Understanding What Really Adds to Your Environmental Impact


The first thing people who are concerned about their electricity usage look at when shopping for appliances is almost always the maximum power consumption. This, however, is frequently a mistake, as standby electricity usage can have a bigger effect than you think.

Let’s take a typical microwave as an example. Someone who just purchased a 600 W model instead of one twice as powerful might be feeling good about their green credentials, but this just doesn’t take into account how microwaves are actually used. In the first place, almost nobody uses theirs for more than 10 minutes or so per day, on average. Nor do they try to sprain their elbow trying to unplug it at the back after each use.

Standby Power in Perspective

Now, using the microwave at full power for this amount of time adds up to 3 kWh per month to your bill…but simply keeping it on standby mode so you can see what time it is can cost almost as much. In addition, since a more powerful microwave works faster, a 1,200 watt model isn’t actually less energy-efficient.

Cellphone chargers in particular have a bad reputation when it comes to drawing “vampire power” even when not in actual use, although testing shows that this is actually negligible for most modern, brand name models. In any case, it pays to check standby power ratings, particularly on older equipment which is left standing idle for most of the time.

Using Gas Instead of Electricity

Although actually doing the math should be important to anyone who really wants to minimize their carbon footprint, this becomes even more complicated when trying to compare the environmental impact of doing essentially the same thing using different approaches. Again using the microwave as an example, it offers one of the most efficient ways to cook food. Of course, any cook worth their salt would much prefer to use something like a gas oven or induction cooker to prepare a meal – some things just aren’t worth compromising on.

Another factor that affects the amount of greenhouse gases your household emits is whether your electricity is generated using nuclear, wind or hydroelectric power, or whether fossil fuels are involved. Coal or gas-fired power plants typically manage to convert only about a third of the energy they burn into usable electricity, so when it comes to heating or cooking, you might actually be doing the planet a favor by using fuel oil or gas directly.

Also, looking at a site such as Wash Wisely, you might be left wondering whether gasoline or LPG-powered appliances are more efficient than electric when motion, not heat, is involved. This is the case for compressors, freezers and several other types of machine. Although some manufacturers are now making their products’ emission profiles public, there is no generally applicable answer and each model still has to be evaluated on its own merits.

Practical Steps to Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

We may buy a major electrical appliance once a year or so, but we make equally important choices every day: turning on the AC instead of using a desk fan, deciding that the heat exchange pipes behind the fridge can go another month without cleaning, running the dishwasher for only two plates and a cup…

In most cases, the creature comforts we buy have only a limited effect on how much greenhouse gas we’re actually responsible for. Improving your home’s insulation, maintaining the devices you already have and learning some simple habits are what’s really effective in the long run.

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