As energy costs generally rise, water becomes more scarce in many regions, and the risk of accelerated global climate change is affirmed, conservation is more important than ever. The following are some ways to help, without making big sacrifices.
1. Cutting fossil carbon pollution is mostly a matter of reducing fuel consumption, and using renewable fuels that result in little net CO² accumulation (currently in short supply given the typically limited benefit of corn ethanol). This includes lowering electricity usage, since much of the power generated in the U.S. is from fossil fuels. Living in a moderate-sized home and driving the smallest vehicle that fits your needs and has decent safety ratings will help. See below for some easy, more specific ways to trim fuel consumption.
2. When possible, use alternative transportation, such as walking, bicycling, or mass transit. Otherwise, try to combine tasks and avoid solo driving. Choose your most fuel efficient vehicle for solo trips and commuting, and plan your trips to minimize traffic delays. Limit flying if you can — a large source of greenhouse gases and expense.
3. Reduce consumption of meats, particularly mass-produced beef. Intensive animal agriculture can be a significant source of greenhouse gas emission (direct and indirect). Many people eat far more protein than needed from animal products, and with that high consumption often comes health risks too.
4. Buy local (or at least national) as much as possible, particularly for food and heavy merchandise. This reduces the freight portion of your carbon footprint.
5. The three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) help conserve resources and energy. Example: Except in voltage-sensitive applications or emergency equipment, use rechargeable batteries. Also, avoid replacing items that can be repaired or restored (unless they waste energy).
6. When purchasing your next vehicle, choose a relatively efficient model, perhaps a hybrid or one that can run on alternative fuels like biodiesel. Even some “cleaner diesel” non-hybrids (such as the Volkswagen Golf TDI, Jetta TDI, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class) are a better option than a standard gasoline engine. Although current diesels are in some ways a lesson in tradeoffs, higher efficiency and biodiesel compatibility can make them worthwhile. Considering a heavy SUV or truck as a primary vehicle? Ask yourself if it’s really worth the disproportionate impact these vehicles have, including on future generations. Even with hybrid technology, excess weight and lots of surplus power are fuel economy killers.
7. See something misleading in the media? Say something. Thousands or millions of people can be exposed to misinformation via television, radio, and newspapers. Insisting on greater accuracy can help keep reporters on their toes.
8. With the help of nitrogen and minerals, plants use carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates. So planting trees with a moderate growth rate and decent life expectancy can help store excess carbon (the net amount varies by species and situation). But there are a few caveats: Outside of the tropics this may have limited offset potential, and new plantings (particularly evergreens) that absorb more sunlight than their surrounding environment can actually make a modest net contribution to warming over time. In some regions, especially those with high precipitation, replacing native grasslands with trees may result in soil carbon release, countering the positive effect.
For those doing mass plantings, using trees that have some lumber value would prevent carbon stored in the wood from being returned to the atmosphere after a few decades of growth. Deriving fuels from sustainable wood can also help by displacing fuels that are a net source of carbon. Native forests that are allowed to complete their natural cycles are important, but so are plantations that are carefully managed as a resource.
9. Reduce paper mail received. Consider switching to online/electronic statements if your financial institution offers them. Sometimes they’re available for years past, and they’re usually as legally valid as a paper copy (this may vary at a state or local level: Check with authorities). This step not only saves the resources and energy used in paper production and delivery, but you have less to store.
10. Investors: Boost your holdings in responsible companies that focus on real efficiency technologies and environmentally conscious resource management.
Specific Tips for Saving Fuel & Energy
Other than a more efficient vehicle, the following will help you get more MPG (and save $ in other ways):
• Driving habits, like speeding, frequent hard acceleration, and heavy braking, will impact fuel economy. Every time you brake, kinetic energy gained from the combustion of fuel is dissipated as waste heat (excepting any conserved by regenerative braking on electric drives). Anticipating the need to slow down and coast to a stop means wasting less energy, as well as reducing brake wear.
• Check tire pressures at least monthly (with cool tires, preferably before any driving), and ideally when the check-time temperature changes 20+ degrees F. If the garage is much warmer/cooler than outdoors, pressures should be adjusted +/- 1 PSI for each ten degrees of difference.
Inflation pressure can be a contentious issue, but some automakers may include a generous comfort factor in their recommendations. Inflating 3-5 PSI (depending on sidewall softness/ride firmness) over the placard recommendation may provide a modest fuel economy boost without a substantial risk of uneven wear, lower shock resistance, or an insufficient contact patch. In weather with intraday temperature spikes of 30+ degrees, sticking to +3 PSI can reduce the chances of excess pressure and harsh riding. Of course, any modification would be an “at your own risk” proposition, as some applications may be more sensitive than others. Otherwise, stick with the vehicle’s placard pressure(s) and check them habitually. Note that using the ‘maximum’ cold pressure on the tire sidewall could be very harsh (accelerating suspension wear), and higher risk, with relatively little MPG gain. But with a moderately higher baseline pressure, tires can also run cooler and last a little longer, and there is more margin for temperature variation.
Additionally, avoid tires with more aggressive than necessary traction. The greater rolling resistance will cost extra fuel.
• Avoid opening your windows at highway speeds. Modern cars can often use less fuel with the air conditioner running (especially on “economy” or “recirculate”) than with the extra drag of open windows. Correct refrigerant pressure and a condenser that’s not clogged with dirt and bugs will help your air conditioner run more efficiently.
• Keep up on the servicing needs of your vehicle, especially the basics like air filter replacement, spark plug checks/replacement, and the testing or replacement of oxygen sensors. An old or defective oxygen sensor can affect engine performance and cut gas mileage. Normally, one and two-wire sensors should be replaced every 30,000-50,000 miles, and newer (post-1995) heated-type sensors, with three or four wires, can last 60,000-100,000+ miles. It’s easy for a mechanic to test for a failed sensor, but detecting a slow one requires a more expensive scope test. O2 sensors can cost around $100 for a typical mid-class sedan, but may pay for themselves in fuel savings.
Don’t neglect oil checks and changes, and use the recommended oil grade. Although some recommend a change every 3,000 miles, those who usually drive conservatively under normal conditions and do mostly highway or an even mix of city and highway driving can usually do it every 5,000 miles. Some automakers recommend 7,500 miles for “normal” use, but depending on the vehicle and conditions this may be pushing it with conventional oil.
• Remove excess weight from your car by unloading things you don’t need to haul around.
• Avoid idling your engine unless you really need to run the heater in cold weather. At startup, idling a modern engine more than thirty seconds to one minute (depending on temperature) is usually unnecessary and wastes fuel. Frequent extended idling can actually be harmful to an engine. A better strategy: Drive away sooner but drive gently, at least until the engine is around normal operating temperature. In very cold weather (0 degrees F or lower), a 3 minute idle time or the use of an engine block heater might be desirable.
Home Energy Efficiency
• Replace your most-used light bulbs with UL-listed compact electronic fluorescent or LED (light emitting diode) lamps. There are several sizes and wattages to choose from, their average life is much longer, and many of them have good light quality. Don’t forget exterior lights, particularly if you leave them on all night.
Heating & Cooling:
• The basic law here is that the greater the temperature difference between the inside and outside of your home, the greater the heat transfer (and energy consumption). During the warm season, maintain a thermostat setting of 78-80°F, or as warm as tolerable, and maybe a couple of degrees lower overnight for sleeping comfort. Consider using fans to increase air circulation, and open windows during cool evening or morning hours. This natural cooling can be enhanced by using a box fan to exhaust stale air (from an upstairs window in a 2-story home). Plant trees/shrubbery near the Southern and Western sides of your home to reduce solar heating (in temperate areas, use trees that drop their leaves in the winter), and when re-roofing, consider a light to medium gray color to reduce heat absorption. Maintain furnace filters and have your system checked and cleaned every year or two for efficient operation (some utilities offer incentives for tuning/upgrading).
• During the cool season, maintain your home’s temperature at around 68°F, or as cool as tolerable while wearing reasonable clothing. Decreasing the temperature by 8-10°F overnight and while you’re away can also help (the energy used for recovery is usually less than that lost over hours by a larger inside-outside temperature difference). The ideal approach is to use a programmable thermostat that will raise the temperature before your morning wake time or return home. For heat pumps, use a specially-designed setback thermostat with an energy management (“intelligent”) recovery feature. Otherwise, leave the system at a constant temperature, or change it no more than a couple degrees at a time to minimize the use supplemental/auxiliary (“AUX”) heat. An outdoor temperature sensor can help reduce supplemental heat usage as well. For conventional heat pumps, setting back is best avoided when temperatures will dip below the thirties (F), or significant snow/ice accumulation is expected.
• If you have zonal heating, keep unoccupied rooms cooler. In homes with central heat, registers in less occupied rooms can be closed, but closing too many (more than ~10%) can restrict flow, reducing efficiency or damaging the system. Air flow is particularly important for heat pump systems, so avoid closing registers.
• Test windows and doors for drafts, sealing and weather-stripping as necessary. Consider adding insulation to older homes and replacing single-pane windows with more energy efficient ones.
• Check with your local utility for any conservation incentives, payment plans, and/or an energy audit.
• Got a gas fireplace with a continuous pilot light? Shut it off when it’s not used for an extended period, especially over summer. A pilot left on for months without the fireplace in use can significantly increase annual gas usage, and add some heat to your house when you don’t want it.
• Check your hot water temperature. To reduce “standby losses” of energy, keep your water heater at 120 – 125°F (on some gas water heaters, this is the “warm” setting). You can always turn the heater back up a little if the temperature ends up too cool. For older/less efficient models, add an insulation jacket. Other solutions include tankless “on demand” water heaters for smaller households, and solar water heating systems (for which your utility may offer a rebate). Note that some dishwasher/detergent combinations need higher water temperatures to avoid film on glasses etc. Avoid those if possible.
• To save even more money on water and energy consumption, especially in older homes, make sure the shower heads you have installed are lower flow models rated at 2 – 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM). Many newer ones have enough pressure for effective rinsing. Another method, for really serious savers, may be a challenge to some: Limit total weekly shower time to 40 minutes or less. This could either be done as a five minute daily shower or a ten minute shower every other day (this is more common than one might think). Five minutes can usually be achieved with some discipline, and if necessary some pre-lathering. Obviously the time that counts is when the water is running, so it can also be helpful to purchase a showerhead with a shut-off valve that maintains the water temperature. That way you can pre-rinse, shut the water mostly off while soaping up, then turn it back on for a quick rinse.
• Check the temperature of your refrigerator. It should be around 38-42°F, and the freezer around 0-10°F. If your settings are colder than necessary, you’re wasting energy. Also, keep the refrigerator/freezer as full as practical and clean the condenser coils yearly to maintain efficient operation. Many appliance stores carry coil brushes for this, or carefully try a ceiling fan cleaning brush and a vaccuum cleaner for any stray “dust bunnies”.
• Consider replacing an old refrigerator (particularly from before the year 2000) with a newer, more efficient model. Utility rebates and tax credits can help. Make sure the old unit’s disposal is handled by a recycling center that can salvage materials and prevent refrigerant leakage.
• When buying your next washing machine, choose an “HE” (High Efficiency) model. These not only save a lot of water and water-heating energy, but in the case of horizontal axis “tumble” washers they also clean clothes better. When possible, wash clothes in cold or warm water with an all temperature detergent.
• Clothes dryers are potential energy wasters. If you can, air dry your clothes (if you have the yard space, buy a clothes line dryer). Otherwise, use your dryer’s energy-saving sensor setting if you have one, instead of trying to guess how long the dryer should run. Clean the lint trap after every load, and make sure moist air is being properly vented.
• Choose the higher-rated EnergyStar products
• When heating small food portions, use the microwave oven. Although microwave generation is less electrically efficient than resistive heating, it takes less time to heat food. Microwaves heat directly, rather than spending a lot of energy heating the air in the oven.
• Most modern computers are not power hogs if energy management is enabled (although this varies by type of processor and what peripherals are installed). To save some power and reduce a type of wear, shut down the computer overnight or during any long period of non-use. Note that CRT monitors are often the single most energy consumptive part of a computer system. LCD flat panels are better.
• Unplug unused devices, particularly those using large transformer plugs. These use a modest amount of power even when the device itself is off. Over thousands or millions of households, this can make a difference.
• If your home has an air exchange system installed for bringing fresh air into the house, consider it’s timing. This is usually adjustable from the air handler unit, and may be set arbitrarily. If the system seems to be running too long for your house size and number of occupants, it could be wasting energy. You may be able to reduce the amount of time the system is exhausting conditioned air and drawing cold or hot air from outside without adversely affecting air quality. In the first year after a home is built, there’s more of a need for ventilation (and filtration) in order to reduce any pollutants from new carpeting, plaster work, and adhesives, etc. If you reduce ventilation and notice a decline in air quality (stale air, chemical odors, watery eyes), increase the time a little. In any case, if you do alter the system’s settings, take ventilation time away from the parts of the day that are the coldest in the winter/warmest in the summer, to further reduce energy loss.