I love water. I’m a sea-kayaker and get out into it every chance I get. Candidly, when I’m out there I don’t think about water conservation. There just seems to be so much of it. An ocean of water, and it seems endless. But recently, because of a desire to be as ‘green’ and conservation-minded as possible these days, I have been thinking about another kind of water-fresh water. The kind that we drink and use in the course of our daily lives. So I’ve been doing some research into how much water we use and how much water is needed for us to enjoy the quality of life that we do here in America. The results are sobering.
Last week I wrote about how much fresh water we use (in our homes) just going through the motions of everyday life. The average family of four using 600 gallons of fresh water a week was a real surprise. There was some good news, however. We found that we could control a lot of our usage. Today’s blog is, sad to say, about much of what you and I cannot control. It’s about how much water is used in the production of the food we eat. I guess it’s more informative than anything, and is meant to be educational.
Let’s take an average meal at a restaurant as an illustration of just how much fresh water goes into putting that food on your plate. You go to your favorite restaurant and look over the menu. You decide to get a steak. It comes with a baked potato and corn-on-the-cob. With it you have a glass of wine, and finish-off with a cup of coffee. Pretty standard stuff. So, how much fresh water does it take to put that steak dinner on your plate? But before I tell you, I need to let you know that my intent isn’t to make you enjoy your meal any less, it’s to help you enjoy it more, to appreciate it more. We live in a country, despite all of the problems that are dished-up to us daily through the news, where we have the blessing of enjoying meals that take an enormous amount of water, just to get it to our plate. This will surprise you.
1. Your steak: In order to put-up one pound of beef, it requires 1,799 gallons (6,810 liters) of water! That’s 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms) of grain for feed, plus irrigation water; 36.2 pounds (16.4 kilograms) of roughage or grasses for feed, plus irrigation water; 18.6 gallons (70.5 liters) of additional water for drinking and processing. You read this right. That’s close to 1,800 gallons of water for every pound of beef we eat!
2. The baked potato: In order to get one pound of potatoes it takes 119 gallons (450 liters) of water. Think about this: Worldwide potato production soaks up about 0.2 trillion cubic feet (6.5 billion cubic meters) of water annually. Potato production accounts for 0.09 percent of global water use for the planet’s total agricultural crop production.
3. The Corn: One pound of corn (0.5 kilograms) requires 108 gallons (409 liters) of water. Worldwide corn production soaks up about 19.4 trillion cubic feet (550 billion cubic meters) of water annually. Corn production accounts for 8 percent of global water use for the planet’s total agricultural crop production. So much for corn-produced gasoline being inexpensive. Oil consumes only 1.01 gallons (1.06 cubic meters) of water per kilowatt hour to produce. Didn’t think about that, did we?
4. The Wine: Get this. For one gallon of wine (3.8 liters) it takes 1,008 gallons (3,816 liters) of water. That’s 63.4 gallons of water for one glass (1 cup)! Most of the water used for wine production is for growing the grapes. I happen to think it’s worth it.
5. The coffee: One gallon of coffee (3.8 liters) requires 880 gallons (3,331 liters) of water. That’s 37 gallons (140 liters) of water for just one cup. If everyone in the world drank a cup of coffee each morning, it would ‘cost’ about 32 trillion gallons (120 billion cubic meters) of water a year. If you’re like me, I consume 4 cups by noon. That’s 148 gallons of water just to wake me up.
O.K. So the steak is only 8 ounces, the potato is only 8 ounces, and the corn is only 4 ounces. So…by the time we have consumed that steak dinner, with the wine and coffee, it has required somewhere close to 1,200 gallons of water just to get it to our plate. Amazing.
Having done the research on this hasn’t caused me to feel bad. It’s actually caused me to be more appreciative of the fact that I live in a country that actually has the water resources that enables me to enjoy the quality of life that I do. Imagine living in a country where water isn’t available like it is here in America. In order to produce the food we eat, it takes lots and lots of water. We’re blessing to live in this country, regardless of the politics. There are some things that we just take for granted-like water. Kinda makes we want to invest in organizations that help third-world countries drill for water…
In our first blog dealing with hidden energy guzzlers, we discovered how to save energy by cleaning the coils and checking to see that the refrigerator and freezer compartment seals were, in fact, sealing correctly…which they weren’t. I thought we were through with anything dealing with cooling or freezing. Not so fast, I was told…
My next discovery really falls into the “hidden” category because it’s one of those appliances that are described by the phrase: ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind.’ It’s our freezer. Not the little one over the refrigerator, but the big one in the garage. And…the one in the basement. Why have two freezers, you might ask? Good question. Especially since neither of them is full. Our thinking, upon reflection, was to have more freezer space for those periodic trips to Costco, when we found ourselves buying more stuff than our little freezer (above the refrigerator) could hold. However, we have never really filled both of these freezers. The big one in the garage is a 16 cubic feet upright and the one in the basement is a 7 cubic foot chest model.
By the way, I grew-up in a small community in northern Minnesota, where we used large freezers to store vegetables grown in the garden and for sides of beef or venison. As a kid I remember that someone was into the freezer almost every day. That’s just the way it was. Everyone had a freezer. But my life is different now. I don’t have a large garden where I grow my own vegetables. I don’t hunt large animals where I need to store hundreds of pounds of game. My only hunting is done at Costco and it just feels like we’re supposed to have one.
We have found that the foods we use most often go into the freezing unit of the refrigerator. When we run out of room there, we put the overflow into the 7 cubic foot freezer in the basement, which on any given day, is around ¾ full. The big one in the garage? Well… it’s ½ full of stuff that we rarely eat, but don’t feel right about throwing away. We might just need it someday. The reality is that we have thrown a lot of food away due to freezer burn.
Here’s what I discovered regarding the economics of having this extra freezer space in my life. At $0.17 per KWH, the large freezer is costing me around $24.00 a month. The small one is costing me around $12.00 a month. That’s $36.00 a month for freezing mostly air. We were told that the fuller a freezer is, the more efficient it is. We were also told to make sure the coils in the back of the freezer were clean. Another thing was to check for ice. Check for ice?? It’s a freezer! Of course there’s going to be ice! What he meant was this: If we had ¼ inch of ice in our freezer (which we did on the big one), it’s acting as an insulator and is causing the freezer to work harder and use more electricity. Talk about adding freezer insult to injury.
It was recommended that we get rid of one of the freezers. If we wanted to keep the big one, then make sure the empty space is filled with sturdy plastic jugs filled not quite to the top with water. If we decided to keep the small one, it would cost us less electricity, but we felt it might limit us in terms of space.
It’s amazing the clarity that can come with a bottle of wine and a pizza. We decided to get rid of the large freezer. Here’s why:
• It would cut our ‘extra’ freezer costs from $36 down to $12 a month
• It would free-up needed space in the garage.
• It would cause us to use more discretion when shopping at Costco, and buy only what we have room for.
• It would eliminate the waste of freezer-burnt food.
• The utility company offered to haul the big freezer away for free if we couldn’t sell it on Craig’s list.
Another $24 a month saved, plus garage space gained as well as some needed changes in our shopping habits. Who knew that our utilities energy efficiency ‘coach’ would turn-out to be a financial advisor as well.
So far, on our journey toward the reduction of unnecessary energy use, we have dealt with three of our ten energy guzzlers: the refrigerator, the flat-screen TV, and the air conditioner. This blog deals with an energy guzzler that, to me, came out of left field: the notorious swimming pool and hot tub filter pumps. No kidding. How often do you stop and consider just how much energy it takes to keep your pool and hot tub clean?
My answer? Never. That’s because we hardly use them, yet pay the same amount as if we were using them 7 days a week! Here’s how it breaks down for me:
• Swimming pool filter pump: Runs approximately 8 hours a day and costs me an average monthly cost of $37.00
• Hot Tub filter/pump: This is an older unit (115 volt) which is set at 100 degrees, and found that it is costing me $43.00 a month, even with an insulated cover. That’s in a warm climate.
So both units are running me around $77.00 a month. In the summer months we use the pool on a daily basis and rarely use the hot tub. In the winter months (gets down into the 40’s) we often use the hot tub but rarely use the pool. When we considered the “ROI” (return on investment) for these appliances, based on their usage, we decided to make some changes.
First of all, the hot tub. How can something so much smaller than the pool cost more to run?? I have a buddy who used an infra-red gun and showed me that heat is leaking out from my tub onto the deck. In other words, the deck lit-up. I’m unintentionally heating my outside deck. Upon inspection, we found that the Mickey-mouse insulation that originally came with the tub was mouse-fodder. He helped me take two-inch foam block and glued it to the insides of the tub housing, which made a huge difference in keeping the heat in. No more heating the deck.
We also decided to just shut-off the hot tub during the summer months. Finally, we were told when we did use the tub, to not leave the jets on unless we were using the tub. It seems that the jets like to inject COLD water into the tub which, in turn, needs to be heated. We think that we can shave around 50% off our hot tub energy bill.
Next, the pool. I found that running the pump 8 hours a day doesn’t significantly improve the cleanliness of my pool, but it does significantly increase my energy bill! I set my pump to run no more than 4 hours a day during the summer and we’re still trying to decide if we want to shut it off completely, or run it for only a couple of hours in the winter. Also, I have an older model, power-hungry, single-speed pump and am considering moving to one of the newer variable speed ones. I have found that the cost of the new pump would be well worth the investment, and along with shutting the pool down in the winter months, will save me around 40-50% of my annual pool bill.
So…if I can reduce this energy use by 40%, that’s a $30 monthly savings. I’d rather spend that on lunch after church one Sunday than give it to PG&E! Come to think of it…the money I will be able to save by reducing the energy usage of all 10 of these energy guzzlers could be enough to buy us lunch every Sunday!
If you have been following our latest blogs, you have seen that have we discovered 10 appliances that are hidden energy-guzzlers for the average home owner. The next energy-guzzler we tackled is our air conditioner. We have a 3-ton unit that, when running only four hours a day, costs us a whopping $80.50 a month, which is considerable portion of our $258.00 monthly electricity bill. In our part of the country, we NEED air conditioning-it’s really not an option. Our local utility expert, however, gave me some great tips on how to reduce our monthly bill. Here are fifteen (Yes…15!) areas I was told to check that could shave-off a considerable amount of air conditioning expense:
1. Raise the temperature: It was suggested that I not turn on my AC unless it’s more than 90 degrees outside. Each degree below 78 will increase my energy use by 3-4%. We currently set it at 80 and let it run, a practice which is going to stop.
2. Install ceiling fans and make sure they are spinning the right direction: I didn’t realize that fans can actually make you feel 3 to 8 degrees cooler, allowing you to dial your AC to a higher temperature and still feel just as cool. I was told to make sure my fan is blowing DOWN, to send air past one’s body, removing the hot air that surrounds the body. If your fan is blowing up, it won’t do any good. In fact, it’s worse than no fan, because it moves the warm air at the ceiling back down towards the living area. Who knew?
3. Use a timer: My thermostat has a built-in timer, which I have never used. I was told to program it to turn-off both during those times when we were away from home, and at night.
4. Close registers in unused rooms: It was suggested that we close registers in rooms we’re not using so as not to pay to cool them, but was warned that if I closed too many of them, the pressure in the system could cause leaks in the ducts! I was told to check with an AC professional first to see how many & which registers are safe to close at the same time.
5. Replace an old air conditioner: My AC unit is 8 years old, so I’m good. I was told that the newer units use 30-50% less electricity than 15-year-old models.
6. Make sure the condenser unit is not being blocked: This was something I wasn’t watching. I learned that tall grass and other debris on or around the condenser can restrict air flow and use more electricity. I have bushes growing around mine (to hide it) and the bushes have been trimmed back.
7. Clean the condenser coils at the start of each AC season: I was told that I could wash the fin coils on the outside with a garden hose, but unless I knew what I was doing, have the coils on the inside serviced by an AC specialist.
8. Check my attic insulation: Poorly insulated attics can lose up to 40% of a house’s cool air. The average home built in 1985-90 has R-11 to R-15 insulation but needs up to R-49. Mine was built in 1995 and has around an R-30, so I need some help here. But the following suggestion made even more sense.
9. Install a reflective barrier: This is a high-tech, high performance reflective insulation (sometimes called radiant barrier insulation) which is a strong, thin aluminum foil sheet designed to block radiant heat transfer across open spaces. Installed on the rafters in my attic, it works with the existing insulation to boost the insulating power of my home. Besides decreasing the amount of attic heat that radiates into the living space, it might reduce the heat enough that I could consider turning the attic space itself into a living space. Not a bad idea for the future.
10. Test my AC ducts for leaks: Check this out: Austin Energy tested thousands of home duct systems and found that the average home loses 27% of its heating or cooling from leaky ducts. And over 86% of homes had ducts which lost more than 10%. Leaking ducts and insufficient insulation meant that the average home used 162 kWh/mo. extra electricity per month, or 18% more than normal. This is an extra $233 a year at average electrical rates.
11. Use shades or blinds on my windows: I like a well-lighted home, so I have a habit of leaving the drapes open. But I was told to keep direct sunlight out. Direct sunlight can raise the temperature of a room by 10-20 degrees. The less heat gets into my home, the less I have to pay to remove it. Again, see the following suggestion, which is even better.
12. Install reflective film on my windows: I found that according to the California Energy Commission, 30% of a structure’s cooling requirements are due to solar energy entering through glass. Reflective film reflects the sun’s heat from my windows, and can block 40-60% of heat and modern films reflect heat away without blocking the light too, so I can still have nice, bright rooms. Good idea.
13. Reduce heat by changing my light bulbs: This is interesting. Lights create a lot of heat which my AC system has to remove. I was shown that I could replace my normal lights with (CFL) bulbs, which use 75% less energy and create 70-90% less heat at the same time. Regular lights give off 10% light and 90% heat, while CFL’s give off 90% light and 10% heat. They are more expensive, but are guaranteed to last ten years or more, and will save me in the long-run.
14. Use storm windows and doors: He said, “If you’re ambitious, install storm windows and doors.” Not being in an area that gets snow, I wondered about the logic of this suggestion, but found that they can reduce the amount of cooling or heating lost through single pane glass by 50%.
15. The best suggestion: Get an energy audit by a reputable company who are experts in this area. An energy audit will assess my home’s current and desired comfort levels, energy expenditure, utility bills, and where I’d like to see improvements. It’s like going to a reputable mechanic for a check-up and reduces the guess-work.
I like the idea of an energy audit. Coupled with the above tips and suggestions, it will give me the assurance of covering all bases when it comes to significantly reducing the $80.50 monthly air-conditioning bill that I’ve been paying.