Monday, June 20, 2005

Real Case Study on Energy Usage

With the recent talk of energy saving measures on baloghblog's blog and peak energy and some others I've forgotten to mention, I asked if I could post another ROE2 member's comments on the subject. This member, Dave, has taken the time to record his own family's energy usage per kilowatt hours and the measures they've taken to study which electrical appliances and devices have saved them more by non-usage or decreased usage. To get you "up to par" on the conversation, we were talking about tips on buying a killowatt meter. Here it is:

"I agree that if you're using more than 100kWH per
month, you DO have a lot of conservation to do before
you can consider renewable energy. (That's a $70 to
$80 monthly bill, in most of the country).

I would like to respectfully disagree that one needs
to spend money on test equipment. Call me skeptical
on this one. When I see someone trying to get me to
"spend money to save money", I see if there isn't a
better way.

Guess what? You already have a kill-a-watt meter.
Its the electric meter.

Here's what our family did. First, we looked at the
last electric bill, and found the kWH used in the last
one-month cycle. Divide that by 30 to get the daily
usage (within a few percent). For this exercise,
round it to the nearest integer. If you calculate
3.23, then call it "3".

Then we posted a paper pad in a place where we would
see it in the morning every day. In one of our houses
this was on the fridge, as this was right next to the
door which we went out to the car, and conveniently
next to the electric meter.

First thing in the morning, before using any appliance
that was a large energy consumer (light bulbs OK, but
before starting that first pot of coffee), outside
we'd go and read the electric meter.

Two columns on the pad: first one for actual reading,
second one for "daily usage". In that second column,
we wrote the difference between the present reading
and the morning before. Ignore partial kWH - they end
up being counted in the running total.

Any day that the "daily usage" from the day prior was
above our previously-calculated average, we then wrote
down (to the right of the first two columns) what we
did that day. If we were in the midst of a major
house project, we might write down "roofed shed, using
borrowed compressor to operate air hammer" or "belt
sanded doors", otherwise it would be routine stuff
like "made dinner for five guests", "did three loads
of laundry", etc. Any time we could remember touching
an appliance, we wrote it down.

After a bit of this, we started writing things down
every day, anything that we did not do every day. For
instance, we started realizing that we did not go
grocery shopping every day - only once every two
weeks. We started taking note of that, too.

After a month you'll start to see patterns, activities
which correlate to the higher usage. Those will be
things to key in on, and do less of. When you've
successfully reduced your energy usage by half (if you
have never tried this, you might be surprised how
quickly you can cut things in half), calculate your
new "average" and do it again.

We actually quit paying attention to the days when we
went over the "average" and actually started noting
when we used any more than ONE kWH, because there were
lots of days when we only used one - and sometimes
less. We began to focus on "what did we do on those
days when we only used ONE kWH?" We actually did this
an entire year, and kept learning. Now, we do it
about one month out of three.

Now, the results you get will vary depending on your
climate, and what kind of appliances and entertainment
devices you use. Here's the list of things we
learned, based on the specific devices we own/owned...

Our largest offender at first was the electric dryer.
No doubt about it. We could simply not go over 5 kWH
in one day unless we used the dryer. That's when we
hung laundry lines in the garage (we had birds
outside...). On a hot day, clothes on the line dried
in an hour. In the middle of a rainy Northern
California winter (3 inches per day!) it would be more
like 90% dry in six hours, then just five minutes in
that dryer finished the job, with no noticable energy
usage on the meter.

The electric stove turned out to be negligible. But
bear in mind that will be largely based on your
cooking style. We never use an oven, as our meals are
largely based on boiled potatoes or rice with veggies
mixed in. Ten to twenty minutes of using only one
burner on a stove simply wasn't noticable.

Turning off lights was a bigger deal than we expected.
I think mainly because once we left the room with the
light on, we might not return for the rest of the day,
so that light was on all day. We replaced the bulbs
with dimmer bulbs. During the day, they were so dim
that we might turn them on, then the fact that they
did not add much light made us realize we didn't
really need them, and turned them off right away.
Then, at night time, when we turned them on, they were
not so bright as to wake up other occupants in the
house in adjacent rooms. After quite some time, we
more or less ceased reading in the evenings, using the
now dimmer lights for things like playing musical
instruments (in our case, they are all acoustic),
playing fetch with the dogs, sharing wine with guests,

The TV (20" Japanese) and DVD player turned out to be
negligible. The incident that showed us fairly firmly
that this was the case was the weekend that we had
Bill and Jean and their 7 year old quadruplets (you
read that right) over and the kids spent the entire
two days watching movies. They brought over 10
movies, watched them all and then some of them a
second time, while we adults did adult chatter. That
weekend's usage of energy was actually on the low
side, as it was a warm enough weekend that we only ate
cold food.

The grocery shopping trips at first were noticable on
the bill. We realized fairly quickly that there is a
great deal of energy used in cooling down groceries
that are left out too long or if they're not put in
the fridge in an organized fashion. We developed a
technique of studying what we purchased, and arranging
it per the proper shelf in the fridge. Then, with
only one door opening, we would move aside the
contents of the fridge if needed, then put the
pre-arranged stuff in it. And, at the store, we made
darned sure that each bag contained only refrigerated
food, or frozen food, or non-cooled. We made sure to
get that stuff into the fridge as soon as we got home.

The days that one or the other of us was using the
computer for lengthy periods was noticable. I took to
using a borrowed laptop computer from work if I was to
be on a computer for a lengthy period, such as when
building a web page, or doing the monthly bank
accounts, etc. Some years later, our CRT-based
monitors died and we replaced them with LCDs, and the
energy usage of the computers is now invisible to us.

Air conditioners are flat-out evil, with respect to
using electricity (reminder: this is not to judge
anybody - this is what we learned about our own
situation). We do everything we can to not need them.
The best thing you can do to reduce this energy hog
is to get comfortable being warmer. The difference
between having the thermostat set at 85 versus 80
(when we lived in Austin) was incredible. We
discovered that our indoor house plants lived quite
fine on the north side of the house in their pots, so
that's where they went in the summer. Then, we
"boarded up" the windows - put solid shutters on
hinges on the south, west and east side windows.
Heavy curtains on the north side. At no time did we
allow the shutters to be opened when the sun hit that
side of the house. When we went to bed, we left the
east side shutters open so that the sun would wake us
up, then we closed those, opening the west side -
never the south side during the summer.

This was another place where we made measurements.
Some of these get uncomfortable. We shut off the
circuit to the A/C completely, left all the shutters
open and tried to block out the sun only with heavy
curtains. The house sometimes reached 110 degrees
inside. Then, we started using the shutters, and the
hosue never exceeded 90 degrees. That's 20 full
degrees cooler, without using any energy at all. We
then installed extra vents in the roof (it had some
already), both along the ridge and on the end eaves,
and got the house temp down to 85. We added an active
attic fan, and it only dropped a few more degrees, so
we quit using the fan, since it did have a visible
effect on the energy bill.

In the cases when we've had electric hot water, we
have notice no change in the monthly bill by changing
the hot water heater thermostat setting. If the water
is cooler, you use more of it when you shower, so you
end up putting the same number of calories into the
water you use. We saw no difference, either, when we
put an insulating blanket around a water heater of
modern construction that already had good insulation.
We DID notice a small difference by adding insulation
to the hot water pipes under the house.

We have, likewise, not noticed any difference when we
change the temperature settings for our fridge. It's
an older fridge, built before current energy-saving
refrigerators were developed.

One time, we put everything on switchable power
strips, so that we could turn things off FULLY when
not in use. You know, things like the VCR that hold a
clock going even when "off", that old "standby power
for all those little things adds up" theory? Well,
we never saw a measurable difference.

Actually, after a while, you get an idea what your
"baseline" usage is. That is, when the only things
you're running are the things you would run even if
you weren't home. For us, that's only the
refrigerator. Went on vacation for two weeks,
unplugging everything but the fridge, and then read
the meter. Turns out ours consumes about 1/8 kWH per
day, based on that experiment. Of course, that's
without us opening the door, too.

Our best decision was to never again live in a place
that got so hot that we needed A/C. There are lots of
options for heat, but very few for cooling.

The first house in which we did this was in Northern
California - old house, no insulation, no A/C, gas
heat and water, electric stove and dryer. We
successfully reduced our consumption (in only three
months) from 120kWH per month to 30kWH per month, and
the only noticeable difference in lifestyle was the
clotheslines. Then, with some lifestyle adjustments,
we got it down to 20kWH per month. Nothing painful at

As I "disclaimed" at the top, this varies with your
locale. We also did this while living in Denver, in a
house with electric heat. That was a larger house,
150 years old, with walls made of brick, nothing but
plaster slathered on the interiors for walls. In the
coldest months (typically Feb, when it would always
get down to 20 below for at least a week, and never
exceed 20 above), we were able to keep total usage
down to 60kWH in a month. Besides learning to
tolerate 55 to 60 degree indoor temps, probably the
best thing we did in that house was to install some
wall-mounted heaters in the few rooms that we felt
were essential to heat. The main thermostats for the
house were then set to 40 degrees. Our "main rooms"
were the bedrooms and the bathroom. The kitchen was
not a "main room" for heat purposes because we could
always bundle up to go in there, and if we started
cooking, it got warm pretty quickly. We had the
electric bills for the previous owners, and they (only
a couple, no children or dogs) ran bills that were in
excess of 800kWH per month. Denver is also one of
those places where, with only a very little bit of
thought, you simply do not need A/C.

I used to live near Allenspark, Colorado, up in the
hills, but before I was quite so obsessive about
energy usage. No snow plows anywhere to be seen. My
heat source was a wood stove. I had a well and pump,
and I am not sure what I would do then - to reduce the
electric usage by that pump would mean reducing water
usage. Probably I'd see how much benefit I get from
greywater for irrigation and/or above-ground
cisterning, but first I'd see just how much energy I
had to use for the pump in the first place.

We've now undergone a family move, not even sure where
we're going to settle in the next year. Presently
we're renting, and don't even have access to the
utility meters. I would hope that the presence of
residents above and below us should provide enough
heat AND cool so that we need no supplementation at
all from the heating system (I don't think this place
has A/C but not at all sure).

Pardon the length, but I figured giving the nuts and
bolts, and showing the variety of what we learned
about our usage, our lifestyle and how we were able to
cut back, might spur others on to do some of their own

Despite how evil Big Business can sometimes be, much
of the guidance they use to run internal processes is
simply good Human Common Sense applied to business.
With that said, here's a rule from business that I
think we should all apply to our lives:

If you are not measuring it, you are not managing it.

Figure out a way to numerically measure your usage of
energy and only after that will you be able to know
how much you have been able to reduce."

...............{Note to self: buy a clothesline, turn off the lights, only use A/C when absolutely necessary!}

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