Bright ideas

Nora Underwood
The Globe and Mail
August 23, 2003

Aside from the drama, the inconvenience and the expense, the big blackout of 2003 has also provided a few opportunities – ones that extend far beyond being able to see the stars in downtown Toronto or having a rare evening of beery candlelit togetherness.

One is the chance to look at ways to permanently reduce the amount of energy used at home – without sacrificing style, of course.

“Why do you have to cool? asks Lyle Scott, manager of sustainable development for Minto Energy Management in Toronto. “You need to cool your house because somewhere you’re generating heat. If you boil a big pot of spaghetti, you’re generating a lot of heat. Same with lighting.”

Tom Adams really pays attention to light bulbs. The executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based consumer and environmental research group, claims to have bought pretty much every kind of bulb on the market. The result: an enthusiasm for the growing variety and quality of energy-efficient lighting options, and a realistic attitude about what people should demand of themselves.

For the home, the good news is that the once low-quality and difficult-to-acquire compact fluorescent light bulbs have been redesigned in a wide range of shapes and sizes with improved colour rendition. They also use about 20 per cent of the power of conventional incandescent bulbs. A couple of caveats: Not every fixture will accommodate a CFL. Secondly, CFLs don’t tend to go to full power instantly, as incandescents do, but may take a couple of seconds to warm up. That’s not a bad thing, but it may be an annoyance.

And for consumers, the high ticket price – CFLs can cost about $7 or $8 each – can be a turn-off. In reality, though, CFLs save money. For one thing, their life expectancy starts at 2,000 hours, compared with about 500 hours for a conventional bulb. And over the course of the year, a conventional bulb will be replaced about four times, compared with once for a CFL. An incandescent costs about a quarter the amount but uses about 120 kilowatt-hours a year, versus about 26 kWh for a CFL. What makes most sense, Adams says, is to put CFLs in places where lights are on steadily, such as the kitchen, and where the bulbs are difficult to change.

Updating your appliances will also save you money and energy in the long run. “You can get a cheap and nasty stove for $300, but you get what you pay for,” says Peter Welch, an industrial designer with Hetherington Welch Design in Toronto. “Although there are basic energy requirements in manufacturing, better design makes a difference. For example, the casing around the stove’s door may fit a little better. In the low end, the door doesn’t have as much insulation and gets really hot. For an extra 100 or 130 bucks, you get an oven door that’s cooler to the touch. When you think about amortizing that cost over 15 years, is it worth it? I think so. I think it’s that kind of design feature that people have to be aware of.”

Of the total amount of energy a home’s appliances use, the stove accounts for 16 per cent; the fridge, 21 per cent; and the dryer, another 16 per cent. An astounding 36 per cent falls under “other” – TVs, VCRs, DVDs, computers – a category that has grown by more than 50 per cent over the past decade.

Over the past 20 years, the energy efficiency of refrigerators has improved dramatically. Any fridge bought now will be about 25 per cent more efficient than one bought in 1990. Typically, fridges with freezers on top use less energy than side-by-sides, and units with ice dispensers and other bells and whistles can be real hogs. According to Adams, the U.S. standard for appliance labelling has been a real boon, as fuel consumption is now marked on each new model.

If it isn’t the right time for a new fridge, then it’s worth vacuuming the heating coils at the back of the old one. “Once you look at those coils trying to do their work under this blanket of grey dust, you wonder how you can keep the ice cream cold at all,” Adams says.

In the laundry room, the washing machine is worth replacing for any number of reasons. While traditional top-loading machines are less expensive up-front, their other costs are much greater than those of the horizontal axis, or front-loading, washing machine. The basic design difference is the tumble action of the front-loader relative to the agitation action of the top-loader. The front-loader requires less soap and water, is quieter, has a powerful spin cycle so the clothes don’t need to be dried as long and, because there is no agitation, is easier on clothes.

The largest and most energy-efficient front-loader is made by LG Electronics and runs from about $1,500 to $2,000 for a 27-inch machine. It consumes only about 200 kWh a year. In the end, the front-loading machine may well replace the top-loader. “It’s an example of a device that has superior service relative to the traditional system,” Adams says, “an all-round improvement.” And for those feeling truly virtuous, there’s always the clothesline.

While some manufacturers have made subtle changes to old 13-litre toilets to convert them to six-litre models (one of the causes of double flushing), Japanese manufacturer Toto has been producing six-litre toilets for the last 30 years. The toilets provide about a 25-per-cent reduction in water use, and range in price from about $170 to $1,500.

One of the big things people complain about most during a summer blackout is a lack of air conditioning. Indeed, Ontario has gone from being a winter-peaking electricity jurisdiction to a summer-peaking one. “People have air conditioning in the garage,” Adam says. “It’s crazy.” Alternatives, he adds, include using window awnings, artful landscaping and floor fans (which use only a small amount of power) and “loosening the tie and not wearing the three-piece suit all summer.”

As well, properly insulating your house for the winter also means air conditioning will work more efficiently. Set back thermostats allow you to shut off air conditioning during the day and come back on in enough time to make it comfortable for your return in the evening. Many new room air conditioners also have electronic controls that shut off the cooling when the desired room temperature is reached.

Not to be discounted are ceiling fans – not the massive, scary-looking fans of old, but updated, stylish, sleek models that can be used with or without air conditioning. Artemide is the Canadian distributor for the Modern Fan Company, an American lighting and fan line. “They’re the latest trend right now,” Toronto store manager Rowley Ocampo says. “Other than their aesthetic quality, which is very clean and modern and sleek, these ones are not overly contrived to be modern. They’re broken out into their most basic components, which make them so beautiful.” And, he adds, “they’re silent, silent, silent.” Made of brushed aluminum and, in some models, hand-blown glass, the fans range in price from $550 to about $800 and give off a soothing ambient light.

If despite best efforts we’re plunged back into darkness, it pays to have a couple of nifty essentials on hand. Consider a solar-powered lantern (they recharge in the daylight to provide a few hours of light later), a wind-up flashlight (no scavenging for D batteries) and a self-powered radio. One, the Freeplay, is a 10-year-old British invention that requires about a minute of winding for an hour of play time. In addition, its AM/FM radio will play endlessly in direct sunlight and switch automatically to the wind-up setting when the lights go dim – so you won’t ever be left in the dark.


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