Friday, February 17, 2012

A Fun Way to Learn About Wondrous, Winsome, Troublesome Carbon

This cartoon video is the most entertaining way I've found to learn about the wondrous nature of carbon, along with the ways carbon is quickly getting us into trouble. It's a five part series, with each one lasting about five minutes. Check out Part 1, followed by Parts 2-5.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tracking Home Energy Use

I'm testing a Wattvision whole house energy monitor on my house. It's made by a company in Princeton, and is straightforward to install by wrapping the sensor around the electric meter outside the house. No need for an electrician. The sensor in the photo can tell when the spinning disk in the meter has made one full rotation. The faster the spin, the more energy being consumed. It then transmits real time energy consumption info to my computer, via the router. This is like a speedometer on your car's dashboard.

Some people who have these meters post their home energy use on the Wattvision website, which allows us all to take a peek at how much energy people use in their homes.

If you go to, you can see there's quite a range of consumption. (It helps to know beforehand that a kilowatt hour is equal to using 1000 watts of electricity for one hour, e.g. leaving a 100 watt light bulb on for ten hours.)

Use per occupant on the list varies from 1 kilowatt hour per person per day all the way up to 90. That's a huge range in consumption habits. Then there's someone called "Electron miser in NJ" who's blowing us all away, consuming only half a kilowatt per person each day. My family uses about 2 kilowatt hours per person each day, so we're doing pretty well. Since we live comfortably, the range of consumption suggests there's a huge amount of energy that could be saved if people make an effort.

For those who like more technical discussions and a look at some of the data the meter generates, the company blog is worth checking out at

Central A/C Uses Energy Even in the Winter

One way to save a few bucks a year on energy is to turn off the circuit breaker for your central air conditioner during the cooler months. The compressor has a small heating unit inside (I've heard there's some lubricating oil that needs to be kept warm for optimal performance), which draws energy even in the winter months unless you turn off the power going to the A/C.

I discovered this while testing house energy use with my whole house energy monitor, and wasn't able to get the energy consumption down to zero until I tripped the A/C circuit breaker.

The heating/cooling contractor told me it doesn't hurt the A/C unit to cut off energy to it when it's not in use. An electrician suggested turning the energy back on a couple weeks before using the unit, to give it time to warm up. It's easy enough to put this on one's electronic calendar for some time in the spring. We've done this the last couple years without any problems.

As a disclaimer, I'd encourage double checking with whomever services your A/C unit before doing this.

Solar Harvest Through Windows

One of the most comfortable houses I ever visited was largely heated passively by a big bank of windows on the south side that let the sun in during the winter. In summer, a broad overhang kept the sun out. Even without such an auspicious design, it's possible to harvest enough sunlight during the day in winter to feel a difference.

These shades have hollow chambers that provide dead airspace for insulation when closed,

and can open up or down to control the view while letting solar heat and light in during the day.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Story a Snowy Roof Tells

There's been a real drop in light recycling this winter, compared to winters past. Which is to say that it hasn't snowed, and instead of light getting bounced around on white surfaces, it's been swallowed by the drab browns and grays of a snowless landscape.

This impacts the earth's energy budget, as well as our light-starved psyches. Energy secretary Steven Chu encourages people to install white roofs so that sunlight will be reflected back into space rather than absorbed and turned into heat energy. Snow serves that purpose well, when it's around.

A light snow also makes an excellent energy detective, telling you where heat is escaping from your house. This roof shows an apparent gap in insulation, where indoor heat escapes and melts the snow on the roof.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Compost Bucket, and the Benefits of Backyard Composting

One of the easier and more satisfying ways to reduce the amount of trash you put out for pickup is to compost food scraps in the backyard. This bucket costs about $20, prevents any odors in the kitchen, and is still like new after 15 years of service. There are many other buckets to be easily found with a google search--plastic, vented, etc.--but I've been happy with this one.

Curbside pickup of kitchen scraps and other compostables is an important service to provide for those who can't compost in the backyard. It's upsides are that removing all of a community's compostables from the waste stream can reduce the amount of trash headed to the landfill by 30% or more, and meat scraps that can be problematic for backyard composting can be included in the curbside bin.

But even when such programs are offered, backyard composting remains the most ecological approach for those who can, because it removes the energy-intensive mechanized chain of transport/composting/redistribution that comes with curbside pickup. And there's all that rich compost ready for use at the bottom of the pile.