Motivating Myself with Scarcity and Bribery

water pumpOur landlord finally replaced our water heater a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the installer used a lot of PVC glue, which is one of the nastiest smelling substances in the world. Besides stinking up the air, it also leached into our water and we decided not to drink any until the taste disappeared.

For about a week we filled jugs of water at other houses and brought it home. Having a limited supply made me much more conscious of how much water I use. Knowing that the tap flows at 2 gallons per minute is somehow not as meaningful as seeing the water level drop in a 1-gallon jug. It was also sobering to know I had to haul more water to the house instead of just turning on the tap.

While I don’t want to suggest we go back to the times of carrying water from the local well, I wonder if there’s a way to have that resource-consciousness without having a limited supply. One idea would be to install a meter to actually measure our real-time water usage. How much water does it really take to run the dishwasher? I can look it up in a chart but it would be way more convincing to see our storage tank draining or even see a dial spinning.

What if the meter also told how much it costs to use that water? I’m sure it wouldn’t be as dramatic as electricity or gasoline but I might be a little more conscientious about dishwashing. On the other hand, gasoline prices keep rising but I’m not sure it’s changing people’s behaviors all that much. Will maintains that it changes people’s behaviors in the long-term; people look for jobs with a shorter commute, look for cars with better gas mileage, and think twice about taking long driving vacations. However, most people have not changed their day-to-day activities and are still willing to drive to the grocery store four times a week because it’s convenient and it doesn’t cost *that* much money. Hopefully those larger habit changes will come as part of a societal shift, when we all start counting car trips as special occasions like plane flights as opposed to counting them as just part of our every day routine.

I know I don’t conserve diesel as well as I could. It is something I can monitor closely and associate with a direct price ($0.09/mile just for fuel) but I still haven’t made huge changes. So what is the key? For me, I think it comes back to the idea of scarcity. My new idea is to fill up my tank at the beginning of the month and see if I can make it last.  I’m also going to throw in a dose of bribery.  Each month I will set aside $40 (about a tank’s worth of fuel) in an “emergency” fuel fund. If I run out of fuel, I can use that money to refill my tank, but if I I can make that first tank last, I get to spend the $40 on a massage or a fancy dinner or some other special treat.

I still love the idea of being able to measure my use of water – and electricity – in real-time. I think it would be fascinating to do some experiments (is it better to turn the thermostat down lower at night or do I end up using more energy reheating the house in the morning?) and also get a better idea of what behavior changes would really make the most difference. And I might make some huge changes like the folks in North Carolina who dramatically cut their water usage in times of drought last summer. But I still think scarcity is the strongest motivator I know of, followed closely by bribery.

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8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Linnea said,

    April 3, 2008 @ 8:02 am

    I’ve had my car for about two weeks now, and I’ve driven maybe four times? Granted, here in Seattle we have another incentive: parking. I only have to move my car every three days (or less often, if they don’t chalk my tires), so when I found a fantastic parking spot about a block from my apartment… I stopped driving 🙂 Unless I really need to, of course. And that’s what it’s really all about.

    Chad went to a green design forum yesterday, and I wish I could find the website for you… Basically, a bunch of graphic (and probably other media) designers got together and talked about what they could do to make their industry more sustainable. It’s funny to think about green graphic design, since there’s so much paper waste and nasty adhesive and spray paint and having four computers running at once. But apparently graphic designers up in these parts are really making an effort to mitigate that. I’ll pass along the website as soon as I find it…

  2. 2

    Dana said,

    April 3, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    Mark and I had the house we’re hoping to buy inspected earlier this week. I was so excited to discover that it’s only 4 miles from my office, instead of 21! (I’d never done the drive between them before.) Of course, given that the job I had before that was 1 mile from my apartment, and I could walk there on a regular basis, this still seems like a comedown. In any case, I still felt very guilty about all the driving I’ve been doing since I got the new job, and it’ll be a relief to move.

    However, another thing we learned during the inspection was that turning the thermostat down during the day/night to conserve energy only works for certain kinds of heating units. Our house will have an electric heat pump/AC unit, and the inspector told us that if we vary the thermostat by more than a few degrees during the day, only to switch it back later, it will waste far more electricity trying to re-regulate the temperature to the new setting than we would have saved by turning it down. (Sadly, there is no gas line even running into the house.)

    I thought I had recently heard about some kind of personal water meter people could use in the house to monitor their own water usage, but I’m not finding anything obvious by googling yet, beyond a concept design.

  3. 3

    Maggie said,

    April 5, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    Bloomington has pretty easy parking, which I’m mostly thankful for but it does take a way a motivator! I’m getting better about parking my car downtown and then walking around to do multiple errands, though.

    Greening the graphic design industry would be a huge project. I’ve heard of similar movements in the computer industry. So much to change!

    Dana, let me know if you track down that personal water meter. I’d also love to hear details about when it makes sense to turn your heat down at night. That seems like one of those things that should be a no-brainer but I am just not sure what the right answer is.

  4. 4

    Dana said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

    The thing about not turning down the heat during the night or when you are out is only relevant to heat pumps. According to our inspector, these are far more common in the south, so they may not even exist in IN. From this website, an explanation (scroll down):

    “MYTH: If you turn down your thermostat at night or when you are gone, you will use more energy to warm up the house again than what you saved.
    FACT: You always save by turning down your thermostat no matter how long you will be gone. The one exception is an electric heat pump. When you turn it up in the morning, the electric back-up elements kick on to bring the house up to temperature faster.”

    It’s the electric back-up elements that burn through electricity like nobody’s business. For houses with a regular furnace, it’s always fine. That particular website also notes: “You can purchase a special setback thermostat that compensates for this and will provide savings.” Unfortunately, they don’t provide any information on what kind of special thermostat is needed, so that’s something Mark and I will have to check on.

  5. 5

    Will said,

    April 8, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

    Heat pumps are very popular in IN, especially geothermal heat pumps. There are several incentives for geothermal heat pumps, so they make a lot of financial sense around here (more than windmills and solar, especially).

    A geothermal heat pump is either an electric heat pump or a gas heat pump that has a long length of pipe 3-6 feet below ground and 400-600 feet long or 150-450 feet down and a couple feet wide (depending on how deep you can dig). Around here, there’s often limestone right below the surface, so it’s only cost-effective to go horizontal.

    Basically, the geothermal heat pump works the same way as an electric/gas heat pump except that it pre-heats the air with water that’s been heated to 58 degrees just by being insulated by the ground.

    You can do something similar with water heaters, so you’re heating water that starts at 58 degrees instead of whatever temperature it is when it’s pumped into the house.

    Anyway, long story short, you and Mark should look into a geothermal heat pump too.

  6. 6

    Dana said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    Will: That’s very interesting. I suspect, though, that we’ll look into replacing the roof, getting the foundation fixed, and making sure the house is properly waterproofed/sealed before we look at replacing the existing heating system, esp. since it is the same as the A/C, so we would effectively have to replace them both. I’ll look into whether it’s a possible solution in NC, though. And if it’s likely that your house will have a heat pump there in IN, you should make sure you’re not still running into the problem with the electric back-up strips wasting too much electricity, because it doesn’t necessarily sound like having a geothermal system changes that aspect of the way heat pumps work.

  7. 7

    Will said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

    Sure. A geothermal heat pump works with the AC as well (it cools the outside air down toward the 58 degree temperatures underground).

    I don’t think we’re running a heat pump (and we’re definitely not running a geothermal heat pump) at our current place, but I’ll look into it.

  8. 8

    Review Heat Pumps said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    Heat pumps are they way to go. I always end up changing to high energy bulbs when old ones burn out. I am still up in the air over whether or not replacing perfectly working systems, like your heat and a/c for a heat pump, is worth it if you destroy something that works fine. Just like the car rebate program from the gov, destroying 10’s of thousands of 4500 dollar trade ins just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. It is more consumerism then environmentalism, and they try to fly the flag of green.

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