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Energy Savings Pre-trip Checklist

November 21, 2011

From time to time I get questions from friends about saving energy.  Maybe it’s because my day job is for an environmental non-profit and focuses on energy issues.  Or maybe it’s because I’m good looking and people like talking to attractive people.  A third option could be that I’m vain/deluded and think that everyone is talking to me always… even when they are talking to someone else… or no one in general… or when they are in fact not talking but rather I’m thinking up conversations in which I’d sound smart and cool because of my knowledgeable responses.  It’s hard to say, life is complicated.

But just as much an opportunity to be intelligently attractive, I thought it’d be worthwhile to gather together all the pre-trip energy saving tips I know of in one place.  I’m planning to get in some multi-day trips to family and friends over the holidays, and having everything in one spot just makes sense.  And maybe others will find this useful too.

Abandoned-Household Efficiency (Home)

  • Check your outlets – The first thing I tell friends when they want to start mastering their energy use is to look at their outlets.  Do a quick run through; what’s all plugged in?  Is that dehumidifier sipping juice idly during the dry winter?  Or a forgotten space heater during the summer?  Right before a trip gives you an added level of scrutiny regarding how necessary each plug is.  Your TV and other appliances still use energy even when they’re off (to run a clock or to be ready for a signal from a remote or to cycle through those boxy transformers that are integrated into plugs and cords for electronics like cell phones, laptops, and other toys, often ones where batteries are also involved).  You could even consider unplugging your garage door opener* (extra security with this one).  Make sure everything is off and even better just unplug it if it’s not going to do anything while you’re gone.
  • Adjust your thermostat – Why heat or cool an unused space?  When it’s cold out like this time of year, go as low as you feel comfortable.  Basic thermodynamics says that the less of a temperature difference, the slower the rate of heat transfer.  So a 70°F house will lose more heat than a 50°F house when it’s averaging 20°F out.  Besides, the biggest worry is just making sure your pipes don’t freeze. (Update: See comments below)
  • Weatherize – Now is as good a time as any.  Check for drafts at windows and doors and seal them up.  Window films, low adhesion caulk, weather stripping.  Whatever it takes.  Paying to heat the space you’re in just for it to leak out is silly.  Heating a leaky space when no one is around is letting the terrorists win.
  • Drop your water heater temp – Who’s going to be showering when you’re gone?  Might as well go down and dial things back before you go.  There’s usually a mark on the dial for the most efficient temperature, but why not go lower?  And even better, having seen many water heaters when I was house hunting, I can tell you that most people have the temperature set too high anyways.  So simply checking it levels up your energy know-how.

Vehicular Efficiency (Car)

  • Check the tire pressure – For every 1 psi you’re below the recommended value, you experience a drop of about 0.5% mpg. You’ll likely be gassing up before you leave, which is a good time to whip out the tire guage (though remember to check the pressure when the tires are cold, drive as few miles as possible right before checking the pressure).
  • Ditch the weight – Hauling luggage is a necessity for a trip, but every 50 lbs knocks your mpg by about 1% so now is the time to cleaning out the trunk and backseat of what isn’t as necessary.
  • Cruise control the speed limit – I’ve heard the “time is money, that’s why I speed” argument.  But a consistent speed at around 45-50 mph is typically the most fuel efficient (the specific speed varies by car).  And time in the car doesn’t have to be a waste with a few good CDs, a book on tape, or passengers who don’t suck.  So figure something out, give yourself enough time, and stick to the speed limit.
  • Change the oil, air filter, transmission fluid, etc. – When was the last time you did these?  If it’s time, do it now before you travel however many hundreds of miles in a vehicle that’s performing less optimally than it could be.

I’m sure I’m missing something, so please comment so I can improve this list.

*Uh, if you’re driving, take your car out and close it first.  I hope this footnote is unnecessary.

  1. Sam permalink

    While I’m sure it varies, what’s a good temp to set the furnace at when you leave without worrying about pipes freezing?

    • It’s not smart to drop it below 40°F for sure, but if your pipes are near an outside wall or not in a well insulated area or you have other concerns, you’ll have to decide what you feel safe with. My basement is a bit drafty but my pipes are not by the walls, so I have gone with something in the 45-50°F range without an issue.

  2. I was always told that filling your fridge with water jugs (beer) would force it to run less to stay cool. Any thoughts on that?

    • That’s a thermal mass issue. Every time you open the fridge, all the cool air pours out, but any liquid or solid mass stays put (naturally). So the work your fridge does based on your opening/closing is to cool all the air space back down. A full fridge has less air, and thus stays cooler when you open it. The level beyond this is a pending experiment I have this winter to freeze water jugs outside and put them in my fridge/freezer (and repeat) to see how that reduces the energy my fridge uses.

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