The Cost of Convenience

We spent a year going without the dishwasher, microwave, electric heating, and laundry machines to find out what our power consumption habits were costing us. Now we’d never go back to using them.

With the ongoing boondoggle of Muskrat Falls, and the Canada-wide saga of surging energy prices, it can be a little disheartening to settle into the cold, crunchy freeze of a Newfoundland January, facing a several-month stretch of increased hydro bills.

Dark NL might now be two years behind us, but the Dark NL of the future might just see people going without heat due to staggering cost increases for electricity, the primary method of heating our homes and powering our lifestyles. 

Despite tumbling oil prices and a deeply troubled energy sector, Canadians are paying record-high prices for their electricity. Our province’s power rates have already increased by 48 percent since 2002, and they are expected to increase by a whopping 53 percent between 2015-2020. The 53 percent increase put forth by Nalcor is a bit of a canard, however, because it relies on some fishy numbers.

Nalcor’s contrived consumer rate for 2015 is set at 14.27 cents per kilowatt hour, despite the fact that the Public Utility Board has approved the rate of 10.57 cents per kilowatt hour throughout 2015 for those on the Island inter-connected grid. The fact that Newfoundland Power has been court-ordered to refund well over $100 million in overcharges to these same customers does little to restore confidence in the utility.  

The revised 2020 rate of 19.8 cents per kilowatt hour is more than nine cents higher than the Jan 1, 2016 rate of 10.57 cents, an increase of more than 87 percent. So, be prepared for some ‘shell games’ over the next few years, and expect the increase to be higher than 53 percent over today’s rates.

You can’t unplug in a digital world

Today’s world is increasingly inter-connected, and in my opinion ‘going off the grid’ is both unlikely and unhelpful for a majority of us. We aren’t going back in time — the cute little Robert Frost style ‘cabin in the woods’ is an unlikely fairy tale, despite the intoxicating imagery.

Today’s aspiring homesteader needs to be interconnected, as we connect with other like-minded individuals and as we learn and re-learn antiquated skills, blending them with modern skills and developments in a way that will create the future sustainability we yearn for. 

Online courses, trade networks and social networking are essential parts of getting ‘back to basics’, so our internet connections and computers will be along for the ride for the foreseeable future. This means a certain amount of power will be required, even for most minimalists. 

New regulations on ‘net metering’ are coming — eventually — and will allow more options for small-scale energy production. In the meantime, however, we are all going to have to learn how to do more with less. 

 A  lack of connection and awareness to what was being consumed and what it cost led to massive overconsumption.

For my own part, I grew up more or less unaware of power consumption. Power was magic — it flowed out of the wall, into whatever device you plugged into the outlet, and made it go. Heat, music, television, the blender — everything was ‘plug and play’ ready with little to no awareness on my part of what was consumed.

Receiving my first power bill as a rent-paying adult shocked me right to the core of my sense of entitlement: What do you mean every second of power consumption costs money?! I had some friends who had heat included in their monthly apartment rental, this meant opening the windows to have a smoke inside the mudroom instead of going out into the cold. At the time, that sort of logic made sense — it was direct ‘cause and effect’. Going outside was cold, the power was included, and thus ‘free’, right? So there you go. Might as well leave the door open and ‘heat the outside’ as the old-timers would say. 

A lack of connection and awareness to what was being consumed and what it cost led to massive overconsumption. 

This disconnect is at the core of much of what Lisa and I needed to ‘re-learn’ when we decided to focus our lifestyle on sustainability. A massive disconnect was responsible for my cluelessness about power consumption, and I’d need to learn what it looked like, one watt at a time. 

Watt by watt — challenging our power use

Calculating base power consumption can be easy, mathematically speaking. You can refer to the EnerSave tag on an appliance, and tally up what it would use when it’s on, and go from there. This might work well for things with defined consumption per hour stats, such as light bulbs or refrigerators, but it’s less useful for electric heaters, computers, hot water tanks, handheld devices and any other electric gadget which has variable usage rates. 

Heat was the most enigmatic of them all — a wintertime electric bill might be $250 one month, and over $400 the next — with no real apparent difference in temperature. How could we control an expense we couldn’t even identify properly? 

Our interest in reducing our power consumption for sustainability coincided with Dark NL. For a one-time install cost of $1,100, we purchased and installed a pot-belly wood stove, which will ensure we can stay warm and prepare hot food during extended power outages. 

It was the first time we’d lived in a place with a wood stove, and we quickly learned the truth of the Newfoundland saying, ‘Wood heat, best heat’. Ironically enough, the house had its fireplace flues blocked up just a few years earlier; the popularity of wood stoves is back on the rise right as the indoor fireplace falls from popularity once and for all. 

For us, part of identifying and eliminating costs first involved finding out what sort of benefit the power consumption offered us. Was it a worthwhile tradeoff? What was it like to go without it? We spent a year going without the dishwasher, microwave, electric heating, and laundry machines to find out what our convenience was costing us. Now, after having done so, I’d never go back to owning or using any of them again. 

Ah, laundry appliances. Harbingers of civilization and all that. Before the invention of laundry machines, we were all resigned to carting our laundry over to Mundy Pond, for the big clothes washup on Monday mornings (that’s where the name came from). But does the future have to be like that? 

Photo by Lisa McBride.
First washing machine, 2008. Photo by Lisa McBride.

We were so proud of our first laundry machines that, when we moved here in 2008, one of the first photos we posted online for friends ‘back home’ was of the two of us proudly posing beside them.

Most Vancouver suites don’t have room for a laundry room (that’s called an extra bedroom if you’re in Vancouver), so we were well used to doing weekly trips to the laundromat. Laundromats are expensive — $20 a week for two people’s laundry, if you’re lucky. Having machines right in our house saved both time and money, compared to needing to lug our clothes to a laundromat, spend several hours there, and pay 25 cents for four and a half minutes of drying. 

The convenience of at-home laundry was huge, and I was loathe to give it up. After thoroughly researching the topic online, we settled on a hand-crank washer, called a ‘Wonder Wash’. The two-gallon tank can comfortably wash a half-sized load, and from start to finish, in less than five minutes — using 10 percent of the water used by a conventional washing machine. 

Priced at $45, a hand-crank washer costs less than 10 percent of the price of a new, entry-level washing machine, and will probably outlast one, too. 

This relatively compact gadget tucks away when it’s not in use, basically eliminating the need for a laundry room entirely. The tank pressurizes with the addition of hot water, forcing hot soapy water into the clothes, this ensures the clothes come out far cleaner than a simple hand washing in the sink would achieve — no washboards required! 

Wringing out clothes to hang on a line took a bit of practice, and gave me a good understanding of why my grandmother had such strong arms. Our laundry hangs outside in the warmer months, and on a little drying rack by the wood stove during winter. 

Handcrank Washer.
Handcrank Washer.

What would have been the laundry room in our house is now an indoor herb garden, growing basil, thyme, green tea, and other fresh garden herbs for us, year-round. The herb room has become a little refuge, whereas our old laundry room was a big pile of chaos and dirty socks. 

The biggest benefit to ditching the washing machine was how much it cut our hot water consumption — 90 percent of the cost of using a washing machine is the power consumed for the hot water it uses. Since a standard hot water tank is the second biggest energy hog in your house, consuming nearly 20 percent of your total usage, eliminating the biggest intake of hot water allowed us to downsize our hot water tank. 

We switched our 40 gallon hot water tank for a 12.5 gallon tank, and immediately noticed a large decrease in our usage (averaging 4,500 watts instead of 13,500 watts per day, for a typical three-hour runtime). This saved us approximately $35 a month on our power bills.

While we no longer enjoy a near-limitless supply of hot water on demand, our little tank gives us enough hot water for a hot bath, kitchen work, animal care, and whatever else we need it for — provided we give the tank time to heat up in between heavy use. Now that we have grown accustomed to our smaller tank, we plan accordingly and don’t even notice the limitations. 

Electric heating was also on the block. Advances in smart, programmable thermostats now mean that people can avoid heating empty rooms, and this is great. But studying the electrical box diagrams showed me that nearly half of our circuits were devoted to powering the electric heaters (14 in all) in our house. 

Getting our first ‘big’ winter hydro bill one February—$481.00 if I remember correctly—made me determined to grapple with this beast and reduce what it cost us to stay warm. So we decided to cut off our electric heat and go all winter using just the heat from our wood stove. Nothing makes you more aware of what it takes to reach ‘room temperature’ than having to bring in, stack, and feed each piece of wood to the fire each day. 

Chopping wood is hard work, and I admire those gritty folks who can provide an entire winter’s worth of wood through doing it all themselves. We’re not there (yet), but we have managed to drive our heating costs down to $600 a year, which is our cost for four pickup loads of good winter wood and a stack of wood stove sawdust blocks, which help keep a fire going overnight on very cold nights. 

Photo by Lisa McBride.
In less than one year the McBrides reduced their energy consumption to save over $1,500 per year and reduce their environmental footprint. Photo by Lisa McBride.

It is cozier and warmer in the house in the evenings, once a nice fire is going in the wood stove. The tradeoff is that, come February, the fire needs to be tended to with a reload overnight. Sometimes we would forget this, leading to some chilly mornings, including one occasion where a fine layer of ice had formed over the water in the toilet bowl! 

The dishwasher was something I felt was never really worth the hassle in the first place. Loading, unloading, cleaning, forgetting to run the machine before bed, never mind the extra detergents needed to prevent films from building up on the glassware. It seemed like just as much work as washing by hand.

One innovation I saw over in Europe, where people rarely, if ever, use dishwashing machines, stuck with me. Dishes were stored above the sink, and the cupboards were fitted with slats and a little drain. So, freshly washed dishes were put back in the cupboard immediately, where they then drained out into the sink below. No fussing around with drying by hand, or using drying racks. Wash, rinse, done! 

Another big factor in the creep of our power consumption was the draw from devices and appliances that were plugged in, but on ‘Powersave’ or ‘standby’ mode. Playstations, iPad chargers, printers, wireless routers, even the coffee maker, if you have one — all of these consume power while they are plugged in and not in use. 

The Energy Saving Trust estimates that the average household spends more than $160 a year powering devices left on standby. We now shut off power bars for our computer and entertainment system overnight and while we are out of the house, putting a stop to this ongoing draw of power to these devices. 

Our wintertime power use is now only marginally higher — our December 2015 bill rang in at $125, only a few dollars higher than what our power bill costs us in August. With only some slight adjustments to our day-to-day life, we’re now saving over $1,500 a year on our power bill. With energy prices expected to nearly double over the next four years, every little bit helps. 

To talk more about power use and conservation, and to discuss many other aspects of sustainable living and homesteading, join our thriving online community, Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL.

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