Leave energy waste in the dust

Ellen Roseman
Toronto Star
October 5, 2003

You did your best to conserve energy after the big blackout in August. But now the power is flowing again, you’re running your appliances at full speed.

Maybe it’s time to flip the switch back to energy conservation mode.

“Don’t assume your future bills will look anything like the present ones,” says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based consumer group. “You should be thinking about how to save electricity in the future.”

We have a new Liberal government in Ontario, which needs money to fulfil its campaign promises and may scrap the cap on electricity before 2006. Freezing the price at 4.3 cents a kilowatt hour, when the average was closer to 5.9 cents, has already cost the provincial treasury about $1 billion.

And we’re going into a winter when natural gas for heating has risen substantially. Homeowners who signed fixed-price contracts at 10 to 15 cents a cubic metre are renewing them today at 29 to 32 cents.

Retrofitting your home for energy efficiency costs money and the payback doesn’t arrive for many years. That’s why homeowners wait for government incentives before going ahead.

But you can save energy without spending money on a new furnace, front-loading washing machine or double-paned windows.

The secret is to pay attention to dust buildup in three crucial areas of your home, says Adams (also known as Mr. Dusty).

1) The refrigerator. Pull it out from the wall – make sure to disconnect it first – and use your vacuum cleaner to remove the dust that has collected on the coils.

These coils get rid of the heat that has accumulated in the refrigerator. The heat acts as a magnet that attracts kitchen dust and grime, making the whole system work less efficiently.

“You want your attic insulated, not the coils on the back of your fridge,” says Adams.

To make the job easier, you can buy special appliance casters if your refrigerator doesn’t have wheels.

The refrigerator is the biggest energy user of all the appliances in your home, surpassed only by the furnace and hot water heater.

2) The furnace air filter. It should be cleaned or replaced every month to six weeks, especially if you have central air conditioning running all summer or pets that shed hair.

Dust collects here too and makes the furnace run less efficiently. Turn off the power to the furnace first before checking the filter.

“This is a safety issue,” says Adams. “You don’t want your heat exchanger heating up too much because of the fire hazard.”

3) The clothes dryer. You may be conscientious about cleaning the lint filter inside the machine before every load. But that’s not enough.

Check the connector, a rigid or flexible plastic pipe between the dryer and the outside vent. Take it apart and clean it periodically, Adams advises, or replace it if necessary.

Again, it’s a safety issue. Fires can flare in the dryer vent if the pipe isn’t cleaned often, particularly if you’re using a natural gas-powered machine.

Another area where big savings are possible is your water heater, which consumes about 20 per cent of your home’s energy costs. Check the thermostat setting, which most people keep at 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can turn down the temperature and still get hot showers and clean dishes. A lower temperature also poses less of a scalding hazard to young children or elderly residents, who can’t get away in time if the water is too hot.

Turn down the thermostat to 130 degrees, Adams suggests, or 140 degrees if your household uses lots of hot water.

Also, lower the temperature on the water heater when you go away for a weekend or longer vacation. This should be as automatic as locking the doors and turning down the themostat for your space heating.

You can insulate the pipes coming out of the water heater, at least the first couple of feet that are easily accessible. Hardware stores sell tubes that fit easily over the pipes.

Here are a few other tips on saving energy when operating appliances from Natural Resources Canada’s office of energy efficiency:

  • Turn off the dishwasher during the dry cycle. Air drying works just as well. 
  • Preheating your oven isn’t required unless you’re baking. Don’t preheat for more than 10 minutes. Also, turn off the oven before the food is completely cooked and let the built-up heat finish the job. 
  • Wash and rinse your clothes in cold water. Modern detergents will get them just as clean as if you’d used hot water. The next person using the shower will thank you, because one or two loads using a hot water wash and warm water rinse will come close to draining the hot water tank.Regular maintenance helps keep your heating appliances at peak efficiency. You can locate a contractor who’s a member of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors of Canada by calling toll-free at 1-877-411-4722, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. (It pays to keep this number handy if there’s an emergency and you need something fixed in the middle of the night.)

    Next week, we look at how to choose an Internet service provider. This will be the last column in a series on cutting household costs that began last May. On Oct. 19, we launch a new series on student finances aimed both at post-secondary students and their parents.


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