War on waste

There has been much talk about energy saving in the home, but what is fact and what is fiction? E&T discovers that armed with the correct information consumers can make informed decisions that will counter rising energy bills.

As engineers, energy efficiency has come to the forefront of not just our home lives, but also our working world. In the current climate both consumers and companies are looking for ways to save cash, but there's also a growing focus on 'going green'.

The phrase is thrown around almost every day, and you may have to think about it consistently at work, but are you truly aware of all the facts when it comes to energy consumption in your home?

Everyone has their energy saving mantras: turn off the lights when you're not in the room; don't fill the kettle unless you're going to use it; just two examples. But, even as people who should be in the know, we can occasionally get confused between fact and myth and may not be fully aware of the energy usage of all the white and brown appliances in our homes.

For example, are you aware that lighting your home is by far the biggest part of your electricity bill? According to the Energy Savings Trust (EST), lighting is on average 21 per cent of domestic electricity consumption. TVs follow closely at 14.4 per cent, with fridge freezers at 10.9 and computers at 8 per cent. The majority of smaller appliances range from 2 to 5 per cent consumption each.

Working under the umbrella of engineer or technologist should mean you're aware of the dark cloud that is the future energy crisis. The majority of the public isn't aware or chooses to ignore the problem, but you should use your knowledge to make a difference. You can also help others become more aware of the power - and money - they may be wasting.

"The biggest message that has resonance is the fact that being energy efficient will save you money, so why wouldn't you?" asks Adrian Arnold, head of trade marketing at the Energy Savings Trust. "With electricity at around 20 pence a unit depending on where you're buying it, it doesn't take rocket science to see that doing your little bit will save money."

The problem is, out of sight, out of mind. The power meter is generally located in a box outside the property and until the bill drops through the door electricity usage is often forgotten about. 

"There are few effective ways in which consumers can understand their energy consumption," says Joel Hagan, CEO of Onzo, a company that designs energy monitoring products. "The information on utility bills is generally obscure and with some direct debit tariffs almost impossible to understand. Most conventional electricity meters provide no help. Not only is the indication provided limited to watching the figures move or the dials revolve faster, most meters are located remotely."

Getting smart

Smart meters and displays are beginning to address these issues. However the bigger picture is changing mindsets and becoming more aware of how you use energy.

"People are definitely not aware of how much power they are using," Matthew Walker co-founder of the Earthpill website, says. "Some try hard and unplug their mobile every night, but are not aware that the Xbox in the child's bedroom is guzzling away on standby, or that the cassette player they never use is taking power just by being plugged in."

The first step is to become aware of how much power your appliances use. You can then consider how to use these more wisely to lower power consumption and, therefore, costs.

Look at refrigeration, for example. Third place in the power consumption list, it can be worth considering how efficient your appliances are.

The majority of people are aware of the UK's A-G energy efficiency rating, but did you know that this market has A+ and A++ ratings which use 24 per cent and 45 per cent less than an A-rated product?

"If you're looking for an energy efficient appliance, go for the A++ rating," advises Arnold. "Then think carefully about the size of the product. The way they calculate the rating is based on volume. You can buy a huge American side by side fridge freezer that has an A rating, but it'd actually cost you a lot more than something smaller like a built-in appliance with an A rating. A savvy buyer will need to look at how much energy these are consuming. This is clearly written on the rating label," he explains.

Electricity clean up

Take a look at cleaning machines like washers, dryers and dishwashers. They total around 15 per cent of electricity consumption. This equates to a yearly UK electricity bill of £2bn, and produces eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Newer energy efficient models use around a third less power, and also cut water consumption. But if you're not in a position to buy a new machine you can still save cash by simply using lower temperature washes. Washing clothes at 30° for example, uses around 40 per cent less electricity than higher temperatures, giving a yearly saving of around £10.

General figures can help to an extent, but when you're looking at the power use of appliances, the thing to remember is to balance the amount of time that something's used for with its power consumption. For example, a 3,000 Watt kettle that is used for six minutes a day will use about the same amount of electricity overall as a 12W lightbulb left on all day.

To get more precise numbers, a company called Earthpill created a website that allows people to measure the consumption of their domestic appliances with an energy monitor and put their readings into a free online database. By sharing results, people can see where they are wasting electricity without the need to measure every appliance themselves.

"Earthpill started when I was discussing with a friend, Colin Bennett, how I had been trying to buy a computer server which would run all the time but I couldn't find out how much power it would use," Walker explains. "If something is on all the time then it costs around £1 per year for every Watt it uses, so a server that uses 150W will cost £130 per year more than one that uses 20W. I was surprised to find that even the manufacturers of the server I was looking at couldn't tell me what its power consumption was.

"So we started Earthpill in the middle of 2008. Now we need people to measure everything they can with a power consumption meter and put their readings into the site," he continues."The site is also useful to people who already use energy monitors such as OWLs as they can put in all the times that they are using appliances and see totals over the year and tips about what to do."

With companies such as Earthpill appearing, it's clear to see that the issue of energy efficiency is becoming more resonant with the public. This can only be positive news.

To standby, or not to standby?

An area of energy usage that has become a debated issue is that of the standby mode. In isolation its consumption is minimal, but in today's modern homes the amount of products on standby contributes to a notable cumulative power bill.

Just take a second to think of all the appliances you have that don't get turned off regularly at the mains - TV, DVD player, radios, gaming consoles, stereos, computers, microwaves… the list goes on. EST figures show that the average household wastes around £37 a year of electricity in standby mode.

"The standby feature is not limited to TVs, it can be found on audio systems, games, battery chargers, white goods in the kitchen and many others," highlights Djelloul Kitter, Sharp's compliance officer.

"It is believed that the general public may not be fully aware of all the equipment that consumes power in standby and that it is costing them money. Standbys are with us and will remain for a long time. The solution is not to ban them or remove them from products, but to tackle by design the energy consumption of the product in this mode."

Power consumption in standby mode has been a concern for the EU Commission, which has been actively involved in obtaining the cooperation of manufacturers to reduce energy consumption and set minimum performance levels. The Energy-Using Products (EuP) directive includes a clause on the standby mode. This new directive came into play in January, requiring standby modes to be 1W or less. This will take 12 months to implement, but will lower future consumption.

Energy-saving lightbulbs

Another change is the move to phase out traditional household lightbulbs in favour of new energy-saving models. Heading towards a total ban by 2016, opinions are varied. Resistance is strong and many still favour the old negative views that low energy bulbs provide poorer light, take ages to warm up, have flicker issues, are ugly, and are worse for the environment due to their mercury content.

The truth, however, is that these bulbs have evolved from earlier models. Light is stronger, flickering is unseen by the human eye, and different models are available which sit pretty in any kind of socket.

"It's a change of vision," Arnold says, "but style doesn't have to be compromised and there aren't any real cons. They will save energy."

"They do contain a tiny quantity of mercury which is a pollutant, but the electricity they save means the environmental benefits far outweigh the disadvantages," adds Kitter.

The latest 'heated' debate is focusing on giant TV guzzlers. Dubbed the 4x4s of the living room, plasmas are currently being targeted in the press. Research does seem to show, however, that LCDs use less power than plasma models.

"Just do your homework and consider your needs," Arnold says. "A 32in LCD can cost £50 a year in power, while a 42in plasma can cost £110."

There's no truth in rumours of a ban, only that guidelines have been put in place through the EuP directive. From 2010, TVs will have to display energy efficiency labels similar to the A-G labels used on white goods, and statutory performance levels are being set by the EU.

Technology is a progressive development of ideas, design and manufacture, continually evolving towards better, faster response and better performance with more energy efficient products. Manufacturers face a constant battle to balance new, advanced technologies against limiting power consumptions, but they are rising to the challenge.

Sharp and Panasonic are just two manufacturers who have been working on new products featuring the latest technologies and surprisingly low energy consumption figures. By working together, industry, governmental bodies and consumers themselves look set to keep pushing forward the energy-usage changes that have already begun.

Top energy saving tips

Switch off appliances when not in use, don't just stick them on standby. For example, 85 per cent of the energy used by a DVD player is wasted when it is on standby. By turning off all appliances at the socket, you could save around £32 a year.

Unplug equipment when fully charged, otherwise they keep drawing electricity.

Defrost your fridge freezer regularly to keep it running efficiently and cheaply.

It is better to have one freezer that is sized to your needs than two small ones.

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