Fridge Experiment

My large, 20-year-old refrigerator, which came with the house, seems to use about 50 to 60kwh of electricity a month. It accounts for more than two-thirds of my electric power consumption, and it uses about twice as much electricity as a modern energy-efficient fridge. I’ve been engaged in an ongoing exploration to reduce my fridge footprint without buying a new fridge.

For a couple of months last winter, I simply left the fridge unplugged. With the fridge out of the picture, power consumption as shown on my utility bill varied from 17 to 30 kWh per month. (By the way, I still used the fridge to store veggies and such. Because my kitchen is located on the north side of the house, and because the weather was cool, the unplugged fridge functioned as sort of an above-ground root cellar.)

But in summer in Florida, that is not a workable strategy if a person wants any kind of cool storage. My next idea was to unplug the fridge for a few days at a time, plug it back in for 2-3 days (long enough for the freezer-packs to freeze back up), then unplug it for a few days til the cooling function was nearly gone, at which point plug it back in til the freezer-packs refroze, and so on like that.

By freezer-packs, I mean plastic bottles that I have rescued from the recycling bin and filled with water, as well as actual freezer-packs that have been left by housemates, guests, etc. Most of my freezer is taken up by freezer-packs; I rarely use frozen food. Also I don’t make or keep ice at home for my personal use. In other words, my freezer is set up just to keep the fridge cold.

Another tip: The last couple days of “off” mode, move your refrigerated items into the freezer compartment. In other words, at that point your freezer compartment is serving as a cooler.

So far, my experiment seems to be working, and my electricity consumption with this method appears to be 40 to 60 percent lower than in “regular fridge use” mode. The optimum ratio between plugged-in and unplugged appears to be about 2-3 days on; 5 days off. These findings are preliminary; I will keep you updated.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about machines and appliances assures me that leaving the fridge unplugged for a few days, then plugging it back in for 2-3 days, will not hurt it even on an ongoing basis.

I strive to minimize electricity consumption because doing so is a great way for households and communities to be more self-reliant, less dependent on remote service providers. I also do it because electricity production uses a lot of fossil energy, and there is a considerable amount of lossage in the process from burning fuel to generating electric current. Fossil-fuel production eats up a lot of land and degrades ecosystems. Minimizing electricity use, and popularizing a low-electricity lifestyle in the wealthy industrialized nations, are among the top things that I believe helpful to people and the planet.

Further Exploration:

If you don’t already know your electricity consumption, try to find out. If you get a utility bill, it should show up on the bill. If you live in a duplex or apartment where the electricity is included in your rent, your landlord might be able to help you get this information.

Average electricity consumption for households in the USA is 900 kilowatt hours per month. The Riot for Austerity “90 Percent Reduction” target is 90 kWh per month. Figure out where your household stands, and see if you can find some low-hanging fruit to reduce your dependence on electricity. Michael Bluejay’s website on saving electricity is a great resource for figuring out how much power your various appliances use.

Points of Entry into Low-Footprint Lifestyles

Some people seem to have been born conservation-minded, or were raised to be that way. But even people who didn’t start out green-minded can become that way at any point during their lives. There are many points of entry into low-footprint lifestyles; here are some I’ve noticed:

  • Religion/spirituality: Most, if not all, religions and spiritual practices call upon their members to be good stewards of the earth. Also, to care for fellow human beings who are poor and less fortunate. These duties can motivate a congregation to set up (as just a couple of examples) a food forest or wildlife habitat on its premises. Both of these are footprint-reducing actions.
  • Child-rearing: People want their kids to have good food. They want them to have safe water to drink and swim in. And they feel a call to leave the world a better place for future generations. These concerns can spur people to boycott bottled water; to purchase local organic produce; to grow their own food; to clean up their local bodies of water, among other actions.
  • Health concerns: The wish to lead a long healthy life can serve as the impetus for all sorts of actions, including but not limited to the ones mentioned under “child-rearing.”
  • Finances: Limited budget is a great force for green living, motivating people to cut their household energy use, consumer purchases, gasoline consumption, and more.
  • Interest in engineering/technology: Engineering is an endeavor to optimize the design of things and processes, minimizing resource use while maximizing results. In an environment that nurtures creative thinking and rewards humanitarian instincts, engineers can blossom into conservation wizards.
  • Municipal governance: Expensive municipal problems (for example, stormwater infrastructure overload) can motivate local government leaders to open their minds to solutions beyond the mainstream (for example, cisterns, bioswales, rain gardens).
  • Aesthetics: People who insist on surrounding themselves with beauty (a very healthy thing to insist on!) might find themselves purchasing vintage clothes, which are often prettier and better-made than new; or replacing a harsh, sterile turf-grass lawn with an inviting landscape of wildflowers and soft native grasses.
  • Interest in nature, the outdoors: Exposure to the wonders of nature brings love and reverence, which in turn instill the urge to protect.

Can you think of any more to add to this list?

Dissensus

People spend a lot of time and energy trying to achieve consensus, and worrying when they can’t. (Take the climate-change debate, for instance. Many environmentalists are still spinning their wheels trying to convince people who are never going to be persuaded. But even if we could all agree that climate change is real and that it is caused in large part by human excess, it’s doubtful we’d reach consensus on what should be done about it.)

Anyway, consensus is not necessarily a good thing, because sometimes the consensus turns out to be wrong. (And even if the consensus turns out to be correct, dissenting views often contain valuable input for solutions.)

In his appropriate-tech living guide Green Wizardry, John Michael Greer has a section on “dissensus.”

Dissensus, says Greer, “is exactly what it sounds like, the opposite of consensus. More precisely, it is the principled avoidance of consensus, and it has its value when consensus, for one reason or another, is either impossible or a bad idea–when, for example, irreducible differences make it impossible to find any common ground on the points that matter, or when settling on any common decision would be premature.”

If you believe, as I do, that human civilization may have fatally overshot the resources of our home planet — or even if we haven’t hit that marker yet, we are on the verge of it, then living in mainstream society can feel unsettling or downright exhausting, because we are surrounded by so many people who don’t believe any such thing. In fact, many people have never even considered the possibility.

So how are we supposed to go about life? Inhabiting a split-screen universe that seems to require us to keep one foot in business-as-usual mainstream society and the other foot in “preparation mode” — it’s surreal, and at times frightening and exhausting.

How do we know where to invest our attention; how do we know we are making the right choices? Answer: We don’t know. But there are ways of dealing with the uncertainty, and one of the best ways is to try as many things as possible so we have a better chance of hitting on what works. People with different ideas of what’s the right course of action form a vast laboratory; the more people there are trying different things, the quicker we might land on something that works. And what works gets replicated.

One example of something that’s working well right now for both people and the planet, is the “wild yard” fad. People get a break from mechanized noise and the tyranny of lawn maintenance, while the soil and wildlife (and the air and water) get a break, period. If all goes well, the recent vogue for transforming clipped lawns into lush mini-paradises of native wildflowers and tall soft grasses will become an enduring widespread practice.

Bill Mollison, who founded the permaculture design movement together with David Holmgren, used to tell students at the end of a permaculture design course, “Now go out and make as many mistakes as possible!” I think that is the very spirit of dissensus. We just have to get out there and try stuff like mad, and not let our fear of making the wrong choice paralyze us.

In an upcoming post I’ll talk about some of the specific kinds of decisions we face as eco folk, and how embracing “dissensus” can help us, both collectively and as individuals.

Recommended Reading:

Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, by John Michael Greer.

This book and its writer have been on my radar for some years. I stumbled on the book in the public library the other day, and after devouring it I ordered my own copy. I have already made a couple of blog entries inspired by this book, and will very likely do more in the near future.

APP-propriate Technology

Several electronic tools help me stay in tune with the rhythms of nature, or make it easier for me to do my work. Some of them are so helpful I’m really glad I don’t have to do without them!

The following apps on my phone have become my electronic best buds:

  • Clock (alarm, timer, stopwatch — especially the alarm, which I use several times a day for everything from a mini nap before going out, to reminding myself to call someone, to reminding myself to cycle the fridge on or off)
  • Calendar
  • Note pad
  • Reminders
  • The Moon
  • Sunrise & Sunset
  • Sky Safari (one of the many apps out that let you point your phone at the night sky to identify stars and planets)
  • Map (as much of a diehard fan of paper maps and atlases as I am, I love map app for navigating on the fly)

The following are not apps per se but I include them in this post because they are electronic and indispensable to me:

  • emails providing webinar date/time reminders
  • webinars, in general

In permaculture design, “appropriate technology” tends to refer to things like solar ovens, hand-cranked radios, bicycles, and scythes.

A good explanation of appropriate technology can be found in this Wikipedia article. As the authors say, appropriate technology is “small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous.”

By that definition, my favorite electronc tools might not meet everyone’s definition of appropriate tech. However, if an app or other e-thing does two or more of the following, I include it under my personal definition of appropriate tech:

  • reduces or eliminates the need for a car trip or other long-distance trip;
  • expands my sustainable-living skills, including awareness of the natural world;
  • uses less energy than the non-electronic equivalent, and/or eliminates the need to purchase a separate device;
  • helps me be better at serving my community, doing my work.

How about you — got any apps or other e-tools you consider indispensable?

By the way, there are quite a few apps out there for plant identification, but I haven’t tried any of them yet so am not qualified to comment. If you have tried any, drop me a line and tell me about your experience!

Harvesting Material from Trash

A few days ago I posted about how I use my kitchen trash can (a 5-gallon bucket) as a kind of stash for materials I might end up being able to use. The trash only needs emptying every month or so; one time I went four months.

A couple of days ago I used a can of tomatoes (part of my policy of periodically using-up and then replacing my hurricane food supply), and put the can and its lid by the trash.

Today I was able to use the lid as material for shims to strengthen an old rake I found at curbside. The rake, though otherwise sturdy and made of good materials, had gone wobbly with age; the shims seem to help.

It may be hard to tell from the photos but the little pieces of metal are jammed into the gaps between metal and wood to make the rake less wobbly.

P.S. Well whaddya know, just as I finished writing this post I got a text from a neighbor asking if I had any saran wrap. Usually the answer would be no (I don’t buy any of that kind of stuff — plastic bags, wrap, etc), but in my trusty TRASH STASH, it just so happened there were two pieces of Saran Wrap (which had been brought by another neighbor when she brought over my half of a watermelon we agreed to split). I grabbed the two pieces of wrap out of the trash and gave them to the neighbor who needed them. BTW in case you are worried, he wasn’t using them for food-wrapping purposes, but rather, to wrap as a water-repelling layer on top of an Ace bandage around his leg. Ended up being just right for his purpose.

Necessary Items

As a follow-up to my last post, which was about household electrical devices, here are the tools/machines (in all categories, not just electric) which I consider necessary to my household:

  • Bicycle
  • Hand-cart
  • Bicycle cargo trailer (may not be absolutely necessary; been doing without for awhile but it really makes life so much easier that I’m going to call it necessary)
  • Clothesline, folding clothes-drying rack
  • Solar oven
  • Haybox (fireless cooking setup)
  • Rocket Stove, Kelly Kettle, or both (have not had for awhile but want to buy/make)
  • Sewing needles, knitting needles, crochet hooks
  • Scissors
  • Hammer
  • Saws
  • Crowbar
  • Screwdrivers
  • Chisels
  • Rasp
  • Small needlenose plyers; flatnose plyers; nippers
  • Tin snips
  • Lopping shears, pruning saw
  • Shovels
  • Trowel
  • Broom
  • Crank drill, punch drill
  • Ladder
  • Candles & lanterns for emergency
  • Magnifying glass to make fire
  • Hand-cranked radio
  • Smartphone with data plan
  • Solar device to charge phone (I have one but the little solar panel is a bit finicky because of the small surface area)

There may be more; I will add them as I think of them.

Necessity, Convenience, or Luxury?

An exercise in John Michael Greer’s superb book Green Wizardry invites me to list every appliance in my home that’s powered by electricity. And next to each, write what it’s meant to produce: heat, cold, motion, light, or information.

A followup exercise, later in the book, has me note whether each appliance is a Necessity, Luxury, Convenience, or Waste of current.

My results:

Stove – Heat; Convenience

Refrigerator – Cold; Convenience

Electric kettle – Heat; Convenience

Microwave – Heat; Convenience

Toaster oven – Heat; Convenience

Fifth burner – Heat; Convenience

Blender – Motion; Convenience

Lamps/lights – Light; Convenience

Laptop computer – Information; Convenience

Phone/internet – Information; Necessity

Flush toilet – Motion; Convenience and Necessitated by law

Running water – Motion; Convenience and Necessitated by law

Heating pad (kept in medicine closet for emergencies; never used) – Heat; possible Necessity for a guest someday

Notes: Yes, this is really all the appliances I have in my house. I have no water heater; removed it to make space in my studio/office. The microwave and toaster oven were left by a guest and I rarely use them, should probably pass them on to someone else. I have a radio but it is charged by hand-cranking.

The big finds (which were things I had noticed before, but it was helpful to see them laid out this way) were that 1) As helpful as a refrigerator is, I consider it only a convenience, not a necessity; and 2) The only electric-powered items I consider necessities for myself are information devices. Even the laptop computer is not a necessity; though it’s great when I need to type, I can get by without it.

The only electric thing I consider an absolute necessity at this point is my phone with its data plan. Which would be easy to keep charged with just a little solar panel.

That said, I am pretty habituated to the convenience of my electric kettle (which I use every day), electric stove (which I use about 2-3 times a week), blender (which I use in intermittent spurts — I love smoothies and soups!), and the fridge.

However, I am fed up with the electric-power consumption of my giant fridge (it came with the house), which accounts for two-thirds or more of my total power consumption. I’ve just started a new experiment to try to reduce my refrigeration footprint without buying a new fridge — will report to you on my findings as they come out.

Oh, hey! I just noticed another part of the exercise which I had missed before. It says to go over the list of appliances and try to find some approximation of the service that uses no electricity at all.

(Says Mr. Greer: “Don’t worry at this point about whether you could use these alternatives in your present lifestyle; the point is to get you thinking about alternatives, and free up your imagination from the straitjacket of abundant energy.”)

So here goes:

Stove – solar oven, haybox, Rocket Stove, Kelly Kettle (already use the first two steadily; need to build a Rocket Stove and/or buy a Kelly Kettle, both of which run on dead twigs and other small dried biomass)

Refrigerator – ?? Zeer pots and root cellars do not work well in this hot humid climate where I live. Maybe icebox (order block ice by the week), but footprint might not be any smaller – need further research. Also, grow more food so I can pick it off the plant on an as-needed basis instead of needing to refrigerate it; learn to make dried fish; make ceviche (it’s easy); expand sauerkraut- and pickle-making skills; invest in a solar-powered fridge (pricey)

Electric kettle – solar oven, Rocket Stove, Kelly Kettle

Microwave – not needed, pass it on

Toaster oven – not needed, pass it on

Fifth burner – solar oven etc

Blender – ?? This one’s hard. Do without smoothies maybe. And make soups by hand-mashing the cooked veggies. Also I have seen bicycle-powered blender setups at festivals, so that would be a possibility too!

Lamps/lights – Do things that don’t require electric lighting such as read a book on my phone, take a walk, sit with a neighbor on the porch; go to bed when it gets dark; go out to a show; read a book on my porch by the absurdly bright light of our city streetlights (I already do all of this)

Laptop computer – just use smartphone

Phone/internet – if I had to do without, could get info by talking with people, going to the public library; and could spread info by giving public talks, speaking at meetings (already do all of this), writing postal letters to friends and family

Flush toilet – use bucket loo (which I have on hand as part of my preparedness kit for hurricanes and other disasters)

Running water – use hand-pumped well water and rainwater tanks (both of which I have on hand and use regularly in addition to the tap water)

Heating pad (kept in medicine closet for emergencies; never used) – use a rock or black bag of sand etc. that’s been heated in the solar oven

Recommended Reading:

Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, by John Michael Greer.

This book and its writer have been on my radar for some years. I stumbled on the book in the public library the other day (God/dess bless the librarian at the Edgewater Public Library who set up a “Sustainability Books” display), and Mr. Greer absolutely blew me away with how he expressed things I had felt to be true but not known how to articulate, and/or did not feel confident enough of myself to respect my own expression of them. I will very likely be making other blog entries inspired by this book in the near future, and I have just ordered myself a copy to keep.

(Interesting side note, the Edgewater library was also where a friend of mine stumbled on MY book, Deep Green. And after checking it out and reading it, she ordered herself a copy, which I consider a most high honor.)