Friday, June 26, 2015

Do You Know the Differences Between Energy Conservation and Energy Efficiency?

On this blog, we frequently use the terms “energy conservation” and “energy efficiency.” What do those terms mean, exactly? When they get used in general speech, they’re often thought to be interchangeable, but they actually refer to two separate -- albeit closely related -- concepts. Here’s a simple rundown:

What Energy Conservation Is
Energy conservation simply refers to using less energy overall. In most cases, energy conservation involves behavioral changes. So if you see that your electric company bills are getting too high, you might decide to turn up the thermostat in the summer so that your air conditioning doesn’t come on as often (AC is quite an energy hog, accounting for about 19% of residential electrical energy use in the country). Other examples of habits that support conservation are keeping the refrigerator door closed until you know what you’re planning to get out and turning off the lights when you leave the room.

What Energy Efficiency Is
Energy efficiency refers more specifically to using less energy to perform the same functions. That means that, in most cases, energy efficiency is a matter of technology. We can compare some efficiency efforts to the conservation practices mentioned above. Whereas conservation would involve turning the thermostat up, efficiency would involve installing a new AC unit that uses less power to cool to the same temperature. Whereas conservation involves keeping the fridge door closed, efficiency might involve buying a newer, more efficient refrigerator (the average fridge sold today in the U.S. actually uses 75% less energy than ones sold in 1975, despite costing 60% less and being 20% larger). And whereas conservation might include turning off the lights, efficiency would involve switching out old-fashioned incandescent bulbs for CFLs or LEDs.

How They Work Together
There’s no question that we need to get a handle on our electricity usage as a country. In 2013, we collectively used 13 times more electricity than our counterparts did in 1950. So if you’re looking for energy savings, should you care more about conservation, or efficiency? The ideal solution is actually a both/and, not an either/or; they’re two sides of the same coin. We should all be striving to use responsible amounts of energy, and changed habits and improved technology can both support that goal while also allowing us to enjoy modern conveniences. If you want to look at the overall impact of energy usage, you can also think of conservation and efficiency as being two vertices of a triangle, the third being sustainable power generation. Then we’re being smart not just about how we’re using power -- we’re also being smart about how we’re creating it in the first place.

Where have you been focusing your habits, conservation or efficiency? Discuss in the comments.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

5 Hidden Energy Eaters in Your Home

In the summer, opening up a bill from the electric company can come as a bit of a shock. But once you get over the initial disbelief, it’s time to start informing yourself about where all that electricity is going. By replacing energy hogs or being smarter about use, it’s possible to see lower electric company bills without much difference in your day-to-day life. Here are some big energy users that might surprise you:

Set-top Boxes

Set-top boxes often keep drawing their full power requirements even when they look as if they’re turned off, making them a big energy eater. The LA Times even reported last year that set-top boxes have become the second-largest energy user in many homes. Game consoles can use quite a bit of electricity as well, especially if they’re kept plugged in and on standby mode.

Furnace Fans 

Space heating/cooling has represented a big chunk of home energy use for a long time, generally floating in the range of 40% to 50% of total utility bills. And your system may be using more electrical energy than you expect. Even if you have a furnace or heat pump that runs on gas, it’s likely you have an electric-powered furnace fan that drives up utility costs. It may not be cost-effective to change your heating system, but you should at least consider a professional energy audit that can give you an idea of where heat/AC is escaping your home -- so you can keep the heat in and get the associated energy savings.

Water Heaters 

Heating water typically accounts for 14% to 18% of the average utility bill. A combination of installing efficient or tankless water heaters -- which heat only as much water as needed -- and taking shorter showers can tackle the problem. You might also consider using cold water for laundry.

Microwave Ovens 

You probably expect large kitchen appliances such as your fridge, freezer, range and dishwasher to draw a lot of power. But if they’re new and efficiency-rated, they probably use less electricity than you think: The average fridge bought today in the U.S. uses 75% less energy than an average 1975 fridge, despite being 60% cheaper and 20% bigger. The real drain in your kitchen is probably your microwave, which draws phantom power when you’re not using it. New standards that will come into effect next year will make microwave ovens less wasteful; in the meantime, you can choose to unplug yours if you use it rarely.

Device Chargers 

Personal devices that run on batteries, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, often have inefficient chargers. One report from the Digital Power Group recently claimed that an iPhone uses more power in battery charging, Wi-Fi connectivity and data use than a mid-sized efficient refrigerator. Unfortunately, there’s no clear way to reduce this cost, but you can research the efficiency of your particular devices and go from there.

 Did any of these surprise you? What other changes in the home can contribute to energy conservation? Discuss in the comments.