While avoiding waste and conserving resources is a very good thing, the conservation lobby often exaggerates the pay off from conservation efforts. A case in point is a recent column in The Ottawa Citizen, in which Stuart Hickox of Project Porchlight suggested that Ontario residents who are facing steep increases in their hydro rates (See post Steep Increases Forecast for Ontario Electricity Pricescan cut their electricity bills by as much as $750 per year by taking half a dozen simple steps. Here are the six steps suggested in the column:

Stuart Hickox’s Six Steps to Saving $750 a year
1. Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. Annual savings: $200
2. Eliminate vampire power from unused electrical devices. Annual savings: $200
3. Get rid of the old beer fridge. Annual savings: $120
4. Get a programmable thermostat from Hydro Ottawa’s Peaksaver program. Annual savings: $140
5. Lower the temperature on your electric water heater. Annual savings: $50
6. Switch off the dry heat function on your dishwasher. Annual savings: $40

Considering that the average Ontario household reportedly pays $1,330 on their electricity bill, it will be quite a feat cutting it by 56 percent. Take the suggestion to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs. A typical CFL consumes about 50 Watts less than a comparable incandescent bulb (if you buy the claim that a 11 Watt CFL produces the same amount of light as a 60 Watt incandescent and not everyone does). Only a household that keeps 20 lights on for an average of 4 hours a day will see savings of $200. I’m going out on a limb here but exactly how many households are light up like a Christmas tree throughout the year?

This article has 36 comments

  1. Also consider that in Canada for 6 months a year all the above examples except the programmable thermostats are not really losses because the lost energy is all converted to heat which displaces other sources of heating.

  2. Another common tip is to use light colored paint and shingles on the exterior of your home to reduce cooling costs. Of course, if you live in central Canada you probably spend a lot more on heating than you do on cooling – does this mean I should paint my house black? Maybe that would look a little creepy.

  3. They really need to post the assumptions they used to come up with those numbers, as some of the savings really do seem exaggerated. Vampire power in particular — it depends on the electronics you’ve got in your home, but leaving your cellphone charger plugged in 24/7 consumes just pennies of electricity per year. A television or stereo will consume more, of course, but I still find it hard to believe you could achieve $200/year in savings.

    To get those savings from the light-bulbs you’d have to have a lot of bulbs and you’d have to leave them on many hours per day.

  4. I could not agree more with the idea that CFLs are poor illuminators. I have tried them and there is no question that regular incandescents are brighter – now there is proof ! (thx for posting the link). It is interesting that lux is never shown on any bulb packaging.

    What are the savings when you need to have 2 or 3 times as many lamps in a room to achieve
    the same level of reading brightness or general visibility you had before with one 100W?

  5. My father-in-law used to joke about this. He once added up all the supposed percentages of savings he’d see in his hydro bill and found it came to over 100%. He mused about what he’d do with the money he’d be getting back each month.

  6. Slightly off topic, but what are the savings of geo-thermal energy options exaggerated too – anyone know?

  7. All of the things listed in the article do save energy and are worth doing for that reason alone, but I think it’s damaging to for them to overstate the money that will be saved.

    Also it’s worth noting that you should be careful when lowering the temperature on your hot water tank because there’s a risk of Legionella bacteria growing at the bottom of your tank:

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/turning-down-water-heater-safe.php

  8. And don’t forget the capital costs of all these new bulbs, and the environmental cost of junking your perfectly good incandescents. Also, many bulbs do not have legitimate low power replacements yet (ex, most halogens).

    Geoff: I’ve haven’t studied geothermal in detail, but I have studied other alternative energy options. All were guilty of ignoring maintenance costs. For one geothermal system I saw a few years ago, they suggested having it serviced by a trained technician once a year.

  9. One other flaw in many of these claims and ‘energy saving’ strategies is that they don’t, and can not, reduce the fixed fee portion of the utility bill. It costs the same to bring the power to your home regardless of how much of that power you use. The only way to save on that cost is to live in high density housing, and manage to convince the power company to distribute the delivery charges amongst the residents. Good luck with that.

  10. @BenE: That’s true. The heat from incandescent bulbs isn’t really lost when we are also heating the home.

    @Chris: Reminds me of one of the solutions put forth for global warming. Paint all roofs white. I suppose it would be nice if our houses were white in the summer and black in the winter. With smart materials, this may even be possible with today’s technology.

    @brad: I just looked up the cellphone charger out of curiosity. It consumes a mere 1.75Watts but that’s only when the battery is charging. I’m genuinely curious how much vampire power costs. Time to get a kill-a-watt meter and run some experiments.

    @Kirsten: Most of our fixtures take 2 or 3 bulbs anyway, so I don’t find CFLs a problem there. But I do find a single CFL bulb significantly dimmer than traditional bulbs.

    @Michael: I was thinking the same thing last night because we spend around $900 per year on our hydro bill. If I add a few more steps to the list, Ottawa Hydro will be sending me money.

    @Geoff: I have no idea. Canadian Financial DIY wrote about this:

    http://canadianfinancialdiy.blogspot.com/2010/08/geothermal-home-heating-case-study.html

    @Matthew: I agree. I think we should cut back on waste as much as we can. A neighbour of mine runs the AC even when it’s 17 outside. I bet he can save a ton by simply opening his windows but most people are not like that. They can find some savings but probably not to the tune of 100s of dollars.

    @DG: If we ignore the higher cost of a CFL, the cost of throwing away an incandescent bulb and simply look at annual savings of one bulb, it works out to about $10 per year (assuming the bulb in on an average of 4 hours a day throughout the year and electricity costs 13 cents a kWh and a CFL uses 50 Watts less). In our own household, I can think of just 5 bulbs that will fit the bill. So, that’s about $50 in savings, ignoring capital costs. That’s not bad but not the $200 some suggest.

  11. Wow, I never knew about the water heater bacteria issue. Thanks for sharing that tip.

    Regarding CFLs, I tried them once and I found the lighting quality to be far inferior to that of incandescents. You can verify this by holding up a CD to the light and observing that you are not receiving a full spectrum of light. I already spend a whole day under fluorescent lighting; Even if incandescents cost a few dollars more overall, I don’t mind paying that extra cost for good lighting when I go home.

  12. @ Kirsten. Many Home Depot stores have a display booth where they can show you the differences between “bright white”, “soft white” and other colours of illumination in CFL lights. There are huge differences not only in the design of the light, but also in bulbs offered by different manufacturers. Also, you can move up to a larger capacity on a a CFL light and still consume less power.

  13. @ BenE: In the winter, you’re half right :-). If you use electricity to heat your house, it doesn’t matter if it’s generated by the light bulbs or the baseboards. But the heat produced by natural gas can be up to 3 times cheaper, depending on your furnace efficiency. And you are dead wrong for the summer season: you pay once for the heat to be generated (by the bulbs) and then a second time to be eliminated from your house by your A/C.

    @Brad: what people don’t realize is that small “vampire” amounts over long time result in significant numbers. Let’s consider a 1W charger, plugged in for a year, 24/365. At 12c/kWh (the real price we’re paying here in Toronto, after all the fees, but not considering the fixed account fee), the yearly bill would be:
    1W/1000 x 24h x 365days x $0.12/kWh x 1.13HST = $1.2. Yes, pennies, but 120 of them! As a simple rule of thumb, let’s consider $1/year for each watt *continuously* plugged. Now here are my kill-o-watt measurements:
    - Rogers digital box: 18W, no matter if On or Off (worst offender so far)
    - basement server :65W, always On (replaced since with a $100 NAS, using under 7W)
    - typical PC: 3W when Off
    - my old PC: 140W (I used to leave it on all the time, to be instantly available; no more!)
    - my old Xbox: 7W (I have 2 of them, so 14W)
    - my scanner’s power brick: 6W (used a couple of times a year)
    - my wireless phone, when in cradle: 2W (I have 4 of them, so $8)
    - the small nightlight on the stairs: 2W (replaced all with electroluminescent ones from Dollar store)
    - some guy’s porch lights, 2x60W incandescent: 120W (he doesn’t care to shut them off during the day)

    So while $200 is on the high side, it’s not impossible. For wasteful guys like my neighbor, it’s really easy! The law of diminishing results applies, too. The more mindful you already are, the harder to get significant savings.

    Some of the most overlooked suckers are the power bricks. You think it doesn’t waste anything, if the cell phone is not connected? Wrong, most of them do (the new electronic ones are usually OK)! Just touch them and see if they’re even a little warm.

    @DG: they are not that expensive. I bought packs of 8 Philips 13W CFLs for $15 or so (on sale), if memory serves. So far so good, some broke but they have 5 years warranty and HD replaces them on the spot without any fuss. About junking the incandescents, I have the same problem. For now, I’m keeping them in a box in the garage, ready to be freecycled.

    @Kirsten: in my experience, 2 x 13W CFL rated equivalent to 60W each are in fact closer to a single 100W incandescent. So there are some savings: 26W instead of 100W. But for the occasional light in the basement or in the garage, it doesn’t matter at all. Time is of essence, here.

    @CC: I think a big chunk of the $200 comes from replacing the porch lights. After all, their name is Project Porchlight. If you read carefully, the guy is absolutely correct: you may save *up to* $750. It doesn’t mean everybody will save that much. In fact, I pay a lot less than that for electricity itself.

  14. We should all be using flashlights to satisfy our lighting needs anyways! ;)

    I agree that all this stuff is exaggerated too but I am looking at ways to save on my bills as well. We are pretty good about our lights and electricity usage so it will be hard to make improvements. Our biggest improvement was in heating, the switch from Oil Furnace to Gas Furnace last fall will have paid for itself by the end of this winter coming…if gas prices stay low.

    Aren’t CFL’s hazardous waste due to mercury content? That should be considered in the cost of them.

  15. Another option is to install low-e window films. We purchased inexpensive low-e window films from SnapTint last year and installed them ourselves in one afternoon. WHat a difference these made in the comfort of our house and on our electric bill. Check out SnapTint’s website for more information.

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  20. I can think of an easier way to instant savings in Ontario, kick Mcguinty and his liberals out of provincial parliament and reverse any changes they have made.

  21. With respect to the KIND of light produced by CFL bulbs, I can’t stand it! In the office, in my kitchen and living room, rec room, etc. I use incandescant exclusively. I use CFL’s in the areas that don;t matter – laundry room, hallway here and there, etc. (especially since these are more prone to my 5 kids leaving them on!). By the nature of the heating element in a standard bulb, there is very little ebb and flow of light level on an unseen basis. With CFL bulbs the light level rises and falls 120 times a second. Your conscious mind does not percieve this, but it fatigues the eyes and brain on a less understood basis. Standard incandescent lighting is soothing to the brain after a long day of working under fluorescent bulbs. I’ll pay the extra money. One note though: I use a high power CFL for my outside lamps and don’t mind leaving them on longer as a result. The trick is the colour of CFL (i.e. type) you choose so it doesn’t look as CFL-ish!

  22. George: Old magnetic ballast lights would flicker at 60/120HZ but most modern fluorescents have electronic ballasts which flicker at 10kHz – 40kHz. Humans won’t perceive this.

    I agree that the colors are often sickly, and even if you get a nicer color the overall spectra may not the same as an incandescent.

    Dan

  23. I don’t have a beer fridge, haven’t used the heated drying on the dw ever, have had the programmable thermostat for years, don’t have air conditioning, and hate cold showers. I’d really like to know what I’m going to save by unplugging my tv at night. AND, I like to read and those new curly bulbs don’t cut it, unless you buy a larger wattage than what you are replacing. In hotels, I find I have to all the desk and ask for an incandescent bulb. The new “smart” meters penalize seniors, the disabled and moms who stay home to raise their children. How do the “smart” promulgators want to change society?

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  26. The energy savings are not only on our bills. Electricity for example, (forgive my rough and possibly exaggerated estimates) watts that reach my house may be only half of those generated, because of transmission line and transformer losses. Only 1/6 of the coal input, because of thermodynamic inefficiencies. Only 1/10 of total energy inputs, becase of fueling the trucks and earthmovers, and building the plant in the first place. I enjoy making small incremental reductions in consumption, without major capital expenditures, because I believe they improve my air and water quality, and I value those also.

  27. I recently moved from a two bedroom townhouse to a two bedroom (much smaller) apartment. My electricity bill went from about $50 a month to about $14 a month. (This is with temperature at 15 degrees celsius) at both places. But I also reduced appliances: from a washer, dryer, extra full freezer, old dishwasher and full sized fridge to no washer and dryer (instead I use the coin laundry room), European sized smaller fridge, no extra freezer and a newer current dishwasher. In both places I used energy saving lighting.(And I’m in Vancouver–so heating is less costly.) I also don’t have a TV at either place and use the computer instead. Blankets, coats and sweaters are the best electricity savers. But I admit I am a single person. For married couples with kids I can see this being not practical.

  28. Darryl: Your comment reminds me of this eye-opening graph:

    http://edro.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/us-energy-flow-trends.gif

  29. @Darryl: Avoiding waste and conservation is a good thing in general. I have no quarrel with that.

  30. Thanks DG. That chart showing energy flows and losses is excellent. I guess I was as guilty of exaggeration as Mr. Hickox was. But, another intangible benefit: without LED displays, buzzing transformers, and unnecessary compressor motors, I believe I sleep better. For the same reason, I like my opaque if not thicker window blinds, besides retaining heat on cold nights,

  31. @Geoff: regarding geo-thermal. This is definately an area that I find savings can be significantly inflated. If your home is of a reasonable size and well insulated the ‘payback’ on geothermal can be very long. Investing the equivalent capital costs of geothermal in a low cost index fund would probably give bigger returns.

  32. I have already changed incandescent bulbs with fluorescents ones and I saved for about $100 for past year. The fridge has energy class A+ so we will see how much costs we can really save. I guess those numbers are a little bit exaggerated but anyway we can always start step by step to become to be completely “green”…

  33. The mercury in CFL’s can be recovered and re-used. There certainly is an energy cost in recycling though – and that’s ALL recycling, so not using something in the first place is always a better option – more concerning in the short-term is when you break one, the mercury is released. Toxic. Remember how they took all the mercury out of thermometers because of the danger when you break one? Why’d we go an put it back into something else breakable? We never seem to learn.

    Even more cost savings than a CFL, is to shut off the light when you’re not there. For a lot of people, that’s a pretty easy step 1 to savings.

  34. I’m all for conservation, and in fact my wife would say I’m a nut about it (I unplug the stove when not in use to keep from using the clock)
    The most frustrating thing is how little conservation affects the bill.
    I use about 13kw a day 1 of which is “on peak”. My bill is 75 dollars a month.
    My father uses 43 kw a day, 13 of which is “on peak”
    So, roughly speaking, he uses a little more than 3.3 times as me.

    His bill is only 2.6 time higher. And the less you use, the greater the disconnect.

  35. Great Article! At first when I read the title I was thinking “oh oh, I just wrote about this”–but I am happy to say I avoided dollar values even though they can look awfully impressive.

  36. All your ideas are in vein, the more hydro evertbody saves the higher the price will go to keep those high paying jobs intact.It;s simple as this Hydro Companys show loss of revenue the comission passes a hike in rates.Remember these people are greedy self centered, and filthy rich off your back.So my advice is complain to your mpp every day

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