What we can build – Alternative Energy Products

Barak Obama

Barak Obama

Barak Obama:
“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

This is my favorite quote from the inauguration speech yesterday. Obama has pledged to put emphasis on alternative energy systems. He wants to help create 3 million jobs and expects many of them to be in the field of products and services that will help save the environment.

I hope we are all judged by what we build and what we add to this world, and that America can become a leader in alternative energy products and services.

Here are some interesting links of alternative energy websites. Send me your best picks so I can start a blog roll:

http://www.treehugger.com/ – Driving sustainability ideas, products, information

http://www.mnn.com/ – Environmental news and information

http://grist.org/ – Environmental news and humor

http://greenoptions.com/ – What sustainability means to you

http://www.autobloggreen.com/ – Green auto industry

http://www.alternative-heating.com/ – Alternative Energy solutions

http://usasolarstore.com – Retail stores for alternative energy and sustainable products

http://www.carboncounter.org – Carbon footprint

http://www.carbonfootprint.com/ – Carbon footprint

http://thatgreenblog.com/ – Promoting sustainable lifestyles

http://www.ecobeco.com/ – Save energy, money and the environment

http://www.jetsongreen.com/ – Green building

http://www.builditgreen.org/ – Diminishing fossil fuels; increase sustainability

Alternative energy watches … back in style



Clocks and watches have been around for hundreds of years now and they didn’t originally depend on electricity to run! So it makes sense that there quite a few ways to run one without plugging it into a wall or using batteries. The first time pieces were powered by the sun, sand or by water.

I love the mechanism of the grandfather clock using gravity and weights to keep time moving forward.


grandfather clock



Mechanical springs have been a good way to power watches for centuries.

I inherited a clock from my grandfather that runs on change in barometric pressure. It sits under glass and should not be moved at all in order to keep its accuracy.

potato clock

potato clock

And then there’s the potato clock.

As a kid I was very excited to receive an ‘automatic’ watch with no battery. It was a self-winding watch that kept running simply by wearing it. I do remember shaking my wrist from time to time just to hear it wind.

I had that watch for many, many years. Then the next 20 years I had many, many watches with batteries. For the most part, the work required to replace the battery generally wasn’t worth keeping the watch running.

About 2 years ago my father, who is always looking for alternative energy products, found a new series of watches that are run on solar power using photovoltaics on the surface of the face. Between this technology and the self-winding watches, which have now become popular again, you can get a watch that doesn’t need batteries! I highly recommend it!

Search for ‘eco-drive’, ‘solar watches’, or ‘self-winding watch’ to find them. Here is a link to my watch:
Citizen Women’s Eco-Drive Sport Watch #EW3144-51A

Environmentally friendly roadside assistance

Since I started blogging I’ve gotten quite a few interesting links forwarded to me from readers. One of them was particularly timely — a roadside assistance program. Both my car and my husband’s car have gone past that 70,000 mile mark, and we’ve paid off the loans, and there is more of a chance that they will need a tow or will break down for some reason. We were members of AAA years ago but at one point in our lives we had two brand new cars and decided we didn’t expect to use it enough to justify the cost.

As of the beginning of this year my husband works in Boston, I work in Enfield, New Hampshire and one of us will be driving many miles in older vehicles each weekend to visit the other. So I thought I would look into restarting my AAA membership.

Then I got this timely email from a friend about the Better World Club. I didn’t even know there were options for roadside assistance!

As opposed to being partners with car companies that want to sell us gas guzzlers, the Better World Club is an environmentally friendly roadside assistance program. They have bicycle assistance programs and they provide discounts for people with hybrids, electric or biofuel cars!

They have competitive rates with AAA and encourage eco-travel destinations and renting hybrids when traveling. Sounds great to me. Check them out!

Better World Club

Better World Club

I’ll report back in a few months when I’ve had a chance to use their services.

Case Study – basement insulation

My father-in-law has recently added significant insulation to his basement windows and bulkhead. He created some great ways to plug the holes using bubble wrap and insulation in ways that also make it easy to install for the winter and store them away for the warm months.

He provided me with data from his oil bill, as well as the degree day information from his oil company for the years before and the year after this improvement.

One of the first problems I thought about in reviewing his data was that oil fill-ups don’t correspond well to the days that the oil was burned. I can see that there were 100 gallons put into the tank in March, for instance, but I can’t say how many of those gallons were used in the next week or the next month. The oil that goes into a tank in May may not get used until September.

The second problem to consider was that the oil company provided 9 months  of degree data — from September to April. So, to try to match this up to the months when oil was added to tank required a little guesswork. I ended up throwing out some gallons of oil, hoping that I was making good guesses.

In the end, I did the calculations and spreadsheets three different ways, each a little more precise than the first. Below is the summary of the first (simplest) and third (most complex). The middle one provided data closer to the third, but basically in the middle.

Simple Analysis:

In the simple case, I used the oil company degree data AND the oil fill up data for only the months of September through April. After looking up a couple of estimates of kWatt-hours per gallon of heating oil, I used 1 gal=41KWh (which doesn’t take into account the efficiencies of the oil burner). I found an average number of degree days from the 5 years given by the oil company, 6245, and used that to ‘normalize’ the kWh and gallons of oil.

Year Gal of Oil kWh Deg Days kWh/DD Norm kWh Norm Gal Savings
2004-2005 1169 47929 6487 7.4 46141 1125 -$33
2005-2006 1036 42476 6020 7.1 44064 1075 $93
2006-2007 1089 44649 6116 7.3 45591 1112 $ 0
2007-2008 972 39852 6042 6.6 41191 1005 $268

The first few columns are the numbers provided by the oil bills and the degree days provide by the oil company. The normalized kWh and normalized gallons are the amount of energy or gallons of gas your heating system would have used if there was the exact same number of degree days in each of these years. Now we can compare 2007-2008 against 2006-2007 and there is a savings of about 10%, which would be $268.28.

After going through these numbers I felt it would be much better if I could get a full year of data and more detailed degree days and see if the result was better. I used the degree day data from this website: DegreeDay.net, where I can set the base temperature and get monthly, weekly or even daily data. That way I can use the entire years worth of oil information as well. The only drawback is that for the zip code near this house, the degree data only goes back 2.5 years. So the monthly detailed analysis is only useful for the last two years.

Complex Analysis:

Year Gal of Oil kWh Deg Days kWh/DD Norm kWh Norm Gal Savings
2006-2007 1225 50221 6075 8.3 51626 1259 $ 0
2007-2008 1011 41467 5913 7.0 43796 1068 $477

These numbers indicate a 15% increase in efficiency (savings in gallons of oil) between 2007 and 2008, which translates into a savings of $477 in a ‘typical’ year. That’s pretty nice.

There is a big difference between the first ‘simple’ estimate and the final one. The differences in the calculations that lead me to believe the final savings number is a better estimate of the savings than the simple one are: 1) I used more sophisticated degree day data, which allowed me to set the proper base temperatures and work with monthly data; and 2) I used the full year of data for both the oil fill ups and the degree data and set the calendar year to go from June to June assuming that the oil in the tank during the summer months was not used quickly.

I expect to return to this case study next year to see if the numbers are consistent. If you want the more detailed spreadsheet of numbers for this case study, please write to me at kim at energyemp.com.

Getting started in Solar

Many people think of ‘going solar’ as requiring a large investment, specialty installation, equipment on your roof and calculating the years required for payback.

But there is a way to get started on a lot smaller budget as soon as possible.

If you think about all the things you use every day that require electricity, and then rank these things by criticality for your use. For instance, on a scale of 1 (low criticality) to 5 (high), charging your Roomba or your hand-vac might rank as a 1. It doesn’t matter exactly when it gets charged, you probably have days or weeks between usage.

Charging your iPod might be a 2 or 3 depending on how critical those tunes are for your daily workout or your commute.

Running your computer might be a 4 or 5 if your business depends on it.

On a larger scale (requiring significantly more energy), running your washer and dryer might be a 2, if you are willing and able to wait until there is enough battery charge or bright sunshine.

So how about a solar panel that is hooked up to a few special outlets or a utility room where these less critical devices get recharged. Maybe in the future we will have ‘recharging’ rooms or ‘recharging’ outlets that are only expected to charge when the sun is shining.

In the mean time, I looked up a couple of portable and smaller scale solar chargers that can be used for devices around the house. I am working with the Solio so I will provide a review on that one in an upcoming blog.

Get your kids involved by making it a game to see how many things they can charge without using the household electricity — make sure the Nintendo DS is on the list!