Meet the Scrapers: Reducing Energy Use on the Cheap

December 13, 2016

In the last post I discussed the actions Mike and I took toward reducing our energy usage and showed how our usage changed as we took those actions. But your situation is different from ours. What might be a sensible order in which to take steps to reduce your own energy usage?

In this post I’ll look more closely at how a financially strapped family could choose which actions to take and in what order to take them so that the savings from actions taken earlier finance actions taken later on. Even better, the energy savings will continue past the end of the work, yielding further savings that can be used for other purposes.

Allow me to introduce you to our family. Call them the Scrapers, because they’re just scraping by. The Scrapers consist of two resident adults (the RAs) and two children (Cs). If you’re in a single-adult household, and/or you have a different number of children than the Scrapers, and/or you have multiple adults living with you temporarily or less so, make whatever mental adjustments you need as we look over the Scrapers’ shoulders to see how they planned and acted their way to significant reductions in energy use.

The Scrapers’ RAs have become at least as tired of watching money leaking out of their household as they’ve become at their feet complaining about the ever-present cold draft every winter, so they’ve been looking for ways to plug the leaks. Through their research they’ve realized that one way to cut expenses is to take more control of how much energy they use to heat and cool their dwelling, to power all the various appliances they use, and to heat their water. They’ve also learned that some of those changes would reduce the cold drafts that cause their feet to talk back at them. But how to fund some of those changes? They are finding it difficult to pay bills as it is.

The RAs mull over the possibilities. Finally one of them has an insight: hey, some of the changes we could make are free! How about we start with those? After awhile, we’ll have saved some money that we could apply toward making a change that would cost money at first but save even more money later on. Then we can put some of those savings toward the next purchase, and so on. The other RA says: brilliant! Let’s make a plan. So the RAs put their heads together and, over a period of time, work up a list of actions they might take. While the Scrapers didn’t do this, we, looking over their shoulders, could organize their list of actions into four categories:

  • Demand reduction: use less
  • Loss reduction: keep it around longer
  • Source substitution: do it differently
  • Efficiency improvements: do it more efficiently

The Scrapers begin with some free changes, which fall into the demand reduction category. Their list of possible actions looks like this:

  • Turning the lights off unless someone is in the room.
  • Taking fewer and/or shorter showers.
  • Doing fewer loads of laundry.
  • Changing the dishwasher setting to air drying.
  • Lowering the temperature setting on the hot water heater.
  • Changing the thermostat setting (lower in winter, higher in summer).
  • Turning off the TV(s), radio(s), and/or computer(s) when they’re not in use.

After some discussion, the Scrapers decide to start with a slow change in the thermostat setting. It’s heating season when they begin, so they turn the thermostat for the furnace 2F lower. Somewhat to their surprise, the RAs find they barely notice the change … each adds a sweater or sweatshirt to what they usually wear at home and they are good. The Cs are pickier, complaining about being “too cold,” but after they are reminded that they too have sweaters/sweatshirts they can wear on top of what they are already wearing, and the RAs standing firm against further complaints, the Cs grumpily acquiesce. The RAs also lower the hot water heater setting to about 125F rather than 140F and change the dishwasher setting to air drying. Over the course of the winter they effect another 2F lowering of the thermostat and begin to slowly change their, and the Cs’, patterns around the other items on the list. They also manage to increase the temperature setting for the AC about 4F over the course of the following summer. By keeping track of changes in their utility bills and the weather during that first year they learn that they have saved some money without having to sacrifice any significant degree of comfort aside from the occasional need to discipline the Cs as they test the RAs’ resolve (and the resistance each of the RAs encounters during their efforts to change their own long-standing habits).

Pleased with their success so far, the RAs consider their next move. With it cooler in the house during the winter and warmer during the summer, they are even more aware of drafts around doors and windows. Going back to the list they made a year ago, they realize this is a good time to use some of the money they’ve saved toward loss reduction strategies. So they crack their books and websites, then sit down together and write out a list of loss reduction actions they could take. Their list looks like this:

  • Weather-strip windows and doors.
  • Caulk air leaks.
  • Fix leaky faucets (especially hot water faucets).
  • Add pipe insulation to hot water pipes.
  • Add attic insulation.
  • Close off windows in the spare bedroom unless guests are using it.

Their research has suggested that the best place to start is with weather-stripping their exterior doors. Weather-stripping is cheap and should be quite effective on the older doors of their residence. Since they do this project in the winter, their feet notice right away that the nasty cold draft has been reduced significantly. Next they check around their windows for drafts, discover them, and purchase weather-stripping for the windows that fits their budget and is easy enough for them to install. Their hot-water pipes are accessible, so they buy and install pipe insulation around them as well. A chance discussion with a friend yields an offer for the friend to come over to show them how to fix a leaking hot water faucet. That makes for a good winter’s work, more comfort (the hot water gets to their sinks a lot sooner now!), and further reductions in energy use.

The RAs decide they need to do some more research to determine where and how to caulk before taking on that project, and they know from their research to wait to add attic insulation until after they’ve caulked (and saved up the money they’ll need to buy the insulation). They also want to think more about how to close off the guest bedroom windows before they attempt that project. So they move to the next category on our list: source substitution. Their list of possible projects looks something like this:

  • Do dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher.
  • Dry laundry on a clothesline or rack rather than in a clothes dryer.
  • Replace electric tools with human-powered tools.
  • Substitute the sun for fossil fuels where possible.

The RAs have been using their dishwasher, but they began to wonder if they might be able to teach the Cs to wash the dishes by hand. As it happened, the next time they got together with their parents, the conversation turned to child-raising differences between their parents’ days as children and those of current times, and their parents noted how they and their friends had done the dishes before their parents got dishwashers. A few questions later, the RAs knew how to turn the dish-washing chore over to the Cs. Naturally the Cs resisted, but eventually the RAs prevailed and the Cs learned to do a good-enough job in the usual ways families work these issues out. The only things the RAs had to buy was a dish drainer to stack the clean dishes in for air-drying, more dishcloths/sponges for washing dishes, and a supply of dish towels for the occasional dish too big to fit onto the dish drainer, all readily available at a nearby department store and affordable due to savings from previous steps.

Once the Cs were reliably doing the dishes, the RAs decided to use some of their savings to buy a clothes rack to allow them to air-dry laundry on their back deck during dry weather from late spring through early fall. They knew that the payback time on the clothes rack would be quick even for a large, sturdy model that would last for a long time, so that’s the kind they chose to buy.

The RAs have become aware of solar ovens and have sunny areas in their back yard in which they could place a solar oven, but the cost of the commercially-available versions is high, and they want to do more research before they decide if they wish to make a home-built version or save longer to afford the commercial version. At this point they decide to turn their attention to the last category on our list, efficiency improvements. Their list of actions for this category looks like this

  • Replace existing incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs with LED versions.
  • Replace existing household appliances with high efficiency versions.

It didn’t take long for the RAs to decide to work on the first item of their list. They had noticed how low prices have gotten for LED bulbs and seen one in use at a friend’s house. Its much more pleasant light color and its somewhat lower use of electricity and longer lifetime compared to CFL bulbs meant that they would save money even over CFLs and save a lot of money compared to the incandescent light bulbs which were in most of their fixtures. Accordingly, they began to replace every bulb as it burned out with an LED bulb. But they also realized that it makes no sense for them to replace their existing appliances unless and until an appliance breaks down past the point of being repaired. So they decided to set aside some of the money they continue to save on utility bills toward replacing appliances and funding some of the actions they still want to take.

At this point we’ll leave the Scrapers as they ponder what to do next, and I’ll return with an analysis of the 2016 garden season in the next post.

Claire Schosser

My husband Mike and I began our practice of voluntary simplicity in 1994. It has prepared us well for the current predicament brought about by the end of cheap energy and the resulting economic and environmental difficulties. Perhaps some of the things we've learned will be helpful to you as well.

Tags: energy efficiency, powering down