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Out-conserving the neighbors: what Earth Hour is really about.

In our family this year, we are celebrating Earth Hour by monitoring our energy use.  Hooray!??  (Earth Hour is celebrated around the world on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 8:00 p.m. in whichever time zone you reside. You can participate by simply turning off your lights—or unplugging the computer and TV—for that hour.)

One look at our actual energy use and we are all walking around inside in jackets.  This morning I had a fight with my daughter because she wanted to listen to music for an imaginary dance party and I refused to turn the computer on so that could happen.  It’s back to banging on pots and pans for her. 

Understanding real time use is a powerful behavioral modifier: at least for the competitive at heart. Did I mention that we aren’t just able to see our use, we can also see that of other families?  As part of this project, we are being lined up against the CEO and employees of Pulse Energy and a few other brave volunteers. You, too, can see how we and the other participants in this Earth Hour monitoring trial are doing by logging onto

Pulse Energy does real-time energy management. What this means is that minute-by-minute a home, business, or high-rise is able to monitor electric, gas, steam, and water use, as well as generation from wind or solar projects. They are even monitoring the heat captured from the sewer line that warms the Olympic Village.

The truth is shocking (and sometimes cold. Now, when I try to sneak the radiator in my office up a few degrees my husband, who can check the website too, calls me up and tells me to: “Put on a sweater!”). That is the point, says CEO and Co-Founder, David Helliwell: occupant engagement and finding things quickly when they go wrong. “In big buildings things come up and they can go for months without getting caught.  (For instance, the heating and cooling running simultaneously.) These issues can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars a day.”      

Why does reducing energy use in the home or business matter?

Our homes and our buildings (and the energy we use occupying them) are the #1 contributors to greenhouse gasses in North America.  (Yes, more than our cars even!) Indeed, if every household in the U.S. replaced one light bulb with a CFL, it would be the equivalent of removing one million cars from the road.

While you wait for your real-time energy monitoring system, you can save money and energy by knowing the major culprits in your home.

What are the major energy hogs in most homes?

The heating and cooling systems are the big players (making up 56% of total home energy costs). Ghost leads can account for up to 20% of a home’s energy costs. What are ghost loads? These are the things that use energy while turned off: and this is most everything electronic these days: computers, TVs, stereos, cellphone chargers, etc.  Water heating is the next big offender at 14 to 25% of household energy use.  The refrigerator is another big electric hog and in the electronics category your TV is your culprit. 

What can you do in your home to save energy and money?

  1. Get a programmable thermostat (or tailor another system based on your heating/cooling system) that will make conservation a habit. Turning down the heat by 1 degree Fahrenheit for 8 hours (e.g. while you sleep) can save 1% off your energy bill.  Use the same strategy for air conditioning. Don’t leave the air conditioning on while you are gone. It wastes money, it is more efficient to crank it down only when at home.
  2. Consumer Reports says that if you haven’t replaced your lightbulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs) you are wasting money. Each CFL is designed to save at least $30 over its lifetime of use.  They now make CFLs in all shades, shapes, sizes, and even dimmable ones. Consumer reports also ranks the best performers.
  3. Stop spending money for your electronics to be off: unplug them or buy a powerstrip.  Plug the electronics that you can un-plug into a powerstrip and flip the switch when not in use.  You can save over $100/year.
  4. Break the hot water habit. In a domestic system you can’t get your hot water anywhere near hot enough to sterilize—or just kill bacteria—(typically a domestic system maxes out around 49 °C / 120 °F and the water would need to get to 80°C /175 °F  or at least 5 minutes to kill bacteria/yeast/fungi. You can save over $200 in most families by no longer washing on hot. Similarly you can save money and energy if you turn down your water heater to closer to 49 °C / 120 °F, insulate old hot water pipes, and buy an energy-star dishwasher or remembering only to use an existing one when full.
  5. Unplug your refrigerator. If you have an older second fridge in the basement or garage it is probably costing you between $100 and $200 to run.  Refrigerators have become significantly more efficient since 2001, so unplug second refrigerators and consider buying new energy-efficient models if you have an older unit.

So, our behavior is modified, but we still aren’t winning. In order to discover why, I decided to do a bit of investigation on the competition. I called up Nancy Hill, wife of David Helliwell, for the real story.  I am, of course, hoping to learn that he has moved his wife and children out of the house and unplugged everything. 

Everyone is still living at home.  As would be expected, both David and Nancy are already savvy energy conservers. “Not everyone knows where to make the big changes,” says Nancy, “because of my husband we had a greater awareness of the biggest loads and biggest users.”

“When they first installed the software we did go around and randomly turn things on to see how much things spiked,” she said. “It was a good two minute training exercise.” Nancy says: “the dryer was the biggest and the microwave. The stereo, luckily, was fairly low.”  She also points out that living in an apartment building creates an efficiency that helps with heating costs: “we get free heating from others.”

What is the best investment they have made in energy terms? “The $10 drying rack,” says Nancy.  She also says that hang drying clothes is the thing that most people think strange in an apartment setting. 

Real-time energy monitoring like we are doing is not routinely used for most single family homes. Pulse Energy usually works with big office buildings, hospitals, and schools. They also work with large multi-family residential buildings.  The reason seems to mostly be economic at this point. A system like we are temporarily using would cost between one and two thousand for a single family household versus an entire building can be set up for five or 10 thousand, Helliwell explains.

Want to see for yourself how we are doing? (Gulp) Check it out online at:

Written by Manda Aufochs Gillespie: The Green Mama. Photo courtesy of Billy Ivy / Ivy Images / WWF-Canada.  This article also appears on The Vancouver Observer.

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