Archive for the ‘Electronics’ category

Energy Efficiency — Creating and Implementing an Action Plan

September 10th, 2011
Noma Powerbar with Timer

Noma Powerbar with timer – through Canadian Tire $24.99

I’ve written many articles on energy efficiency, and read a lot on it as well, where I’ve always gotten frustrated are the uncoordinated tips that are given about improving your home’s energy efficiency. “Buy this super duper auto shut-off plug!” “Install CFLs!” “Replace your windows and doors!” If you’re not taking targeted action, you’re not going to be as efficient as you think you are. You have to know where you use the most electricity before making changes, otherwise you’re not spending wisely, and you won’t see the results you want.

The first three articles in this series on energy efficiency involved discovering how much electricity your household uses, doing a home DIY electricity audit to determine which devices are using the most electricity, and finally, monitoring your family’s behaviour to see how electricity is being used. Now it’s time to synthesize that information and take concrete steps towards lowering your electricity consumption. You’ve done the research, now do the footwork.

Set a target. Let’s say you’ve determined that your family uses 1200 kWh of electricity per month and you want to get that consumption down to 900 kWh/month. Look through your energy audit and any notes on family behaviour regarding electricity you’ve made and decide how easily achievable the goal is (Reducing from 1200 kWh to 900 kWh is a 25% reduction, so it could be a top-lofty goal to start with).

There are four ways to reduce plug load consumption:

  • unplug,
  • use power intermittently,
  • replace items with more efficient models, substitution (ie., ceiling fans for central air),
  • change family behaviour (probably the toughest action to enforce).

Unplug. You know where electricity in your home is being used from your DIY audit. Go after the inexpensive, low hanging fruit first. No, not the light bulbs, unplugging gadgets. Unplugging is a no-brainer. Why is your VCR still plugged in? When was the last time you used it? What about that digital clock and old TV in the spare room you rarely use? What about the coffeemaker? If you don’t use the timer and it has a clock, unplug it. Any cord that comes with a DC converter and feels hot to the touch when it’s plugged in should be unplugged unless in use, particularly cellphone chargers and laptops. Those chargers draw power even when nothing’s attached to them. If you’ve done a meticulous electricity audit, you can see on paper just how much electricity you’ll stop using by unplugging gadgets and just how close to your goal the unplugging will bring you. Not only have you not spent a dime to make changes, you’re now paying less to your utility company too.

Use power intermittently. This means put gadgets on timers, unplug cellphone chargers when something’s finished charging. Learn how to program and use your thermostat for both winter and summer. The earliest models were a pain to program, but the current models walk you through programming fairly easily. Schedule 15 minutes one weekend morning and program your thermostat to meet your family’s needs.

Add auto-shut off bars to your gaming stations, computer stations, and anything else that uses a lot of phantom power, such as cell phone chargers. You can plug several cords into one unit, so you will likely only need two or three cords, maybe you even have some already that you bought with good intentions, but just never got around to using properly.

Look at your DIY Audit, figure out how many power cords you’ll need, then program the devices to be on for only a few hours a day (why turn on a gaming station before 4 in the afternoon, or even, during the week if your kids aren’t allowed to game during the week?).

If you use your outdoor lighting every night, all night, you might want to consider putting it on timers or sensors so that it only goes on when someone approaches. We only use our outdoor lights when we’re expecting company (or the pizza delivery guy), because there’s a street light outside our home that does the job.

Go to saveONenergy for money-saving coupons on many energy efficient products including light bulbs, sensors and auto shut-off timers. Note: coupons are valid in Ontario only.

Calculate how much electricity you’d save if items were completely off for 18 hours per day and see how close you’re getting to your target.

Replace items with more efficient models. This is the area where some investment is involved, so you might want to develop a budget and see how much you’re prepared to do and when.

Lighting. In our house lighting counts for up to 20% of our overall electricity consumption, so it’s worthwhile examining where changes can be made to have an impact on overall efficiency. However, I have a confession to make: I hate CFL bulbs. I don’t like the light they cast or how long it takes for them to warm up. They don’t last as long as they’re touted to because (and no one ever tells you this) the more often you turn them on and off, the shorter their lifespan; they’ve got mercury in them, and you just know that some people are not going to dispose of them responsibly so some are likely ending up in landfill. It’s hard to find dimmable CFLs, and finally, I don’t like their shape because they don’t fit with some of my lamps. Harrumph. But I still use them. Not everywhere, just where I have a tendency to have lights on all the time, like in my office, the rec. room, and the kitchen.

Before changing all your light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs think about what really needs changing. Don’t bother replacing bulbs that are rarely used, ie., basement or hall closets, any other rooms/lamps where lights are rarely turned on. It’s not worth the money, and you won’t be saving enough electricity to make a difference. The next time those burn out, replace it with something more efficient. In the meantime focus on the rooms where lights are on the most often. In our house, it’s the kitchen, the office and the rec. room. They all contain CFLs (even though I hate them). Not only will you see a significant drop in electricity consumption, but in the summer they generate less heat relieving your air conditioner of some stress too. Of course, the corollary of that is that they generate less heat in the winter, so you might be increasing your heating bill slightly.

I like LED bulbs. They’re dimmable, they’re better looking, the light they cast is crisp. Plus, they don’t have any mercury in them. Because they’re still not cost-effective for short-term decisions, it’s best to replace lights where they’re used the majority of the time. Buying LEDs, however, isn’t as simple as going into Home Depot and picking up a few, so I’ve written an article on how to buy LED lights. Invest in good quality ones and they will last the 75,000 to 100,000 hours they say they will.

Appliances. The next time you need new appliances, look for the most efficient Energy Star appliances you can afford. Here’s the thing about Energy Star, in order to be certified, an appliance needs to be at least 20% more efficient than its non-Energy Star counterpart. But there are many, many brands that go much farther beyond the 20% more efficient. Read labels and Energuide information that’s tacked on the front of all models and compare to the brand beside it. European models are so much more efficient than most North American models it’s not even funny — but they’re also considerably more expensive and may be hard or expensive to repair if anything goes wrong. Buy new appliances when you need them, and figure out which one is going to make the biggest dent in your electricity bill (most likely the fridge and the washer).

Note that central air conditioners and furnaces are also Energy Star rated, as are new homes, but not ovens or dryers. If you know how much energy your current appliances use, you can figure out how much electricity a new model is going to save you.

Ceiling fans. There are Energy Star rated ceiling fans too, although using ceiling fans throughout the house will permit you to set your central air conditioner at a higher temperature, or do without it altogether. Ceiling fans consume, on average, about 60 Watts of electricity, versus a central air conditioning unit which uses approximately 3500 Watts (depending on the size, year made, efficiency, etc.).

Change Family Behaviour. If you’ve been watching your family’s and your own behaviour, you’ll have noticed when they leave lights/computers/gaming stations on, the fridge door open, chargers plugged in, etc.  Controlling your own behaviour is the easiest and maybe the best way to start is by improving your own habits. Can you line dry some of your clothes more often? Have you set up a centralized cellphone charging station where it’s easy to unplug at the end of a charging session? Have you got yourself into the habit of turning lights and computers off every time you leave the room?

Regarding the rest of your family, doing a few calculations to see how much it costs every time these little actions occur may help, especially if there’s a way to incentivize them to change. If, after a year of behaviour change you saved enough money to treat yourselves to your family’s favourite restaurant, or something even bigger, maybe that would help. Whatever motivates them to think about conserving, you should try. Maybe they can help you brainstorm ideas, if kids take a stake in the decisions, they are more likely to follow through — with lots of reminders, coaching, and encouragement.

Review and compare. Now that you’ve taken steps to reduce your electricity, review and compare your results and see how you’re doing versus your original target goals. There are a few ways to do this: The first is to wait until you get your next electric bill and see what your power usage from the previous year was. If you want instant gratification, and you have a smart meter, and you live in a service area, sign up for Not only does the service send you your electricity usage daily, it starts you off with an automatic 10% reduction target. Every time you use less electricity, you receive a cash deposit in your Paypal account at the end of the month. If you don’t have a smart meter hooked up to your home yet, have a look at the Power Cost monitor. This company has just teamed up with Plot Watt to offer even those homes without smart meters the ability to track and identify accurately, the electricity consumers in the home.

Cutting your electricity Use: Observing your Family’s Behaviour

August 10th, 2011

Think back to the ’80s, before the existence of iPods, home computers, electric telephones, home theatres, gaming stations (all right, there was Nintendo). Although our appliances consumed a lot more electricity per unit than the ones we use now, we used a lot less electricity per household because there wasn’t as much electronic stuff. How many of us actually think about how we’re increasing our plug load when we buy a new electronic gadget?

So, now that you know how much electricity you’re using and where you’re using it (from my previous two articles), you can probably identify some of your home’s major electronic consumers. But there’s another piece of the puzzle that many people don’t even consider, which is human behaviour. You can have all the efficient lighting in the world, a programmable thermostat for your heat, Energy Star rated auto shut-off power bars, but if you’re not using the equipment properly, they’re not giving you the benefits you bought them for in the first place.

In addition to the obvious things like turning off TVs, printers, and computers when you leave a room, there are other less obvious behaviour items to check for, such as:

  • Programmable Thermostats. Do you know how to program your programmable thermostat and have you done so? If you haven’t, pull out the instruction book and do it. You can save significantly on your air conditioning bill by raising the temperature by 3-4 degrees while you’re out at work or away on weekends. Did you also know that when you set your home’s temperature to cooler for when you return to your home at the end of the day, your thermostat triggers the “recovery” mode early enough in the cycle so that by the time you’re home the house has reached the desired temperature setting? In other words, don’t worry about setting it for a cooler temperature half an hour before you get home, the thermostat takes care of the temperature difference well in advance. If you’re really comfortable with your programmable thermostat and you’re away on weekends, either turn it off, or set the temperature a few degrees higher for the weekends. While you won’t notice, you’ll be happier with your electricity bill.
  • Extra and/or Older Electronics not in use. As I mentioned earlier, we have a lot more devices plugged into our homes than we did 20 years ago. So many, in fact that it probably doesn’t even occur to you what kind of plug load you’re adding when you buy a new electronic device. Now, with a critical eye go through each room in your house and look at the electronics that are a constant drain on electricity and don’t even get used. Do you have a digital clock running in a guest room you never go into? An old VCR plugged in you haven’t used in years (and may even still be flashing 12?), how many phones are cordless? Can you switch a few that are rarely used over to the old and quaint corded models? It’s a good idea to have at least one of these phones in use in the event of a power outage if you still have a land line.
  • Appliances. The extra 25-year-old fridge or freezer you’ve been using for as a drinks fridge or extra food sucks up a lot of extra money, so much money that you might be better off getting rid of it and investing in a more efficient second fridge or freezer or trying to make do without. If your washer and dryer are older than 15 years, you might want to consider buying new Energy Star rated ones. They save on water and electricity and dry your clothes faster. Are there appliances like the coffee maker, microwave, etc. that you don’t need them plugged in when not in use? Do you use the timer on your coffeemaker? Does the microwave need to be plugged in all the time? Look for savings to be had which involve nothing more than unplugging appliances not in use. This is particularly true for smaller appliances that have LCD clocks/displays.
  • Chargers. Unplug all chargers, cellphone or otherwise, when not in use. This is an easy step to talk about, but apparently a difficult one to achieve. The amount of power that’s wasted is estimated to be between 10-15% of your overall electricity bill. An easy action to think about doing, probably more difficult to achieve until you’ve developed the habit.
  • Shutdown/Turn off. Turn off devices, lights, computer, printers, etc., when not in use. How do we get our kids to remember to do this? If anyone has some suggestions, I’d love to know. I’m fortunate that I work from home because our electricity bill would be significantly higher if I left the house before my teenagers. Lights stay on all over the house after they’ve left for school in the morning (and yes, cellphone chargers also stay plugged in too). I’ve told them a thousand times to turn off lights when they leave a room, but since there are no consequences for leaving them on, they ignore me. Maybe I’ve got to start handing them an electric bill at the end of each month to get their attention.
  • Do exterior doors stay open during extreme weather so you feel like your father yelling “stop heating the neighbourhood!” Make sure your family closes doors to keep your home’s temperature constant. Also, keep doors to unused rooms closed and vents blocked to make cooling and heating more efficient.

Monitor your family’s behaviour patterns over a few days, make notes about any glaring issues you see. If there are easy fixes to make such as unplugging appliances that are never in use, do it, but don’t worry about making changes now, the next article is about creating and implementing an action plan.

A Do-It-Yourself Plug and Lighting Load (Electricity) Audit

July 27th, 2011

In a previous post I discussed the importance of benchmarking your electricity use. Benchmarking helps you understand how much electricity you are currently consuming, as well as your usage history. Now we want to figure out where we consume it.

A Do it Yourself Home energy audit is easiest if electricity is used exclusively for plug load and lighting. In the event that it’s also used for heating and cooling, it’s best to call in a home energy auditor so they can help you track down the air leaks in your home and help you figure out where to add insulation, weather-stripping, and plug air leaks to bring your heating bills down — or you can calculate plug load in the non-heating season.

I’ve written about the benefits of hiring a home energy auditor here. Note: The Canadian government has just reinstated the ecoEnergy Retrofit grant program, now available until March 31, 2012, which means now is a great time to get an energy audit done, particularly if you’re planning on home renovations. Between the Ontario government and federal government, you could get $300 of your audit paid for, which for most homes covers 75-100% of the audit. (Update: program is now completed. Feb 4, 2014)

In our home’s case, I know our electricity use is entirely plug load and lighting since we use natural gas for heating, hot water and cooking. There are two ways to do an electricity audit — the quick and easy but less accurate way, or the detailed, time-intensive but far more accurate way (quite the salesperson, aren’t I?).

In either case you should take your time and calculate your lighting load using the following method since no extra equipment is required and all the information you need is written on the light bulb (usually).

Calculating lighting load: Decide whether you’re going to start from the top or bottom of your home, but work your way systematically from the front of your house to the back visiting every room, bathroom and closet that has lights. Note your ceiling lights, table lamps and undermount lights, their wattage and estimate how much time they’re on each day. Include closets if they have lights in them.

In our kitchen there are six 50 watt halogen lights that are on in the morning for 1 hour for six months of the year and 2 hours for six months. In the evening, the six lights are on for three hours in the summer and five hours in the winter. There are also two incandescent hanging lamps which are on for three hours in the evening. So, calculating the amount of electricity the kitchen lighting load for an average day (estimate 1.5 hours per morning, 4 hours per evening for a total of 5.5 hours per day).

  • 6 lights x 50 watts/light x 5.5 hours per day + 2 lights x 60 watts/light x 3 hours per day  = 2,010 watt-hours per day or 2 kwh per day. Therefore, in one month the kitchen lights use 61 kwh of electricity.

Repeat this process for every room in your house and add up your total lighting consumption at the end. The results will tell you how much of your total electricity bill is dedicated to lighting. In our house, I estimate that our lighting bill accounts for 20% of our total electricity bill before central air is turned on.

Finding your electricity hogs: So, if lighting only accounts for 20% of our home’s total energy use, where is the other 80% coming from? Appliances, computers, TVs, digital boxes, stereos, cellphone and game chargers, gaming stations, alarm systems, digital clocks and of course, air conditioning.

Method I: Quick and Easy Way of estimating where your electricity is being consumed.

Make rough estimates of time usage for each appliance in each room in the house (remember to count those items that are in standby mode too such as computers, DVD players, stereos, TVs, etc.) then multiply it by the amount of watts per device as given in the links below.

Method II — Detailed, exact measurement: If you’re Type A like me, then you might be interested in determining exactly where you’re using the most energy instead of just making educated guesses. There are a few reasons to do it this way: one is that the results may surprise you — perhaps you thought it was your four-year old dryer that was using the most energy, but in fact it might be your 15-year-old deep freeze — especially when you consider that it runs 24-7- 365. Another surprise might be seeing how much energy your TV-Surround Sound-Gaming System use — even when it’s off (because it’s not really off, it’s in standby, still drawing electricity, commonly referred to as phantom power).

Measuring the electricity draw of each device is fairly simple, but to do it properly, you’ll need a few tools.

1. Pencil/pen and paper for recording your findings,

2. calculator for the math-challenged like myself,

3. energy monitoring device such as a Kill A Watt EZ monitor or PowerCost monitor. sells energy monitoring devices, and Canadian Tire sells a Blue Planet Energy Monitor. I’ve also read that some libraries, such as the Ottawa Public Library, will loan out the Kill A Watt. A good idea for a partnership between Toronto Hydro and the Toronto Public Library, don’t you think?

Go through each room in your house, identify everything that is plugged into a wall aside from lamps — which you’ve already done in part I. Don’t forget to measure things that might be put away but are used on a daily basis. Below is a list of some, but not all, of the possible electricity using devices in each room. Generally though, you only need to count the items you use daily or weekly.

Bedrooms contain a variety of items from clocks/iPods and chargers, TVs, digital boxes, DVD players, computers, in addition to lamps and overhead lighting.

Bathrooms have a lot of appliances that you might use in the morning getting ready for the day including hair dryers, curling irons, straightening irons, etc. These items can use a lot of electricity even if it’s only for a short amount of time.

Kitchen. All those small appliances that get used daily including toasters, toaster ovens, coffeemakers, microwaves, hand blenders, etc. can really add up. Also try to determine how old your fridge, dishwasher and oven are and look at this chart to estimate how much electricity they consume.

Laundry room. Washer and dryer, iron, steamer.

Living room/Family room/Great room. Stereo, TV, DVD player, surround sound system, digital TV PVR box, gaming system, video player, musical instruments such as electric amps, guitars, keyboards.

Home Office. Computer, monitor, speakers, printer, scanner, photocopier, telephone, cellphone charger, wireless router, modem, etc. If you’re using a measuring device, be careful about unplugging and replugging devices back in as some cause an automatic reset on devices. Check your manuals first.

Furnace and utility room. Dehumidifier, furnace fan, electric hot water heater, central air conditioner, alarm system, whole home sound system, sump pump, etc..If you still have access to the manuals, for some of these devices it would be better to check them for electricity consumption or look up their energy consumption online. Some items are better left untouched unless you know what you’re doing — in this case a measurement device like the Power Cost monitor is better than the Kill a Watt because it measures pulse changes in your electricity consumption and devices don’t need to be unplugged.

Garage and outside. Lawn mower, weed wacker, whipper snipper, garden lighting, pool heater, hot tub heater, cabana lights/fridge, stereo, etc.

For each of these devices estimate how much time they’re on for daily, multiply the wattage by time and divide by 1000 to get the number of kilowatt hours they’re drawing. Ex:

number of hours  device is on x watts / 1000 watts = x kilowatt hours.

so, for a hair dryer that draws 1000 watts that’s used for 10 minutes  or 1/6 of an hour daily

1/6×1000/1000= 0.167 kwh daily.

At this point we’re just recording how much electricity each device uses and estimating how much it gets used. You should have accounted for, in theory, about 90-95% of your overall electricity use after systematically going through each room in the house.

The goal here is to discover where the most electricity is being used. However, before we can develop an action plan to reduce our consumption, there is another part to the equation that’s often over-looked and that is, human behaviour. We’ll look at how we affect our home’s energy consumption in the next article.

The Power Cost Monitor — Measuring Your Electricity Consumption Every 30 Seconds

June 6th, 2011

I’m developing a series of articles to help homeowners reduce their power consumption in a step by step way. The outline for the series was a piece of cake. Filling in the specifics, however, has been a bit more of a challenge than I first thought. Truthfully, I’m still stuck on the second article: “Identifying the Electricity Consumers in Your Home.” The title for the second article also changes all the time, so don’t go looking for it when it’s finally published.

The thing is, assessing your plug load, particularly around lighting, is relatively easy. You look up at the ceiling, figure out how many bulbs are on, what their wattage is, estimate the number of hours they’re on during a 24 hour period and you’ve figured out your lighting load. But the rest is a little trickier. While I was doing my lighting consumption for my house, I discovered that lighting accounts for 20% of my overall electricity consumption. That means 80% is unaccounted for. Using my trusty Kill A Watt, I can get to the gaming stations, the lamps, clocks, TVs, and phones. But what about the appliances whose plugs I can’t reach? Or the built-ins that hide the plugs and make it difficult to access?

Power Cost Monitor

Power Cost Monitor WiFi

Enter the Power Cost Monitor. This is another electricity monitoring device that allows you to measure electricity consumption for any electrical device in your home, including your central air conditioner, oven, dryer, and any hard to reach electronic or appliance where you can’t access the plug. The Power Cost Monitor sounded intriguing so I contacted Peter Porteous, CEO of Blue Line Innovations, the company that makes the Power Cost Monitor, to find out how it works.

The device consists of two parts — the first part you hook up to your electricity meter. The monitoring unit is compatible with 90% of all electric meters in North America.

The second part is a handheld device that reads changes in electricity consumption when appliances are turned on (“baseline” vs. with appliance on). It will tell you in dollars or kilowatt hours, how much electricity the appliance is using. When I spoke with Peter he mentioned three things about it:

  1. The monitor reports changes in electricity consumption at 30 second intervals. This is the outside amount of time their customers are willing to accept.  Reporting periods longer than 30 seconds lose their relevance because so much can happen in 30 seconds. A few lights can get switched on, someone can turn on the stove, start watching a movie or start a load of laundry, and you don’t know which action has caused the increase in power use.
  2. Now the Power Cost monitor can hook up to your computer using WiFi so you can see your readings in chart form and track your consumption over time.
  3. Kids love to use it because they point it at a device, like a dishwasher, start pushing buttons on the dishwasher like “power scrub” or “heat dry” and watch the numbers on the monitor climb. Then they’ll do the same with the washing machine, adding “hot water” or “second spin” and see the same thing. They learn how behaviour and choices affect the amount of electricity we consume.

You can see how receiving your electric bill once every two months isn’t giving you nearly enough information for you to act on. Having information fed to you every 30 seconds helps you identify how much electricity devices in your home are using, and suddenly you the information you need to start doing something about it.

Discovering what your base load is, that is, what’s using power even when everything is off, can help you take concrete steps towards lowering your consumption. Peter told me that when he first used his monitor, his baseline electricity consumption was 1.1kw/hour. Now, after identifying behaviour patterns, phantom powers and appliances that were using a lot of electricity, he’s been able to reduce his baseline load to 300 watts/hour.

For a dealer near you, see the Power Cost Monitor website.

Unplug your cellphone after it’s charged — Action #6 on Practically Green

April 6th, 2011

Practically Green is a wonderful website that helps consumers go a little greener one action at a time. There are plenty of great things about this website, from helping you determine where you currently sit on “the green front” to helping you set goals to lighten your environmental load. It’s not a preachy site; they don’t tell you what you’re doing wrong, they just give you little steps you can take to make yourself and your family a bit greener — or a lot greener depending on what you want to accomplish. It has lots of suggestions of things to do, and suggestions of products to help you accomplish your goals.

Practically Green has branded April as “Earth Month.”  They have taken their top thirty most popular actions on their site and devoted a blog post each day to help all of us tackle these actions.

Today I wrote about “Unplugging your cellphone charger,” the sixth most popular action people have taken on the site. It sounds like it’s an easy thing to do, but you’d be surprised. Take a look around your home and see how many chargers are plugged into the wall without the cell phone in it.

Read my full post here, and to find out just how green you are (and how to help you become greener), visit Practically Green’s website.

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