Monday, June 26, 2006

Simplify, Redux

1200kwh/month is an amazing amount of electricity. That's 1.2Million watt hours. How can I be burning that much ... 40,000watt-hours a day.

For the record and because I need to establish it my own mind, a watt-hour is the amount of energy consumed by using one watt for an hour. It's an awkward abstract concept but I found that if I considered a 100W light bulb it became easier. If I leave 100W light on for an hour, that's 100 watt-hours. If I leave a 100W light on for 10 hours, that's 1,000 watt-hours ... or 1kwh. In one day our house burns the energy required to burn 40 100W lights for 10 hours .. 40kwh.

Also for the record, I don't have any 100W bulbs.

So, I want to cut down 10% of my electricity use. Not because it's expensive. Not because I pay a lot. Just because I don't want to waste it ... if that makes any sense.

We have a fridge. Pretty modern, not the HIGHEST effeciency going, but all the seals are in place and it's less than 15 years old.

Electric range. I don't cook that much. Unfortunately.

We have a washer/dryer and do about 5 loads of laundry a week for a family of 4. That's one load per person plus one for linens. We always run them full, use cold water. It's constant and necessary, so it's not going to matter much.

We have central air. We keep it on 80 and spend a lot of time in the cool basement.

So far, not much chance of manipulating these.

But it's funny what you see when you start looking.

I have a light in the rangehood. It's a 60W bulb. It's on at least 10 hrs a day every day. Without it, anything on the range is in the dark because of the way the kitchen is arranged. That's 600wh a day. I replaced it with a 15W flourescent that provides the same light as a 60W bulb. If I left it on the same amount, that would be 150wh per day .. a savings of 450wh. But now that I'm aware of it, I find myself shutting it off. Call it about 500wh/day on that one bulb.

The big lighting offender is in the main hall bathroom. It has one of those four-bulb fixtures that uses the globe-shaped bulbs - each is a 40W bulb. It's the first light the kids turn on in the morning and the last one they turn off at night. We shut it off during the weekdays but it's on at least 4 hours every evening. That's 4x40W or 160W. For four hours that's 640wh/day. I replaced the bulbs with 15W flourescents ... using 3 15W instead of 4. I just unscrewed one of the bulbs a bit and left it there so there's no open socket. The bent-tube bulbs look a little odd, but the light is perfect and four hours a day is 180wh instead of 640.

One last thing, we've always kept the furnace fan on to circulate the air from the basement thru the house. I don't know what the fan is rated at but if it's as little as 20W, that's 20W times 24 hrs - 480wh/day. I'm not sure how much we're saving.

The last big electricity hogs are the computers.

Some of you know that I have a fairly extensive network in my house and the four of us have at least one computer (I use three). It's difficult to say what all these badboys use for juice. The powersupplies are rated from 200W up to 400W depending on the machines and I usually keep them -- and their monitors -- running 24/7. If they pulled full rated power, the normal computer load in the house would be 1200W plus another 500W in monitors. I am pretty sure they're not pulling full loads because if they were, just the computers would require more power than my electric bill says I'm burning (40.8kwh/day).

So I'm shutting down some of my boxes. I'm gone from the house for about 10 hrs a day, sometimes longer. I've started shutting down computers and monitors during the day. that's not QUITE half the day. And it's not time when the computers are under load. But it's something. I'd shut them off at night, too, but that's a much shorter time -- only 5 to 6 hrs -- and they do their scheduled maintenance and downloads at night so they kinda have to keep running. I'm wondering if I really NEED three computers or whether I could shut down one -- perhaps the one with the largest power consumption -- and only bring it up say, when I need to use it.

At the end of next month, I'll know if it's doing any good.

In the meantime, I'm doing something. It's a little thing, but it's a start.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Simplify, Simplify ...

Recent readers will note that I've been going thru a kind of late-life crisis -- s sort of mid-course correction phase between entering middle age and senior-hood. Part of it is because I finished my Ph.D. a couple years ago. Part because of my father's passing. Part because of some uncertainty in my job.

Nothing like a little flux in your life, eh?

One of the issues that's come up is how much "stuff" I use. It's a kind of think globally, act locally issue at this point, but it comes from an ongoing conversation with my friend Donal. His recent thinking is about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor -- a kind of "how much is enough" question. The issue is one of personal ethics. The basic question is "What kind of mind set says that it's ok to earn $30,000,000 a year (or more) when there are people in your company that earn $30,000 (or less)?" Is this ethical? How about moral? How much is enough?

Which got me thinking about my personal situation. Is it right for me to earn what I earn when so many earn so much less? I'm not in the $1million range by a long shot. Even with two incomes we aren't going to make a million in a year, but we have a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. I think we've made good choices -- we have a modest home, low credit card balances, only one car loan at a time, and some retirement savings. We're far from extravagant altho we have our guilty pleasures -- my wife collects anime cels, I have my computers.

Which gets back to consumption. On an average day, our family of four burns 40kwh, about 3 gallons of gasoline, and 3 cu ft of natural gas. The water meter says we go thru 10,000 gallons a month (a number I find horrifying). We're spending as much on food as we are on mortgage every month. So, turning my own question back onto myself -- how much is enough?

Global income figures say that 1/7th of the world population -- about 1 billion people -- lives on less than $1/day. In the US median income is someplace around $45k and the "poverty" level is about $30K depending on family size. Look at that again. Remember that "median" means half the people make more and half the people make less. Notice the narrow margin between 45K and 30K. One other significant number is that the mean income (the average of all families) is about $70K. With a mean above the median, a lot more people are below the mean than above.

Call me a bleeding heart, but that seems wrong.

The question is what to do about it? The "clean your plate because children are starving in Asia" rationale is a bit ... feeble. Cutting back to save money is, perhaps, a viable notion. If I can save $40 a month on a salary of $4000, is a 1% reduction in expense significant if it causes significant inconvenience? What about an ethical argument?

Is it ethical for me to consume even one more gallon of gas than I need to simply because I can afford it? Am I weird for considering that I may not be entitled to it?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The New Communism

Last night I watched Good Night and Good Luck -- a wonderful bit of propaganda about Edward R. Murrow and his battle with McCarthy in the 50s. It helped me articulate some of the malaise that I've been fighting for the last few weeks.

For those who weren't around - or aren't aware - in the early 50's, Senator Joseph McCarthy whipped the nation into a frenzy over the Red Menace. People found themselves blacklisted, and even prosecuted, for holding ideas that were outside the narrow range of what McCarthy and his cronies considered to be patriotism. It was not uncommon for children to be blacklisted for their parent's beliefs and for others to be persecuted on hearsay without recourse to any kind of due process beyond the kangaroo court called the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

During this time, the majority of the press sat silent. The Fourth Estate failed the American public by refusing -- under pressure from the administration and fear of retaliation -- to publish the stories of the abrogation of civil rights and the egregious erosion of liberty. Anybody who questioned the methods or legitimacy was, de facto, un-American and became a target for the Committee. It took Edward R. Murrow and CBS News to break the back of McCarthy's power by shining light on the abuses of the committee until Congress was forced to act by censuring him fo abuse of power.

Today Terrorism is the new Communism. The parallels are staggering.

The president and his cronies have created an environment where people can - and are - being prosecuted for where their parents come from. Legitimate American citizens are having bank assets frozen, are being banned from re-entering the county, and are subject to rendition. Thousands of American citizens find themselves on "no-fly" lists and individuals with similar names are being swept up in the net, prevented from making legitimate and legal travel within the borders of the country. The Congress has passed legislation to require that all Americans obtain and carry identity papers within the country. They are proposing to erect America's Iron Curtain across the southern border of the US. All in the name of keeping the country secure. The government is out of control and the witch-hunts are under way. Just like they were in the 50s.

And the Fourth Estate has let down its public obligation again. Mainstream media has been dumbed down, news budgets reduced, and newspapers are being turned into tabloids. The general concensus is that the American public doesn't want to read -- and wouldn't understand -- about the complex issues that face the nation. And it serves the administration well to keep the public uninformed.

So the parallels with the McCarthy era are uncanny. But unlike the 50's, we have no Murrow, and it gets worse.

Now, evidence is surfacing to support what many of us suspected all along. The 2004 election appears to have been stolen by the Republican party. The evidence is largely circumstantial, there are no photographs of hands in stuffing ballot boxes, no video of shadowy figures tampering with voting machines. But the statistical analysis of the voting patterns, the reports from election observers on the ground, and the unlocked doors represented by voting machines that were less secure than the average PC have created a "smoking gun." If the cookie jar is empty, the obvious suspect will be the 7 year old found unsupervised in the room. God's Own Party sure looks guilty because the 2004 election's cookie jar was very, very empty.

Therein lies one important source of my personal discomfort. I feel powerless. I know that the world is a dangerous place, and I recognize the need for a government to provide for the citizens collectively what they cannot provide for themselves. But my government is out of control. Most rational Americans appear to agree with me, but I appear to have awakened to the danger too late. When the election process can be subverted so easily, the winner will not be the candidate who gets the most votes, but the one with the best black ops team. As a citizen, my voice has already been silenced in the polls. By writing this I have violated the USA PATRIOT Act by criticizing the government. Secret Service would appear at my door and take me into custody. If I were to be declared an "enemy combatant" I could be held without charges and with recourse to due process. I 'd go to jail, directly to jail, and I wouldn't collect $200. I wouldn't even get a phone call for the NSA to tap.

This is not America, but I don't know how to stop it. And it's making me -- quite literally -- sick.