Archive for the ‘energy use’ Category

Keeping Cool Without Breaking the Bank (Or Not)   1 comment

It’s been a hot summer here in Sacramento this year. I don’t know if it has actually been hotter than normal, but it seems like there have been more no-Delta-breeze nights with subsequent day temps near or above 100 degrees. Keeping cool has been a priority.

A few years ago I posted about some of my strategies of keeping a house cool (here and here). The first strategy is to block the sun from shining in/on the windows and exterior walls. Curtains will block sun from coming in the house but the windows and walls still heat up. Shade trees, awnings, or extended eaves keep the sun off the windows/wall so that they don’t heat up. We’ve got awnings over all of our east and west facing windows, and tall rosebushes in front of the south facing windows. The shade trees on the south side of the house aren’t yet big enough to offer shade.

The second strategy is to take advantage of breezes. At night, the breeze coming in through open windows may be able to cool the house down sufficiently to delay or prevent turning on the A/C the next day. (This strategy works great in Sacramento…when there’s a Delta breeze.) When there’s no breeze or it’s hot as blazes outside, though, fans can serve in some situations to help you cool off.

There’s a third strategy that I use but haven’t written about before and that’s to not heat the house. Sounds obvious, right? But as my husband has pointed out, most people don’t really think about it. Is it summer and the forecast says it’ll be around 100 degrees? Then don’t run the dishwasher, stove, oven, or vacuum during the day. It’ll just heat up the house and make the A/C turn on earlier. Even TVs, computers, and any other electronic appliance will generate heat. The TV on in our house for long enough for my husband to get in a game of Battlefront can raise the temperature by a couple degrees. A computer? I’ve worked from home and watched the temperature tick up as I sat in front of the thermostat (in the office) working on my laptop. Even when the A/C turns on, unless the room with the heated appliance is next to the thermostat and therefore controls the thermostat, it will still be warmer and less comfortable than the rest of the house.

We’ve managed to have a couple days early this summer when it reached 100 degrees outside and our A/C didn’t turn on because we were out of the house part of the day, didn’t turn on the TV or computers until later in the day, and moved the toaster outside for breakfast. (There are many more days when we’ve added plenty of heat load to the house, but small victories, right?) I should also mention that in summer our thermostat is programmed to 83 during the day, and my husband usually turns the cooler on manually at around 79 or 80 degrees.

One great thing about the strategy of reducing heat load is that it’s double $ savings. You’re saving money by not using electricity to power the heat-generating device(s) and saving money by reducing energy spent cooling the house. However, as we learned this year, casual applications of these strategies aren’t enough to “tunnel through the cost barrier” to borrow a phrase from Amory Lovins. I was sorely disappointed early this summer when our A/C died and had to be replaced. For a while I forgot about all the monthly savings these strategies have netted us as I stewed about having to spring for an expensive new A/C. As much as I would have loved to be able to live without heating and cooling, we’re not there yet and the new system has won me over with its super-efficiency and quiet operation.

Posted August 17, 2014 by mayakey in conscious living, energy use, frugal living, home, simple living

Tagged with , , ,

Clothesline, Finally   Leave a comment

This past weekend, with the impetus of spring cleaning, we finally finished our clothesline. It’s been on the wish list since we moved in, but we just didn’t get around to it, until this year. We started putting in the posts in winter, after weeks of dry sunny weather, and then it started raining. So this weekend we finally got up the crossbars and lines so that we could dry the comforter, mattress protector, and pillows way way faster than a dryer can do.

Disclaimer: This was another one of our cheap, winging-it DIY projects; we weren’t designing/building something to last 20 years or more. We started with a couple 4×4 posts that came from the makeshift awning the previous owners had on the side of the house. There was some discussion over where to put the line, taking into account sun exposure, wind direction, clothing flappage allowance (no lines located inches from the fence), fruit-tree access, prevention of knocked foreheads, and the as-yet-unplanned layout of play and gardening space when we get around to ripping out concrete. Then we  hand augured a couple holes through the hard clay (good thing Mike has good upper body strength or it might have taken me all day!). We dug down roughly 2-feet, giving us about 6-feet aboveground, and then filled the holes with concrete around the posts. As I mentioned before, then it started raining so the concrete cured for at least 4 months before we moved on to step 2.

For our crossbars we used a 2×4 from the old awning, cut into roughly 3-foot lengths. It’s an arbitrary length, picked because we had one piece of wood that was 70-inches long, and everything else was much longer. With eyebolts spaced at just under 1-foot we have 4 lines plenty long enough for a couple loads of laundry, with space to move between them while hanging/removing clothes. We’re both most familiar with plastic coated metal lines, but at the hardware store all we found was nylon clothesline so we’re giving it a try. I’m assuming we’ll have to tighten the lines at least a couple times in the first month as it stretches.

The clothesline withstood the first weekend of laundry, and it was so nice to hang up the comforter and come back a couple hours later to find it dry rather than repeatedly have to reposition it in the dryer. We’ll see how this goes in the future, and how long the lines last. I did a search and found a Mother Earth News article that recommends using 8×8’s buried to 4 or 5-feet with knee braces.

Posted May 15, 2012 by mayakey in energy use, frugal living, home, simple living

Tagged with ,

Do Environmentalists Wash Their Cars At Home?   Leave a comment

According to most of the propaganda: no. And yet, weekend before last I was outside washing my car at home. In fact, I wash my car at home as often as I can. Eco-sin? No, I don’t think so.

Water conservation and pollution is the major reason that commercial car washes are touted as the more environmentally friendly option. Commercial car washes can filter and reuse water so that they use less water per wash than if you’re using potable water from you hose. A car does not need to be washed with potable (drinkable) water, and not doing so reduces the energy required to treat water to drinking water standards. Additionally, car wash waste water is discharged to the sewer where it goes to a wastewater treatment plant for treatment before discharge to whatever water body. The wastewater from a typical home car wash runs into the street into a storm drain where it discharges directly into whatever water body, without any treatment to remove oils, metals, or particulate matter. So from a water perspective the commercial car wash wins out compared to a typical home car wash.

But what if you don’t discharge into the storm drain at home? When I wash my car I pull it onto the lawn first. This way the lawn soaks up the waste water, preventing non-storm water discharge to the storm drain. The oils, soap, and any other organic compounds will biodegrade in the ground. Any heavy metals will not degrade, but I figure that the trace amount of heavy metals in the waste water is probably comparable to what deposits from the air (from exhaust and dust raised by cars in the street).

And what if  you really restrict water use? Some people use a bucket method: one bucket for soapy water, one for clean water, and that’s it. You could use rainwater or gray water to avoid the energy cost of potable water. Since I don’t have my rain barrels hooked up yet, in the winter I use the hose with a spray nozzle so that the water is off when I don’t specifically need it. In the summer I let the hose run, but I don’t run the sprinklers that weekend and consider the car wash to also be watering the lawn (a two-birds-one-stone approach).

In my mind there are other environmental benefits to a home car wash. I use a mild vegetable soap, while I assume that most car washes use a petroleum based soap. Inside the car I either wipe down with just a damp rag, or a damp rag with the same mild vegetable soap. For the windows I use the same vinegar/water/castile soap glass cleaner that I use everywhere else in the house, as opposed to a commercial ammonia-based cleaner with synthetic fragrances and additives. Personally, I could care less about shiny tires so I don’t clean the tires with anything at all.

As far as electricity use goes, I have no idea which method wins out, although I’d guess it’s a bit of a wash. The car wash may get a per-car reduction in electricity when multiple cars are going through the tunnel together, and they may spend less time with the vacuum on then I do. But the car wash also has to keep the lights on in the attached building, run the register and the inevitable popcorn maker, and run the blower to start drying the cars. I use a chamois cloth to absorb most of the water instead of a blower or lots of towels, and I don’t think that my regular home electricity use counts in this calculation.

On a completely different level I really like washing my car at home because of the increased awareness it grants me about my car. When you are washing your own car you really notice new dings, scratches, paint transfers, etc on the outside, and you can focus your cleaning inside on the things that you care about. And for those of us who personify our cars, talk to them, and generally have a relationship with them, bathing them personally feels like a thank you treat for the friend who so reliably transports me wherever I want to go.

Posted February 27, 2012 by mayakey in cleaning, energy use, environment, frugal living, water use

Tagged with ,

Wait, My Refrigerator Uses Less Electric Power Than An Old Fashioned Lightbulb?   Leave a comment

So I started this post to list out some of the interesting results that came from my energy audit, but it quickly changed into something else. I figured it would be easier to talk about appliances in terms of watts, not thousands of a killwatt-hours per hour, so I did the conversion. Then I stared at the list for a while thinking, “Wait but didn’t we used to commonly use 40- to 100-watt lightbulbs? My refrigerator uses 46 watts! How on earth can a big refrigerator use less electricity than a little light bulb? Really?!” No wonder lighting is often separated out from appliances in statistics. In fact, the only appliance that I measured to be more than 100 watts was our washing machine!

Speaking of the washing machine. I measured 3 loads and they all came out to 110 W per load. Out of curiosity I compared that to the Energy Star EnergyGuide. According to Energy Star, our model washing machine is projected to use 130 kWh per year based on eight wash loads per week. That calculates to 312 W per load. Is that discrepancy due to use of only cold water? I always thought the energy savings from washing with cold water was energy savings at the water heater, not the washing machine. More research will be done…

So what were the other surprises?

  • Cell phones are pretty efficient! Our two cell phones averaged 0.07 W, which is less than 1 kW for an entire year. This is less than the doorbell and digital alarm clock.
  • But Dust Busters are not. At 3.3 W, that’s comparable to the cable modem and router. And that’s just for keeping it charged, and not having been used prior to measuring the electric consumption. The battery charger, keeping a few AA batteries ready to use, only used 2.5 W.
  • The TV uses more electricity (63 W) than the refrigerator (46 W). It’s an old TV, so I don’t know how modern TVs compare.
  • A Playstation 2 (8 W) uses more electricity than a DVD player playing a DVD (10.6 W). But the cable box uses twice as much (16.5 W)

Posted October 1, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

Tagged with ,

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

Tagged with , , , ,

Dryer Racquetballs   Leave a comment

Several years ago I decided to try using a dryer ball. They are supposed to reduce the drying time by keeping the clothes fluffed and agitated, and they are also supposed to reduce static and make the clothes come out of the dryer nice and soft. I can’t really testify to the first, not having ever taken the time to time my dryer loads with and without a dryer ball, but I’d like to think that I did notice a decrease in the time to dry. I can say that the clothes do come out softer, and I haven’t had a problem with static cling (not that I had much of a problem before trying the balls). At the time I just added the dryer balls to an order from Gaiam. They were egg-shaped with nubs all around, and really looked like a dog’s chew toy. I don’t remember how much they cost, but it wasn’t very much. I used the balls for several years in every single dryer load until one finally broke into pieces. We continued using just one because Mike and I were engaged in a long discussion about how to replace it. Gaiam was only selling a more expensive dryer ball with a slot for a fragrance stick, which I had no interest in. Other dryer balls on the internet don’t say what kind of plastic they are made from, so I can’t know if they contain PVC. I wanted to try tennis balls, but Mike was afraid we’d get tennis ball lint on our clothes. Finally we decided to try racquetballs, which I think are made of rubber and so okay by me. We’ve been using the racquetballs for several weeks now and I can say that they work just as well as the specifically designed dryer balls. As someone with long hair I actually find an advantage to the smooth racquetballs over the nubby dyer balls: loose hairs don’t get tangled in the nubs and slice the nubs off in the dryer. The only difference we’ve noticed is that the racquetballs are much noisier. The dryer ball just sounded like a muffled thump-thump; the racquet balls make quite a racket! Like someone is playing a game of dryer racquetball! 🙂

Posted September 5, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, frugal living, home, resource use, shopping

Calculating Baseline Energy Use   1 comment

The easiest task in a personal home energy audit is to analyze electric and gas bills to observe patterns. If there’s a time of year, like spring or fall, when for an entire billing cycle neither cooling nor heating is needed than it’s pretty easy to determine an average typical non-HVAC daily and annual energy use. Then it is pretty easy to subtract and  determine how much cooling and heating increase energy demand during the appropriate season. It’s a rough calculation, since there may be seasonal fluctuations to the “typical” energy demand like more lights on during winter, but it’s a good start. I calculate that we typically use 10-11 kWh per day non-HVAC, which comes to 3,840 non-HVAC kWh over the course of a year (65% of total). Heating required approximately 990 kWh for the year (15% of total), and cooling required approximately 1,200 kWh for the year (20% of total).

The next task is to break down that “typical” energy use a bit, but this requires a bit more effort since you have to read the meters. Reading the meters isn’t challenging, especially now that digital smart meters are being rolled out. I hear that some utilities are already using the smart meters to provide customers with real-time tracking ability from their computers, but walking into the back yard and reading the meter really isn’t much work. There are a few different strategies for meter reading schedules. You can read it once per day to get a feel for your real “typical” energy use and the fluctuations, you can read it twice per day to differentiation baseline and active use, or you can read it many times per day to track specific appliances.  The latter is what I did last time I did a home energy audit, and it is a BIG PAIN! So this time I have a Kill-a-Watt to do the measuring for me, and we did twice per day readings. For a couple of weeks I read the meter immediately before going to bed, and Mike read the meter as soon as he got home. During that time there was very little active use of electricity: a toaster or blender for breakfast, a brief light on in the pre-dawn, and the garage door. I consider those to most likely be negligible over the 15 or so hours of baseline energy use. What I mean by baseline is the stuff that is always on: refrigerator, cable box, thermostat, etc. It’s the baseline because even if you eliminate all active energy demand the house will still draw this baseline amount. It’s relatively constant, with minor fluctuations like water heater working harder in winter and fridge in summer. So now I know that our baseline home energy use is approximately 4.8 kWh per day, which is almost half of our typical daily energy usage.

There’s very little that I can do to reduce that baseline energy usage. I’m not getting rid of the fridge or the alarm, and while I would love to turn off the cable box I can’t without breaking it. What I want to know is how much of that baseline goes to the water heater. By using the Kill-a-Watt I’m measuring as many of these baseline contributors as I can and then I’ll be able to calculate an estimate of how much hot water contributes to our energy usage. My guess is that it is most of the baseline.

Posted September 2, 2011 by mayakey in energy use, home

Tagged with , , ,