Green Up Your Act: There are easy ways to cut energy use in the home kitchen

Close the refrigerator! Turn off the lights! No doubt most of us can still hear our parents’ voices reverberating with those nagging commands. Their imperatives were likely aimed at saving money, and they were onto something. Today’s energy prices – sent skyward in part by rising demand, possible shortages and world politics – have made it truer than ever that being green saves green.

But things have changed since the days when our parents scolded us, and there are almost as many reasons to pay attention as there are ways to be energy conscious.

There’s little debate about the seriousness of global warming anymore, and energy production for industry, transportation, home use and agriculture is the leading contributor. Power production adds pollutants to the air, impacting our health and the health of the natural environment. Lower power consumption equals lower levels of air pollution. Oh, and lower utility bills might be another reason to cut your energy use.

It may sound overwhelming, but each small choice we make has a cumulative impact, so start making changes room by room. The heart of your home – your kitchen – contains the biggest domestic energy users. “The kitchen is where families spend a big chunk of time and most of their energy dollars,” said Kevin McDevitt, a volunteer with the EarthWays Center, a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden that promotes sustainable energy and resource use. “The refrigerator alone uses about 20 percent of a household’s energy. But there are ways to maximize efficiency without compromising performance.”

For starters

Baby steps with grown-up impact: “The impact of our choices absolutely adds up, positive or negative,” said Jean Ponzi, program manager for the EarthWays Center. “Whether we think about what we’re doing or not, the impact carries the same force.” So think about this:

Turn it up: The cooling dial in the fridge tells you little about the actual temperature, so to avoid keeping it too cold, use a thermometer. “Refrigerators should be 37 degrees, freezers 3 degrees,” said Harvey Sachs, director of the buildings program for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Also, check the gaskets around your refrigerator and freezer doors to make sure they are clean and sealed.

Move it: Position your refrigerator away from heat sources like the oven or direct sunlight. Allow air to circulate around the condenser coils. Leave a space between the wall and the fridge.

Get loaded: Most dishwashers use the same amount of energy whether they’re full or not, so fill it up and skip the prewash cycle. “Rinsing dishes with hot [water] uses more water and energy than the dishwasher itself,” Sachs said. To make a big cut in energy used, let the dishes air-dry rather than using the heated dry cycle.

Go wireless: Many household appliances suck power even when they’re turned off. Culprits include computers, stereos, phone chargers, microwaves and coffeemakers, and the phantom energy load can be as much as 20 watts per appliance. If you use your microwave for less than 10 minutes a day, the clock takes more energy than the cooking.

Recycle: The kitchen produces a lot of waste – plastic containers, aluminum and steel cans, paper and glass, for starters. “A lot of this material is actually valuable because it can be recycled into usable products,” said Jill Hamilton, recycling program manager for the city of St. Louis. The energy savings are tremendous, and though you won’t see the benefits in your energy bills, the planet will feel the difference. “Recycling one glass container saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours,” Hamilton explained.

Andy Nea, a Clifton Heights resident and owner of Nea Construction, said that he recycles at home and also in the workplace. “At home we’ve seen a huge reduction in trash since we started recycling,” he said. “In a week we fill one recycling bin with junk mail alone.”

One good egg: And then there’s food waste. In 2002, the University of Arizona released a study with, er, rotten results: The average family throws away 470 pounds of food each year. That’s 14 percent of food brought into the home, worth roughly $650. To slow food decay, try an innovation such as the Ethylene Gas Guardian, which gets dropped in the crisper drawer to absorb up to 97 percent of the ethylene, a decay-causing gas emitted by some produce. Other products that absorb ethylene are the ExtraLife disk and BioFresh produce bags for food storage. Tupperware is also in on the game, offering FridgeSmart containers with vents for regulating airflow and grids that keep produce away from condensation. And if you do let fruits and veggies go bad, compost them into fertilizer for your lawn and garden.

Put a lid on it: Ovens and stoves are a significant energy draw. Now, no one’s asking you to give up your range, but there are smarter ways to cook. If you’re in the market for a new one, heavy insulation makes self-cleaning ovens more efficient. Convection ovens cook faster and use less energy because the fan keeps heat circulating. Also, buy what you need; skip the eight-burner commercial-style range if you don’t cook or entertain often.

Glass or ceramic bakeware allows you to lower the oven’s temperature setting by 25 degrees. If you have a self-cleaning oven, use the feature just after you’ve cooked a meal so the oven’s still hot and the cleaning requires less energy. On the stovetop, use lids on pots and match the pot to the burner size. Microwaves are most efficient so use them when you can.

Put it away: If you take something out of the fridge, put it back before it warms up. “It takes more energy to re-chill the bottle of soda than it does to keep it cool,” said Sachs.

Next courses

Get the green light: With standard incandescent light bulbs, only 10 percent of the electricity pulled is given off as light. “Ninety percent of the energy is lost as heat. This is a very inefficient way to heat the house,” McDevitt joked. A compact fluorescent lightbulb, or CFL, uses 75 percent less energy than a standard bulb and lasts up to 8,000 hours, compared with an incandescent’s 1,000.

“Lighting accounts for about 20 percent of the household energy bill,” Sachs said. CFLs have come a long way; there now are bulbs to fit almost any fixture, including lights on a dimmer switch, and the light has gotten warmer and softer.

Reach for the Energy Stars: According to Energy Star (a program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy), households spend about $1,900 a year on energy, and homes produce more greenhouse gases than automobiles. Use appliances bearing the Energy Star and cut this drastically.

Energy Star rates products in 50 categories, including kitchen appliances like dishwashers, fridges, water coolers, ceiling and ventilating fans and light bulbs. Energy Star qualified refrigerators and freezers use about 50 percent less energy than older models (and by older, think 1993, not 1973).

Try some bubbly: Add an aerator to the kitchen faucet. Most newer faucets now are made with aerators, but Ponzi had an extra tip: “Add another.” This move will cut water use even further, but the beauty is that you won’t notice. Don’t believe it? The EarthWays Center has aerators on all the taps at its environmentally friendly demonstration
home in Grand Center, so go test it out. “Anybody can install an aerator, even me,” Ponzi said. “With an aerator, what comes out of the tap is a mix of air and water, but the pressure is the same.”

Floor it: There are a lot of sustainable choices for kitchen flooring. “Cork flooring is naturally antimicrobial and feels good under your feet,” said Terry Winkelmann, co-owner of Home Eco, a store in south St. Louis that distributes responsibly harvested brands. Another option is fast-growing bamboo, which matures in six years, regenerates without replanting and is harder than oak or maple.

If you want to install a classic wood floor, make sure it’s sustainably harvested. At almost 160,000 acres, Pioneer Forest in Salem is Missouri’s largest privately owned forest. Its oak flooring is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a German-based nonprofit focusing on responsible forest management. “Pioneer wood carries an additional environmental benefit – it’s a local product,” Winkelmann pointed out.

Or try Marmoleum. This resilient flooring is truly a natural product, made from linseed oil, wood flour, pigments, resins and jute. Like cork, it’s naturally antimicrobial. Paul Brenden, a south St. Louis resident and owner of Dadoworks Architecture, said Marmoleum flooring has performed well in his own home and in some of his projects. “I have a dog and my wood flooring gets mild scratches from him now and then, but I don’t see that at all with the Marmoleum,” he said.

All of these options are available through Home Eco, and the EarthWays Center has demos of each.

The skylight’s the limit: The fastest way to open up a room is to add a skylight. Positioned correctly, skylights also maximize daylighting and passive solar heating, reducing the need for electricity and cutting gas needs. Skylights are great year-round; you can prevent unwanted solar heat gain in the warmer months by positioning the skylight in the shade of deciduous trees or by using window coverings.

You don’t have to level your home to reduce your energy consumption, and even small changes yield tangible environmental and economic savings. “We’re talking about efficiency, not sacrifice,” Sachs said. “There are ways to do what we’re doing now, without the waste.” Ponzi agreed. “Humans are having an enormous environmental impact,” she said, “but it’s the result of all of our moment-to-moment actions. When we choose to waste less, we will pay less. That might inspire folks, but the real payoff is that there is a direct link between what we do and the health of the air, trees, water and climate.” So don’t forget: Turn off the lights!