Over many years, but especially since 2000, I have worked to decrease my energy use (or carbon footprint, or whatever you like to call it) in view of the strong possibility of future oil price increases and energy shortages. I hope, in my own small way, to conserve now and help give humanity a little more time to become educated and engage in mitigating the population explosion, pollution, and energy consumption issues facing us. Like everyone else, I am far from perfect but, like most people, I try to actively learn and apply whatever techniques I can to decrease my impact on the planet. The difficulty facing all of us is that good information about energy used by the products we use daily is hard to find. If, however, a million people cut their water usage by a gallon a day, for example, it saves A MILLION GALLONS PER DAY. That is nothing to shake a stick at. Please post a comment if you can provide pertinent information on this topic. I will revise this item to make it as useful as possible.
That said, I confess to still having a taste for hot showers, various entertainments that require electricity, and moderate amounts of travel. I try to incrementally improve my approach to a responsible life periodically, considering the possibility that in the future conditions might be different. For example, in the future I might have to keep the thermostat set much lower in winter and higher in summer, and wear different clothing and change my habits accordingly. I might even have to take a lesser job closer to home to avoid the cost of traveling into the city to my current job, but for now I try to make the trip as efficiently as possible. In any case, here are most of the habits and behaviors I have accumulated up until now. I will remember and acquire more and add them from time to time.
1. I walk any time it can replace using purchased energy for travel. My health is improved and I save money. I used to bicycle a lot, but am getting older and more worried about falling. I may go back to it, though, especially if our bad roads ever get better. (Road conditions are a big factor in bicycle safety.)
2. I should take public transportation more than I do, instead of driving. When all costs of driving a car or truck are considered, public transportation is cheaper every time. Sometimes I take the bus to avoid having to find a parking spot downtown when it is busy. I keep some bus tokens around, especially during the summer art fair when downtown is crammed with people for 4 days. I also give them to visitors who wouldn’t know where to begin looking for parking anyway.
3. I plan trips to combine errands and minimize total distance traveled. This will reduce both fuel consumption and wear on vehicle parts which require large amounts of energy to manufacture, ship, and replace.
4. I drive a car with a manual transmission unless an automatic provides better average fuel economy. CVT- equipped (Continuously Variable Transmission) vehicles are available, but have historically been the only type of automatic transmission to match the economy of manual types in standard tests. Long known for frequent and expensive maintenance requirements, I have read that CVT’s are now (2010) as reliable as other types.
5. I accelerate slowly whenever possible. Keeping instantaneous demand for fuel low keeps overall fuel use low.
5. I try to brake early and gently. Prolonging life of brake parts reduces total energy needed to manufacture, transport, and sell new parts.
6. I let my car coast whenever possible. I often put my transmission into neutral and coast down highway off ramps and up to stop signs and signals. While it has been deemed inadvisable by some, I sometimes put the transmission into neutral and coast down hills, leaving the engine idling at its lowest fuel consumption rate as much as possible.
7. I shut off the engine at long traffic lights (over 30 seconds). The fuel needed to start the engine is greater than that used at idle, but less than that consumed in roughly 30 seconds spent sitting at idle.
8. I put the car into neutral while waiting for traffic lights to extend the life of clutch parts. I have never had to have a clutch serviced, and have driven several cars beyond 180,000 miles.
9. I maintain tire pressures near the top of their operating range to reduce rolling resistance, and have tires rotated regularly to even out wear and prolong their lives. Tire rubber is made mostly from petroleum, and a great deal of energy is required to manufacture and ship them.
10. I use car air conditioning only above 87 degrees F or so, and turn it off during acceleration.
11. I manually cycle air conditioning off and on to maintain interior temperature in a comfortable range and not freeze myself, and use “cabin air only” setting to prolong off periods. If a thermostat is included in the climate control system turning the system off and on may not be necessary, but recycling cabin air will still save energy.
12. I keep car windows mostly closed or closed at highway speeds. For newer cars the energy required by air conditioning may be less than that which would be lost to added drag when driving at highway speeds with the windows down.
13. I use the highest fan speed only when necessary. Fans (like most electrical motors) require a significant amount of energy, and every tenth of a mile per gallon counts.
14. I keep headlights on during the day. While this might seem counter-intuitive, my reasoning is that if I avoid an accident I also avoid the huge amount of energy involved in manufacturing and shipping new parts, the need for a rental car during repairs, and other avoidable energy and resource uses, which I expect (but can’t prove … yet) will greatly exceed the additional fuel used to power those headlights, even over the many miles they will be on. I also save the time and money an accident would require, which could be substantial.
15. I try to drive at the speed limit or slightly below it as much as possible, and use my cruise control a lot to maintain a consistent speed. When I have purposefully driven at 65 mph on a 70 mph highway my fuel economy in miles per gallon was increased by 10%, a considerable savings when I was already routinely getting 30 mpg average. Using the techniques I have recorded here I consistently maintain average fuel economy well above the manufacturer’s expectation of 28 mpg highway (not average).
16. I drive a small hatchback with a small engine that is rated for 28 mpg highway, and my driving habits keep the average miles per gallon consistently above 30. The ability to fold front passenger and back seats flat allows me to carry fairly large items up to 8 feet long and more than 2 feet high. (Show me a sedan that can do THAT and get 30 mpg!) As far as combining utility with economy, I believe I have found a “sweet spot”.
17. I change automobile oil no more frequently than every 7000 miles, and sometimes longer. The oil companies have long pushed to keep the 3000 mile oil change myth alive, but oil, filter, and engine technology have improved much over the past century. Modern oil lasts much longer and current engines are designed to generate less internal sludge. An engineer working in engine design at Ford Motor Company told me in the mid-2000’s that manufacturers were ready to recommend a 7500 mile oil change interval in owners’ manuals, but I haven’t checked to verify that. I have used even longer intervals since 1980, sometimes up to 12,000 miles, and my cars have never had an oil related problem, though I DID have a problem after I allowed one mechanic to flush the sludge out of my engine at around 180,000 miles – the oil pressure dropped, probably because the oil pump impeller efficiency was being maintained by surrounding sludge deposits. Such engine treatments are rarely every necessary but represent substantial revenue to any shop that can talk you into them, and also use more toxic petrochemicals, so I wouldn’t have that done again unless it was to a very old car that I was restoring, and I was ready to rebuild the oil pump.
1. I do two large loads of laundry every two or three weeks, one for colored clothing and one for whites. In this way I avoid many small loads of laundry and the cost of hot water and energy for drying. As energy prices increase I will eventually move to drying my laundry outdoors on a clothesline, but right now my wife can’t stand the thought of it. (I think she is afraid the neighbors will think we are impoverished or throwbacks to early in the last century – either impression being embarrassing.)
2. I hang outer garments up overnight to air out after wearing, then inspect them for dirt and do a “smell check” to see if they can be returned to the closet without laundering. This prolongs the life of the garments and, for me, reduces permanent press laundry to once a month or less, and dry cleaning to quarterly or even less frequent. This practice was common in the 19th century and before, when water for washing often had to be carried in from outside the house where it was taken from a spring or pumped from a well. Dry cleaning chemicals are highly toxic and, like most chemicals in use today, are mostly refined from fossil fuel sources (coal and petroleum). (Please correct me if I’m wrong or provide additional information.)
3. I use a front-loading high-efficiency washer that uses just a few gallons of hot water per load. The heating of water is a significant part of a household’s energy use. Such washers cost more but the water savings is surprising, and they are generally easier on clothes, allowing them to last longer.
Lighting and electrical energy use
1. I turn off lights when they are not in use, even if just leaving a room for a few minutes. Research has shown that the energy saved by leaving lights on to reduce temperature transitions that age the bulbs is equal to that used in far less than a second of illumination. Therefore it is a savings to shut off lights even if you will only be out of the room for a matter of seconds.
2. Wherever possible I put chargers and instant-on or rarely used appliances (without clocks) on outlet strips that can be turned off most of the time, such as when I’m at work. Considering how many clocks and other time sources are on and around us, and around our homes now, you may be able to cut power to a microwave oven or DVD player and ignore the “blinking 12:00” when you are using it. Incidentally, the payback period for an outlet strip used for cellphone and other device chargers is typically well under ten years, while the outlet strip can last for decades.
3. I adjust dehumidifiers and thermostats to minimize fan and compressor run-time while maintaining temperature and humidity within comfortable limits. It is easy to choose a setting that keeps a dehumidifier running a lot more than necessary, and their motor-driven compressors and fans use a lot of electricity.
4. I try to spend more time in the coolest and lowest level of the house in summer, and in the warmest part of the house in winter. A partially or fully finished basement may stay nice and cool in summer while the rooms on the top floor will require much more energy and be much more expensive to cool to a comfortable temperature. In winter heat will naturally rise to the top floor and it will probably be the most comfortable part of the house.
5. Manage home heating and cooling to reduce energy use and utility bills. I close off rooms rarely used and shut off the HVAC registers to them when possible. In the summer I open registers in the top of the house and close those in the lowest level, since the cool air will flow downward anyway. In the winter I reverse this and close most registers in the top of the house while opening more of those in the lowest level. (Return ducts in a forced air system are typically without controls.) It is a good idea to discuss this practice with your HVAC technician when you have your furnace or air conditioner inspected or worked on, as they may be able to give more specific and helpful advice. My current house has air returns that are barely large enough for the system, and I was advised by a professional to keep the furnace room door open as well as the door to the next floor above for better efficiency.
5. I use ceiling fans to circulate air down from the ceiling where it collects in winter and move cooler air up from the floor in summer. This can help balance temperatures better in both the cooling and heating seasons.
6. I use the most efficient lighting available, such as compact flourescent or, better yet, LED lighting. I use less efficient lighting only where necessary, for example, in order to use it with a dimmer to reduce total energy use and achieve comfortable light levels. New technologies such as compact flourescent and LED lighting often do not work with dimmer circuits initially, but improved designs capable of dimming eventually come to market.
7. I cook with a microwave oven when possible as it wastes less energy by heating only the food. I use a convection oven if available when a conventional oven is required, as the air circulation in a convection oven can reduce cooking times by up to 50%, and thus reduce energy usage.
House maintenance and repair
1. When repairs or replacement are needed, always upgrade to more energy-efficient items if possible. Some roofing companies are now advertising shingles that generate electricity, and while the extra wiring and power conditioning equipment are expensive, I generally consider anything with a payback period (cumulative savings versus initial cost) of less than the average life of the product a worthwhile investment. While the batteries needed to store home-generated energy used to be a major cost barrier, modern systems are increasingly shifting to feeding energy not required by the house back into the electrical grid. Depending on where you live this may result in a greatly reduced energy bill or even payments from the electrical utility. Geothermal HVAC systems are very expensive, and the plumbing to connect them to sufficiently sized underground heat exchangers is often close to half the total cost, sometimes making payback periods prohibitively long. Keep in mind that payback periods shorten when energy prices rise or the new item has a longer useful life.
Lawn and garden care
1. Avoid using chemicals on the lawn and gardens wherever possible, which is to say, almost entirely. Lawn and garden chemicals require significant energy to produce and ship, often require production of toxic chemical waste in their manufacture, and are frequently made in large part from petroleum. Natural techniques and products that will obtain nearly the same results but at great savings are generally available, and information can be obtained from a variety of sources including the county agricultural office. I have written about lawns in this prior article, and here, and here.
2. I keep the lawn mower set to 3″ (as high as mine will go) or higher to keep grass long. Longer grass prevents dandelions, which need a lot of sunlight and are shaded by longer grass. Keep in mind also that a lawn is not a natural occurrence, and lawns as we think of them were virtually nonexistent until the French monarchs of the 16th century created them for the grounds around their palaces.
3. I only cut the lawn when it needs it, often when some of it is greater than 6″ long. This allows me to cut the lawn between 5 and 7 times between April and October, reducing both gas and oil usage and wear and tear on the lawnmower. (I tell my neighbors, who use chemicals and have a lawn service that “scalps” their lawn religiously every two weeks, that I will “keep them looking good”.)
4. I plant perennials wherever possible to minimize planting, fertilizing, and garden work as much as possible.
1. Buy locally-grown food and other products whenever possible. While they may cost more, they keep local businesses alive which might become much more important in event that energy prices rise significantly and increase food and other product transportation costs, or otherwise decrease available supplies. Also, locally grown food is frequently healthier for you (check to see if they use pesticides or fertilizers, which are made mostly from petroleum). Consider the food our grandparents and great grandparents consumed, and the seasonal nature of their diets. While many North Americans have become used to having the same diet year-round, we historically were dependent on seasonally shifting pattens of agriculture and available foods, and may be again depending on the course of technology and energy prices.
2. Minimize use of paper towels by switching to washable cloth napkins and rags. The energy required to wash and dry cloth items is far less than that needed to produce, ship, and dispose of paper towels, and reduces the trees consumed. Cloth napkins are more classy, anyway.
3. I recycle everything the local municipality, township, county, or trash collection provider will allow, and store small but important recyclables (toxic materials such as batteries, in particular) until I have enough to deliver them to an appropriate recycling facility.
Those are the ideas I follow daily. I appreciate any help in doing better at saving energy and resources. The more we save today, the more time we buy for technical innovation to mitigate at least some of our problems, and the easier we make life for our children, grandchildren, and descendants.
Please tell your elected representatives that we need as much funding for basic research as can be provided, and that conservation and controls on pollution are extremely important to you, as well as the education that will give people the knowledge to preserve and even improve our quality of life and that of life on the planet, in the future. We are all inhabitants of our “lifeboat earth”, but there are far too many of us and we’re using up resources at a frightening rate. What we do today will have far-reaching consequences for our descendants and the future of life on earth.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading and helping counter the problems we humans are creating for ourselves and planet.