Friday, August 12, 2011

Saving Electricity--beyond turning off lights

photo courtesy of Wikipedia
While I dream of one day living entirely off the grid in a lovely Earthship like shown above, with its solar panels and passive solar heat, right now I'm still here:

a not so lovely single-wide "manufactured home," built with little to no regard to energy efficiency.  It may or may not have "energy star" appliances, since they came with the rental and there is not a darn thing I can do about it if they are sucking in electricity like an anemic vampire would down a pint of blood.  Nor can I do anything about the flimsy windows or the central air conditioning unit (except not use it).  I can't plant trees around the house to shade it from the summer sun or block it from winter's winds.  I can't do anything about the roofing or insulation.  I have what I have until we move.  Period.

That doesn't mean that we are complete victims of the energy companies (gas and electric are provided by different companies).  There are several things we have done and keep doing that keep our bill significantly lower than what it could be.
  • We don't fight nature so hard on the temperature.  Since we moved here in October 2010, we've had actual air temperatures ranging from about 0 degrees (F) to 100 degrees (F).  In the winter, we keep the (gas) heat at 65 during the day when we are up and around, dressed in seasonable winterish clothes and 55 at night when we are bundled up in warm, flannel or fleece pajamas, snuggled under warm quilts or comforters.  If no one is going to be home (rare, but it does happen), we usually turn it down to about 50, since we have no pets to keep warm.  In the summer, we have the thermostat set at 84 during the day, but we'll turn it down to 81 (sometimes my husband will turn it as low as 78 when he's trying to sleep during the day) if someone gets uncomfortable.  At night, except during the recent heatwave when the temperatures didn't dip low enough, I'll turn off the AC and open the windows, maybe plopping a fan in front of the window in our bedroom to draw in more of that cool(er) night air.  If we're not going to be home, we'll turn it off unless it is crazy hot outside (so stuff might start melting inside!), then we'll set it at 85 or so while we're going to be out.  I've seen a lot of people cite health reasons as to why they can't have temperatures as "extreme" as I set them, but my asthma flares up more if I go outside into the hot days if the place I'm coming from is more drastically different and my arthritis flares more in the winter if I face more extreme temperature differences going inside and out, so I really think a lot of that argument in many cases is a mindset thing.  People adapt, really.
  • A programmable thermostat helps moderate the temperature.  As I mentioned, we keep it programmed at 84 in the summer and just turn it down if needed.  Sometimes, we don't even notice when it sneaks up another degree or two.  It also works well if we forget to adjust it before leaving, since it will adjust itself up at some point if we are gone long enough!  In the winter, it is nice to be able to get up and showered and everything with the heat blasting, without having to pad across the cold house to turn it up.
  • Passive solar energy or lack thereof.  Huh?  Didn't I list that as a plus of Earthship living that we don't currently have?  Well, yeah, but every time you open the curtains in direct sunlight, you are using passive solar energy, whether you want to or not.  So in the summer, the curtains stay closed, at least on the side of the house the sun is on.  In the winter, I open up the front door and let sunlight stream in that storm door!  I've warmed the house by as much as 10 degrees by doing that, even when it is only in the 20s outside!
  • If you can't stand the heat in the kitchen, don't!  If it is warm enough that the air conditioner needs to be on, the oven stays off.  I try to limit my baking to nights when it is cool enough to compensate for the heat of the oven or wait until a cold front moves in.  Meals can be prepared on a stovetop (or raw) just fine during those times.  Plenty of time for baking in the winter, when it benefits the bill to have the oven going!
Since, from stuff I've randomly seen, heating and cooling a home can comprise more than 50% of your energy usage, the savings from these adjustments are likely extremely significant.  There are more little things we do though:
  • Turn the water heater down as low as it can go without being off.  I've seen some places suggest turning the water heater off entirely except for certain times of the day, but with our family, that just wouldn't work.  Between my shower in the morning, my husband's showers in the late afternoon before he goes to work, and the kids' baths or showers in the evening, not to mention my doing dishes at all sorts of random times and the occasional load of laundry that needs to be done with a hot wash, we need to have that sucker on all the time.  However, it is set slightly below "warm" (it doesn't have actual temperatures on it), which gives just enough hot water for running the dishwasher once or a nice, loooong (escape from the "mom, mom, moms" for a few minutes) shower, as long as I don't crank the hot water on all the way for the whole time.
  • Don't run the dishwasher as much.  With 3-4 kids (sometimes more when neighborhood strays happen by), we end up with lots of dirty dishes and I do use the dishwasher, but I try not to abuse it.  I run a "normal wash" rather than a long one and leave the "warm to dry" (or whatever it is called) off.  The dang kids can use a towel to dry them off when they empty the dishwasher!
  • Only do full loads.  That applies to dishwasher and washing machine and it is equally valid to both, as well as the dryer.  If I could, I wouldn't use the dryer at all during most of the year, but since clotheslines aren't allowed here, I suffer through it.
  • Unplug things when not in use.  Duh.  There is a reason the news channels do stories on "energy vampires" every Halloween it seems!
  • Turn off the television and read a book.  A real book, not some electronic book containing device that would require energy.  Well, keep your devices on long enough to read my blog, but after that, go ahead and turn them off.  Someday, maybe I'll get a book or two out there for you so you have that option for my goodies.  In the meantime, the library has a ton of books you can read for free (I know you'd want to buy any by me!). 
  • Go to bed earlier so you don't have to use as many lights at night.  Okay, that one is a flat out lie.  I don't do that one.  I do try to get the kids to do it, but they won't go for it, kind of like that turning off the television thing.
Okay, I'm sure I'm missing some of the things I do because they are just so ingrained that I don't even think about them, but that's what I've got for now.  What are some of your favorite energy saving tips or advice?


  1. The past two winters, my bedroom at night has averaged about 60-62F. That's a comfortable temperature for me, and because we heat with wood, it's easily sustainable. I admit to being happy we have a thermostat at the new house, and if it isn't programmable, it will be replaced with one right away. It'll get set to 55F, and never touched in the winter. If you're cold, go fetch wood and start a fire. Wood warms you three times: once when you cut it, once when you gather it, and once when you burn it. :) Talk about energy savings!

    We often use candles at night, because hubby's mom makes us these *massive* ones that are so pretty, and we have a zillion tea lights we get for cheap. We also have lanterns (both the oil type and the 'shake/crank and they work' type) for those times when we feel it's unnecessary to put on lights.

    Our major energy drain is the computer. Hubby is a programmer, and 99% of the time he is doing something even when he isn't AT the computer - they do not get turned off, ever (or not without significant planning in advance). I admit to letting kids watch more tv than they should in the winter, because it's a way of getting them quiet in the evenings (or snatching a few more minutes of sleep in the morning!).

    I don't give up my hot shower, but I do time it - ten minutes, which includes shaving, teeth brushing, hair, etc.

    Great article!

  2. I have really old crappy windows so I keep plastic on them all year around. It has cut my electric (all electric house) bill in half. Even this past month with our heat wave, one window unit keeps my house comfy. I also have a demand on use water heater LOVE IT! yes it is electric but I never run out of hot water and I use it a lot but still a low electric bill.

  3. Ugh, I feel you on the being stuck in a rental with no control over energy usage. We have 1/4th of a very old home. Like wind through the cracks old. Although we've managed to caulk most of them. We have lined thermal curtains for every window, finally got the landlord to replace the fridge which never kept temperature, and use window fans and a space heater to limit the usage of the AC and electric/gas heating systems.

    I will be so grateful when we can capture water (without worry of contaminates from the crappy roofing), install some solar panels and a compost pile.

  4. I like how you said "we dont fight nature on the tempurature"- I admit I'm not the best at it, but thankfully my husband is great about limiting AC use, and keeping heat down.

  5. Wonderful tips! I have one to add, for people who don't have an air conditioner, or for situations like I was in earlier this year when a freak storm knocked our power out for a couple days during the heat wave.

    If you absolutely must cool your house, take a hose and spray some water on the roof (and the sides of the house that are most directly hit by the sun). It only takes a couple minutes worth of water to drench the exterior of a typical small home, and the evaporating water helps to cool the house.

    I both agree and disagree on the electronic reader (though I agree with you on the computer issue). I have a Kindle that was gifted to me for Christmas, and almost to my surprise, I've discovered I love the silly little thing. If I have a book series I've been interested in, I can download a copy to my kindle for a few weeks from the local library. If I really like the book, then I can purchase a copy from (and really, I owe you SO much for introducing me to that site!).

    The best thing is, soon my kindle (and my cell phone) won't cost me anything for the electricity it uses - I plan on buying this charger for all my small electronics. It's a hand-charger, so no plugging it into the wall to drain energy. And when I buy it, I'll remember to go through your site, so you'll get paid for it too:

  6. Living off the grid will place you into a whole new world of frugality, as you get to have a different kind of control of how things go. You know, little by little, you'll be able to reach that kind of freedom you've been yearning for. One thing I can recommend is utilizing kitchen heat during the winter, instead of using the electric heater.

  7. Beautiful shelter. The trees that surrounded the house makes it perfect place to live in.

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  8. I'm a huge advocate for taking advantage of time-of-use electricity. In our town, off-peak pricing starts at 7pm, so the dishwasher, washer/dryer are started after that time.

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