Posts Tagged ‘energy conservation’

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.

Weekly Round Up of Eco Building and Other Eco News from around the Web

May 1st, 2011

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the ecosphere. Keeping up with what’s happening in green building and on the environmental front would be a full-time job in itself. Here are a few of some of the thought-provoking the articles from the last week.

Nearly Net Zero Energy Home: This is an excellent example of a good looking nearly “zero net energy” house. A zero net energy home is defined as a home that produces the same amount of energy as it uses. This one comes close with a combined electric and heating bill of $263 per year.

US Energy Production Mix 2011 and 2035: I admit that I’m a numbers geek, so I love these two pie charts on Grist that show the make up of the US energy mix now and predicted for 2035. The big take away is that natural gas will have more of a presence and coal less. I guess my own disappointment is that renewables are still predicted to make up only 11% of the entire energy supply mix. Eleven percent? Can’t we do any better than that?

Living Future Conference 2011: Building Green people are attending the “Living Future ‘Unconference,'” in Vancouver this week. I admit that I’ve never heard of the event, but once I read about it, I will now be paying very close attention. Basically, the conference is a way to bring visionaries together who look beyond “green buildings” and towards how do we rejuvenate cities to be healthy urban environments?

Stop Climate Change — What you can do: From Earth Day, a list of the top ten things you can do to stop climate change. Really? We can stop climate change by eating local/organic and carpooling? The list of actions is symbolic of course — yes you should eat less meat and use the car less and it will make you feel like you’re actually doing something about it, but we should also be putting pressure on governments and corporations to lead by example. The last action: donate to your favourite environmental not for profit organization.

Why use an Energy Monitor: I couldn’t write a weekly round up without pointing to my own article, could I? For Practically Green’s action: use an energy monitoring device I wrote about why this is an important step. After all, if you’re trying to figure out how to reduce your own energy consumption at home, you have to know what’s consuming  all the energy. In the “Comments Section” one reader notes that one watt of power in Massachusetts produces 11 pounds of carbon in the air. It all depends on your state or province’s energy production mix, but it’s a good number to think about. Imagine how much energy is wasted (and CO2 pumped into the air) because we leave TVs and computers on standby all the time.

Weekly Round Up of What’s New in Green Building and Eco-News

April 10th, 2011
Here is a round up of some of the interesting green building and green living articles I’ve read this week.
Toronto is unique because of its Ravine System: A few years ago I finally discovered the bike trail system through our city’s complex ravine system. I’d been trying to find it for years, but it wasn’t until I went with a seasoned veteran that I learned how to get downtown and back using almost entirely, the ravines. Little traffic, lots of open meadow, rickety bridges and beautiful bridges, the ravine system  is a true treasure and hard to believe that this relative wilderness weaves its way through a thriving metropolis.
Action #6 on Practically Green Unplug your cellphone charger: Speaking of the Kill A Watt, Practically Green is running a series on the most popular “eco actions” that people have committed to undertake on their road to a lower Carbon footprint. I was a guest blogger on Tuesday, and tackled the subject of why you should unplug your cell phone charger after your phone is charged. Here’s a hint: you can save $$$ with this simple action, no special tools required (although we look at a few to help you if you can’t do it on your own). Stay tuned to Practically Green for more Green Actions you can take to lighten your environmental load.
Deconstructing instead of demolishing a home and all the costs and considerations: A great article about how much it currently costs to deconstruct a home and divert more materials from landfill, versus just demolishing and tossing everything into landfill. Sure, the latter is faster and still cheaper, but there are great salvage companies out there who will deconstruct homes and can divert between 70 and 85% of all materials from landfill. Factor in the dumping costs and transportation, and suddenly deconstruction versus demolition starts looking a little less lopsided. Most interesting fact: Currently there are about 270,000 homes demolished in the US each year, imagine all that waste going into landfill! Now imagine finding new business streams and models developed out of secondary markets and new “input” materials. It’s happening slowly, but at least it’s happening.
Food for Thought: There is a debate going on in California between a group called “Stop Smart Meters” and the Environmental Defense Fund. An interesting take on why smart meters, in which Toronto Hydro and other utilities around Ontario are investing millions installing, may not be a “green” and energy saving as they were first reported to be. According to this article they may be worse for our health and for global warming than not installing them. There are other, cheaper methods that will curb electricity consumption, for example, the Kill A Watt. But EDF argues that they are still worth the investment over the long haul and will help us learn how to conserve energy.
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