Winter Utilities Check-up

The winter of 2020 has been a particularly unusual season for us. Lockdown to manage the pandemic has meant that we’ve been at home almost constantly and, with access to allied health heavily restricted, my musculoskeletal issues have flared up and I’ve felt the cold badly. It’s challenging to care about long term environmental impacts when you’re struggling to get through each day with health and sanity intact. As a result, showers have been longer and the thermostat has been set higher.

Our winter utility bills have now arrived, and with trepidation I finally looked at the numbers. I’m thrilled to report that our positive structural changes to the home have more than offset our negative behavioural changes.

Electricity

The big winner here was in the electricity bill. According to the usage summary, our electricity usage has decreased from 5.26kWh to 4.16kWh per day, which is a drop of 20.91%. If I drill a bit deeper into the bill, this picture becomes even better. For the 91 days of this bill period, we imported 378.387kWh of electricity. During the same period, we exported 399.996kWh of electricity. Put those numbers together, and it means we were a net exporter of 21.609kWh over the winter months. Due to heating and hours of sunlight, our winter electricity bill is always the worst for the year. This means that in a single year we’ve managed to become carbon negative on our electricity usage, so I am ridiculously thrilled by our progress here.

Gas

Our second big win was in the gas bill. According to the usage summary, we’ve gone from 273.07MJ to 185.90MJ, which is a 31.92% decrease. This means our indicative greenhouse gas emissions have dropped from 0.9 tonnes to 0.6 tonnes compared to last year. We still have a long way to go here, but I’m very pleased with how far we’ve already come.

So Why The Change?

There are probably dozens of small changes that we’ve made over the past year that I’m blind to, but the key ones for this are:

  1. Solar panels – our real electricity usage increased over the period, but those changes were more than offset by using our own power.
  2. Split system air conditioner – we still use the ducted gas heating in the house, but by using the split system to heat the house during the daylight hours it maintains the heat from the gas. I have set the temperature on the split system one degree higher than the gas thermostat, which is in the same room, so the gas only turns on when the split is no longer up to the job.
  3. Insulation – we insulated the bedrooms and study, so we are losing less heat through the walls. This is particularly noticeable in my bedroom, which is blatantly warmer than the rest of the house when I open the door in the morning. I suspect this insulation is how the split system is able to maintain the warmth throughout the day.
  4. Hot water pilot light – our hot water system is a continuous hot water system that runs on gas. I turn the pilot light off when it isn’t in use, which is most of the time. If I want a small amount of hot water I now boil the kettle and use that. This means that I’m only heating the water I want to use, so we aren’t wasting a lot of water down the drain waiting for it to heat up and clear the pipes either. This has spilled over into cooking, where I will now use the kettle to pre boil water for boiling food.

For me there is a critical takeaway to looking at these power bills: we dramatically dropped our usage through structural change without much behavioural change. Climate action hasn’t been front and centre of our minds this year, but we’ve made a huge improvement without sacrificing a single creature comfort. Keeping up these changes doesn’t require any effort for us, they’re just normal now.

If you’re playing along at home…

..what are some structural changes you could make that will permanently reduce your emissions without compromising your lifestyle? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Turn Off Pilot Lights

Our home currently has three gas appliances: the stove, the ducted heating, and the continuous hot water system. We’re focusing on other projects around the house first, which means that we haven’t got the budget available to replace these with electric versions.

The easiest – and cheapest – way that we could find to make an immediate difference here was to turn off the pilot light for the hot water system. There is a flame that burns continually, and the system increases the flow of gas as water is being used, so for 24 hours each day we were using gas.

When we looked at our water usage, leaving the hot water system turned on didn’t make much sense. There are four people living in the house, and between us we might spend at most half an hour using the water to shower and wash the dishes. That means for more than 23 hours each day we were burning gas for no point whatsoever.

Gas water heater

Our system is inside on the laundry wall, so we don’t have to go outside to use it. There is a button to press to turn it off and you have to press a whopping two buttons to turn it back on. The final button allows it to heat up to the set temperature. It’s a remarkably simple system and takes only a few seconds to set.

Beyond the bigger climate picture and our gas bill, turning off the pilot light is important because this is carbon that was being emitted inside our house. Carbon levels above 1,000 parts per million (ppm) can have adverse effects on human health, ranging from headaches and difficulty concentrating in the short term to changes in bone density and body metabolism in the long term. That might sound like a high number – outside levels for September were 408.55 ppm at the Mauna Loa observatory – but levels can easily pass 1,000 ppm inside closed environments such as offices, classrooms and homes.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have any pilot lights that you can turn off when they aren’t in use? Please share in the comments below ways that you have reduced passive fossil fuel use around your home.

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.