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  May/June 2001 Issue
Features: 100 Years of Sierra Club Outings:
Happy Trails
280 Boots and 14,000 Feet
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First on Top
Learning to Walk in the Wilderness
Energy Features:
Snake Oil for Fossil Fools
A Modest Proposal to Stop Global Warming
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by Paul Rauber

Luckily, you don't have to wait for the government to act in order to save vast amounts of energy. But there's a lot more to it than just buying those funny-shaped lightbulbs. First identify and plug the biggest black holes in your household. A 1973 refrigerator, for example, uses as much power as four modern models.

Attention these days is focused on electric energy, but your single biggest carbon burner is your automobile. Consequently, the most important thing you can do to conserve energy is to drive an efficient car. If there's a sport-utility vehicle or other gas guzzler in your life, consider replacing it with a gas-sipping model like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. At the Environmental Defense Fund's online "Tailpipe Tally" (www.environmental, you can compare their emissions to your own. The good news: Making this switch could easily cut your gasoline bill in half. The bad news: To make this a net gain for society, if the vehicle is over ten years old you need to take it to the junkyard. (If it's younger than that, manufacturing a new one would create more net pollution than keeping it on the road.)

The next step, in order of savings magnitude, is to get the heating and cooling of your home under control. Heating accounts for about two-thirds of most people's household fuel costs, and the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy (which provided much of this information) estimates that as much energy is lost each year through drafty windows and doors as comes down the Alaska pipeline. So tighten up: Insulate your walls and attic, install double-pane windows, make sure your doors are properly weather-stripped. If your electric heat comes from coal, buttoning up your house from standard insulation to super-duper can prevent the burning of 23 tons a year. Then consider replacing your old furnace or boiler and air conditioner. For a comparative list of the most efficient heaters and other appliances, see the ACEEE's Web site (listed at the end of this article).

Not everything about energy efficiency is high tech or high cost. You can reduce air-conditioning bills by planting shade trees and shrubs around your house, particularly on the south and west sides, and by installing inexpensive ceiling fans. Heavy, lined curtains or even just venetian blinds can help insulate windows while you're saving up for the double-pane models. You can simply close the registers or shut off the rooms you don't need to heat-unless you have forced-air heating, in which case shutting more than a quarter of the registers can build up too much pressure in the ducts. If you're only using a small part of the house, space heaters can actually be more efficient than central heating. Turn down your thermostat a couple notches (to 55 at night) and remember, sweaters are always stylish insulation.

The next-biggest energy drain is usually the water heater. Replacing your old heater with an efficient new one can easily pay for itself within a few years. (If your hot-water demands are modest, consider an "on-demand" tankless heater that heats only the water you're using.) At least do a little research and identify what kind of energy-saving features would suit your needs, so when your current unit fails you don't buy in a panic. In the meantime, three steps can immediately help: Wrap your heater in an insulating blanket; turn down its thermostat to 120 degrees; and install a low-flow showerhead, which can cut hot-water use in half.

Refrigerators have come a long way in the last 20 years; if yours is older than that, you should trade it in for a new model. (Rebates are available in many areas.) New national efficiency standards for refrigerators went into effect this year, so now is the perfect time to upgrade. Remember, to make this transaction a net plus for the planet, you have to junk your old fridge, not just move it out to the garage to store beer.

As with other appliances, look for an Energy Star label on refrigerators in the showroom. Energy Star is a joint program of the EPA and Department of Energy, in voluntary cooperation with manufacturers. The label guarantees that an appliance is in the top of its conservation class, and includes information on exactly how much energy-and money-you can expect to save by using it.

Ask a lot of questions when buying a stove, because some of the new technologies-like solid-disk heating elements-are not energy-saving improvements. (Induction elements are, however, about twice as efficient as standard electric ones.) Microwaves are very energy efficient, with the added advantage of not heating up the kitchen in the summer. Last of the major energy-draining appliances are your washer and dryer. Ninety percent of the energy used by washers is from heating the water, so just washing in warm or cold instead of hot can make a big difference. (Washing in cold also reduces shrinkage and fading.) The major advance in washers is the front-loading, horizontal-axis model, which uses far less water than the standard top loaders. It costs a couple hundred dollars more up front, but can easily save you $100 a year.

As for dryers, you'll make a huge saving by switching from electricity to gas. Frequent cleaning of your filter helps, and don't overdry-look for a model that has a temperature- or moisture-sensing automatic shutoff, for a further 10 to 15 percent savings. Don't fill the dryer too full (or not full enough). Or, install your own solar- and wind-powered dryer: All you need is a length of cord and some clothespins.

Finally, think about how you light up your life. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs can save three-quarters of the electricity used by incandescents. They cost more at the outset, but last far longer, and more than pay for themselves in the long run. Best bets for replacement are 60- to 100-watt bulbs that are used several hours a day. Oh, and when you leave the room, remember to turn off the light, okay?

For a comparative guide to energy-efficient appliances, see the ACEEE's Web site, or get the hard copy Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings by writing to 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 801, Washington, DC 20036.

The EPA's Energy Star Web site,, has lots of detailed information, including an interactive quiz on improving the energy efficiency of your home or business. The in-depth study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Appliances and Global Climate Change: Increasing Consumer Participation in Reducing Greenhouse Gases, can be downloaded. Finally, don't miss the Sierra Club's own extensive material by clicking here.

  • If you replaced your Ford Excursion with a Honda Insight, over its lifetime you'd save $11,000 on gas and produce 107 fewer tons of CO2.

  • If you replaced your 1972 refrigerator with a 2001 model, you'd cut CO2 emissions by 1,100 pounds a year and save $80 a year on your energy bill.

  • If you replaced your top-loading washing machine with a new front-loader, you'd save $100 a year in energy, water, and detergent.

  • If you replaced your 75-watt incandescent lightbulb with a 20-watt compact fluorescent, you'd get the same amount of light but save 1,300 pounds of CO2 and $55.

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