Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Measuring Your Home Energy Use

Any effort to cut back on home energy use quickly runs into a problem: our homes are designed to keep us in the dark about the consequences of our energy consumption habits.

Though foods are labeled for caloric content, you'll have a hard time finding any label on your computer, dishwasher, water heater, or any other household item that will tell you how much energy it uses.

Go on a diet, and you can get instant feedback on your progress by standing on a scale. Newer cars will tell you how many miles/gallon you're getting at any moment. But in a house, the most expensive item you're ever likely to own, feedback on energy use comes in tiny print, once a month in the mail. The electric meter is outside somewhere in the bushes, the gas meter is in a cramped corner of the basement, and their dials are hard to make any sense of.

For the highly motivated, it's possible to track down devices to measure energy consumption on the internet. To measure my own use, I bought a Kill-a-Watt, which is a $25 handheld device that will tell you what most plug-in appliances in your home are consuming at any moment or over a period of time. It's very helpful, but not for measuring the big consumers, like the central A/C, the dishwasher and clothes dryer. For those, I had to buy a $150 device that tells me how many watts my whole house is consuming at any moment. Though a number of home energy monitors are available on the internet, I ended up buying The Energy Detective--TED for short. Now I can turn on the dryer or any other item and see immediately how much my energy use jumps.

I'm surprised how many people shrug at the notion that this sort of knowledge and instant feedback could have any impact on behavior. It certainly has changed mine, as another post will describe.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Energy Consumption and the Sound of Silence

Though most people are now aware that global warming is a problem, awareness does not necessarily spur a change in behavior. For me, a sense of urgency developed by degrees. A photo seen, an article read--all describing a radically changed world because of our consumption of ancient fuels. Oftentimes, matter-of-fact descriptions had a greater impact than high volume soundings of alarm. At some point--maybe it was a description of how our CO2 emissions are fundamentally changing the chemistry and ecological destiny of the oceans--I realized the status quo could not continue.

Strangely, the realization need not lead to a burden of guilt but instead to a sense of empowerment. Each of us has the power to reduce our impact. The first thing to do is to discern when you're consuming fossil fuels and when you're not. This is not so easy, particularly around the house, where silent appliances can nonetheless be consuming large quantities of electricity. Unfortunately, your electric meter is of little use, since it's hard to read and located outside somewhere in the bushes. Not a convenient setup for providing feedback. A separate post will describe how to measure your energy use at any particular moment.

Just as my sense of urgency was fed by quiet descriptions rather than loud pronouncements of imminent doom, there is another sort of quiet that can power change in our lifestyles. The silence I refer to in the title of this post has more to do with awareness than with sound. Right now, my computer is drawing nearly 200 watts, the refrigerator several rooms over is cycling on and off, using another 200 or so when it's on. The TV and cordless phone are drawing a few watts, even though they are turned off. Beyond that, things are pretty "quiet" around here. If I decided to use the electric dryer rather than a clothesline, the house would suddenly be drawing an extra 3700 watts! Though the dryer's quiet as a whisper, it's possible to "hear" this as a raucous noise of consumption.

Fortunately, the clothes are air-drying, and if I turn off the computer, the house's power consumption gets quieter still. To be aware of this sound of silence is to relax in a new way. This awareness can be applied to your personal energy consumption at any moment in your day. Even though the street traffic may be loud, to walk or bike somewhere is to experience silence, whereas to drive a car is to hear a racket (consumption speaking), even if the windows are up.

The impact each of us has on the world as we consume fossil fuels is abstract. But the evidence is in--our collective impact is real. As each of us comes to realize what is at stake, it's understandable if we all feel a growing sense of tension between our lifestyles and the planet's future. Develop an awareness, "listen" to how much power you're consuming, find ways to turn down the volume, and discover in this all-too noisy and abstract world a new feeling of relaxation that has silence at its core.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Solar Powered Lifestyle (Without Solar Panels)

I looked into getting solar panels for my home. The roof's oriented all wrong, and there are some big trees in the way. The solar rep, slow to yield to reality, suggested we put the panels in the backyard. What a lovely sight that would be, and a perfect target for soccer balls and various other errant airborne objects.

That puts me in a group that includes most Princetonians, who by and large like the shade and don't have homes that will conveniently rotate to face south. After a few months of being discouraged, I realized that there are nonetheless large portions of my lifestyle that can be converted to solar power, without the substantial investment in solar panels.

Begin with the realization that all of us are solar powered. The food that keeps us going carries energy harvested from the sun over the last year or so. True, it took fossil fuels to grow, process and transport the food, but fossil fuels are also consumed in the construction, transport and installation of solar panels. An array of panels on your roof might be dandy, but there are other ways of harnessing the solar energy within you and without you. The most retro of lifestyles can suddenly seem cutting edge when looked at from this perspective.

For instance, most people already have a solar powered vehicle, better known as a bicycle. Steep hills somehow seem less onerous when you realize you're drawing your energy from the sun. An electric clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in your home (mine draws 3700 watts) and can be easily replaced by a solar-powered dryer, in the form of a clothesline or foldable drying rack. (Towels still go in the regular dryer, at least until the scratchy-towel-syndrome can be conquered.) My solar powered lighting system (windows) works from sun-up to sunset. And a solar-powered dishwasher frequently takes on the pile of dishes on the kitchen counter. A vacuum cleaner (ours draws a hefty 1000 watts while on) is still handy for rugs and carpets, but a solar-powered broom works just fine for smooth floors.

The body has solar-powered heating and cooling capabilities that can be optimized by matching clothing to the season. The solar-powered mind, too, can play a role. Though I doubt I could meditate naked in the snow, like Buddhist monks, I find my perception of comfort increases if I acknowledge that it is, in fact, summer, and maybe it's okay if the house feels just a wee bit warmer than during other seasons. Air conditioning can get consumed much like coffee. The first cup generates a vague appetite for more, whether it's needed or not.

News articles come and go about research breakthroughs that will make solar panels more powerful and affordable, but we're all still waiting for them to turn into products we can actually buy. In the meantime, and it seems to be taking a long time, the solar-powered self is the best solar cell we've got.

Making Use of Fallen Leaves in Your Yard

The previous post (below) tells why raking all your leaves to the curb is not such a great idea. There are lots of reasons to think of leaves as an asset rather than a burden. Here are some ways you can use leaves to advantage in your yard, whether it be large or small.

1. The simplest thing to do is rake/blow them into a woodlot, if available.

2. Rake them against the fenceline, where they can serve as a mulch to keep down weeds that often dominate along fencelines. Or dump them on any other weeds or groundcovers that are getting out of control. A thick layer of leaves discourages weeds. For weeds/groundcovers strong enough to push up through the leaves, first place overlapping pieces of cardboard on the undesired plants, then use the leaves over top to hide the cardboard.

3. Rake them into a leafpile. A corral or circle of wire fencing will help contain the leaves and keep them from blowing around. A readily available fencing is 3 feet high, green, and comes in rolls at the local hardware store. (Photo shows enough fencing for several corrals). The corral is essentially invisible when tucked in a back corner of the lot. A U-shape may be preferred so that leaves can be dragged, blown or raked right into the enclosure rather than lifted over the fencing. The leaf pile quickly reduces in size over the winter. The leaves can be left to decompose, acting like a sponge to catch the rain, and releasing nutrients to benefit the health of all trees and other landscaping in the vicinity. Contrary to popular notions of composting, it's not necessary to laboriously turn the pile. Just let it decompose over time. My experience is that a pile of leaves does not create odors.

4. Spread them on the vegetable garden and leave them there to hold in moisture, prevent weeds from sprouting, keep the soil cool in the summer, and slowly release nutrients. Planting tomatoes, for instance, requires nothing more than parting the leaves to put the new plants in. The leaf mulch reduces rotting of any tomotoes that touch the ground.

5. Mulch them up with a mower so they can disappear back into the lawn. The fragmented leaves can also be raked onto flower beds as a mulch. Some leaves, like those of silver maples, crinkle up and all but disappear into the lawn on their own, even before mowing. For thick, persistent leaves like those from a red oak, a corral or the mulch mower approach will keep them from blowing back into the yard.


A vast deluge of leaves will soon be falling on Princeton, and the question is what to do with them all. For as long as can be remembered, most people have raked them into the streets and let the town scramble to clear away the resultant mess. Given how much homeowners pay in property taxes, it's understandable why people feel they should take advantage of one of this high-visibility service the town provides.

But I would argue that this tradition is needlessly expensive, dangerous and destructive, and that there are alternatives that could easily be adopted by most homeowners without any aesthetic or physical sacrifice.

Consider the above photo, taken last fall, which shows how one homeowner goes to the trouble of cleaning a woods. The homeowner no doubt likes things tidy, which can be seen as admirable, but let's take a look at the string of events this purging of leaves from the property sets into motion:

Leaves that were providing nutrients for the trees, and protection against soil erosion, are blown by a hired crew out into the street, where they block traffic near a school, pollute the local streams and must then be hauled out of town at community expense. In other words, leafblowers are used to create a solid waste problem, requiring more machines to carry the leaves away, grind them up for industrial-scale composting, then haul the leaf mold somewhere for final use.

In the age of global warming, it's hard to rationalize the extravagant consumption of fossil fuels this landscape practice demands. If the homeowner is not comfortable with the
blanket of leaves the trees are trying to lay down for themselves, a much less harmful alternative is to place them in a wire corral in the back corner of the property (see post above).

But needless fuel consumption is only one of many reasons why the status quo is harmful to the community:

Increased Flooding: The annual mass removal of leaves from the urban landscape reduces organic matter in urban soils. This makes the ground less able to absorb rainwater, which increases flooding in local creeks.

Water Pollution: Though it's not obvious from the looks of things, the streets we walk on, drive on and dump stuff onto are essentially dry creekbeds, directly linked to the town's streams. Leaves dumped in the street invariably get rained on, start to decompose, and then release nutrient pollution into waterways before they can be picked up.

Energy consumption: If the township and borough are going to reduce energy consumption by 25%, in an effort to reduce the local impact on global warming, one place to start is by reducing the need for big rig caravans scooping or vacuuming up leaves along the street. In the borough, it's impressive to watch The Claw deftly scooping up leaves, but it burns a lot of gas, as do the massive grinders that triple-shred the leaves out at the Ecological Center. The export of leaves from town also requires burning more gas to then haul them back into town, in the form of mulch and compost.

Safety: Leaves on the street force cars out across the center line, and can cause fires if hot mufflers or catalytic converters on parked cars touch dry leaves. Where there are no sidewalks, pedestrians and bicyclists are forced towards the center of the street. Blockage of stormdrains by leaves adds to these problems.

Tree health: If we want to promote healthy trees in town, it's hard to imagine a happier tree root than one infiltrating the rich leafmold on the underside of a leafpile.
Most properties with big piles of leaves out at the curb have room on their lot for a leaf pile that will quickly and dramatically reduce in size over the winter. Perhaps there's a way to mix education and an incremental change in policy that would allow Princeton to trade one tradition for another that makes more ecological and horticultural sense.

Expense and diversion of staff from other municipal services: Leaf collection increases wear and tear on town vehicles and draws town crews away from other services they would ordinarily provide yearround.

Grass Clipping Update

In response to a state law passed some time ago, Princeton Borough is no longer picking up grass clippings from the streets ( Grass clippings clog drains and their nutrients can leach into local streams. The stormwater system underlying town streets feeds directly into streams, so dumping anything on the street is essentially the same as throwing it into the local brook.

Some homeowners hold to the belief that grass clippings left on the lawn cause thatch buildup, but the Mercer County Extension service does not recommend removing them. They are high in beneficial nutrients and decompose quickly. They can also be composted if mixed with other organic materials. Go to for more info.

Unfortunately, many homeowners, not having gotten any clear feedback from the borough, are still dumping grass clippings out on the streets, making ever larger piles. Maybe someday there will be a good feedback system developed so the policy is made clear to those who can't take a hint.