The Surprising Power of the Off Button

I’ve long believed in the idea that most electronics power saving modes are very low power and left the stuff in my office on when not in use. However I decided to challenge that belief with my kill-a-watt power meter and was surprised to find enough power use to change my habits.

To start out I separated my power strips into two sections – things that need to stay on like the cable modem and router vs. things I only need during work hours like the PoE switches, printer, usb hub, etc.

Once I did that split it was easy to review the power use of the “work hours only” equipment. What I found is power saving modes do work, there was a 20 watt reduction when things went to power saving mode. However that still left about 40 watts being used by stuff I didn’t need outside of work hours.

While turning off stuff when not at work seems trivial (I’ll just be there the next morning) work hours are only about 1/4 of a year. So 3/4 of the power I was using was wasted. Turning off the power to that equipment in my case saves 263kwh annually, or about $34/year for the national average power rate and nearly 400lbs CO2.

If you happen to be the forgetful type you can pick up a smart plug for about $25 which can automate the scheduling and can be overridden as needed with a touch of a button or an app.

Even if you don’t have a home office this can apply to any number of things – your living room electronics for example can have a gaming system, set top box, etc wasting your power when you’re not using it.

roll of TP

The One About Poop (and receipts)

My inner child is, of course, overjoyed to write a whole article about poop and TP. On the flip side my journey to this article was riddled with disappointing TP, BPA where I didn’t expect it, and American’s odd phobia of bidets.

The Problem with TP

Its estimated 27000 trees are cut down daily to make toilet paper. You’ve likely read recently about how more trees can help combat climate change, so its hard to justify cutting down forests for a quick wipe.

On the flip side sustainable forestry isn’t a bad thing – grow trees to capture carbon, replant, then use the trees. But we’re talking around 50 acres daily and decades to regrow for harvest – some very serious land is needed for just TP. Personally I think its better to use trees for more permanent uses like home building so we can ensure we aren’t using more trees than we can grow.

Much of our toilet paper in the US comes from Canada’s old growth Boreal Forest which is not just a huge carbon sink but also home to Indigenous Peoples and animals. If you use brands like Charmin, Kirkland Signature, Quilted Northern, etc your TP is probably from these kinds of sources rather than sustainable forestry.

The Options

Alternatives generally fall into two categories – recycled paper and alternative plant based products (bamboo, hemp, etc).

Starting my search for an alternative TP I quickly found Who Gives a Crap which sells recycled paper TP, bamboo TP, recycled paper tissues, and recycled paper towels. I really appreciate their efforts to eliminate plastic packaging and giving 50% of profits to help build sanitation for the billions of people without access to toilets. Not to mention they’re irreverent AF on social media.

I really, really wanted to like Who Gives a Crap but I found the TP so-so (the wife was less gracious), the tissues pretty good, and the paper towels terrible.

While there’s no shortage of FB memes about the virtues of hemp toilet paper, I can’t actually find any hemp TP to purchase. There’s a variety of brands of bamboo toilet paper (Galaxy Green, Who Gives a Crap, etc), I tried a few and was left underwhelmed.

So I tried a few brands of recycled TP and settled on Seventh Generation – its readily available, reasonably priced, soft enough, and strong. I wish I could give a more enthusiastic suggestion but just can’t find one.

But There’s a Downside…

Now for the downside of recycled TP – BPA. BPA is in receipts and other heat sensitive paper, people recycle them, and now we have BPA in our recycled paper products. Which leads to my next point – throw away receipts instead of recycling and take an e-receipt whenever possible.

Get a Bidet.

Having said all that I’m also going to suggest a wild idea for most Americans – a bidet. I don’t know why we have a hang up about them, but we need to get over it. Consider the flip side – if you got poop on your arm, you wouldn’t just wipe a dry paper on your arm and consider the job done.

While you probably imagine the $1000 japanese heated bidet, I’m a big fan of the cheap mechanical bidets which cost around $30. They’re reliable, no power use, and work great. You’ll save a lot of TP with a bidet (just to dry off) and have a cleaner bum than ever.

Also bidets can be fun! Our house guests are often unaware of bidets and we’ve had many good laughs because our guests got sprayed trying to figuring out what that knob does next to the toilet.

Hybrids Still Have Value

While I love electric vehicles I know they’re not for everyone. If you don’t have a place to plug in, need to regularly drive long distances, live in the midwest, or need more vehicle type options – hybrids can be a good solution to reduce emissions and lower your operating costs.

Hybrid Emissions vs Other Vehicle Types
Hybrids can be significantly more efficient than a conventional gasoline powered car. For example a Hyundai Elantra gets 35MPG, while the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid gets 58MPG. That means buying 170 fewer gallons of gas each 15k miles and reducing emissions by around 3200lbs CO2.

Believe it or not the emissions of a hybrid can be lower than an EV depending on where you get your power. For example in coal generated power markets (the midwest) a hybrid can have lower emissions than an EV. Though in most of America an EV will have lower emissions than a hybrid.

Some Hybrids Are Great Values
Hybrid drivetrains have historically cost a lot more than their conventional gas counterparts, but the cost difference is becoming smaller as the batteries and electronics have gotten cheaper. For example the RAV4 Hybrid XLE AWD costs only $800 more than the conventional RAV4 XLE AWD. According to fueleconomy.gov the RAV4 Hybrid will save the average driver $450/year, so in less than 2 years the extra cost of the hybrid has paid off.

Hybrids also tend to be a bit unloved which means sometimes you’ll find great deals for cars sitting on lots. This is because the market for the Eco-conscious is going EV and other buyers tend to not understand the value of a hybrid. For example I found a Kia Optima Hybrid EX for $25,549, thousands less than the MSRP on a conventional Kia Optima EX. While its not the most efficient hybrid on the market, its a great price for a well equipped family sedan with 41MPG.

Obviously each hybrid will be different, but there’s definitely some good deals out there.

Should I Be Worried About the Batteries?
The internet is full of horror stories about $4000-5000 hybrid battery replacements, but a bit of research can help you understand and avoid that cost. First you have to understand that hybrid batteries tend to carry long warranties – commonly 100,000-150000, though Hyundai is notable for a lifetime battery warranty. So unless you keep cars a long time you may never be out of battery warranty.

If you need a new battery avoiding the dealership repair shop is also a great idea. For example I found a new Prius battery replacement for $2300 at a reputable independent repair shop, you can also save even more with a bit of DIY skills – its really just a few bolts and electrical connectors to remove many hybrid batteries.

Consider the worst case – the battery dies at 100001 miles. During this time you’ve saved $3000 in gas on the RAV4, so a $2300 battery repair still isn’t too bad. Realistically the battery will last far longer, but worst case still isn’t that bad.

My Favorite Hybrids

Compact Sedan
Hyundai Ioniq – While Prius is practically synonymous with hybrids the Ioniq is better looking, better equipped, gets better gas mileage, has better battery tech, has a lower MSRP, and has a much better warranty. 58mpg, starting price just over $21k.

Subcompact Crossover(ish)
Kia Niro – admittedly the Niro has no real competition in the subcompact crossover-ish hybrid category. But if you need a bit more space than a Ioniq for the Niro is the natural choice. 50mpg, starting price around $23.5k.

Compact AWD Crossover
Toyota RAV4 – if you need a compact crossover with AWD the RAV4 is in a class of its own for efficiency and performance. Unfortunately the interior quality is really lacking for the price. 40mpg and a starting price around $28k.

Admittedly there’s plenty more hybrid categories but these are a couple of my favorites in the hybrid market.

Solar Update and Q&A

Many of our friends and family have expressed an interest in solar power but given the expense wanted to let us be the guinea pigs for it. Now that its been 8 months I figure we have some real world experience to share.

Does it Really Work?
From January through June we produced 5680kwh. Typically these months produce 52% of the annual production, so we’re on course to produce 10900kwh this year (a bit above the annual average use for a PSE customer). This is about 10% more than the installer estimated, meaning our system will be even cheaper than we originally predicted this if overproduction continues. So short answer, yes, solar power does work even in rainy Seattle.

Any Problems?
So far not a one. It has dealt with feet of snow and windstorms without issue.

What About Maintenance?
Zero so far, the rain has been keeping them clean and our trees are far enough back that debris hasn’t been an issue.

I’ve also gotten many recurring questions, here’s some common questions and answers about solar power.

Is my roof orientation okay?
A southern facing roof is ideal, but ours is more east/west and we produce only about 5% less than our cousin’s system which is more south facing. I’d avoid solar for heavily shaded roofs and north facing roofs, but otherwise don’t let concerns about the roof get in the way of considering solar power.

Will my HOA Allow Solar?
As long as you own the roof (e.g. not a condo) legally an HOA cannot ban rooftop solar in Washington State (RCW 64.38.055). HOAs can reasonably limit aesthetics (e.g. banning tilt kits) but a homeowner does have the right to install solar power.

What about cloudy days?
When people think of solar they often think of being off-grid, but most residential solar power systems are actually grid tied with net metering. When the system overproduces the power is sent to the grid and you get credits, when it is nighttime or overcast you pull from the grid and use the credits or buy power when the credits are all used.

What about power outages?
Solar power systems actually turn off when the grid power is down to protect the lineworkers from being electrocuted. If you want to use solar power to address outages you’ll need batteries like the Powerwall and an automatic transfer switch.

What About Online Estimators like Project Sunroof?
Project Sunroof is an interesting Google service using satellite data to estimate roof solar potential. It is however just an estimate – it appears to underestimate my production potential by at least 20% and overestimated the cost of my system about $14000 too high. When you get a solar installation quote any reputable dealer will use a Suneye (or similar PV analyzer) to get better data to estimate production.

Knowing Power Use

Every month you get a power bill but chances are you have no idea what most of the devices in your home cost to run. While that might sound nitpicky to understand, by knowing where your power use goes you can make smarter choices about upgrades and appropriate settings to reduce use.

For example in our previous article about beer fridges it turns out a 90s fridge uses so much power you can save hundreds a year by replacing it. The same can be true for old AC units, some set-top boxes, older plasma TVs, etc. Rooting out power hogs can have a huge impact.

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God Goes Green, Declares Pork Kosher

In a stunning reversal of thousands of years of policy, God today declared pork kosher and perhaps more surprising beef and lamb traif.

When questioned on this stunning reversal of policy God commented “it’s come to my attention that pork has less than half the CO2 emissions of beef and a third of lamb, eating less of those can really help the environment.”

Seeking other insight we ran into Rabbi Bloomstein at Dickey’s BBQ pit with a plate of baby back ribs. When asked about the change Rabbi only said “I’m deep in contemplation about the change and trying to understand it more fully.”

LED Bulb Replacement Calculator

I’m sure you’ve already heard about LED lights, but I’m in awe how often I still see incandescent and halogen bulbs around. There are a few common reasons people give such as color, dimming, and cost – but I think they’re outdated concerns with the latest LED bulbs.

People understandably like the warm glow of incandescent bulbs, however LEDs have come a long way. The Wirecutter says the Cree bulbs “look as good as incandescents” and dim all the way to zero without humming.

I also hear people say they only use their bulbs a few hours in the evening, but when I made a calculator I was surprised to find an LED bulb will often pay for itself in the first year with just an hour of use a day. Not to forget changing out the lights in a living room alone can save hundreds of pounds of CO2 annually.

Check out the calculator below, its preloaded with some average defaults but you can also tweak the numbers to your needs.

The VW eGolf is cheaper than the VW Golf

EVs have earned a reputation for being impractical and expensive. However battery prices have fallen to roughly 1/10 of an decade ago, meaning EVs are starting to look like a really good deal.

Take for example the EV version of the VW Golf – the eGolf. The eGolf SE trim costs $22995 after federal rebate, while the gas powered Golf SE costs $24145!

Now say you drive 15000 miles a year in the NW. The electricity for the eGolf will cost about $375, the gas for a Golf around $1363 assuming gas stays at $3/gallon. Not only will you save about $1000 on fuel, but no oil changes, brake service, etc.

Admittedly the eGolf is a lower range EV, about 120 miles. So it’s definitely fine for day to day use, but not the Golf you want for a road trip. But before you dismiss it, keep in mind if you have a two car household you probably don’t need both cars to be road trip ready.

On the extra cost side you’ll also need a charger – if this is a second car for commuting you might get by with a normal 120v outlet but you may need to spend another ~$400 plus install for a 240v charger.

Besides cost why should you care about an electric vehicle? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists an EV driven in the US averages the same cradle to grave emissions as a gasoline car getting 80mpg (96 for my friends in the NW). Given that no conventional or hybrid car on the market gets that kind of MPG, its a pretty impressive improvement which will continue to get better as more utilities switch to renewable power.

Even if you’re not compelled by the eGolf, here’s what’s cool – a bit less than a decade ago the battery pack alone for the eGolf would have cost more than the whole car. Given current trends in a matter of years EVs with much larger batteries will be the same purchase price as a gas powered car while still maintaining their low operating cost.

Besides price I actually really enjoyed my eGolf test drive – its agile, well balanced, and punchy off the line. Plus it looks like a normal Golf, which pretty appealing for those who don’t want to drive around in something that looks like an alien bug.

Bottom line – if you have a place to charge, an EV is starting to be a practical reality for more new car buyers and will keep getting more practical every year.