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Solar Electricity and Our Doorbell

Green Cross Magazine
April 1997

My wife, Joyce, and I consume as few as four kilowatt-hours per day, which is pretty good in comparison to the national average of 27-plus per day. Our average for last year was just over 7.  And no, we haven't thrown the TV out, we don't keep the house at 50 degrees in the winter, and we love our tropical fish aquarium.

We would, however, like to consume less power from our local utility. I have thought about installing solar panels on the roof. Unfortunately, the cost of the solar electric (photovoltaic) panels is extremely high to produce our average 7 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day. Such a powerful system may cost us $30,000 or more.  For $30,000 , I could purchase 7 kilowatt-hours per day for 87 years.

So, we keep trying to reduce our electric use.  The first step toward reducing is knowing where the energy goes once it gets inside your house.  About two years ago, I borrowed a sophisticated meter to measure how Joyce and I use electricity.  It measured our electric use every 15 minutes and printed it out on a paper tape -- 96 recordings per day over several months.  Each morning, I would graph out the past day's electric pattern.

We could see weekly peaks caused by the vacuum cleaner, the use of our dishwasher after our Christmas party, and even the hair dryer that Joyce uses every morning.  Our overall energy consumption pattern became clearer.  What we learned probably applies to most households.

Example: our refrigerator uses about 20 percent of our electricity. Joyce says she wouldn't even consider turning that off.  I would like to try it just for a week or so.  It might be like camping, and camping is fun, isn't it?  Joyce does not agree with my logic.  OK, so we'll keep the fridge on.

The fish tank uses about 8 percent of our total electricity, the VCR and TV use 7 percent, and the stereo uses 3 percent.  The rest is split about equally between lighting, home office equipment, and miscellaneous.

In this process, I became aware of a puzzling phenomenon.  When I shut everything off, the house still used electricity.  I discovered that the copier in my office was still a little bit "on" when it was "off." The fax machine was on when no faxes were coming in or going out.  The television was also using some electricity, even when it was turned off.

I also found several small transformers that lower the voltage from the utility.  We had transformers on a cordless phone, an answering machine, a battery charger and a doorbell.  What did the doorbell use?  10 watts.  What's 10 watts?  Operating 24 hours a day for a year, those 10 watts wind up costing me $12 a year. For a doorbell that can easily go a whole day without being used.

We put separate switches on the copier and TV power cords...you can do this with a power surge protector that has a switch on it, a good investment in a thunderstorm anyway. And, ta-da, we now we have shiny new doorbell drilled into our front door.  If you want to ring it, you twist a key, and a charming bell jingles inside.  What did this new doorbell cost?  Twelve bucks.  Since it was installed two years ago, we didn't send 24 bucks to the power company.

I still don't know what to do with the fax machine, so it stays plugged in, ready for the next fax, using energy all the time.  But I'm proud of our progress. I think energy management is just this process.  While we may buy more efficient lamps, boilers and windows, most of our success involves just learning how to use measurably less energy... getting better and better at it as the days go on.