It’s October 15th and that means we’re back to share some earth friendly info courtesy of Almost-Doctor Dan for Blog Action Day 2009 (click here for more details on the big event). Since we consistently cover ways to live greener and give back to the planet (we have an entire section devoted to Eco Living on our How To page) this little online event seemed to fit right in, but we really wanted to go beyond ever-present eco encouragement like “use CFLs!” and “don’t forget to recycle!” (which are both great suggestions, they’re just a bit tried and true). So we looked no further than my brainy scientist brother to see what sorts of things came to mind on the subject of energy and how to conserve it (along with your hard-earned cash of course).
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the genius that is my brother (growing up in his shadow was tough but I survived), here’s a brief synopsis of his brain power: we introduced him here (and revisited his giant brain here and here), basically he went to Cornell and graduated with the highest GPA of his entire graduating class (a 4.21 if you’re wondering). Yup, out of all of the kids in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he was the Valedictorian. Yeah, he’s brainy. Now he’s a graduate student at Columbia with a Master’s degree under his belt, steadily working his way up to his Doctorate in chemistry with a full scholarship from the National Science Foundation. Not only do they pay for his education but they actually pay him a stipend for rent and food- all in return for wearing a lab coat almost 24/7 and messing around with molecules and polymers all day. Sweet deal huh? Serious Einstein stuff going on.
So we thought he was definitely up for the task of bringing something new to the table when it comes to saving energy and explaining the science behind his suggestions. And he didn’t let us down! In fact a lot of his save-energy strategies will also simplify your life and save your moolah. What’s not to love? Here’s what Almost-Doctor Dan had to say on the subject:
Tip #1: Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, regardless of how fast it is boiling (changes in altitude or substances like salts or sugar dissolved in the water have a slight impact on this, but it’s really quite small). Every time you make pasta, hard-boiled eggs, corn on the cob or anything that requires boiling water, the food cooks at exactly the same rate whether the water is at a rapid, rolling boil or just a simmering boil. Most people aren’t aware of this and waste a lot of gas/electricity converting water to steam without cooking their food any faster (in fact, here’s a usatoday.com article that agrees once water begins to boil, all of the energy being added by the stove goes into turning water into vapor, not into heating the water). In short: a simmering boil should be the goal since you can save substantial gas/electricity by keeping your water from boiling too rapidly (which doesn’t change the time that it takes to cook things at all).
Tip #2: Along a similar vein, the hottest part of a flame is right at its tip. When using gas burners, if your flame has a larger diameter than the pot you are heating, you are wasting most of the heat produced by the flame, since it’s just going around the pot. A smaller flame that is completely under the pot will heat it faster and more efficiently than a larger one that protrudes from underneath. In short: make sure the pot you’re heating doesn’t have flames licking out around it or you can be sure you’re wasting gas and producing unnecessary heat that isn’t doing a thing to whatever’s in the pot.
Tip #3: A lot of people make a big deal about using less AC in the summer to save electricity. In the northeast, anyway, about 5-10 times more energy goes into heating homes in the winter than cooling them in the summer. Think about it – if an average summer day in NYC is 80 degrees and you use your AC to make it 70, you are using enough energy to maintain a ten degree differential between inside and outside. If an average winter night is 30 degrees and you use your heat to make it 70, you are using enough energy to maintain a forty degree differential between the air inside and the air outside (this is actually way more than four times as much energy, since the energy transfer is faster when the differential is larger so you are using exponentially more energy). In short: setting thermostats a few degrees lower in the winter can save a lot of energy/money, and raising it in the summer isn’t a bad idea either.
We also dropped our friend Kristin a line (she’s another Almost-Doctor who’s getting her degree in Germany, first mentioned here) to see what she suggests since this is also something she has studied. Here’s what she had to say on the subject:
At my department, we’re trying to make blue-green algae produce hydrogen by sunlight energy – which would be a great future energy source if we could get it working (no major breakthrough yet, but we’re doing our best). But of course, there are many small things that anyone can do in their everyday life to make a difference without breaking out their lab coats and beakers.
First there are some tips that are quite well-known, just as a little reminder:
- Keep your windows closed and well sealed in the winter
- Consider using a clothesline instead of a dryer (or air drying just a few things a week to cut down)
- Compost kitchen scraps to reduce waste and the need to buy fertilizer
- Install a programmable thermostat to save money and energy
- Plant fruits and vegetables in your garden instead of just flowers
Then there are a few more tips that are directly connected to climate change and greenhouse gas:
- Use furniture from local wood (try to avoid tropical wood such as teak when you can)
- Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farmers
- Eat less meat (cattle produces methane gas when digesting their food, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide)
- When it comes time to replace your heating or water system, get informed about energy-saving possibilities which can actually save you money in the long run (you can install a heat exchanger, insulation or solar panels which can be hugely efficient)
And then there are some things that are advertised as eco-friendly but are not – or at least, they’re less earth-conscious than you might think:
- Local (but unseasonal) fruits and vegetables – surprisingly they are not always better than imported ones- I can only speak for Germany, but here scientists calculated that cooling local apples for three months or more actually calls for more energy and thus produces more carbon dioxide than transporting fresh apples from Chile or New Zealand (which don’t have to be cooled for three months). Only when your local vegetables are seasonal can you can be sure they produce as little carbon dioxide as possible.
- Bioethanol, biodiesel or any “biofuel” for your car – many rainforests are cut down to create farmland for corn, oil palm etc. Good future energy sources for cars might be electricity or hydrogen, as both of them can be produced using fossil as well as renewable energy sources, so the same car with the same engine can be used before and after the switch (which means less waste).
- E-recycling – thinking about recycling your computer is a good thing since the metals (aluminum, copper etc) are released from the hardware and reused, reducing energy consumption and thus global warming. However, most e-recycling takes place in India, where millions of people do this work for little money with little or no protection (meaning they literally cook the hardware, releasing not only the metals but also arsenic, lead and other toxic components which poison the workers there as well as the air). I don’t know of an alternative for broken computers, but try to use yours as long as possible (and sell or donate them to people who cannot afford a new one for a much more beneficial take on “recycling”).
In short: Kristin isn’t suggesting that no one eat meat and that everyone get solar panels. But if each of us took one or two tips and subtly worked them into our lives (like enjoying a “meatless Monday dinner of pasta or pizza for example, or letting large items like comforters air-dry instead of running the dryer for hours) we really could save money, live better, and help make a difference. Even remembering to do something as simple as using craigslist or freecycle to give our old electronics a second life or choosing to enjoy the most seasonal fruits and veggies that they have at the store (or the farmer’s market) will make us feel good and do the world some good at the same time. Remember: every little bit counts! And we’d love to know if you guys are doing anything else to help save money and the planet while you’re at it. Do tell!
Psst- if you’re looking to really make a dramatic change, check out this video and take on the no-impact challenge right here. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly is inspiring to hear about how living so simply can be so rewarding!