Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


December 6, 2010

Step 2: Insulate, Step 1: Stop Drafts

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 1:38 pm

Failed attempt to seal my whole house fan

My First Attempt: Failure (Blue = Bad)

A while back, I had an energy audit and found that my house leaked like a sieve — a condition that left our efforts to insulate, replace windows, replace the gas burner and so on all waiting for me to wake up and smell the … fresh outdoor air.

The audit pointed out where the drafts were. We sealed. We caulked. We foamed. We had all of the identified problems addressed, mostly. And then (as a favor) our energy auditor returned and did a re-test, and found places we had missed. By “we” I mean “I’.

Holey Hole, Batman!

Insulated and Sealed Better Second Time

B&D Thermal Leak Detector: 62 Degrees

The whole house fan was one big remaining hole that I proudly asserted having fixed for $20 — I had built a box out of insulating foam board. I had put a nice cover over the fan, box corners sealed with duct tape, and made a nice seal between the cover and the floor. But the follow-up blower-door test showed: it was still a big hole in the house. By that winter, I knew — I could put my hand up and feel the cool air tumbling down from the attic. For another $8 I fixed the rest of the problem this fall. (more…)

October 7, 2010

How Heat Works (Warning: Scientific Content)

Category: 5%'s Top 10 List,Fun,Household,Technology – Tom Harrison – 1:01 pm

Heat, Thermostats and Serious Content (photo: Dan Zeng)

A few weeks ago I posted on the MS Hohm blog about programmable thermostats — Energy Star no longer recommends them, but not because they don’t work, but instead because people don’t use them correctly.

Studies show that people can be lazy, intimidated, etc.  But I want to discuss a significant reason pointed out in the study: people have an incorrect “mental model” of how programmable thermostats work (PDF).

A mental model is just how you picture something working — how you understand stuff in order to get through a complicated world, right or wrong.  A classic mismatch of mental model and reality is that “the computer” is the the screen, rather than the part that has the CPU, Memory and Disk in it (leave it to Apple to make a computer that matches peoples’ mental models!)

Apparently a certain Alaskan Senator had the mental model of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” But I won’t go there.

My hope is that where it matters, we can get a proper mental model that helps us make good decisions.  Here are some that caused people to not use programmable thermostats. (more…)

September 27, 2010

Mac Sleep Problems Resolved (and Explained)

Mac Won't SleepSay it isn’t so — my Macbook will not sleep! When I abandoned Windows for a Macbook, I hoped I would resolve a problem with not sleeping (entering sleep mode) that I have posted about before — my Windows XP Sleep and Hibernation posts continue to generate thousands of views, but alas, Snow Leopard, OS X doesn’t always sleep, either.

I have done a fair amount of research and think I understand why my macbook will not enter sleep mode, and how the OS X sleep process works. And importantly (and unlike Windows): what you can do to resolve the issue. The short answer is: there’s no built-in way to ensure your Mac goes to sleep automatically, but there’s a great bit of free software you can install, which in my tests works perfectly: PleaseSleep. (more…)

September 22, 2010

It’s Pointless To Save A Little

Category: Conservation,Household,Save Electricity – Tom Harrison – 4:26 pm

Update: 9/24/10: Measured TiVo standby and it saves only 1W. Phooey! I confirmed with TiVo support that “we don’t recommend turning it off and on repeatedly, but the system is designed to handle power outages, so it should be fine”. They also point out the newest model of TiVo are Energy Star compliant, standby does reduce power consumption and at idle, its around 20W, but honestly, that seems needlessly high to me.

TiVo energy useI want to put a timer switch on my TiVo because it uses 37 watts all the time (which is good compared to normal cable boxes, which TiVo replaces). But I only ever watch or record shows between noon and midnight — the TiVo is on half the time for no reason.

So I asked a question on the public support forum about whether turning the device on and off like this would hurt it.

I got a little helpful advice, but a flood of responses saying things like:

  • The energy used to make the timer would never be offset by the amount of energy you save
  • Don’t forget that the timer is an electrical device and consumes energy
  • It boggles my mind that people would waste their time on saving a few cents a day
  • The amount of energy you might save is tiny compared to X
  • Don’t forget how much money you spend buying all the things that help you save energy
  • It’s behavior like this that got us into all this trouble with mortgages and buying too much stuff

The first two items are potentially valid. (more…)

September 16, 2010

Review: SodaStream Gets Fizzy Water Right

Category: Green Reviews,Household,Organic & Local Food – Tom Harrison – 2:42 pm

sodastreamI continue to be stunned when I am at the market and see people buying bottled water, soda, flavored seltzers and other such products. They are heavy. They use plastic or aluminum containers. They are expensive. In short, a huge waste of resources at every level. And if you like soda (pop) it’s the same deal.

So make your own seltzer and soda at home — it’s easy, convenient, and saves money, and may also be good for the environment.

Not Your Dad’s Old Seltzer Bottle

I used to buy flavored seltzer in one liter bottles — lime, orange, and other flavors and fizzy water (no sugar). Then I recalled that when I was a kid, my dad had a seltzer bottle — one (CO2) charger would make a quart — a while back, I bought a Liss Soda Siphon and would regularly order packs of 10 chargers in the mail — I think they were about 50 cents a liter, which compares favorably to the 99 cents a liter at the store.

But the big wins: no bottles to lug, and as much water as you needed when you wanted it (as long as you keep chargers on hand). And no bottles in the landfill or to recycle. It was a reasonable solution, but after a year or so, a couple of the parts on the bottle started failing so that gas would leak out. I could usually make it work, but it was always a bit of a hassle to make a new batch. I think repair parts are available, so it’s still a pretty good option. (more…)

June 24, 2010

Why the Jevons Paradox Does Not Apply Today

Category: Climate Change,Conservation,Economics – Tom Harrison – 11:02 am

In a couple cases recently, I have heard people talking about how the Jevons Paradox will undermine efforts to use energy more efficiently — and it certainly seems like it would fit, but it doesn’t apply to our current energy problems for several reasons: conservation, and improved efficiency are still our best options.

Or, so started a post that I began writing a couple weeks ago. Then, in some sort of karmic mind-meld, Peter Troast at EnergyCircle.com wrote a post about Jevons, with almost the same conclusion as I was going to draw. Yeah, right, I hear you say.

So anyhoo, I think this topic is important to the larger discussion of energy, especially renewable energy, so here’s a link to Peter’s post on energy efficiency, which already has a nice thread of comments and observations — take a look, it’s a good read — and, add your thoughts!

May 3, 2010

Reconnecting To Nature Through Disasters: Bombs, Water, Oil Edition

Category: Climate Change,Save Water – Tom Harrison – 9:41 am

Yesterday, a massive failure of a water pipe serving my home, and two million of my neighbors, threw Boston into disarray. Some sort of car bomb in Times Square (that didn’t go off) has disrupted many and alarmed many more. I have been writing about the BP Oil Spill this week. All are connected — they are more than “catastrophes”: they all help remind us how connected and dependent upon technology we are … and I hope perhaps makes people think for a moment (or longer) about what that means.

Connecting With Nature

I have been a hiker and camped in the wilderness since I was a boy — when you’re climbing a mountain you know how precious water is, but also learn how little of our technology we actually need to survive. This said, I prefer my modern tent, clothing, water purifier, backpack and clothing to what I had forty years ago. But stepping into real, pristine wilderness almost instantly connects me to the systems of the source. I think my strong environmental bent is mainly linked to this life experience.

Millions of us living in the Boston area are using backup water now. It’s far from a catastrophe — the water we’re able to use from other reservoirs is untreated, so we have to boil it to kill the bacteria that might make us ill. I found it remarkable and somewhat heartening to see how quickly we came together to deal with the problem. But for a few days at least, we’ll all have to develop some new habits, put up with some inconvenience, and suffer some economic loss. Will we also stop to think, if only for a moment, that two million of us could have our water supplies and lives affected due to the failure of one pipe? I can imagine much worse scenarios.

The attempted car bomb in Times Square was disruptive in a different way. Little will change, but one can only think the residents of Manhattan had a little chill run up their spine, recalling the impact of terror from 9/11.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a single failure has created a widespread environmental disaster. It will affect the livelihoods of many, and disrupt a sensitive eco-system, likely for many years to come.

Climate Change

We have been talking about climate change for decades now. In the first phase in the 1980’s we began to realize that our domination of nature, through technology and energy was causing a problem. In the second phase by the 2000’s, we realized we had to act immediately to deal with it. Now in the third phase, we are realizing that we have missed our chance to solve the problem and we now also need to take steps to deal with the inevitable consequences.

So let’s consider these current disasters. Needless to say, the events in Boston and New York were trivial compared to the BP Oil Spill. But each stemmed from a single failure of technology that supports our complex infrastructure. Each resulted in a near immediate change in the way we live our lives, whether just for a moment, or perhaps far longer, but change our lives we did. Conveniences and necessities are affected — the impact is greater and longer depending on the scale. Now in 2010, five years after Katerina tore apart New Orleans, the city is beginning to come alive again. It could take years to reverse the impact of the oil spill.

But compared to impacts of climate change that scientists predict, all of these events will be forgotten as blips.

We’re Not Just Surface-dwelling Resource Extractors, We’re People

Take a moment to realize that we survive only when we live as a part of the earth, not just as surface dwelling resource extractors. Our dependence on the proper function of the earth is largely in our hands, and absolutely a matter of life and death. We must take significant action now. Yet we’re dithering on even the most trivial changes.

We can and do come together in times of crisis, and we accept change because we have no other alternative.

The magnitude of the crisis of climate change is vastly larger and longer than any of these current disasters. Yet of course each of these events will cause us to ask, “What could we have done to prevent…” the oil spill, the car bomb, and Boston’s water problem. Committees will investigate. We’ll make changes. These problems are concrete, current, and real.

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

The problem with climate change is that it hasn’t really “happened” yet, and never will, in any single event. It is abstract, difficult to measure, and hard to tie to any given event. It’s only in the aggregate … after we start seeing patterns (or see something more dramatic and visual), that climate change will become real to most people.

I fear that as we try to figure out how to prevent oil spills, bombs, and water failure, we are missing the much bigger opportunity to take action. If we reconnect with nature, and look around, perhaps it would be evident that the way to stop oil spills is to find a different form of energy. I fully recognize that this will not happen overnight. But I think we under-estimate ourselves if we say that we can make change happen overnight, or even in 10 years.

We’re pretty good at responding to problems. But we’re terrible at doing what it takes to prevent them. Take a moment to think how powerful nature is, on this lovely spring day, and join in the movement of people who are willing to take action and understand that we need to deal with climate change.

January 23, 2010

How Not To Make an Efficient House in 13 Years

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 10:46 pm

A while back, I had started a project of insulating the heating pipes that run through my basement — we have an old house that was designed for a gravity-fed hot water heating system — iron pipes and big old radiators.

Unlike a modern system, using copper pipe that run through baseboard radiators, we have a system that appears to be one step beyond the old steam-heat systems: big, heavy cast-iron radiators that take up a lot of space; and big, heavy cast-iron piping that runs through the basement and upon which I regularly knock my noggin.

Insulating my pipes was, to use an indelicate expression, like pissing in the wind. Or at least it was then. Today, I finished that job. But it took 13 years — insulating my heating pipes was probably the only thing I did that I should have done last. But I am getting ahead of myself. (more…)

January 22, 2010

Results of my Energy Audit: Before and After Pictures

Category: Conservation,Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 10:31 pm

In the Spring of 2009 I hired energy auditor Flemming Lund to do an energy audit on our house — I posted pictures and the full report — it was pretty amazing. I had some work done this summer (air sealing and insulation), and did some more on my own this fall — mostly caulking and stuff. Then I asked Flemming to come back and re-do the test. I told him he would have endless fame, fortune and that I would continue to refer customers to him, so he graciously waived the re-audit fee (thanks Flemming!)

And here are the results. Well, actually, the results are on Energy Circle — they have real editors and a wider audience than little ol’ Five Percent, and it was Energy Circle that helped me find Flemming and learn about a lot of this stuff from the start.

I hope you’ll take a minute to pop over and read my story. Our savings from the whole process, from an energy audit, air sealing, insulation, and good old caulk are pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. (more…)

January 18, 2010

Guest Post: 10 Simple Ways to Conserve Energy at Home

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Tips – Tom Harrison – 11:50 am

A Beginner’s Guide to Home Energy Conservation

by Marcy Tate
 
Energy conservation is not only good for the planet, it’s also good for your pocket. It’s pretty simple to conserve energy at home and you’ll notice the savings right away. Still, changing your energy habits isn’t easy for every homeowner. Start by picking a few energy conservation techniques and gradually add a few more each month. As you go along, remind yourself how much of a help your efforts are for the planet and how much lower your utility bills will be. That should give you the inspiration to turn your energy conservation habits into a way of life. The tips below do not involve high investments. 
(more…)