ecologically or economically. Isn’t some of what we’re going through now a contraction from the rapidly increasing rates of consumption and indebtedness in recent years? And considering the scarily high amount of personal debt carried by the average American, reduced consumption that saves money also increases personal stability and security. More consumption isn’t necessarily going to be a long term economic fix, but smarter consumption would help.

The Environmental Professional and The Environmentalist   Leave a comment

I’ve mentioned before that environmentalists are notorious for having a really high bar, and not being satisfied because there’s always more you can do. I admit to having some of that in me. I’ll call that my spiritual environmentalist, who yearns for pristine landscapes, unique hand-crafted surroundings at home, and no worries about toxics or exposures. Then there’s my pragmatic environmentalist, who is aware of things like financial limitations, physical limitations, risk continuums, and the fact that the vast majority of Americans just want cheap goods. Usually those two sides to my environmentalism coexist peacefully with my job; actually they usually get along quite nicely. Doing environmental investigation and remediation work means that I can clean up contaminated soil and water, which really excites the spiritual environmentalist in me. The pragmatic environmentalist is the dominant side interacting with my work personality because environmental investigations are all about detection limits, regulatory limits, feasibility studies, and human health risk assessments.

Environmental work is also all about closing sites. And that, my friends, is where I’m finding my two environmentalist personalities at odds with each other. This week the regulator concurred with our recommendation to close one of my sites. It’s exciting for me professionally but there’s that piece of me that is saddened at the prospect of leaving soil saturated with heavy oil in the ground. It’s not contaminating groundwater, there’s no human health risk from vapors, and any attempt at remediation would really hurt the overlying business financially. I want pristine, but it’s not going to happen now. In a hundred years or so the oil will be biodegraded, and that just has to be good enough. Another of my sites is currently in limbo waiting for a new low threat closure guidance in the hopes of qualifying. It’s the same situation, but with groundwater contamination and no drinking water wells in the vicinity. There’s no unacceptable human health risk, and with the insurance money drying up continued remediation is difficult. Pragmatically, closure is appropriate. Spiritually, though, it disturbs me. Good thing the pragmatic side wins out.

Posted September 10, 2011 by mayakey in environment, musings

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Useful and Beautiful   Leave a comment

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris

Posted September 8, 2011 by mayakey in home, quotes, simple living