The Heat is On (But I’m Still Saving Money)

As summer winds down, and the nights start to take on a little chill, I’ve started thinking about the winter heating season again.  We have a geothermal heating system in our house which is fairly efficient, but I’m always looking for more ways to save energy and money.  To that end, I went out and purchased a programmable thermostat last weekend.

We were told when we installed our heat pump that we shouldn’t use a programmable thermostat.  The installer said that when a heat pump is in heating mode, setting back its thermostat can actually make it run less efficiently, in effect cancelling out any savings gained by lowering the temperature.  However, some companies have recently begun selling specially designed programmable thermostats for heat pumps, and they now say that using one of these can make setting the thermostat back cost effective.  We’ll give it a try this year and see what happens.

In general, programmable thermostats can be an excellent investment.  If you are using it for controlling the temperature while you are sleeping and while you are at work, you can see some very good savings and wake up to a comfortable home.  In most cases, the thermostat will pay for itself in less than two years.  To learn more about how you can save money and energy this winter, check out the Department of Energy’s Energy Savers programmable thermostat page.  You can also find a programmable thermostat consumer calculator there that will help you get an estimate of how much you might save.

If you want to see something really cool, check out this Apple-like foray into domestic gadgets called the Nest Thermostat.  Designed by former Apple designer Tony Fadell, the thermostat programs itself over a weeks time based on how you are adjusting the settings.  Not only is it simple to use, but it’s cute and you can access and control the thermostat from your office or your smartphone.

Update: The Penny Pinchers have been pulling away!  We need your help to get back in this game.  The Family Energy FACE-OFF is a year-long energy saving competition between two families from Earth Day 2012 to Earth Day 2013.  Our family, the Mill Pond Minimizers, gets points when you join our team and do energy saving actions.  Won’t you  join us?  It’s easy, just:

  1. Click here:
  2. Click on any energy saving actions you have completed.
  3. Submit your actions and join the Mill Pond Minimizers!

Living Like Kings

When we moved into our house several years ago there was an old wooden dock leaning up against the garage.  This summer we decided to pull it out and see if we could get it in the pond across the street.  After a little cleaning up, repair and attaching of floats, it was ready to go in the water.  Only there was one problem:  I was home alone with the kids and didn’t have anybody to help me move it.  I was really anxious to see if it would float, so after a little head scratching I had an a-ha moment.  I could use the new dock posts to roll this thing up the driveway and across the road!

Back around 1944, American inventor and energy philosopher Buckminster Fuller coined the term “energy slave”.  No, this is not your teenager complaining about having to take out the garbage.  The term refers to the average output of a hard-working man doing 150,000 foot-pounds of work per day and working 250-days per year. Fuller used data gathered by the U.S., German, and Swiss armies to get his estimate of the average amount of mechanical work a person could do in a year.

So what does it all mean?  Well, using Fuller’s method gives us another way to look at the way we use energy in our lives. For instance, it has been estimated that a middle-class American lifestyle uses energy that is equivalent to the work of 100 plus energy slaves working 24 hours per day for him or her.  Who knew you had so much power?  For most of human history power like this was relegated to kings and pharaohs, and now most of us take having this kind of power for granted.

My wife came home later that evening, and she was curious as to how I had moved the dock all by myself.  When I explained she said, “Ah, caveman technology.”  And here I thought I was being clever.  Well… at least it is easier to launch the canoe and the kids now have a sturdy place to look for pond critters.  And when we take our canoe out for a Saturday morning paddle at least I know we are living like kings. (Even if the adults have to do all the paddling).

Update: We gained a little bit on the Penny Pinchers (about 1,000 points) but not nearly enough.  If you’ve already joined our team, thanks!  If you haven’t well now’s your chance.

  1. Click here:
  2. Click on any energy saving actions you have completed.
  3. Submit your actions and join the Mill Pond Minimizers!


Dads Measure Energy Use; Kids Measure Dinosaurs: Do You Measure Up?

My five-year old son Henry likes to measure things.  Always interested in comparing one thing to another, he asks, “Daddy, would a Tyrannosaurus be bigger than our house?” or, “Daddy, is a loon faster than a cheetah?”  As a father, this line of questioning can sometimes be maddening. I mean, is there supposed to be some relevant relationship between the length of the stick he has just found and his sister’s height?   But as parents we sometimes have to play along, which means we occasionally have to get out the 150-foot measuring tape to demonstrate just how long an Argentinosaurus was in comparison to a blue whale.

I understand that this desire to measure and compare is not limited to five year olds, and I can get caught up by it as well.  When we moved into our house back in 2008, I began to keep very close tabs on our energy use.  Energy prices fluctuate from year to year, so we decided that if we really wanted to get a handle on how we use energy, we would track kilowatt hours (kWh).  I created a spreadsheet and began entering the data from our utility bills each month.  From all this data, I can now tell you that December is the month we use the most electricity (we heat our home using a geothermal heat pump), or that our lowest month ever for electricity usage was July 2008, when we used only 317 kWh (still trying to beat that).

Having this information lets us see how the changes we make have an impact on our energy bill. It also lets us see how our energy use compares with other households.  In Minnesota, the average monthly household electrical consumption is 817 kWh. For the entire US, households use on average 920 kWh per month.  There is very little we can do about the prices utility companies charge for electricity, but we can control how much energy we use.  How does your household’s energy use compare to the state and national averages?

(In case you were wondering. . . A 42-foot long Tyrannosaurus would be longer than our house, but our house is still taller than a T Rex, a loon can fly up to 90 miles per hour, much faster than a cheetah, a blue whale at 200 tons is the largest known animal to have ever existed, though an Argentinosaurus would have been longer at 120 feet from head to tail, and . . . Hazel is shorter than some sticks but taller than others.) 

Update: We are gaining on the Penny Pinchers!  The score currently stands at 53,965 to 78,785 but we’ve been gaining ground fast.  Joining our team is easy as 1,2,3.

  1. Click here:
  2. Click on any energy saving actions you have completed.
  3. Submit your actions and join the Mill Pond Minimizers!


Unplugged in the Great Outdoors

I took the family camping last week to Frontenac State Park on the bluffs above the Mississippi River near Red Wing.  Before having children, my wife and I used to go backpack camping and would bring along as little as possible.  Now it seems like we bring everything but the kitchen sink.  We used to make fun of people like us, but having a high chair for Hazel frees up our hands to do something other than chase after a two year old, if only temporarily. (Hey, at least we are past the Pack N Play stage.)

Do I really look like I need restraining?

Even so, getting away and camping in a tent can be a great way to remind us of some of the simple things we take for granted when we are home.  Like when the propane canister runs empty in the middle of making breakfast (oops!), or when the cell phone goes completely dead after two days (probably a blessing there). or how you have to make dozens of trips back and forth to fill the jugs of water.

I’m not complaining.  I love camping and I think there are some really valuable conservation lessons for our kids in trips like these.  Setting up home in the woods requires planning and care.  If you want to stay dry, eat hot food and have enough water for cooking, drinking and cleaning you have to be mindful of your resources.  And this mindfulness begins before pulling out of the driveway.  After making sure we have packed everything we might possibly need or want, we make sure the furnace is turned off, we switch off any power strips and unplug anything that doesn’t need to be running.

Bottom of the bluff

My hope is that Henry and Hazel will enjoy playing house in the woods, while at the same time developing an appreciation for all the conveniences we have at home.  And hopefully they will come to see that mindfulness of resources isn’t something that only happens on camping trips.

Update: Our team, The Mill Pond Minimizers, is still behind in the CERTs Family Energy Face-Off competition.  Last count we were down 37,620 to 76,025.  We could use your help to get back in this and we welcome all comers to join our team and gain some ground on the Penny Pinchers.



Putting on our game faces


My name if Jeff Vetsch and from Earth Day 2012 until Earth Day 2013 my family is taking part in a Family Energy Face-Off.  We will be highlighting our successes and asking others to join us as we continue to look for ways to reduce our home energy use.  We hail from New London and are calling ourselves the Mill Pond Minimizers.

Our nemesis in this competition is the Goodnough family from Morris.  They have used their University of Minnesota Morris connections to jump out to an early lead (73,000 points to 12,600 points!) and we need you to join us so we can get back in the game.  It’s really quite easy. Just go the website to join our team and click on the energy actions you have completed.  We get the points and you get to save some money!  While you’re there, watch the video of our families and learn more about other actions you can take to help us overtake the Goodnoughs.

I’ll be checking back in frequently to update on how things are going, and to write about energy conservation issues, initiatives and opportunities.

Join our team and wish us luck!