DIY Zero: Efficient Appliance Use

Susan Nolan

Appliances are major consumers of energy in the average household. What can we do to cut back there?

A big step is using full loads to get the most out of washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers. If you just need to run a small load, be sure to adjust the load size dial. For clothes washing, warm water uses half as much energy as hot, and works just as well except at getting out oil. Cold uses even less, and doesn’t fade bright colors as quickly.

Generating heat requires a lot of energy; dryers use significantly more energy than washers. Dry towels and other thick heavy fabrics separately. Drying multiple loads one after the other will put residual heat to good use.  Air drying is a great way to reduce your consumption; a clothes line strung up in the garage or other sheltered space can serve on rainy days.

A full load is good for the refrigerator, too, building more thermal mass and allowing less air exchange when you open the door. It helps maintain the cold during energy outages as well. You can just fill lidded plastic tubs with water if you don’t keep a lot of food around. These can be switched between freezer and fridge as needed.

If you have a manual defrost fridge, attending to this little chore when ice builds up in the freezer compartment will reduce energy demand. The ice insulates the freezer walls (where cooling happens) from the food, so the motor has to work harder and consume more energy.

To defrost, make a note of where the temperature knob is set, then turn it all the way down to shut the refrigerator off. Pack the food into a cooler or cardboard box, with frozen items in the middle to keep it coldest. Leave the door and the freezer door open. After a while, the ice will start melting. You can start chipping it off with a hammer and screwdriver, just be very careful—puncturing the freezer wall can release the coolant gas, ruining the fridge. Remove the drawer under the freezer when that becomes possible.

Once all ice is gone, wipe remaining water away, because that is the ice of the future. Then return the food, and reset the temperature. When it’s time to replace your fridge, bear in mind that a frost-free model costs more to buy, and uses about 50 percent more electricity than a manual defrost refrigerator, because it uses a built-in heater to melt that ice.

For cooking, a lidless pot uses 60 percent more energy than a pot with a lid. Lids hold heat in for quicker cooking time. Thrift stores usually have a variety for cheap if you need one. Microwaves, toaster ovens, and crockpots use less energy than ovens or stove burners. But when you need to use the oven, why not get the most out of it—if you’re cooking a casserole, say, how about throwing in some potatoes or yams to bake?

We’ll devote an entire article to highly-efficient induction cooking in the future.

When it comes to heating your home, when you’re away for the day, turn the thermostat down, or use programming. Try a sweatshirt instead of bumping up the temperature. As for cooling, close curtains on hot days. Fans use way less energy than air conditioning. Avoid cooking in the oven on hot days.

Turn things off when they’re not being used, such as lights or the TV.

A little good housekeeping allows appliances to run more efficiently: clearing the lint trap of your dryer with each use, vacuuming the coils behind the fridge, replacing furnace filters, etc.

Natural gas produces carbon dioxide when it burns, but if it escapes without being burned, it’s in the form of the much more virulent greenhouse gas methane. Slight leakage from the connecting hoses is common, so a simple thing you can do is to tighten the hose fittings with a wrench.

When the sad day comes that you must buy a new appliance, Energy Star labels can guide you to the most efficient models. This program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates appliances and issues simple, clear labels to guide purchasers: 

Finally, scheduling electric appliance use around PG&E’s Time of Use program will save money and shift your electricity demand to when most renewable sources are producing: before 4 p.m. or after 9 p.m.