Environment

Live Net Zero: Reducing household electricity consumption

From automating lightswitches to pulling the plug on non-energy efficient appliances, the Live Net Zero families embraced an electrifying challenge

  • Nov 07, 2022
  • 1,177 words
  • 5 minutes
The Live Net Zero families paid close attention to how they are illuminating their homes and are now exploring greener alternatives. (Photo: Samantha Pope)
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It’s an undeniable fact: Electricity makes our lives more convenient. With the simple flick of a switch or the insertion of a plug, we can clean our clothes and cutlery with minimal effort, and we can store food in the freezer for weeks instead of needing to shop every day for meals. 

Though appliances indisputably make our lives easier, it comes at a cost. Residential electricity use is associated with about four per cent of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Canada Energy Regulator. Though appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and freezers are convenient to use, Natural Resources Canada reports they can also be a major drain on homeowners’ finances and can account for 14 per cent of total household energy use.

In Live Net Zero’s second challenge, Canadian Geographic asked our five competing families to perform an audit of their electrical devices to see where their greatest energy – and emissions – savings will come from. Here’s how they approached it.

Nathan flips off a light switch in an effort to conserve energy. (Photo courtesy the Lai family)
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The Lai Family

Calvin Lai has had a lifelong interest in electricity and how things work, so the family was quite confident they’d be able to keep their carbon emissions related to household electricity use low. 

As their home is already fully equipped with LED bulbs, which are recyclable and can decrease lighting energy use by 50 to 70 per cent, and since the Lais have always let their dishes air dry, Calvin told Canadian Geographic they had to look for other creative ways to reduce household energy consumption. 

Using a watt meter, Calvin discovered his microwave was drawing 20 watts even when not in use. He says he was shocked, especially as microwaves typically use between two and seven watts of power while on standby mode. Because of this, the Lais purchased an outlet switch connected to the microwave that turns the appliance off during the night and when nobody is home. In fact, the Lais are big on automation, with smart lighting now installed in all common areas of the house. Their lights automatically turn on only when they need them, maximizing their comfort and safety while minimizing electricity consumption.

The Pistor Family

A Live Net Zero challenge is most effective when the whole family works together, so Jen Pistor tells Canadian Geographic her children have been reminding each other to be more conscious about their energy habits. 

The Pistor kids hold each other accountable in the electricity challenge, reminding one another to turn off the lights when leaving a room. (Photos courtesy the Pistor family)
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“It’s cute because now they’re keeping each other accountable,” she laughs. “I can hear my twins telling one another, ‘You left the room, you have to turn the lights off.’”

Similar to the Lais, the Pistors discovered their entertainment console pulls a considerable amount of phantom energy, and have addressed this by installing a smart plug with a timer that automatically powers down their television set when not in use. 

While the Pistors have also enjoyed their wine fridge, the family has decided to pull the plug on it along with their extra fridge in the basement. They’re also finding a new home for their small toaster oven and have purchased a larger one to accommodate their family of five. Doing do, Jen explains, will help the family reduce their need to use the gas stove. After all, even non-running gas stoves emit 2.6 million tonnes of methane per year – equivalent to the emissions of 500,000 cars, according to a recent study.

The Leung family rarely uses their drying machine, and often takes advantage of nice weather to hang their laundry outside. (Photo courtesy the Leung family)
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The Leung Family

The biggest ‘aha’ moment for the Leung family in this challenge was realizing that appliances that emit heat consume the most electricity. For decades, the family has avoided using hot water to wash their clothes, as 90 per cent of the energy consumed by washing machines goes to heating the water. Even switching the temperature setting on the washing machine from hot to warm can cut energy use in half, according to ENERGY STAR®

By keeping things cool, John discovered, they are not only using less energy to clean their garments, but they are also paying less to live green – about a cent per load.

With colder weather fast approaching, the days of hanging their laundry outside, as they normally do, are numbered. The Leungs plan to use their drying rack as much as possible and keep their use of the dryer to a minimum. When they need to use it, they will toss in reusable dryer balls to help speed up the drying time and eliminate the need for fabric softeners.

The Richmond Family

Throughout this challenge, one phrase kept the Richmond family mindful and determined: Small change, big impact. The family of four took on a series of “mini-challenges” in their house to modify their behaviour and habits related to electricity consumption, such as turning off lights when they’re not in use, unplugging small appliances, and line-drying laundry.

 

Kit Richmond changes their outdoor lighting to LED bulbs. (Photo courtesy the Richmond family)
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The Richmond family enjoys a candle light dinner. (Photo courtesy the Richmond family)
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By keeping the challenges small and manageable, mom Ania explained, it keeps the whole family engaged as if they are competing in a fun game. They have used this logic for all the challenges so far, with seven-year-old Theo still riding his bike to school every day (and loving it).

For the Richmonds, a big priority in this challenge was changing their lighting – not only purchasing LED lights but also changing out some of the fixtures. A challenge they ran into, however, was ensuring that they aren’t producing waste while exploring more efficient and greener alternatives. Ania wanted to replace an old fan, but was concerned it would end up in the landfill. In the end, they’ve settled on finding a more circular solution, and plan to donate it.

The Loewen-Nair Family

When the Loewen-Nairs took a deep dive into their online electricity bill, Andrea says they were shocked to learn they were electricity over-users. “We’ve done so many things in our lives to be intentional and mindful to put the planet first,” she told Canadian Geographic. “And then to discover that we had a failing grade . . . I was kind of upset about that.”

The Loewen-Nair family shares what they learned in their second Live Net Zero challenge. (Graphic courtesy the Loewen-Nair family).
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The family of five didn’t allow themselves to wallow in their disappointment for long, though. They quickly got to work, assessing their biggest electricity draws and what appliances could be unplugged permanently or replaced with something smaller or more energy-efficient. 

The answers to these questions resulted in what the Loewen-Nairs hope to be major energy-saving choices. They unplugged their second fridge, cube freezer and three fans, replaced all their light bulbs with LEDs, and are focusing on planning out their meals to reduce what needs to go in the fridge or freezer.

Above all, Andrea stresses the importance of taking the time to look at your electricity bill and identify where you can cut back. “I feel like [electricity consumption] is the sneaky carbon footprint. It’s less obvious than driving and eating meat,” Andrea says. “It’s the silent killer . . . Why are we not talking more about [it]?”

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