Green4Geeks Blog

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Practicing Energy Efficiency

I recently received an email from a reader who passed along a lot of links to sites that are the same theme as this one.  I took a look at her beautifully rendered site OurPreciousResources.org, and liked the message - ecology just one small step at a time.  The thing I like about that message, and what I try to promote, is just think about your day to day and your living environment in a critical way to see if you are doing it the most energy efficient way possible.  I like to put the engineering twist on it myself.  As an example, my front porch lights burned out frequently when I used to use incandescent bulbs.  They cost about $1.90 per bulb, and between my two fixtures, took a total of six bulbs.  I would end up replacing them nearly every year just due to exposure and burnouts (they weren't really on that much).  I tried CFLs when they became more affordable, but at at over $5 per bulb, and having no longer of a lifespan, it seemed like a foolish waste of money.  LED bulbs came along, and as an early adopter, I paid the premium price of $8 per bulb.  That was about five years ago.  They are still going strong and use a fraction of the energy the incandescent bulbs used in the beginning.  Not only have they paid for themselves by not having to replace them, they take way less energy, their eventual disposal is less harmful to the environment than CFLs.  One lesser known bonus feature of an outdoor LED light - they don't attract bugs like CFL and incandescent bulbs do; the narrower band of light (no UV and little infra-red) makes them less attractive to bugs.  

In short, switching to LEDs was a small step, but with many benefits, not just to myself, but to the environment.  

I started digging through the links from her email that I thought were the most interesting and will start sharing them.  The first one links to a good place to start if you aren't as geeky about these things as I am.  Take the energy efficiency quiz and see how you do (hint:  I gave you your first answer above).  This site is actually sponsored by an energy company, but the quiz might start you thinking over how much energy stuff around your house uses.  It might even guide your next appliance purchase.    The site is put up by Constellation Energy Resources, and the quiz can be found here.  Tip-o-the-hat to Ginger for the nice email!


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Solar Decision

‚ÄčOne of my favorite online comic sites is XKCD.  If you have never seen this very unique site, do yourself a favor and check it out.  One of my favorite topics to write about is solar energy.  When I can combine the two, it is a happy day.  XKCD humorously documents the decision tree on where solar truly works.  Solar is fantastic on sites where you have some fixed real estate, there are relatively expensive energy sources, or non-existent and/or unreliable energy sources, and you have plenty of sunny hours in the day.  It does not work so well on moving objects, or where it is much cheaper to find other sources of energy.  This is why you don't see folks just bolting solar panes onto the family sedan.  First, you would have to cart around the batteries to store up the energy, and second, the real estate just isn't there for the power needs of the typical automobile.  Unless solar panels get dramatically more efficient, there isn't any way that you will get enough energy to store for your grocery runs.  Follow the link, and you will see how easy it is to break it down - just pick a use case, and plug it into the comic.  Brilliant!

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Affordable Solar?

sunProbably the biggest barrier to more widespread use of residential solar panels is the tremendous outlay it take to get started.  For the past eight or ten years, the conventional wisdom has been that it takes about twenty years to achieve payback from your solar investment, making it hard to justify.  Sure, you will have lower electric bills, but you will also have that loan payment you took out to finance it, or for some, the out of pocket expense you are trying to recoup.  Now, there may be hope for those that are heliotrope inclined.  According to an article in Investors Business Daily, the affordability of a solar installation may be within the reach of many of us.  According to the studies written about in this piece, the payback may be as little as ten years now.  This is largely due to the dropping price of the panels, government subsidy programs, and rising electricity prices.

All that is great, but the 2013 price for a 600 square foot panel array, with inverter, electric company tie-in, and installation is still about $55,000.  The option that makes this affordable for many now is, the availability of a 20 year lease of the system.  If you can install the system, and not have to worry about maintenance or additional costs, why not go solar?  Initial studies are showing that the homeowner will benefit from the net-even lease versus electric bill ratio due to the projected rising costs of purchased energy in the future.  Watch for the next two or three years to make this even more affordable or even lucrative, as the price of the system components drop.

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How Much Energy Do You Use?

TED 5000cI don't know anyone who doesn't wish their power bill was a little less.  I often hear people talking about high their power bill is, but they don't really know how to reduce it unless it is making sure lights aren't left on all night.  Some will say that they adjust their thermostat by one degree or more to conserve energy.  These approaches are reasonable, but the problem is, the result can only be seen thirty days down the road, when the power bill arrives.  Even then, one has to think back and wonder, "Did I really save that month, or was the weather just a little milder than usual?"  

 

Where Does the Power Go?

I live in Florida, where I worry much more about the magnitude of my cooling bill in the summer than I do about the heating bill in the winter.  Typically, my monthly energy costs are about two and a half times higher in the summer than spring and fall.  Only during January and February do my winter energy costs creep up a little, and it is usually by a much smaller amount.  Since my heat comes from natural gas, and it is a less expensive source of energy where I live, the dollar amount is negligible.  This pattern makes it relatively simple to see where most of my energy spend goes - cooling my house.  This works just the opposite for my friends up North - heating their houses in the winter time.  This makes sense when you stop to think of the devices that use the most power - motors and devices designed to produce heat.  Heat pumps and air conditioners use at least three motors each to pump heat into or away from living spaces.  For houses heated by electricity alone, add in the heating elements, and you are looking at a whopper of an electric bill.

Removing heating and cooling from the equation, what else uses the most electricity?  Again, look to the motors and things with heating elements.  An electric clothes dryer employs both a motor and a heating element.  Electric water heaters are constantly cycling to keep the water a constant hot temperature.  Modern dishwashers save water and electrically heated water overall (over hand washing and rinsing), but still pull down a lot of juice.  Electric coffee pots, ovens, cook-tops, and toasters all use a lot of power for the short time they are on.  Even electric hair dryers are big users of electricity; again, they use both a motor and a heating element.  Surprisingly, lighting takes significantly less power than heating and cooling.  There are a few caveats however.  For example, if you do leave a lot of lights on, and they are of the older incandescent variety, they are less energy efficient and add to the heat load of a space you might be trying to cool.  Older appliances like old style washing machines and refrigerators can also draw a lot of power.

 

Stop Guessing!

The only way for certain, to know where your energy is going, is to actually measure it.  You could go outside to your power meter and take a reading, then go back an hour later to see the amount of energy you have consumed.   You could even count how many rotations that little disk has made in a minute.  All you really know though is, the faster that disk spins, the more electricity you are burning. Believe it or not, it is much easier to measure it than you might think.  One way to measure your usage is to install a whole house energy monitor.  There are a number of them on the market, and they vary greatly in cost, complexity, and features.  Some are so simple to install, that they literally are a ring you slip over the outside of the power meter on the outside of your house.  Some are wired directly into your power panel and may require an electrician to install.  Regardless of the type you choose, what you will accomplish is a real time read of how much power you are using right now.  Why is this important?  For one, you no longer have to wait until the power bill comes to see if you have saved any money.  Second, you can start turning things in your house on and off to see what is really eating up the juice, and see the results immediately.  Below is a listing of some of the more popular models:

Efergy Elite Whole House Energy Monitoring System

Blue Line Innovations

Simple Energy Works

The Energy Detective

The prices range from around $60 all the way up to hundreds, depending upon options, display devices, and accuracy.

 

How it Works

I chose the TED 5000c from The Energy Detective to try out.  It was about $200, and came with the monitoring sensor, a wireless gateway device, and a wireless portable monitor.  It was relatively easy to install, and I was up and running within about an hour.  This particular model has a couple of current sensing loops that clamp around the two phase power leads that come into most homes.  It can be done without an electrician, but if you aren't comfortable around electrical circuitry, it would take less than ten minutes for a qualified electrician to install it.  It should only be installed with the main power turned off, and if you have any doubts, just hire a pro.  It is a small job.

5000Cimage 2

Once you have followed the installation instructions for the other unit, which plugs into a normal outlet elsewhere in the house, you can configure it for publishing to the internet, or just to a local browser in your house.  I chose to include the display unit with my purchase, and am glad I did.  I placed it on the kitchen counter where it is seen many times during the day.  This alone has caused much of our savings as a family.  Just seeing the current spend actually makes us think more about our energy usage, and reminds us to turn off non-essential items.  

Our findings:

  • We had seven recessed can lights in our kitchen, each of which had a traditional 65 watt floodlight installed.  Even though the lights were on a dimmer, people entering the room would just turn them up all the way.  Seeing the spike in the energy usage encouraged everyone to pick a lower setting.  I have since replaced some of the bulbs with LED models, and replaced the dimmer with a digital one, for further savings.  As far as lights go, these were among our heaviest hitters.
  • Outdoor lights, on either side of our garage were often being left on.  So were the interior garage lights.  The problem is, both sets of lights are not visible from within the house, so it was not apparent when they were being left on.  The energy monitor read a little higher, showing that something was left on.
  • A glance at the power monitor before leaving the house pointed out other things that were being left on - curling irons, fans, and other items.
  • We had a lot of so-called "wall warts"  Those little plug in power bricks that power laptops, mobile phones, tablets, and all kinds of other gadgets use for recharging.  They don't draw a lot of juice individually, but all of them together over a course of a month can be costing $5 to $10 or more a month.  They are easy to forget that they are plugged in, and use electricity whether their device is attached or not.
  • The included web interface showed us trends for the day,month, billing cycle, or even just for the past few minutes.  This helped with the decision to raise or lower the thermostat.
  • Turning various lights and appliances on and off gave us a sense of how much they draw.  We found that our refrigerator was actually not the energy hog we thought it was.
  • Turning breakers on and off led us to the discovery that one of our light switches to a stairway light, was leaking energy constantly, whether it was on or off.  Replacing it saved us about four dollars a month - the price of the switch.

 

Conclusion

All told, just those items have saved us from $45 to $100 a month in electricity savings.  This easily justified the cost of the monitoring gear, and even the cost of an electrician had I used one for the install.  I'll do a product review of the TED 5000 another time, but for now just wanted to point out the benefits of any whole house monitoring system in general.  Measurement is the first step.  If you can't measure your results, how do you know if you have made any progress?  Could you benefit from one of the smaller single circuit anergy monitors that you just plug in?  I'm sure you could, but your view would be limited to one device at a time.  To get the maximum benefit, my recommendation is to measure the whole house.

 

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