If we’re going to discuss how we can improve energy efficiency and reduce material consumption in our everyday lives, we better mention household appliances. In 2019, household appliances were responsible for 15% of final electricity demand worldwide.
Most appliances are powered by electricity or natural gas, like fridges, stoves, and most barbeque grills. Along with HVAC systems, this explains why the residential sector’s energy consumption is dominated by natural gas and electricity use [residential excludes transportation].
Residential Energy Consumption
In general, everything that can heat, cool, light, or move needs energy. Our homes receive that energy as gas or electricity from local grids. While burning natural gas certainly emits CO2, we shouldn’t forget that electricity isn’t always better. As we’ve seen in an earlier section, around 63% of global electricity production in 2019 came from burning the Big 3 fossil fuels.
Appliances like showers or faucets also require energy in the form of water pressure. Pressurization occurs in underground water pipes by pumps that consume energy – but there’s not much individuals can do about that except reduce water consumption and check for leaks. There are similar ‘hidden’ energy requirements for compressors, which are essentially just pumps for natural gas.
Although most of us only pay energy bills once a month, we should always remember that our residential energy/water consumption emits GHGs and toxic emissions into our atmosphere – even before reaching our home.
A Bit More Context
Residential and commercial/public sectors, which rely on many household appliances, were responsible for 48% of worldwide electricity consumption in 2019. While that’s definitely significant, we should note that electricity consumption only accounted for 37% of residential energy consumption in OECD countries [i.e. developed countries] in 2018– which shows that lots of energy is consumed outside of grid-distributed electricity, even in developed countries.
By reducing our individual energy consumption in our households, we can help mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. The cool part is that we can do it all while chilling in our pajamas.
We’ve already talked about how our HVAC systems take up over half of residential energy consumption [on average in IEA developed countries], so we won’t revisit this. Instead, in this section we’ll focus on the non-HVAC half of our electricity and natural gas bills.
Pretty much anything plugged into a socket consumes electricity. For most devices, it doesn’t even matter if it’s turned on or not [but obviously they draw more power when “on”]. When appliances and devices like TVs, microwaves, or chargers are off, it turns out they still draw ‘standby’ power from the socket.
In 1998, 0.6% of total OECD CO2 emissions were caused by standby power from the residential sector of those countries. That’s roughly the same amount of CO2 emissions coming from 24 million European-type cars the same year.
Efforts have been made since to regulate standby power, with moderate success. For the last 20 years, governments around the world have implemented regulations to limit the standby power at 0.5-1 W [Watt] per appliance. Unfortunately, that’s not being respected by many manufacturers, as their products continue to draw much more standby power than admissible.
1 Watt isn’t a lot of power. The average US home consumes electricity at an average rate of 1,215 W. Still, with all our household appliances combined – and accounting for the many appliances that don’t follow the 1 Watt-initiative – standby power can easily add up to 1-10% of our electricity bills. It can be even worse in commercial buildings that are flooded with electronic devices.
Governments have to double down on limiting standby power. It’s not enough to simply have a policy in place if it isn’t respected by most electronic devices. As for individuals, one easy solution is just unplugging our appliances when we’re not using them. These types of individualized solutions aren’t very effective at bringing about meaningful change, but they can still help us reduce our personal impacts.
There are also appliances like dryers that have somehow made their way into the vast majority of households in some developed countries [e.g. US]. In these areas, dryers are marketed as the washing machine’s counterpart, making it seem like owning one wouldn’t make sense without the other. That’s simply untrue. Drying clothes on racks or on ropes has been done for ages, and 9/10 dentists say it works fine. On average, it takes 1-24 hours to dry clothes without a dryer, some of that depending on whether the clothes are dried inside or outside, and the type of material/thickness of the garment.
We understand the need to live life on the edge, and waiting until we’re out of undies to do laundry is exhilarating [also good for the environment, laundry every 2 days is not a great plan]. However, doing laundry just before our last pair would help avoid using a dryer and will lower our electricity consumption. Lots of clothes aren’t even suited to go in the dryer anyway [women clothes seem especially shrinky], so everyone should already know how to air-dry clothes. If not, it’s a pretty straightforward process.
Like electronic devices, lighting is also included in our electricity bill. Globally, it’s estimated that lighting accounts for 15% of electricity consumption and 5% of GHG emissions [note that lighting isn’t always considered an appliance]. Power consumption for lighting is extremely easy to reduce when you have access to electricity [i.e. when you don’t have to burn fossil fuels]. We’ll go over 2 easy ways to optimize your lighting efficiency and reduce your carbon footprint.
First, we can replace our lightbulbs with LED bulbs. These types of bulbs are way more efficient than other types.
LED bulbs are only a tad more expensive, but it’s an investment that pays off quickly due to their incredible efficiency and lifetime. More importantly, it reduces our power consumption and consequently our footprint. For reference, it’s estimated that LEDs could save the US population an estimated $26 billion USD per year while cutting electricity consumption for lighting nearly in half. Better policies could ensure that inefficient bulbs are swiftly replaced by LEDs in the near future, instead of relying on individuals to make the smarter choice.
Second, we can simply be better with lighting. For large scales, that can mean automatic light sensors combined with taking full advantage of sunlight when/where possible. Smart building automation systems can cut energy consumption in large buildings considerably. For individuals, that just means using natural lighting as much as possible and turning lights off when they’re not in use.
Water heating accounts for roughly 16% of residential energy consumption in select IEA developed countries, on average. While lowering the water heater temperature may sound like a good idea, it’s a tad more complicated than that.
To improve water heating efficiency, building operators and homeowners can check the water heater’s temperature and make sure it’s at the lowest recommended setting. Doing so would result in less heat loss between the hot water tank and the surrounding air – and thus less energy would be required to continuously heat the water. Unfortunately, lowering it too much isn’t an option as it risks growing legionnaire’s bacteria.
On top of adjusting our water heater settings, we can also try to reduce hot water consumption by either using less hot water or switching to colder water – or both. In any case, reducing hot water consumption can reduce energy consumption, since the water heater would have to replace less hot water in the tank. This can effectively reduce power consumption and emissions.
Remarkably, water heaters allow other machines to appear quite eco-friendly [e.g. clothes washers, dishwashers]. For example, efficient dishwashers use around the same power as a hair dryer and can clean a load with around 10-20 liters of water, which is much less than what most hand washing individuals use. However, the dishwasher only looks cute because it hides its real energy demand behind the water heater [we’re not saying ‘hand-washers’ don’t use hot water as well, this is just to point out that hot-water-using appliances consume energy].
The same goes for hot showers and especially baths. Relatively small bathtubs need around 120 L of hot water per use. That’s the equivalent of a 20-minute shower for low-flow shower heads [at 1.6 gallons per minute = 6.1 liters per minute]. For higher flow rates, that’s closer to a 13-minute shower [at 2.5 Gpm = 9.5 Lpm].
Governments can pass numerous policies that would effectively reduce our appliances’ impacts. Companies can also contribute by producing better quality items that use less energy and last longer.
As for individuals, there’s one common theme across all types of appliances. We can reduce our consumption by using household appliances sparingly and effectively in our day-to-day lives. To do so, we’ll have to look at our household items and evaluate whether their usage is worth wasting resources for. And most importantly, before purchasing any household appliance, we’ll have to ask ourselves one single question: do we really need it?