Monday, August 22, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Power

So what's on your agenda today?

Your house uses a lot of electricity.  It doesn't have to.

This goes without saying.  You know it's true because the utility company keeps sending you those friendly reminders every month that you owe them money.  And they never miss a month, so it's not like you've ever caught up with how much you've used.  More got used.

So what can I do about it?

Blame Edison.  No, wait - blame Nikola Tesla..  We use AC electricity, alternating current.  Edison was a genius, make no mistake.  But he was hung up on DC current and wanted everyone to use that.  Edison even went so far as to stage public executions of everything up to and including an elephant with alternating current in order to build public sentiment against AC.  Edison wanted DC to win popular approval.  It was expensive to lay the heavy transmission lines, so if he could make AC look scarier, he could gain a lot of business.

Money eventually won out, of course.  AC is easily stepped up and down with transformers, and once stepped up can be sent over many miles of conveniently thin and inexpensive transmission wires, unlike DC current.  So Tesla eventually won that war.

But now that we've mentioned transformers, let's talk a little more about them.  Do you have a cell phone?  Lots of people do.  How about a telephone answering machine?  Small, low-power devices like these often use a little plug-in transformer to convert that 120v juice in the outlet down to something more like what the device really needs.  Transformers are necessarily bulky, so you can't just slap the transformer into the device itself, right?  Too heavy.  But did you know that even if the device isn't plugged in, there's still some current going into that transformer?

Well, it's just a little wall wart.  It can't be using a lot of power, can it?

Oh, yeah.  It's not a lot, but it's real.  It's called a "phantom load" and it adds to your utility bill.  Not a lot, but some.

VCR and DVD players have their transformers built in.  You don't see them, but they are there.  TVs have memory circuits that are always on, and the tube (for those of you still using previous-generation cathode ray tube TVs) is kept a little warmed up.  Folks above a certain age remember how TVs used to need a couple of minutes to warm up, get to full brightness.  Not anymore.  Now there's a little juice going through it all the time so it's ready for you.  That convenience costs.  And when did you ever have a TV emergency?

Never a TV emergency.  But I thought new devices were supposed to be more efficient than the old stuff they replace?

Lots of things are, for sure.  LED clocks are more efficient than the old motor-driven electric clocks.  They just are.  But remember old stoves, the gas or electric stove that had no clock at all?  All it did was get hot.  Turn it off and it was off.  My current stove tells time, has a timer, and can even be scheduled to come on at such-and-such a time.  I don't know how to make it do that, but it can.

Thermostats.  Again, this is a better choice than the old mechanical ones.  The old kind had liquid mercury in it, probably, and couldn't be set to turn the AC off during the day while you're at work.  The new ones can, and it's totally worth it.  You give up maybe a kilowatt-hour of power per year to run the thermostat, but it saves you dozens of kilowatt-hours every week that you let it run a setback schedule.  So if you don't have a programmable thermostat, get one.

Don't get Rite-Temp.  They're a disaster.  Shoot for Braeburn or Honeywell.  Honeywell is easy to install, Braeburn more versatile.

Remember those wall warts, the little plug-in transformers?  Get them all together and put them on a plug strip, one that has a switch.  When you're not using them, turn off the plug strip.  Bye-bye, phantom loads.

Not a big TV watcher?  Put the TV on a plug strip too, and the set-top box if you have cable.  Shut it all down when you're not using it.  Phantom loads.

So far you're talking about a lot of really little things.  I'm sure they add up, being always on.  But is there anything big I can do, some low hanging fruit that makes a big difference?

Water heaters pull serious amperage when they're on.  But if you're gone half the day, install a timer and let it just drift while you're gone.  Have it turn on before you get home, and right before you get up.  Off during the day and while you're sleeping.  There's a surge of electricity use while it heats up, but no silly reheats at luncthime while you're at the water cooler at the office.  You can also add insulation to the water heater to slow down how much heat it does lose, which makes a big difference as to just how long it's on when it does come on.

What about in the kitchen?

Refrigerators with lots of doohickeys in the freezer door tend to pull more amps.  If you can get by without the ice cube crusher and the chilled water dispenser, you can have a freezer that doesn't have a hole in its door.  Hello, conservation.

Anything else?

Compact fluorescent bulbs.  If you're using the old, hot, incandescent bulbs, you're mostly making heat with those things.  The old Easy Bake Oven used a light bulb for a reason.  Compact fluorescents make about the same amount of light for nearly a fourth of the power - that's less heat in your house, that your AC has to run to remove.  Win-win.  LEDs are getting better by the day but they're not as efficient as CF bulbs, not yet - though the spot and flood bulbs are very, very good and if you have to replace in a difficult location, the LED floods may well be worth the extra cost.  Not having to replace a hard-to-reach bulb for ten years is awfully appealing, add in the fact it gets almost the same energy conservation the CF does and it becomes a no-brainer choice.

That's a few ideas, enough to get you looking around. 

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