By Donella Meadows
–August 31, 1989–
The best antidote to the greenhouse effect, to acid rain, to urban air pollution, nuclear wastes, and high energy bills is energy conservation. If we stopped throwing away most of the energy we use, we could get a lot more bang and a lot less blight for the buck.
Rocky Mountain Institute (known to its friends as RMI) calculates that the United States could reduce its electricity use by 20 percent (the equivalent of 100 major power plants) just by using the most efficient lights now available. If we used the most efficient cars, motors, and other devices, the nation could cut its total energy bill (and related pollution load) by 75 percent — and our showers would still be just as hot, our beers as cold, and our rooms as comfortable.
When I hear figures like those, I’m ready to go out and buy super-efficient light bulbs. But that’s not easy to do. You can’t pick them up at any supermarket. And new models are coming out so fast that it’s hard to know what to buy.
That was my complaint to Ted Flanigan, RMI’s energy program director. Ted personally tests the latest efficient devices. He seems to have a special interest in not only the efficiency but the sensual satisfaction of energy-saving showerheads — no wimpy, drip-drip for him. He was telling me about “the sportscar of showerheads,” when I interrupted to ask how the heck I could find one.
Here I am, I said in some frustration, ready to reduce my energy bill and my contribution to acid rain, and I don’t know where to start. Give me some guidance.
Here’s what he told me.
Your showerhead probably uses 4-6 gallons of hot water per minute. Energy-efficient ones use 1-2 gallons per minute. (“I prefer being at the 2-gallon end of the range, myself,” says Ted.) The “sportscar model” is called — get this — the Turbojector Spa 2000. It sucks in air and mixes it with water to provide a firm flow, “in a cone, not by pushing water through pinholes.”
The Turbojector costs $20 if you install it yourself. If you have a gas water heater, you’ll save (in an average household with an average number of teenagers) $17-$25 per year in gas bills. If your water heater is electric, the savings will be $47-$71. That doesn’t count water savings of about 10,000 gallons. Multiply that by a whole city, and you’ve taken a big load off the water system!
OK, what’s the downside, the hidden flaw? I asked. Nothing’s that good. There must be problems.
Ted said the Spa 2000 doesn’t work at all at his brother’s house in Vermont — a self-designed water system with low pressure. And if you plumb it yourself, he warned, be sure you know what you’re doing. Use Teflon tape to seal the threads. And two wrenches so you don’t break the pipe fittings behind the wall.
The secret of light bulbs is to replace regular incandescents with compact fluorescents. You can draw 18 watts instead of 75 with no less light. Each bulb costs about 10 times more than an incandescent, fits into the same socket, lasts more than 10 times as long, and saves about $50 in electricity bills over its lifetime.
Yeah, I bought one of those once, I growled. It wouldn’t go on when the room was cold, it flickered, and it burned out after two months. It was too big to fit into most of my lamps. And it gave a yucky white light.
Must have been one of the cheap bulbs or one of the early ones, said Ted. They’ve gone through about 12 generations by now. The new ones start instantly, start cold, and don’t flicker. They’re much smaller. There’s a range of colors to choose from, including warm incandescent. Ted says he hasn’t yet had one burn out in his house.
Watch out, he said, for “energy miser” bulbs that are just old-style incandescents with better reflectors. Their energy saving is only about 10 percent. And watch out for poor quality cheapies. Go with name brands like Philips, Panasonic, Toshiba, Osram, GE, and Sylvania.
You make it sound like I have a choice, I said. I don’t know where to find any of these things. Ask for them at your hardware store, said Ted. Make it clear that customers want these things. Then, if they don’t have them and can’t order them, go to a special distributor. (Try Rising Sun Enterprises, P.O. Box 585, Old Snowmass, Colorado, 81654, 303-927-8051; or Resources Conservation Inc, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1-800-243-2862.)
Soon there will be dimmable compact fluorescents, and modulars, so you can replace the bulb while keeping the ballast — which should bring the cost way down. And, said Ted, check out the new Incredible Head Europa showerhead. It comes in colors, chrome, or antiqued brass, and has a lever so you can interrupt the flow while you’re soaping up.
This stuff reminds me of computers, I said. I no sooner buy one than it’s obsolete and the new ones cost half as much. If these energy-efficient devices are changing so fast, why should I buy them now? Why not wait a year or two?
When to do it, said Ted, is just a matter of when you want to start saving money — and polluting less.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989