Last updated 2003.12.19
Want to overthrow the established order in the western world?
Forget the nominal centres of power like governments and
multi-national corporations - strike a blow where it will really
count, where it can spread across the industrialized world - in
The pinnacle of urban excess, conspicuous consumerism, where
the SUVs roam in untamed herds. This is where the sheer magnitude
of consumption means that even apparently small beneficial changes
can be increased into massive benefits because of simple leverage.
It's just like that urban bane, mass merchandising; small margins
at huge volumes still makes a big difference on the bottom line.
For example, it may not seem like much to save a litre of water (a
simple flush of the toilet may use 10's of litres of water). But
if 100,000,000 households each save a litre of water each day,
that's a small lake each day (and a good sized lake in a month).
It may not seem like much to get a household to reduce it's
electrical consumption by 1 kWh, but if 100,000,000 households
could do it each day, it would eliminate the need for a couple of
major electrical generating stations.
If you can get suburbia to behave responsibly, it will
literally change the world.
What does suburbia want? How can you deliver it so that it is
desired (attractive and convenient), economical, and better for
the planet? And how does that subvert suburbia? Well, each kWh of
electricity you do not use is money in your pocket, not the
utility's. Each litre of fossil fuels you do not burn is money in
your pocket, not that of petrochemical multi-national or foreign
country. And each such expenditure you avoid takes tax revenue
away from the governments in your jurisdiction. How's that for
eroding the power base of a corporation or a government?
Do You Dare To Be Unconventional?
In the opening years of the 21st century, natural gas is the
number one choice for the heating fuel for new installations and
re-fits where pipelines are in place to make it available. Key
benefit is cost relative to other conventional heating fuels.
However, increasing demand and a level of supply that is not
keeping pace in North America may change this situation in the
very near future.
The king of heating fuels until the 1990's when it was
supplanted by natural gas, oil is still the common choice for
heating fuels where natural gas service is not available (or was
not when the existing furnace was installed).
Very clean in use, and can be used in radiant heaters,
resistance heaters (baseboard, portable or central forced-air),
in-floor heating. Typically more expensive than fossil fuels, but
can be set up to control the temperature in each room individually
via in-room heating elements and thermostats. May also be used as
backup heating for other primary sources, notably wood heating.
Most common in rural, wooded areas, where the availability of
cheap fuel material makes it financially attractive. Variants
include burning of scrap wood and vegetation, or wood pellets or
corn. Wood furnaces, air-tight stoves, and old-fashioned
wood-fired cook stoves are all available and in common use.
Tending the fire tends to be time-consuming and tedious, as is
hauling firewood. Building a fire that will produce heat
throughout the night is an art form. Back-up heating systems are
common where wood is the primary heating fuel; oil and electric
heating being the most common backup heat sources. Some systems
are designed to heat water as well as air from the wood fire, and
of course, heat for cooking is also a common by-product.
Most common where natural gas is not available and electrical
heat is not desired (usually due to cost, either initial hookup,
on-going operating costs, or both), and where one fuel can be used
for cooking, space heating, water heating, possibly running a
refrigerator, and possibly even a clothes dryer.
Heat pumps are essentially air conditioners in reverse. They
extract heat energy from ambient air, and exhaust colder air.
These are typically considered very efficient, as they can produce
more heat from a kWh of electricity than if that same amount of
electricity had been used in a resistance heater.
Almost completely removed from use for space heating, coal was
the king of heating fuels well into the 1920's in most of North
America. However, it was dirty to handle, produced a lot of soot,
and carbon-monoxide poisonings from coal furnaces were widespread.
As the price of oil and natural gas are poised to rise in the next
decade, coal is poised to make a comeback unless environmental
concerns take precedence over short-term financial considerations,
which seems unlikely given North American history of the past
century, and especially if the Republicans remain in power at the
federal level in the U.S.
In virtually any jurisdiction in North America, you can find
someone who will sell you the fuel and the equipment to use it to
produce heat with any of natural gas, oil, electricity, propane or
wood. Units set up to burn other vegetable matter (e.g. corn) or
coal are less common, but are available with a little more
research effort. However, if you want to do something that will be
more beneficial to your physical health and the planet, and will
likely save you money, then consider some of the unconventional
alternatives. There may not be as much interest in showing you how
these work, or selling you some hardware as with the conventional
heating fuels, but that is mostly because there is not the same
level of profit available to the potential vendor with most of the
Simply put, change things so you need less heat energy. This
covers a lot of ground, but it is mostly simple things.
More energy-efficient windows.
Use insulated window coverings
(blinds or drapes).
Put plastic sheeting over
windows to increase insulation.
Lowering the normal thermostat
setting by a degree or two, and putting on a sweater.
Install a duct "switch"
so that heat from an electric clothes dryer is vented into the
house instead of outside during heating season. (This will also
increase humidity, which is typically desired in cold weather
Capture waste heat by putting a
stopper in the bath tub when taking a hot shower, and draining it
only after the water has cooled to room temperature.
Capture waste heat from the
dishwasher by putting a reservoir in the drain pipe so that the
discharge water cools before exiting the house.
Plant evergreen trees on the sunless side of your
No matter what measure you take to reduce your heating
requirements, it will reduce the work your heating system has to
do to provide the heat you need.
When the sun is shining, let it stream in through your windows.
Minimize the obstructions outdoors that would shade the windows.
If you live in an area that gets snow cover, arrange the area in
front of the windows to be relatively flat and level so that light
can reflect off the snow into the windows. A sun-room (solarium)
addition can increase the effective area for passive solar
This involves increasing the effective area available for
harvesting solar heat. Two main methods are used: air or liquid
systems. Air systems involve large windows over heat absorbent
material - copper plate painted flat black is typical. Air is
blown over the metal when it has been heated by sunlight, thus
heating the air. The heated air is blown into the area to be
heated. Liquid-based systems typically have long runs of piping
running through a window chamber with the piping attached to a
flat black conductive surface. Fluid is pumped through the solar
heating panels to extract heat, and then into the area to be
heated, giving off heat. Some systems also use a heat-exchanger or
thermal mass for heat storage or both.
Temperature of the ground more than a few feet below the
surface is typically 7 to 12 degrees Centigrade (45 to 55 degrees
F). Air can be run through pipes to a heat pump, and the heat pump
can then extract heat energy from this air to heat the building.
If you are going to burn something to make heat, why not burn
something that is being thrown out anyway? Free or very cheap to
you, and saves it going to landfill. Wood scraps, sawdust,
contaminated waste paper (not suitable for recycling). If you have
an old oil furnace, it may be feasible to burn waste vegetable oil
(burner adjustments are likely necessary). The oil will have to be
strained to ensure it does not clog the lines or burner.
Domestic Hot Water
The heating sources tend to be the same as for space heating:
natural gas, oil, wood, propane. Pick your fuel, and pay the
utility company or other supplier of your choice for delivery of
the fuel. Then run cold water into the hot water tank and turn the
wood or fossil fuel you have selected into heat to heat the water,
and keep it hot. Or you could be unconventional, and use sunlight
to pre-heat your water before it gets to your hot water tank,
saving that fuel (oh, and your money too). There are a variety of
solar water heating systems from black plastic bags (used for
showers by campers and sailors) to simple black piping on the
roof, to black piping inside a solar heater box (glazing and heat
collector), to a "batch" heater, which is essentially a
small water tank in a solar collector enclosure. What they all
have in common is that they heat up the water using sunlight
before sending the water to the conventional hot water tank, so
less conventional fuel is used in heating the water.
Refrigeration for your house. Either window mounts or central,
the basic concept is the same. Use lots of electricity to put cool
air on one side and hot air on the other side. Watch that utility
meter spin as you try to defy physics, which wants to equalize the
temperature on both sides of the wall. Even if you already have an
air conditioner, using some of the unconventional techniques
listed below will help you reduce your electrical bill associated
with air conditioning. Some heat pumps can double as air
conditioners, providing heat during the cold season, and cooling
during the hot season.
Long considered the poor cousins in the cooling business, fans
can be remarkably effective if used properly. Even the air
conditioners use fans to move cool air around. The key to fans is
moving air past you so you feel cool. This helps you to perspire,
thus cooling your skin. The moving air carries the more humid air
away from you, so the process can continue. It doesn't take
gale-force winds to accomplish this, a gentle breeze will do. In
really hot conditions, blowing the air over a pan of cold water or
ice may provide additional relief. Ceiling fans over beds can be
amazingly effective when you find it is too hot to sleep. Warning,
prolonged exposure to strong air flows may be connected with
Bell's Palsy. Use of some of the unconventional techniques listed
below will augment the effectiveness of fans you already have.
It doesn't cool the building, but it does cool off people.
Usually fun, too. Take precautions to prevent unsupervised access
by young children.
Even if you have a central air conditioner system, and wouldn't
be without it, would you really mind lowering the electrical bill
that goes with it? These items can be used in conjunction with
conventional cooling techniques just as easily as in their place.
Choose the ones that make sense to you to implement in your
Turn Up the Thermostat
It seems to be psychological thing, but many people seem to set
their thermostats in summer even lower than in winter. It seems
kind of silly to be paying to shiver when it's hot outside. If you
are relatively inactive, a temperature of up to 25 degrees C (77
F) can be quite comfortable for most people at a reasonably low
humidity (below 50 %). Besides, transitions from 20 degrees inside
to over 30 degrees outside is not beneficial to your health.
Dress for the Season
A full business suit made of wool may be comfortable in the
winter, but it will broil you in the heat of summer.
Light-coloured, light-weight, loose-fitting clothing is the order
of the day when it is too hot for comfort.
(See the "Negawatts" section under heating. Many of
the things that can reduce your heating bill, can also reduce your
cooling bill, especially the first few items on the list.)
Put your house on a heat diet.
Reduce the calories in, increase the calories out. What
produces heat in your household?
Solar gain through windows that get direct sun? Passive solar
is great when you need the heat, but not so attractive when
cooling is the order of the day. Plant deciduous trees (the kind
that shed their leaves in winter) between the windows and the sun.
Install awnings or shutters or shade cloth or reflective film or
some other type of window covering on the outside of the
windows. Blinds and drapes may block the sun from getting into
your rooms and fading your upholstery, but they don't stop the
sunlight from coming through the glass and being converted to
infra-red light, which is what produces the heat. You may
concentrate the heat by the windows, and bounce some of it back
out by using blinds or drapes, but you did not prevent it from
getting into the house. Blocking the sunlight before it hits the
window both saves your furniture and reduces the heat gain. An
insulated covering will provide an additional benefit by blocking
conductive heating from the outside air. If you are limited to
indoor window coverings, choose one that reflects radiant heat
(e.g. one with a foil backing that faces the window}. It will
reflect some infra-red (heat) energy back out the window, and
provide an insulating effect.
Hot Water Tank
Typically, it just sits there in a corner, reliably producing
lots of hot water when you need it. Of course, when you don't need
it, it continues to keep that water hot, and leak heat out all
around it. When it's already hot in the house, who needs to have a
heater turned on 24 hours a day? If it is practical, turn the
temperature control down. Most units come from the factory set at
about 60 degrees Celcius (140 degrees F), while most households
can manage quite nicely with it set at 50 to 55 degrees (120 to
130 degrees F). Lower temperature means lower energy differential
between the inside of the tank and the outside, which means less
heat escaping from the water heater to your house. You can also
reduce heat transfer by insulating the hot water tank. Water
heater insulating blankets are available at most hardware stores.
These typically combine a radiant heat reflecting material (e.g.
foil) and some insulating material, to reduce heat transfer from
the water heater to the house. By the way, reducing the heat loss
will reduce both your water heating energy bill and your air
Hot Water Pipes
Insulate these too. Foam insulation designed to fit around
standard size water pipes are available at most hardware stores.
May also allow you to run less water waiting for hot water to
arrive at the faucet.
Don't use it. Try no-cook meals like sandwiches and salads. The
heat you produce cooking a meal is heat you have to get rid of
afterward, so don't create the heat in the first place. If you
have to heat something, use a microwave or smaller heating device
such as a toaster-oven. Or take the cooking outside to the
barbecue. There is a reason our forebears had homes with summer
kitchens - to keep the heat outside as much as possible.
Refrigerators & Freezers
While they keep things cold, they produce heat doing it. Give
them a break by cleaning their coils so they can work more
efficiently, making sure they have enough ventilation to run
effectively, and if they are empty, unplug them. If you unplug a
fridge or freezer, make sure the door is propped open to permit
air circulation to help keep mould from taking over.
Buy a dishpan. Put it on the counter, and put your dirty dishes
in it, and cover in cold water and let it all soak for a few
hours. The cold water will absorb some heat as it warms to room
temperature. For really dirty or greasy dishes, add some dish
washing soap to the water for the soaking period. Later, wash it
all by hand. Most dishwashers include heating elements to get the
water extremely hot. While some of that heat is sent down the
drain, a lot of heat is also vented into your house. Doing dishes
by hand typically uses less water, and considerably less hot
water, than an automatic dishwasher.
Switch from incandescent lighting to fluorescent lighting.
Incandescent lighting (the "regular" light bulbs)
produce much more heat than light. Over 75% of the energy used in
an incandescent light produces heat, and less than 25% produces
light. That's why they're so hot! Remember the Easy-Bake oven?
Cooking with the heat from a single light bulb. So if you have one
100-watt bulb glowing on a hot evening, then that's 75 watts of
unwanted heat being produced. Fluorescent lights produce much less
heat for the same amount of light - normally a standard 40-watt
tube is cool enough to handle even when illuminated. If you have
lots of incandescent fixtures, then switch to compact fluorescent
(CF) units, which simply screw in as a direct replacement to the
existing incandescent bulb.
Suppose you have five 60-watt and two 100-watt incandescent
bulbs on for an average of 4 hours per day. That's 2 kWh per day.
More than 75% of that becomes heat, or over 1.5 kWh of heat per
day. That's the equivalent of putting one of those 1500 watt
electric heaters on full for an hour each day. So, either switch
to fluorescents and don't produce the heat, or produce the heat,
and then spend more electricity on air conditioning or fans to get
rid of that heat.
There's more to fluorescent lights than
just keeping things cooler.
Switch to cold water washing for the cooling season, if you
have not already done so. There are detergents that work just fine
in cold water. Saves on the hot water bill too.
Leave it off for the hot season. Use a clothes line instead of
a dryer. There's plenty of heat outside to dry your clothes if
you're looking for ways to cool the inside of your house. If you
live in one of the dark-ages communities (like mine) that bans
permanent outdoor clothes lines, investigate the potential for
using the stand-alone or retractable types in your yard, or if
that is not feasible, perhaps retractable lines on a balcony or
even indoors. Indoor drying may increase humidity, but should
provide some cooling effect.
Ever heard the phrase, "It's not the heat, it's the
humidity"? If this is the case, why not attack the real
problem, the humidity, instead of the heat? Air conditioners do
reduce humidity - it's a side effect of cooling the moist air -
water condenses out of the cooled air. However, if humidity really
is the issue, then a dehumidifier will do the same job, but use
considerably less power doing it. If possible, select a unit that
can drain into a sink or other drain via a hose or pipe, rather
than the type that fills a tray that you then have to empty
Night-time Air Exchange
If you live in an area where night time temperatures reach a
level that is cool enough for comfort (or cooler), try opening up
as much as possible (or as security permits) to allow the cool air
in to cool off the interior of the building. If natural breezes
are uncooperative, try using a couple of fans to move the air. Set
up one fan near a window to pull air into the building, and
another at the other side of the building by another window to
push air out of the building. The effectiveness of this technique
is enhanced by thermal mass which can store the "coolth"
well into the heat of the following day. Really effective use of
this technique may require some practice, paying attention to
weather forecasts, and getting up early enough to close up the
house before the outside starts heating up again.
One of the secrets of adobe construction was the amount of
thermal mass contained in the construction material. It took all
day in the baking sun to heat up the material, which left the
occupants feeling relatively cooler than being outside in the
direct sun. Then, at night, when it got cold outside in the desert
climate, the adobe material released it's heat stored up during
the day, leaving the occupants feeling warmer than they would be
outside in the cold night air. You can use the same technique to
your benefit. Thermal mass absorbs heat during the hot part of the
day, then releases the heat when the air around it is cooler than
the thermal storage material. Water is about the best thermal
storage material going. Store it in sealed containers around the
house. Barrels hold lots of water, but can be a decorating
challenge. 2 liter soft-drink bottles are easy to come by (just
rescue them from the recycle bin, rinse them out, and fill with
water) and can be tucked away in unobtrusive corners.
Take a Cold Shower
If you don't have a pool, you can still use water to cool off.
Put the stopper in the drain, and let the cold water cool you.
Soak in the accumulated cold water if the shower was not
sufficient. Leave the water in the tub until it has warmed to room
temperature; it will absorb heat from the room in the process.
Once the water is at room temperature, use it to water house
plants or the garden.
The poor-man's version of geo-thermal. Typically, the
temperature of the ground from about 4 feet to 10 feet below the
surface is fairly constant, and depending on location, somewhere
between 7 to 12 degrees C (45 degrees to 55 degrees F). This is
why basements and cellars are typically cooler than upper floors
of buildings. Berming is the practice of piling earth (or another
material) around the outside of a building to take more advantage
of this effect by creating more space that is effectively below
Paint sun-facing surfaces a light colour, preferably a gloss
white, to help reduce absorption of heat energy from sunlight.
Light-reflecting materials are probably even better, if the
neighbours don't object to the reflections.
Put plants around the house, inside and outside. The
evapo-transpiration cycle will produce a small cooling effect.
Plants produce shade, and reduce evaporation around them. Plants
hold water, which provide some thermal mass. Plants absorb
sunlight, reducing heating effects. On a hot day, a forested area
is usually cooler than a nearby open field. You can use the same
effect around your building.
If you really need relief from the heat, how about using old
Sol to help solve the problem he's causing? There are a few
possible approaches. You could install photovoltaic (PV) solar
panels to produce electricity to run an air conditioner. Or to run
an adiabatic ("swamp") cooler. Or you could build an
absorption chiller that uses solar energy as its heat source.
If you don't need them on, turn them off. If you do need them
on, switch to fluorescent lighting.
CF units may seem expensive to purchase, but they will save you
money over their life. First, they will last about five times as
long as the incandescent bulbs. Second, they use about 1/4 the
electricity as the incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount
of light. Third, they produce less heat,
so you won't have to use more power to get rid of the heat when it
Suppose you have five 60-watt and two 100-watt incandescent
bulbs on for an average of 4 hours per day. That's 2 kWh per day.
If you switch to CF's, you would reduce your electrical
consumption by about 1.5 kWh / day, with the same amount of light.
If you are paying $0.10 per kWh, you would save about $4.50 /
month on electricity by making the switch. If the bulbs cost you
$7.00 each, they will pay off in 8 months on the electrical
savings alone. All the savings after that (electricity and light
bulbs not purchased) go right into your pocket. Still don't
believe fluorescent lighting will save you money? Think about
business premises you have been in. Offices, factories, even
retail outlets - almost all use fluorescent lights. They know what
saves them money. Why shouldn't you save some money too?
Buy things second hand
Remember the second R is Re-use. Try garage sales, classified
advertisements, community shopper publications, specialty
publications (e.g. for road vehicles), thrift stores, auctions,
even on-line auctions to find items you need or want. Do your
homework to make sure you get yourself a bargain.
Make your purchases count
If you shop with a credit card, get an affinity card that
rewards you or a cause you support for your purchases. Where
possible, try to support local businesses - they are probably your
customers, either directly or indirectly. Try to buy
environmentally-friendly products when you have the option, e.g.
recycled paper products, phosphate-free detergents, local produce,
more energy-efficient, less packaging material).
Vote with your dollars
If there is a product or company you really take issue with,
stop buying it or from that firm. If enough people agree with you
and do the same, you will deliver a message every business
understands - reduced revenue. If you want to do more, do your
research, get the facts, spread the word. If a company is dumping
untreated waste into a river, document it (with municipal
inspection records, for example), then make your case. Send
letters with supporting documentation to the media, print up
flyers, talk to the store manager about your feelings on the
subject, set up a website. Just make sure you stick to proven
facts when discussing the target product or company, so you can't
be sued or shut down for libel or slander.
Household Waste Management
Do what you can to keep things out of landfills. Maybe you can
sell it, or give it away, but try not to
throw it away.
If you have a gasoline lawn mower, get rid of it. Maybe not
today, but when it comes time to replace it, get something else.
Such as one of the following.
Peel that sod off, and plant vegetables and flowers. (If you
have the time, flip the sod in the fall instead of removing it. It
will contribute to your soil, and it is less work than hauling it
away.) Feed yourself, your family, neighbours and friends. Or give
someone you love a bouquet (or someone you want to have love you).
Whatever way you go, you'll appreciate farmers more. And get some
low-impact, low-stress, low-budget exercise. It isn't always
simple or easy, it takes research and effort to grow things well,
but most people who try it find that it is worth it. Start small,
find out what you like, and expand over time. Nature will give you
another chance next year. And you don't have to mow it.
That's the proper name for the old-fashioned mower you push,
and the whirling blades cut the grass. A quality unit with sharp
blades will cut a small lawn with remarkably little effort, and in
about the same amount of time as a walk-behind power mower.
Yes, it does use electricity. However, it does not pollute in
operation, it's quieter than a gas mower, it uses less energy than
a gas mower. It also does not require a gas can or oil changes or
a rope starter or a spark plug. For those who really cannot figure
out how an extension cord works, there are cordless (battery
powered) electric mowers available commercially. Some folks have
even set up their cordless electric mowers to charge from solar
panels, so their electrons are derived guaranteed pollution-free.
More on electric mowers.
Electric Yard Tractor
Got a lot of grass to mow? Then how about an electric tractor
instead of one powered by gasoline? Yes, electric
tractors do exist.
Other Yard Tools
There are versions of other yard tools that don't use gasoline,
such as rototillers, line
chainsaws and more.
Stay home. Telecommute. Bike. Put an electric
assist unit on your bike or buy an electric bicycle or motorcycle.
Roller-blade. Walk. Use mass transit. Car pool. Leave the
fossil-fueler in the driveway. Buy an electric
car. Buy a "hybrid" (electric assist gasoline car,
such as the Honda Insight or Toyota Prius). Buy a diesel engine
vehicle and run it on waste vegetable oil. Or use bio-diesel or
E85 ethanol (85% ethanol) or gasohol (up to 10% ethanol). Buy the
most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets most of your needs, and
borrow or rent something else when the unusual needs arise. Need
to transport 4 or 5 people most of the time, and 7 or 8 on
occasion? Then buy a car, and rent a minivan when you need one
instead of driving the minivan around less than half-full most of
As global climate change moves from feared outcome to
inescapable fact, weather events will become more dramatic. One
effect is increased flooding, in part because warmer air can hold
more moisture, which it then releases in larger rainfalls, and
also because we have "improved" drainage in our urban
areas. As a result, rain water which would have taken days to
reach a river if it had fallen on a field or forest, can now get
there in minutes thanks to roofs that drain into gutters and
downspouts onto driveways that channel the water directly to storm
sewers and from there take the express route via a collector
system to the nearest river. So, take the area covered by a city,
and consider the amount of water that would fall on it in the
course of a heavy rainstorm. Now consider having all that water
arrive in washes, gullies, creeks and rivers in minutes instead of
over a period of days. Still wonder if the increasing amount of
flood damage on the news is man-made or not?
Now, suppose that each household in a city (let's assume
100,000 households in a relatively small city) each had a simple
rain-barrel, and it got filled in the course of each storm. That
would be approximately 4,500,000 gallons of water that would not
go rushing immediately through the storm sewer system into the
local river. That's a lot of water. But there are other things you
can do. For example, you can landscape your property to create a
pond to collect some of that water. Or landscape it so that water
drains into your garden, or collects long enough to soak into the
soil for your lawn instead of just running off.
Of course, if you use the rainwater you have collected to water
your garden (or lawn) or wash your car or whatever, then that is
water you do not have to buy from your local water utility. (And
try to wash your car on the grass instead of the driveway, so the
water serves more than one purpose. A little mild detergent should
not hurt your lawn at all.)
If you do choose to harvest rainwater, please store it in
water tanks or
containers with screened openings or lids, or do not let it stand
for more than a couple of days. This will prevent creating
breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
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