Small fixes make for big energy savings

November 07, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Environmental issues, such as acid rain and global warming, are often too immense in scope to identify with on a personal level. Suppose, for example, you learn that the carbon emissions from oil, coal and natural gas energy sources in 1989 totaled 5,764 tons. Obviously that's a lot of toxic glop ascending into the atmosphere, much of it from power plants and smokestack industries. Individually, what are the rest of us supposed to do about it? We don't own power plants and steel mills, right?

Then consider this: A 1/16th-inch gap between a 3-foot-by-5-foot window frame and the siding on your house is the equivalent of a hole in the wall 1 foot square. According to the Earthworks Group of Berkeley, Calif., the tiny gaps and cracks around windows and doors of an average American house equal a hole measuring 3 feet by 3 feet. That's like leaving a window open year-round, while the furnace and the air conditioner -- both of which rely on fossil fuels that contribute to that huge carbon emission figure above -- work to keep up. On average, about 15 percent of the energy used to heat your home is wasted because of such little gaps.

Now that the home heating season is upon us, think about that. Fifteen percent wasted at your home, your next-door neighbor's home, all the homes on your block, in your subdivision, in your state. And think about this: 15 percent of your home heating bill goes to pay for heating the great outdoors.

The solution? A $2 tube of silicone caulk.

Savings? Nationwide -- in terms of lower heating and cooling costs; in terms of reduced toxic emissions from the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fuel; in terms of acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming -- astronomical. In terms of your own heating bill? Fifteen percent right off the top.

The truth is, environmental issues come home to roost in seemingly minor ways around the house.

Take a dripping faucet, for example. Say it drips at the rate of a quart an hour. No big deal? That's 6 gallons a day, 2,190 gallons a year. That's a lot of water down the drain. And whether the water to your home comes from a municipal water supply or a well, that's water you pay for because somewhere an electric pump -- which gets its energy from a power plant -- is running to bring it to you.

Solution? A 50-cent washer from the hardware store or a new dripless faucet for, say, $50 to $100 that will pay for itself in a year or two at most and make you feel better to boot.

About a third of the more than 12,000 gallons of water used by every man, woman and child in this country every year gets flushed. The old brick-in-the-toilet tank trick can help. But because a waterlogged brick can flake and chip and clog up the plumbing, a better idea is to fill a 1-liter plastic or glass soda bottle with water and submerge it in the toilet tank. Savings: slightly more than a quart a flush, multiplied by, typically, four flushes a day per household member. In a four-person household, that amounts to just over 1,542 gallons a year.

Another no-cost, water-saving solution: Reach under the kitchen sink and the bathroom sinks and turn down the valves that control the flow of water to the faucets. Experiment. Do it gradually until you find just the right compromise between reducing the volume and having enough flow and force to make washing your hands or filling the sink comfortable. (There's a safety issue here, too. Cutting the flow of water to a hot-water faucet reduces the chances of a youngster getting scalded.)

Want to cut the cost of hot-water heating? A $20 insulating blanket from the home-improvement store can reduce your hot water heater's energy consumption by 10 percent.

That may not seem so significant in and of itself. But such minor savings have a way of adding up. In Chicago, for example, a 10 percent reduction in the city government's electric bill for 1988 would have amounted to $3.8 million -- taxpayer dollars.Little things mean a lot

Clearly, we all want to help save water, save energy, save money and protect the earth. But many of us may believe that our contributions to the effort are too minor to matter. But not so. As Chris Calwell of the Natural Resource Defense Council wrote in the preface to the book "The Next Step: 50 More Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" (Andrews and McMeel): "Small actions don't seem so small when millions of people are doing them at the same time."

Fortunately, taking action to curb our home's appetite for energy and water, as well as its potential for making waste, is easier than ever.

And most retrofit improvements -- more insulation, weather-stripping, storm windows and so on -- pay for themselves in about four years on average.

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