Friday, July 11, 2008

Minimizing Heat Production in the House During Summer

In the summer heat, there are many ways a house conspires to make itself even hotter. Here are some ways to cut back on the house's heat production and reduce the need for the A/C. Most of these are minor, but their effect can add up, and they include savings of their own. I claim no expertise, only some experience and a willingness to experiment.

  • Lower the temperature of your water heater to a temperature that, when you turn on the hot water for a shower, there isn't any need to dilute it with water from the cold tap. This simplifies showering as well as reduces the work your water heater needs to do.
  • Turn off the heating element in your refrigerator that heats the door (supposedly to reduce condensation on the door). If your frig has one, the button should be inside near the back, where the light bulb is.
  • Use as low-wattage a light bulb in the frig as you can. Our older frig had an incandescent bulb inside that gets searing hot during prolonged open door meditations on what to eat. This is a perfect spot for a LED light, which would not emit much heat, but they aren't available as far as I can tell.
  • Minimize the use of incandescent and halogen light bulbs, which get very hot. Many of these can be replaced with fluorescents without sacrificing the quality of light.
  • When boiling water for tea, boil only as much water as you need, so that less heating is needed and unused hot water doesn't sit on the stove, heating the room. Or heat the water in a microwave with the bag inside.
  • We usually associate attic insulation with keeping heat in during the winter, but attics can turn into cauldrons in the summer, and abundant insulation helps keep that heat from seeping into living spaces.
  • Humidity in the house can be affected by the yard's topography. If the ground is sloping towards your house, rain is more likely to seep in next to your foundation and add humidity. Within four to six feet of the foundation, the ground should slope away. My house inspector told me it's okay to pile dirt against bricks, but not against wood siding.
  • Whole house fans: Very helpful, but ours is overpowered, which means it overwhelms the vents in the attic. The resultant high pressure actually pushes attic air down into 2nd story rooms. Not good, so having attic ventilation and fan power balanced is important. One thing that has worked well is to have a window fan that runs overnight, progressively cooling the house. Closing up in the morning as the day starts to heat up keeps the cool air inside.
  • I can't explain why, but we wash our dishes by hand. Maybe a bit of hand labor is relaxing; maybe the older dishwasher's noise and slowness is bothersome; maybe it's stubborn habit. It's been reported that handwashing can be more wasteful than using a newer model dishwasher, but so much depends on style. My wife uses the Niagra Falls method, in which hot water streams out of the faucet constantly until she's done. I use cold water in bursts, making sure the dishes are wet first to soften the dirt and minimize the work. We don't use a tub, but instead put dish soap directly on the sponge. No outbreaks of the plague have been reported due to my cold water method, and in summer the cool water is a welcome feeling. Even if a little more water is used in handwashing, bypassing a dishwasher saves a lot of energy and heat production.
  • Air dry clothes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Biking in the Mist

One of my moments of environmental awakening came as I found myself driving my car four blocks to a town meeting on sustainability. The irony of the situation struck two blocks into the drive. Why was I using a car to transport myself four blocks to a meeting whose main purpose is to figure out how we can become less dependent on fossil fuels? As it happened, I was running late, and there was a light mist that could turn into rain--two factors that make me instinctively grab the car keys. I immediately parked the car and walked the rest of the way. To my surprise, the precipitation did not penetrate my clothes.

Since then, I have gradually expanded my tolerance for biking in mist, or drizzle, or even sometimes rain. This morning, for instance, a misty moisty morning, I taxied my daughter to school on the trailer bike, and found the mist to be even enjoyable. Another time, when the mist turned to rain while heading home, we experienced an unexpected euphoria. There can be a certain laboriousness to riding a bike, but it can also bring a sense of awakening, of being more alive.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Biking--A Slow Shift in Thinking

As you can see, now that everyone is feeling an urgency to do something about climate change, even the neighborhood lawn ornaments are taking to their bikes.

In fact, if people are changing their ways, it's hard to tell from this outpost, where the stream of cars passing by appears unabated. Even living right in town, where the shopping center is four blocks away and schools are a ten minute bike ride, there always seems to be some excuse to jump in the car. Maybe we're running late, or the clouds are threatening, and besides, it's just a short drive, not much gas consumed, so no harm done.

People are faced with a double abstraction: that the oft-declared global emergency of global warming will dramatically affect each of us and all we care about, and that our individual actions can actually affect the course of global warming. Though government can have an influence, the human impact on the planet comes down to the cumulative effect of individual actions. As individuals we feel peripheral, inconsequential, but are in fact central--the only show in town.

Self-denial is not in the national psyche, so any change in individual behavior needs to be driven by positive, self-actualizing factors rather than a willful forgoing of comfort and convenience.

Tipping the balance towards jumping on a bike, rather than crawling yet again into the stylish metal hulk, requires a cumulative change in thinking, until the pros of riding a bike in any given situation start to outweigh the cons. It helps to be aware that short, in-town drives are not good for a car, since the engine never quite warms up. The $50 refill at the gas station the other day was a fine wakeup call.

For those who can connect the dots between personal action and the nation's future, it's also possible to view walking and biking as patriotic acts, a way to incrementally reduce all sorts of undesireables: dependence on foreign oil, the national trade deficit, gas prices and inflation. There's also the unsettling thought of what sorts of corrupt regimes all that gas money is supporting.

Factor in a desire not to add to global warming, air and water pollution and the congestion of local roads, and before you know it the sway of your thinking has you on your bike, feeling empowered to change the world in some small way, immersed in the richness of the great outdoors, improving your circulation as you circulate through town.

The more one chooses the bike over the car, the more it becomes a habit, until the first response is to head for the bike rather than grab the car keys. There's also an expansion of acceptable weather that happens gradually, until even a light drizzle is no longer a deterrent. Water, I discovered after a couple years of periodically biking around town, is not toxic, and there was a raincoat hiding in my closet that is actually designed to shed it. Such are the rediscoveries that await in the long process of shedding car-dependency.

And then there is the fun aspect, which I discovered after reconditioning a trailer bike that someone had left on the curb (shop local). Get a kid on the trailer seat strong enough to contribute to the peddling, and the sensation is of flying down a sled run, or team rowing. Even if the cold weather discourages biking to school in the morning, I can still pick up my daughter with this rig in the warmed afternoon.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Human Generator

For those who are of a practical sort, not apt to suffer unnecessary effort gladly, the concept of venturing onto a treadmill or a stairmaster remains an alien one. Perhaps there are primordial ancestors whispering through our genes, telling us to rest up for the big hunt, saying that exercise must have meaning and purpose beyond achieving a lively heart rate.

Needing motivation beyond simple longevity, I seek exercise in riding a bike to get where I need to go, or chopping wood, or cutting down invasive shrubs. This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it rarely gives the sense of having tested the limit, of cleansing the pores, of flushing out the stagnant byways of the circulatory system.

To that end, I propose that someone of a mechanical bent devise an exercise bike that generates electricity. Domestic heroes, ready to take on global warming feet first, will trod down into the basement and spend a half hour generating an evening's worth of electricity for the family, and at the same time get that dose of intense exercise that a practical nature would otherwise deprive them of.

Of course, someone already has, as a "bike generator" web search will instantly show. One fellow produced 90 watt hours this very morning on his homemade bike generator, enough to run a laptop for three hours.

In this vein, a NY Times article, Taking People Power to a New Level, describes a way to generate electricity simply by taking a walk around the block. It attaches to the knee, and generates a steady flow of 5 watts. The article also mentions an invention that utilizes the jiggling of a backpack to generate 20 watts, more than enough to power whatever gizmos are standard equipment for hikes into the wild these days.

Embedded in the text is a stunning statistic: A person's body fat stores as much energy as a ton of batteries. Hope turns up in the most unlikely quarters. Given its reputation, the nation may be sitting on the key to its energy independence. No matter how dazzling the mechanical skin we wrap ourselves in, the solar-powered self remains the greatest marvel, now apparently with sophisticated battery power second to none.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can-Do Water Heater Adjustment

Of all the houses I've lived in, this is the first in which it occurred to me to change the temperature control on the hot water heater. They're so quiet and unassuming, tucked away somewhere in a closet or the basement. If by rare chance you encounter it during daily domestic ramblings, it's not likely to give off that "Come and adjust me" kind of vibe.

Turning the water heater back on after a long vacation, I happened to adjust the temperature control so that the hot water for the shower was consistently just right. No cold water needed. Just turn on the hot.

Through this chance discovery, the hot water heater now burns less gas, and there's no longer a need to fiddle with the cold and hot water knobs before and during the shower.

Not to say this will work in all homes. Serendipity may be playing a role here, involving the rhythm of hot water use in the house, but for the sake of some simplicity and economy, it's worth a try.

Update, Feb/2012: This approach continues to work very well, for everyone in the family. The logic is that the hotter the water in the tank, the more heat is lost through the tank's walls, which means more energy needs to be applied to keep the water at that high temperature. This past summer, we left the water heater on low after returning from a vacation, and actually found the coolish showers refreshing during hot weather. 

Adendum: Electric water heaters may be a little harder to adjust, as the temperature adjustments are typically behind metal covers, and there may be separate adjustments for upper and lower heat coils. Lots of tutorials can be found via internet search, with this link as an example. Since electric water heaters are less efficient than gas ones at heating water, learning to adjust them is worth the extra effort.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Partial Retrofits with Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescents have come a long way, but they work better in some spots than others.

Start with outdoor lighting that is on for long periods, and utility areas. I've been impressed with the fluorescent spotlights (though less advantageous for motion sensor lights, since the light is only on for brief periods), and have put the regular CFLs (Compact fluorescent lights) in enclosed outdoor fixtures without problems.

For indoors, the light they give off is much improved, and can be softened further by using them in lamps, where the glass or lampshade will add yellow to their glow.

For rooms with recessed or track lighting, or where dimmer switches make fluorescents problematic, it may work better to simply create a fluorescent alternative in those rooms rather than replacing the more wasteful bulbs. That way, when the room isn't being used but one wants some sort of light on, a lamp or overhead with a florescent can be turned on, with the other lighting reserved for times when you want additional or more ornate light. (Note, Feb/2012: Recently, realizing we rarely used the dimming function, I replaced the dimmer switch for some overhead lighting with a regular switch, so that regular CFLs could be used.)

Some people wait until an incandescent bulb burns out before replacing it with a compact florescent. My thinking is: Don't wait. Start reducing energy consumption now, and if you don't want to throw out a still-functional incandescent, then store it away, as a backup for those few spots where incandescents are more appropriate, for instance where a light is only used for a few minutes at a time.

Compact fluorescents are cheaper than most articles say. Recently, I found both 60 and 75 watt equivalents selling individually for 75 cents each at Walmart (strangely, packages of multiple bulbs in another display in the same store were more expensive per bulb) (On a subsequent visit, the bargain display had disappeared--a "one time deal" according to one of the employees). The big box hardware stores usually have 60 watt equivalents for $1 each these days (As of 1/16, they are more like 3 for $5).

An Energy Meter in Action

The Kill-a-Watt is a useful tool for getting a handle on some of your energy use. It can test anything that plugs into a regular wall socket, up to 1850 watts.

Here it is in action, measuring how much electricity a toaster oven uses. 1400 watts is 100 times as much as a florescent bulb uses, and about half as much as a small electric dryer.

A toaster uses lots of energy but for a very short time. Press the red button on the right side of the Kill-a-Watt meter and it tells you how much energy the toasting of toast took--a grand 0.05 kilowatt hours. That's about one penny's worth of energy--about the same as having a 50 watt light bulb on for an hour.

Obviously, toasters are not toasting the planet, but check other appliances and you're sure to find some unnecessary drains on energy. The device is particularly good for finding and measuring the energy used by electronics even when they are off.