Changing Our Energy Habits

Posted by Cindy Frantz
Cindy Frantz
Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Pro
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on April 5, 2012 in Energy Matters

I am a creature of habit. Sticking to my routines makes things go better.  For example, when I throw a shirt in the laundry basket, I have a habit of also throwing in a hanger, so that when I’m down in the basement doing the laundry, I can hang the clean shirt up right away, and avoid a lot of ironing later.  It took a while to remember to do this, but now I do it on autopilot. When we do something on autopilot we can do it more efficiently. 

Unless the habit itself is inefficient.  Chances are we all have a lot of daily behaviors that actually don’t make a lot of sense, but we do them automatically anyway because we haven’t stopped to think about them. Why do I not automatically put things like tools and scissors away when I finish using them? They clutter up my space, and the next time I need them I waste time and energy tracking them down. Sometimes they stay lost for months, and on more than one occasion I’ve bought an unneeded replacement.  That’s not efficient.

It’s the same thing with the way we use energy. There are lots of things we can do that require almost no effort, once they are habits.  And some of our current habits make no sense.  Take idling a car, for instance. Somehow the idea has gained traction that a car should be warmed up for several minutes before it can be driven without harming the engine. Not so! In fact, the best way to warm up a car is to drive it moderately for several miles within 10 seconds of starting the engine.

Another myth is the idea that it’s bad to turn your car on and off.  Actually, when your car is going to idle for more than ten seconds, it’s more efficient to turn the engine off while you wait, restarting it when it’s time to go. Why breathe any more car fumes than we have to? 

The same thing applies to your home computer.  Turning it on and off does not shorten the computer’s life in any measurable way (given normal home use), and, actually, it’s better for your software to reboot at least once a day. Also, leaving it on could add about $200 to your yearly electric bill.

And how about water usage? How many times have you turned the hot water tap on to wash your hands, but you finish long before a drop of hot water has reached you?  Since you’re going to be washing your hands with cold water anyway, why run the hot water at all?  When you do, it puts hot water in the pipes where it will just get cold, and makes your water heater work that much harder.  I have a friend (who shall remain nameless) who actually removed a sink’s hot water handle for a month so the whole household could retrain.  It worked.

Another change to save your time and money: When a light bulb goes out, be sure to replace it with a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb. The slightly higher price tag on CFL bulbs is misleading because you’ll need to buy up to ten incandescent bulbs to last as long as a single CFL will (that’s also a lot of trips to the store). Plus, the real cost of a bulb includes how much energy it uses in its short lifetime, which in dollar terms turns out to be 5 to 10 times the sale price of an incandescent bulb. CFLs use far less energy, and produce far less heat that your air conditioner must work to counteract in the summer.

Then there’s bottled water. Instead of sinking (lots of) money into a product that produces 1.5 million tons of plastic waste a year, consider buying a hip stainless steel bottle for your hydration needs. You will never have to worry about finding a vending machine again.

Adopt a good habit, drop a bad one—these changes take a bit of getting used to, but we’ll find that they make our lives easier rather than harder. As a result, you’re a more efficient person, personally, economically, and environmentally. Don’t believe me? Google will tell us in about thirty seconds. Make critical questioning and fact-checking (starting with this article!) another habit and you’ll have a very well-informed, smarter autopilot.

If you find an error in this article, or have your own suggestions for improving our autopilots, post a comment below and join the conversation.

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Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Project. She is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly (POWER) and Associate Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College.


vent and duct cleaning June 25, 2012

As much as possible, I avoid turning on the air conditioning unit. I use them during summer and limit for the rest of the year. It is my way of saving up.

Ryan Roders July 17, 2012

Hi There!
Great blog, we're actually using parts of it as inspiration for our own!
When it's finished it would be great if you could come and have a look!

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