The lazy man’s guide to the home energy diet

homeenergydiet.jpgI have mixed feelings about the article the Times is running today about how to put your home on an energy diet without lifting a finger. The angle is simple: the author intends to knock 1,000 lbs of CO2 off his annual home energy usage without sacrificing anything or even putting in any real effort.

On the one hand, the tone of the article couldn’t be more offputting. There’s only so much of the “environmentalists will pry my plasma TV from my cold, dead fingers ho-ho-ho” schtick I can stomach, particularly when it’s then coupled with a few thousand words of self congratulation.

Worse, because the author is a New York Times reporter, he can call up Laurie David and get her to pat his back for him. In fact, he manages to line up a whole slew of environmental experts to tell him how sensible and heroic his efforts are. I can’t help but suspect at least one of these experts was tempted to give him a good slap.

On the other hand, the experiment succeeds, and in some ways the author’s sheer lack of ambition is oddly inspirational. With about an hour of effort and minimal lifestyle changes, he overshoots his goal, dropping an estimated 1,700 lbs of CO2 from his annual emissions. If this guy can do it, you’re left thinking, surely I can too.

If you don’t feel like plodding through the entire article, here are the changes he makes:

  • Lowered thermostat by one degree at night in the winter.
  • No longer leaves the shower running at full temperature for two minutes before getting in.
  • When washing white loads, uses warm/cold cycle rather than warm/warm.
  • Cancelled ten glossy print catalogs.
  • Cut down the number of dishwasher loads from six a week to four, and stopped rinsing dishes before putting them in the washer.
  • Plugged appliances such as TV and computer into a power strip, turns off at night.
  • Replaced two light bulbs with CFLs.
  • Set computer to go to sleep after 10 minutes of inactivity.

The article is also notable for the energy saving tactics it rejects, apparently as too extreme:

  • Driving more slowly. Personally, I started driving more slowly years ago, for reasons that had nothing to do with the environment. I was sick of getting speeding tickets. Cruise control makes this behavioral change ridiculously easy, and afterwards it’s hard to understand why you were ever in such a rush.
  • Replacing all bulbs with CFLs. Of all the changes the author makes, CFLs provide the biggest bang for the buck, and he only uses two of them. He later admits that this is largely because he bought some crappy CFLs that give off a cold light.
  • Getting a thermal insulating blanket for your water heater. This proves to be too much effort, for some reason. Nor does the author consider simply turning the temperature on the heater down.
  • Painting your roof white or silver. This one would require some actual effort, to be sure, but the potential energy savings are huge.
  • Hang drying clothes. Perhaps a bit of a challenge in New York City, but one member of the TerraPass office has recently strung a clothesline in the backyard and couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

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  1. Jen - October 5, 2006

    Can you give some more detail about the silver/white roof thing? I’ve got to replace my roof in a few years. Would using silver or white shingles improve my home’s energy use?

  2. Adam Stein - October 5, 2006

    Apparently it will improve it quite a bit. Here’s a home experiment a guy in Dallas did showing that temperatures under white tiles can be a full 50° (!) lower than under black tiles:
    You can imagine the impact this has on air conditioning bills.
    I Googled “energy efficient roofing” and came up with a ton of info, including this Energy Star guide:
    Of course, your best bet may be to talk to a contractor or architect with relevant experience.

  3. P.J. Onori - October 5, 2006

    Very interesting article. The irony is that these changes will actually help you save money. I really am surprised these sorts of practices are not more pervasive.

  4. W. Wilson - October 6, 2006

    Adam mentions CFLs that give off cold light. Are there any CFLs that give off a warmer light? I’ve replaced about 10 bulbs in the house with CFLs I purchased via a web site that was mentioned on They’re not bad, but perhaps there are better ones out there.
    Now if I can just get my wife to get in the habit of turning on the kitchen lights with the CFLs rather than the overhead cans with the old bulbs, we’ll be doing great. :-)

  5. Adam Stein - October 8, 2006

    Look for CFLs that produce a “warm white” color with a color temperature of around 2,700 K. For example, here’s a site online that sells warm white bulbs:
    (NOTE: I haven’t tried this store or these particular bulbs, so this is not a recommendation. I just found the site by Googling around.)

  6. greenfuture - October 11, 2006

    I too had mixed feelings about the article, partly because it has a wise-ass attitude and suggests that if we all do just a few small changes then the problem will be solved. Well, no. We all need to start with a few small changes but look toward making more substantial changes and investments over the longer term to really have an impact. Using CFLs is a fundamental change for cost-effective impact. Replacing your agin furnace or air conditioner with a more efficient (and properly sized!) unit at some point will create a much larger financial and environmental gain. And so forth.

  7. Andrew - October 11, 2006


    The ‘holier than thou’ derision of this NYTimes author’s successful attempt to reduce his carbon output by a member of the TerraPass staff is very disappointing. Are you guys trying to recruit folks to both reduce carbon and buy your TerraPasses? If so, then be a little more welcoming of the mainstream and you might succeed.

    Yes, it is easy to reduce your carbon footprint. And for the hard sources, buy a TerraPass.


  8. Adam Stein - October 11, 2006

    Andrew, I plead not guilty. The tone of the article was smarmy. A good environmental deed isn’t an excuse for lazy writing, and there’s nothing “holier than thou” about pointing it out.

  9. Anonymous - October 11, 2006

    Andrew makes a valid point. The NY Times author’s effort is commendable, particularly considering his audience. The fact that Adam offers a synopis is evidence. If we are interested in convincing people to make a change, small, easy steps in the right direction can help even a “lazy” mainstreamer turn green.

    However, blogs are more interesting with strong opinions. In another forum Adam might have chosen to hold his criticism and judgement in favor comments designed to be purely constructive and informative.

  10. Anonymous - October 11, 2006

    I live in Southern California and there’s really no excuse for not hanging my clothes out to dry. However, lined-dried clothes are stiff and wrinkly, so I often chose the drier instead of the clothesline. Then my neighbor gave me a tip: to reduce wrinkles and stiffness and to remove any lint on the clothes, put them in the dryer on air fluff for 10 minutes before hanging outside. It’s reduced my energy bill and made my clothes softer!

  11. Anonymous - October 11, 2006

    Not sure if you publicized this before, but Costco carries packs of CFLs at a very reasonable price compared to all the other stores I looked in. It’s some time since I bought them, but they were only approx. $8 for 6-8 bulbs.

  12. Andrew - October 11, 2006

    Home Depot sells 6 for 9 bucks , I think? They last 10X longer than reg bulbs

  13. pradwastes - October 12, 2006

    I was able to replace 80% of the incondecent lamps with CFLs that my wife was able to get for six of these for 99 cents at the 99¢ store. The packages were labled to be subsidised by Southern California Edison. They use only 14 watts to replace the 60 watt lamp they reaplaced. By exposing them as a bare bulb they can light up a room well with just one of them. I spray painted one of them yellow and used it outside to repel the bugs. I sold one of my cars to save on insurance and my wife has to do her shoping at night. I have air conditioning but used it only after a very warm rain to dry out the air. I have got used to it being 84ª in the hot days of summer and used a celing fan to cool off. My elecric bill was only $26 while my neigbor had to pay over $400 at the same time. During the winter the heater will be no more than 60 degrees because we can all dress for the that. I still use a washer and drier and drive smartly to save get much better milage from my 1994 Accord.

  14. Keren - October 12, 2006

    I too was put off by the negative tone of the original article, but it provides some useful small strategies for equally reluctant people to consider. I’ve never owned a dishwasher or a dryer: a little fabric softener helps the clothes, together with drying frames & a clothes line in the garage when San Francisco is too foggy or wet. It seems to me that humans have survived for a few hundred thousand years without these appliances & may survive more if we take better care of the planet. Start small and think big.

  15. AM - October 13, 2006

    I love hand-drying clothes. I had done so in my new $2500 per month SF apt. However, I soon received a nasty letter from my live-in landlord talking about how offended he was to see my clothes hanging on my patio and how I am forbidden from ever doing it again. Does anybody know anything about renter’s rights in SF?

  16. Aaron - October 18, 2006

    I don’t get how people could be offended by clotheslines. When Americans go to Europe, we take photos of clotheslines hanging between apartment buildings, and comment on how quaint and charming it is. It makes a random street in a foreign city seem inviting and reminiscent of our childhood homes. Yet here in the States, clotheslines are seen as classless and shameful?

  17. susan - October 19, 2006

    I was surprised to discover last summer when I went to visit relatives in Denmark that almost no one had a clothes drier. Danes dry their clothes outside or inside in the laundryroom, a small room adjacent to the kitchen and which also functions as the mud room. Let me tell you that Denmark even in the summer is cool and often damp. In the winter it is cold. If they can do it, anyone anywhere in California, even in SF, can air dry their clothes.

  18. AM - October 20, 2006

    Somehow I don’t think my hot-to-trot lawyer landlord with 3 large SUV’s to his name was one of those taking pictures of the Danish clothes lines. Perhaps $100/bbl oil and higher electicity prices that actually price in the externalities of the coal producing it will change his tune.