Keeping the lights on: An ongoing report of local power conditions
Uploaded: Friday, February 9, 2001 9 a.m.

Small steps for energy conservation
To prevent blackouts, residents can cut down on everyday energy use

by Elizabeth Khuri

"If everybody in Palo Alto could turn off one incandescent light bulb, we wouldn't have a blackout," said Brian Ward, manager of Palo Alto's Efficiency Advantage Program.

How to cut down on energy use

The California Guide to Smarter Home Energy Use recommends:

  • Practice solar heating: Open the shades on the south side of the home in the morning. Close in the afternoon to retain heat.
  • Plan meals so that multiple items can be cooked and made at once.
  • When going on vacation, turn off water heater and furnace.
  • Close the damper in the fireplace to prevent hot air from rushing out.
  • Add extra blankets or insulated padding to heated waterbeds.
  • Defrost refrigerator when ice buildup is more than 1/4-inch thick.

Even small things can help

  • Small repairs and projects recommended:
  • Caulk window and doors anywhere air leaks out.
  • Weatherstrip around window and doors.
  • Wrap heating and cooling ducts with duct wrap or mastic sealant.
  • Purchase a water-heater blanket to wrap water heater. Mend leaky pipes: The leaks waste heated water!
  • Purchase and install energy-saving shower heads.
  • Purchase and install glass doors for the fireplace.
  • Install a programmable thermostat.
With recent blackouts interrupting work and home life, consumers have options for cutting back on energy use--many costing little in thought or money.

It all begins with the light bulb. Not only can turning off unnecessary lights save a bundle, but changing bulbs to the more efficient kind can diminish bills as well. The average incandescent light bulb costs $.01 per hour, while the equivalent compact fluorescent bulb costs $.01 per four hours. While the fluorescent bulbs are more expensive, an "incandescent bulb lasts two to six months while a fluorescent bulb lasts 60 months," Ward added.

Since dirt and dust reduce light output and efficiency, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) recommends keeping both the bulbs and fixtures clean. They recommend adding dimmer controls to your light switches as well.

Then there is the option of timed lights. Lights hooked up to motion sensors or timers ensure that they will be turned off when you want them to be. Putting lights on timers not only saves energy, but can fool potential burglars into thinking you're home when you're not.

A home owner who leaves the lights on all night creates no "simulation of human activity," said Lieutenant Torin Fischer of the Palo Alto Police department. "When someone is watching your house, they look for signs of activity," not just the presence of a single light, he said. A timer attached to a radio and a light that switch on and off during the day or night better creates the illusion of inhabitants.

The City of Palo Alto Utilities is "emphasizing strategically reducing energy," said Linda Clerkson, public relations manager for the city. The department recommends using high energy devices--such as the dishwasher or dryer--during off-peak hours (before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m.).

The city is also recommending both long- and short-term actions that are not sacrificial and mean ongoing savings and reduced costs. Palo Altans should "think about how they are using energy," she said, and consider unplugging that extra fridge or VCR and turning down the water temperature.

PG&E, the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory and the Energy Outlet--a program sponsored by several publicly owned utilities in Oregon--all recommend turning a home water heater to 140 degrees if there is a dishwasher. Otherwise, 110 degrees will suffice. It is also possible to install small water boosters in the plumbing system next to the dishwasher. This allows the resident to maintain a water-heater temperature of 110 and sufficiently sterilize dishes. For families with small children, the risk of being scalded by hot water is all but eliminated.

A good source of information about how to conserve energy can be found on PG&E's Web Several downloadable options include a step-by-step California Guide to Smarter Home Energy Use. There are also guides for purchasing appliances, home heating, a home-cooling fact sheet and an easy "Energy Saving Tips" cheat sheet.

Many small compromises in lifestyle that PG&E suggests in the California Guild to Smarter Home Energy are not extreme. They can be as pedestrian as closing your windows when heating, or as unusual as placing cardboard between a waterbed mattress and the frame.

Other PG&E suggestions include turning off heat at night, filling the washer and dishwasher with full loads, and cleaning the refrigerator coils. For every degree lower you set the thermostat, 3 to 5 percent less energy is used. When washing, large loads actually use less energy than small ones--the same principle applies to the refrigerator as well--and washing full loads on the shortest cycle cuts down on energy waste.

If you are interested in saving energy further and the timing is right to purchase new appliances, the options are numerous.

"If you have anything over five years old I would recommend looking into a replacement. Just because your refrigerator is running doesn't mean it's running efficiently," Clerkson said.

All energy conservation organizations, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the United States Department of Energy (EPA), suggest buying Energy Star appliances. The cost effectiveness of these appliances justifies purchasing a new one, even if the old one works adequately. A new 19-cubic-foot refrigerator is 50 percent more energy efficient than a 10-year-old one. Over a 20-year period you can save more than $2,200 in energy costs, according to PG&E.

The design of the new refrigerator influences cost as well. The most energy-efficient refrigerator is the one with the freezer on top. The warm air that rises in the refrigerator portion will be cooled by the freezer section at the top. Meanwhile, the side-by-side version of the refrigerator adds 5 to 7 percent more energy use. If you add an ice maker/dispenser and water dispenser, the energy consumption rises 15 percent.

Washers are another energy guzzler exposed in PG&E's guide. Front-loading, tumble-action washers not only save energy use by 70 percent, they can save around $850 over the life of the machine. Independent studies have also proven that they may be gentler on clothes and clean them more thoroughly. A tumble-action washer with gas heater costs around $80 a year to run for the average four-person family. In contrast, a conventional washer with an electric water heater, costs around $200 dollars a year.

Clerkson emphasized that the most important thing when looking for a new appliance is to buy what you need. All things being equal, "gas is probably the way to go," she said, and "look for an electronic ignition."

The cost effectiveness of even minor changes--buying a new refrigerator, setting the thermostat a degree or two lower, switching to fluorescent light bulbs--can be extraordinary. Currently a slightly above average house in Palo Alto uses about 750 Kilowatt Hours per month--about $40.80. The gas bill is 100 therms a month, $62.50.

Residents are being asked to voluntarily reduce their energy use by around 10 percent. While some could cut up to 40 percent without much pain, those who are currently conserving may have difficulty achieving additional savings, she said.

All in all the situation with energy and gas "is not a short-term problem," she said. "Energy rates will go up and obviously the higher the rates go, the quicker the pay-back" with conservation. The incentive to conserve is "reduced monthly utility costs, it helps the environment, and it frees up enough energy to go around, averting rolling blackouts," she added.


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