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July 22, 2002
Efficiencies, Or Lack Thereof: Part 1
Perhaps it's due to my line of work, or maybe I'm just wired this way, but I love efficiency. Don't get me wrong - I'm not some nerd that idolizes Jerry Ryan's "Seven of Nine" character from "Star Trek: Voyager". (Wait a minute - yes I am. Nevertheless...) I derive great satisfaction knowing that my house is R2000-equivalent, or that my washing machine is energy-efficient and extremely water-efficient. The fact that my truck is a 2-ton guzzler bugs me. Somehow, efficiency is on my brain quite a bit. It's pretty hard to escape the fact that things are not as efficient as they could be. As we're stuck soundly in a market economy, the bottom line is what costs the least or makes the most profit, not what works best.
Right in my own house there's some unfortunate inefficiency that as far as I can tell is unavoidable right now. I'm talking about the three meals a day (plus a few snacks) that we try to feed our daughter, who is just over a year old. She's been able to feed herself with her hands for a long time (relatively), so her meals are generally smaller chunks of whatever we're eating put in front of her, so she can shove them down her chubby little gullet just as fast as she can.
Unfortunately, portioning food for a toddler is not an exact science. While she may eat almost an entire peach, she may only have a few chunks of chicken, or not even want the sweet potato that she used to love. At this age, she's not able to say "Gee, I'm stuffed, and I don't particularly care for that pile of vegetables you've given me. Please take it away." Nope - she chucks it on the floor instead. There are good meals and bad, but usually there's at least some calories that end up on the floor. I'm sure that in some corners of the world what I clean off the floor in a week could feed someone for a day or two, but what can I do?
The only answer I've come up with thus far is composting. Unfortunately, with the postage stamp of land that we own, we not only lack the space for a composter, but our lawn and itty bitty trees won't provide the correct mix for the composter. Without a community, municipal, or regional compost program, recycling those otherwise wasted calories is difficult. I've considered a vermi composter (box of worms in soil eating the food you would otherwise waste), but we don't have the gardens to utilize the resulting castings-enriched soil, nor do I really want to play with worms all that much.
Thinking of the calories on my kitchen floor has made me look for them in other places. On a recent trip to McDonalds I almost stepped in a big puddle of brown ooze, which I can only assume used to be the lion's share of someone's chocolate "triple thick" milkshake. [Sidenote: Neither my wife nor I like these so-called triple thick milkshakes. We liked the old ones better. If we wanted soft serve ice cream flavoured and served in a cup, we'd ask for it, thank you very much.] Of course, there's always the couple of fries that have been walked on or run over, and once in a while you'll find a bun or perhaps the slice of dill pickle someone ungraciously heaved overboard before driving off.
Even if you wanted to, collecting these calories is probably a pretty ugly and difficult task. Most of it just runs away with the rain, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, I wonder how the fish are enjoying triple thick shakes?
As I mentioned above, my house is R2000-equivalent. That means that it's quite high on the efficiency scale, at 80 out of 100. Zero means you may as well be outside for all the good your "walls" are doing, and 100 means that you need to use no purchased energy for heating at all. So 80 is pretty darn good for a mass-produced townhouse. However, that rating is based only on energy efficiency, and thus only tangentially includes water use from a water heating standpoint. Actual water consumption efficiency is not accounted for at all - but I've been thinking about it.
Water conservation mini tip #1: When running a bath, close the drain before turning the water on. You can quickly and easily bring the cold water you initially get up to temperature well before the tub gets full.
Water conservation mini tip #2: When running a shower or bath, turn the water on full hot first. This will bring the hot water up to temperature quickest, and not waste any cold water in doing so. Just be careful that you don't scald yourself. Don't try this while standing in the shower!
Before we get further into actual water efficiency, there is something interesting I found that relates to water heating efficiency. What is the largest single use of hot water in a house? Showers. Sure, you use some for dishwashing, washing hands, and maybe even laundry. Showers, however, use most of our hot water. Where does all the heat from these hot showers go? Right down the drain.
I came up with a plan to recover the heat from this wastewater. However, a quick search online showed me that someone beat me to it, and is already marketing a greater heat recovery system called the GFX. [Note: I have no affiliation, and am not getting paid for this - I just think it's a great idea and a wonderful product. I want one myself!] It's a simple, yet very effective system that captures most of the heat from the dirty, soapy water draining away and transfers it into the cold water coming into your shower. The result? You need a lot less hot water from your hot water tank. Less hot water needed, less energy needed to make the water hot. Uber cool.
Somewhat along those lines, I've been thinking recently of another addition that might work for a household plumbing system. When I wash my hands, I'm rarely running the water long enough to get any hot water out of the taps. Thereby, instead of just drawing more hot water into the pipes to warm the interior walls of my house, I just turn on the cold water. In summer it's not bad, until the really cold water kicks in. So, I started wondering what would happen if each sink had a moderately sized water reservoir that would hold water at room temperature. The water wouldn't be hot, but it wouldn't be ice-cold either - just warm enough to comfortably wash your hands in, or maybe drink.
The only drawback to this system is that I have yet to determine how to integrate a 3rd temperature (between "hot" and "cold") into typical plumbing and readily available fixtures. I'm sure there's a solution just waiting for me to find it (so I can test it out if my wife is feeling especially trusting one day), but I haven't put the time in to find it just yet. Stay tuned.
OK, let's get back to actual water use efficiency. Now, who can tell me the second biggest use of water in a household? I'm pretty sure it's toilet use, but even if it's not my point is that flushing the toilet uses up a lot of water in a typical household daily. Before you accuse me of practicing "if it's brown flush it down, if it's yellow let it mellow", I am not suggesting that you forgo flushing the toilet. It works at cottages, and some people don't find it offensive, but I'd just as soon have a "nice fresh bowl" each time.
The problem is that the water we're using to flush our toilets is the exact same water we're drinking out of our faucets. This isn't implying that tap water isn't safe to drink, just the opposite - we're using perfectly good, potable water and making poopie in it! You may as well be dumping a gallon of Evian in the bowl each time you flush. The problem becomes, where does one find water that is safe enough to store in a toilet tank, is available in sufficient quantities, and will help reduce the amount of municipally treated drinking water we flush each and every day?
If you've eaten your Wheaties today, you'll remember above that showers use up the most water in a household. Unless you're extremely filthy, or perform unspeakable acts in the shower, the only thing wrong with the water draining out of your shower and/or bath is that it's got the dirt that was on your skin, some soap and conditioner in it, and probably has a fruity smell from that great bath gel you found. Sounds to me like it's perfectly fine for toilet use!
Again, the details are sketchy, but somehow collecting this bathwater (after extracting the heat, of course) and storing it for toilet use would DRASTICALLY reduce the amount of water each household uses on a daily basis. Excess water could be easily disposed of daily, and any shortfall could be made up from regular tap water. If you really wanted to save water, you could also collect water from all the washbasins in the house as well. You probably wouldn't want the stuff you send down your sink going back through the toilet, but that's about the only restriction I would think necessary.
At this point, you've halved your water heating bill, and just about halved the amount of water you draw from the municipal water main each day. Not bad for some extra piping and a storage tank or two, eh?
The last area where I know I could save water is watering the lawn. If you own a lawn and live anywhere between Alberta and Ontario this summer, it's probably quite brown and crunchy. You're probably also under some kind of lawn watering restrictions enforced by your municipality due to low reservoir levels, right? I see two options to save water. One, let your lawn go brown, and next year dig up the dead mess and do some xeriscaping instead. (Look it up.) The other is to find a system to water your lawn that does not involve haphazardly spraying water all over your driveway, sidewalk, vehicle, house, patio, street, garage, and neighbour's fence, with some of it getting onto your lawn only to evaporate. Whenever I try to water my front lawn, I'm certain between one quarter and one half of all the water I've used drains down my driveway or evaporates off the brick walls of my home.
Woefully, I have no solution for this problem. In-ground sprinkler systems may be a lot better, and I've briefly considered getting such a system, until I realized that I could probably buy new sod to cover my miniscule lawn a few times over for the cost of such a sprinkler system. Ideally, I would think any watering system would be subterranean, delivering water directly to the roots of any vegetation you want watered. Unfortunately, to effectively water grass it would have to be shallow, which means it would also have to be relatively closely spaced, which means lots of labour to put it in, and lost of cost in the system itself. The additional problem arises when your wife announces the next year "I want to start a new garden" or "Let's plan some more bushes", and you have to work around this system without fatally splicing it with a shovel.
Obviously, there are efficiencies to be gained. Of course, not wasting food or water is only the tip of the mental iceberg I'm sucking on. Stay tuned next week for my continuing rant on efficiencies, where we're lacking, and how we could make them up. Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe Voyager is on...
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