Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Detail People and Bottom Line People: Differing Approaches to Carbon Footprint Dieting

I met a few Global Warming Deniers recently, but with that exception, most people I know have gotten the memo: global warming is potentially cataclysmic, human behavior is causing it, and Americans are disproportionately implicated, since we are so wasteful.
Responses to these facts differs greatly. Some of us are Detail People, calculating our energy use, focusing on our personal habits. We're busy recycling, eating local and vegetarian, and fretting about each car trip. Others are Bottom Line People, willing to invest in improved energy efficiency if it's a one time, throw-money-at-it activity, impressed by the argument that most technologies pay for themselves relatively quickly anyway.
We are an intermarriage. I'm the Detail Person. My husband really does not want to be inconvenienced. He is a frugal person, so is careful with resources, but he likes his guy car, does not want to carry reusable bags, and certainly does NOT want to compute the carbon miles of good New Zealand wine! My friends are very similar - she hones in on recycling while he, a guy who drives a Prius, really doesn't want to worry about the details - he's not convinced that recycling will have much impact given the immensity of the global warming challenge.
Our electrician recently asked us to be guinea pigs in trying out a new energy efficiency product, a home-installed capacitor. This little gizmo appeals both to Detail People and to Bottom Line People. Fortunately you don't need to know what one is to benefit from its installation, but as I understand, you draw more electricity than you can use. A capicitor minimizes this loss by 15-30%. The technology has been available for factories for a long time, but recent advances have made them suitable for the home market. Joe and Joe Jr. installed one yesterday. They attached a watt meter thingy on the electrical panel, and when they plugged in the capacitor, a small box mounted near the electrical panel, you could see the number plummet. Wow!
I can enjoy that the actual number is going down, and my husband is happy to do this sort of thing, which only requires attention once. After that it just saves you money. We figure it will pay for itself in a year or two, and then it will be freeing up money altogether, which is just another way of earning $. Win-win, for sure.
Go Joe! He has smartly figured out that, as an electrician in this Age of Global Warming, his new job is to help customers DECREASE their electrical usage. This will expand his business, and when electricity is deregulated (in 2010 in Pennsylvania) and rates go straight up, he will already have hammered out a great new business model.
What is the obvious thing to spend your rebate from Uncle Sam on? A capicitor. It will be a better return than any investment you can think of, mark my words.


Shai said...

Then there are those of us who are inconsistent. I like doing the detail stuff, even if I don't really believe that doing stuff voluntarily as individuals is what it will take. But I like doing it, as long as no one will jump on me for forgetting.

I do believe that governments have a huge role to play. It was Congress that passed the Clean Air Act, and it made a huge difference. We need regulations to tackle the co2 problem.

bpt said...

I am totally with you re: policy. It was sooooooooo great to hear BHO last night actually say "We will have a cap and trade carbon policy, and the USA will take the world lead".
So in addition to all the detail stuff, we need to vote people in who will make this happen.

Traciatim said...

Wait, are you sure he said "Capacitor" for you home? I don't see how a huge capacitor could help with energy usage at all . . . I mean, all it does is store some power for short periods of time and then release it when needed. The end result would be a near unmeasurable increase in usage (since they aren't 100% efficient) and your bill would be the same . . . I don't get it.

bpt said...

Yup, here's another vendor that has this product. They've only recently become available for home use.
I can't explain the mechanics, AT ALL. But the info seemed to important and useful to not share. Perhaps someone else can explain it.

bpt said...

PS they're not huge. The one they just installed isn't even as big as a shoe box.

Michael said...

Betsy, I hate to say this, but based on some Googling and headscratching, I think this is a hoax. I don't begin to understand the electrical engineering behind this, but apparently this will affect how an ammeter (measuring amps) reads, but not have any impact on your total watts, which is what you actually get billed for.

Info here:

More info here:
(scroll down to the section "And you won't even get a thank-you from the power company")

For a debate on this among electrical engineers that I really can't follow, but that seems to wind up with a consensus that this is a crock, and that kilowatt-hours (which is what you're billed for) will not go down, see:

The piece that makes me particularly doubt this, though, is that I'd expect devices like this to be Energy Star certified if they actually made a difference in power consumption.

bpt said...

Thanks for weighing in. We are indeed testing the device with our electrician. He is very impressed with the concept and has vetted the manufacturer, but wants a few households (including his own) to use the product and see actual results before he markets and touts is generally. So stay tuned. When we see numbers, I will add them here.

Philip Jones said...

For a different view of the impact of personal and household measures to lower carbon footprints, see this article in The New Yorker by Michael Specter. He talks to people who have come to some very different conclusions.

bpt said...

Thanks for the link! I heard him on NPR yesterday and he was incredibly interesting. THough it is frustrating that the carbon miles are so hard to calculate and the results of carbon audits are so counterintuitive....

Traciatim said...

I have to agree, that power save 1200 looks like trash. They use the example of the TV wasting power because it gets warm, but that's because it has a flyback transformer that converts 120V into 20000V or so and a bunch of other electronics that when you run a couple hundred watts of power through get warm. Sure, it's wasted power, but if you're heating your home that 'wasted power' will just make your heaters run less.

Plus, for power conditioning and true spike protection the box would have to have all power running through it, not just be connected to it. Though there are ways around that, like isolation transformers and the like, it still wouldn't save any power. If your stove has a 1200 watt element to heat a pot/pan, then turning it on will still use 1200 watts, no matter what you do. Maybe the box just has a way to trick your power companies meter so that you're stealing power . . . that makes much more sense, and will save money on your bill, but not the power you're using.

Celina said...

You must have gotten your bill by now . I'd like to know if this did indeed lower your electrical consumption.

bpt said...

The update: our bill went up. Having not paid for the capacitor since we were guinea pigs, our electrician said to wait a month or two. He has since called to say he's replacing it with a different brand and that they had installed incorrectly. He is going to be a distributor for the new brand, so he's gungho about this!

Traciatim said...

I would like to comment that my skeptic nature from before came on a little too strong. There are ways of capturing power that are wasted on devices like motors (from air conditioners, or your fridge) and the like which could make for more efficient use of power through your home by using a device like this.

If you don't have a lot of things that run on stuff like motors, and are mostly using resistance heating, like electric baseboard or electric heated water then you probably won't notice much difference.