Conservation: what worked for me, what didn’t

Recently, I sat through a sermon on the benefits of conservation. It was good in that it should motivate people to try to help, and focused on “it might seem like you aren’t doing anything, but you are.” It was, though, missing any thoughts on what to do. Here are the results of twenty years of experimentation:

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 saved a ton of water while making the drier cycle far shorter and keeping clothing in much better shape (spinning is less stressful to clothing than being churned by a great big agitator); it also amuses the cat. Just make sure you can reach the water filter from the front when you buy it — some companies put it into the back. We also built a ledge from concrete rather than buying the hideously overpriced and flimsy support cabinet.

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

When my shaver’s batteries died, though it’s not “user serviceable,” I easily swapped out the batteries and got five to ten more years of life, for $5. They’re supposed to be soldered but it turns out you can just wedge the new ones in — it’s been two years now.

Rechargeable batteries turn out to be much, much more practical today than back in the 1980s, when I first started using them for my power-hungry Walkman. They are still almost entirely AA and AAA for practical purposes; the 9V ones are likely a dead end and the “solution” for C and D is putting the AAs into a special plastic container. The only way to fly in rechargeable batteries,

Panasonic Eneloops hold their charge well and last longer than any other rechargeables I’ve ever used. I have a $30 charger that charges each battery individually, is “smart,” and shows voltage and such on 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.

insulation

Moving down, 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.

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 on-demand water heater or even an efficient traditional water heater. When I had mine installed, I asked for the most efficient one possible, because it costs very little more than a wasteful unit, saves gobs of gas (or electricity) over its life, and, amusingly, can last years longer — saving far more just from longevity than the up-front cost.

water heaterBooks usually talk a lot about insulating the hot water pipes. I never saw any payoff, 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, add in-line flaps (being careful because lint buildup inside the hoses can cause fires). However you address it, this makes a real difference in basement temperature, if you care about that. There’s a special unit that has an overhead flap — I haven’t installed it yet.

You have to be careful when buying washers, to get one that’s large enough to be practical, and reliable enough to be worthwhile. Simpler is usually better from the latter perspective. So far, so good. The good side, again, is not only do they save a great deal of power and water, but clothing lasts much, much, much longer. Even though they cost much more than top loaders, you probably do get a payoff — but not for a few years.

Lighting

Compact fluorescents are mostly in the past; now we have LEDs, and like the old “CFLs,” your experience may be quite different depending on what you buy. Philips makes very nice, cheap bulbs — so far only up to 75 watt-equivalents, with pricier and less satisfactory 100-watt-equivalents. The Chinese brand Cree is quite good; I use two Cree 40-watt-equivalents in the bathroom (nine watts each) but mostly stick with Philips.

track lighting

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

chandalier

For the dining room, we have a five-candelabra-bulb chandalier that drew 300 watts of power. CFLs were lousy replacements. I bought five different LED candelabra bulbs to replace the incandescents, as an experiment, all from companies I’ve never heard of, because Philips doesn’t have any. The GE bulb (far left) was the worst, by far; there are three quite good bulbs in the mix. By the time I got them and tried them out, none were available! So we will have five different bulbs for a long time, or until the industry gets its act together.

flat bulb

LEDs’ color temperature is often misreported, and you need a pretty warm bulb (around 2600°K) to replace an incandescent. But they start instantly, last for years and years, don’t mind being switched on and off constantly, use around 15% the power of an incandescent, and have no down-side other than increased cost, as far as I can tell. Oh, one more problem — they need to be vented, which means some fixtures are incompatible, and you often can’t use them to hold a lampshade.

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. We’ve slashed the power usage of computers and lighting and air conditioners and refrigerators, but increased the power use of our TVs. Keeping the TV off when not in use really does help; 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 never really opened it, and couldn’t economically replace it, so 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 can be pretty inexpensive, and 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.

What can you add?

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