Subvert Suburbia

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 suburbia.

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?

Space Heating | Cooling | Domestic Hot Water
Lighting | Yard Maintenance | Housekeeping
Transportation | Harvest Rainwater


Conventional Techniques

Natural Gas

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 Pump

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 unconventional alternatives.



Simply put, change things so you need less heat energy. This covers a lot of ground, but it is mostly simple things.

  • Improved weather-sealing.

  • Enhanced insulation.

  • More energy-efficient windows.

  • Use insulated window coverings (blinds or drapes).

  • Put plastic sheeting over windows to increase insulation.

  • Programmable set-back thermostats.

  • Another blanket.

  • 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 conditions.)

  • 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 building.

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.

Passive Solar

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 heating.

Active 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.

Burn Waste

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.



Air Conditioners

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.

Swimming Pool

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 circumstances.

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

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 cooling bill.

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.

Washing Machine

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.

Clothes Dryer

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 yourself.

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.

Thermal Mass

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 the surface.


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.

Solar Cooling

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 is hot.

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.

Yard Maintenance

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.

A Garden

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.

Reel Mower

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.

Electric 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 trimmers, hedge trimmers, blowers, 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 the time.

Harvest Rainwater

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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