Green design needs green behavior to work.

Posted on March 1st, 2009 – 8:35 PM
By Jason Hammond

We’ve spent a great deal of energy and money over the past few years trying to reduce our over-all carbon footprint. Much of this has come in the form of thoughtful planning and design, environmentally conscious purchases and energy saving design features from SIPs walls to in floor radiant heat. After just over a year of living in our new “green friendly” home we have some hard data to determine how we’ve been doing.

When our initial Home Energy Audit was completed in February of 2008 it was estimated that we would spend an average of $120 a month on our electric, heating and cooling needs based on the makeup of our homes.  The actual results from one year of use showed that we were above this estimated mark, and spent on average $180 a month. Our natural Gas consumption was really good (right around the estimated amount) even with the slightly elevated costs of fuel this winter. Much of this could be attributed to the passive solar design of our house, and our active role as home owners to make sure our shades were open and closed at the appropriate times so that we could harness this free energy source. On several sunny (but very cold days) last winter when the temp was around -12º our home stayed a toasty 72º without the furnace running during the daylight hours. Although, our natural gas consumption was within the estimated range or electric was not.

Having had our solar audit done just this past fall we knew that our home electricity consumption was high. Some of this was as a result of phantom loads from appliances, several work computers being used regularly during the day and of course some careless personal habits, like leaving lights on in rooms that weren’t being used or not unplugging unused electronics. What is most disturbing about the number being high for our electric is that we’ve done a lot of simple things like replacing most of our lights with florescent bulbs to mitigate some of this consumption. Yet we were still on average using more energy than I think a household of 4 should be. Since our fall solar audit we have seen a reduction in some energy use by introducing power strips in certain areas to help stop unwanted energy consumption from phantom appliances, as well as the introduction of some new dimming florescent light bulbs into areas where they previously weren’t available. But the truth is we still could be doing a lot better. The biggest thing that needs to change for this to happen is to improve our energy use habits by being more aware of our consumption practices. So how can we do this? I know there have been many times where I have walked up stairs after dinner, only to find that the boys had left every light, tv radio and computer on. Then this weekend while watching a show called Wa$ted on Planet Green I learned of a great way to monitor your homes energy use at all times, with a product called the Cent-0-meter. I wasn’t able to find much on this specific product but I found another similar product called the PowerCost  Monitor ™   which basically does the same thing. For around $120 to $150 you can get a single device which tells you at all times what your home is using for energy and what it’s costing. This small investment seems well worth it, if it can help keep me aware of unwanted waste and improve our families energy habits.

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The PowerCost Monitor and Cent-a-Meter (shown above) offer a wireless up to the minute tracking of your homes energy usage. 

Although our electricity consumption was a bit high there was one area where I felt we did outstanding in my opinion—water consumption. According to various studies the average consumption of water per person in the U.S. is 30,000-40,000 gallons and for a family of four, like us, between 120,000 to 160,000 gallons a year. With that said, as a family last year we used almost exactly 60,000 gallons of water. Although, still not a number to scoff at by any means, it is significant. Considering that this usage included the watering of a newly laid sod lawn and plants this summer, which marked our highest period of consumption in mid-summer.

So why were we able to keep this so low? On top of the dual-flush TOTO toilets and low flow faucets, we selected to help us reduce our water consumption, we also were very mindful of our usage. We used rain capture barrels in various locations around the house and then used that water for plants. Our sump pump which is very active all year around was used as a watering aid for our lawn throughout the summer and we practiced good water management, by limiting the length of our showers and turning the faucets off when brushing our teeth or other simple daily activities.

I think doing an audit of your family’s energy and consumption practices is really enlightening. For me it was a  reminder that all the green products, good planning and intentions are only maximized when you take the time to practice responsible behavior.  My hope/plan is that by next year we are able to reduce both our consumption of electricity and and water significantly. By doing so we’ll not only lighten our impact on the environment but reduce the cost on our wallet.

11 Responses to "Green design needs green behavior to work."

Frank Lee says:

March 1st, 2009 at 9:53 pm

That Cent-O-Meter looks like quite the nifty device! The techie in me wants one but the mizer in me says it’ll do me no good. I can borrow a Kill-A-Watt for FREE from my electric COOP, know what everything uses, and go from there. Eh, the mizer in me usually wins anyway. I’m a big eco-maniac but I prefer attacking the usage end of the deal rather than the supply side. I’ve blown more ceiling insulation into my 40 year old house, as well as put in a high-efficiency gas furnace. I put an insulation blanket around the old gas water heater. I made removeable styrofoam panels for many of my windows; out for day, in at night. You’d think they would be more effective than the interior shrink plastic film I used to use. I went through the house and unplugged a whole slew of things that really didn’t need to be plugged in. No, I don’t need a clock in every room! And I did the power strip thing. I wear layers in the winter- is that unreasonable? I think not. Carter was right!!! Results? In spite of price increases, my gas and electric bills are but a fraction of what they were 15 years ago! How does <200 kwh/mo sound? (I think 90 of that is for the old fridge!) Natural gas- never over $100/mo- about $60/mo year around average. It helps to not have a woman in the house- I KNOW they would buck at the cool temps I keep. Oh, that reminds me: the BIGGEST thing EVERYONE can do to reduce carbon footprints is to have 0, 1, or 2 kids. No more than that.

Jeanne says:

March 1st, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Thanks for this article. I think people rely too much on green products to assuage their green guilt, instead of taking green action.

We just found out that Minneapolis is burning a lot of the plastics they say they recycle because the bottom has fallen out of the recycled plastics market. So we’re setting up a place in our basement to store our plastics until the markets improve.

Yeah, we’re losing storage space. But we’re betting on the earth and my niece’s grandchildren.

Rita Stodolka says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 8:22 am

I think reducing our personal energy consumption at home and work is great, and we can reap some very valuable personal benefits – it costs less to use less. Our family has been using power strips for computers and other peripherals, and we only plug the phone in when it’s actually charging.

There are a lot of other things we do, but I’ll keep it to two:

1. Reusable water bottles: It seems even though this kind of plastic is recyclable, the majority of these plastic bottles are ending up in the landfills (and maybe there is a finite use for all that plastic?). I prefer a stainless steel bottle and use a water purifier. We basically take our water bottle everywhere, and we also don’t drink pop (soda) which also helps our bottom line and the planet. Recent news has reported that tap water is safe, so it’s a personal choice. I had one or two water emergencies (forgot my bottle) where I “had” to purchase an individual water bottle – about twice in the last year. A stainless steel water bottle can cost from about $12 – $20; at a movie theater, a water will cost from $2 – $3. A definite savings in the long run. Remember, the “big two” pop companies also produce those expensive bottles of water – do you really want to make these people rich?

Of course, all the news has been around how our landfills are overflowing with plastic water bottles – but remember: those pop and juice bottles count too!! I won’t get started on all the health reasons not to drink all that pop, but think about the plastic bottle next time.

2. Compost: We have a very small yard and manage to compost. There are also community gardens and other “city sponsored” public sites at which to take compost. On a typical week, we have one garbage bag for the trash collector, maybe two. This is kind of like a third thing, but it’s also thanks in part to using flushable/compostable diapers – “gDiapers.” Granted, we pay a flat fee for garbage pickup, so there isn’t an immediate savings here (I hope in the future they may charge by the pound), but the nutrients from the compost can add to soil health, even if you don’t garden.

I challenge everyone to do what they can, and think about not only immediate “wallet reduction” but also societal and other costs that are less tangible.

Diane says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 8:23 am

Gosh Jason, it sounds like you’re doing so many things “right”. It is a puzzle. The meters you mentioned or the Kill-a-watt style device that plugs into each outlet, might be the only way to solve your mystery. The kid’s “forgot” thing will involve some serious training and reminding, so might or might not be a battle you choose to fight. Installing a timer system or motion sensors in the most likely rooms would at least minimize that “forgot” waste. If I were in your situation I would start with the energy consumption of that “very active” sump pump. Then double check that all of the exisiting power draws were in that preliminary estimate (real number of TVs vs predicted, real size of HVAC fans & sump pump vs predicted). Maybe it’s the prediction that was off and not the reality.

Patrick says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 8:32 am

(there is a typo on the caption of the PowerCost monitor: I think you want “up to the minute tracking of your home’s energy usage”).

A friend of mine in San Franciso took out his huge old refrigerator and replaced it with a smaller “college style” one that he put under the kitchen counter.

It didn’t really impact his life in terms of not being able to store things (who has a stuffed-full fridge and needs everything in it?), and it reduced his energy bill by about 20%.

English says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 9:13 am

Could you please do me a favor? Please use a spell checker, or even a human editor, before posting your writing. The spelling mistakes detract from the importance of the information that you are sharing. Thank you!

James says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 4:49 pm

You may want to have an editor review your blog entries or learn the difference between “new” and “knew” and the correct spelling of “device.”

Frank Lee says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 6:25 pm

How long will my post be “awaiting moderation” and why?

JasonHammondFan says:

March 2nd, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Jason -

Seriously, can I have the last few minutes of my life back for reading this stuff which was uninformative and wasteful of the electricity of many computers and ALOT MORE OF MY TIME THAN IT WAS WORTH. Seriously, go get another deposit from your trust fund because your life as a true contributor to society is over.

Jason Hammond says:

March 3rd, 2009 at 8:17 am

Frank,

The Cent-o-meter and the Kill-a-watt are both great items but very different. The Kill-a-watt identifies the loads being pulled through an appliance or electronic item, while the Cent-o-Meter identifies all energy being consumer at one time during the day. This would include lights that are left on, ceiling fans etc. that don’t have outlets.

I also want to compliment you for taking some great actions to reduce your over-all consumption.

Jason

Jason Hammond says:

March 3rd, 2009 at 10:58 am

I do apologize for my poor spelling and punctuation which is often times magnified my by typing skills. I generally write my blog very loosely (as it is a journal style writing) and to make sure that I get my thoughts out. Sometimes in my haste to post, I fail to review my punctuation and spelling for errors or have someone else do this for me, which is just one of the many areas where I could use to improve. Believe it or not I do use a spell checker on my blog, I just often over look the noted corrections—not a good excuse but the truth.

My father was an English teacher so these errors often times makes him cringe when he reads my writing. Additionally, when the paper posts my articles they do go through the editing process so they are up to par, but I am sure they also cringe at some of what I write. However, they and many other people still do value my perspective and the manner and tone of how I share it. I do not profess to be a writer and I’m sorry if you felt that these errors were of such distraction to my writing that it overshadowed the content and its intent, it’s certainly an area where I could use improvement.

Jason