Smarter Green Home Ideas to Recycle Wasted Energy
Our homes, green or not, waste a lot of energy. As I read articles and product reviews, I have noticed that many of the biggest energy wasters and some of the simplest solutions have yet to be discussed. I will attempt to point out these issues and provide easy solutions.
Let’s start with the clothes dryer. Many of us believe that the microwave in our home is the biggest energy puller or maybe the HVAC. In fact, our electric clothes dryer draws 9kW per cycle! If we live in an apartment, it is probably much more because we seem to have to run them longer or for more than one cycle to get the job done. This is because the long exhaust vents from the dryer to the outside is packed with who knows how many years of lint. Every bit of lent clogs the line and makes it harder for the dryer to vent the moist, hot air. Let’s think about that for a moment. We are heating air just to vent it outside – that’s wasted energy. Now, of course, it has to go somewhere or the clothes won’t dry. Why not use that already hot air to help with heating water or heating the home in winter? We are all usually quite dried out in the winter time so the moisture could be welcome too. We’ll look at the hot water first and then the HVAC.
If you have the standard hot water heater with a tank rather than the new tank less “on-demand” water heaters, then you lose a lot of energy through natural conductivity of heat. For one thing, why do we store our hot water heaters in the basement? This is likely the coldest place in our home. Does that make any sense? A hot item in a cold environment vents heat easily. The sensible thing to do is to put it in the hottest place in our home – the attic. In the summer time, the temperature up there can get almost hot enough itself to heat the water. For some, the answer may be that it just gets too hot in their location for the heater to operate safely in the attic. For others, it is the risk of a leak ruining our ceilings. Putting the hot water heater in an enclosure with a leak sensor and a valve to drain the leak outside will solve this issue and add up to a lot of savings over the years. During the winter, it may get cold in your attic but likely not as cold as the basement. This is where our clothes dryer and oven come in. Whether or not you can put your hot water heater in the attic or not, the waste heat from the oven and clothes dryer can be easily routed to aid in hot water production. Rigging a simple vent that can be open and closed at will that allows the waste heat to circulate to and around the hot water heater, will not only lower your energy bills, but will also make use of what is otherwise completely wasted energy.
Now what about the HVAC? We spend half our time cooling our environment and the other half heating it. As with the hot water heater, our oven and clothes dryer can help – at least with the heating. Again, we use the vent and ducting to circulate otherwise wasted heat where we need it most. The dryer produces its own force to move the air while the oven does not. For the oven vent, we need to install a small, battery operated motor with fan blades. This could be a model airplane engine and prop. A simple, low power 3-6 volt motor with a large prop will do. When we’re done cooking, we open the vent and turn on the motor and the entire oven’s heat goes where we need it. The other side of this coin is cooling the air. Our air conditioners function is to remove BTUs from the air. Let’s look at a way nature can help with this and then we will come back to those wasted BTUs. Just a little below the surface, the ground maintains a temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is much cooler than most of us ever set our air conditioners. For those of us with at least a little bit of yard to call our own, we could use this cool ground to our advantage. Grab some piping or hose. The larger the surface area of the piping and the more heat conductive it is, the better. Any metal pipe will be more heat conductive than plastic. In any case, we break the connection from the house to the outside AC unit. Between the two, we bury several yards of pipe. For a small yard, we can wrap the pipe back and forth to take less space. As the hot air is drawn from the home, it will travel through the pipes or hose and radiate a lot of its heat through to the cool ground. This means less work for the AC unit. For more moderate days, a simple fan to circulate the air through this system will provide the few degrees you need to be comfortable in the home. Let’s now go back to the wasted BTUs. The AC essentially removes heat energy from the home and sends it off into the world. This is waste. We could, once again, circulate that hot air back to the hot water tank and save energy.
Onto our most unlikely source of green energy savings – or at least, money savings. Trash. Most of us pay a service to come and remove our trash. Why? Because we don’t want it obviously. You may know that there are a lot of startup companies out there that make use of trash to generate energy. These companies find it difficult to find investors and it is projected that most won’t make it. This isn’t because they don’t have a good idea. In fact, quite the opposite. Execs at energy giant BP, as well as others, see the problem in a different light. Although today trash is something people pay to get rid of, they do not expect this trend to last. Why? Because there is a lot of energy in that trash. They expect that one day soon, people will be offering you money to haul off your trash. SO what’s in there any way? We know today that most materials are recyclable and that the cardboard box, paper plate and plastic bottle we use was likely used before in some part. What these guys are after is mostly the organic stuff though. We eat food to gain energy. There are ways to get that energy in to other forms. We won’t tackle this entire issue here but we will take some of his trash and use it to save us money. Our eggshells, potato peels and coffee grounds make fantastic ingredients for mulch. For those already in the know, the benefit is often outweighed by the awful smell of this decay. There are new devices on the market to deal with this problem but for us regular Joes, a simple enclosure will suffice. This raw material that we consider food waste and trash could easily be used to fertilize a garden to grow fresh fruits and veg and save us big time on our grocery bill. If you haven’t gardened before, you will find it surprising how much you can produce from a very small garden. A new gardener quickly finds the need o learn yet another skill – canning. Canning is used to preserve the over abundance of food you have produced. These tomatoes and other items can be saved and used throughout the winter. So what about the green? The food can be eaten, canned or converted to a burnable fuel and it isn’t that hard to do. When natural things decay, they produce burnable gases such as methane. This gas can be captured and used for anything from heating to cooking. Learning this skill is easy via the web and this author may write a simple solution in the near future.
Another unused feature in or rather around our home is the sun. We all know that there are solar panels that convert the sunlight to electricity. We also quickly learn that they are expensive and don’t last forever. Both of these negative points are fading fast however. More durable, less expensive cells are being developed all the time. There is even a “paint-on” solar cell. A less expensive and longer lasting option is a solar reflector. In the extreme case, at the largest solar reflector array on earth, we are able to focus the sun’s energy so well that we can exceed the temperature of the sun itself. For our home though, we don’t need quite that much. A solar reflector looks like the common satellite television dish except that it is nice and shiny. It collects the sun’s light and focuses it to a small point. This is like starting a fire with a magnifying glass. This heat could be used for an oven or hot water heater or even to make gas and electricity. The heat part is self explanatory but what about the gas and electricity? Producing hydrogen gas via water electrolysis is a simple process. Many of us did this in elementary science classes. If you haven’t done this, it is simple to learn again, via the web. The problem with electrolysis is that it is only 87% efficient and then only when making small amounts at a time. A KOH electrolyte solution will conduct a couple amps at 1.7 volts – hence the 87% efficiency. However, the solar reflector changes everything. It is possible and accepted to use heat energy as part of the equation. Using our solar reflector, we can heat the electrolyte to several hundred degrees. This can add another 10-20% efficiency to our equation. Now, if we also have a relatively small set of solar panels, we could produce hydrogen gas at well over 100% electrical efficiency. So why isn’t everyone doing this? There are several reasons – some good and some short sighted. As for the good reasons, you will only produce a small amount at a time, and, to convert it to electricity, you would need expensive and terribly inefficient fuel cells. As for the short sightedness, we are, after all, talking about producing essentially free energy regardless of quantity. The sun is just sitting there all day doing nothing – we may as well use it. So maybe it takes a week or two to make enough gas to use for any real purpose. The point is that eventually, we do have a very powerful gas that can be used to power all sorts of gadgets for us. It could even be used to supplement our “trash gas” we’re making in the back yard. It could be used to power the grill, an outdoor brick oven, a water heater or preheater and more. Again, a lot of hydrogen gadgets and ideas are available online.
Speaking of electrolysis, what about the water around the home? We use a lot of it but we really don’t make full use of it. We jump in the shower, get all clean and get out and never think about all the water that went down the drain until the bill comes. We needed the shower because we just got in from a sweaty day of gardening where we tilled and planted and watered. See the connection yet? When we garden, whether it is flowers, vegetables or just a nice lawn, we all have to water and we all have to contend with pests. Those “in-the-know” learn that of all the pest repellents out there, one of the best is just plain ole soap. Lots of bugs and other critters find it to be irritating and just avoid it. At the same time, we are watering the garden or lawn because it hasn’t rained in a couple weeks. Remember the last rain? The one you thought would wash away the whole neighborhood? Too bad you don’t have some of that water to use right now, huh. Rain catchers and our “waste” water can be used to maintain our gardens and lawns all year long. To use fresh water for this purpose is so wasteful as to almost demand a law against it. When it rains, the grass needs watering but the house doesn’t. Catching this water that runs off the roof is simple, easy and smart. The only drawback that some have with them is the potential for a mosquito nest. Because smart design is so easy and mosquito water treatments so plentiful, this is no reason to not take advantage of this vast resource. Depending on the home in question, re-routing the shower and kitchen drains to a tub rather than the sewer system may be easy as pie or quite the undertaking. In most cases, knowing how to work with PVC and drywall is all you would need. Look at it this way, you are paying the water utility for that water – why give it back just to buy it again?
Some of you may be saying to yourselves at this point – “Why didn’t I see all this?” We all get complacent and we know this. What we may not know is that we don’t actually “see” all the time. The human mind sees at about 32 frames per second. We take a series of pictures just like a camera rather than this constant live feed. We can use this to our advantage to save money when it comes to lighting. Oh yeah? Yeah. If you pulse a light on and off faster than we can see, it appears that the light is on all the time. A simple timer circuit and LED bulb can demonstrate this. The effect has already been used in large business buildings to give the appearance of “dimmed” lighting in fluorescent fixtures at night and save loads of money on electricity. By pulsing our light, we use half the power. The light is on, then off, then on again. We don’t see the pulsing, but we are only using power half the time. This means our energy use for lighting is cut in half. Smart design that uses skylights and lots of windows saves us big on energy costs. If we can further improve that by 50%, why don’t we? For most, it is a matter of knowledge. The fact is though, a simple AC-DC converter and pulsing circuit is incredibly easy and can certainly be found via the web. I may submit this as a future how-to article as well.
In all, the main point is to look around your home. Really look. Think about the processes going on and determine if they make good sense. The heat from the clothes dryer being vented outside, for instance. If it doesn’t make sense, think about a way to change it and do it. You will save money, you will learn a few things and you will help us all by greening things up.