Earth Day 2011: Three Simple Acts That Can Make A Difference
Today (April 22nd) is Earth Day 2011, and the theme of this year’s Earth Day is A Billion Acts of Green. The basic idea is that if at least a billion of us each pledged to perform some relatively simple “act of green”, we’d be that much closer to a greener, more sustainable world. Here are examples of three simple, relatively low cost (lightweight, if you will), but very definite and effective, acts of green that could help make a big difference if performed in large numbers. All are tasks I’ve already accomplished myself, and have reported in detail elsewhere. So, with all that in mind, here goes…
Simple Act of Green Number 1: Reducing Electrical Power Consumption through CFLs & Vampire Slaying
Most of us get our electrical power from a utility company that generates electricity by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas). The problem here is that this generation process is often highly inefficient, wasting much energy in the form of heat lost to the environment. In fact, on average, for every 100 watts of power (of various forms) employed by the utility in the production and distribution of electricity, the consumer only receives about 30 watts of electrical power. Therefore, it greatly benefits the environment (as well as our own pocketbooks) to reduce our overall demand for electrical power.
One of the simplest and most effective means of reducing power consumption is that of replacing your most frequently used incandescent lamps with compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, of equivalent wattage. Yet another, perhaps less well-understood, but equally compelling strategy is identifying and eliminating the so-called vampire loads of certain appliances. That is — electricity still being consumed by certain appliances, even though they’ve either been cycled-off, or are otherwise not providing any useful service.
Examples of these might include devices like cable boxes, DVD/DVR players, computer peripherals, etc. Vampire loads are difficult to deal with, because you can’t always readily tell whether a particular appliance is drawing a vampire load. Or, if so, how large that load is. Furthermore, even if existing vampire loads are all relatively small, over the course of a long period of time, they can add up to a lot of wasted electricity. A general strategy for managing vampire loads is to first find them, then decide which are essential (and which are not), and finally, devise a strategy for cutting power to the non-essential vampire appliances when they’re not in use.
The Technician’s Technical Notes (<< Editor’s Embellishment): A simple and inexpensive digital power meter, such as the Kill A Watt™ EZ (my personal favorite), Black & Decker‘s EM100B, or even the more expensive and more technical Watts Up? Pro/ES, is essential in identifying vampire appliances operating in the 120V/15A range. Usually, you first configure the meter with your current billing rate for electrical service, usually found on your statement. Then, for any appliance you suspect might be drawing a vampire load, plug the meter into an outlet or power strip while plugging the appliance into the meter.
You then allow the meter to run for some reasonable amount of time (for example — overnight), while the device being tested is turned off or otherwise not in active service. The power meter’s display will tell you definitively whether the appliance is drawing power, and if so, how much and at what cost. You can then calculate how much this vampire load costs over the course of a day, week, month, or a year. Of course, if the meter registers nothing, then the device is not a vampire, and you have nothing to worry about. Here are the costs of some vampire loads I actually measured in my own home, extrapolated out to one year, and based on my current billing rate of $0.203 per kilowatt-hour:
Estimated Annual Costs of Several Measured Vampire Loads
Cable box = $30.23 per year
Notebook computer power adapter = $42.67 per year
Energy Star™ rated color laser printer (hibernating) = $7.11 per year
Mobility device charging system = $17.78 per year
Cable modem = $10.66 per year
Total = $108.45 per year
Of these, the cable modem is actually not a vampire, but rather, an acceptable, continuous load that I would never want to actually shut off (because doing so would interfere with my voice telephony service). On the other hand, the hibernating laser printer is clearly a vampire — not a big one, but still something one wouldn’t expect from a relatively new, Energy Star™ rated appliance. This is why measurement, not guess work, is important here.
Once you’ve found the vampires, what do you do about them? You could always unplug them when not in use, but doing so would get a little onerous. On the other hand, if you have a sufficient number of outlets, you can deploy several power strips, one for non-vampire or essential appliances, another for all the vampires that you want to collectively switch off. Not nearly as bad as unplugging individual appliances, but still requiring unwanted manual intervention.
Yet a third alternative is to use a so-called “smart strip”. These are surge-suppressing power strips that have some number of permanently “hot” outlets, some number of “switched” outlets, and usually a single “control” outlet that disrupts power to the switched outlets whenever the control outlet appliance is switched off. For example, you might want your DVD player powered down whenever your television is switched off. By plugging the television into the control outlet, and the DVD player into a switched outlet, this will happen automatically, without the need to manually trip any switches.
In my own home, I use a smart strip to manage my home computing environment, which consists of several notebook computers and a high-end Linux workstation — all controlled via a single KVM switch. I plug my monitor’s power cord into the control outlet, because whenever I’m using any of these computers, the monitor invariably is on as well. When I shut the monitor off, the notebook power adapters all lose power, as does the printer and the workstation, since all are plugged into switched outlets. But my modem and wireless router are powered by hot outlets, and always remain up.
Note: An IT purist might object to the idea of configuring equipment in such a manner that switching a monitor off also kills power to the workstation, and I would generally concur with that. However, in my world, I always shut my equipment down in an orderly fashion, the monitor being the very last thing I’d switch off anyway.
Simple Act of Green Number 2: Reduce Your Water Consumption with Low-Flow Aerators
From an energy conservation standpoint, water should be regarded as being equivalent to energy. That’s because it requires energy to extract or collect water, filter it, heat it or chill it, and then finally transport it to your faucet or tap. So water should never be wasted. A simple act of green regarding water management, of course, is making sure you have no leaks anywhere in your home water supply system, and repairing them if you do. In a sense, doing so is almost the water conservation analog of replacing all your incandescents with CFLs — it makes little sense to continue until you’ve performed this first essential step, to stop all the major bleeding.
But yet another lightweight water management strategy is to systematically restrict water flow at almost all manually-operated faucets and taps inside your home. This can be accomplished through the use of various low-flow aerators or spray heads, which are relatively low cost, and can readily be installed by many homeowners. In my own home, I’ve installed both 1.0 and 1.5 gallon per minute (gpm) aerators in all my sinks, including the pull-down spray-head in my kitchen. I’ve also installed a rather elegant 1.5 gpm Victorian-style spray-head in my shower.
The Technician’s Technical Notes: Of course, one could argue against the need for doing this by asserting that the real key to conserving water at the faucet is to cycle the stream off when not actually making use of it (for example, while shaving, or soaping your hands), or by manually turning down the flow to the bare minimal flow that you can get by with. While I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that reasoning, I still advocate the use of low-flow aerators, for a number of reasons.
First of all, even the best intentioned of us will soon lose patience with any solution that requires too much manual fussing about. Secondly, just as with electricity, any true home energy management strategy needs to be grounded in the ability to quantify use and measure and track results. If I know definitively that the maximum flow rate at a shower head or faucet is, for example 1.5 gpm, then I can easily estimate my average water usage over time, if need be, or use this as the basis for fine-tuning other aspects of my water usage or my supply or waste systems.
Finally, unless you’re sure that your drain/waste pipes are fully capable of carrying away waste water at much lower flows, I think it’s wise to establish some reasonable, fixed, yet water-saving flow rate, such as 1.5 gpm. When you manually make the flow as low as possible, you might be creating a situation where waste water isn’t completely carried away with some left standing in your drains.
Simple Act of Green Number 3: Buy Local and/or Plant a Garden of Edibles
Recently, I read that the amount of energy required to provision your dinner plate with a piece of store-bought produce is often greater than the amount energy your body will acquire from consuming and metabolizing that same piece of produce. That’s because in the current state of commercial agriculture, a tremendous amount of energy is required to fertilize, harvest, prepare, and then ship most produce. Clearly, this is not a sustainable situation. Were a simple subsistence farmer required to expend more bodily energy than his vegetables could replenish him with, he’d eventually starve to death.
It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to try to buy produce locally (from your local farmer’s market, for example). Or better yet, plant and raise as much of your own vegetables, fruit, and other edibles, as you can and if you are in a position to do so. Of course, many of us live in locations where there are restrictions against large scale outdoor planting, even when there’s room.
I find that very sad, frankly, and can’t help but to view that as being yet another unfortunate consequence of living in a society whose culture has been unduly influenced by a total dependence on cheap fossil fuels. (Okay. I said it, and now I’ll slowly step down off my soapbox). But if you do have the space, and no restrictions, then by all means, seriously consider raising your own edibles. And if you lack space, containers are a worthy alternative. Community gardening, as well, is an excellent alternative to a lack of space or restrictions, as long as there is a community gardening program in your area. An added benefit is that you can make new friends with a common interest in gardening in the process.
The Technician’s Technical Notes: Many of us have preconceptions of vegetable gardens as being unattractive. When I was a kid, it seemed that nearly all my friends’ grandparents (their parents, less so) were always planting vegetable gardens. These people were of a different generation and mindset having lived through one or two world wars, as well as the Great Depression. Home gardening and self-sufficiency seemed second nature to them. But I swear, most of them were also caught up in a brutal competition to see who could create the ugliest gardens possible with their prize tomato plants staked with paint-splattered, broken curtain rods, and tied-off with strips of cloth torn from someone’s old, stained undershirt.
However, centuries before the French (and some other European cultures as well) pioneered the concept of a potager, or vegetable garden designed to be just as aesthetically pleasing as it was utilitarian. In recent years, this practice of creating ornamental gardens from both edible and decorative plantings has made a comeback with amazing examples often being published in leading gardening magazines. So there is no need for such a garden to be ugly. With good planning, and commitment, and a little artistic adventurism, your vegetable and herb gardens can compete with the best flower gardens while also providing you with a local, sustainable supply of fresh produce.
Some Final Thoughts
Of the three lightweight acts of green described here, the first two — dealing with power and water respectively — are sort of “fix ‘em and forget ‘em” in nature (at least until you buy more appliances or your aerators require cleaning). The backyard vegetable garden on the other hand, especially if artistically done, clearly represents a much greater commitment of time and focus. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a great deal of cost, if managed the right way. But it might not actually be fair for me to categorize it as “lightweight”. I do, however, see it as being an essential feature of any sustainable homestead.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that in recent years, the kitchen has very much resumed its centuries-old, traditional role of being both the heart and soul of the home — a concept which, like the kitchen garden itself, had been lost somewhere back in the days of cheap oil. So, beginning with this Earth Day of 2011, why not recognize both the validity and novelty of finally combining these two notions — the elegant kitchen and its elegant kitchen garden — back together again? And in doing so, perhaps forming a new hallmark feature of that green, sustainable future we’re so intent on achieving?
Oh, and remember, of course, to include a rain barrel in your elegant kitchen garden; after all, water is energy, and energy needs to be conserved. :-)
Note from Building Moxie: A ways back John earned the nickname “The Technician.” Do you wonder why? But seriously, John is into this stuff – he lives it and these tips will live on beyond this one day. For me, and to celebrate this year’s coming Earth Day — he was the only individual that I could think to ask for a post.
As discussed shortly after this post was delivered, and John is a supporter, most if not all of the products mentioned here are available at >> Energy Circle. Energy Circle is celebrating Earth Day 2011 with a Simple Solutions Sale and Raffle. You could visit them now >> http://www.energycircle.com/shop.
Many thanks John and a Happy Earth Day and Passover and Easter to all. ~jb
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About John Poole (10 posts)
John Poole is a computer scientist and technologist. His mysterious Second Life, however, is almost singularly driven by an all-consuming passion for carpentry, woodworking, timber framing, and the restoration/renovation of old colonial homes, of which he currently has two ongoing projects. In his copious spare time, John enjoys rowing, skiing, sailing, reading, and sometimes even a little gardening.