Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


February 10, 2011

Prius Winter Mileage Trick

Category: Save Fuel,Tips – Tom Harrison – 6:13 pm

Prius in Winter

Beat The Cold

I started a new job this year, and unlike my former commute (downstairs) I have to drive. To my utter horror, my mileage dropped below 40MPG after the first few weeks. But I fixed that.

The Prius will normally turn off the engine when the car is stopped, which, for my commute is frequently — many lights, and heavy traffic in some parts. But in the winter, until the car has warmed up, the Prius decides to keep the engine on. Idling in traffic isn’t good.

But, if I turn off the heater, off goes the engine. Ha!

My mileage this week has been back up to normal (a little lower than the normal 50+ MPG in winter — in cold climates they change the fuel mix in winter so cars will run properly, even if less efficiently).

So when the car is moving and the engine is on, I turn on the heater, while slowed or stopped, I turn it off. By 10 or 15 minutes the engine is hot enough that the engine will stop on its own. It takes a little longer to warm up the car, and sometimes you need to turn on the AC to prevent the windshield from fogging up, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good trick.

Photo Credit: kalevkevad via Flickr.

July 8, 2010

Air Conditioning: 100 Percent Efficient (Minus Travel)

Category: Climate Change,Observations – Tom Harrison – 1:25 am

It was 97°F in Boston this week, and we didn’t turn on the air conditioner. Or fans.

That’s because we’re not home. We have vacated the heat of the city. Where we are, it’s a little chilly at night. We have the ultimate luxury. It’s not a central air system. It’s not a super-insulated house. It’s a very small, spartan cottage, on the water of Penobscot Bay in down-east Maine, which I share with my sisters.

My mom, who is in her 80’s lives here in Deer Isle, Maine, year-round, and visited tonight. She was born in Baltimore, and as we discussed the heat wave along the East Cost (consistent with the predictions of climate change), we asked how people managed to tolerate the heat in Maryland in the 1930’s. She said that her rich friends all got out of town and headed for the ocean. (more…)

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…)

September 24, 2009

I Believed I Was Conserving, Until I Looked at the Facts

Category: Conservation,Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 4:12 pm

As I have often mentioned in these pages, we had an energy audit last Spring. The audit was a seminal moment in my understanding of our household energy usage.

Mission Accomplished! (Or Is It?)

I talk to a lot of people about their energy conservation measures. Naturally, not wanting to look uncaring, people talk about how they have changed and are going green. Perhaps a light bulb or two changed to CFL. Perhaps they a jacket on their water heater. Some weatherstripping on their door? A programmable thermostat?

These changes sound fine, and they may actually make a difference. But there are two ways that just making changes alone doesn’t really change things.

Perhaps your two CFL bulbs reduce your electrical use a little, but isn’t it important to know how much? (For example, the oft-repeated water heater jacket is of almost no value if you have a relatively newer one). So it’s possible that your changes haven’t improved anything. And the second way changes alone are bad: you may feel like you have “gone green” … mission accomplished.

So to my great chagrin, I realized recently that I had very little clue what my heating usage was, or for that matter what it should be. I had made lots of great changes. Mission accomplished? Not so fast. (more…)

September 20, 2009

Lowest Electricity Bill … Ever

Category: Household,Save Electricity – Tom Harrison – 11:47 am

My NStar bill came the other day, and it was the lowest bill I have ever had since moving into this house in 1997 — we used an average of 13.1kWh per day; last year for the same period was 14.5kWh per day. That’s a reduction of almost 10%, year over year. Yes, it’s true that we were away for 6 days, which is why this period is historically low, but last year we were away for over two weeks. The vacation is the main reason that our consumption fell from the prior month’s average of 16.8kWh/day.

What did we do? I’m honestly not sure. It was about a month ago that I installed the new TED 5000, but we still have been mostly using the PowerCost Monitor from the year before to keep an eye on our electrical use.

I guess all those little changes we keep making, even in our fifth year of working at it are still adding up. (more…)

July 7, 2009

Hohm: Microsoft’s Home Energy Usage Site

Category: Cool Sites,Household – Tom Harrison – 9:34 am

I just spent an hour (while on my vacation) entering home energy data for my house into Microsoft Hohm Energy Usage site. I provided a great deal of home data — items like square footage of windows, BTU/hr for my furnace, R-values of insulation in my house. After finishing this part, I was told that my energy providers are not yet Hohm partners, so unless I enter my energy use data manually, I get pretty much nothing other than a breakdown of energy use in a pie chart (which, since I have done this myself, I know is inaccurate).

In the end, they provide a list of recommendations — many were ones I had already done (and said so in the survey) such as using a programmable thermostat. Come on — that’s lame.

It is true that Hohm is not the same thing (in any way) as Google Power Meter. (more…)

June 14, 2009

Being “Used To” Our Lifestyle Makes Change Seem Difficult

Category: Conservation,Sustainability – Tom Harrison – 2:58 pm

This weekend I saw the TV show Wa$ted and the documentary Born Into Brothels — two entirely different shows, but I think I saw the heart of a problem we have: we have become accustomed to a way of living that will be difficult to part with.

Wa$ted is a TV show — they come into your house, find how you’re wasting energy, propose and install solutions, follow your progress for a month, give the first year’s annualized savings in cash. The episode I watched resulted in a modest reduction in energy consumption by the family, and several refusals to part ways with some of their things. Born Into Brothels is about a photographer living in Calcutta who realizes the plight of the children of sex workers, gives them cameras, knocks down numerous barriers to help get the kids raised out of abject poverty, and has both success and failure.

These are very different shows, but it helped me see that regardless of outcome, even when the result is positive, people are resistant to change. (more…)

May 11, 2009

The Story of Stuff: Got 20 Minutes? How about 3?

Category: Cool Sites,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 9:27 pm

If you have 20 minutes, please use them to watch this video. If you don’t, please take 3 minutes to skim this article about it, after which I suspect you’ll find another 20 to watch.

April 24, 2009

Frontline’s “Poisoned Waters” — Bottled Still Not Better

Category: Conservation,Sustainability,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 8:45 am

100 (Billion) Bottles of Beer On the Wall

100 (Billion) Bottles of Beer On the Wall

PBS’s Frontline aired a program called Poisoned Waters this week — it’s an excellent program, discussing how coastal waters and estuaries are still polluted, despite several areas of progress caused by the EPA enforcing regulations of the Clear Air Act in the 1970s. And while sewerage is no longer being dumped into rivers, other industrial effluents are.

In particular, they mentioned agricultural waste — animal manure, but also industrial waste, harder problems because the sources are dispersed and tend to leech into the groundwater system, rather than be poured directly from the end of a pipe, as in the case of sewerage treatment plants.

One frightening aspect of the show focused on how new chemicals that mess with our endocrine systems are in the water, but not being taken out of public drinking water supplies … partly because scientists cannot yet quantify theirs effects. Thus, there are no regulations or standards for these chemicals, yet ample evidence to suggest they are harmful not only for the numerous fish turning up dead in the water, but for people. And chemicals we know are harmful are still around, like PCBs. One person working at the Washington, DC water supply said she would not drink the water out of the tap.

It occurred to me that information like this could cause people to say “see, it’s a good thing I am drinking bottled water”. (more…)