If you’re worried about power use, think about motors

When reviewing power use with my Emporia Energy Vue I realized one highly overlooked power consumption item in homes – motors.

Motors are everywhere – ceiling fans, attic fans, sump pumps, furnaces, air purifiers, bath vents, etc. They’re easy to overlook but really should not be overlooked if you care about power use.

Take for example the ceiling fan. A common builder grade unit can draw 60 watts of power and while that’s still more efficient than an air conditioner and can help distribute cooling/heat in a room – its not very efficient. Look for an Energy Star ceiling fan with a DC motor and you’ll draw about 20 watts for the same air moving effect.

Obviously for occasional use that 40 watt difference isn’t a big deal. Run it constantly and you’re looking at about 350kWh difference a year – that could cost you on average $45 extra per year ($28-$122 depending where you live).

Once you take care of the obvious home stuff (LED lights, etc) motors may be one of the best ROI items for swapping out. Be sure to look for DC motors and/or Energy Star logos when buying things for your home with a motor, you’ll save a lot in the long run.

Federal Energy Tax Credits are Back!

Anyone who reads the Eco Friendly Cheapass knows I love tax credits and rebates. So I was really excited to see not only are the Federal Energy Tax Credits back, but they’re retroactive from 12/31/2017!

So for your primary residence there’s a variety of rebates for installing high efficiency heating/cooling systems, water heaters, insulation upgrades, etc. 

My favorite (yes, I have favorites) is the heat pump water heater rebate of $300 which can stack on top of your utility rebate. I’ve written about these units a number of times but here’s the short version:

  • You can get one on sale starting around $1000 (regularly $1300)
  • They can be DIY installed by a handy homeowner
  • Utility rebates commonly run $250-500 
  • Federal rebate is $300
  • The typical homeowner will save $300-400/year replacing a conventional electric water heater with a heat pump water heater

You can literally have a 1 year ROI on a heat pump water heater now and save thousands over the life of the unit.

For more information about these rebates check out this Energy Star page. 

CYA – this does not constitute tax advice, please see your tax professional to ensure you qualify.

Emporia Vue is Changing My Mind About Home Power Monitors

In my past article about home power use I recommended the Kill-A-Watt to monitor individual device power use rather than a whole home unit like Sense. I figured the big stuff was obvious to change (water heater, lights, etc) and the small stuff couldn’t be worth $300 plus professional install (optional but recommended) given the low cost of power in the Northwest.

Since then Emporia Energy has come out with the Vue starting at $50 to monitor just the mains, or $99 with 8 individual circuit monitors. While you still have to consider install, it is DIY capable for most handy homeowners. Needless to say, this is a bit more Eco Friendly Cheapass friendly, so I bought one.

So what does Vue get you that a Kill-A-Watt doesn’t? First off 240v devices and hardwired devices you might not otherwise see like your furnace blower, ceiling fans, dishwasher, etc. You also will see loads you never considered like an attic fan.

Unlike Sense, Vue doesn’t try to identify individual devices only circuits. So I still think a Kill-A-Watt is useful to identify where power is going once you identify a circuit using a lot of power (for circuits with multiple devices on it).

So what are my results? After my first few weeks of trying it out I made a few adjustments which helped cut around 200kWh (about $20) off the December bill.

Aside from that I actually gained a lot of comfort with knowing where all my power was going. I now know 45% of our December power goes to the cars and now when bills fluctuate I can see if that’s related to driving patterns or other home use. The old dishwasher from the last homeowner I was worried about only uses a bit over one kWh per cycle (more than new units, but not enough to be worth changing). I also discovered an unknown power draw of 60 watts which I’m still hunting down.

The biggest downside is that home power meters help identify usage but not unusual use or areas for improvement. So for example you can see your beer fridge is using 300kWh monthly, but you need to do the research to realize that’s more than triple a new fridge’s power consumption.

However I hope this won’t dissuade you from the idea of a home power meter, rather set expectations you’ll have to do some legwork yourself to make the most out of the data you collect.

Interested in trying out the Vue? Grab one here and support the ecofriendlycheapass.com blog!

More People Doing Something Is Better than One Perfect Person

In my last post I mentioned how more people doing something is often more effective environmentally. But interestingly it can also be the more cost effective solution. 

Take for example my home heating, our natural gas furnace is responsible for about 6000lbs of CO2 annually. While this seems like a huge amount, we use about half the natural gas of our neighbors with similar sized homes (per PSE energy usage data). Say I convinced five neighbors who are using twice the natural gas as us to upgrade their ceiling insulation and install a smart themostat – that would on average cut 2000-3000 lbs of CO2 emissions per neighbor. Those five neighbors would end up cutting 10000-15000lbs of CO2 annually in total, far more than I could eliminate by any project on my own heating or insulation upgrades. 

While there’s admittedly a huge difference between spending my money and convincing others to spend their money – comparing total spent also favors this approach. For example say I wanted to eliminate my home heating emissions, I’d need to get a heat pump (my power is all solar and green power purchases) which would set me back $6000-7000.

On the flip side consider the costs of insulation upgrades and smart thermostats for my neighbors – I spent under $900 after utility rebates to do that to my house. Assuming the average of the five houses is the same they’d spend under $4500 for their upgrades. So not only is this policy more effective in CO2 reduction but also for cost of implementation. 

This same principle can be applied in many environmental matters – one Tesla Model S and 69 regular cars will have more emissions than if you split the Tesla’s battery pack and put them in 70 hybrids. One person going vegan will often have less impact than five people eating less lamb and beef.

The greatest impacts will be when many of us make moderate improvements rather than a few trying to be perfect. To that end please remember to spread the word, we can accomplish more together.

Don’t Worry About Perfection, Only Progress

As we end this year I’m going to get philosophical instead of my usual pragmatic nerdery. I’ve been reading a lot of criticisms of technology and people for being imperfect. Yes Greta Thunberg ate food out of plastic containers, AOC rode in a minivan, EV batteries do have an environmental impact to create, and even my solar panels were delivered in gas powered trucks.

Trolls would have you believe we should discredit anything that’s not perfect, while neglecting any progress or realizing we can’t control everything. I can’t magically put EVs at every airport rental counter and chargers at every hotel powered by wind or solar. Greta can’t magically make more foods get packed in compostable containers. I don’t think we should not work or eat until we solve the world’s problems.

The reality is we should be proud of what we actually have done and encourage other people and companies to improve what’s practical and effective. To that end in the year to come I suggest the following:

  1. Choose a couple things you can do to reduce your impact – no matter if that’s installing solar power or just bringing your own cup to get coffee, chose what you can realistically do better next year.
  2. Share the word – one person being perfect is often less effective than many people making modest changes. Getting 5 friends to insulate their ceilings and install smart thermostats would have more environmental effect than just about any project you could do to your own home.
  3. Ask for change from businesses you regularly do business with. I’ve asked IHG Hotels to reduce the trash created by their breakfasts – I suggested using reusable or compostable materials instead of disposable. If enough people ask for something some businesses will act on the demand.
  4. Vote with your dollars – frequent the businesses that try to do better. I made it clear to IHG Hotels if their competition does better on these matters, I’d switch where I stay.

Okay that’s enough soapbox for one year, I promise more nerdery next time.

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.