/ 25 May 2011

How you can really cut down on electricity this winter

You turn off lights when you’re not in the room, recycle glass bottles and unplug your cellphone charger, so you’re doing your bit for the planet, right? Well, not really, according to a report from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The report analyses what Americans in 34 states believe to be eco-friendly practices — but what’s striking is they’re actually at odds with what really works. The report also says that those of us who are most keen to follow eco-friendly practices are actually the most ignorant. Ouch!

What the survey reveals is that we generally have inaccurate perceptions of energy use and savings. Unplugging the television at night is a waste of time because a modern TV on standby uses less than a watt of power. You’d have to unplug it or switch it off for a year to save the same amount of energy as it takes to have one-and-a-half baths.

Similarly, you can recycle glass, but it takes so much energy to make or recycle glass that it’s actually more efficient to use aluminium cans. You shouldn’t even be using glass.

Low-effort, low-impact actions may make you feel better about doing your bit, but the truth is, these changes don’t make a huge difference. So what are you doing wrong? And how can you really cut down on energy use before winter has the country in its grip?

Work out an energy budget
The biggest energy gluttons in your home are likely to be heating during winter and cooling during summer, followed by your geyser. After that comes lighting, computers, TVs and other electronic appliances. Your kitchen appliances come next — dishwashers, microwaves, coffee machines and your fridge.

With this in mind, it’s obvious that it’s far more energy efficient to turn heating appliances down by a degree than to turn off all your lights. Or you may not consider putting a timer on your geyser, to switch it off when you’re at work, because you think it takes more energy to boil water in a cold geyser (which is not true).

Let’s look at a typical four-person household with a fixed budget for electricity (say R600 to R1 000 a month). If you have a good grasp of your household’s energy consumption habits, you can save between 5% and 15% on your monthly bill. If you spend R600 a month, you could be saving over R1 000 a year, before you’ve even started investing in major energy-saving products or appliances.

Ereeza Ryland, chief marketing officer at Powertime, says the first step towards saving money is to change your consumption habits. To manage your budget, you should probably install an electricity monitoring meter — these are sold at hardware stores and cost about R800.

While regular prepaid meters tell you how much electricity you have left, smart meters tell you how much electricity is consumed, so you can get a minute-by-minute idea of how much electricity you’re using. By unplugging certain devices while watching the dial, you can figure out what’s using power. Otherwise a lot of your budgeting is guesswork.

You should then gradually install energy-efficient products and appliances in your home, which will keep you within budget. These appliances don’t necessarily cost more than inefficient ones, but they will use electricity, so they’re cheaper to run and maintain.

Steps to cut electricity consumption
Follow these steps for real energy saving this winter:

  • Seal and insulate your home. Almost 30% of your winter electricity bill is used for heating if you use electric heaters. An non-insulated ceiling makes heating rooms slow and energy intensive. Modern ceiling insulation materials can be blown in as granules (for hard-to-access areas) or laid (material like isotherm). On a cold evening, feel where breezes are coming from, and stop them. Apply weather strips on drafty door and window frames. Consider double-glazing your windows
  • Think about installing a geothermal heat pump if you use a lot of heating or air conditioning. These devices use differences in the ground’s temperature to heat water and provide central cooling to your home. You can save 30% to 70% in heating costs, and 20% to 50% in cooling. True, it costs about R18 000 to R20 000 to install this, but the pump pays for itself in five to 10 years and increases the resale value of your house, if you sell.
  • About 30% to 40% of your energy costs are used to heat water. Reduce the temperature of your geyser thermostat to 55˚C or less (or until you are mixing in little to no cold water in the bath/shower).
  • Cover your geyser with an insulation blanket. Hot water in the geyser will stay hot longer, and you will use less electricity heating it up. Try to buy the thicker insulation (100m to 150mm, versus the 50mm ones) as it’s not much more expensive but is twice or three times as effective. You can get a blanket from big hardware stores and they normally cost under R500.
  • Consider investing in solar hot water heaters, which use the sun’s energy to reduce your hot water heating bill. These systems can save 40% to 50% in heating costs. They costs between R8 000 and R15 000 for a medium-sized panel, which will last beyond the five-year guarantee. Eskom’s rebates for installing energy saving devices will help you claw back much of this cost (from R3 000 to R10 000 of the cost is refunded).
  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with the compact fluorescent or LED varieties. They use about 20% to 33% of the power of the old light bulbs and last eight to 15 times longer. Improvements now make the light emitted from the “soft white” CFLs very similar in colour to that of standard incandescent lamps.
  • Learn how to set power management on your computer and turn down the brightness on your TV and computer monitor. Plug your computer peripherals (printer, scanner, speakers, fax machine) into a power strip and power down when not in use.
  • Wait until you have full loads to run in the washing machine and dishwasher and, if available, use their energy savings settings. Consider air drying your clothes rather than using the tumble dryer. It saves energy and money, plus your clothes will last longer.
  • Consider replacing old appliances, like that second refrigerator in the basement. Look for and purchase Energy Star appliances and electronics when you’re out shopping for new white goods.
  • Refrigerators use more energy than any other appliance in a typical household. Don’t keep your refrigerator and freezer too cold, as this draws more power. Refrigerators should maintain a temperature of 3˚C to 4˚C. Freezers should be kept at about -15˚C. Make sure door seals are in good condition.

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