One Year Utility Analysis

Now that H and I have lived in this house for a year, I’m curious to see where our carrying costs for utilities ended up.  I’m not going to concern myself with things that can be cancelled at our discretion (like internet) but more with things that we can not get rid of unless we move out of this house – mainly electricity and gas (paid as 1 bill) and sewer, water and trash (also paid as 1 bill).  Right now, we dont have a fire place or anything like that, so we need to keep paying these bills to make sure that our house is in a livable condition.  Since we need to keep paying these, we have started looking into how to keep them as low as possible, mainly through conservation and good habits (like turning off the lights when we leave a room).  I didnt want to start looking too early, because I wanted to get baseline data from where we started at so we could easily track improvements.

Right now, our improvements have been pretty small.  We’ve replaced 7 lights with LEDs, and about 10 or so with CFLs, but we do still have some incandescent bulbs in lights that are infrequently used (or in situations where the light was replaced and came with new bulbs).  We also replaced the bathroom window with a newer, more efficient window but other than that, we have not made many improvements to lower the bill we pay to our electric utility.  Once we get most of the higher priority stuff finished (like a door for the bathroom) we will start to move on to some of the low hanging fruit here.

Even though it’s only been a year, we have been lowering our electricity use month over month for the year.  We used less kWh in june 2013 than we did in june 2012, by a fair amount, and that should continue to go lower as we make more replacements with LEDs. (As a note, our electricity is provided by our gas provider and we pay them with the same check, but use is broken out separately.) Now that we have a years worth of data on our side though, we are using that to help us focus our efforts even more.

Our patterns from last summer when we were living in the basement will be/are much different this summer, as we are rarely in the basement and spend most of our time upstairs.  Most of our lights downstairs were changed out to CFLs and we didnt have that many lights down there to begin with – we spent all our time in one room.  We do get daylight in the summer, but there are a lot more bulbs on now than there were when we were living in the basement, so I’m happy that we are using less energy.

In addition to us doing things to try and lower our energy bill, we’ve contacted our utility for a residential energy audit, which they preform free of charge.  I have a feeling I know what they are going to say, but it will be nice to chat with the person and get some direction on where to go first.  I’ll let you know the results.

Readers: Do you monitor your energy bill every year to see if you’re using more or less than you were the last year? If not how come?

Sustainable DIY Series: How to Install a Low Flow Shower Head

Hey all my awesome RSS Readers.  If you’re using google reader, they are going to shut it down in mid june.  If you’re still interested in subscribing by RSS, Check out feedly, which is what I’ve switched too.  I’ve also got an email list, or you can like me on facebook or follow me on twitter.

A while ago, I did a poll on the site, trying to figure out how I could write content that was more relevant for you all – my awesome readers.  One of the thing you all were curious about was more DIY projects that could make you more sustainable around the house.  Since most of my projects recently have had nothing to do with sustainability (making a beer bottle crate, putting knobs on cabinets), I’ve been waiting to write something.

After a few weeks, an opportunity fell into my lap.  I got contacted by the people at Niagra Conservation, who asked if I would like a shower head to review.  I was slightly skeptical at first, because, who gives away a shower head? (and also because we just finished our upstairs bathroom, complete with a new shower head.  After a little inner reflection, some extra prodding from the company and talking with my dad, I decided that I had very little to lose so I told them yes.  I had initially offered it to my dad, but when I got it in the mail, I called him right away and told him that he’d have to get his own, because this thing looked awesome and I wanted to keep it.

Since the shower head in the upstairs bathroom is pretty new, I put it in our basement bathroom.  This was the better choice because the downstairs shower was pretty old, and used about 3.5 gallons per minute and wasn’t all that great.  It wasnt bad enough for us to replace it on our own, because as of now that shower is used pretty infrequently as it is.  However, it was free so I decided what the hey.  They estimate that you can save approximately 5,500 gallons of water per year, which is a lot of water and a big deal out here.  It could potentially save you even more if you have tiered water pricing like I do (where you pay more per gallon once you cross a threshold of water used for the month – ours is 6,000).  If you can stay in the first block of water usage, it could save you quite a bit of money.  Even if you’re already pretty good with you water bill wise, this will help you save even more water – always a good thing.

Sustainable projects like this are my favorite.  I can work for a bit once, and just keep reaping the benefits of saving water throughout the lifespan of the item with little fuss going forward.  It doesnt take constant maintenance or really any work in the future on our part, except cleaning at times.  This one was even better because the total time from start to finish was about 10 minutes.

One thing about this project – While this is low hanging fruit in that it’s relatively cheap to do and easy to do, it’s not going to save you a ton of water.  Things like a dishwasher and washing machine will save you more water, but cost a lot more money.  The frequency of use here is also something to consider, as in some households, a more efficient toilet will get you further.

Installing the Low Flow Shower Head




This is what our downstairs bathroom looked like before I started.  This is the old shower head, which was pretty inefficient.  That’s not something that we want in the house, because it wastes so much water compared to what we put in there.  The first step in the process is to take off the old shower head.  Some are hand tightened so you can just used your hand, but mine was a little tighter so I used a pair of pliers to get the old one off.  Once the old one was off, it was time to prep the pipe for a new shower head.


Once the old shower head was off, I got a wet rag and wiped off the remnants of the plumbers tape that was on there, as well as a little bit of junk that had gotten in the threads over the years.  Once that was all done, I took some nylon plumbers tape and wrapped it over the threads.  The new shower head said that you didnt have to do this, but because we had so many very small leaks during our upstairs plumbing I just went the safe route.  Once the tape is on if you choose to use it, you’re ready to put the new shower head on.


Now it’s time to install the new shower head.  Take the shower head and screw it on to the pipe with your hands.  Make sure not to over tighten the shower head as you’re putting it on.  There’s no need for pliers for step, so just go easy on it and test it to make sure it doesnt leak.  Below is a picture of the shower head in action.

100_4278Bottom line: This shower head is pretty awesome.  It’s great that we are saving about a gallon per minute while showering with this shower head, and the pressure is great too.  I’ve heard the low flow shower heads described pretty poorly before, but that’s not the case for this one.  The rainfall is awesome, and it makes you feel like you are in a luxury hotel hotel when you’re showering with it.  I cant seem to find the exact one they gave me online, but I dont think that it will cost more than $40 at the store.  With the potential to save about 5,500 gallons per year, the paypack period will be pretty quick with this unit.  If you’re in the market for a new shower head (or just tired of your inefficient old one) give this a try.

Note: While they did give me this unit for free, it didnt influence my decision.  I wanted one of these style shower heads for the upstairs bathroom, but we couldnt find one that matched the fixtures for the sink and tub that we had already purchased.  

Readers:  How are your shower heads?  Do you have any that could be replaced, or are there other projects around the house that will save more water that you’re interested in tackling first?


Through the Looking Glass: At What Price Point Would You Get a Loan for Windows

The other morning as I was finishing up my run, I noticed someone a few blocks away from our house had gotten new windows.  Though I didn’t check the windows on the back of the house, I was able to see all 3 sides and would guess that they replaced every window on the upper level of the house.  It was at least 6 windows, with 2 of them being rather large.  The windows still had the brand sticker on them, and I recognized the brand as a pretty energy efficient window.  I immediately thought back to the time that H and I had someone come out and give us an estimate on new windows in our house.

If you dont recall, we got a quote for a window in the bathroom, and it was about 10x more than the window that we ended up installing.  The product, however, was impressive.  Far more energy efficient than our current windows and still better than the new one.  At the time though, we were just tired of tossing money into the bathroom and opted for the not as good (but still far better) cheaper window.

The next thing I wondered was what it would take me to take out a loan to replace the windows in our house.  I’d guess it’d cost somewhere around $8,000 to replace all 21 windows upstairs.  Clearly, that’s no small number.  However, our most recent heating bill came for december (we were gone for 9 days) and it was almost $200 dollars!  We knew that we had a terribly inefficient house, but were not sure how much it would cost us on a monthly basis to heat and keep sorta warm (H and my parents say that the 65 degrees we keep the house at is ‘freezing’).  Using the december numbers as a barometer, we are on track to spend around $1,000 on energy costs this winter.  That is a lot of money – clearly more than we’d like to pay.  Even more so because we know the house has 0 insulation (except in the bathroom, which we put in) and most of what we pay to heat is flowing right out the door and window gaps.

Even though I’m against debt in the majority of situations, interest rates are low right now.  I’d guess that we can get a loan for this sort of thing for around 5%, if not less.  We would obviously be on the hook for the interest and be chained to the debt, but once we got the windows installed, we’d start seeing immediate savings in the form of lower energy bills.  If the rate and the terms were right, this could turn out to be a cash flow positive deal (at least in the winter time).

Not only could we save money on our energy bill immediately as opposed to waiting until we saved up the cash to replace the windows, we’d also make this house a lot more sustainable.  Right now, we are wasting an obscene amount energy because our house is so inefficient – a loan for new windows would curtail that amount heavily.  Of course, it wouldnt get rid of the waste all together, but it would go a long way.  The one question is, what sort of price are we willing to put on the amount of good that we are doing for the earth?  This is something that we talked about with the washing machines, and our bill has gone down by about $10/month since we put the new ones in.  This though, isn’t an almost $8,000 purchase, those cost just over $1,100 for both.

Of course, I’d need to run some actual numbers and see how much we’d save over the year and what sort of interest rate we’d get (I think there’s a federal program that gives loans for energy efficient home upgrades, but I dont remember).  Once I knew the exact numbers, it would be a lot easier to make a decision.  Until then though, there’s always speculation.

If we’d save money overall for the year (though we may not save money every month) I’d be for it.  Obviously, this would require a rather large energy savings and a small interest rate, but it could be done.  At the break even point or even if it cost us $100 or less for the year overall, I’d probably still consider it.  However, I think if we ended up paying more than $250 per year (over and above energy savings) for our impatience, I wouldnt do it.  Obviously, savings rates are impossibly low and aren’t going to help us at all.

Readers: Have you ever thought about this?  At what price point would you upgrade whatever it is, and at what point would you just wait and save your money?  This will only work for huge wins like new windows, and wouldnt even matter for many smaller energy efficiency upgrades.  


Is Getting Your Own Food Cheaper, Part 5

As I’ve tried to expand my sustainability horizons over the past 4 years, I discovered hunting.  I’d always been interested in hunting and curious (as well as unsure) about wether or not I could ever participate.  Hunters often get a bad rap, but it’s not wholly undeserved.  I hunt so that I can get a sustainable, organic source of meat  for the winter and summer months in the fall.  The places where I typically hunt I get tags that are designed to control the local population of the animal I’m out hunting, so not only am I getting some stuff for the freezer, but I’m also doing the land a favor by slowing down the heavy grazing going on.

I’ve written about this multiple times before, talking about the total cost of my Halibut fishing, my Elk Hunt, my duck hunt, and my blue grouse hunt.  Oddly enough, the first hunt that I ever went on for antelope has not gotten a cost analysis yet.  I didnt get to go this year, and I didnt buy a tag in time last year.  I always like to see the cost breakdown and figure out how much meat I got per pound.  For just about every hunt, I seem to be landing all over the map as far as cost goes, coming in near $5 per pound on the elk side, and upwards of $28 dollars per pound for duck.  Of course, this is slightly skewed, because it’s not all lower quality meats like ground elk or elk sausage, there’s also steak cuts and tenderloin cuts.

Next on the list for this time is deer.  I’ve been wanting to go hunt deer for a while, and there is a huge deer population in northern wyoming (both white tail deer and mule deer).  So much so that the landowners in the area where we hunt (Ucross, WY) call the game warden to send hunters to their place so they can thin the herd a bit.  The deer eat all the hay that the landowners have stored for the winter for their sheep or cattle, which annoys the landowners.

For this deer hunting trip, it was me, my father in law, the friend that took me duck hunting a while back.

Here are the costs of my deer hunting trip:

  • Deer tags $60.  This year, I got two deer tags.  I had initially only planned on buying one, but after talking to the landowners when we got there, I decided that if I harvested one early enough I’d go into town and buy another one.  My other buddy decided the same thing, and that’s what we ended up doing
  • Gas/Lodging $68.  This trip basically required a 1 night stay, and 2 tanks of gas.  My father in law paid for the room, and I bought one of the tanks of gas and my buddy bought the other.  The cost of all three was roughly equal
  • Food/drinks $30.  Though I brought snacks with me for in the car on the way up and back, I still paid for a fair amount of meals (3).  The food situation was a bit thin at the house before I left, so I couldnt really pack as much of my own food as I wanted.

Unlike all of my other hunts, I was able to offset the costs of this hunt.  After talking to the rancher about the number of deer and a friend, I offered to “sell” my second deer to my friend for $25 (basically the cost of the tag).  He agreed (I’m not sure if he thought I was joking or not), and this was the main reason I got the second tag.  Since I knew I could most likely get one and I had something to do with the meat, it didnt seem like that much of a risk.  I texted my friend when we left and told him to find a processor for the animal and that he could come pick it up the next day and he was shocked.  He ended up giving me $30, which I wasnt going to complain about.

The total cost for the trip was $128, and I ended up with 1 white tail deer. I process the meat myself, and though I’m not finished with it yet, I’ll end up with about 25 lbs of meat when everything is said and done.  This puts the cost per pound of meat at about $5.12, which is slightly less than what I paid for elk (though it would have been higher had I not had to go out for elk like 9 times).  Of course, this is not all steak quality meat, but I would say about 33% of it is.  This will be a nice addition to the winter rotation, and I’ll probably end up giving some away as well.

Readers: Do you think the price for game meat is reasonable?  Do you know someone that hunts, or are you involved in a roadkill program in your state (where they take animals that got hit and give away the meat)?  


Fall Gardening 101: Prep for an Organic Garden Next Spring

This year, one of my goals was to plant a garden.  Unfortunately, with all of the time that H and I spent on the wedding and the honeymoon, there just wasnt time to get anything into the ground, and when H did plant some things for me (a tomato and a pepper plant) it was right before we left for about a month.  Normally, it would have been no problem but we didn’t get anyone to water our plants, so they quickly withered in what ended up being a hot summer.  This wasn’t exactly the best thing that could have happened, but I’m not suprised by the results – we focused most of our time indoors on repairs and I didn’t have much time to focus outside.  Next year, however, will be different.

Not only have I decided that I’m going to substantially increase my gardening, I’ve decided to try organic gardening, and here’s why:

  • It’s better for the environment – Our food typically travels about 1500 miles just to get from the farm to our plate!  That is so much wasted energy trucking a tomato from california or mexico when I could just walk into the backyard and get one.
  • It helps my soil – Instead of having to put on different fertilizers every year to make up for a lack of a specific nutrient, I can plant cover crops in the winter or early spring to fix the nutrients into the soil.  This way, there wont be fertilizer residue on my foods, and it wont wash into the storm drains in my town.  Healthy soil = happy garden
  • I know what genes are in my food – There has been a lot of controversey lately with GMO plants.  Some european countries require labeling of GMO foods, but here in the US we do not.  While I’m not convinced these are bad for you (yet), I feel like it’s a senseless risk – I can easily garden and know I wont be eating a GMO tomato, so why wouldnt I do that?
  • I’ll know more about what I eat – I’m not here to talk smack about the grocery store, but going to the store and buying something puts 1 more layer of stuff between me and my food.  I want to know more about my food, how it was grown and where it comes from.  Putting (another) middle man in there wont help me with this at all.  (This is one reason H and I signed up for a CSA)
  • My Food will Taste Better – Gardening is a great way to branch out from the traditional varieties of fruits and veggies that you see in the grocery store.  There are tons of varieties to choose from, and you can pick based on what you like best and what grows well in your area.  Some of the best varieties are available at seed savers, Including my favorite, Heirloom tomatoes!
  • My Garden will Save money – Gardening is far cheaper than buying an equivalent amount of produce from a store.  According to the University of Arizona Ag Dept, 1 properly cared for tomato plant can yield 15 lbs (!!!) of tomatoes!  If if tomatoes were .99 per pound (they normally are not) you could get about 4 plants (where I live) that are already started for 15 bucks – and that could yield you ~60 lbs of tomatoes!  The CPI (consumer price index) is also constantly increasing, and growing your own food is a great way to insulate yourself from unexpected increases.
  • Pride – There are few things more awesome than having some friends or family members over to your place and saying “all of this stuff came from the garden”.  Lots of work went into getting the food to grow, and they’ll appreciate the time that you put into it.
  • You can do it anywhere – Contrary to what you may think, you dont need a gigantic backyard (or a backyard at all) to start growing some of your own foods.  You can grow in pots and window box planters, and even tailor containers to your meals, like I did with my pizza pot.
  • Connect with Nature – This is a top reason for me.  I love spending time outside, and try to do as much as possible.  In the past, this meant hiking, snowboarding and climbing.  There’s no where I feel better about myself, life and everything that’s going on around me than when I’m outside.  Having an awesome garden will allow me this experience every day, instead of when I make time for being outside, as it is now.
  • Teach your family – this is a great way to show your kids where food  actually comes from.  You can teach your children that the food they eat comes from the soil, and that they need to take care of the soil if you want it to give you any veggies.  Like the wise ben franklin once said “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”.

One reason, is that

I’m getting my garden prepped right now for next spring – conditioning soil, cleaning up branches, getting new lawn sprinklers at Gilmour, etc.

Of course, since mine is an area that has not been gardened before (or at least not in a long time), I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.

Cleanup is first, and probably most important.  I’ll be removing lots of branches, weeds and other cover (including a bed of rocks).  During the winter, weeds, dead leaves and other cover make great habitat for slugs, bugs and other undesirables in your garden.  Weeding is also extremely important, as weeds have the tendency to self seed and come back in your pumpkin patch twice as strong for next year.  Get all of your plants that have stopped producing out of the garden and into the compost pile (if you have one), unless they are blighted or otherwise diseased.

After your garden area is clean, determine what nutrients that your soil is missing.  Typically, the local extension of your state  university (or whichever is heavily focused on agriculture) will test your soils for a small fee, then tell you what nutrients need to be added.  For soil testing services in your area just search google for “soil test YOUR STATE”.  If you’re more of the diy type, go ahead and do a DIY soil test. Missing nutrients will depend on where you live and what you’ve been growing recently, depending on whether or not that crop puts nutrients into the soil, or takes them out.  Organic matter is a great addition to the soil in most cases.  Add organic matter (typically straw/hay) to the soil in the fall, will keep the soil moist and prevent weeds from growing in your garden.  This is a great time to work some manure into the soil – you can buy it, but a farmer would be happy to give you some if you asked.  Just make sure that it’s not a far drive so you dont have to deal with the smell.  Important: Do not add manure when there are crops present – it can carry organisms that can contaminate your crops.

Here at sustainable life blog, we are trying to build up our earths resources, and save money – not spend money on fertilizers that could infiltrate the groundwater and local streams.  Here are some of the most common nutrients that your soil will be lacking, as well as a few cover crops you can plant in the fall to put the nutrients back into the soil.  Planting these will build nutrients into the ground in a sustainable, natural way – ensuring great garden production for years to come.

  • Nitrogen (N) – Clover and Lucerne (great chicken feed) take nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil via their roots (this will probably be the route that I go).  Stinging nettle accumulates lots of nutrients in the leaves and can be a great soil fertility enhancer.  Till this under in the spring before you’re ready to start planting, and you’ll have excellent soil in no time!
  • Phosphorus (P)- Comfrey is a great for fixing many things, including calcium, nitrogen and potassium.  When you’re ready you can make a great liquid manure and really kick the garden into high gear.  (Dock is also good for this, but difficult to keep in check – I’d shy away from it.
  • Potassium (K) – Yarrow is a garden herb that is non competitive and will easily fix potassium and phosphorus into your soil.  Yarrow attracts good insects to your garden and repels bad ones, in addition to fixing nutrients into your soil.
my clover seeds, ready for planting and nitrogen fixing!
All of these plants are what’s known as “green manure”, because they are great at adding nutrients to the soil.  To turn them under, you cut the crop as close to the soil as possible using  a weed eater or shears.  Take the cuttings and toss it into the compost pile or make liquid manure, and you’ll be left with stubble.  Some choose to use a hoe to turn over the stubble, and some leave it, planting the crops between them.  If that sounds like too much work, you can always cover with mulch and a sheet of black plastic to decompose the stubble, but decomposition could take a month or more.  For those of you with raised garden beds worried about being able to get all the stubble out of the corners, that will probably be your best option.

Compost is also something you can add after you’re finished harvesting – the area where I live composts green waste and has a few “free dirt days” that you can go pick it up, free of charge or if I miss those days, it costs about $30 for a truck bed full of the stuff.  Once the spring comes around, I’ll grab a case of beer, some good natured but unsuspecting friends and a few shovels and wheelbarrows, and have some help getting all of that dirt unloaded.

I’ll reap the bounty in about a year, but lots of the prep work for the garden comes now.  What will you be doing to make sure you have an awesome harvest next year?

Readers:  Are you planning on planting next year?  If so, what are you going to plant, and how are you going to give yourself a kick start this fall?

Sustainable Wedding Ideas – DIY Wine Box

One of the (few) fun things about planning a wedding is seeing all of the neat stuff that other people do at their weddings. By this, I clearly mean all of the neat things that H shows me.  I don’t jerk around on once wed or in the wedding section of pinterest, but I do occasionally come across something that I think is pretty cool and will actually be fun and worth the time to do at our wedding.  Typically, this involves buying something that I deem too expensive for what I’m getting or just flat out rediclous, so I look at the idea, figure out what I really like about it, then trying to replicated the effect for a lot lower cost and environmental impact.  One of the best things that I saw was a 5 year anniversary wine box.  If you are not familiar with it, you get a box, put a bottle of wine in there, and you and your future spouse write letter to each other.  They are sealed off in the box until a pre-determined time (ours will be 5 years) and then on your chosen day, you read the letters, and open the wine and have a glass.  There are some kits out there, but they are like 50 bucks, and that’s without the wine.  I decided to make my own, so I’ll share the process with you – it was pretty simple and I did it with the tools and materials I already had.  The process is highly dependent on what you want – some of the boxes have special glasses with anniversary dates printed on them put in with the wine, and some do not.  Some have fancy double locking mechanisms where each partner gets a key, and some do not.  Some have very nicely decorated insides of the box, and some do not.  Honestly, it’s all up to you when you’re making the box.  I’m not exactly a master craftsman, so I followed the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid).  My box will hold 1 bottle of wine and two letters, and have 1 locking mechanism.  It will also be decorated on the outside, but I’m not sure how yet.  Here’s what I did to get started:

Determine the size of the bottle of wine, and the box.  I used a standard 750mL bottle of wine, but you can use whatever size you want.  Measure the bottle of wine, and write that down.  Make sure to give a few inches on each side of the bottle as well as the top and bottom.  For me, this gave me a box with the following dimensions: 15″ high, 6″ wide and 6″ deep.

Once I figured out how big I wanted the box to be, I started tooling around the scrap wood pile in my back yard (and in other areas called “not my backyard”) to see what I could find.  At first I thought that I would be able to make it out of a deconstructed shipping palette that was laying in the alley, but before I could hatch a plan to liberate it from the pile (there were about 5 there) they had all vanished.  After that idea was put to rest, I found a leftover piece from the sustainable hounds dwelling (she doesnt like to waste things either) and took a few measurements and figured out that it would be just big enough.

Once that was decided, I got out my pencil and circular saw and started cutting.  I ended up with 4 equally sized pieces (15″ by 6″) and 2 pieces for the top and bottom (6″ by 6″).  Starting at the bottom, I nailed them together, fastening each piece side by side.  Once that was done, I had something that looked like a putty tray – a bin without a lid.  Once that was done, I took my hinges and fastened the door to the wine box.   Now the box was basically complete, but this was for my wedding after all, so I wanted to make it look nice.

I built a piece for the neck of the bottle to lay into, and guled it into the bottom of the wine box (it looked like the bottom half of a guillitione without arms).  That seemed to work pretty well, so after that I covered the inside of the box with some nice fabric (leftover from the napkins that we had made for the event).  I made sure to leave room for an envelope on each side of the box, for the letteres that we wrote to each other.  I painted the outside of the box, and declared it ready for action.  H and I decided not to have the wine box ceremony as part of the wedding, so on one has really gotten to see it yet.

The best part about this is that all of the materials that I used in the construction of the box (except the hinges) were things that I already had on hand or were scraps anyway.  They probably would have just gotten tossed into the garbage!

readers: have you heard of the wine box?  would you give it a try at your wedding, or if you’re already hitched, did you have one at your wedding?  Are you looking for more ways to lessen the impact of your wedding?

Money Laundering: Are High Efficiency Washing Machines Worth It?

As part of our personal economic stimulus home purchase, H and I have been replacing quite a few appliances around the house – most of them because the existing ones were either too small and woefully old, or they were terribly inefficient.  The washing machine is old, and uses a lot of water – something that really angers me because I see it as a monumental waste.  H doesnt really care about this fact, but after we were getting clothing coming out of the washer (or the dryer) with holes in them, that was the last straw for her.  We went to the store to poke around once, and took the truck just in case of an impulse purchase, but we were able to look around, and hold off on the purchase.

After this, I decided to do some research on which washing machine would be best in terms of efficiency.  This is kind of an odd ball as far as appliances go, because you have to watch use on two fronts – electricity and water, where as most appliances you just need to concern yourself with how much energy is being used.  First, I went to the energy star website and tried to find out which units used how much water an electricty per load.  Of course, since this program is run by the EPA, nothing is simple.  They’ve done all this analysis and scored each unit based on something they call a ‘modified energy factor’ and a ‘water factor’.  Of course, this didnt really do much because the explanations are not that clear, but they offer a spreadsheet (g0 to clothes washers resources, then qualified clothes washers) you can download to look at all the data and see for yourself.

Once I got the spreadsheet downloaded, I did a double sort – first on the water factor, then on the energy factor.  I pulled the top ten out of the list, because the numbers were virtually the same.  It seemed that when one washer did better with water, it wasnt quite as good in the energy side, and vice versa – but again, we were talking about a very nominal amount.  Once I had this information, I looked up each make and model number just to see about how much they would cost – and I got glaringly different results.  For all but 3 washing machines on the list, they were $1,200+ units (for just the washer – dryers were about the same price)!  I am not about to pay that much for a washing machine, and I got even more curious about the prices because the others on the list were around $600, or 50% less!  Since there was virtually no difference between the amount of resources used between each unit, it couldnt be that one unit was more efficient.  The extra expense was in the features – which I don’t need.

When I ran some quick numbers on wether or not the more expensive units would save more money than the other units in the group, I determined the payback period to be over 100 years!  By that time, I will have gone through at least 3 washing machines, if not more.  Due to the extremely small difference in efficiency and the large difference in cost, it got me thinking about the models on the very bottom end of the spectrum, and how they would compare to one of the $600 units, as well as one of the $1200 units.

The cheapest unit on the market right now runs about $400, and is not energy star certified – while all the ones on my list are.  According to the product fact sheet, the unit uses approximately 470 kWh/per year, while the ones on the energy star list ranged from about 90 kWh/year on the low end, to 284 kWh/year on the higher end.  Where I live, energy prices are about an even 8 cents per kWh, so we are talking a yearly cost difference of somewhere between $27 and $12 per year, depending on the unit selected.  You’d pay about 34 per year for  the cheapest unit on the market, 12 for one of the $1200  and  7 for the $600 unit .  Given the approximate life span of a washing machine of 15 years (I’m being generous here) you’ll save approximately $405 over the lifetime of the unit, if you picked the $600, and compared it to the cheapest unit on the market.  The initial cost of the most expensive unit, however, is over $1,000!  Even counting in energy savings (based on prices in my area) I still wouldnt be able to get a positive return over 15 years!

Like I mentioned earlier though, there’s also some water useage to consider, which is a lot harder to price out (in my area anyway).  Our water is sold in “blocks” where we pay one price for the first 1,000 gallons, then a higher price for the next 1,000 gallons, and so on.  Where this could really save a person money was if they were able to use a more efficient unit to keep themselves from going into a higher water usage block that would be unavoidable with the cheaper unit.  As I mentioned, this would be hard to pin down, and even more so with laundry needs changing over time.

What seems to have happened in the washing machine industry is the companies are larding up the units with tons of (unneeded, in my opinion) features that they can sell for high margins.  If you look carefully however, you’ll be able to find a very high efficiency unit at a low price – making it easy to get the return on the investment that you’re seeking.  The cut off, however seems to be the $1,000 price point – once you get above that, no amount of efficiency will be worth the extra cost you paid for all the bells and whistles of the fancy unit.  (Who needs to control the washing machine from a cell phone app, or have a washing machine delay the start time, anyway?)

To add an interesting caveat, I got an email from a reader named Lupi, who had the following to say about High Efficiency Washing Machines:

Good article. Here’s what you missed. It appears that the newer more expensive HE machines have about a 5 year lifespan. This makes it almost impossible to get a payback from energy savings. In addition, we need to think of the environmental impact of all those machines in our landfills. I would happily trade the old Maytag I had that lasted 15 years for the newer Maytag HE Bravos that required a new bearing ($415) after 4 years. Apparently manufacturers have decided that people would prefer to upgrade after 5 years. Washing machines are different from cell phones and computers. I want to keep mine as long as possible.

Once I got her email, I knew she had a point and decided that it was worth adding to this article. I had not had any problems with our washing machine, so I couldnt be sure if there were some bad brands or models, but I have noticed that there are still a ton of old washing machines floating around out there, and the new ones dont seem to have as long of a life span, though I’ve found nothing solid to back this up.

As if almost on cue, my our washing machine breaks a few months later, and we need a new electrical control board to get it working again. It has been over a month, and we still dont have the part, but we had the debate that Lupi mentions – should we just buy a new one, or fix this one? We ended up fixing it (though it’s not fixed yet).

So, are high efficiency model washing machines worth it?  It depends, like everything.  The cheaper units on the energy star list will always give you a positive return on your investment though depending on the amount of energy used, payback period will vary. While the ones that cost $1,000+ will most likely not be worth it in the end.  Here’s a handy sheet on the energy star website that has estimated lifetime operating cost, as well as MSRP (which you shouldnt have to pay – you should be able to find it on sale somewhere).

In the end, H and I got our washer for about 575 (est yearly operating cost: $11), and our dryer for $650, for a total cost of $1200.  Our payback period versus the least efficient machine on the market should be about 8 years, give or take.

Readers:  Are you in the market for a new washing machine (or any appliance)?  If so, do you take as much time as me deciding what to purchase, and consider all relevant factors that are important to you?  Or do you just search out the best deal and be done with it (I have the luxury of waiting because my old washer is not broken).  If you’ve recently bought a new washer (or other appliance) did you rank initial cost, or lifetime cost higher in your decision making process?