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Earth Day Tips For Cheapskates (AKA, Old-School Environmentalists)

If I didn't remember that today was Earth Day, all the press releases I've gotten from computing and electronics firms attesting to their green credentials would surely have reminded me. A sampling of today's headlines in my inbox:

[Company] Reveals Use of Navigation Systems Has Positive Environmental Impact

[Other Company] Ships [Model Name] - New Low-Power Desktop Hard Drive Family With Best Power Efficiency and Largest Storage Capacity Available

[Trade Lobby] Releases Report on Enhancing Energy Efficiency

It can sometimes be true that the best path to less electrical consumption is a little conspicuous hardware consumption. As I've found over repeated tests, many older devices draw a non-trivial amount of electricity all the time they're plugged in, even when turned off; as a result, upgrading from an old cathode-ray-tube TV to a new, considerably larger flat-panel set can still lower your electric bill.

(If you are in the market for some new gadget, make sure to check out the electrical-consumption figures posted on the the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star product database.)

But not everybody wants to or can spend a lot of money upfront just to save a little bit of money every month thereafter.

Fortunately, you don't have to. Some of the simpler energy-saving techniques available to you don't require spending anything at all. You can start by unplugging the oldest gadgets in your house when you're not using them. That TV upstairs that only gets used for viewing the occasional exercise video? Keep it unplugged -- along with the vintage VCR or DVD player underneath it -- when it's not in use.

Setting your computer to go into sleep or standby mode automatically is another zero-cost, near-zero-effort remedy. (Note to Windows XP users: I know, that's not the most reliable operating system when it comes to napping and then waking up afterwards. But if nothing else, you can set your monitor to power down automatically.)

Finally, take a minute or two to unplug your cable or DSL modem and wireless router before you head out of town for a long weekend.

I know there are folks out there who didn't come to this blog for a lecture about their ecological responsibility (I am thinking in particular of a friend who chafes at any sort of perceived environmentalist hectoring, and who therefore pads out Dominion Power's profits with his continued refusal to install compact fluorescent bulbs). So I'll close with the point I've tried to make before: This all comes down to a simple question of whether you'd like to hand over more or less of your income to your electric company.

Strictly speaking, you don't need to be a good environmentalist to want to use less electricity (though that doesn't hurt); you just need to recognize the value of a dollar saved. Which, last I checked, was a traditional, even conservative, value.

What are your own cheapskate recipes to chip away at your electric bill? Share your suggestions in the comments...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 22, 2009; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen , Tips  
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Comments

Compact fluorescent bulbs are supposed to last considerably longer than incandescent bulbs. In my experience, they have not. I have an experiment going on now in a multi-bulb bathroom light fixture with new bulbs of both kinds installed at the same time.

And the compact fluorescent bulbs have mercury. When breaking a thermometer can cause an entire school to be closed for cleanup, why would someone try to make us use bulbs with mercury in them?

Posted by: Ghak | April 22, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I think more people will go "green" when there's some financial incentive. The threat of an abstract concept like global warming is not enough.

@Ghak: I don't know how long regular bulbs last but I installed CFLs all over my house when I moved it 4 years ago and they are just starting to go out now. I do agree with your point about them containing mercury and thus needing proper disposal.

Posted by: tundey | April 22, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

It should be noted that turning off the computer, router, and modem when they're not in use is one of the better security measures out there.

Posted by: wiredog | April 22, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

@Ghak - First, you shouldn't install CFLs and Incandescents in the same fixture. Don't know if that's just marketing, but the directions for most CFLs say so. As for the proper disposal of CFLs, most of the stores that sell them will also recycle them nowadays.

Posted by: ilikeike | April 22, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

OK, I have to ask where this "what happens if you break a CFL bulb?" theme comes from. I can't remember breaking a single light bulb indoors anytime in the last 10 years, maybe not ever. Are people changing light bulbs after downing a fifth of gin? After strapping banana peels to their shoes?

FWIW, I've replaced nearly every incandescent bulb in our house with CFLs and have had very few issues. The only exceptions: one wall fixture with a dimmer switch, and two overhead fixtures in which, for some weird reason, incandescents work but CFLs no longer do (any theories why?).

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | April 22, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

I tried to do "the right thing" by trying to change out a bunch of bulbs to CFLs without much luck. The bathroom fixture is a *&%$$ so a long life is a real benefit. The CFLs made my yellow bathroom look sickly green, took several minutes to ramp up to max lighting (a quick in and out was a dim light experience) and went out as fast as regulars. Hubby did not have enough light to shave without blood. I have many dimmers for lighting and many three way lamps, no go for CFLs. I have one CFL left in an outside front door light fixture. I will not buy more until the technology improves. I tried.

Posted by: tbva | April 22, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Rob, a couple of points. I love the concept of CFLs and I like LED's even better but they both have a long way to go. 1) Neither will work for long (less than six months in several cases) in a steamy bathroom. I have over a dozen dead examples to prove it. 2) They don't work for long outside in the humidity of summer (SC). Again, several examples. 3) They will not work for long in a standard dimmer circuit or electronically controlled switched circuit like motion detectors. (In a circuit controlled by a semiconductor like an SCR, the CFL and LED lamps will flicker badly and will only last a few months. In a circuit with a relay, said relay is often under-rated and the in-rush current will destroy the relay contacts very quickly. [CFLs have a VERY short in-rush current that is VERY LARGE. Hence the relay contacts are burned up very quickly]) 4) They will not last in microwave ovens, range ovens, and convection ovens and will function poorly in a refrigerator/freezer. 5) Getting warranty service on CFLs is a joke. Most lamps are not marked with the MFG name. The manufacturers make you jump through hoops that exceed the value of the lamp.

The exceptions to the above are some of the specialty lamps sold by GE and others that function in a dimmer circuit or are rated for use outdoors or in the extreme cold (

What this boils down to is that in the 80-odd circuits I have in my house, I am only able to use CFLs or LEDs in less that a dozen places.

DLD

Posted by: DLDx | April 22, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Rob, a couple of points. I love the concept of CFLs and I like LED's even better but they both have a long way to go. 1) Neither will work for long (less than six months in several cases) in a steamy bathroom. I have over a dozen dead examples to prove it. 2) They don't work for long outside in the humidity of summer (SC). Again, several examples. 3) They will not work for long in a standard dimmer circuit or electronically controlled switched circuit like motion detectors. (In a circuit controlled by a semiconductor like an SCR, the CFL and LED lamps will flicker badly and will only last a few months. In a circuit with a relay, said relay is often under-rated and the in-rush current will destroy the relay contacts very quickly. [CFLs have a VERY short in-rush current that is VERY LARGE. Hence the relay contacts are burned up very quickly]) 4) They will not last in microwave ovens, range ovens, and convection ovens and will function poorly in a refrigerator/freezer. 5) Getting warranty service on CFLs is a joke. Most lamps are not marked with the MFG name. The manufacturers make you jump through hoops that exceed the value of the lamp.

The exceptions to the above are some of the specialty lamps sold by GE and others that function in a dimmer circuit or are rated for use outdoors or in the extreme cold (

What this boils down to is that in the 80-odd circuits I have in my house, I am only able to use CFLs or LEDs in less that a dozen places.

DLD

Posted by: DLDx | April 22, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, no OOPS button. That second to last paragraph should read:

The exceptions to the above are some of the specialty lamps sold by GE and others that function in a dimmer circuit or are rated for use outdoors or in the extreme cold (

DLD

Posted by: DLDx | April 22, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

St

Posted by: DLDx | April 22, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Still not right:

The exceptions to the above are some of the specialty lamps sold by GE and others that function in a dimmer circuit or are rated for use outdoors or in the extreme cold (less than 60 degrees F.) These lamps however cost 4x-5x as much and often still perform poorly.

Posted by: DLDx | April 22, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Looks like I could do a whole column on CFLs here! Let me throw out a few anecodates to address those cited by @DLDx, while keeping in mind the principle that "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'":

* I've had a CFL in a ceiling fixture directly above our shower for at least the past year and a half, probably two, with zero problems.

* I've also had four CFLs--one standard-size bulb, three candelabra-style units--in the ceiling fixtures on the front porch, where they enjoy temperatures ranging from the teens to over 100. None had any outdoor-use rating, but they've run without fault for two years or so now.

* I've had a few CFLs fail early, but in those cases calling the vendor (Commercial Electric, Feit) got me a free replacement in the mail.

* None of these bulbs could be called the Cadillac of CFLs; I picked up all of them at the nearest Home Depot.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | April 22, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Over about 3.5 years in a room with those dratted tulip-shaped glass shields below a ceiling fan, I ran through many, many CFLs, some only lasting a couple of months. I finally decided the inverted tulips were gathering too much heat at the base of the CFLs causing failure of the current-limiting circuits. I removed the glass tulips (unfortunately risking lamp breakage due to exposure of the bulbs and making the whole fan look impossibly geeky for any part of the house but the ham radio/computer room) and the same brand CFLs lasted the two years until we moved. Brought them along and they still function. It is possible that the 1950's open-to-the-air ceiling fixtures with the bulbs almost horizontal would be good for CFLs, allowing air passage to cool them. But, the 1950's-present ceiling fixtures with closed glass globes held in place by 3-4 screws would likely allow the heat buildup that apparently caused my bulbs to fail quickly.

Posted by: RHMathis | April 22, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

About a year ago Giant had a one day, "every CFL in this display a dollar" sale and I grabbed enough for my entire apartment.

Replaced the bulbs in the bathroom vanity with CFLs. They work fine. Ditto the ones in 3-way lamps. Also in the torchieres. And everywhere else I put them.

Posted by: wiredog | April 23, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Dear Rob:

Cannot reach you any other way. Are you aware that CES will have an eBook TechZone next year. That means you may actually have to notice there are more eBook Readers in the world than Kindle!! Astak will be there! Some of our Mentor line will get 16,000 pages to a single battery charge and eBook Readers also cut landfill, reduce demand on paper, and reduce toxic paper bi-products that otherwise flow into our lakes and streams!!

Last year I invited you to come to the Astak booth. Other journalists flooded us but no Rob!!

Posted by: EZReader1 | April 23, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I have been using CFLs in a variety of fixtures, both open and enclosed, indoors and out, for the past two years and have yet to see one fail. I have never seen them take any time to "ramp up" either. There is, however, a noticable difference in color temperature compared to incandescent, and they don't seem quite as bright as their wattage equivalent. These factors take a little getting used to, but overall it has been a good trade off.

Posted by: capq | April 23, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you; I've used them in lots of different places/fixtures and I love 'em. They last forever.

The very first ones I bought years ago only came in that one 'color' and I agree with you that it seemed a little dim, but now with the "soft white" and 'bright white" choices the CFls are just as bright as the old incandescents.

I don't understand the "ramp up" comments I've seen here and other places where people are whining about CFls; when I flip the switch the light comes on. period. There's is no dim--->bright sequence - the thing is just on.

The amount of mercury in normal-sized CFLs isn't enough that anyone should be scared by them if one breaks. I mean jeez, we've had those long flourescent tubes in our kitchen fixtures for decades and no one gets scared by them, even though they huge many tiems the amount of mercury vapor.

Did anyone see that idiot Glenn Beck's show on Earth Day where he made a screaming hazardous waste emergency out of a CFL breaking?
Then he asked: if you have to drive your SUV to the recycling center to dispose of the bulb, how can it be green?

Sadly, there are too many Americans who won't think through just how stupid that question and that guy are.

Posted by: lquarton | April 24, 2009 1:38 AM | Report abuse

Since we are out of town for extended periods due to a medical situation, we leave the light over the front door on. The fixture is in a roof type structure so a photocell won't work. Tried to put in a CFL, but it would not work. Only thing I can think of is that light in on the same circuit as the outdoor outlets which run through a GFI in the garage. Anyone know if the GFI will keep the CFL from working?

Posted by: battk | April 24, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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