Summer Nights: Tell me more, tell me more

Not Houston, but feels like it.
Creative Commons License photo credit: steve phillips

As I sit out on my balcony and watch the sun set in the evening, a thought comes to mind that is shared by millions of Houstonians. That thought is, “Boy, its hot in Houston.” Not very original or very deep, but not all the firing of my gray matter can bear the golden fruit. The next thought that is spawned is, “I like air-conditioning,” after a few musings of how my ancestors brought about all of civilization without air-conditioning. After that I start wondering how much money I have spent on the wonderful invention of the modern world. Immediately after that I think of how to cut down on my energy costs.

Here are some basics of how to do just that.

First is to learn how to read an energy bill. This is very simple and I like to start with the simple things. Some people will just pay the bill and trust that the electrical company is charging them the right amount. In the days of e-billing, it’s just that much easier to remain ignorant about how much energy you use.

The hard part about writing this is that every energy company has a slightly different bill. Not all of them have all the same bells and whistles.

Here is an example.

The most important things we are looking for on the bill are kilowatt hours used, price per kilowatt hour, and total cost. If your bill has any month by month graphic on how much electricity you use, or a yearly average, that could be useful as well.

Creative Commons License photo credit: this lucid moment

Once we get the number of kilowatt hours and the price per hour, we can move on to reading the electric meter. As a small child I was fascinated by the mechanical cipher and spent some time one summer afternoon deciphering its markings. 2 decades ago and in a much smaller town, my electric meter looked like a series of small clocks that go up to 10 over a rotating rotor disc. The display dials would turn to show the number of kilowatt hours used.

If you have a digital electric meter there is no challenge in reading it. It shows the current total amount of kilowatt hours that the electric meter has counted. This is not the number you have used in a week, or a month, or a year, but the total amount it has counted in its life time.

To figure out how many kilowatt hours you have used in a day, month, or year all you need is two sets of numbers. To see how many kilowatt hours you use a month, record the reading on the electrical meter at the beginning of the month and at the end of the month. Then subtract the smaller number from the larger. That will tell you how many kilowatt hours you have used in a month.

There are a number of devices and computer programs that can help chart your energy usage, such as Google PowerMeter.

Now that we know how many kilowatt hours you use, we can measure different devices to put together a picture of where the kilowatts go.

There are any number of estimators and calculators available for free on the internet (like here, here, and here). However these are all estimators. If you want to know exactly how much power any given appliance uses, you will need to use a simple watt-hour meter (kill-o-watt meter is a very simple and inexpensive one).

Once you start measuring what wattage your appliances use, you can paint a picture of your energy usage. And with that you have the knowledge to make decisions about your energy usage.

If you want to lower your energy bill, you can make simple changes, like turning off lights when you leave the room and not leaving appliances plugged in when they are not in use.

Stay tuned for the next Energy Conservation Installment.

Christmas in March? I Want Coal Year Around

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’ve all watched a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and a few of us have seen Tokyo Godfathers. But as we start the count down to the seasons (yes, lots of people begin the count down to the next one as soon as the previous one is over and some of us have already begun our Christmas shopping), I am left wondering why “naughty” children get coal for Christmas.

After all coal is a useful thing.

The Sicilian tradition tracks back to pre-Christian Italy. There, La Befana, an old woman, would go around and leave light and fluffy candy for “nice” children and pieces of a dark candy or coal for the “naughty” ones (Note: Most of the history of the legend is shrouded in the mist of time. Other places such as Holland have also claimed to have begun the ritual).

Coal has many more uses than being given to “naughty” children. In America it is mostly used to create electricity. You may ask yourself, “how do they produce electricity with a darkly colored piece of rock?” Good Question!! Here is how.

 Anthracite Coal

Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that is made from decayed plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of bodies of water, such as ponds or swamps. Coal takes millions of years to form, so while there will be a little more available in the future neither I nor my 10^2,000,000 grandchild will be able to use it (her name will be Carol, by the way).

There are four main types of coal. Anthracite coal is around 90% carbon. Of the coals, it burns the hottest, but only makes up about half of a percent of the coal used. Bituminous coal makes up 50% of the coal production in the United States and is used to turn turbines to make electricity. Sub-bituminous coal accounts for about 46% of coal production, but does not produce as much heat as Bituminous. Lignite is the youngest of the coal and holds the least carbon. There are other types of coal and coal related rocks. Graphite is a coal, but its ignition point is so high, it is rarely used as fuel. Coal and diamonds are both carbon products, but it would take a Superman to make coal into diamonds while you watch.

Coal has been used for 6,000 years. Its first use was as jewelry in China. The Romans used it as a heating source. Coal is best known as being the fuel supply for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Tagebau Garzweiler
Surface Coal Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Coal is usually found underground. Most coal mines in the United States are surface mined. A surface mine is where you remove the surface and dig a large open air pit to get to a deposit - in this case coal.

In the present day, coal is mainly used to produce electricity. About 40% of the world’s electricity and 50% of the United States’ electricity come from coal.

How does coal produce electricity? The coal is burned for its heat. The heat is used to turn water into steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine, which produces the electricity.

So how efficient is coal at producing energy? A kilogram of coal produces about 2 kilowatt hours of electricity. It would take about 1 ton of coal to run a 100 watt light bulb for a year. (Natural Gas produces about 3.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram.)

It could make a light that yonder window breaks.

4th of July Party at Sara's and Steffen's Place
Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS

Coal when burned emits a lot of undesirable emissions. 2000 pounds (1 ton that is used to keep a light bulb on for a year) of coal will produce about 5,720 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning coal also produce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful gases. Particulate matter, also know as fly ash, is left over as well.

So why would we use coal?

We use it here in America, because America has the largest coal reserves. It is somewhat easy to mine and does not require a lot of refining to make it a usable fuel. Also coal remains a cheap way to produce electricity.

America is no longer the largest user of coal. China surpassed America in coal consumption in 2008.

Over the years the coal industry has developed ways to capture the harmful gases. Scrubbers remove the sulfur before it can become sulfur dioxide and catalytic converters take out the nitrogen. The particulate matter is now collected and sold to different companies which include cement makers, embankment producers, and many others. They are also creating ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide can be used for many different things including improved oil recovery and even conversion into fuel.

The use of coal in electricity production is projected to rise over time. It will rise mainly because the need for energy will rise. Energy consumption will continue to rise with population growth and industrial development.

Light Up My Life

Old house
Creative Commons License photo credit: Tony Wan Kenobi

Having recently moved, I found myself thinking about all the stuff we accumulate through our lives. And all the time and effort it takes to box everything I own and move it a few miles, just to unpack it all. All good things must end and some things are left behind. I thought of all the things I would be leaving behind, such as the refrigerator, microwave, washer and dryer, and light bulbs. Then I got to thinking about how much energy and money I could save if I had only energy efficient light bulbs.

Light bulbs are not the most important things in the world. Few of us move them from house to house, or even think about them as long as they work, but we have all made pilgrimages to the store solely to satisfy our light dependent needs. Lighting makes up  8% of a household’s electric bill. So what are the different light bulbs available? Which one uses the least energy? Or produces the most light?

Light Bulb
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jeff Kubina

First is the incandescent light bulb. It is the one that most people use.  This is much the same as when it was invented by Edison. It works by running an electrical current though a filament. When the filament gets hot enough, it produces light. It comes in lots of shapes and sizes (and appears over your head when you have a good idea) and uses different amounts of electricity.

Compact Fluorescent lights (CFLs) are fluorescent lights that have been created to be used in light fixtures that use incandescent bulbs. They work by running an electrical current from the ballast (the part that has the circuit board and transistors) and through the mercury vapor which emits ultraviolet light. When ultraviolet light goes into the tube it creates visible light. These create a lot more light at lower wattage and last longer then the incandescent bulbs

Creative Commons License photo credit: Myself248

The third type of light is the light emitting diode (LEDs ). They work by using the principle of electroluminescence in which a semiconductor diode has an electrical current run through it and the electrons are able to recombine with the electron holes to produce light. If you’re like me and don’t understand that, when the switch is turned on, the light also comes on. The LEDs use less power then the other two and will last much, much longer (possibly 100 times longer then an incandescent bulb), but they also cost a lot more.

So now its math time!

A 60 watt incandescent bulb will emit 890 lumens (a measurement of light ) for 750 – 1000 hours and costs $0.75 a bulb.

A 15 watt CFL will emit 900 lumens for 6,000 – 15,000 hours and costs $3.

A 13 watt LED will emit 900 lumens for 25,000 – 100,000 hours and costs $50.

That means a CFL will use 1/4th of the electricity of an incandescent bulb and last at least 12 times as long (6,000/750=8; 15,000/1000=15; 6,000/1,000=6;1 5,000/750=20; 8+15+6+20=49; 49/4=12.25,) so for every 12 incandescent I have to buy one CFL (12*.75=9.) I would save 6 dollars from not having to buy more light bulbs.

Does the same hold true for the LED? Lets find out.

The LED uses 2 watts less then the CFL and lasts 5 times longer (25,000/6,000=4.16r; 100,000/15,000=6.6r; 25,000/15,000=1.6r; 100,000/15,000=6.6r; 4.16+6.6+1.6+6.6=18.36; 18.36/4=4.59.) So I have to buy 5 CFLs for each LED (5*3=15.) I would be losing 35 dollars if I bought just the one LED.

So how much energy can I save?

An incandescent bulb can use 52,500 watts or 52.5 kilowatts over its life time.

A CFL can use 157,500 watts or 157.5 kilowatts over its life time.

A LED can use 780,000 watts or 780 kilowatts.

So if one CFL is equal to 12 incandescent then I would use 157.2 kilowatts instead of 642 kilowatts.

And with electricity being $0.14 a kilowatt hour in Texas (see my previous post ) then I can save (642*.14=89.88; 157.5*.14=22.04; 89.88-22.04) $67.85 in electricity by buying the CFL over the incandescent.

Since one LED is equal to 5 CFLs I could use 780 kilowatts instead of 787.5 kilowatts. I would be saving $1.05 in electricity.

So does this mean the CFL is the perfect new light source? Nope. CFLs use a very tiny amount of mercury (3-5 mg) vapor in each lamp. Most countries have a recycling program set up to help safely dispose of them (in the United States Home Depot offers a recycling program.)

Now that you have read the blog (and become a light bulb expert) which light bulb will you choose?

Energy Vampires or the Phantom Load Menace

What are “energy vampires” or “phantom loads”? First, they are not the monsters hiding in the closet to drain your energy and make really cheesy movies. (Those are completely different ones that won’t be making an appearance in this blog.)

Energy vampires are devices that use electricity when you think they are off. They are the cell phone and iPod chargers that are left plugged in, the computer that is left in sleep mode all day, or the TV that comes on instantly when you press the button on the remote. Electronics like this never really turn off. There is always some power going to them. This allows things like clocks on DVD players to still function while off, or for the TV to come on instantly with a remote control. Phantom load accounts for 64 million megawatts (or 64,000,000,000 kilowatt hours) of power and $4 billion a year in the United States.

To find out how much that means for you, we’ll have to do some more math!

Texas Average cost of electricity – in Houston it goes from $0.10 to $0.18 per kilowatt hour. So that makes an average of $0.14 per kilowatt hour.

Here are the two bits of math to keep in mind while we figure out how much phantom load we use and how much it costs.

1 kilowatt = 1,000 watts

1 kilowatt hour = $0.14

So how much phantom load do you have?

A cell phone charger uses 0.5 watts when it is just sitting there without a cell plugged in. That adds up to 0.012 kilowatt hours per day or $0.0017. For an entire month it uses 0.36 kilowatt-hours or $0.05 per month. Yearly it uses 4.32 kilowatt hours per year or $.60 per year.

That doesn’t sound so bad. Lets keep going.

Latest photo of the TV stuff.
Creative Commons License photo credit: William Hook

An LCD TV of greater then 40 inches uses about 3 watts of power when it appears to be off, so the TV consumes 0.003 kilowatts per hour at a cost of $0.0042 per hour. For a day it uses 0.72 kilowatt hours or $0.10 every day. Per month it uses 2.16 kilowatt hours or $0.30 per month. Yearly it uses 25.92 kilowatt hours or $3.63 per year.

A computer uses 4 watts when it is off, 17 watts when it is asleep or 68 watts when it is on.

If you turn your computer off it is still taking in 0.004 kilowatts or costing you $0.00056 per hour which turns into 0.096 kilowatt hours a day or $0.01 every day. Over a month it uses 2.88 kilowatts hours or costs $0.40. In a year it will use 34.56 kilowatt hours or $4.83.

When you put the computer to sleep (lullaby little technology, go to sleep…) it still draws around 0.017 kilowatts per hour or $0.00238 per hour. That is 0.408 kilowatt hours each day or $.06 per day. Monthly that works out to 12.24 kilowatt hours or costs $1.71 per month. For an entire year that adds up to 146.88 kilowatt hours or $20.56 for a year.

If you’re like me and you leave your computer on all the time, it uses 0.068 kilowatts per hour, costing$0.01 per hour. Over one day it uses 1.632 kilowatts hours or $0.23 per day. If I left the computer on for a month it would use 48.96 kilowatt hours and cost $6.85. If I left it on for a whole year it would use 587.52 kilowatt hours and cost me $82.25.

After writing this blog I now turn my home computer off when I come to work.

A DVD player uses 1 watt while turned off or 0.001 kilowatt per hour and cost $0.00014 per hour so the DVD player uses 0.024 kilowatt hours a day and cost $0.00336 each day. Over a month it would use 0.72 kilowatt hours and cost $.10. Each year it would use 8.64 kilowatt hours and cost $1.21.

A Playstation 3 uses 1.5 watts per hour when it is off, so that’s 0.0015 kilowatts per hour and $0.00021. Each day that’s 0.036 kilowatt hours or $0.0054. Over a month it uses 1.08 kilowatt hours and costs $.15 per month. Yearly it uses 12.96 kilowatt hours and cost $1.81 per year.

A coffee maker uses 1.14 watts per hour while it is off. (This would be a coffee maker with a clock in it, or maybe a clock with an alarm that can be set to make coffee at a certain time). So the coffee maker would use .00114 kilowatts per hour and cost $0.0001596. Every day it would use 0.02736 kilowatts hours costing $.003804. Over a month it would use 0.8208 kilowatts hours and cost $0.11. Over a year, that’s 9.8496 kilowatt hours and $1.37.

That may all be small change, but it can add up. If you have a coffee maker, two cell phone chargers, a Playstation 3, three computers, a DVD player, and a LCD TV, then you spend about $2 a month just having stuff plugged in. (Note: I have not factored in monitors for computers, printers, microwaves, refrigerators, etc.)

Power Outlet
Creative Commons License photo credit: edkohler

So watts the answer? Should everything be unplugged when you’re not using it? The answer to that is probably not. Some things like smoke or carbon monoxide detectors should be left plugged in. Most people won’t want to spend the time plugging in and unplugging the TV to save a few dollars. But if you have a second TV that is not used very often, then it could be unplugged. Or if you don’t want to spend the time unplugging each cell phone charger, you could put them all on one power strip and turn the power strip off when you’re not charging. Now you can even get power strips that turn themselves off when they’re not in use. Mostly, it’s just being aware of your power usage. If you know that, you can make informed decisions.