Shower Timers

One of the great luxuries in my life is a steamy hot shower. Between my exceptionally well-developed allergies and a lot of muscle and joint pain, more than one person has referred to the shower as my “safe place”. It’s somewhere that I can go and feel like a human being again. I take the kids in with me and wash them while I get myself sorted out, which reduces our family’s consumption since we share, but the showers had reached a length where it was time to acknowledge that my behaviour wasn’t sustainable.

The first thing I did was take note of how long I need to stay in the shower to get the health benefits. It actually isn’t long at all compared to how much time I was spending in there. The next thing I did was set a timer on my phone that would give me enough time to ease my muscles and sinuses, plus a couple of spare minutes to sort out the kids. I start the timer, get the water running, and when the alarm goes off we get out.

Our first few showers were a source of significant outrage for the girls. “But we just got in,” was protested loudly and with vigour. They made sure they blocked me from getting to the taps. They dragged their feet getting in with the hope that a slow start would make for extra time. Somehow they lost the ability to rinse themselves. I was fairly proud of their ingenuity.

Over the following weeks the protests slowly stopped. We got into the habit of having shorter showers. My girls started pointing out to me that the water needed to go off when the alarm started. Once their expectation for the length of a shower aligned with the timer, I started to casually reduce the time by a few seconds each week. We’re about half way now between what I’ve timed my body needs and where I started our timed showers.

When our latest gas bill arrived, I was genuinely shocked at the difference compared to last year. We only have three gas appliances in our home: our stove top, our gas central heating, and the hot water tank. Since we have solar hot water, and the gas is more of a booster than anything else, I expected this to be an insignificant change given the summer months. As you can see from our bill below, I was completely wrong.

48.71% decrease in gas usage

Because our usage is now so low, rounding means that I can’t see what our actual emissions were on the bill. Thanks to the calculator over at Carbon Neutral, I know that our carbon emissions for the two months were only 0.04 tonnes. That’s great, but what I’m really looking forward to now is seeing the drop on our next water bill.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can a timer for your showers help you to reduce your energy consumption? Please share in the comments below how much you’ve been able to reduce your environmental footprint through timers and what you used those timers for.

Our First Electricity Bill

We started working on reducing our carbon footprint in September this year, and we have now received our first electricity bill that has been generated entirely during this project. From when we moved into this house our usage had been consistently increasing, so we were all curious to see whether or not we had been able to change our behaviour and curb our consumption. The snapshot below is from that bill.

Our daily electricity use has dropped by 24.62% since last year.

We now pay an additional 5.10 c/kWh for 100% renewable energy, which only added $18.20 onto the bill. By managing to bring our consumption down so low, we were able to get our bill well under $200 for three months. At a time when Australians are suffering severe financial strain due to energy prices, this isn’t putting a significant financial burden on our family. The following table compares our summer usage to that of other households in the area.

Our electricity usage is significantly lower than comparable households.

As you can see, our four person household is using significantly less electricity than a one person household in our area. We’re really proud of ourselves for cutting back where we could and offsetting what we couldn’t reduce. At this point it would be easy to say that we’ve gone as far as we can and that now it’s time to sit back and relax, but that defeats the spirit of this challenge. We’re working on a lot of ideas that will reduce our household consumption even further – we still need to get through next winter in a house warmed by gas appliances – and I can’t wait to share with you next year some of the creative ideas that we’re testing.

If you’re playing along at home…

…please share in the comments below some of the emissions that you’ve been able to reduce this year. How far have you been able to come with your electricity bill? How far do you still have to go? What is your baseline for making 2019 better for the planet?

Reducing Refrigeration

At the start of this project I used the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. We scored well in some areas, but on refrigeration we did badly:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449

The reason we did so badly on this category is due to the fridge in our garage; it’s very old and very inefficient. We got it when we had additional people living in the house, and over time we became used to having it there. It was very convenient to be able to put meals in a second fridge instead of making space in our kitchen fridge or hiding indulgent treats from the children in a freezer that they can’t reach.

Even though we switched to 100% green electricity, and as a result our power company has to supply at least as much green energy to the grid as we use, ignoring high electricity usage areas is the wrong approach for our project. If we can draw less electricity from the grid then it will mean more green energy is available to everyone else who is still on a default plan.

The solution to this problem was obvious: turn off the damn fridge.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as quick as it sounds; there was a lot of stuff in that fridge. We needed to change the way we approached food shopping and storage. The following steps helped us transition from two fridges back down to one:

  • We composted any food items that were past their use by date.
  • We repackaged bulky, awkward things into containers that were easier to stack neatly into smaller spaces.
  • We moved all of the frozen meals that people weren’t keen on eating to the top of the pile in the freezer, which made them much harder to ignore than when they were down the bottom.
  • We finally cooked with those infrequent ingredients that were taking up a lot of space.
  • I sacrificed myself and finished off the half eaten tubs of ice cream. It was a burden, but I did it for the good of the planet. You can thank me later.
  • We changed where we stored things. Some items were moved from the fridge to the freezer, and others were moved in the other direction, which meant we were able to reduce a lot of cooking time and energy freezing and thawing food.

I’m pleased to report that the second fridge is now empty and turned off. Since we only have one fridge, and I know that it is rated at 388 kWh per year, I can use the formula at Cool Australia to work out that we are have reduced our emissions from 2.226 metric tonnes per year to just 0.454 metric tonnes. That’s a saving of 1.772 metric tonnes, and a reduction of nearly 7% of our family’s total estimated emissions.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a second fridge that you could turn off, or an inefficient model that could be replaced with an energy efficient one? There are a few charities and non-profit groups who are waiting to take your old fridge and give it a new, environmentally friendlier life. Please share in the comments below what you’ve done to reduce the energy you use for refrigeration and freezing.

What Are Our Starting Emissions?

It’s one thing to say that we want to become a carbon negative family, but quite another to actually achieve that goal. The carbon that our activities release into the environment is invisible and typically occurs far away from our home and our consciousness. When I’m standing in the supermarket looking at two products that appear to be interchangeable, but are produced by different companies in different packaging, I have no idea how I am supposed to know which one is environmentally more responsible. I don’t think about the way our energy is produced when I turn on the television so the kids will leave me alone for twenty minutes. How bad can it really be?

Australian Emissions

Since we live in Australia, it’s worth looking at average Australian Emissions as a starting point. Environmental awareness seems to be everywhere these days. People are switching from the old halogen light bulbs to more efficient alternatives, and solar panels seem to be springing up on roof tops everywhere. There has been a big push for better insulation in homes, people commute with public transport, and supermarkets have begun to get rid of single use plastic bags. Sure, our new prime minister once walked into parliament with a lump of coal that was supposedly our salvation but, that inexplicable moment aside, as a nation we must be rocking it. Right?

Well, it turns out that we aren’t rocking it at all when it comes to our emissions. In December 2017, the ABC reported that our emissions rose for the third consecutive year. Even though our per capita emissions are now at their lowest level in 28 years, we are still producing 1.3% of global emissions. Given that we have a national population of approximately 25 million people in a global population of around 7.5 billion people, that’s not great. To save on mathematics, according to the World Bank, Australians produced 15.4 metric tons per capita in 2014. It’s easy to try the developed country argument but, according to the same source, the Euro area only produced 6.5 metric tons per capita and the world average was 5.0. That means we produce more than twice the emissions of some other developed countries, and more than triple the rest of the world.

Ouch.

Our Emissions

There are four of us, so the World Bank’s calculations mean that we are contributing 61.6 metric tons of carbon emissions as a family. That number is staggering and difficult to comprehend. I want to insist that we can’t be so bad as a family, that we’re sensible and practical people who are surely under the average, but denial rarely leads to solving problems. It’s possible that we’re under the average, and just as possible that we’re over it. We need to know.

I decided to use the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category provides a quick and a detailed level and benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. Switching to the detailed level gave us sometimes dramatically different results, which were as follows:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Transport 3.708 7.303 2.766
Air Travel 1.221* 1.427 0.357
Heating and Cooling 0.456 2.07 0.843
Hot Water 0.671 4.841 0.881
Clothes Dryer 0.0 0.258 0.084
Lighting 0.306 1.109 0.424
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449
Cooking 0.841 0.858 0.621
Other Appliances 3.428 2.052 0.508
Food and Shopping 12.772 12.359 8.27
Waste -0.023 -0.024 -0.05
Total 25.606 33.493 15.153

*For flights, we typically alternate domestic and international flights each year. To calculate this, I put in the holidays for two years and then divided by two.

At the start of the calculator I felt pretty happy about how much we were under a typical household on some of the categories. Heating and cooling? Nice. Clothes dryer? Boom. Then I arrived at some of the later categories and the smugness quickly wore off. Since there are four of us in the family, this calculator gives us each an annual emissions rate of 6.4015 tonnes per person. We might be doing well in some areas, but we obviously have a lot of behaviours that need to be worked on, and quickly.

If you’re playing along at home…

…then find an emissions calculator tailored to your geographic area and find out how well your family rates. Are you doing better or worse than we are? Were you surprised by how well or how poorly you were doing in some areas? Please share your starting point in the comments below.