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Sustainability Showdown Suggestions

Jeff Gunther June 15, 2009
We've decided to add a cool new weekly feature where we compare the sustainability of different choices you may be faced with in your daily life. We'll take on options such as using a charcoal vs. gas-powered grill or paper vs. plastic bags.

This discussion is your place to suggest topics for us to cover. Every week, we'll pick one, do some research, and publish an entry showing our results on Sunday.
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Steven Skoczen June 16, 2009
Driving my car in warm weather - windows down or use the A/C? Reply to comment
Andrew June 17, 2009
Damn, I was going to say that. Although it may have already been discussed at length elsewhere online, anyway :) Reply to comment
Steven Skoczen June 17, 2009
Now you have to come up with a new one! Reply to comment
Micaela Batson June 21, 2009
I have hear before that this is the rule:
Less than 35 mph roll the windows down
More than 35 mph roll the windows up and turn on the AC

I can't seem to find a lot to back it up though
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Jeff Gunther June 21, 2009
I like this one. We talked about it a bit already under the drive better guide, but I think it'd be a good one to start with. And seeing as it's Sunday, I need to pick one to cover for next week, so this one will be it. Next Sunday: results! Reply to comment
Rachel Mays June 20, 2009
This one may be silly, but...

shorter warm showers or longer cold showers?
(meaning, is the bigger issue water usage or water heating?)
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Nicholas Creely June 23, 2009
How about using paper towels to dry your hands in a public restroom vs. using the hand dryer? Reply to comment
Jeff Gunther June 23, 2009
I hadn't thought of that one, I like it. Along similar lines, I've seen people debate paper towels versus cloth due to the energy needed to wash the cloth towels. Reply to comment
Sam Fladung June 23, 2009
I'm pretty sure I've seen the hand dryer win out in these. It may also depend on the ambient weather though. If it is cold out, the bathroom would be heated, so any increased power usage from the dryer would translate to decreased demand on the heating system. In warm wether the opposite would be true since it would fight the AC. Not sure if this would make a significant difference or not. Reply to comment
Jeff Gunther June 28, 2009
This is going to be the next Sustainability Showdown, look for it next week. This week's A/C vs. windows down showdown can be found here. Reply to comment
Sam Fladung June 23, 2009
Composting vs recycling paper. Some paper can be recycled but not composted (glossy/ heavily colored ink) others can be composted (or used for worm bedding) but not recycled (used paper towels, anything dirty) some can be either recycled or composted. For the ones that only one or the other can be done it is pretty obvious, but for situations where you could either recycle paper or compost it, which is better? I would tend to guess that composting it is better if the heap can take it, since there is a glut of recycled paper, but have no actual data to back that up. Reply to comment
Rachel Mays June 28, 2009
Since we do both composting and recycling here (and have tossed around the idea of a worm bin) I'd really like to hear more about this! Reply to comment
Steven Skoczen June 24, 2009
Microwave vs. Toaster Oven. I've always assumed that toaster ovens were way more efficient, but actually looking at the wattages and thinking about the cook time indicates I may have been way wrong. Sustainability showdown, give me answers! Reply to comment
Sam Fladung June 28, 2009
I would guess that the microwave is more energy efficient for heating things up since it generates most of the heat inside of the food itself. The thing to watch out for with microwaves is the constant draw from being on, but not in use (especially if you forget to close the door). Most toaster ovens will shut themselves off and stop drawing power once you finish.

I'm not sure how comparable they are since they have mostly different purposes. Making toast in the microwave tends to fail spectacularly.

Also, the dish you use in the microwave may affect it a lot. If you use a non-microwave safe dish, or marginally microwave safe dish you will expend a lot of energy heating the dish itself up.
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Jeff Gunther July 6, 2009
I like the suggestions that are coming out of this. This week we're going to go with the gas vs. charcoal grills as summer grilling season is getting into full swing. Keep making more suggestions for future showdowns! Reply to comment
Andrew Shoffstall July 9, 2009
My immediate prediction:

Charcoal releases more pollution, but is more economical.
Gas burns cleaner, but is more expensive.

Possible idea to take into account. Can the ash by-product of charcoal be added to your compost? I've heard of people clearing forests by controlled burning because this makes enormous amounts of Carbon available to new growing plants. I wonder if charcoal ash can be used for similar concept.
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Sam Fladung July 9, 2009
But charcoal doesn't release net carbon, whereas a gas grill will. The carbon in charcoal was taken out of the air, whereas propane is introducing new carbon into the system (stored in the ground for millions of years).

I think I've heard of people using the ash in composting, but not sure off the top of my head. The amount of carbon should be low if burned effectively (not sure how good grills are at this). I think the bigger benefit from the ash is the non carbon remains. But I think it has to be carefully applied since it can nuke your ph if just dumped in.
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Andrew Shoffstall July 9, 2009
That is true! Hadn't thought of that.
ambient CO2 --> biomass --> charcoal briquette.
That first step is naturally produced through cellular respiration. The second step requires an input of energy: heating biomass in absense of oxygen.

As for the ash, I think you are right. It appears that the ash will be mostly comprised of non-combustible minerals and very little carbon.
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andrew m July 7, 2009
how about (using a plate + washing it in the dishwasher or sink) vs (using a napkin + throwing it away) Reply to comment
Steven Skoczen July 7, 2009
Related to that, I'd be interested to see the numbers or handwashing vs a dishwasher. Reply to comment
Andrew Shoffstall July 9, 2009
I second that! Martha Bohm actually handed out an article that had to do with this in that class that we audited... It would be a miracle if I still had it, but I know that the research for this does exist. Reply to comment
Andrew Shoffstall July 9, 2009
This goes along with the replace lights with CFL guide:

I am curious to know which makes more sense: buy CFLs and immediately replace perfectly good incandescent bulbs, or wait for them to burn out before replacing.

Found one guy who blogged a guide to which made more sense based on light usage.

PS. I'm a big fan of the showdown. It's a great attraction for the site. Last Sunday's definitely got me to browse! (and I hadn't visited the site for a while... sorry...)
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Nicholas Creely July 9, 2009
I like this one. I've actually been wondering this myself. Reply to comment
Susan Gunther July 26, 2009
Am going back to andrew m's question earlier in the month. What about the paper products/ washing dishes by hand (with a full basin for the washing part) /dishwasher debate. This one never seems to go away, Reply to comment
Jeff Gunther July 28, 2009
This'll be this week's showdown. Check it out on Sunday. Reply to comment
linda murray Aug. 24, 2009
I love this! these are all questions I hear debated constantly - I've got some catching up on your site - but -- what about LED vs CFL bulbs and what about the mecury?? Reply to comment
Reeti Roy Oct. 14, 2009
Using bamboo instead of wood
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Mary Chris Jaklevic Dec. 11, 2009
Here's a puzzle. We're building a passive house, which doesn't need a furnace. Should we install a gas line? At the moment gas is cheaper and greener for drying, water heating and cooking. (We're in Chicago.) But I'm thinking electric power has the potential to BECOME greener in the future. By way of background, the gas line costs $1,600 to install plus $30 in monthly service charges from the gas company.

Also, I'm considering an electric INDUCTION cooktop and a drying closet, if anyone has experience with these gadgets.

For more info on the project:

Input appreciated!
Mary Chris
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Sam Fladung Dec. 11, 2009
One option to consider is using the $1600 that you would use to get the gas line installed to set up a solar water system. You will need to check the pricing as it seems to be one of the industries that won't give you a price until you call them. If you size they system to provide 50% to 80% of your hot water needs as a preheat for a standard electric water heater it may make it both cheaper and cleaner than using the gas. One manufacturer of this type of system can be found at Silicon Solar Link .

With dryers, make sure you look at the horizontal spin (usually front loading) dryer since they tend to be much more energy efficient than vertical ones.

Induction cooktops are awesome. They heat stuff much faster than a standard electric and don't remain hot when you turn them off. My favorite feature with an induction stove is how easy they are to clean. Just wipe down a flat glass surface. The biggest caveat with them is you cannot use copper bottom pans. All pans need a magnetizable material in there base. Some stainless pans work, some don't. If you are unsure, take a magnet and see if it sticks to the bottom. If it does, you are good. Cast iron of course works.

One final thing to consider is that if you use very energy efficient light bulbs/appliances you will reduce your passive heating effect. Make sure to keep this in mind so you don't end up with not enough internal heating.
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Mary Chris Jaklevic Dec. 11, 2009
Thanks for these thoughts, Sam. We're considering solar panels, but might not be able to afford it right away. We could go with solar panels and a heat pump for the water, which is a new option on the market.

Still wondering about the future of electricity. Will it become greener as we add more solar and wind power?
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Sam Fladung Dec. 14, 2009
Whether grid electricity gets greener or not depends on a lot of factors that are hard to predict including in your case Chicago politics. In theory the electricity will get greener as more renewables are added, however the problem of storage results in typically coal filling the downtime when it isn't sunny or windy enough. I'll let someone else handle answering this portion of the question.

However, if you are planning on installing solar later, your electricity will get greener which is what you have control over. If you pay to have the gas line installed and purchase gas appliances you will then lose that investment when you convert. Looking at the pictures of your neighborhood, I don't think your neighbors would appreciate you making your own natural gas :).

Personally I would look for any other use of the money than forking it over to the utility company for the privilege of paying them later.

What is the differential in your location between gas and electric (both cost and greenness)?
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Mary Chris Jaklevic Dec. 16, 2009
Thanks, Sam. Almost half our electricity here in Illinois is produced from coal. That makes it more dirty than gas right now. Cost-wise it's a wash. Basically, we have to commit to investing in solar in the next few years to justify the all-electric strategy. We decided to install solar as soon as we have the cash, which really depends on the economy at this point.

Upshot is, I canceled the gas line installation this morning. The woman at the gas company sounded a bit incredulous!
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