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Conservation: what worked for me, what didn’t

Recently, I heard a sermon on the benefits of conservation; it motivated people to try, and she said, “it might seem like you aren’t doing anything, but you are.” It wasn’t the time or place for specifics; maybe this is.

The first tip is not quick or cheap, but has a cat video (from here it gets easier). We use a front-loading washing machine, which acts by spinning. This saves water while making the drier cycle shorter (saving gas or electricity), and keeping clothing in much better shape, since there is no agitator; it also amuses the cat.

Specific advice: Units sold in the US can be ... problematic, so shop carefully and don’t blindly trust the name on the front. Make sure you can reach the water filter from the front (some companies put it into the back). We built a concrete shelf in the basement rather than buying the flimsy, overpriced support cabinet, so it would be higher and easier to use.


A new showerhead can slash your water use, especially if you have teenagers; and less hot water means less gas or electricity. “Energy conserving” showerheads range from awful to great; and they can provide a forceful stream. Online ratings help.

When my shaver’s batteries died, though it’s not “user serviceable,” I swapped out the batteries and got five to ten more years of life, for $5 and ten minutes. They’re supposed to be soldered in, but I was cowardly and just wedged the new ones in; it’s been two years now so I guess that worked.

Rechargeable batteries are much more practical today than back in the 1980s, when I first started using them for my Walkman. Still, only AA and AAA seem to be commonl 9V rechargeables may be a dead end and the “solution” for C and D is often putting the AAs into a special plastic container.

The only way to fly in rechargeable batteries, Panasonic Eneloops hold their charge well and seem to last a long time. I have a $30 “smart” charger that charges each battery individually, and with a display, but you don’t need to spend that much. This prevents an awful lot of waste from disposables.

Then we have the toilet. The first American “low-flush” toilets were terrible. I spent $400 to get a Toto ten years ago; it is far, far, far more effective than anything else I could find at that time.

toto toilet

Today, you can spend $120 and get something equally effective, made by an American company (Toto builds in the USA now and has slashed their prices). If you still have an old toilet that either gulps down gallons of water at a time or doesn’t work properly, it’s time to replace it.

One of the biggest electricity users is the refrigerator. I was surprised to find out that the cheapest full size refrigerator at Sears was also the most efficient, and it’s the one I have; it uses half the power as the old (broken) one, and can be pushed further back into the wall cavity because it actively vents the fins. Most people don’t even look at the energy ratings of refrigerators, but they vary quite widely and make a huge difference. In fact, generally, when you replace something, paying a little attention to the power use can save a lot down the road.


If you have steam heat, which I admit is unlikely, you need to have well-insulated pipes. It makes a huge difference in efficiency as well as quiet operation of the system. I’m always amazed at people who took off the asbestos and left bare pipe. For hot water systems, insulation can help but it isn’t quite as urgent.

Fiberglass insulation is dangerous; have a professional install it. Pros can be surprisingly cheap, but make sure they take precautions, including isolating the work area to prevent fibers from getting everywhere, and insist on having the insulation ends sealed.

I’ve been in dozens of basements while house shopping, and never saw an efficient water heater, much less an on-demand unit. I asked for the most efficient water heater possible, and paid maybe $50 or $100 more; yet, efficient water heaters can last years longer — saving far more just from longevity than the up-front cost. We’re past ten years on ours and it looks fine (Bradford White, in case you wondered).

water heaterI never saw any payoff to insulating hot water pipes, but it’s cheap and easy to add pre-formed foam insulation.

I’ve found a few places in the basement that leak cold air from outside, including the drier hose. The vent flaps outside tend to get clogged with lint. You can replace them, insulate them, or add in-line flaps, which aren’t a great idea because lint buildup inside the hoses can cause fires. There’s a special unit that has an overhead flap and should work best yet not clog — I haven’t installed it yet. However you address it, this makes a real difference in basement temperature.


Compact fluorescents are in the past; now we have LEDs. Your experience may be quite different depending on what you buy (particularly regarding color temperature). Philips makes a wide variety of good ones; and the Chinese brand Cree is good and cheaper.

track lighting

LEDs are good in track lighting if you get the kind that disperse the light well. I’ve needed to replace the track light hoods, because they need to be vented. (I tried drilling the old ones — let’s just say it was cheaper to buy new ones.)


For the dining room, we have a five-candelabra-bulb chandalier that drew 300 watts of power. I bought five different LED candelabra bulbs, as an experiment, from companies I’ve never heard of, because Philips didn’t have any. The GE bulb (far left) was the worst; there are three good ones in the mix. By the time I got them and tried them out, none were available! So we have the five mismatched ones.

flat bulb

LEDs’ color temperature is often misreported, and you need a warm bulb (around 2600°K) to replace an incandescent. They start instantly, last for years, don’t mind being switched on and off constantly, and use around 12%-15% the power of an incandescent. The “gotcha” is the dimming usually isn’t elegant, and they need to be vented, which means some fixtures are incompatible.

General notes

Cars have been done to death, but combine trips, and use city ratings when comparison shopping unless you have very unusual driving patterns. Small differences in city ratings can have a bigger impact than large differences in highway ratings.

Televisions now use 200-300 watts of power — they are more efficient but much larger than the used to be. Keeping the TV off when not watching it helps; using a TV on to play music, rather than a stereo (that uses maybe 30 watts), is sadly prevalent, but not a good idea.

For preventing drafts in winter, there can be cheap solutions to odd problems. We have a huge hallway window with an arch design; we got a custom made framed plexiglass piece installed on the outside of the house. It cost around $150, with labor, and ended a major draft, especially when combined with thermal curtains at night.

Thermal curtains also cut down on outside noise when drawn. I’ve found them surprisingly effective in a room that’s nearly all window on three sides.

Not using disposable things is an obvious plus, and you’d be surprised at what you can re-use. Filtering water tends to be better than buying bottles, and large reusable bottles from a water company have less impact than disposable bottles. Water filters can be cheap and easy to install in the sink (for people with patience, there’s Brita).

Whenever you replace an appliance, it’s an opportunity. Modern air conditioners use far less power if you opt for the more efficient models. In essence, you can choose to save power or not, and often there’s no price difference, or a very minor one.

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