Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tis the season... pay big electric bills. Fa La La La La, La La, La, Ouch!

Feel like you need a personal nuclear reactor just to light your Festivus lights? You might not be far from the truth. You face three choices:
  1. Go without in the spirit of being a GreenerGeek
  2. Installing the traditional tiny lights and pay the electric company through the nose
  3. Buying LED lights, paying through the nose for high-tech, and ignore your power bill
In the spirit of reusing our existing traditional lights (avoiding the environmental impact of buying new lights and land-filling these), I did a few power measurements this season. It turns out it is pretty much directly proportional to bulb count.

As an example, our backyard display consists of 6 strands of Garlands wrapped around our deck (1,800 bulbs), and three strands wrapped around a small pine tree (300 bulbs). I measured 420 watts for those 2,100 bulbs, or about 0.2 watts each. Expressed another way, you can divide the bulb count by 5 to come up with the wattage.

Our front display consists of 6 strands of Garlands wrapped around two tall bushes (1,800 bulbs), 15 sets of Net Lights on our bushes (2,250 bulbs), and 2 simple strands outlining Bambi, or fake deer (200 bulbs). I measured the total power consumption of our front yard display (4,250 bulbs) at 855 watts.

Our total homage (6,350 bulbs) to the Chrismahanaquanzika season is a wallet-numbing 1,275 watts per hour, which costs just about $0.25. We run the lights from 4 PM until 10 PM, or 6 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 5 weeks. That means the total cost to run our holiday lights is about $105.

Now let's look at using LED lights.

The good news is that the LED bulb itself lasts much longer. The bad news is that it still uses the same sort of cheap socket connections which quickly fail. You are going to be pulling your hair out year after year keeping your expensive LED light strings working. But at least you won't land-fill them because they cost too much.

Speaking of cost, LED lights run about $50 for a set of 150 bulbs. The bad news is that is 16 times more than I spent on the same number of traditional lights. The good news is costs are coming down each year. Maybe we can afford them in another 5 years?

Well at least LED lights save money on power, right? That's the very good news. Yes they do! They use 1/14th the power. So divide the bulb count by 70 and you will have your power consumption.

So let's compare. My 6,350 traditional bulbs consume 1,275 watts, and cost me $105 to run for the season. If I changed over to LED bulbs, then my power bill would be $13, saving $92. But LED lamps would cost me $2,116 to purchase. Even if the strands lasted 10 years (wildly optimistic given build-quality), I would still be about $1,200 in the hole if I used LED technology.

The real bad news is that current LED technology is just a fun experiment. The economics are not even close to there yet.

Maybe the most green approach would be to use five 200 watt solar panel (an array size of about 8x10 feet) to capture enough sunlight during the day (8 hours) to generate the power used for the lights. That panels would cost about $4,500 and require a $1,500 grid-tied inverter (you sell the power to the electric company during the day, and draw power from the grid at night to run your lights). So for $6,000 out of pocket, you can offset your $105 power bill for your lights (and put another $900 or so in your pocket during the rest of the year).

Of course those solar panels will generate zero power if we have a white Christmas -- Bah humbug!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wait, wait, help me understand...

With the Big Three begging for money from Congress, I have seen many folks publishing comments along the lines that the American car producers need to build tiny, inexpensive fuel efficient cars that "Americans want".

Wait, wait, help me understand. As I recall that is EXACTLY what they were doing in the past, making large SUVs and trucks to the tune of 16 million units per year (record breaking sales). The further reality is that with the energy costs on the upward side of the spiral and a credit market crisis, Americans actually are buying NO cars of any kind. How exactly does this translate into the Big Three needing to build crappy econo-boxes in order to survive?

True, to survive they must build cars that Americans want to drive, but extrapolating that to mean tiny gas sippers is ridiculous. Detroit has tried that numerous times and found out that Americans don't buy small gas sippers from American car companies, only from Nissan, Toyota, Kia, etc. Those companies, unencumbered by labor unions and benefit costs (health care and pensions for retirees) are in a much better position to be able to make a profit on small cars that American manufacturers ever will be (unless they go bankrupt and shed their contracts and liabilities).

The ONLY way for American car companies to survive is to rapidly retool themselves to make mid-size and large cars that Americans will buy. That means they will need to dramatically increase the fuel economy of those cars to be positioned for the next upward energy spike (which will be back within a few years). And to do that they need to be developing entire families of plug-hybrid vehicles. Something like the Volt is a baby-step in the right direction, but needs to be sold at 10 times the volume GM is planning (which would help to reduce the absurd $20K premium the Volt is expected to cost over a traditional power-train). Detroit needs to be bold and do this across the board -- in all makes and models -- in order to differentiate themselves from other producers.

If tiny econo-boxes are what Americans want, then write off the big three today and end the suffering now.

Ah, sweet relief !

National Grid, the company that supplies electricity to Rhode Island, has filed for a rate DECREASE. The current rate for delivered electricity is 19 cents per KWh. Effective January 1, that rate will decrease to 16.1 cents. Perhaps that will remove RI from the dubious distinction of having the highest rate in the country? Of course other states will probably be following in RI's footsteps, so we shall see.

This cut will save the average electrical consumer about $13 per month, and comes despite the fact that RI power suppliers generate very little of their electricity from oil. (Suppliers have a clause that ties the value of their energy to the price of oil and gas. So as oil and gas go up or down, so would the value of solar or wind.)

Finally, the retail cost of gasoline continues to drop, having reached $1.79 per gallon right before Thanksgiving. With crude prices below $45 a barrel (gasoline at $1.05 wholesale), I suspect that gasoline will be at $1.50 or less per gallon by the new year. That said, the New England area is transitioning over from gasoline storage to heating oil, which means the price of gasoline may not drop as low as it will in other parts of the country due to reduced supply in the region.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What a difference a quarter makes ...

Well it was during June/July of this year that gasoline in RI was selling for $4.30 a gallon. Yesterday I paid $2.15. So in four months, the price has been cut in half, with no bottom in sight.
You have to go back to Spring of 2005 to find similar low prices. An in case you forgot, gas was selling for $1.25 a gallon back in December of 2001 (when I bought my current truck).

Will we see another halving of prices? Depends on how deep the recession goes.

With GM on the verge of going bankrupt, I feel their only chance of survival (short of the ever popular taxpayer funded bailout) is reinventing themselves as a hybrid company (as in Chevy Volt). But with fuel costs dropping so low I suspect the American consumer is not going to be very interested in paying more money for a car that uses less gas.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

A "Home" Sized Nuclear Generator?

Not quite, but how about small community sized? A company called Hyperion is now fabricating self-contained nuclear "power-modules" that are about 3 meters tall and 2 meters around. The power unit is unconditionally stable (you can't cause it to melt-down or go critical).

It produces about 25 Megawatts of energy, enough for a community of 10,000 to 20,000 homes. The initial cost is approximately $2500 to $1250 per home. The produced energy costs approximately $0.10 per KWh.

It's designed to be buried deep underground which makes it pretty inconvenient to steal (unless you have weeks to do the job), it produces little waste (a softball sized fuel pile replaced every 7 years or so), it's safe (reactor breach shuts down the reaction by physical design). And best of all there are no emissions of any kind.

Fascinating technology. Website A story about it

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Technology marches on...

There was an interesting post about new Hybrid technology being used in UPS trucks:

UPS is buying seven new "Hydraulic Hybrid" trucks that use diesel motors to run hydraulic pumps that actually turn the wheels. Slowing the vehicle stores hydraulic pressure. Studies found the trucks use 40% less fuel and emit 1/3 less pollution. The biggest "complaint" is the motor is so quiet the drivers think it has stalled!

Now if only that could be reworked for taxis in big cities.

Everything old is new again...

Nope, not a Bob Fosse musical, but life repeating itself. For good or bad I've seen the same energy cycle repeat itself three time in the 70's, 80's and now again. Energy prices soar, become a noticeable part of the family budget, then crash back down. Each run-up in energy prices has been followed by a deep economic downturn that lasts several years.

So here we are today in RI with gas selling for $2.51 or lower. It's the first time that prices today are lower than they were a year ago too, so the fall has been fast and steep.

Now of course that is good news with winter around the corner. But --- the local utility is refusing to cut their budget breaking energy prices (already the highest in the nation and set to go up to $0.19 per KWh in two weeks). They want to wait to ensure the reductions "will last". And many oil customers have found themselves locked into oil prices of $4.50 to $5.00 a gallon, when the spot market price of home heating oil has dropped below $3. So the energy costs won't be reflected in anyone's bill except natural gas customers (projected to be about 40% lower than last winter).

Of course the relaxed energy costs have followed the loss of trillions of dollars in the financial system. I understand that the "core" of the financial meltdown was the housing market in North America -- a well intentioned social program that backfired when the Fed started raising interest rates and sub-prime borrowers could no longer pay off their loans. However, it appears that energy costs may have been grain of sand that tilted us over and caused everything to crash down.

That said, the real tragedy of this entire situation may be the focus will shift from America's long-term energy policy to short-term fixes for the financial system. Falling energy costs take pressure off our need to develop additional stop-gap traditional sources and newer emerging technologies. For the most part this guarantees that America will be ill positioned yet again a decade from now rather than being energy independent. More money is guaranteed to flow out of the country to balance the trade deficit, and more lives will be put in harms way as rouge nations are empowered to do harm as a result of their control of petro dollars.

I'm happy that people may pay less this year to stay warm, but I'm saddened to think that we will be in this same position in the year 2020.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Alternatives to CFLs in the not-so-distant future

My 10 year old daughter did a science project on the real energy savings in a home by using CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) last year. She even covered the typical "anti-green" arguments against using CFLs (Mercury and Total Life Cycle Energy Costs). To no ones surprise, CFLs are the way to go.

The future looks bright (don't you hate lighting nerd puns) for emerging technology. About six month ago a milestone was passed when OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) efficiency surpassed that of the most energy efficient fluorescent lamps. While that article stressed energy efficiency, developments continue to be made on other fronts, namely utility and cost to produce.

In the not so distant future, our walls or ceilings may glow with gentle diffuse white light that can be adjusted for color or brightness on a whim, all the while producing that light efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way.

Maybe it is a good time to sell your stock in table lamp companies?

Monday, October 6, 2008

So your truck really IS bigger than mine...

And I thought my fuel consumption was high. Turns out the average 18 wheeler consumes about $9000 in fuel idling each year during rest stops to keep the cab cool. Turns out there is a gizmo (imagine that) out there to eliminate that. It's called 'Blue Cool' and it essentially chills a chemical mix (300 pounds of it) while the truck is going down the road -- when you pull off for a bite or a break, the engine goes off and the Blue Cool supplies the chill for 10 hours!

Similar solutions are starting to show up in commercial buildings which form ice during night hours (when it is cooler outside and power is MUCH cheaper). Then during office hours when there is peak power demand, the air conditioning comes from the ice, not electricity.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gasp -- Another rate increase for Rhode Island

At least RI continues to strive toward #1 in one area -- the utility announced another 4% rate increase for this November. That will bring our delivered rate to somewhere near 19 cents per KWh.

Rate increases are inevitable (sort of like death and taxes). However you can choose to reduce your demand. After calling 'battle stations' to the family this past month, our power bill was reduced by $120 off the peak of the month before. We are expecting similar reductions in use over the next few months as well.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Its not all about electricity, you know!

The Greener Geek remembers decades ago when his grandfather told him an off-color joke attributed to LBJ. According to President Johnson, a smart man never passed up an opportunity; which, in his mind, was an offer of a free meal, the love of a woman (clearly NOT LBJ's more colorful words), and a chance to go to the bathroom.

As the Greener Geek has gotten older, he understands the imperative to find a bathroom all too well (especially at 3 AM), and has recognized that pain tends to lead one to seek comfort. That applies to the current Geek-mobile -- it's a great ride, looks as new as the day it rolled off the assembly line eight years ago, and sucks (gas) like a Hoover (The person that said "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux" clearly hasn't paid to fill-up my Avalanche).

Given that I drive very little these days (a perk of working out of my home office), and frequently drive a different vehicle when I do, the thought of getting rid of my truck seemed both environmentally foolish and economically crazy. Since I hope to be driving it for another decade, I wanted to see if there wasn't something I could do that would have a significant impact on the gas consumption (running 14 MPG average for the past several years).

Enter the Scan Gauge II. It's a small screen that plugs into the diagnostic connector on every car and light truck sold in American (typically located near the steering wheel or fuse box). Once connected, it is capable of reading all sorts of diagnostic and performance data from your engine. In my case I was seriously interested in fuel consumption. It tells me how many gallons of gas I am burning per hour, my miles per gallon, the cost of a trip, the cost to refill my tank, etc.

Simply plugging in the Scan Gauge doesn't save money by itself, but it does make you very aware of how much you are using and spending ALL THE TIME. I've never seen anything that encourages better driving habits than knowing the last trip to the local GeekMart cost you $11.23.

Following that old maxim "If you measure it you can control it", I have found that my average MPG has increased from 14 to 17 MPG in the last two months. All I did was try to keep my speed to the posted limit and drive without a lead-foot. By following hypermiling techniques, I've seen gas mileage on trips increase to about 25 MPG (I used to get 17).

Now as they say, I'm sure your mileage will vary, but this might be the best $160 you've ever spent.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Coming soon - All UPS units are NOT created equal !

The cheap part of me overruled my brain and I made the grave mistake of buying a lesser know (but still popular brand) UPS. Being a good little Geek, I dutifully left the unit plugged in over night to charge the batteries. The next day I was shocked to discover that the case of the UPS was hot to the touch. Heat means power loss. What I discovered made me hot under the collar, and I'll never buy a cheap UPS again.

Data on this is coming up.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Another inexpensive to operate home server: HP EX470

I had mentioned earlier that I was using a Thecus N5200 as a home server to provide power efficient 24/7 storage for all my photographs, videos and music files. After almost four years of use I had amassed so many photographs (sports photography is a hobby and a typical game will consume 700 or so photographs) that I was starting to worry about losing the entire Thecus box (not to a single disk failure which the RAID array would recover from, but losing the disk controller or box -- recovering files from dead RAID arrays borders on the impossible).

As luck would have it, HP had announced their MediaSmart Server based on Windows Home Server. The 500 GB EX-470 seemed a perfect entry vehicle to start with. I purchased one from Newegg and populated it with two additional 1 TB drives.

Performance testing indicated that the throughput of the HP box was about 2x the speed of the Thecus, with almost no difference between read and write speeds. Finally I had a server that was taking advantage of my Gigabit Ethernet network.

In addition to being a darned fast storage device the server also acts as an automatic backup device for all my windows based machines. Finally I don't have to nag my wife and kids about backing things up to the server -- it all happens automatically. With our desktop and laptop computers taken care of, the only thing missing is support for our two Macs (which can't use the automatic backup).

Add the fact that the box is setup for media sharing, and has full time virus scanning, and you have a winner product.

Power monitoring indicates that the EX-470 pulls about 70 watts 24/7, slightly more than the Thecus consumption of 60 watts. However there is a good reason why. Microsoft has determined that RAID arrays are too difficult for the average home user to maintain -- especially when something goes wrong (like a controller crash). They designed the Windows Home Server to store all the files in a fashion that allows you to plug the drive into a standard controller should the need arise and easily find the files. They also provide automatic "mirroring" of the files to another disk should you enable that feature for a directory (so you mirror just what you need, not an entire disk).

These two features require a bit more disk access on the part of the EX-470, which may need to move a file to balance storage, or to duplicate it if it is mirrored. That translates into a bit more power consumption over time.

The cost to operate the HP EX-470 with three drives is $0.31 a day or $9.53 a month.

What can be done about your server costs? (Get rid of that old PC)

A lot of Geeks have servers that run 24/7. Often built out of left-over computer parts, Geeks typically brag about how little they spent on their server, yet fail to consider the cost of electricity. That old box of parts can cost big dollars compared to purpose-built boxes.

I had assembled just such a server class machine in a full size tower. Based on an AMD Athlon 64 3400+ CPU, it ran three 500 GB drives in a RAID 5 configuration. The Asus motherboard provided on-board video, which generally was not used. This was my pride an joy, hosting my music and photo collection. It was also my 'home' server and ran 24/7.

Imagine my shock when I metered the power usage and found that it was pulling 400 watts 24/7. That server was costing me about $1.75 per day (or $55 a month) to operate.

To make matters worse, because it was a perfectly acceptable desktop as well, I would occasionally use it for other purposes. Inevitably a blue-screen-of-death would develop that would cause me to have to do an ungraceful shut-down. That generally caused the RAID array to have to recover from a fault -- a process that would take over 24 hours to complete.

It was clear that the classic solution to a home server was simply not economical in this instance. So I began to research purpose built NAS devices. Most of them suffered horrible performance issues (typical of the low cost disk box with a USB and Ethernet interface sold by just about all the disk drive manufacturers). A few vendors, like Thecus and Buffalo came out with some interesting devices, and I finally settled on a Thecus N5200.

At the time, the Thecus N5200 was the fastest RAID array on the market (unless you compared it to hardware that cost 10 times as much that was intended for corporations), especially in terms of write performance. It was physically small (about a half-cubic foot in volume), and allowed up to 5 SATA drives. Because it was purpose built to be a RAID box, I suspected the power supply would be optimized, and it was.

Extensive testing of the Thecus N5200 indicated that the cost to operate was $0.26 a day ($8.17 a month). This was 1/6 the power needed for my original box. In fact, based on power savings alone, I paid for the original cost of the Thecus in 13 months (I reused the same three disk drives from my big-iron server). Before the end of 2008 I will have saved an additional $1600 in operating costs.

What did I gain by using a purpose built NAS? An increase in write speed of about 4X. An increase in read speed of about 2X, start-up that is automatic (no console needed), a whole bunch of desk space, and a much lower power bill. What did I give up? Well I can't use it as a spare computer anymore, but that just avoids crashing the RAID array anyway.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What does my network cost me to run? ($0.55 a day)

A network to a Geek is like air to a human -- essential for life. And while networks come in all sizes and flavors, one thing they share in common is they are running 24/7. And like all things Geek, there is a cost associated with that.

I've measured the power consumption of my primary network components and found that my basic network and printing resources cost me an average $0.55 per day (or $17 per month). Given my past experience with mid-sized desktops, I was pleasantly surprised, especially since this figure includes the power necessary to keep a large capacity UPS up and running in addition to a Thecus N5200 NAS and 24/7 OfficeJet printer.

The equipment that is part of my 24/7 network is as follows:

  • APC BR1200 UPS (I like my network to stay up for hours!)
  • Motorola 5101 Surfboard Cable Modem
  • Apple AirPort Extreme (Gigabit) Router
  • Netgear ProSafe GS108 8-port Gigabit Switch
  • HP 7300 OfficeJet Multifunction Printer
  • Thecus N5200 Raid 5 NAS with 3 drives

So how much does a desktop computer cost to run 24/7? (About $1 per day)

I could put on my engineering hat and say "it depends", which would be a typical Geek answer, because it does depend on a lot of things. However such an answer is not very useful to most people.

I can tell you that my #1 suspect in increased power consumption was my work PC, a Compaq Evo D500 desktop of mid-range performance (circa 2001 -- what can I employer is thrifty), with dual 19 inch displays (Dell LCDs). After several months of monitoring, I can tell you that in round figures my PC and displays pull about 200 watts idling and 300 watts running full tilt. The cost per day is $1.06 on average, or about $32 per month.

By the way, the PC is left on 24/7, but does not sleep. The LCDs go to sleep after 5 minutes of lack of activity, and the hard disk spins down after 15 minutes. I'm at my work PC about 10 to 12 hours a day.

So are you shocked at how much leaving a PC connected costs these days? I certainly was. To put that in perspective, it represents 10% of my total power bill on a bad month, and 15% of my average bill. Don't let someone tell you keeping a computer on 24/7 doesn't cost much!!

Similar tests on server class PCs running 24/7 were even more discouraging. The typical power consumption was about 400 watts per hour, or about $1.75 per day.

So now that I know, what can I do about it? To some extent, not much. Several applications I have need to run 24/7 so it isn't a good target to shut down entirely, but I do unplug things over the weekend and on holidays. (Every little bit helps). The real answer may lie in upgrading to more modern equipment. Future Greener Geek measurements will tell all !

How do you measure power?

One definition of the word power is the "amount of energy required or expended for a given unit of time". As far as the utility company is concerned, they bill you for kilowatts-hours (abbreviated KwH).

What is a kilowatt-hour? 1.0 KwH is using 1000 watts of power for a period of 1 hour.

Because it involves both power (kilowatts) and time (hours) you really have to pay attention to both items. Example: you could use 500 watts (a half-kilowatt) for 2 hours, and the utility will bill you for 1.0 KwH. Likewise, you could use 6000 watts for 10 minutes and you would also be billed for 1.0 KwH.

The utility's power meter keeps a running tally of the total amount of power you consume. The utility charges you for the power you used over the billing period, which is approximately one month. Changes in the climate (how hot/cold, light/dark) and the variability of the billing period (27 to 34 days) can make it frustratingly difficult to compare one month's bill to another.

While the total number is useful, especially in spotting trends, it is too coarse to be of value when trying to do something about the power hogs in your house. To do that you need something called a plug-load power meter. A popular one, just right for the Greener Geek, is the P3 Kill A Watt EZ 4460 meter, which allows you to enter the cost per KwH (18.3 cents here in good-old Rhode Island). A less expensive model (P3 4400) is also available which doesn't tally up the running cost.

The P3 EZ 4460 costs about $38 at, while the less expensive one is about $20 at

How accurate is the P3 EZ? Well I have some pretty fancy equipment available because of my line of work, traceable to the National Bureau of Standards. I can tell you that the P3 EZ that I own is better than 2% on both current and voltage measurements (mine was worse on current) for loads in the 20 to 400 watt range.

What does the P3 meter do for you? You plug whatever appliance (or Greener Geek accessory) into the front of the meter, and it will measure the power consumed for what ever period of time you have it plugged in (it also will record the total time it has been measuring the power).

I recommend measuring whatever device you have for about a week to get a good representation of cost to operate. The reason for this is that the power consumed may vary wildly by use. For example, a laptop with a fully charged battery might only pull 20 or so watts, but that same laptop with a discharged battery might pull 65 watts while the battery is charging.

Welcome to the Greener Geek

Rhode Island is a beautiful place, a scenic wonderland. Often the subject of jokes because of its small size, I can say for a fact that it is number 1 in at least one category -- the highest electrical rate in the continental United States! With a rate change adopted in late July 2008, the standard electrical rate for residential customers is now $0.183 per KWh delivered, higher than all mainland states and second only to Hawaii (also blessed with natural beauty, but thousands of miles away from its #1 source of electricity -- oil).

I design hardware and software to save energy in commercial and industrial buildings, so I have always had an interest in all things "green". I can tell you that I take pride in the fact that as a result of my efforts over the last 3 decades, products that I've designed have reduced the power consumption (and carbon emissions) of tens of thousands of businesses. That's more than enough to offset power-hungry lifestyles of all the blow-hard, do nothing politicians in the country (even Al Gore's annual electrical consumption of 221,000 KwH -- 20 times the national average).

When I first started working from my home about 3 years ago, I noticed a huge increase in my power bill. I directly attributed that to the equipment that I now have hooked up and running 24/7 in my house (various computers and other technology devices). Part of that is that the electrical rate has gone up (in the past decade, I've seen my power bill more than triple in average monthly cost), but also due to increased consumption on my part.

This blog will detail some of my findings concerning power consumption, and may provide some information that is shocking to some.

The bottom line... the power-footprint of our 24/7 lifestyle is a extra-large one and we can all use some help in becoming a Greener Geek.