Interesting factoid (for those outside the Pacific NW) but the Seattle area is the least air conditioned major metro area, since I was young we’ve relied on fans bringing in cold air at night and room/window AC units the past decade. However the past few summer wildfires have seriously put a damper on the fans solution and the recent heat bubble pushed things over the edge.
Of course AC isn’t great environmentally – it increases power consumption which in many cases means significant powerplant emissions and the refrigerants can be very powerful greenhouse gases if you have a leak.
So instead I got a heat pump which is basically an AC with a reversing valve and all the same downsides of AC. I know that sounds bad, but hear me out for a second. The cool thing about a heat pump is it can generate heating and cooling – meaning that instead of burning natural gas in my furnace which emits 11.7lbs of CO2 per therm I can generate most of the home’s heat with zero emissions electricity.
Note I said most of the home’s heat, for a few reasons I kept the existing high efficiency gas furnace. First off you need to know heat pumps come in a variety of types such as single stage, dual stage, and variable speed. I purchased a single stage unit which will efficiently heat the house when the outside temperature is at least 40 degrees, then the gas furnace will kick in. A cold climate variable speed heat pump would be able to heat my house in any Seattle weather but at significantly higher equipment cost than a single stage unit like I got. Variable speed is also more efficient, but looking at equipment cost vs operating cost savings it didn’t make a lot of sense in my case.
The other issue is backup heat, we get a lot of power outages in my neighborhood and backing up a heat pump takes a large generator – so no matter what I’m not getting rid of fossil fuels entirely. On the other hand backing up a gas furnace has modest power requirements, we run that off an inverter connected to an EV.
So in the end I didn’t completely eliminate the heating emissions, but I made a cost effective major reduction in emissions while getting some much needed cooling. I think that’s a good trade-off because that money can be used elsewhere for more significant emissions reductions.
In case you wonder what my heat pump costs to run, so far I’m seeing a daily cost when it runs (which isn’t every day) of about 50¢ to $1.50 for the heat pump. In other terms, cooling in the PNW is pretty cheap. At the time I can’t yet compare to the gas furnace for heating, but later this winter I’ll have an update.
As for some heat pump shopping tips:
I suggest ensuring you get an Energy Star unit. Note Energy Star units also have $300 federal rebates which you may be eligible for. Also check with your utility for local rebates.
My hope is a higher quality unit will be less likely to break and leak refrigerants. I got an American Standard which was top rated by Consumer Reports. Also expect annual maintenance on the heat pump to ensure it’s in good condition.
I went with Arden Heating & Cooling after getting a referral from a neighbor and getting five quotes. I’d highly recommend them to anyone in the Seattle/Metro area.
While I’ve focused the past few years on big stuff (energy, transportation, etc) I figured now was a good time to shift my focus…as I’ve run out of home energy efficiency projects.
The zero waste/plastic free movements are gaining traction and there’s now dozens of companies helping you ditch plastic and reduce shipping related emissions from your household goods like laundry detergent, soaps, oral care, etc.
Unfortunately I found no objective comparison reviews and nearly every product sports impossibly stellar reviews. So I decided it’s time to channel my inner love of the Wirecutter and Consumer Reports and start the Eco-friendly Cheapass Labs to test some products.
Does It Really Matter?
Our go-to laundry detergent weighs in at about 7lbs for 54 loads. But 54 pods in a cardboard box is only about 2 lbs. Assuming each travels 2000 miles by truck from the factory to reach me…we’re looking at about a pound of CO2 saved with the lighter pods. To put this in context you’d have more CO2 reduction by eating one ounce less beef. I know, really took the wind out of the sails here.
I do however think elimination of single use plastic is a big deal. It’s overwhelmingly not recycled (even if it gets into your recycle bin), it’s getting into oceans, releasing microplastics, keeping us tied to oil, etc. It’s hard to quantify these costs the same way as CO2, but they’re worrisome to say the least.
The thing to keep in mind is while each jug you buy is trivial, it adds up over a large group – a good estimate is there’s 768 million jugs used annually just by US households (128 million households using on average 6 jugs). That’s a lot of landfill each year just for laundry jugs.
Each detergent was tested using a Kirkland Signature white t-shirt stained with half a teaspoon each of ketchup, chocolate sauce, olive oil, red wine, and a tablespoon of compost rubbed in. The shirt sat for 30 minutes to let things set.
Each test shirt was then washed in a Maytag MHW5500FW front loader, normal cycle with steam for stains enabled, warm water, and soil level high.
The top performers were then run though loads of our family laundry and assessed subjectively for feel, scent, and general impression of cleaning (plenty of food stains from a 4 year old and poop from a baby).
Washing in Warm Water?!
I know the common environmentalist message is cold water is best. But an energy star washer like ours uses 14 gallons of water each load, assuming warm is mixed half hot and cold that’s just 7 gallons hot water. With the heat pump water heater that’s roughly a third a kWh of power (depends on the temperature of the garage). Of course that power is coming off a solar array…so I figure better washing results is worth zero environmental impact.
Interesting side note an old top loader filled with hot water off a conventional electric water heater would take 21 times more power and could be responsible for around 15lbs CO2 just from the water alone.
So if your goal is to reduce the overall environmental impact of your laundry the biggest gains may be in the settings, the washing machine itself, and how you make hot water – not the detergent.
One of the best known of the eco laundry pods is Dropps – you’ve likely seen their CEO in ads bathing or dancing. It turns out Dropps isn’t just marketing hype, on the objective test Dropps clearly beat all the competition and beat our benchmark laundry detergent (Seventh Generation Ultra Power Plus) on all the stains except the red wine.
After running though our household laundry we found Dropps to be extremely effective even faced with stinky towels, baby poop, and gym clothes.
Depending on quantity, variety, and subscription or not you’ll pay between 16-43¢ per load – so if you order right it’s pretty cheapass friendly. Dropps is B rated for safety by EWG, so they also have a lot of people and eco-friendlyness.
I was also impressed by the minimalist packaging – while many companies shipped a bag of detergent in a box, the shipping box unfolds to be the pods storage/dispenser. There was no excess space, wasted material, etc.
Another advantage of Dropps is the selection: multiple scents, baby/hypoallergenic pods, small loads pods, fabric softener pods, and oxi pods.
Note if you check out Dropps using our links that helps support our reviews. However our recommendations are never swayed by referral programs or lack thereof.
If you’ve spent any time online you’ve likely seen Bluelands ads for hand soap tablets. Blueland laundry tablets are 35¢/load (27¢ in larger quantities). Blueland laundry is not rated by EWG. Note these are tablets not pods, so no PVA wrapper if you’re trying to avoid PVA (which we don’t think is a problem).
Blueland was pretty middle of pack – not the worst but not close to the best. With the higher cost and no EWG rating it was quickly dismissed.
Admittedly if I’m joining a cult, I’d rather it be very, very dirty. But if cleaning is your bag, they have just the cult for you – they even give you free product for getting your friends to join the cult! I got the laundry tablets which are 47¢ each. Cleancult laundry is not rated by EWG. Worth note if you want to kick the plastic habit but still love liquid detergent, theirs is in paper cartons like milk.
As for the stain test Cleancult left all stains but dirt noticeable (though faded), with the high cost we can’t recommend drinking the kool aid of this cult.
Truman’s has slick designs and fun product names like “reporting for doodie” (toilet bowl cleaner) and “get a load of this” (laundry detergent). They have fairly high 48¢/load price, though you can save 20% with membership bundles. The pods are PVA pouches containing dry powder cleaner, packed in cardboard boxes.
Trumans performed the worst on the stained shirt test, leaving 4 stains still very visible on the shirt. If I didn’t have dirty clothes and wasn’t a cheapass…no, nevermind.
Upon recommendation of a few people I tossed in Tru Earth’s laundry strips to ensure at least one strip style laundry detergent got tested. Pricing varies 28-63¢ per load depending on quantity and subscription or not. Tru Earth laundry is rated a C for safety by EWG.
We found Tru Earth did overall a good job on the stains aside from the wine. But with a lower EWG rating and higher cost than Dropps, we didn’t find it compelling enough to recommend unless you’re super gung-ho about the sheet format.
Dropps is effective, affordable, safe for people and the environment, eliminates unnecessary plastic waste, and reduces shipping emissions with carbon neutral shipping. Given Dropps has a 30 day risk free trial, giving it a try is a no-brainer.
Usually when I’m writing a post I’m not conflicted. But in this case I feel funny that I have to admit that plastic recycling sucks and I’m still excited about doing plastic film recycling with Ridwell.
So in case you haven’t heard plastic recycling is a disaster because there’s so many types of plastic, it degrades with each recycling, and recycling it costs more than making virgin plastic. So while you may think you’re recycling, it could also end up as landfill or incinerated.
Yet I’m excited to have plastic film recycling with Ridwell. Plastic film is the thin flexible plastic used basically everywhere – plastic shopping bags, bubble wrap, air pillows, frozen food bags, bubble mailers (like amazon uses), dry cleaning bags, bread bags, etc. Plastic film is ubiquitous but difficult to recycle because it clogs sorting machines, gets contaminated, gets loose, and can be difficult to separate from paper. By collecting it separately Ridwell is able to bypass these issues and give it a second life as Trex decking.
Ridwell doesn’t just do plastic film but also clothes, styrofoam, batteries, and rotating categories. Last pick up we had filled a 60 bag of styrofoam, a 13 gallon bag of plastic film, and a handful of batteries.
Ridwell does cost money (prices vary by area, $14/mo for us) and you could recycle these items without Ridwell for free, but at the expense of time. For example Styro Recycle will take styrofoam for free, but for me it’s an hour round trip and they’re only open weekdays when I’m working. Ideally Ridwell will help you cut down your trash bin size which may balance out the cost.
Ridwell is in the Seattle/Eastside area now and going to PDX! Check it out from our link and get a free month.
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).
Annual Electric Cost
Annual Natural Gas Cost
Annual Gasoline Cost
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.
25 Year Energy Spend Assuming 2% inflation
Solar Array Cost Including Loan Interest and Incentives
25 Year Energy Spend
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.
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 =).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.