People & Culture

Flipping the switch on household electricity consumption

Canadian Geographic’s eight Live Net Zero families explore ways to cut back on emissions related to electricity 

  • Nov 30, 2023
  • 1,507 words
  • 7 minutes
Brothers Hugh and Arthur Waddell-Shankland hold up two lightbulbs. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland household)
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In Canada, electricity is often so entrenched in our daily routines that we don’t consider how much we rely on it. From illuminating rooms with the flick of a switch to cleaning clothes with a button, we constantly depend on this valuable energy. You are probably even using some form of home electricity right now to read this article.

However, the convenience of energy can come at a cost. Residential consumption of electricity across Canada is associated with about four per cent of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions, per the Canada Energy Regulator. But emissions related to electricity production, and in turn home energy use, are not the same across each Canada. For example, Quebec is the fourth largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world, with more than 97 per cent of its electricity production coming from hydropower, producing a low amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, most of Alberta’s power generation is from burning natural gas, which is much cleaner than other fossil fuels such as oil or coal but isn’t the greenest form of energy available.

For Live Net Zero’s fourth challenge, Canadian Geographic asked our eight competing families across Canada to explore ways to save money and reduce electricity-related emissions. Here are the main ways they tackled it.

The MacInnis-Boudreaus have a tiny LED bulb next to a light switch, which indicates whether their basement lights are on. (Photo courtesy the MacInnis-Boudreau household)
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A focus on lighting

According to Natural Resources Canada, lighting accounts for about 3.5 per cent of an average Canadian home’s energy use. Thus, many Live Net Zero families zeroed in on this area when searching for ways to lower their household carbon emissions. 

The Shannons, for example, embraced the power of automation. As “traditional methods of behaviour modification and reminders to turn off lights often yield short-term results,” Samantha Shannon says, the family of five from Airdrie, Alta., instead decided to explore a long-term solution to minimize energy waste. As her children leave for school at 8:25 a.m. every day and often forget to turn off their lights, the family uses a smart system that allows them to schedule when their lights turn on and off automatically. Their smart thermostat follows a similar schedule – automatically lowering the heat when the family is away from home. By doing so, they don’t have to rely on sheer willpower to reduce their carbon footprint and effectively use less electricity during the day. 

An original feature of the MacInnis-Boudreau family’s 100-year-old home is a tiny LED bulb next to a light switch that indicates whether the basement lights are on or off. When the bulb is glowing red, the family knows they have forgotten to switch the lights off. “Having these little reminders around the house, like this little bulb, makes a difference,” said Ashley MacInnis.

Meanwhile, the Marsh family from Etobicoke, ON., also focused on their lighting system during this challenge. They installed LED lights throughout their home, which have a longer lifespan than traditional bulbs, are recyclable and can decrease energy use by 50 to 70 per cent over other types. They also invested in dimmer light switches and motion-activated lights, which shut off when you leave a room and save money on energy bills.

Crystal Waddell wanted to measure how much energy her workstation was using, so she invested in an electricity monitor, which you can plug your devices into. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland household)
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Eliminating phantom power 

Though motion-sensing lights can help reduce the amount of electricity you use throughout the day, it’s important to note that they still consume energy even when on standby. This is phantom power, which can account for up to 10 per cent of your home’s energy use. In fact, the average Canadian household has over 25 devices drawing phantom power.

To address this, the Waddell-Shankland household has invested in an electricity monitor to track which devices use the most energy. The monitor, which plugs into wall outlets, measures the energy usage of a single appliance at a time. Crystal Waddell said she wanted to explore how much energy her workstation uses throughout the day, including her laptop, computer monitor, and phone. She discovered that cumulatively, these devices were using 1000 watts each day – the equivalent of a 100-watt light bulb operating for ten hours. They also found that during the evening or when it was not in use, the devices were still drawing 15 to 40 watts when plugged in.

To cut back on this phantom power, the Waddell-Shanklands purchased a smart power bar to plug their devices into. The family then uses an app to control the bar and can program it to shut off at certain times of the day. These smart bars can also assess your electricity usage and automatically turn off appliances that are not being used. Overall, they are a great way to cut down on electricity usage, according to Hydro-Québec.

The Proulx-Colls discovered their air fryer was more efficient at cooking potatoes than their full-sized oven. (Photo courtesy the Proulx-Coll household)
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Downsizing appliances 

Typically, the larger the appliance, the more energy it uses. Multiple Live Net Zero families have thus explored ways to avoid turning on the stove when cooking meals, as electric ovens draw between 2,000 and 5,000 watts of electricity on average. Because of this, the DePape-Rodrigues household has been taking advantage of their Instant Pot, using it to cook veggies, for example. Compared to full-sized stoves, most six-quart Instant Pots use around 1000 watts. The Reids have also been cooking meals on this appliance, from simple beans and rice to more complicated soups and stews. “I have three boys who eat a great deal, meaning that energy-efficient cooking is not only extremely important, it has been a game changer in many ways,” said Jen Reid. 

The Proulx-Colls have also found ways to cook food without the energy demand of a full oven, discovering that their air fryer takes half the amount of time and energy to roast potatoes compared to their oven. The air fryer cooked the potatoes in 20 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, only drawing 0.6 kilowatt-hours, while the oven-roasted potatoes in 40 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, using 1.09 kilowatt-hours. The MacInnis-Boudreaus rave about their air fryer, too, and often use it to cook garlic bread to accompany a meal.

Conserving water and turning down the heat

Electricity also provides comfort in our lives by heating the water we use at home. But since water heating accounts for approximately 20 per cent of your electricity bill, according to the Water Heater Guide by Natural Resources Canada, many Live Net Zero families also considered ways to cut back on energy usage in this area. 

Whenever you take a five-minute shower, you are using about 75 litres of water. Baths are double that, using, on average, 150 litres of water. The Foreman household knew they could improve in this area and recently installed a shower timer that beeps after a set time, indicating that it’s time to get out. In addition, they have installed an adjustable “stopper” that limits how far their shower handle can rotate in the hot water direction. 

Of course, it’s not just showers that use hot water: 90 per cent of the energy consumed by washing machines goes to heating the water. But switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut energy use in half, according to ENERGY STAR®, and if you wash or rinse in cold water, you can save even more. Because of this, many families, including the Foremans, are trying to wash more items with cold water.

Brigette DePape and her daughter, Fia, pose with a wool dryer ball, which reduces the amount of time needed to dry clothes. (Photo courtesy the DePape-Rodrigues)
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Rethinking laundry routine

What you decide to do after washing your clothes can also influence your energy usage. The DePape-Rodrigues family recently tried wool dryer balls, which can cut laundry time in half by absorbing moisture and helping separate clothes as they tumble. By drying a load of clothes in 30 minutes instead of the usual 60, they have cut back on their electricity usage. 

Some families decided to cut back on their dryer usage altogether. The Marshes have started to air-dry their clothes for the first 40 minutes of the drying cycle, taking advantage of natural air circulation and also extending the life of their clothes by minimizing their exposure to heat, while the Waddell-Shanklands have set up a DIY indoor laundry line in their basement. Hanging your clothes to dry reduces carbon emissions, and the energy savings associated with line-drying five loads of laundry per week add up to almost $60 a year. 

The Reid household has been researching the most energy-efficient clothes dryers to purchase, but in the meantime, they’ve committed to not using their dyer at all. “It might take some creativity in scheduling laundry . . . so that there is access to drying racks and indoor clotheslines we’ve put in place, but that’s okay,” the family said. “Nobody said that combating climate change would be easy.”

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