Sometimes I get caught up in green dreams for my home: rooftop solar panels or gorgeous passivhaus constructions that can basically be heated by a single candle. Those might be a part of a sustainable future, they’re not sustainable for my future anytime soon. Sometimes the ideal can obscure the simply useful, and in terms of home energy, that means improving efficiency. It won’t get anyone on the pages of Dwell, but it will instantly reduce emissions and start saving us cold, hard cash.
Efficiency, while maybe not sexy at first, is the low-hanging fruit that doesn’t require systems change and can be accomplished immediately — something that’s pretty rare in the climate change fight. And immediacy is important because the climate’s only getting hotter and global demands for electricity are only increasing. Now, we do absolutely want electricity to come to low-income countries and communities, where it can lead to an improved quality of life. But as with global carbon footprints, it’s not low-income countries that are breaking the budget. In Bangladesh, the per capita consumption is 340 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. In 2018, the average American household used 10,972 kWh/yr. That American average is up from 9,560.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year in 1978. So even as many devices became more efficient, we still are using more energy to power our lives.
Now, listen, I obviously didn’t write this on my Smith-Corona, and I’m not swapping my fridge for an icebox anytime soon. Because electricity is a marvel! But let’s use it like the luxury it is. Prepare to activate your dad brains, and practise saying things like “Are you trying to light up the whole neighbourhood?” and “Who’s using this room? A ghost?” And maybe it is a ghost — at least sort of . . .
Ghost (draw) busters
The energy that a device uses when we’re not actively using it is called ghost draw, phantom energy, or vampire power, all of which are very cool names for an uncool phenomenon that applies to about 50 of the average of 65 electronic devices we have in our homes. (This fact and the unlinked ones that follow come from Tatiana Schlossberg’s Inconspicuous Consumption.) This persistent power suck could account for up to 25% of our energy use. And maybe that seems like pretty small potatoes, but we have to remember the scale: the 25% figure comes from Northern California, but if every American had the same wastage, we’re talking about the energy of fifty power plants and $19 billion in electricity per year.
When hunting for ghost draw ask, Is it a thing that uses a remote? That is always listening, just waiting for you to turn it on? Chances are it’s slurping up power. Even devices with small lights or clocks suck energy. A TV, even if you didn’t turn it on all year, could use 227 kWh, which, Schlossberg notes, “is more than the per capita energy use in several countries, or Kenya and Haiti combined.” Other major energy sucks include PVRs, gaming systems, computers, and stereo systems. You can see a detailed rundown of the energy draws of various devices, both engaged and idle, one person’s annual spend on them, and the pounds of CO2 they release here.
A chart from Hydro One that compares ghost draw vs. active use. That ghost is so rude! Hydro One also has a room-by-room guide to tackling phantom power and more info on types of power bars than you ever wanted.
How to slay your vampire power? Grouping devices on power bars — some of which can also conveniently provide surge protection — allows you to turn off five things at once. We have a TV, Xbox, Blu-ray player, sound system, and record player all on one bar. Many electricity gluttons also a low-energy mode (we have them on our TV and Xbox), which might mean you have to wait a tiny bit longer for your device to wake up, but it could save you significant money and energy throughout the year. An unused Xbox in quick-on mode uses 131.4 kWh/yr, but in energy-saving mode, uses 4.38 kWh/yr — 30x less energy.
And the most basic strategy of all? If you don’t use something often, keep it unplugged.
Hot heats, cool retreats
Now let’s take a look at where the energy goes in the average home:
There are a lot of charts with household energy use and they vary a bit, but I like that this one, from Connect4Climate, shows 10 sources. That said, if you rely on electric space heating, it could account for up to 62% of your energy bill, according to HydroOne.
If almost half comes from heating and cooling, it’s an area where being energy smart can pay big dividends. Smart thermostats, like Ecobee or Nest, can learn from your behaviours and automatically adjust your home temperature. But even without a smart thermostat, increasing your set temperature in the summer and lowering it in the winter by a couple of degrees can make a big difference. Every 1 degree Celsius you lower your thermostat in winter (say while sleeping or away) could save you 2% on your bill. I was going into my office for a sweet A/C reprieve in the recent extreme heat wave, and I’ve sneakily raised the office set point from 23 to 24, because a mostly empty office doesn’t need to be ice cold.
Another easy win: if you have access change that furnace filter (monthly in winter, every three months the rest of the year). And bonus, it’ll make your furnace last longer and improve your air quality. Help your future self out and set a recurring reminder in your phone.
Now, maybe you’re like me, stuck with shitty electric baseboard heaters (a true blight), home insulation long ago ingested by squirrels, and in summer you’re likely to be found with your feet in a basin of ice cold water while watching TV (which, by the way, is quite effective). I go old school: closing curtains to keep out sunlight in the hottest times of the year, putting in new weatherstripping, and shrink wrapping the windows in winter (which is not classy but helps). In general, I aspire to the Danny Castellano principle, who when asked by Mindy why he doesn’t turn up the heat says, “Why? To heat up a drawer full of sweaters? You wanna get warm, get on the floor and do some push-ups.”
Lighting for less
If lighting is about 12% of our electricity use, it also worth shedding some light on our bulbs. Over the last decade or two, CFLs (aka compact fluorescent lights, those bulbs that look like a coiled soft-serve cone) replaced the old incandescent bulb, bringing with them big energy savings. But now, CFLs have been far outstripped by LED (light emitting diodes), which use less energy, last longer (up to 25,000 hours versus 4,000 to 10,000 hours), are dimmable, and don’t contain toxic mercury, making disposal easier and accidental breakage less stressful. (If you do break a CFL, open the windows and clear the room for 10 minutes. Only dispose of burnt-out CFLs at designated recycling programs: IKEA and Lowe’s both have drop-offs, or, in Toronto, bring them to a community environment day.)
One man in the U.K. switched his bulbs to LEDs and found lighting went from 18% of his electric bill to 1.8%. That’s ten times the efficiency, and even if the bulbs are more expensive, he estimates they’ll be paid off in 10 weeks, at four hours’ usage a day. He told the Guardian, “If you change your fridge or freezer to an A+++ appliance, you’ll probably get about an extra 20% energy efficiency. But if you change your lights, the new LEDs are 10 times more efficient that the bulbs they replace. There’s nothing like it in terms of electrical efficiency.” Now that’s what I call an easy win. And if you’re trying to decode lumens and kelvins and whether your new light bulb will make you look like a corpse, here’s a handy reference.
Upgrade and save
If you’re in the market for new appliances, you can make some green gains by buying appliances that are EnergyStar certified. This also means they’ll often come with sweet rebates (sometimes taken right in store — no paperwork required). My colleague bought an AC unit and saved about $80, subtracted by Best Buy, for an appliance that will also cost less to run over time. Win win. For a peek at some of the grant incentives in Ontario and Toronto, check out this useful list.
Group high-usage gadgets on a power bar and turn it off when not in use.
Unplug infrequently used appliances.
Change the set point on your thermostat by a couple of degrees, or use a smart thermostat.
For significant energy savings, switch your CFL bulbs for LEDs.
If you’re shopping for a new appliance, look for efficient rebates to save money now and in the future.
Wins of the Week
A few things to celebrate this week:
Since her family is staying with her mom for a couple of months, Steph put up a makeshift clothesline there, avoiding that energy guzzling dryer!
Julie made a delicious saag paneer with her garden weeds (lamb’s quarters, lady’s thumb leaves and flowers, and galinsoga) in place of spinach!
Carrie and her family are subscribing to two CSAs (community supported agriculture programs), where you pre-buy shares of produce directly from farmers. They’re eating it all (no food waste!), and even bike to pick it up!
My inbox is, as always, thirsty for your wins! Don’t be shy.
Now I’m off to buy some LED bulbs, because we’ve been embarrassingly behind on that front. (For those in the market, IKEA has all their LED bulbs on sale until August 5.) Thanks, as always for reading, for sharing, for brightening up this world.