Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breaking It Down

In the never-ending quest to reduce, I spent the better part of the morning using this website to calculate where our money is going. I say it that way, because it's useful for me to understand that every time I power up my computer (and leave it idle) or turn on a light (and forget to turn it off) or watch a DVD on the television (and then leave the room while the movie still runs with no one watching it), I'm spending dollars.

It's not just wasting energy (squandering our dwindling resources).

It's also wasting money.

From the calculations, one-third to one-half (depending on the month) of our electricity is spent on operating our computers. The monthly total is 211 kwh, half of which goes to operate the one desk top computer (with LCD monitor) that stays on, roughly, twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, whether or not (which is more often) it is being used. It costs us $17.92 per month to keep that computer powered up.

The second biggest energy sucker is the oven, which uses 124 kwh for two hours worth of use at 350°. I usually run it at a higher temperature, but not quite for that long.

The refrigerator didn't use as much as I thought (although my calculations may be off) at 40 kwh per month, and the calculator didn't provide any information about operating a deep freeze.

The television doesn't use as much energy as I thought, either, but that's mostly due to the fact that we don't turn it on very often. On a side note: I was surprised to discover that operating our old CRT television doesn't use as much energy as powering one of the newer, sleek, very expensive plasma and LCD models. Makes me happy that I have my crappy attitude toward television, in general, which means I would NEVER have spent that kind of money on something I deem less than worthless ... and as a result of saving money, I saved money ;).

According to the website's calculations, we use 502.8 kWh/month. Our actual usage is a bit higher - between 500 and 600 kWh/month, but there were a few things that I couldn't account for, because the calculator didn't have that option and I just have no idea. Things like the septic pump, my printer, the computer router, and our upright deep freezer. I figure with those things excluded, the my estimates are pretty accurate.

So, what to do ...? Because we can't go off-grid and expect to be able to afford a system that generates 502.8 kilowatt hours per month. I've looked into those systems, and they are definitely too much money. What we will be able to afford will more likely be something in the 400 watt range.

The answer will be to replace inefficient appliances and electronic devices, and to conserve.

The no-cost solution to the oven usage is to: 1) plan better; and 2) use the stove top more often. Planning better means that I would use the oven once or twice a week, instead of whenever the whim strikes me. I would spend a day baking bread, and at the same time, bake other things, like pumpkin or pies.

An electric burner operating for two hours uses, approximaately, 50 kwh, which is less than half of what it costs to operate the oven for the same amount of time. I could run two burners for two hours for less than it costs to run the oven. I could also use woodstove more, although now that it's getting warmer outside, using the stove for cooking doesn't really work as well as it does during the deep winter freeze, because I'm not burning the fire quite as hot.

Using techniques like a haybox cooker and doing things like heating water to boil, adding pasta, and then turning off the heat and covering the food, which will continue to cook, will save energy, as well.

Changing those habits won't cost us a thing, but there are some low-cost solutions to the cooking issue, too, which would pay for themselves in a very short period of time.

The low-cost cooking solution is to build an outdoor kitchen. Not only would it provide me a cheaper way to cook our meals, but it would also give us a fixed place for the annual maple sugaring :). If we built an earth oven I could even reduce our cooking costs even further.

The whole topic of an outdoor cooking space is so incredibly broad. Having an outdoor cooking space would offer so many advantages that indoor cooking does not provide, including the above mentioned sap boiling, meat smoking, and wood-fired bread baking. The only dilemma, for me, at the moment, is where to put it to best utilize our space ... and since I want our outdoor kitchen to have a hand-pump well, too ....

But that's a whole other post ;).

Back to the topic of saving, we could cut another 37 kWh/month if we were to handwash the dishes, although our little half-sized dishwasher probably doesn't use as much electricity as the calculator says.

Replacing our circa 1997 refrigerator with a smaller and/or more efficient fridge would save 30 kWh per month (assuming my calculations for how much energy our fridge uses are correct).

We have night lights in the bathrooms, and if I could train myself and my family to not turn on the bathroom overhead lights if they're just tinkling, we might save a few more pennies per month. We already "let it mellow" if "it's yellow", which saves on the amount of electricity the septic pump uses (less water means less pumping needed :).

We've already picked all of the low-hanging fruit (turning off lights, replacing bulbs with CFLs, using power strips for ghost loads), when it comes to lowering our energy usage.

And we took it up a notch when we installed the woodstove for heating.

It's time now to take it to take it even further and start really changing habits. We have to get our every day electricity usage down to what we can reasonably afford to produce ourselves.

Step one: replace the desk top computers with laptops (and at this point, doing without isn't really an option, as computers are big part of our home schooling, could take the place of our television ... and, oh, yeah, I work from home using a computer *grin*).

Step two: build an outdoor kitchen.

Just those two things will decrease our energy usage by an estimated 235 kWh per month ... and the $38 per month we'll be saving could go toward the purchase of our alternative energy system :).

It might seem silly to spend $500 to save $38, but it's not about the short-term. It's about the long-term, and if we spend the money we have today on things that will help us use less energy and make us more self-sufficient tomorrow, I consider that a good investment.


  1. It's so nice to see someone else who gets down into these kinds of details. I'm doing this now with pricing internet service for our new home. Everyone wants you to 'bundle' to get the best deal, although the total cost of the bundle is pretty high. Why can't I get barebones basics cheaper? Grrr.

    Once out there, we'll be looking to reduce costs as much as possible. Outdoor kitchen is definitely on the list. In fact, the kitchen is on the south-facing side of the house and my sweetie has promised to build me a deck outside of it for the solar ovens. It will be so much more convenient than the current house & yard layout, that I expect my usage to skyrocket.

    Also planned is a cob oven and permanent rocket stove set-up next to an outdoor shower, which means running water to rinse things besides bodies.

    We've discussed the laptop option but the price is still higher than we can really justify. We keep watching, though. We'll be working our way through other energy and water issues once we get settled. Thanks for sharing your decision process.

  2. we try to purchase everything for the long term. it is surprisingly difficult to do in this disposable economy. there are many places where we have targeted to improve our energy independence. the summer kitchen (cob oven and wood grill) and solar water heater are in our cross hairs. our apple i-mac is also on full time. it is surprising how efficient it is.

  3. Interesting, and good points. I wondered what you're using the oven for when you do fire it up. I mostly use the oven to bake our bread, or a roast every once in a while. While I would never go back to store bought bread, I did decide to invest in duplicate equipment so that I could bake at least two loaves of bread at a time. So we have two dutch ovens (for no-knead) and two baking stones (for our other favorite bread). And if I'm using the oven anyway, I always try to sneak in a few potatoes, a head of garlic, or beets if they're in season, to cook along with whatever else needs to be in there.

    I just thought I'd mention this since it seems to fit with your approach. Maybe there's a way you could get twice the bang for the watt, so to speak, every time you fire up the oven. But yes, outdoor cookery is one of this year's projects for me too. I hope we can share recipes/strategies.

  4. Hi Wendy,
    This post really caught my attention, and I'll watch for your updates as you decide what to do regarding the outdoor kitchen, etc.
    I keep my electric usage down by living fairly simply in my temporary situation now - power strips, eliminated the cable tv, line dry clothes, etc., and I plan on moving to a small homestead within the next few years. I've always wanted an outdoor oven, solar water heat, a greenhouse and/or coldframes.
    You are so thorough in your research that I'm sure I'll learn a lot as you discuss these. Thanks and best wishes!

  5. You are in the same position we were in a few years ago.

    To track our usage we read our electric meter daily for about 2 weeks. At the same time I kept track of oven, dishwasher, washing machine & dryer usage. We have for years used CF bulbs, turned off lights, etc. After reviewing our electric usage we contacted the local electric company and had them do a FREE energy audit.

    The results of that were very interesting to us and the auditor - we are using only 2/3's of the electricity that a typical same sized household would use. Her only recommendation was to be sure to check/change the AC filter monthly (it's in the ceiling and difficult to reach). We're in FL and do need central AC but we keep it set rather high and always use fans to help cool. Cooling is our highest elec use.

    I make a dinner menu for every week and so know when I will need to use the oven and plan accordingly - for instance I will bake chicken parts and a meatloaf and potatoes at the same time. Reheating is done stovetop. I also use propane grills and a solar oven to keep heat out of the house in summer. The auditor told us electric cooking costs are less than 4% of our total electric usage.

    Be sure to use appliances correctly - check the use and care booklets you've kept or on line. Freezers should be filled, refrigerators need air circulation space, use temperature sensing or timed loads on the dryer - of course first choice would be line or rack drying. Check to see how many gallons of water the dishwasher uses and compare to hand washing. Actually measure the water you use handwashing by filling a gallon container, pour in the sink, use gallon container to rinse soapy water off. You might not be saving any water but might save electricity on the pump. Don't prerinse dishes with running water - use a flexible spatula to scrape them.

    The use of window shades and curtains can increase heat or decrease it depending on need.

    I think the only really useful tool in keeping electric usage down is personal investigation. Find your sources of greatest use, fix them, & recheck. It will take some time but if you involve husband and kids, you won't be in it alone.