Smaller can be better!

We moved this weekend from Acton, MA to Enfield, NH. We have lived in the same house for almost 18 years — and we had the stuff to prove it. Over the last few weeks we have been donating, recycling and throwing out things in an attempt to down-size a bit. The house we are moving into is smaller than the one we left.

In a previous career, my husband (Kent) and I ran a computer game company and created a fun, educational game to teach programming concepts, “MindRover”. Well, we had been storing the 1000 left-over box copies for many years and it was time to get rid of them! Below is a picture taken from this recycling experience.

Recycling MindRover

Recycling a computer game

I actually thought we did a good job of getting rid of things… but, no, when the movers couldn’t even fit all our stuff on their truck, we realized we still have too much stuff. We definitely have more work to do in the down-sizing category.

I’ve been thinking that many people may be joining us in the “live simpler”, smaller is better… some by choice and others by necessity. There is a silver lining from the energy and conservation perspective that with a smaller physical footprint, we can live within a smaller energy budget and decrease our carbon output as well. It’s a great reason to be happy about down-sizing.

But – a word of caution – moving in the winter in New England is just a bad idea. The movers leave every door open and trample all the snow, mud, salt and sand into the house. We turned down the thermostat to almost nothing so we would slow down our heating of the entire neighborhood. After a while I had one of my family members “manning” the door — opening it and closing it for the movers so there was a chance that we could keep a little heat in the house.

That’s behind us now and lots of boxes are in front of us!

In Acton we had forced hot water with an oil burning furnace. In Enfield we have a wood burning stove in the basement and electric baseboard heaters when that isn’t enough. We got the stove going today (move-in day) and it feels great so far.

OLPC: one (low-power) laptop per child

One Laptop per Child

One Laptop per Child

For almost two years I worked for One Laptop per Child – a non-profit organization building and delivering very robust, low-power, wirelessly connected laptops to children in developing countries. It is truely heart-warming to see and hear the stories of how these learning tools have affected individuals, schools and whole communities.

There are many stories being documented about these communities. Here are some links if you want to read more:

  • OLPC website
  • OLPC Wiki (community and OLPC organized information)
  • A map of where the laptops have been distributed
  • During my time there we shipped the very first laptops, which became tens of thousands in the first month. By the end of the first year we had shipped over 500,000 laptops!

    The children receiving these laptops are some of the poorest in the world and they are so excited to own one. I had the privilege to visit a school in Chincha, Peru where they showed me their laptops and what they had been doing with them. Click here for more pictures and info from that trip.

    Chincha, Peru

    Student in Chincha, Peru

    This school has 70 students, 3 teachers, 3 classrooms, and one (1) electrical outlet for power. This ‘greenest laptop on the planet’ only uses 4-5 Watts typically. Compare that to your 40-50 Watt laptop or 200 Watt desktop! But the batteries still need to be recharged after 4-5 hours of operation.

    Solar, wind and hydro are the best solutions for many of these children and for very remote schools. We spent some time working with different companies to develop solar panels that work with the laptop as well as battery storage, micro-hydro turbines, and human power generation.

    Part of the inspiration for me to start the Energy Emporium comes from my work at OLPC. These communities need inexpensive, alternative energy sources. Guess what? So does the rest of the world! If the US and other rich countries will put a focus on green products, it will bring down the costs for everyone.

    Case Study – Insulate my bedroom, please!

    For one more week I am staying with my parents in their beautiful house on Mascoma Lake in Enfield, NH. The bedroom looks out over the lake with sliding glass doors. What a view!

    But it was really cold in the bedroom the other day … It was 5F degrees outside; so I decided to see if I could find where that outside air was getting in. I used my infrared thermometer to measure the temperature all around the sliding glass and found the spots where outside air was coming into the bedroom. I marked up this photo where the coldest points were:

    Temps in the bedroom

    Temps in the bedroom

    Right where the sliders are joined when the door is completely shut, there was fresh (cold!) air at 7F coming into the room. Along the bottom slider there was also a significant amount of cold air at about 22F. Perhaps this was a manufacturing problem in that the doors bowed away from each other rather than sealing nicely.

    My dad and I went to the local Home Depot and bought a variety of insulating materials. We probably spent $5-10 on insulation tape, poly-foam caulk saver, and pipe insulation. Here are some pictures of the installation:

    Insulation tape on the floor

    Insulation tape on the floor

    Pipe insultation along the inside door

    Pipe insulation along the inside door

    Pipe Insulation to the floor

    Pipe Insulation to the floor

    Aha! Now I read 40-50F where the sliding doors join and 35-40F along the floor. It is clear that there is still some colder air getting in around the joint of the bottom of the door to the floor… but this was a great improvement for about $5! Standard door draft snakes can help with the floor.

    Now the bedroom is cozy and warm… next project are the other 5 sliding glass doors in the house!

    Playroom has 4 more sliding doors!

    Playroom has 4 more sliding doors -- piece of cake!

    Measuring energy usage: Kill-A-Watt

    For most of us knowing how much energy we’re using is the first step towards any program to reduce or conserve energy. There are more and more products coming out to address the measuring side of energy usage — and some of these are affordable!

    I got a Kill-A-Watt meter recently and have had a lot of fun comparing the electrical usage of my toaster to my hot water tea pot to my MacBook Pro. You plug it into a wall outlet, then plug the device that you want to measure into it. You can read Watts, Amps, and Volts over time.

    I was surprised to learn the range of power for different computers. A souped up gaming desktop computer can consume 200-300 Watts; a typical business laptop is more like 40-60 Watts; a power saving laptop can get down to 25 Watts; and the OLPC (One Laptop per Child), designed for use in the least developed countries, averages only about 4 Watts (more on that laptop in a future blog).

    Understanding electrical usage is the first step to shutting things off, making intelligent decisions about retiring older equipment or buying new. I imagine more and more people will spend a little time reading energy usage labels just as they read the nutrition labels today.

    The big difference between the 4400 Kill-A-Watt and the 4460 is that the 4460 device saves your data when you unplug it. With the 4400, you need to get your data readings off of it before unplugging it.

    In both devices there is no back light on the LCD panel, so if you plugged it directly into a wall socket a few feet off the ground in a dark corner, you may need a flashlight to read it. You might want to use a small extension cord to bring the Kill-A-Watt closer to you for reading measurements.

    The Kill-A-Watt can measure electrical usage for one device at a time. I’m starting to keep a list of common electrical equipment and typical energy use. I’m hoping to get that into a form that can be easily displayed and readers who are measuring their own products can add to it.

    Another electrical monitor I have started working with can measure the whole house electrical usage (upcoming blog on TED, The Energy Detective). Since you can’t easily plug your furnace or dryer into the Kill-A-Watt, the whole house monitor can help isolate the electricity used by these larger pieces of equipment.

    With these products (or others like them) you can really start to get control over costs associated with your electric bill. If you are measuring your electrical consumption, send me an email and I’ll post a list of household items and their energy footprint: kim at

    Tax credits and incentives for energy efficiencies

    I’ve just started a study of the numerous incentives, grants, tax credits, and rebates that are available at the federal, state, and local level for alternative and energy efficient products. I expect with the new administration in Washington this should get even more exciting over the next few years.

    To get started, you might try this website which has links to both federal and state programs. Start by choosing your state:

    You do have to read some of the details to understand the type of incentive, the qualifications and the limitations. Part of my service to the Enfield, NH community when I open the Energy Emporium store will be to point people to the incentives that apply to them and help them get through the process.

    As an example of what is available from the federal government as well as for residents of NH, I have listed some of the incentives below.


    Residential renewable tax credit – up to 30% of the project with caps for each kind of renewable. The residence must be the primary residence of the taxpayer. This tax credit was recently extended beyond solar systems to include geo-thermal and wind. Definitely look it up!

    There is a similar business energy tax credit that provides 30% for solar, fuel cells, and wind renewables, and a smaller credit (up to 10%) for microturbines and geo-thermal.

    Residential energy efficient tax credit – up to $500 for certain energy efficient improvements made in 2009 to a primary residence.

    Personal exemption incentive –Energy conservation subsidies are non-taxable.

    Also, don’t miss the Energy Star website to get more information on the US Department of Energy’s rating systems, products, energy audits and related information.

    New Hampshire:

    Renewable energy rebate (solar water, voltaics, wind) – $3 per Watt up to $6000 or 50% of cost of system, available in July 2009. This is the one everyone is talking about… be sure to look it up!

    Property tax exemption for the cost of a renewable energy systems (has to be voted in town by town). Property tax should not increase due to upgrades in heating systems.

    Low Income Energy Assistance – Grant program up to $3600 for increasing the efficiency of home or appliances. Need to meet income guidelines.

    Utility Rebate programs – these come from the specific utility company that you are using and sometimes include a free energy audit of your home. Some examples are rebates for upgrading lights, improving insulation, upgrading appliances. Use the DSIRE link to find your utility company’s links.

    For the Leviston House project (retail space on the first floor, two apartments on the 2nd and 3rd floors), we will look into some of the small business incentives such as the Solar Thermal Rebate program for multi-family houses and the Small Business Energy Efficiency programs which offer both grants and 0% interest loans.