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Electricity - save money, save the planet

I don’t know about you, but when I used to look at my electricity bill all I saw was the bottom line, how much will it cost this quarter? I’m a bit of an eco warrior, but hadn’t ever thought about assessing my electrical equipment and learning how to use it properly to save money as well as the planet. Then we started building an eco house and electricity use became important. Firstly we needed to work out how much we would need each day to live as we do now (that is, not giving up any of our luxuries - eco warrior I may be but I like my comforts). As we started to research it we realised how much electricity we were wasting by not using our current equipment efficiently or even just turning it off when not in use. Embarrassing for an eco warrior I can tell you. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to make really big savings, and you don’t have to do without the electrical goodies we’ve come to take for granted.

Assessing current usage

If you want to see how much you’re actually saving you’ll need to look at the kilowatt hours (kwh) you use, not the cost. Divide the total kwh by the number of days covered by your bill to get the average amount you use every day. Or you could take daily or weekly readings directly from your meter for a more detailed idea of usage. In Spain you pay different rental on the maximum kilowatts used at any one time. The lowest rate is 2.2kw which is equivalent to 10 amps - an average kettle uses 7 to 9 amps. By not using items like toasters, kettles and microwaves at the same time you’ll be able to rent at a lower rate. Before you downsize your kwh check that your equipment doesn’t require the higher amperage, things like electric hobs and ovens will probably need a higher rating.

If you want to be more specific about your usage buy a plug in energy monitor. These simply plug in between the item and the wall socket and will show you how much is used by that particular item over a set period of time. This is how we found out that our fridge uses the most power over 24hrs than any other item in our house.

Now you know how much you use try out the suggestions below to see just how much you can save.

Electronics - turn them off!

• Many tv’s, satellite receivers, computers and music systems use as much energy on stand by as they would in full use, something the manufacturers don’t tell you - so turn them off. Sometimes you even need to unplug them because they have hidden energy sappers. We saved nearly a third off our electricity bills by doing this - outrageously simple.

• When buying new electronics make sure you get the most energy efficient on the market - this quite often means fewer gimmicks. For example microwaves with digital clocks use as much electricity to keep the clock going as all your actual microwave cooking needs. I was surprised at this fact too!

Cooking

As a general rule, cooking and refrigeration will take the most energy in your home. Toasters, kettles, electric ovens and all equipment that heat an element will suck up power. Next time you put the kettle on take a look at the electricity meter, you’ll see it whirring round at an alarming rate!

Most of our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. The heat produced by this process is lost, and that’s before it’s even got to you. Using gas for cooking cuts out the middleman - you’re still burning fossil fuels, i.e. the gas, but you’re using all the energy created, and gas hobs give you heat instantly.

• If you must cook with electric turn off the heat 5 or 10 minutes before the finished cooking time, your food will still cook properly. I do this with my gas oven too.

• Use a steamer. Boil potatoes, rice or pasta in the bottom and steam all your veg in the top tiers - tastier and healthier too.

• Boil only the water you need - this goes for saucepans, stove top kettles and electric kettles.

• Make a solar cooker. With a little practice you can use them to cook most things that require low temperature cooking. They also work brilliantly for sun dried fruit and veg.

Fridges

By the simple fact that it’s on all the time your fridge will generally use the most energy in your home.

• If you’re in the process of buying a new one be sure to get an energy efficient model, an ‘A’ rating or higher, and only buy the size you require. If you need to add extra fridge space for busy times or the summer get a second smaller one that only gets turned on when needed.

• Be careful how you position your fridge. It needs lots of air circulation behind and well away from direct sunlight or other heat sources.

• Keeping it and the freezer full will be more efficient - a great excuse to buy that extra tub of ice cream.

• Keep the door seals clean and replace if damaged.

• An obvious one - open the door as little as possible and don’t leave it open!

• And if you’re really keen, keep the heat exchanger coil at the back clean.

Heating and cooling

The first rule to good heating and cooling is good insulation.

• Properly insulated roofs and walls will cut your energy bills dramatically. Double glazing and even the humble draft excluder will also help. If you’re in the process of buying a new build or renovating an older property insulate and double glaze. Even if you don’t think you need it for the winter it will help with summer cooling.

• If installing central heating use under floor heating especially under tiled floors. The heat rising plus the effect of having warm feet will make you feel warmer. You’ll be able to keep it a few degrees cooler than radiator heating. Turning your heating down by only 1°C will save you 10% on your heating bills.

• Solar Gain - We live in one of the sunniest regions of Spain, let’s use it. In the winter open your shutters and curtains when the sun is out and let the sun shine into your rooms. In fact, on a lovely sunny winters day the air temperature outside can be warmer than inside so open your windows to get that warm air in. Don’t forget to close them again before the sun goes down or you’ll lose all that precious heat.

• Heat moves towards cold, so standing on or next to a cold surface such as tile or metal will cool you because the heat is being drawn from you. Use rugs and wall hangings in the winter to insulate those cold surfaces and pack them away for the summer.

• Air movement - cool air moving across a hot body will cool by drawing out the heat - hot to cold as described above. Even the act of warm air on a warm body will cool us by drying the sweat on our bodies, sounds awful, but it’s a fact! So in winter we need to reduce air movement and in summer we need to increase it.

Use the change of seasons as an opportunity to change the mood in your room. A lovely thick curtain in warm colours will make you feel warmer as well as keeping out drafts in the winter. Whereas light cotton curtains in the summer will keep the sun out, let the light and breeze in and have the psychological effect of making the room feel cooler.

• Hot air naturally rises even when there’s no breeze, so opening windows at ground level and on the top floor will let the hot air escape and draw cooler air into the house from below. Use north facing or plant shaded windows to bring cooler shadow air in rather than hot sunny air.

• Always use fans when using air conditioning. They’ll help to make the same temperature room seem cooler simply by the movement of the air. If you increase the temperature of your air con by only 2.5°C you will reduce the cost of air conditioning by 30%. By the way turn the fan off when you’re not in the room, fans cool people not rooms. Adjust the controls seasonally. In summer, use the ceiling fan in the downward airflow direction so air blows directly towards you; the higher the air speed, the greater the cooling effect. In winter, reverse the motor to direct the air slowly upwards, this will bring the warmer air near the ceiling down.

Lights

When planning a room try to use the natural light sources where possible.

• If you don’t have natural light in a room think about bringing it in using light tunnels. These channel sunlight using a series of reflectors. Some come with electric lights inside so you can use the same fitting at night.

• Alternatively, if you have a room with no external walls use borrowed light by cutting a window through to the next room. Glass bricks could be used to retain privacy and give a thoroughly modern look. Stained glass could give an internal room light and art all in one go. N.B. When cutting through walls check that you aren’t undermining supporting walls.

• Well positioned mirrors are a simple way to increase light in a room.

• Buy low energy light bulbs when replacing current bulbs. The traditional bulbs won’t be available in Europe within 3 years so you may as well get ahead of the game. Remember this when buying new light fittings too, things like dimmer switches don’t work with low energy bulbs yet. Some of the newer low energy bulbs don’t have a delay when switched on so you won’t notice the difference and they generally last longer.

• Light sensors - we’re all used to motion sensors for garden security lights, but how about fitting them indoors? The indoor versions are very sleek and a great idea for stairs, passageways and even bathrooms.

These are just a few tips to get you thinking. Start with the easy things. Work them into your routine. Plan ahead, think about what other changes you want to make and how you can make them, then make them! Soon your electricity use will drop saving you money and saving this beautiful planet for your children.

Published in Levante Lifestyle Magazine August 2008




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