Small and smart

Mark Niblett
Community Press Online
July 13, 2005

The recent increases in prices for various forms of energy – as typified by soaring gas prices and dire warnings about shortages of electricity – are not being tackled with any great success by the politicians and industrialists of the world.

So it’s probably up to us.

That is to say, on an individual level we need to not only accept our own role in the depletion of the Earth’s resources, we need to do something effective to halt the process. Few people around here own oil companies or car factories, so to make a real impact we need some small, simple things that can be applied by a lot of people. Look at it this way: if each of us could manage to do without four litres of gas per month, that would translate into a sizable reduction in the number of barrels this country needs to import or pump. This is the kind of thing the federal government has been extolling lately, with ads giving Rick Mercer a platform to bark at us about the one-tonne challenge. Hey, you might as well get the booklet, and any similar items you can lay your hands on. Some of them might actually offer useful advice.

If you’re ready to “do your bit,” cars are probably the easiest place to start, because there are lots of precedents. People have been tweaking and fiddling with cars to keep the costs down ever since Otto Benz took his historic little trip. A lot of the dodges that have evolved are clearly phony; the best known may be the Miracle Carburetor, which supposedly could drive a standard car from Halifax to Vancouver on a litre of gas. Yeah, right. In my last installment, you may recall I recommended the use of a moped by those willing and able. If you forgo using a car that needs four litres of gas to go 50 kilometres in favour of using a mobi that covers the distance on less than one litre, you’ve saved three litres. Believe me, it adds up.

There are a lot of other places we use energy, too, even if they don’t get the high-profile coverage that the petro-fuels get. The trouble is, we often don’t even recognize when we’re using that energy, let alone realize when we’re using it inefficiently. There are enough conservationists out there that, combined with the tightwads, they could effect a huge reduction in demand for, say, electricity. I’m given to understand that some cars have a gauge that tells you how efficiently your vehicle is running; I’m saying we need the same kind of thing for everyday use of things like our appliances.

We’ve long been able to check out energy-efficiency ratings when buying new appliances, and getting the most frugal machine you can is mere common sense. Still, there’s always room for improvement. The way you use a machine is a significant factor in how much energy it consumes. To take a ridiculously simple example: running a dishwasher half-empty means you’re using up twice the energy you need to run it full (maybe more). How tough would it be to affix simple electronic readouts to a refrigerator, say, so you can track its energy consumption? The forewarned consumer will quickly pick out spots where the efficiency drops and might be able to remedy the situation. Today, if you put a new gasket on your refrigerator door, you can only assume it’s reducing the energy drain of the appliance. I’d feel much better off with a more detailed idea of where and how the energy is used, and gadgets that would do so should be simple and cheap based on modern electronic technology.

Those of us who live in apartment buildings can contribute, as well. We can nag our landlord over setting up individual “smart meters” so each unit can accurately track its power consumption. If the landlord’s too stingy to do any repairs, well, it’s not a big investment to buy a caulking gun and seal up those drafty windows. I know it grates to think that you are, in effect, saving the rapacious building owners a few bucks on their energy bill but look at it this way: it’s your neck that gets cold from those January drafts.

I’m convinced that the average person, if properly informed, could make a huge difference to the way we use energy in Canada. The key is “properly informed,” which means a little effort on your part. Once you get into it, you’ll find the whole struggle has its ups and downs. With gasoline usage, you can keep consumption frozen by tune-ups and new filters and the other stuff recommended by those nice people at Energy Probe or whatever. Still, crude recently skipped over the $60-a-barrel mark, which may mean you’re still paying the same to fill your tank despite the conservation efforts you’ve made. I know it’s hard to see this as a victory, but it is, in a very real sense.

If you don’t believe me, ask the guy at the next pump how much he pays for a fill-up as compared to what he paid a year ago. When he answers, you should look houghtful, bestow a pitying smile on him, and go your way. Maybe he’ll get the point.


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