Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Month: December 2013

Saving electricity in winter

Do this!:

One difficulty with most so-called economic behaviour in the world is that it pays attention only to the first price, and rarely to the second. If it were truly economic behaviour, it would consider all prices, including those that are externalized – and for those, a mitigation fee would be paid.

Ontario has a Tire Stewardship Program;
this is one of two coasters I have of recycled rubber.

That’s the Electronic Waste fee that we pay in Quebec when we buy electronics (such as an iPad), and also the environmental tax we pay when we buy tires – at $3 per tire. This means when you want to scrap your tires, you bring them to any garage that does tire service and get rid of them, no questions asked. They go to a recycling plant, as opposed to get stockpiled and then, accidentally, set ablaze like the tire fire(s) we had in the early 1990’s. In the summer of last year, Quebec announced that the last stockpiled tires from its various dumps have now all been recycled.

When you buy a home, it’s good to take into consideration all the costs. First price after the cost of the dwelling: mortgage servicing and condo fees; second: annual tax; third and fourth: annual insurance and energy bills; fifth: initial repairs/renovations; sixth: excise/land transfer/”bienvenue” tax and other closing/selling costs. When I was shopping for a home, I created a spreadsheet to track these along with square footage and other costs and features of those I was considering. It helped.

When it comes to energy – gasoline, electricity, other fuel – Canadians pay too little, so that we are unquestioning about how we use it, except to exclaim when the rates are raised or if there’s a sudden spike in use they weren’t expecting. Nonetheless, those winter heating bills are something to contend with here. At Home Depot, I ran into someone who was shopping for Roxul, rock wool, to insulate his 1950’s home, just like I am planning to do. He told me about the comfort achieved in his kids’ bedrooms by upgrading the insulation, and the ongoing process of things to do. There’s a lot of information out there, particularly on YouTube, and a few programs to help people pay for them. It’s worth mentioning again: the Rénoclimat program allows you to measure your home efficiency and get a rebate on the work you carry out; and low-income folks can use the Econologis program to improve their own dwelling’s energy efficiency.

It really is effective to put on a housecoat and slippers, keep your thermostats at 18º, seal off drafts, run cold water in the laundry (or very tepid; turn that hot water on low, especially if you do a lot), and try to remember to switch off the power bar and unplug other devices when not being used, as their draw adds up. They run what is called a phantom or ghost load, particularly as many have Standby power as a feature – I mentioned it last post regarding putting my iMac to sleep. Interesting to note: phantom power and ghost load have other very specific meanings, one for audio equipment, and one for shotguns.

You can also try, like me and many good country folks, closing your bedroom doors to prevent them from being heated by the rest of the house. People usually sleep well in the cold. (Psst. It’s okay to use incandescent bulbs in winter, at least if they’re at person-height. They cast off waste heat. They make you feel good when you’re reading or working next to them. Go ahead.)

The annual electricity consumption of my house has been reduced by at least 20% since the first two years of living here, and considerably more compared to the previous owner and also at least one of my tenants from when I’ve gone away. In fact – I didn’t notice this until now – but in the summer, I joined the 10 kWh club. My daily consumption between May 29th and September 25th, 2013 was 6 kWh per day. That is awesome! Of course, now that the heat is back on, it’s over 25 kwh per day. I would like to reduce that – as part of my eco-home renovations, I would like to build a masonry heater to replace my drafty corner fireplace that was misfortunately (stupidly, considering the way and why they did it) outlawed.

So, without further explanation, here is a graph of my electricity consumption since I started the above measures. It doesn’t graph against the weather, but all use is temperature-dependent, basically.

Date of bill x total kWh of bill. BTW, that spike in winter #2 was because I had a really obnoxious roommate who kept her room like a sauna, bitched about the cold, and then said “you said heat was included!” when I presented her with the bill. 

Updated to add: Why is this so important? Because HydroQuebec needs to export more electricity to alleviate environmentally-damaging methods, without converting to similar methods themselves, as they are planning to do (and I’m not talking about windmills, though the monopoly on how we do grids here is a whole other kettle of fish, and makes wind the “enemy” to a lot of people.)

Tech toys: the environmental and electricity costs

You may remember my hankering after an iPad. Yes, the question has been raised about using an e-reader rather than paper books, and the carbon footprint of an iPad itself is equal to that of 40 books. And it’s true that I have a very low carbon footprint when it comes to books anyway because I am devoted to the library. But I would be not just be reading with it; I’d be surfing, e-mail communication, document/project work and writing. And I get to use a bluetooth keyboard. Currently my keyboard requires only a AA battery-pair recharge once every two months.
I couldn’t afford an iPad for a long time because all my money was going into necessary living expenses. It was embarrassing that I couldn’t afford one, and that’s why I didn’t blog about it until now. I mean, really. For poor people with kids, they’re embarrassed if their kids have worn-out shoes. Everyone gets that. But for a working “professional” (professional should really be reserved for those who have to join professional orders) who has been underemployed, to not be able to afford a tool that would enhance her ability to work and do her job, that’s just as embarrassing. So as soon as I could afford to, I went and got an iPad 3, deluxe (64 Gb, Wifi + cellular), in order to make it as useful to me as it could possibly be for as long as we both shall it lives. 

While I was hankering after the tool, I did some research and an analysis:

An iPad 2 costs $460 tax included. 

This is the same cost as 10 months of cell phone service.*

Benefits:  Counterargument:  Questions:
Can read and organize the articles I have saved on my computer that I’m avoiding Could use a $100 Kindle instead Does one use Books (bookshelf) for syncing readable documents from desktop to iMac?
Can get rid of cell phone and just use Skype Will be dependent on a Wifi connection for all things Local number for Skype, Skype voicemail setup, and what about forwarding calls to my landline [now defunct]? 
How does SMS work with Skype (for non-iMessage folks) – this is the one service that I would miss.
Liberated to do computer work elsewhere than at desktop None! Freedom from desk = more hours to work and more articles read. How well does work document syncing and Dropbox / GoogleDrive work with an iPad? 
* which shortly after drawing up this table, went down in price. Thank you, Fido!
When I had a laptop, I went through the experience that first-generation iPod users were dismayed to have no solution for: I wore out the battery and had to get a new one (the third sticker price: maintenance and parts. The typical second sticker is electricity use.). And that’s when I learned that there is a finite number of cycles that batteries get, so it’s best to only rely on the battery when you need to – and use it until its battery is completely flat at least once a month – and then recharge fully before using it again, to keep it trained. And here’s an article on apps to extend your battery life if you are often in the situation where you need to watch your battery charge.

Why do I care about this? Here’s why: I did not have a cell phone until late 2005 by choice because the mining of coltan kills wildlife in Africa. (In fact, though Africa needs trade, whenever the trade comes from outside the African continent, it seems to bring nothing but degradation and injustice.) Coltan miners – and other kinds of mining and exploitation – who’ve had a great time with their hunted beast barbeques brought the habit back to the cities with them. Now Africa has a ridiculously “thriving” bush-meat trade, which means the animals are not thriving, on many fronts. And on another note, the more we become enamored of our gadgets and our comfort, the less we notice nature. If that makes me a dark-green environmentalist Luddite, then please join me.

And though coltan is not in batteries, the life of your electronics is a problem: the thinner we like them, the more compact and fragile they become, and they cannot be recycled. The batteries in our cell phones and laptops and electric cars – which certainly are good things that can make life better for us and the planet, after all, we wouldn’t know about things we are breaking and need to fix if we had no way to know and no way to work around them  – are based on a heavy metal that must be mined. And so far, these batteries ARE NOT recyclable. So please, start being conscientious about battery life and the lifespan of your electronics. Buy with a long view. Consider it like nuclear waste: a permanent harm, needing very costly storage, until some technological future when we’ve figured out what we can do about it. The bright green environmentalist in me suspects that there are people who are working on this problem right now, but please see the note at bottom of this post.

Back to the battery, the iPad, and the second price sticker: apparently charging an iPad on a 10 or 12-Watt adapter costs very, very, very little. Multiply the 10- or 12-W charge by 3 hours per charge = 30 to 36 Wh. Compare this power draw to using the 200W power supply of the average computer – * 3 h = 0.6 kWhexcept that the iPad has a battery life of 10 hours The plugged-in iMac requires 200 W *10h = 2 kWh.

2kWh ÷ 36 Wh = a 55-fold difference in electricity usage over 10 hours a day. It’s the same over a year if it averages out to 10 hours on the computer for every charge of the iPad. But when I was using the iMac to broadcast my home’s WiFi signal, I was using it 16 hours a day. I also leave it on when I’m not sitting at it, either by sleeping it or forgetting (it automatically goes dim after 15 minutes, and to a full sleep at midnight). But fortunately, as I saw on an Apple discussion that the power consumption for 27-inch iMac (mine is 20-inch) is 200 W from 100V-115V-230V currents. The ghost power when the iMac is off is 0.85W per hour (or 0.88W-0.90W), and when in Sleep mode, it’s 1.44W (or 1.42W-1.53W).

Here’s what we pay for electricity in Quebec. 

If you want to do the math comparing iPads to iMacs (throwing in an Internet-WiFi router for bonus points) or, now knowing how to do it, your own gadget comparisons, please go right ahead (actually, the above assumptions worked out to less than $1 per year for the iPad and $55/y for the iMac. Go figure.). I am confident that working on the iPad (often plugged in) while sleeping the Mac is saving a lot of power, and that my WiFi router is a much smaller draw than the iMac, too. Over the course of the year, the electricity I save will surely pay back a portion of the iPad’s purchase price.

Note: The dark green side of me says: don’t count on that shiny bright green future where we’ve solved our waste problems (and resolutely respect the perimeters and depths of nature). Cargoism, the faith that technology solves all limit problems, is just as kool-aid as growth economics. Since when have humans voluntarily solved problems that we could simply walk away from – especially when there are plutocrats who profit from waste and environmental degradation? They are here in our midst – apparently they control Montreal garbage collection and that’s why Montreal won’t write bag collection limits or enforce recycling – and they will not be ridden out of town. So you have to take a preventative stand.