Category Archives: Experiment

Use Less with Smarter Controls

In general, to reduce the footprint of a resource I look at the following strategies:

Smarter control is really a means to reduce demand or increase efficiency, but I like calling it out as it forces me to think of new areas of improvement. Smart controls avoid the use of resources when they are not needed because of real-time environmental conditions, they allow remote or automatic control, give you more fine-grained options on how to use a resource, and can even learn your behaviors and nudge you into less demand. The difference between a control and just a sensor/meter is that it does stuff.

Examples of some controls I have installed:

Gas & Electricity: Nest Programmable Thermostat

Nest Controllable Thermostat

Nest Thermostat

This is the energetic rockstar of my house, and a design beacon for the growing industry of smart controllers. Based on my data, I can attribute an approximate 20% on heating gas savings this last winter to this device alone. It has been the item with the highest energetic ROI-per-dollar in my house since. The Nest thermostat allows me to control my heating remotely via my phone, learns common patterns, turns of unnecessary heating, and nudges my behavior via little ‘green leaf’ icons and monthly points I can accumulate, gamefying my energy conservation. It’s worked so well it will get a bunch of blog posts on its own.
Nest’s website

See the Nest thermostat and reviews on Amazon.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving Outlet

Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving OutletThis smart power strip senses if a ‘master’ outlet is being used, and if not, shuts off the power to most other outlets. I use this strip  to reduce “phantom draw” from peripheral devices around my computer, for example. USB Hubs, speakers, and other accessories are all plugged into the secondary/slave plugs. When I take my laptop away or it is not drawing power from the source, all these devices loose their source power within a few seconds.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Outlet with Timer

This small plug adapter from Belkin has a built-in timer that can be set to 1/2, 3 or 6 hours. Press the button, and the outlet will deliver power for that long. It’s that simple. I use this for:

  • My external monitors. In addition to the power strip above, it just turns all of them off every 3 hours. If I’m in the middle of something I just click them back on. The timer also takes care of external monitors when the computers’ driver for some reason or other forgets putting them to sleep
  • A power strip that feeds to electronics I rarely use but for some reason tend to stay on like printers.
  • Our home theater assembly. After 3 hours, it turns all the gear off (except a network switch and a Roku, which are fanless solid-state devices that draw a few watts combined combined). I also plugged the Xbox is also on a non-timed outlet, for long downloads to continue independently, but the Xbox is pretty good about turning itself off when it should.

Water: Timed/Regulated Watering

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation.

I’m on the fence on this one, but I’ll include it as it touches upon using smarter controls for water conservation.

I am not a fan of using mains water for irrigation and I believe automated timers have done more harm than good in conserving water (I haven’t seen data either way, but it’s a strong hunch), even with the growing popularity of drip irrigation. Anyways, I recently wired some solenoids (water taps that can be controlled via electricity, in this case 24v) on a couple of irrigation lines and hooked them up to a timer device. It stays off and we use it as a manually activated timer on seldom occasions. If I could hook it up to soil humidity sensors I would feel better about leaving them in automatic. I guess this “Smart control” isn’t so smart yet. Maybe it will be an Arduino project for a rainy weekend to improve this. It rains so often here that capturing some of that would make the most sense.

Another example of a smart control for water conservation would be those simple toilet-flushing buttons that give you two options to use more or less water based on what needs to be flushed. It’s simple but I haven’t installed these yet.

Conclusion

Smart controls can help us reduce consumption and increase efficiency. Sometimes they may seem expensive but if you make sure to  keep measuring your gains you may be surprised! There are many other ways to reduce, reuse and conserve resources that don’t require you to buy anything, but these controls are an example of technology playing a good role in helping improve our lives and the planet.

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Practicalities of testing your LED bulbs

Here are my tips for the logistics of testing many LED bulbs as you find the light that works for you:

Purchasing & Returning LED lights

  • Plan to test many bulbs. Return the losers, keep the winners. Don’t feel shy about returning items you don’t want. LEDs in bulk can be an investment, and everyone would rather get a return of 1 or 3 bulbs one week after, not 30 a month later.
  • Easy returns implies getting them from a brick-and-mortar store nearby, if possible. Try to re-use trips to the store and back.
  • Buy many bulbs of the same type you are trying to replace, and test them shortly one after the other. It’s hard to remember “what something looked like a week ago”. Buy some with a bit of variation – for example, buy a bulb that is slightly brighter and another one slightly dimmer than the one you are trying to replace.
  • Keep the boxes and packaging materials of all the bulbs you are testing – even when committing to one particular brand or model, I kept the box around for a few days just in case. You don’t want to be stuck with $25 items you don’t want.
  • Likewise, keep the receipts if needed. Home Depot will allow you to return items by just swiping the same credit card you used to buy them.

Testing LED lights at home

  • Test in the actual location where you want to see the bulbs work – e.g. in your living room ceiling, not in a bulb receptacle at eye level in the garage.
  • Keep the new bulbs installed for a couple of days. Test at day and night, so you get to the point when you are not thinking about it or looking at it on purpose.
  • Check in with your spouse and family about the conclusions. They may feel differently about what’s better.

Changing big spot recessed lights

How do you get started with lowering your energy use?

First you want to look around your house at how you use lights today. The goal is to find which are the lights that are on most of the time because they are places you occupy as you go around your day (night), or because they leave a useful utility light. Spending a lot of money changing a bulb on a room you don’t use every day isn’t going to do much versus a place you occupy.

You also want to note which lights or circuits have the highest power bulbs. Watts-reduced-per-dollar, it will be cheaper to change a 120W bulb for a 18W for $28  (3.6 W/$) than to change two 60W for two 10W bulbs at 2 * $19 (2.6 W/$)

For my first batch of changes, I was able to replace a bunch of 90 W halogens and Incandescent lights in “roof cans”. These were typically in studies, hallways or other areas which tended to stay on.

After some experiments – and many returns – I ended up replacing them with three sort of bulbs mostly:

1) A study ended up getting an Ecosmart Bright White Flood (24W,3000K). The “hotter” temperature leads to “cooler” (bluish) colors which was OK for the modern look of the study. The study also has a dimmable standing lamp which has 2700K bulbs which can be used for a subdued lighting if needed. (Home Depot – although my packaging was different, they came in a box- and can’t find them on Amazon!)

 2) Lights in hallways, walk-in closets and the laundry room ended up being replaced by the EcoSmart 14-Watt  BR30 LED Flood Light Bulb (Home Depot, didn’t find them on Amazon but these seem to be the same with a different brand). They seem brighter than an incandescent 90W, have a simple plain look when off, and are very bright, and are 2700K, which makes for natural light in the walk in closets and hallways. They were very bright, and the light was not so ‘directed’. They do take almost a second to turn on, which throws you off the first week or so, but then you get used to it.

3) A bunch of 90W halogen lamps ended up getting replaced by Ecosmart 9.5W lamps with the full enclosure (not shown in the picture). They were also very nice looking when on and off, are 2700K, and extremely easy to install – just adjust the distance of the “lip” to the bulb screw, and screw the whole thing in like a large lightbulb. It may take two tries if you are unlucky, but no tools or skills are needed. The enclosure also helps decrease air drafts that reduce your home’s heating/cooling efficiency; and modernize the look of the light fixture.

With these changes, I easily got rid of around 1000W of potential use with around 130W. The lamps were costly – especially the ones with the full enclosure, but in the long run still worth it.


Question, Research, Experiment, Measure

Reducing footprints is hard, especially because a lot of the information, criteria and end results are hard to know, or unknowable.

You can measure things that are at-hand – such as your own electricity consumption-, via sensors, meters, or even subjective gut-feel scoring, but you cannot really measure or quantify values such as the carbon footprint of your utility company, and you cannot verify yourself the business practices of Phillips’ suppliers in China other than by some google searches.

In any case, you want to take a fact-based approach to reducing your footprint.

Here is the cycle I’m going to be using throughout this blog:

 Question

Asking what should change, why and how.

Research

Finding out information first hand, through the Internet, or from experts.

Experiment

Try stuff out in deliberate ways.

Measure

See if what you tried changed anything.

Hopefully by separating these thinking areas the whole effort of reducing the footprint becomes more approachable.