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The Energy Diet

by: Andrew Postman    5 October 2006

I'VE tried to be responsible.

I've thought pro-green thoughts and occasionally even done pro-green things. I've run the dishwasher and washer-dryer only with full loads. I've recycled, as ordered, though like every New Yorker I've ever met, I suspect the system does more good for our feelings than for the environment. I've shaved while showering, although I can't remember anymore whether that's a good or a bad thing.

I've been too busy to do much more, though, and too confused and overwhelmed by all the eco hype out there, and too inflexible to seriously change my lifestyle. No way am I hanging clothes out to dry on a clothesline. I won't drive more slowly — as President Bush, like past presidents, has urged Americans to do to save gas — and neither will you, and neither will anyone. And I recently bought a flat-screen high-def 37-inch TV, an energy-Hoover you'll have to pry from my cold, dead hands; if you haven't seen an N.F.L. game on something like that, my friend, you might as well watch curling.

But the morning after I saw Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," I was spurred to action. I bought 50 compact fluorescent light bulbs — 50 — intent on replacing every incandescent one in my home. The new bulbs were supposed to be 67 percent more efficient and last up to 15 times longer. Unfortunately, the ones I bought also cast a considerably colder light, so I aborted my plan after just two bulbs when I realized the quality of light they emitted reminded me of a bus station bathroom.

In the weeks since, I dispatched the six cartons of unused C.F.L.'s to the basement, and my guilt grew alarmingly. As the father of three very young children, I had to do something — but something I would actually follow through with, something that would take minimal effort. Then, two weeks ago, while eating a doughnut and watching the scintillatingly clear images of Mets and Yankees scampering across my TV screen, I saw what I needed to do.

Flipping channels, I came across the news that Bill Clinton's Global Initiative had just ended with Richard Branson, the British mogul, pledging $3 billion to fight climate change over the next decade. On another channel, Mayor Bloomberg stood at a podium in California and announced, to my pride and delight, his sweeping eco-initiative for New York: the city's carbon emissions would be measured, an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability would be created. Meanwhile, the man standing next to him, Governor Schwarzenegger, was set to sign legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for his state — the world's 12th largest contributor of such gases — at a level the federal government had continually rejected. Everyone was chipping in, even Arnold, the first civilian ever to drive a Hummer. I took another bite of doughnut.

And that's when it came to me. I should go on a diet.

A half-ton diet.

I knew, having taken the "Calculate Your Impact" survey on, the companion Web site for the Gore movie, that our household produced some 19,100 pounds of CO2 last year, 4,100 pounds more than the national average. (The concept of a "pound" of gas is a nebulous one — depending on the pressure and temperature, it can fill a thimble or a stadium — so maybe it's best portrayed this way: one pound of CO2 is what's released per each mile driven, or each mile flown per person; it's what's produced to heat five gallons of water.)

For easier math, I rounded my number to 20,000 pounds, or 10 tons. As a family, as a household, couldn't we drop a half-ton, a mere 5 percent of our weight? That's 10 pounds for a 200-pounder to lose, 6 for a 120-pounder.

Absolutely. It was a goal, one I could stick to. Ambitious as it sounded, it was, amazingly, not excessive. I could keep living generally the way I wanted. I gave myself eight hours, no more, to lose the weight. In a world where texting passes for conversation and hooking up for a relationship, perhaps I'd just defined the new activism. Very little pain, not insignificant gain.

Mindy Pennybacker, the editor of The Green Guide and, was also enthusiastic about my plan. "Americans have too much weight in many ways, so it's a metaphor that makes sense," she said when I called her. "If it motivates you because it's familiar and part of your everyday life, that's terrific."

"It's all about attitude," said Laurie David, the founder of the Stop Global Warming Web site ( and a board member of the National Resources Defense Council. "Change one or two things, you end up changing four or five things. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. Before you know it, you start influencing people around you."

Like most dieters, I cut deals with myself. If you're trying to lose real weight, you vow, say, to give up beer and ice cream but retain your pizza rights. Since I was trying to emit less CO2, I vowed to lower the thermostat at night by one degree — not two, as often recommended by tree-huggers — a tweak I expected none of us would notice. (That saved 79 pounds; each degree equals approximately 315 pounds of CO2; turning it down only at night, for the six colder months, or ¼ times 315). In return? No more guilt over TV size.

Friends I called for suggestions understood my deal-making. Judy said she never used electrical kitchen appliances — "Opening a can is something I'm able to do" — but was still not ready to swap Vaseline for non-petroleum eye-makeup remover. Victoria said she saw a young mother with her baby in some sort of recycled paper diaper that did not look at all absorbent. "My baby is wearing Pampers, probably one of the most wasteful things I do," she said. Then again, as much as she loves S.U.V.'s — the way they feel and handle — she and her husband realized that if they bought one they would be ostracized by half their circle. They bought a station wagon that gets three times the mileage.

I vowed to quit my profligate morning habit of turning on the shower and leaving the bathroom, not returning until several minutes after the water was hot. On the flip side, once I stepped into the shower I was not going to turn the experience into a 60-second spasm of sudsing and rinsing. Two minutes shower going unnecessarily times 2.5 gallons per minute times 365 morning showers times three ounces of CO2 produced per gallon of hot water equals 342 pounds. (My calculations, here and elsewhere, were made with the help of experts at the National Resources Defense Council and The Green Guide, several credible Web sites and a few smart relatives who grew up to be physicists and engineers.)

When washing white loads, I'd switch from the warm/warm cycle to warm/cold, comfortable that neither I nor my wife would notice the difference. (We didn't.) Sixty-two pounds saved.

Four hundred and eighty-three total pounds, 30 seconds of effort to reprogram the thermostat, two no-brainer decisions. Maybe my diet was riddled with compromises, but it was working.

I found further validation for my lack of rigor. "When people equate efficiency with discomfort and sacrifice — like when Jimmy Carter put on a sweater and encouraged Americans to lower the thermostat — they shy away from it," said Bill Prindle, the deputy director of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "A month later they're back to their old ways. We need to ask people to act from their values" — meaning fundamentals like "physical security, clothing, food and shelter, including thermal comfort."

I felt certain I could unearth more savings in what Danny Seo, an eco-expert with a TV show, a Sirius radio show and a series of books all titled "Simply Green," described to me as "bad habits we don't even realize are bad habits." For example, was it really energy-wiser, as I'd often heard, to leave a light or computer on for the few minutes you're out of the room, rather turning it off and then on again?

"Total myth," Mr. Prindle said. "Actually, I think that's a projection. Because it takes me more work to shut it off, people think, then it must generally require more energy. It's like the better-to-leave-the-car-idling theory."

There were other bad habits that were just as easy to break. A friend suggested this quickie: Call retailers to get them to stop sending the print catalogs to which our house had become addicted. I chose 10 — L. L. Bean, Crate & Barrel, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, Garnet Hill, Design Within Reach, Lands' End, Restoration Hardware, Hammacher Schlemmer and the Company Store. (Originally I'd included Williams-Sonoma, but my wife vetoed that idea.) It took me 22 minutes total to cancel them — eight phone calls and two e-mails. Ninety (the average number of pages) times 12 (number of issues per year we seem to get) times 10 (retailers) equals 10,800 pages. Since my research shows that one tree produces about 25,000 pages of the coated, lower-end virgin paper used in most catalogs, I'd just saved 43 percent of one tree. One tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen, 43 percent of that is 112 pounds, which converts to 154 pounds of CO2 saved.

Everyone but me seemed to know about "vampires" — those energy suckers plugged into the wall when not in use (toasters, coffeemakers, hair dryers, cellphone chargers), consuming energy in standby mode. The easiest solution? Pull out individual plugs or, particularly for areas near computers and home entertainment equipment with lots of components, plug everything into a power strip (with surge protector) and, when done for the night or weekend, flip off the illuminated switch. Doing that would save me about 115 pounds annually on the computer, about 200 pounds on the TV, DVD and VCR. (Cable and satellite boxes draw huge amounts of energy, but turning them off may result in considerable reboot delays. I'm not going to turn mine off every night, but I might when I go on vacation.)

My boys and I drove to Lowe's for surge protectors as well as a thermal insulating blanket for our 75-gallon hot-water heater; wrapping it, every expert I spoke with told me, significantly reduces the massive heat loss, especially in winter. (Newer water heaters tend to have higher levels of insulation built in.) The largest blanket they carried, though, was for a 60-gallon tank, and a check of their Web site (and, later, of Home Depot's site) showed no blanket for a tank our size. Forget it, then; this was the lazy man's diet: minimum effort.

On our way to the cashier, we passed an aisle with motion sensors, and I remembered my brother had them in his bathrooms, where they shut off the lights soon after people left. They seemed an easy enough item to buy and install. I called my brother, Marc. "Be honest," I said. "Will there be re-wiring?" My brother, an astrophysicist, said no, there wouldn't be; then something to the effect that, unless I was too stupid to remove a light switch plate and put another one on, I was fully capable.

"Wait," I said. "Why does anyone need a motion sensor in their bathroom? Don't people turn the light on when they go in and turn it off when they leave?"

"Ah," he said. "You don't have teenagers yet."

Scratch the motion sensors, at least for six more years.

I was now up to 952 pounds, more than 90 percent of the way to my goal. Okay; I was ready to turn back to the C.F.L.'s. I decided I could tolerate the cool white ones in two places only: our outside vestibule (60 watts replaced with 13 watts, with the same number of lumens, or brightness), and one overhead fixture in my office (75 watts replaced with 19), where its effect was neutralized by incandescent track lighting. They were lights that were on much more often than most. Together, they would save me, annually, about 300 pounds in 20 minutes, including shopping time.

Three hundred pounds. No typo. Two bulbs.

I wasn't done, though — soon but not yet. I learned from Laurie David of Stop Global Warming that it makes almost no sense to rinse dishes in very hot water when they're going into a dishwasher to be rinsed in even hotter water. I would hereby skip that step, plus I'd also hand-wash dirty dishes created after 10 o'clock (no real chore since I find it relaxing). Should buy us two loads weekly, down to four instead of six — or 200 pounds saved for the year.

And I would have to give up my screensaver habit, much as I loved images of my children floating across my line of sight while I thought up sentences. In screensaver mode, my computer still draws a lot of power, according to David Goldstein, the energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He advised that by changing my settings so that the computer and display both go to sleep when inactive for 10 minutes (as opposed to my original setting of three hours), I would save about 250 pounds annually. It took me 30 seconds to click on the Apple icon, then "System Preferences," then "Energy Saver."

Seventeen hundred pounds dropped in 68 minutes — a little more than one of the eight hours I'd allowed for. All that would be required of me in the future was 10 seconds nightly to shut off two power strip switches and five to 10 minutes, every now and then, of pleasant dishwashing.

I ought to be done with it now — even if my numbers were a bit off, I'd blown past my goal, a dangerous thing to do early in a diet. But maybe Ms. David is right: make one change, soon you're ready to make three. Maybe one day soon I'll be ready to change a whole floor's worth of light bulbs; I learned after buying my 50 bulbs that it's possible to find C.F.L.'s that cast a warm glow, and the Green Guide's helpful light bulb product report suggests that C.F.L.'s have been improving. Danny Seo says that Ikea carries lighting fixtures that handsomely mask the shortcomings of C.F.L.'s, with tinted glass or a strip of wood veneer. Maybe we'll replace a roll or six of virgin toilet paper with post-consumer waste napkins — maybe. This is all I'm willing to do right now. Don't look for me to carpool at elevators.

Then again, I can't help but wonder how much I might accomplish if I actually put in more effort than a garden slug. I'm intrigued by what a friend, an architect, told me: That if just one teensy change were made to New York City — if all black roofs were painted white or silver, a simple, surprisingly inexpensive fix — the financial and energy savings would be jaw-dropping, not to mention that it would severely reduce the possibility of blackouts and brownouts. Relatively meager effort, monster bang for the buck.

So, like, I don't know, maybe some weekend soon we all just get brushes and roof paint, fan out across the city, and just do it and get it over with? And afterward everyone comes by my place to watch the World Series on my big old flat-screen?