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.

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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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.

Your Beer Fridge is Wasting Your Beer Money

There’s few things more American than keeping an old fridge in the garage stocked with beer. But have you considered how much beer money that fridge wastes?

Take for example a 1990 side-by-side fridge. Running that for a year costs over 500 cans of Kirkland Signature Light Beer. Even a year 2000 top freezer refrigerator costs 260 cans of Kirkland Signature Light Beer.

There’s a few simple answers – consider doing without or getting a new fridge. For example at Best Buy a 115 can beer fridge is $199 and costs just 73 cans of Kirkland Signature Light Beer to run.  A larger 10 cubic foot fridge freezer costs just $299 and costs just 75 cans of beer. In 1-2 years replacing an old beer fridge can pay for itself, leaving you plenty more beer money.

Learn more about your current beer fridge’s operational cost (in dollars) at EnergyStar.