Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Energy Challenge

Time off work for the Easter holidays means more time to engage with the Guardian Live Better's latest challenge - this month the focus is on energy. 

In the light of the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report this is topical. The report shows that the effects of climate change are already with us. Temperatures are up and polar ice is melting. Meanwhile emissions are accelerating rather than slowing and governments are not meeting the necessary targets for reducing CO2 emissions. Scary stuff.

As the Guardian Live Better's infographic - (click here) shows (and it really is worth a look), fossil fuels make up 87% of the world's energy usage. We can't carry on like this.

With that in mind, there was never a better time to review our own energy usage. Especially as doing the right thing environmentally when it comes to energy will save money too. Eco + Frugal. We like it. 

How are we doing? In the grand scheme of things I really don't know. Although we might call ourselves frugal, and aspire to simplicity, it cannot be argued otherwise: we are living a fully first world lifestyle with computers, phones, appliances, central heating and a car. 

Using the Guardian's guidelines, I set off round the house on what you could loosely call a mini audit. 

First off, the boiler. This has been in the house since we moved in 11 years ago. Although it calls itself a Fuelsaver, I doubt very much that this is the case. The timer is kaput and so we put the hot water and central heating on manually. (It's not worth getting it fixed as a new boiler is on the wish list).

Although we didn't use the central heating much this year and it hasn't been on at all for several weeks now, we do heat water daily, and the boiler gets left on for far longer than it needs to be (people forget to turn it off). 

This is definitely one target for the energy challenge. Work out a system for making sure the boiler is on minimally. (And start investigating new boilers).

As for the rest of the kitchen, we have the second hand gas cooker (blogged about here), a fridge freezer, a toaster, a washing machine, a bread maker and a slow cooker (which I have learnt from the Guardian live blog and My Make Do and Mend Year's energy race, is a great energy saver) and we use all of them a lot.

Second target for our challenge is to use the slow cooker and the hob more, and the oven less.

Reading the My Make Do and Mend energy race round up also reminded me that I should make more use of my steamer.

The kitchen raises one energy conundrum though. We don't have a microwave. In general we are trying to reduce our consuming and our reliance on plugged-in/battery appliances. Plus we only have a small kitchen. I kind of like the space that not having a microwave gives me. But they are really good energy savers. Should I rush out and buy one? Is this one consumer product it's worth consuming?

Next stop is the dining room. The table, chairs and dresser are all blameless but this room is also home to the computer. Probably some room for improvement there when it comes to turning things off properly at night. We also know that the sanded original floor boards in this room look lovely and are great when it comes to sweeping up cat food and crumbs but could really do with more insulation.

On a positive note the room faces south, so it's a good place for drying clothes indoors (or sprawling out in the sun, if you are a cat!) Oh yes that's another positive; we don't have a tumble dryer. Even this winter, it's still been possible to get washing on the line sometimes, and right now it's line drying heaven!

Can't resist the sun

View from my landing window - washing and all
From the dining room it's into the hall. The uPVC door and windows allow a lot of light in, but also let warm air out. Last year we put up some (secondhand of course) lined curtains to try and counteract this.

Unplanned selfie in the hall mirror 
whilst photographing the curtains.

Also in the hall we have a prime example of one of our radiators backed with foil. Not a pretty sight but there's nothing in the Guardian's energy challenge about dust reduction. (Although maybe there should be! Doesn't dust on refrigerator coils reduce efficiency?) 

The only other room downstairs is the living room. Here we've put in a woodburner, and when it's on this will heat a small amount of water for drinks and hot water bottles. Wood burners are considered a low carbon source of heat. ("The carbon dioxide emitted when wood is burned is the same amount that was absorbed over the months and years that the plant was growing. The process is sustainable as long as new plants continue to grow in place of those used for fuel. There are some carbon emissions caused by the cultivation, manufacture and transportation of the fuel, but as long as the fuel is sourced locally, these are much lower than the emissions from fossil fuels." Source: The Energy Saving Trust.) 

The wood burner was bought on eBay and self-installed, to cut down costs (by Husband with his anarchic attitude to regulations and measurements...(it's our house and we'll burn it down if we want to)...however there is a working carbon monoxide detector in the room so don't worry...)

There are also lots of snuggly blankets for keeping warm.

Upstairs we have three bedrooms. Over the years some of the windows have lost their seal so here's evidence of some draught proofing. (Also by Husband...this time with an anarchic attitude to's parcel tape - ugly but it does the job.)

Elsewhere upstairs more blankets and bedspreads for extra warmth during the winter.

And although I would never suggest to those living in fuel poverty, that all they need to do is put on an extra jumper (unlike David Cameron), wearing lots of layers helps. Son's pictured below in his woolly. Strangely he likes to wear shorts all year round too. Like the walking monk, maybe he adapts to the environment...

Other things we've done are turn the thermostat down, insulate the loft and get cavity wall insulation. I blogged about light bulbs recently - we have got low energy light bulbs throughout the house (although not LEDs). We haven't got solar panels, although we have dabbled with the idea. and were inspired, when Judy (who blogs at Ration the Future) wrote about her solar panel installation here, to maybe think about it again). 

In an ideal world we'd be car-free but at the moment we have a Toyota Yaris and we would struggle to live without it. We try not to use it for local journeys and lift share to work and when ferrying kids around to after-school activities.

If you've made it this far with this tour of the Everyday Life on a Shoestring household, then here are my conclusions.

In the long term there's some BIG stuff we could do, like address the cranky old boiler situation and investigate solar power (if not installing panels, then at least we should think  getting our energy from a green energy supplier).

But we also need to keep up with all the SMALL stuff; turning things off, filling up the kettle with only the amount required, etc. In the UK, households account for 27% of annual emissions (according to the Guardian) so every little that all of us do will really help. Don't ever think that you can't make a difference.

In between the big and the small, is the microwave dilemma. Yes or no?

(And looking at my house with fresh eyes, I think maybe I want something prettier than parcel tape sealing my windows...)

What are you doing to reduce your energy use and what more do you think we could do? 


  1. quote: ... the SMALL stuff; turning things off, filling up the kettle with only the amount required, etc.

    Jen (at My Make Do and Mend Year has been doing an energy challenge recently and crunched some numbers. I was surprised to find that it actually saves electricity and therefore money to boil a kettle with more than you need and save the surplus in a flask. ie it uses more electicity to boil 1 pint twice than to boil 2 pints once and save the extra in a flask. My problem now lies in discovering how to train family members to put the extra in the flask… : )

  2. So, last summer my husband came home from work one day, and announced that our income would be slashed by 30%. We had to cut our spending in all areas to meet this income reduction. So, saving money has been the motivation for us to use less electricity and natural gas.

    Some little things that helped us really cut our bills:

    I make scrambled eggs (and a lot of other foods, including some baking) in the microwave

    We all shower in sequence in the AM, so the water heater is used for just a brief time, then goes off for the rest of the day.

    I do all the laundry in cold water (this really surprised me, as it cut our natural gas bill by $12 USD per month, just doing that)

    In light fixtures with multiple bulbs, I unscrew about half of the bulbs, to reduce the amount of electricity used for lighting

    As I save money on the electricity bill, I use the savings to buy LED light bulbs. We're now up to lighting 4 rooms with only LEDs. It's a long process to change over to all LEDs, but slowly and surely we're getting there. The price on LEDs has come down considerably just since last spring when I began buying them. The standard-sized bulbs are the most affordable, here (about $5 to $10 each). But the specialty bulbs (like candle bulbs and vanity bulbs) are still a bit pricey (about $20 to $25 each).

    I use a small toaster oven on the counter top for about half of my oven needs. Some things just don't fit in the toaster oven, like a whole pizza, or a turkey or ham. A toaster oven uses about 25% of the electricity of a conventional oven.

    It's still too cold to completely turn the furnace off, here. The house would hover around 58 degrees F, without using the furnace in early spring. But according to some members of the household, we do keep the house rather cool. Right now, we trying to bank some extra $$ for next winter's heating bills.

    It's amazing what doing a bunch of "little" things can amount to.

    1. Thanks for sharing your 'little things' Lili. I strongly recommend anyone wanting more ideas to visit Lili's blog, Creative Savv!

  3. There is definitely more I could do to make the house more efficient and probably need to do a tour with a critical eye.

    Re: Microwave - definitely pays for itself, esp as mine was bought in the late eighties! I over make meals and then plate them up or freeze them for later. The micro is far faster and more effective in warming food through and it also cooks veggies really quickly. I also have a Hot Cup which dispenses 300mls of boiling water. It works just like a kettle but gives a measured amount in 30secs instead of trying to accurately boil one cup of water in a kettle without boiling the thing dry. The steamer I am less enamoured by as the whole kitchen ends up damp and steamy. I don't even think I've unpacked mine since I moved as the microwave will 'steam' veggies and fish far quicker with less water.

    Those are the only virtuous things I can offer as otherwise my frugal credentials are seriously suspect!

    1. They sound like good virtuous things to me! Thanks for sharing your microwave love. We had one for years. Still not sure about buying a new one though.

  4. I bought two old steamers in a CS, which I use all the time. You need to ensure the lids fit tight and the heat is turned down low for maximum savings and minimum steam in the room. Wouldn't be without my microwave and my slow cooker. No longer use my breadmaker as it uses an awful lot of electricity for a single loaf. More efficient to bake a batch, filling the oven with casseroles, cakes etc too.
    Thanks for the interesting tour. I don't suppose you have too many people in the bedroom with the taped windows, so I wouldn't worry too much about how it looks!

    1. Thanks for your advice and reassurance about the parcel tape window! The problem with the parcel tape window is that it also is home to part of this winter's bad black mould situation so REALLY doesn't look nice!

  5. Well done with your energy audit!
    Your boiler is rated as 68% efficient on the SEDBUK database Not good when you consider a modern condensing boiler is 90% efficient. This means that 32% of the gas that you are paying for is wasted and isn’t heating your house or hot water. (If you don’t get your boiler serviced regularly it could be even worse!)
    Can I suggest you get your gas bills out for at least the last year and see how much you have actually spent. (Or send them to me to analyse for you If a lot of your heating is from the woodburner, then your gas consumption may be less of a priority. If you spend £1,000 on gas for heating, then a new boiler could save you roughly £250 a year. It is a good time for replacing a boiler in the UK because of the incentives available. The Renewable Heat Incentive for domestic systems has just been launched today so you could get a woodheat boiler and the government would pay you for generating renewable heat energy (like the FIT’s, but for heat not electricity)
    Boilers are expensive, but you can get a basic programmable timer for £40, and then you just need to pay for an electrician to fit it – say £45 for an hours work. Setting the kitchen timer to remind you to switch off the boiler may work for now.
    I love your snuggly blankets. We find they save energy as we tend to switch the heating off earlier and pull a blanket around us instead. Insulating below floorboards is a good idea. In the meantime you could check there are no draughts coming up through any cracks.
    Did you miss the bathroom? Do you have a hot water tank and if so is it well insulated?
    Your oven, fridge and freezer are the big consumers in the kitchen and you are right that cleaning the dust off the condensing coils at the back of the fridge/ freezer does help them to run more efficiently. Keeping the freezer full to stop air movement is more efficient, whereas air movement is preferred in a fridge, so don’t overfill it. Also don’t open the fridge door and stand a hot cup of tea on the ledge while you pour the milk in  Probably obvious to a frugal person like you, but you see so many people do this.
    Microwaves can be more efficient. A jacket potato can be cooked in minutes rather than an hour, but unfortunately it doesn’t taste as good as an oven baked one. It is a bit more efficient but please don’t rush out and buy a microwave until you have got a timer for your boiler….and a new boiler. The energy you use in cooking is much less than that for heating or hot water, so less of a priority.
    I like drinking tea, which works best with freshly boiled water, so a flask wouldn’t work for me, but it really is no problem boiling just one cupful at a time. Some people fill their mug with water from the tap and pour it into the kettle each time, so they know they have just the right amount. Marking the kettle at the perfect fill level for one or two mugs works just as well. I timed it and it takes me 40 seconds to boil one large mug full (so no new gadgets required!). This is just the time it takes to put a teabag in a cup and get the milk, so I am not tempted to walk away and then need to re-boil it.
    Just a warning about toasters, if they have lots of fancy knobs then they often consume electricity doing nothing, so make sure they are switched off at the socket. Also telephones with wireless handsets draw electricity. I re-installed our old fixed phone, but the family mutinied on me, so I had to go back to a wireless one.
    You can still get the solar panels for free if your roof is suitable. Let me recommend you as a friend and you will get £50 towards replacing your boiler! I have already seen a reduction in electricity consumption, even though it has been a wet and cloudy winter.
    The Energy Savings Trust has lots of advice on their website I will have to have a look at this Guardian Live Better Challenge, so thanks for mentioning it.

    1. Thank you so much for your detailed comments. It's as if you had visited our house! You've certainly helped us clarify what our priorities should be.

  6. We are getting quotes now on replacing our oil-fueled boiler with an electric, air-source, ductless heat pump system. Our boiler tech says our boiler has an efficiency rating of 84% when properly maintained, but I suspect that is the optimum rating.

    1. Just the sound of that new boiler 'electric, air-source, ductless, heat pump system' makes it sound sleek and efficient!

  7. We have solar panels and also solar hot water
    and almost never have to pay a bill
    (living in Australia helps). No central heating
    - it's uncommon here, especially in South
    Australia where we live. It's interesting
    to see the issues in different countries -
    I would love to have a wood heater but we
    don't have enough room to store wood
    AWAY from the house (due to termites!).
    I've never had a microwave which
    most people think is weird but its more
    because it don't suit the mainly Asian food
    we cook.
    I think your priority is to sort the boiler out.
    Love your kittens - look little versions of one of ours!

    1. It is interesting to see how the climate (and local wildlife) affect the choice of energy source! I think you're right - it is time to address the boiler situation.

  8. We have an elderly and basic microwave, but even my husband says he wouldn't bother replacing it when it gives up the ghost.
    I know they're fuel efficient, but I always have doubts about how 'good' they are for you and I find I only really use it for reheating the occasional forgotten cup of tea and starting off jacket potatoes so they cook quicker in the oven.
    We're very lucky in that we bought a reconditioned woodburning Rayburn with some money left to me by my Godmother (and husband installed it himself :-) ), and between that and our woodstove we haven't used our heating at all this winter. The children and dogs fight to sit under a fake fur throw in the evenings. The dogs usually win and we're left with the woolly blankets...
    We use waste and fallen wood to burn where possible. Our dog walking friends tease me that I never come back from a walk without an armful of twigs, pockets full of pinecones or bunches of weeds for the chickens!
    I bought 2 Victorian flatirons and use them when the Rayburn is on rather than the steam iron.

    Our boiler timer has an option to switch the heating or water on for 1,2 or 3 hours, so we don't have to remember to switch it off.

    Solar panels are on our wish list (our electricity bill has gone up now we have teenagers with phones and ipods) and making better use of the oven when it's on is my resolution.

    1. The Rayburn sounds great. I think I'd probably need a bigger kitchen before I could consider one. I love the idea of the flat irons! Likewise, we didn't buy logs all winter, but managed with 'waste' wood, too.

  9. Talking about hanging clothes outside reminded me of when I was growing up. Our dryer was broken for several years and out of use. So, unless it was raining, we hung our clothes outside even in very cold weather. Sometimes the clothes would freeze before they dried, but they eventually did. I guess my mother did this because we did have much extra space for hanging inside. Although, now that I think about it, we did have one line inside, but it filled up quickly.

    1. We've got one airer for indoors which fills up quickly in we weather (and probably hasn't helped with our condensation problem this winter).

  10. Very interesting post.
    We recently had a free energy and water usage audit, done by Severn Wye Energy Agency. They gave us lots of advice and fitted several low energy light bulbs, again free of charge.
    The scheme is funded by the EU and anyone living in West Wiltshire is eligible. The scheme finishes at the end of May.
    The scheme is called ACHIEVE and the free phone number is 0800 500 30 76.
    I hope that this information might be of use to anyone who lives in this area.

    Stella (Devizes)

    1. Thanks for that information Stella. I'm going to look into it and it will be useful for anyone local.

  11. Your bogging is really creative. Well done. There are many in Uk who are asking for the real benefits of double glazing from a reliable source. So, an agent is the solution to solve the problem.