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 28, 2010

Always On: Hunting, Finding and Saving Electricity (Still!)

Category: Household,Save Electricity,Tips – Tom Harrison – 10:28 pm

Phantom Power Hunt

Always On (photo: uberculture)

As part of my participation in a beta test for PlottWatt (very cool), I have come to understand that our house’s “always on” electrical load accounts for about one third of our consumption. Perhaps more vampires? Doesn’t seem plausible.

The only way to find out: measure each outlet with a Kill-A-Watt! (Can you say “obsessive“?) But occasional obsessiveness is good for the soul. And budget.

So on the last grey Saturday, me and my trusty Kill-a-Watt went around seeing if we could answer the question: how much could we save?

The answer was neither encouraging nor discouraging: it was simply illuminating. (And, another $70/year, tax free savings — see the link to my spreadsheet below.)

And isn’t that what it’s all about? (more…)

September 21, 2010

PlotWatt at Energy Circle, and Programmable Thermostats at Hohm

Category: News,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Tips – Tom Harrison – 12:49 pm

PlotWatt logoHere are a couple of posts I have written elsewhere. Everything you want to know about how (not) to program your thermostat, posted on the Microsoft Hohm blog, and a pretty cool post about an incredibly cool new bit of software for recognizing patterns in electricity use data with pretty pictures and all, called PlotWatt.

I never have time to write here any more :-(

August 14, 2010

Electricity Demand-side Management: A Better Use for Monitoring

Category: Economics,Save Electricity,Technology – Tom Harrison – 4:33 pm

Demand for electricity is highest on hot days in the summer, mainly because people, and businesses turn on their air conditioners. Increased demand is pretty easy to predict using a weather forecast.

When you turn on your AC, some generator, somewhere has to work a tiny bit harder — it happens almost instantly and automatically. All of this is entirely invisible to you.

But, in the aggregate, when lots of people turn on their AC and this happens at scale, three things can occur:

  • The generator (power plant) revs a little higher and produces more power, unless it’s at it’s capacity, then
  • The power plant operator ramps up one of the “operating reserve” plants, unless they have already put all the spares online, in which case
  • There’s a brown-out, or black-out

But actually there’s another option: consumers of power could just use less. But how do we know to use less — it’s invisible.

And, would we do anything is we know we were getting to the edge of capacity? What’s interesting is that some customers agree to unplug voluntarily. This link is to a story in the New York Times. It doesn’t surprise me that (some) people are willing to adjust their behavior without monetary incentives. What I found remarkable is how primitive the system for communicating the need is:

On the afternoon before an anticipated surge in demand, e-mails, faxes and phone calls go out alerting those who had already agreed that it is time for them to unplug.

So what if there were a way to automatically inform people of peak events? What if people that turned off appliances did get some economic benefit? (more…)

March 3, 2010

Working from Home: Green and Productive

Category: Companies,Cool Sites,Observations,Transportation – Tom Harrison – 8:56 am

Energy Circle

My new home

After five years of talking about energy conservation, and all the things we have done in our house, I am now proud to report that I am officially … working the talk — I have joined Energy Circle LLC.

Energy Circle helps home owners learn how to make an energy efficient house, sells home efficiency products, and now, we’re creating a set of tools and services to help home energy efficiency professionals find customers (and home owners find them).

Now I am now working at a company with an unabashedly green mission — this is important to me. Of course this isn’t the first time I have written about Energy Circle — we have been collaborating since last Spring, and then I did some consulting last year until that was pretty much all I was doing. I am the Chief Technology Officer, and working to make a top notch website, with expanding services and capabilities, reliable, easy to find, and with a strong brand. I hope you’ll check out Energy Circle — I joined not because it was another job, but because I completely believe the mission, and know that good people are out to “do well by doing good”.

Working From Home Is Efficient

But, the company is too far away from my home to commute — so I don’t. I work from home most of the time, and I have to say, working from home is almost always a good thing. It’s very efficient.

Commuting Footprint

Obviously my commuting footprint is as small as possible (although for several years I commuted to my old job on my bike, at least when the weather didn’t suck, and I drove my Prius the short distance when it did). But there are many other benefits of working from home, and a few things I am beginning to learn. (more…)

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…)

October 14, 2009

Google PowerMeter Showed Me How and Why I Was Wrong

Category: Conservation,Household,Save Electricity – Tom Harrison – 10:11 pm

Google PowerMeter showed me I was wrong about something. Well, sort of.

Perhaps you have noticed: I am a little obsessive with my measurement of energy usage. Despite being an energy saving zealot, we still use our electric clothes dryer — perhaps as a rationalization, I had claimed that all those other people saying that we should use our dryer less had it all wrong. I said that this caused people to lose focus of the smaller items, especially the ones contributing to your “baseline” usage.

As I have pointed out, but said more nicely in a great article on PlotWatt’s blog, 100 watts, on all the time, costs about $100 per year for most people (more for us in the Northeast). Over the course of measuring electricity usage with several power monitors, I have reduced our baseline usage from about 700W to around 200W, which saves me a good deal more than $500/year in electricity bills. Finding the little energy vampires like my old Dell laptop which wouldn’t sleep on its own, to the old cable box (replaced with TiVo), to the 2 buttons on my “off” receiver, to the computer server in our hall closet — all eliminated, and all reduced our baseline. Success.

So was the dryer really that important? I have to say, it seems so now. Here is a series of screen captures from (actual) data from my TED 5000 now hooked up to Google PowerMeter, which I can see from my iGoogle home page.

What do you see? (more…)

October 9, 2009

Google PowerMeter and TED 5000: A Giant Baby Step

Category: Household,Save Electricity – Tom Harrison – 5:30 pm

I had a lot of ideas about what might happen when Google’s PowerMeter read my TED 5000 data. All that data, from so many people, so many opportunities.

I installed the update last night, with some significant anticipation … what would I get?

Looks like I’ll need to be impatient a little longer.

The good news is that enabling PowerMeter via the TED is as simple as can be. It took about a minute once I had the firmware update (even that was quick).

The bad news is that there’s not that much of an incremental improvement over what you can already get on the TED. You can see your data in 15-minute increments as a “gadget” on iGoogle, your Google account home page. You can also see how your usage compares to others. While there’s a “Share” option on the widget, it doesn’t seem to work, so I am not sure what it’s supposed to do. And, you can see your usage data anywhere on the Internet, not just at home.

But my bigger disappointment is that this data, for now, seems to be private. An engineer at Google told me that they have big plans, and I believe that they’ll come through. I want: (more…)