Tonight's installment is about getting started with empirical measurements of your electricity consumption.  And in the comments section, I'll post the results of a recent experiment.

E.C.S.T.A.S.Y.End Consumption, Save The Air & Sea, Y'all!

A support group and discussion forum for those who want to kick the habits of consumption that are damaging the world we live in.

Your ecological impacts consist of your inputs and your outputs: the energy & materials you consume, and the wastes (including CO2) you produce.   Paradoxically, in order to consume less and produce less waste, you'll need to buy a few things, such as specific types of tools, all of which are affordable on a working class budget.   In this series of contributions to the ECSTASY diaries I'm going to cover some of the tools and how they're used.  Y'all are eagerly encouraged to add to the list.

Tools that enable you to take measurements of your inputs and outputs are highly valuable.   In science, a fact is one thing and that only:  a measurement that's repeatable on demand.  This is why, for example, scientists say there are no solid "facts" about UFOs:  even the best reports by aircraft crews, backed up by radar blips, are unique observations, not repeatable on demand.  Something that is not repeatable may still be valuable in helping solve a puzzle, but it doesn't rise to the level of a fact as defined by science.

Measuring tools give you facts about your inputs and outputs.  Over time you can keep records and thereby track your ecological impacts with reasonable precision.  After that, you can make the choices that make the greatest difference.  Some of those choices are surprising, some are inconvenient but necessary, and some are remarkably easy.  Some will improve your quality of life in ways you don't expect.

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Here are a few important links:

  1. Annie Leonard's crucial movie, The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff

  1. An invaluable tool for calculating the ecological footprint of your lifestyle, from the good folks atRedefining Progress.

If you have a resource that should be included in ECSTASY diaries, please include the link and a few words about it in the comments.

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Electricity consumption is a good place to start.  It's easy to measure with high precision, and surprisingly easy to reduce.  The basic measuring tool costs $20 - $40 depending on where you buy it.   You can find these for sale all over the internet, and occasionally at your local hardware store.

The manufacturer's website is here.  

The Kill-A-Watt

Kill-a-Watt is a little meter that plugs into an AC outlet, and has a socket on the front for plugging in a "load," such as an appliance, a light fixture, or whatever.   Pressing the gray button in the middle shows watts: the amount of power that a load is consuming moment-to-moment.  Pressing the purple button on the right shows KWH (kilowatt-hours) and time: the amount of power that a load has consumed over a period of time, from minutes to days.

Knowing the wattage of each appliance can help you reduce your "peak load," which will reduce the need for new power production.  If you're on the grid, peak load translates to new power plants (though we still have to replace all fossil fueled power plants with climate-clean generating capacity).  If you're on household solar, peak load translates to the number of PV (photovoltaic) panels you need, and the number of batteries you need to store the power.

Knowing the cumulative consumption in KWH helps you choose more efficient appliances and use them more efficiently.  Here you may be surprised to find that even low-wattage devices such as the chargers for cellphones and cordless phones, are sneaky energy hogs that add up to a significant part of your overall energy usage.

For example you make toast every morning, and your toaster uses 800 watts for five minutes.  Over a month that translates to 2,000 watt/hours, or 2 KWH.  For example your cellphone or cordless phone charger uses 2 watts but it's always plugged in.  Over a month that translates to 1,440 watt/hours, or 1.44 KWH.   That little charger uses almost as much power each month as the toaster.  (In contrast, an oldschool hardwired phone uses zero power when it's idle, and only 2.3 watts while you're talking; the power comes from the telco central office.)

A true story about fridges

I live in rental housing that comes with a fridge.  The fridge is a "vintage" 1970s energy hog, but I had no idea how big a hog it was until I measured it.

The AC outlets for most fridges are on the wall behind the fridge.  In order to make this accessible, I needed to plug a cheap power strip into this wall outlet, plug the Kill-a-Watt meter into the power strip, and then plug the fridge into the Kill-a-Watt meter.  The power strip and Kill-a-Watt meter sat on a counter while I ran the measurement.

A few things you need to know about refrigerators:

When the compressor is running it only uses from about 80 to 160 watts.  The more often it runs, and the longer it runs each time, the more energy the fridge uses.

When the kitchen is warm, the fridge uses more power over time, than when the kitchen is cool: this is because the ambient warmth in the room leaks into the fridge over time, and the fridge has to dump that heat back into the room again.  The worst places for your fridge are right next to your stove or oven, or where it will get direct sunlight, because these are all direct sources of heat on the fridge that it will have to dump back into the room to keep your food cold.

Keeping your fridge "full" is good because foods and liquids have more "thermal mass" than air.  Once they get cold, they store the cold, analogous to batteries storing electricity.  When you open the fridge door, cold air pours out on the floor, but the cold in your foods & beverages remains to help cool the room air that has gotten in.

The greater the enclosed space, the lower the ratio of surface area to volume.  This means a bigger fridge uses less energy per cubic foot of space cooled, than a smaller fridge.  Little "dorm room" cube fridges consume almost as much power as regular household-size fridges.   The most efficient arrangement of all is a heavily insulated cold room similar to a grocery store refrigerator with doors, in a communal kitchen shared by a number of households.

To measure the power consumption of a fridge, you need to leave the Kill-a-Watt meter running for a few days.  Three days at an average room temperature should be sufficient.

So back to the story:

I ran the test for three days each time, and repeated it a few times, writing down what I found.  For example the cumulative time on the Kill-a-Watt showed 84 hours, and the total power consumption over that time was about 13.42 KWH.

Taking out the calculator:  13.42 KWH divided by 84 hours = approx. 0.159 KWH per hour.  That doesn't sound like much, does it...?  But now we multiply:  0.159 times 24 = approx. 3.84 KWH/day, times 365 days = 1,400 KWH.   That fridge was using 1,400 KWH per year, or 1.4 megawatt-hours per year.   Yow.  Ouch!

A decent household fridge nowadays uses about 600 KWH.  Some ultra-efficient (and expensive) types advertise power consumption in the range of 200 KWH per year, but some of those get mixed reviews and in any case they're more expensive than I can afford.

As a result, I ended up building my own fridge/freezer system.  I'll talk about this in more detail in a subsequent diary.  The outcome was a system that uses 388 KWH per year.  That's not as efficient as the best units on the market, but it's darn good and it's what I could afford: it sliced a little over 1,000 KWH (a megawatt-hour) per year off my household electricity usage.   That is serious conservation with practically zero penalty to lifestyle.

What did I do with my old energy-hog fridge?  I can't remove it from the rental unit, so I just unplugged it and use it as a large kitchen cabinet, with something stuck in the doors to keep them open an inch or so for air circulation.  There it sits, doing something useful that consumes no power at all.  When I leave here I'll leave it and take the system I built with me.

You can do it too.  You don't need to build your own fridge/freezer system, but you do need to think about things you normally take for granted.  In the future we're facing, nothing can be taken for granted.

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ECSTASY diaries will appear most often on weekends, and at other times depending on the convenience of the diary author.  All diaries dealing with the problems of living in a Consumerist society are potential candidates.  If you think you've got something to contribute, please contact WarrenS and he'll schedule you in.

This is the third diary in the ECSTASY series.  The first was published on February 28: Introducing ECSTASY.
The second appeared on March 7 and showcased the writing and research of Julian Lee and Juliet Schor: Juliet and Julian: Two Voices of Sanity.  If the Force is with us, we will hear a week from next Sunday from RL Miller on the subject of Chickens.

Originally posted to G2geek on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 07:07 PM PST.

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