Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sustainability for Everyone

I'm a big believer in sustainability and reducing our requirements for oil and polluting processes.  Driving a primarily electric vehicle is just one aspect of my sustainable activities, and while it tends to be the most visible (and so awesome that I talk about it a lot), it's definitely not the only way to live a sustainable life.  Of course, it's not always easy to balance living comfortably with being green, and I'm not about to go live completely off the grid in a self-sustaining farmhouse; good for the people who do, but that just seems like a lot of work.  Instead, I look at all the little things that cause waste - waste in materials, waste in electricity, wasted water - and minimize my waste in those ways.  The best part about these sustainability-driven habits and practices is that they usually end up saving money in the long run, so even if you're not concerned about sustaining the earth, if you care about your budget, these little things make a difference there, too.  These are just some small, subtle changes that can make a super difference in your electric bill, water bill and your grocery bill. 

Reusable Water Bottles

This may be the point that I am most passionate about.  I am a commercially bottled water convert - yes, I, at one time, consumed dozens and dozens of Dasani and Aquafina every week, tossing the bottle in the recycling when I was done with it.  What's worse is I felt good about recycling these bottles and I felt like I was drinking better water for myself.  Not only does the cost stack up, but buying bottled water is kind of a pain.  Literally, in my case, because I have scoliosis so bending and lifting heavy objects, like a pack of water, tends to hurt.  So I tended to bring a stronger friend with me to the store to lift and move the water for me, which sometimes meant waiting until a friend was available.  The truth was harder to swallow than regular tap water.  Commercially bottled water may not be any better than tap water, and is a huge source of waste.  Water is needed to make bottled water, and then there's the gas and emissions to transport the water, and oil is used to make the plastic bottles.  When you're done consuming your bottled water, a recycling truck has to come and pick up all your recycled bottles, and the more recycling your neighborhood has, the more stops that truck has to make, adding up more emissions.  Don't get me wrong, recycling is good, but reusing is better. 

The main reason I drank commercially bottled water was because my local tap water tasted bad, and I had done some research and found that there were high levels of carcinogens in my local tap water.  While the commercially bottled water I drank did for sure taste better, there was no guarantee that the carcinogens weren't present, since bottled water is not regulated.  So I found a multi-stage reverse osmosis filtration system, and installed it in my home.  It admittedly does produce some wasted water, but because it is in my home, I am avoiding many of the other wastes associated with commercially bottled water.  The water tastes better than my normal tap water, and I feel better about drinking it.  What's more, the filter replacement costs are far less than the cost of constantly buying commercially bottled water, and the water is always available. 

Many workplaces also have filtered water available, including my own workplace, so I don't see much need for commercially bottled water at work.  I also go dancing, where commercially bottled water is available, but I'd rather bring my own.  The benefit of this is that I can guarantee my water is cold, whereas sometimes the water at dance venues is sometimes room temperature. 

One complaint I've heard about having your own reusable water bottle is that you have to take it with you everywhere, whereas disposables can be tossed when you're done with them.  I get it, but here's a simple way I overcome this issue: I have one at work and several for home, and I rotate them only periodically.  Usually I make a protein shake for breakfast, so I drink that on the way to work.  I rinse it out at work, and then pour a little filtered water in it and stick in the freezer.  During my workday, I use my "work" water bottle to refill and drink from.  At the end of the day, I grab my other water bottle out of the freezer and fill it the rest of the way up with filtered water - now I have cold water for the trip home or for dance practice or for the gym.  A funny beneficial consequence of this practice is that, because I use those little shaker balls to mix up my protein shake, I keep them in there when I freeze the water, and the metal of the shaker balls keeps the ice cold much longer. 

Thermostats, Settings and Airflow

Today's technology is amazing, and one great example of this is how far thermostats have come.  If you still have an old school static thermostat that you have to remember to change before leaving the house, this may be the easiest sustainable move to save you the biggest amount of money.  There are some very cool thermostats on the market now.  After some research, I elected to go with the ecobee thermostat for three main reasons:  (1) It is programmable; (2) It connects via wifi to my phone and computer; and (3) I didn't want a "learning" thermostat because my schedule varies so much.  The Nest may be one of the most popular smart thermostats, but its based on this learning concept which is supposed to make it easier to program, but for someone who has such a varied schedule, I assumed that it would always be confused and probably not help in my quest for reducing the electric bill.  I am sure it is a great product for people whose lives are a little more regular.  Ecobee was also relatively inexpensive for the app-enabled connectivity, so that was an additional plus for me.  I figured that it paid for itself within a few months in which I was living alone and wasn't home most of the time.  I basically set it to assume I was away until later at night, after peak hours were over, so that the temperature in house was warmer than comfortable in the summer and cooler than comfortable in the winter (I limited how hot or cold it could get because I still have a dog to worry about at home; if I didn't have a pet I may have gone to even more extremes while I was away).  Then, if I was headed home prior to when it would kick on, I would simply use my phone to adjust the temperature to a more comfortable one, so that by the time I got home, it was already heating or cooling to my liking.  Having roommates complicates this a bit, but I still think its worth it because we are all usually away during the day, so the program kicks in even if we forget to adjust the thermostat, and allows the house to get warm or cool down based on the outside temperature until someone comes home and adjusts it again.  The device also comes in handy when we go on vacations, because even if I forget to set it to vacation mode prior to leaving, I can jump on the app and adjust it remotely.  I can also see what my roommate has it adjusted to while away, and sneakily adjust it up or down a bit if I think the temperature is excessive.  Lastly, I cannot tell you how many times I've adjusted the thermostat from my phone even at home; it allows me to be a little bit lazier, but this also means I'm better able to manage my usage based on my current needs with great ease, even if I'm being lazy.  Technology, man! 

In addition to managing the thermostat settings, I also manage the air flow in my house for significant savings.  I have one to two rooms that aren't used regularly, so I have their doors shut and their vents closed.  In addition, there are these nice little magnetic vent covers you can buy for pretty cheap at a home improvement store, and I just slap those over the vents when I'm not using the rooms, to prevent as much leakage as possible (short of permanently closing up the vent with a hardening foam or something crazy like that).  Then when I have a guest coming for the guest room or I want to use my project room, I simply remove the magnetic vent covers, open the vents and doors and let the air flow to cool or warm the room as needed to match the rest of the house.  One other trick for external doors that are not used often (I have one leading to the back yard, for example), there are little pillow-like draft stoppers that can be placed at the base of the doors to prevent unwanted drafts in and and out of the house. 

Invest in CFLs and LEDs

Almost every lighting fixture in my house has CFLs in it, and a select few have LEDs.  I only have one regular lightbulb, and its because its a "Bar is Open" sign with spinning action that is only activated with the heat of the bulb, so it kind of necessitates it, but that fixture is rarely on.  We play cards at my parents' house a lot, and the chandelier over the table tended to generate a lot of heat, but we knew that we needed good lighting.  I found some great LED bulbs that are brighter than what we had and produce no heat, and are also more efficient, and gifted the bulbs to my parents for Christmas one year.  They've worked great ever since.  CFLs are definitely the mainstream "green" choice of bulb, but don't overlook LEDs for specific applications, especially chandeliers.  Dimmable LEDs (with corresponding dimmer switches) allow you to set the mood with varying levels of light, in an efficient manner. 

Turn It Off, Close the Door

This is a simple principle that helps reduce electricity waste and water waste.  Everyone has probably heard the principles about turning the water off while you brush your teeth, and turning the lights off when you leave a room.  My challenge to you is to question if and when you need lights on, use natural light instead of electrical lights whenever possible, and use minimal and efficient lighting when you don't need a ton of light.  My main living areas have multiple light sources: less lighting is produced by one switch, which either powers CFLs or LEDs, and bright lighting is produced by another switch.  So usually we use the low lighting options, and only use the bright lighting when needed like for cooking at night or doing detailed work. 

Similarly, the refrigerator door is a source of waste when left open.  When putting groceries away, I try to grab as many freezer items as I can at one time, open the freezer door, place them in there, and close the door.  Then I grab refrigerator stuff, and do the same.  It pains me to see refrigerator doors stay open while a person is sorting through heir groceries, and I strongly discourage this in my household.  Drinking out of a carton with the door open, or opening packages with the door open, are also wasteful activities.  So my principle is simple: close the door.  Open it to get what you need or put something away, and close it.  Just close it.  Close the door.

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