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Sierra magazine
Frugal Environmentalism

Saving the earth on the cheap

By Paul Rauber

Times are tough. Your house is worth less, your healthcare costs more, and your boss just mentioned that someone in Bangalore, India, will do your job for 15 cents on the dollar and no coffee breaks. Sure, you'd love a low-emission, high-fiber eco-home--it's just that shelling out $1,000 for a triple-paned, low-e, krypton-gas-filled window seems a bit much.

You are in good company. Since income correlates rather directly with environmental damage, those of us with budgetary constraints are already a step ahead. A recent study found that wealthy Canadians use two-thirds more resources than the middle class and two and a half times more than the poorest. Verily, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the sustainable kingdom.

Not that there's anything wrong with money! On the contrary, being an eco-cheapskate puts cash in your pocket by saving you what you're presently wasting on pollution. Here's how it works.

First step is to identify that waste. Many utilities have online widgets that break down the cost of your home energy use. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's exhaustive Home Energy Saver (hes.lbl.gov) requires lots of data but pinpoints what's costing you money and which upgrades will save you the most. For a quicker assessment, try one of the better online carbon calculators ("Carbon Confessional," September/October 2008).

The traditional approach to eco-improvement--pulling out the credit card and buying the latest appliances and fixtures--promises a standard of living equal to what you have now, only more efficient and with lots of instruction manuals in German. It can ultimately save you money on energy and other resources, although the payoff time may be in decades rather than years.

Instead of acquiring new stuff, however, you can acquire a different standard of living--not necessarily a worse standard of living, but a different one. Consider your laundry. A high-tech, Energy Star washing machine uses less water (sensors weigh the load and adjust the level accordingly), and its vigorous spin cycle means that your clothes require less time in the dryer. Energy Star estimates that such a machine will save you $550 over its lifetime. The up-front cost, however, is $500 to $1,700. Since 90 percent of the energy used by any washer goes to heating water, eco-cheapskates can save without the expensive upgrade by washing only full loads in cold water and using a clothesline: money in your clean pockets.

And those $1,000 krypton windows? Instead, you can stop drafts with weather stripping and a caulk gun. To prevent heat loss, plunk down $15 at the hardware store for some clear plastic film and double-sided tape for instant insulation. If plastic film around your windows offends your aesthetic sensibilities, you can get some heavy drapes--it worked for centuries for European royalty, so why not for you? Downside: The lack of krypton gas may leave you vulnerable to Superman crashing into your living room.

Be careful, though, not to let your frugality slop over into miserliness. While you can save money by defrosting your refrigerator regularly and not keeping it too cold, hanging on to an ancient model is a false economy. (The rule of thumb is that if the refrigerator is avocado green--i.e., from the 1970s or earlier--it's overdue for a replacement.) Similarly, as our own Mr. Green demonstrates ("Enjoy," November/December 2008), the energy savings of compact fluorescent lightbulbs are so great that you should replace incandescent bulbs before they burn out. Even if you only use a light for two hours a day, replacing a 100-watt incandescent with a CFL will pay for itself within a year, and save $7.75 a year thereafter. Of course, you can save even more by simply turning lights off when you don't need them. Lights consume about 10 percent of an average house's electricity, largely because we have so many of them and tend to leave them on more than necessary.

In many cases, public entities are willing to step in and help ease the pain of long payback periods. I recently replaced an old toilet with a new, low-flush model. Other things being equal, the payback time in my area is 12.5 years--long enough to convince many folks to suffice with a couple of bricks in the tank. To make the upgrade worth my while, my utility kicked in a $150 rebate, reducing the payback period to a very reasonable six years. After that I'm making money, not to mention cutting my water use by about 15 percent. The water savings, of course, start immediately, which is why my utility in drought-stricken California is willing to write me a check for a change. Some utilities ante up for everything from dishwashers to solar power systems.

Another rule of thumb, when an appliance's time is up, is to replace it with the most energy-efficient model you can afford. But beware appliance creep: While electrical gadgets are getting more efficient, people today are buying more of them, often canceling out any savings from their energy-efficient waffle irons. One new gadget you might consider, however, is a wattmeter or power monitor ($25 and $50, respectively). The meter measures how much juice individual appliances are using, while the monitor shows your whole-house power consumption. They make it easy to find out how much it costs, for example, to listen to the radio for an hour (0.5 cents) or iron a shirt (0.7 cents). (You can find this out for free by learning how to read your electrical meter, although you have to run in and out of the house between shirts.)

But their real value is in revealing the cost of all your "vampire" appliances, the ones drawing power even when not in use--basically anything with a remote, a digital clock, or a little electronic eye that never goes off. According to Larry Harmon of Home Energy magazine, "Up to 75 percent of the power consumed by home electronics is used while the devices are turned off." Like lightbulbs, vampire appliances are individually insignificant but collectively huge--by some estimates, as much as 10 percent of U.S. residential electrical consumption.

Until new energy standards kick in that will radically reduce the amount of power these gizmos draw, you have to just turn the darn things off with a power strip (or any of a wide variety of other clever devices), or pull the plug. True, the digital clock may no longer work, but what profiteth it a thrifty consumer that the coffeemaker tells time but it costs 10 percent more each month?

Eco-stinginess needn't end with water and energy. In the 1980s there was the saying "Cash is trash," but now the opposite is true. Many communities have tiered refuse-collection systems, whereby the less garbage you produce, the less you pay. In my own San Francisco Bay Area burg, for example, recycling and composting allowed me to bump my weekly can size down from 32 gallons to 20, saving me more than $100 a year. If I cashed in my recyclables, I'd easily make as much again. You don't have to spend a lot of green to be green. Frugal environmentalism: It's better for the planet too, even if you're only in it for the money.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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