This Blog Post is Worth $100,000

I recently began to wonder is all this effort in efficiency, solar, etc worthwhile…or just wasting time over pennies saved? So I decided to look at the big picture and see what I spend on energy versus an average neighbor and how much CO2 difference that makes.

Our utility (PSE) shows average neighbor energy use. Those neighbors are selected to match our home – single family homes of about 2700 square feet, within 1.8mi, natural gas heat, and an average 4 occupants. From that average usage data we can figure out energy spend for electricity and natural gas.

I also wanted to consider the cars – gas is a huge part of people’s energy expenditures which is easy to overlook without a monthly bill. We drive about 20,000 miles annually on our electric vehicles, so I’ll figure my “average” neighbor will drive the same 20k miles in a car getting 25MPG (the 2018 average for new vehicles according to the EPA). I’m also going to assume the average price of gas is $3/gallon which is a pretty typical price for Western Washington (if not low).

Our HouseAverage NeighborCO2 Difference
Annual Electric Cost$520$13337404 lbs
Annual Natural Gas Cost$494$9505798 lbs
Annual Gasoline Cost$0$240016000 lbs
Annual Total$1014$468329202 lbs

Now in fairness what’s missing is the solar array cost. The cost of the array plus loan interest, minus incentives divided by the 25 year life means the solar array costs $590/year. But I decided instead of looking at it annually, lets look at the entire energy spend over 25 years.

You might also wonder if we spend $520/year on PSE power and $590 on solar power…aren’t we spending almost as much on power as my average neighbor? Yes but we actually use more power than our average neighbor not because of inefficiency but because that’s powering the house and two cars.

So back to the 25 year analysis, over long periods I think its worth considering inflation as well. For example PSE natural gas has gone up ~11% last year and PSE was seeking another ~7% this year for gas and electricity. Obviously that doesn’t happen every year but I’m going to assume a fairly modest 2% based on historical averages. In fairness its unlikely anyone’s energy use will remain constant over 25 years, but efficiency improvements may very well get offset by more electronics, more cooling, etc.

Our HouseAverage Neighbor
25 Year Energy Spend
Assuming 2% inflation
Solar Array Cost
Including Loan Interest
and Incentives
25 Year Energy Spend$47,378$150,000

Which brings us back to the title of this article, that’s $100,000 in the pocket of the efficient homeowner vs. the average home. So yes, energy efficiency is worth the effort not just for environmental impact but cost of living.

This Is The Droid You’re Looking For

A few years ago we went from a townhouse with no lawn to a house with 2/3rd acre of land. We started with a cheap electric mower to get by while we figured out how to deal with the yard. 

While we enjoyed mowing it was hard to make time – between my travel schedule, weather, family life, etc it can be hard to take an hour or so to mow weekly. Many of our neighbors use riding mowers or lawn services, I decided to take another approach with a robot mower. Needless to say that leads to many common questions I decided to answer. 

WTF Is A Robot Mower?
Think off road Roomba with razor blades. 

How Does it Know Where to Mow?
Most robot mowers available today use a perimeter wire but some new ones coming use cameras, beacons, etc.

Is that Safe for my Pets/Kids?
Pretty safe – mine has folding blades to avoid giving deep cuts to solid objects, blade guards, stops when lifted, etc. Some can even use cameras to avoid people and animals.   

Won’t it Get Stolen?
They’re useless without the base, wiring, and the pin code to start the unit – but if you’re really worried about it some have GPS to locate stolen units. 

Does it really work?!
Yes, we have a hilly lawn and it’s handling it quite well. Our biggest issue is patchy grass near the bottom of the lawn where loose wet soil causes traction issues (we’re working on it). The better the turf, the better the robot will do especially on the edges where it turns. 

I’ve also discovered in many ways a robot works better. Mine mows daily – it looks perfectly cut every day instead of shaggy at the end of the week between mowings. And mine (not all) randomly cut which prevents ruts from forming in the lawn. 

Why Robot Instead of The Alternatives?
Needless to say I didn’t want to use a gas mower of any kind and I’m a cheapass, so lawn services were a no-go. There are electric riding mowers for $2000-4000, but given that costs more than a robot and takes more time, I couldn’t justify that choice (though it would make sense for a lawn too big for a robot). So to me the robot for $1200 seemed like a bargain. 

Is a Gas Mower Really that Bad?
Far worse than you would expect – people tend to think a lot about CO2 but there’s lots of nasty emissions from small engines like particulate matter, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. Per EPA regulation gas push mowers sold since 2012 may produce as much hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in an hour as a car driven 160 miles (and older mowers are far worse). 

According to the EPA gas lawn equipment is responsible for nearly 4% of all VOCs emitted and 12% of the CO2. You can make a surprisingly huge impact by just changing out lawn equipment. 

What About Electric Mower Power Use?
Of course I used my trusty Kill A Watt to see how much power my robot mower used weekly. I’m rather impressed to say only about 3 kwh. While that’s more than my electric push mower used (about .75kwh), we’re still talking like 30 cents to run weekly – far less than the cost to operate a gas mower. As for emissions 3kwh could be anywhere from 0-6lbs of CO2 emissions (depending on utility), which is still a fraction of the emissions it would take to mow with a gas mower. 

Aren’t Lawns Just Environmentally Terrible?
Once you address the equipment emissions a couple other major grass lawn issues are water use and fertilizers. Water use doesn’t change with a robot, but being in Western Washington means nature waters the lawn. For those in dryer climates certainly ditching grass is a huge impact for water conservation.

Robot mowers compost clippings so that reduces fertilizer needs. I’ve added clover to my lawn to add nitrogen to the soil, but you can also use organic fertilizers (used sparingly to avoid runoff) to the same effect. Many of the organic fertilizers take a more holistic approach focused on improving soil microbiomes and are surprisingly affordable. 

Aren’t You Just Lazy? 
Certainly people have said that, but at some point in history people probably considered dishwashers lazy. When you’re an early adopter you’re lazy…when most people have one, its fine. 

But you can look at it another way – I gained at least a day every year. Instead of spending over an hour mowing my lawn 20 times a year, my robot does it and I get more time for other things.

Which Robot Mowers Do you Recommend?
The Worx Landroid was my choice, its a PC Magazine Editors choice and starts at just $1000. The Husqvarna Automower has higher end units for larger and hillier lawns, but expect to spend $1600-5000. 

Bottom Line
When I polled fellow robot mower owners time savings was the #1 reason they bought a robot mower followed by lawn appearance, the coolness of having a robot, and saving money on lawn services. In fact environmental impact received the fewest votes of all the reasons. And I’m okay with that – get a robot lawn mower because it’s cool and saves time, you’re helping reduce emissions anyway =). 

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 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.