Water heating is a tankless job

An outdoor showerMy abstract thinking about a tankless water heater became more concrete recently when we realized that our (25-year old) water heater was broken. Not just broken, in fact, it was actively spraying water all over the crawlspace. The bad news is that it took us several weeks to realize. The good news is that the crawlspace has excellent drainage, since the water didn’t seem to stay. According to the water company, we used 66,000 gallons of water (usually, we use 1-2 thousand), so we’re glad it didn’t back up! We’re also dreading our water bill.

In the meantime, we had a plumber come out and make a quick $100 fix to the leak. The water heater still didn’t work because of a broken temperature breaker, so Maggie short-circuited it. It works well enough now, we just have to keep the water heater off at the main breaker so that it doesn’t overheat. The part is relatively cheap and easy to replace, but since the current water heater is so old, we decided to see how much it would cost to have it replaced.

Two weeks of phone calls to the plumber later and we finally had an estimate. They said that it would cost $800 to replace the current one with a new electric tank and that there was no such thing as a whole-house electric tankless water heater. $800 seems like a lot and I was pretty sure I’d seen the apparently mythical electric tankless versions, so I did some digging.

It turns out that the natural gas tankless water heaters can give a much better flow rate than electric ones. I’ve seen natural gas tankless run up to 10 gallons per minute with a 55-degree temperature change. Electric ones seem to peak at around 4 gallons per minute.

Still, 4 gallons per minute seems reasonable to me, so I’m not sure why the plumber thought it was impossible. We only really use hot water for showers and doing dishes (and we rarely do those at the same time). A standard shower fixture uses 2.5 gpm and a sink uses about the same, so that would be pushing things somewhat. Of course, the result would just be slightly cooler water, which wouldn’t be terrible either.

And if we got a low-flow showerhead and a sink aerator, we could reduce that to 1.5 gpm and 0.5 gpm respectively. That’s only 2 gpm, which would only require a middle-of-the-road tankless water heater.

Even if we got a dishwasher, we’d only need 3 gpm to make sure it would get hot water. It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal to avoid taking showers while washing dishes, especially since we only wash dishes once or twice a week.

Or maybe I’m deluding myself and it would it be unbearably annoying to start a shower and then have it get colder as Maggie starts up our (hypothetical) dishwasher. Guests might come over and be devastated that the water got colder when they took a shower at the same time (in different showers, for those of you with dirty minds).

Another possibility is that Maggie and I just don’t use as much hot water as a usual household, so an electric tankless would work perfectly for us. How much hot water do you all use at once? More than a shower and a faucet? I’d love to hear from you to see if our water usage is really that unusual.

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Greener links

Logo for Consumer Reports\' Greener Choices websiteAs part of making the house move-in ready, I’ve done a lot of research into efficiency and appliances. I’ve already shared one of my favorite sites with some, but I’ll post them here as well in case anyone else is in a similar situation.

The most generally interesting site is Greener Choices, which is run by Consumer Reports. It has the same great, in-depth information as the normal CR site plus information on energy consumption. Even better, all of the content is free! I’m seriously impressed that Consumer Reports is making their green information available for free in an attempt to help people figure out how to reduce their environmental impact. Kudos to them!

The Lawrence Berkeley national lab (LBL) has some great information as well. Their web-based do-it-yourself energy audit tool (the first, according to them) gives a great overview of what could improve your house’s energy profile in a cost-effective way. You do have enter in a lot of basic information, but you end up with a list of changes that you can make, what impact they’ll have, and how long they’ll take to pay back in your cirucmstances. I like that they take into account that everyone’s situation is a little different, so the right move to make will differ from person to person.For those who’d rather get some information right away, LBL also has some great numbers on energy costs for appliances. The numbers provided aren’t exact, because there is some variety within a category and electricity costs vary across the nation, but they give a good comparison between types. This page also provides the approximate cost per use in addition to a monthly and annual cost. That’s very useful when looking at something like a microwave that isn’t on all the time.

If you’ve got any websites that you visit when looking at energy usage, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more information.

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Energy detective

Detective silhouetteEver since I learned that a 3 kWh a day lifestyle is achievable, I’ve been very curious as to our current usage. Since everything we have is electric (and much of the 3 kWh number is based on offloading things like heating to natural gas), I thought I’d have to wait until we actually moved.

Then I got this month’s electrical bill and realized that it’s about as good as it’ll get anywhere. We obviously didn’t use any heat this month but we also didn’t use much, if any, cooling. Given that, the only significant difference between here and the house is that here we have an electric stove. However, I think we use the stove for about half an hour a day (on average), which only adds up to 1 kWh a day, so that’s pretty easy to adjust for.

This month, we used 200 kWh over 28 days. That’s a little over 7 kWh (modified to 6 if we take off the electricity for the stove), which is about twice my eventual goal. That still seemed like a lot, so I decided to track down where all of that electricity is going.

Least surprising to me is that our refrigerator uses up to 3 kWh a day (50% of our presumptive housing number!). The refrigerator at the house only uses 2 kWh a day, which will help some as well. A new EnergyStar refrigerator can use as little as 1 kWh a day, so there’s room for improvement there as well.

So now we’re down to 3 kWh a day that are unaccounted for. The next things I thought of were basic appliances that we run intermittently, like the dishwasher, washer, and dryer. We haven’t used our dryer this month (hooray clotheslines!), but we wash dishes and clothes about once a week. That puts the dishwasher at about 0.3 kWh a day and the washing machine at 0.5 kWh a day. More efficient appliances would help some, but since we run them so infrequently, they’re not big culprits.

That puts us at 2.2 kWh a day that disappear into the unknown. I thought it might primarily be lighting, but that would be enough to run our lightbulbs for 110 hours a day, which seems unreasonable. It’s hard to estimate light usage, but I think we use about 24 light-hours a day (since mostly lights are off during the day and while we’re asleep and Maggie and I tend to stay in the same room and use one light in the evening). That’s only 0.1 kWh a day (thanks, CFLs!).

Not much of a change, but we’re down to 2.1 kWh. There are some other appliances that we use occasionally, like a microwave and clock radio, but they probably use less than a tenth of a kWh each, so that still only brings us down to 1.9 kWh. If we didn’t have most of our appliances on power strips, I’m sure that phantom power would increase this number considerably.

Oh, computers, of course. Maggie and I both have laptops. She uses hers about half an hour a day (at least, at home) and I leave mine on about 10.5 hours a day. With an average useage of 30 watts (based on 45 watts when in use and 10 watts hibernating), that comes out to a third of a kWh a day.

Well, 1.6 kWh is better but is still a lot of “black” energy. In fact, it’s 26% of our presumptive electrical use! If it takes you less than a day to figure out where that energy is going, you’ve got me beat. I’ll give you a minute to think about it.


The culprit appears to be our hot water heater. It’s stuck in a closet and we never think about it except when it’s not working and yet it’s using half as much energy as a refrigerator! It would be even more except that Maggie and I use it infrequently (especially in the summer). The EnergyStar sticker on the side says that it’ll use 4773 kWh a year, which is over 13 kWh a day! Obviously, the sticker is way overestimating (and we’re using less hot water than the typical family), but that’s still a lot. Even though it’s “only” using 1.6 kWh or so now, when the weather is cooler and it has to work harder and more often, I bet it uses at least as much energy as our refrigerator (which will be working less hard in the winter, so this is about as bad as it should get).

A tankless water heater is looking better and better! A conservative estimate would put the tankless water heater at about half the electricity as an electric tank water heater. That still puts us well over 3 kWh a day, but add in a better refrigerator and we’re starting to get somewhere!

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Creating an electrical budget

Electricity meterI apologize for the lack of a post last night. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep. It’s been a crazy couple of days, with work stress, the sleeping schedule that won’t regulate, and–oh yeah–we got a house and are slowly tearing it down.

At least, that’s what it feels like. Maggie and I have spent several evenings over there working until it got dark (we have the electricity off). We’ve peeled off most of the wallpaper, some of the trim, and two sections of wood panelling. Underneath is plaster, so we’re going to have to figure out what you can do with that. Paint it? Wallpaper over it?

On Wednesday, we took a break from tearing things apart to do some electrical baselining (that’s a word, right?). I’ve complained before about how difficult it is to figure out where our electricity is going. Starting from scratch gives us a unique chance to do just that.

I think this is a great opportunity to make great strides with our electrical use. Several years back, when I first took control of my finances, my first move was to track exactly where my money was going. That information helped me decide where to focus my efforts for the biggest gains. In my case, I wasn’t able to do much about my rent, but I was able to cancel cable and cut my car insurance by two thirds without feeling like I was sacrificing much.

I’m hoping that creating a baseline for our electrical use will help out in much the same way. To get started, we went around the house and unplugged everything (including the refrigerator and built-in microwave). The meter was still turning, so we started flipping breakers off until we found what we’d missed in the first go-through (an exterior safety light and a sub-panel that goes to the electric water heater).

Now that we’re sure we have no shorts in the system, we can start plugging things back in and see what our base load is. Since most of our appliances are powered by natural gas, I expect it’ll be relatively low. Our biggest power draws will be the refrigerator (according to GE’s information on the model, it’ll use about 700 kWh a year) and the water heater (I have no idea yet).

From there, we can add stuff to the system and see how it affects power consumption. For example, we can turn on all the lights and see how much more electricity that uses than having no lights on. Or, we can run the microwave and see how much electricity it takes to make soup.

Once we’ve got a good month’s worth of data, we can figure out which changes will give us the most bang for the least work.

But first, we’ll have to finish redoing the front room so that we can actually move in!

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Learning through feedback

Two Wattson unitsAs a game designer, I deal with the importance of feedback every day. Without feedback, games quickly become annoying, frustrating, or boring. If you start losing a game without being told why, you’ll quickly give up.

Research shows that feedback is just as important in real life, and the more immediate the better. Think about it a little and it makes sense. To improve, you have to know when you’re doing something wrong. If it takes a week (or a month or a year) to learn that you could have been doing better, it’ll take you a lot longer to improve (if you can even remember what you were doing wrong).

I think that’s one reason that people have trouble reducing their environmental impact. There’s no feedback when you buy organic instead of factory farmed (apart from some negative feedback on cost). When driving your car, you don’t get much feedback on how much gas you’re using until you have fill up again. Your electrical usage is basically invisible until the end of the month when you get your bill.

That’s why I love these new gadgets I see popping up that give you minute-by-minute updates on how you’re doing. Yeah, it can be distracting to see an instant mpg, but at least you’ll know when you’re doing well. That’s also why like the Kill-A-Watt appeals to me.

Of course, the problem with the Kill-A-Watt is that it only measures one device at a time and you have to be pretty close to see it. A group of psychologists ran an experiment where they hooked an ambient orb up to some people’s electrical usage. It glowed blue when usage was low and red when usage was high. With that change alone, people had instant feedback on how much extra energy it took to cool their house another degree versus turning on another fan. Over three months, just having that feedback reduced their energy usage by 50%!

Unfortunately, the ambient orb doesn’t connect to your electrical system by default. That’s where the Wattson comes in. The Wattson is like a whole house Kill-A-Watt that glows and tells you how much your electrical use is costing (or is costing the environment, in terms of CO2. The base unit is portable and runs on 5 watts of power, while an external wireless device hooks up to your electrical meter. The only drawback is that it’s UK-only (and costs about $300).

There are cheaper devices, like the Efergy (less than $100), but all the ones I’ve found have been for the UK. Where are the US versions? The cheapest way to make your life more sustainable is to reduce, so why are US companies focused more on things like solar panels than things like the Wattson?

Since I can’t get one here, maybe I’ll start recording my energy usage like I record my budget, by just going through once a day and recording my expenditures.

Do any of you have any cool methods of feedback that you use to help keep you on track? I’d love to hear about them!

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A Laundry List

Drying rack and hanging shirtsIt’s been a little over a month since we started air-drying our clothes and it’s going pretty well although it hasn’t worked quite like I expected. Student Doctor Green has covered the biggest issue, but I’ve learned a lot of other little things too.

  1. Shirts take up a lot of space on a drying rack, so it’s much better to put them on hangers and hang them from something
  2. Our free-standing porch swing makes a perfect something
  3. Men’s underwear is a LOT bigger than women’s underwear
  4. Things dry faster out in the sun than inside (although the humidity might change that soon)
  5. I have a lot of socks
  6. Luckily, you can fit a lot of socks on one line
  7. With a portable drying rack, I can grab it and rush inside as soon as rain threatens (which has been an issue given our recent flooding)
  8. I wash smaller loads when I have to put them all on a rack, but the environmental detergent works better with the smaller loads anyway so I think I’m still coming out ahead
  9. It takes more effort to use a drying rack than the dryer, but I make some of that back because my clothes are easier to fold and put away when they’re already hanging
  10. A nice breeze dries things faster; a big wind blows everything over (not that I would be silly enough to put out laundry on a windy day…)

So basically, a drying rack is cheap, doesn’t have too many drawbacks, and is simple enough that I haven’t been able to seriously mess things up yet!

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The Crunchy Chicken Extreme Eco-Challenge

Extrme Eco Challenge - Crunchy Chicken It’s almost May and it’s time to decide whether or not Will and I are going to accept Crunchy Chicken’s Extreme Eco Challenge. She is a blogger like us who leads a pretty normal life but is working to make life a little greener. One of her favorite methods for greening the world is creating challenges for her readers. This winter she offered the Freeze Yer Buns challenge asking folks to lower their thermostats and this month she’s running a Buy Nothing Challenge. Next on the agenda is a hardcore eco-throwdown.

There are seven options, increasing in difficulty. According to the rules, participants may have one day off a week (sorta like Lent, depending on which teachings you follow). Here they are along with some of my thoughts.

1. No plastic (don’t buy or consume anything in plastic). I initially had visions of starving to death. No tubs or shrink wrap or produce bags or bread bags, which means no frozen food, no cheese, no condiments… Will told me I was being melodramatic and with a little more thought I realized it was manageable. But definitely challenging.

2. No paper products. This seems easier to me except for three items: my calendar, my notebook, and toilet paper. I have been experimenting with a TP-free method but so far I’m not ready for a total switch. Hmmmm.

3. No driving. Will says he would happily do this and let me chauffeur him but I told him I didn’t think that would count. Actually, he would have very little trouble giving up his car but I use mine almost daily to commute to work and to field trips that are not accessible via bus. I’m sure I could cut back my usage dramatically but I couldn’t go car-free. And we do have a driving vacation planned at the end of the month that involves his brother’s wedding…

4. Local food only. I’m thinking about trying this challenge in July but right now we’d be eating an awful lot of eggs and salad greens. I also think that eating 100% locally is too extreme and it makes more sense to shoot for a diet that’s about 80% local so you can still enjoy other cuisines and foods that simply don’t grow where you are. But maybe I’m just a wus. 🙂

5. No garbage output (compost and recyclables only). This is a noble goal but it seems pretty unattainable. No waste at all? There are pieces of trash like candy wrappers that literally just appear in our yard. And there are a few things I’m not sure will ever be recyclable or reusable. Used dental floss? Sticky labels from produce? I think we already do pretty well minimizing our trash. Still, I’m sure if we took up the challenge we could find a few more areas of waste to trim.

6. No excessive water usage (drink as much as you want but use a bare minimum for bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, etc).
This actually sounds easier than some of the others although I do enjoy long hot showers and using the automatic washing machine. And if I took Crunchy Chicken’s advice and really thought about what it would be like to haul in all the water I use from a stream, I’m sure I could cut back on my usage dramatically.

7. No electricity (you can leave your fridge on if you must). There are three big challenges for this one. One is heat, which we could probably do without in May. One is cooking, since we have an electric stove and oven, although I guess if necessary we could eat cold food most of the week. And the last is computers. Will really needs his for work and he works from home most of the time. So maybe we could do a modified version with an allowance for computer use for work only. Oh, and it would suck a lot to not have hot water. But maybe I would be motivated enough to procure a solar shower bag. And I’m sure we’d find a whole new set of ways to entertain ourselves in the evenings without electricity.

Which one should we try? Which one would YOU try? Or has this crossed over into the realm of crazy crunchy eco-extremists? Let us know quick – May 1st is just around the corner!

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Earthquake bad, avalanche worse

Loveland Pass - a dangerous place for avalanchesEarthquakes are bad enough, but Juneau, Alaska’s recent experience makes me glad I don’t have to worry about avalanches. With their hydro power out of commission for three months, Juneau’s electrical rates jumped from $0.11/kWh to $0.50/kWh. That’s almost 5 times as much! Imagine having to spend 5 times your electrical bill in May as you did at the beginning of April. For me and Maggie, that means we’d be spending something like $500, almost as much as our rent!

Luckily, it’s spring, so people can start turning the heat down and cooking outside. Even so, it’s hard not to hear a little bit of panic when people ask for help cutting electrical usage. Could you reduce your electrical use to 20% of what it was last month in two weeks? I know I couldn’t. That doesn’t even being to consider the plight of businesses in the area. They might not be able to considerably reduce their use of electricity and still produce anything.

Diversity is important. When Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh when I was younger, we didn’t have electricity for weeks. However, we did have a gas range, which meant that we could heat water for quick showers, cook, and heat the kitchen pretty easily. If we’d depended entirely on electricity, it would have been much harder for us. We were also lucky in that the local univerisity (NCSU) has their own nuclear generator, so they didn’t lose power and were willing to share their hot water with us.

This is one of the reasons I really like alternative sources of power. Sure, you might not be able to get 100% of your electricity from a wind turbine or a small set of solar panels, but even a little bit of energy production would allow you to better weather these sorts of emergencies. A small turbine producing 20% of your max use of electricity would let you cut back to just the necessities if grid-based power becomes too expensive. Small, local energy production would also get you through brown-outs just fine.

Another interesting aspect to the story is that $0.50/kWh is what rural Alaskans already pay. Somehow, they’re able to make it work. Obviously, the sudden shocking change makes it difficult for residents of Juneau, but it seems like they could make the adjustment if necessary.

Perhaps the rest of us should pretend that electricity is slowly getting more expensive. That’ll reduce the sticker shock that’s affecting folks in Juneau right now. We can also put the difference between the actual price and the Juneau price into a savings account and use it to reduce our consumption with better appliances or other sources of electricity. If something terrible happens, like an avalanche or earthquake or peak oil, you’ll be okay. If nothing terrible happens, you’ll still have reduced your reliance on conventional electricity, saving you money and maybe, just a little, the planet.

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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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Earth Hour – Turning Off The Lights For One Night

Light switchOur mayor just announced that Bloomington will participate in Earth Hour 2008 on March 29. Earth Hour, run by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), is a global climate change initiative that calls on individuals and businesses around the world to turn off their lights for one hour on Saturday between 8 and 9 pm. The city public works department is planning to shut off all the “non-essential lighting and other electricity-consuming devices that will not have an impact on public safety” and is hoping residents and businesses will do the same.

It’s a cool concept and it’s cool to look at the satellite images taken during Earth Hour 2007 but the whole thing feels a bit superficial to me. I understand that it is symbolic and that it’s a great way to get some attention from the press and from every day citizens and invite them to stop and think about their electricity consumption. But turning out the lights for one hour seems pretty insignificant. Couldn’t we manage more than that?

I’d especially like to see Bloomington step up and commit to a larger project.  Our community prides itself in being progressive and committed to sustainable living so I think we should embrace a bigger challenge.  Winter’s over so I think we’ve missed out on Crunchy Chicken’s “Freeze Yer Buns Challenge” but perhaps we could all commit to setting our thermostats no lower than 78 during the summer months.  Or perhaps we could all commit to riding the bus to work once a month.  Or maybe we could each plant a victory garden and grow at least a portion of our own food.

Or maybe we should have Earth Hour every week instead of every year.  I’d be happy to reclaim quiet Sunday nights gazing at the stars with no lights, no TV, no distractions.  It sounds peaceful.

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