Category Archives: Energy Efficiency

Fireplace increasing your heating bills?

There’s nothing quite like cozying up to a warm open hearth fireplace in the dead of winter, watching the hypnotic dance of the flames while the cold winds rage outside. What you may not realize is that using a fireplace is not conducive to energy conservation and may actually increase your heating bills.

The heat from a fireplace is confined to the area nearby and it doesn’t radiate to the rest of the room or the rest of the house. Heated air from other parts of the house is drawn into the fireplace and updrafts right up the chimney, while cold air from the outdoors is sucked in to replace the heated air in the house. This cold air now must be heated by the furnace system, making it work harder. That’s why you’ll notice that generally, when you use your fireplace, other parts of the house seem unusually cold. Nothing beats the fireplace for the warm ambiance, but you should consider using an energy-efficient insert or stove, if you want to conserve energy and control heating costs. Here are a few tips to increase your fireplace efficiency:
Increasing fireplace efficiency is an environmentally friendly choice not only for reducing energy consumption but also because less pollutants are released into the indoor air.

  1. Fireplace glass doors create a barrier between the living space and the chimney, and increase safety by protecting children from the fire.
  2. Top sealing dampers can be installed at the top of the chimney to keep heated or cooled air inside the house and keep the outside air out all year-round. 
  3. A cast iron plate called a fireback can be placed at the back of your fireplace. It protects the back wall from fire damage and absorbs heat from the fire and radiates it back into the room.
  4. A fireplace heater pulls fresh air from the room, circulates it through a chamber heated by the fire and then blows it back into the room.

Most of these products can be purchased online and are easy to install yourself.

How will the 2008 Games Impact China’s Policies?

The Olympics has always been about bringing the world together to celebrate the greatest athletes. It also, undoubtedly, leaves behind an indelible mark on our environment when we consider the huge undertakings of the events, from the Olympic villages to the actual movement of people, the fuel, energy, and sheer force of assembling an extravaganza of this magnitude.

That’s why Beijing’s “green” considerations during the 2008 Olympics mark a significant shift reflecting the world’s growing awareness of its environmental footprint, while recognizing the need for incorporating sustainable policies in all endeavours, whether big or small. Although nobody’s quite sure if Beijing chose to incorporate sustainable practices as a mega-PR move, or out of a sincere concern for the environment (I’m holding back a laugh), it doesn’t really matter. The end result is positive, and remains the focus of this post.

If we look at the LEED-Gold Certified Olympic Village, it boasts some rather fantastic selling points, including near-zero net energy consumption. Here’s a short list of how it got there:

  • Solar heat, solar electric cogeneration, and solar hot water “intelligent” devices that help consume less than 1/30 the energy of traditional buildings of similar size (as it stands, the Village has 22 six-storey buildings and 20 nine-storey buildings)
  • Heat exchange systems that draw almost 8 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy from solar sources
  • Geothermal heat pumps as the building’s main energy supply source
  • Use of nearby sewage treatment plants to convert their energy through heat pump devices, saving an additional 40% of energy versus conventional air conditioning and heating systems
  • Water-recycling programs that reclaim 200 tons of water, daily
  • Lithium battery-powered buses around the Olympic Village

It’s noteworthy that Olympic Villages usually go on to house ordinary residents after the games are over, so the benefits of Beijing’s green buildings will continue to be enjoyed for future generations. Additionally, news of Beijing’s winning Olympic bid in 2001 helped spark the expansion of its public transport infrastructure, the creation of new parks, additional bus transport links, and the introduction of water recycling programs in Beijing—initiating the “green legacy” of the Olympics. Not bad for a country boasting one of the highest CO2 emission rates in the world.

The Great Wall of Waste
Despite China’s enthusiasm to portray itself as a greening-tour-de-force, its scorecard outside of the games doesn’t warrant cheers. In fact, quite the opposite; through its over-industrialization and dismal policies, China’s landscape, air pollution, and water treatment all rank as some of the worst in the developing world. With 15% of China’s yearly death rate attributed to air pollution, and concerns over its vastly polluted water (among other things), China faces some big challenges going forward.

Hoping for Change
With the games drawing to an end today, it’s up to China—its government and its residents, to decide whether they feel inspired enough to spread the green legacy throughout the rest of the country, or continue to wallow in their over-dependency on coal.

Water, water, not everywhere…

Few things are taken for granted as much as clean water. We see downtrodden nations fighting for it to survive, and the mere mention of a power outage has people running into stores hoarding bottles of it. However, as the world is busy fighting over other natural resources and developing fuel alternatives, we are letting our most precious natural resource go down the drain (pun intended).

Did you know?

  • A water-efficient washing machine uses only one-third the water of an inefficient model?
  • An old-style single-flush toilet uses up to 12 litres of water per flush, while a standard dual flush toilet uses just a quarter of this on a half-flush?
  • A standard shower head uses up to 25 litres of water per minute, whereas a water-efficient shower head uses as little as 7 litres per minute, which is less than a third?
  • A standard faucet aerator on your taps can reduce water consumption by 25 – 50% per tap?

Water heating is the second largest energy user in the average home, just behind operating appliances. With higher hot water usage, come higher energy bills. Even the inefficient use of cold water can cost you, since we still pay water and sewer fees—and believe me, these costs will only continue to rise as the scarcity of our clean water supplies dwindle with time.

In the meantime, here are a few simple steps that will help reduce your water consumption, and consequently bring down your monthly energy and water bills:

  • Install a low-flow showerhead. At a cost of approximately $30/shower head, a family of three can easily save $200/year in energy costs alone.
  • Aerators are a great way of adding bulk to your water, without compromising the flow and/or pressure. At a cost of between $2-4, these can quickly reduce your tap consumption by half, and do not require a handy-man to install. In fact, here’s a great article on how to install aerators yourself.
  • Replace that old 6- or 12-liter toilet with a dual-flush toilet. Switching from a 12-L to a dual flush will save you almost 70% water consumption, while the switch from a 6-L to a dual flush will save an additional 26%–of course translating into more money in your pocket. A quick scan of online forums seems to suggest Toto has the best brand of dual-flush toilets—and here’s a nifty comparison of Toto toilets based on a variety of factors, even letting you see the toilet in full 360 degree rotation!
  • Consider a front-loading washer instead of a top-loading version. Not only will you save $50-90/year in direct water costs, you will use less laundry detergent because the rinse cycle is more efficient and less water is needed to wash your clothes. Clothes come out of the washer with less residual moisture, cutting your drying time in half and saving you more money on your electricity bills.
  • Consider running your dishwasher with fewer, larger loads, instead of frequent, emptier ones. If you wash your dishes manually, turn down the water to a gentle, laminar flow and enjoy how easy it is to remove the soap instead of allowing water to gush down the drain needlessly.
  • Water your lawn in the late evening instead of the morning or afternoon. This allows the water to actually seep into the ground instead of evaporating from the heat and sun. Your plants will thank you for it!
  • Install a rain barrel—I bought one for $50 from a local vendor and have enjoyed watering my plants all summer without having to turn on the tap! There are many new versions being introduced into your local hardware store that incorporate planters and exquisite designs that mask that “cylindrical” look.

Municipalities are always offering rebates and programs for interested water-conscious consumers (here’s an example of one in Canada, and another in the U.S.) Contact your local authorities to find out if you can receive some money back for investing in a water-saving device, and reap the rewards of saving even more money!

Hydrogen Fuel Cells—Hit or Hogwash?

A recent online poll asked whether people should pay an additional tax to drive their gas guzzling vehicles – or as I call them, mini-tanks. The results showed that 60% thought it was a terrific idea that would “encourage the shift toward more efficient cars”. That got me thinking about hydrogen fuel cells and their touted efficiency and place as so-called green fuel-of-choice.

Then it hit me – hydrogen fuel cells are in fact not efficient or green when you consider their footprint over their life cycle (also known as “well to wheel” for cars). In fact, a careful analysis shows just the opposite—hydrogen fuel cells are far less efficient than conventional gasoline-based engines, and require much more energy to even make this hydrogen “usable”. Let’s see why…

Hydrogen does make an emission-less fuel cycle possible, but there’s a catch: hydrogen must be extracted from biomass or by electrolysis of water using …electricity! The statistics below are drawn from simple mathematical analysis using the known BTU of energy per barrel of oil, the energy needed to run a car, and process efficiencies for gasoline- and hydrogen-powered cars:

  • Gasoline-powered cars in 2007 had an energy efficiency of about 25%, well to wheel.
  • Hydrogen-powered cars, where the hydrogen is extracted by electrolysis, has an efficiency of about 12%–less than half that of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Why the pronounced difference? After all, isn’t hydrogen supposed to be a “green” fuel? In theory, hydrogen is a clean fuel. It’s the extraction of hydrogen that makes it dirty. Here’s why:

  • Electrolysis, used to extract hydrogen, is a 70% efficient process.
  • Within the fuel cell itself, some of that energy is converted into non-usable water vapour, and the potential energy yield drops by another 15%.
  • The best fuel cell we have is also about 70% efficient, lowering the potential energy yield by another 30%.
  • Because hydrogen is a gas, it takes up 3107 times the space of its gasoline equivalent. The energy needed in compressing it to fit in a tank is huge and further reduces the potential energy yield by another 27.4%
  • The U.S. relies on its supply of coal and coal-fired stations, which run at only 40% efficiency, to produce the electricity needed to extract the hydrogen.

Taking all the factors into consideration, it takes twice the energy that was used for gasoline-powered cars and one third that of the entire energy consumption of the U.S. to produce the hydrogen used in cars. Not to mention the little fact of increased CO2 emissions of about 270% from the coal-powered plants to produce hydrogen.

Even if we were to scrap the coal-fired stations, and go for renewable resources to muster up the huge energy (think 1.53 trillion kwh) needed to fuel this hydrogen production “process”, we wouldn’t be able to achieve it. It would take the entire area of the U.S. covered with solar panels to make a dent in the amount of energy needed to produce hydrogen for its cars. In such high numbers, wind power and solar would show the carbon payback and GHG contribution from the manufacturing process to be counterproductive and extremely high.


So there you have it—half the efficiency of gasoline-powered cars, and much higher carbon footprint once life cycle considerations are taken into account. I guess it’s back to skateboards for everyone!

If you’re interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the numbers presented above, the New Atlantic Journal of Technology & Society has a great article titled, The Hydrogen Hoax.