Understanding the environmental impact of your toaster


I did a couple of great interviews yesterday about sustainable buildings with Ed Mazria, the founder of advocacy group Architecture 2030, and Kent Peterson, past president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. One big takeaway: Building energy use isn't just about the building itself: What it took to build, what it takes to light and heat. Plug load—all the gadgets and appliances we stick in our outlets—accounts for a big chunk and, more importantly, a chunk that's currently a lot harder to control. After all, we have building regulations that mandate energy efficiency, but plug load (in the United States, anyway) is all voluntary.

What's more, it's not always easy for the people doing the plugging in get the big picture linking the cost, electricity use and fuel consumption of all their electronic stuff. GE is trying to help clear that up, infographic style. Their new, interactive chart allows you to pick the common electronics you own and see the impacts of each appliance in watts, dollars, gallons of gas or what they can do with 1 kilowatt hour of electricity. You can add up the totals by month, day or year, and some starred appliances have payback calculators, so you can see how fast a new Energy-Star rated replacement would pay for itself.

I love the watt and kilowatt hour views, especially. I find it's a standard unit most people can't connect to anything meaningful, turning discussions of sustainability into a lot of gibberish. Understanding that 1 kWh of electricity will run your dishwasher for 1 hour, or an oven for less than half an hour, makes a big difference there. As does the realization that hair driers and coffee machines use electricity at about the same rate as a space heater .

That said, I wish there was a toggle on this for greenhouse gas emissions, but I suppose that gets complicated, given that most people in the US don't get their electricity from just coal and it would be hard to figure out each, individual mix of power sources.

(Via Treehugger)

Image courtesy Flickr user tnarik, via cc


  1. but plug load (in the United States, anyway) is all voluntary.

    I’m sorry. You shouldn’t be allowed to say that on the Internet.

  2. Hell, my laser printer dims the lights in half the apartment when it fires up. Neighbors must think we’re executing animals or something.

    1. Not using an old HP 4L are we? The one I used to have did the same thing. And while it was “on” it would power cycle every 30 secs or so and you could see the lights dim.

      And actually my toaster has zero standby power, as it is a cheap $5 Target special that is all mechanical and works great.

      Perhaps if more electronics had non-volitale memory to store settings I’d be more willing to unplug them, or install a bypass switch….

  3. “but plug load” heh heh.. heh.

    Seriously, though, coffee makers might consume as much power as a small space heater while the heating element is running, but it takes ~6 minutes to brew a pot of coffee whereas a space heater would be running for a lot more time than that. So eliminating a coffee maker would not save as much power as eliminating the space heater. Ditto the hair dryer.

  4. “As does the realization that hair driers and coffee machines use electricity at about the same rate as a space heater.”

    Sort of common sense, certainly?

    If you’re boiling water or blasting your head with *hot air*, I would hope that people have an inkling that it’s pretty much just a fancy space heater. They all make heat; some of them simply reapply/redirect it for a particular purpose.

    I gave up blow-drying my hair a while back and now just air-dry it on the way to work … but not really out of a sense of environmentalism. I just wanted to sleep in longer :P

  5. “After all, we have building regulations that mandate energy efficiency, but plug load (in the United States, anyway) is all voluntary.”

    Not entirely true. The California Energy Commission adopted regulations limiting the maximum power consumption of televisions last year (and are slated to go into effect 1/1/11). See http://www.energy.ca.gov/appliances/2009_tvregs/index.html.

    I don’t know, but I suspect that the CEC has other plug-load requirements. In California certain types of light bulbs aren’t permitted in certain locations, for example.

  6. All the little changes we make can add up for sure but the most cost effective update is to spend some money on something that heats water efficiently.

  7. I plug all these types of energy hogs into power strips and turn them off when not in use. This includes everything from the computer and router to the toaster. Not only did my electric bill go down by over %40 (!!!) but now I don’t feel like a stupid a**hole.

  8. As does the realization that hair driers and coffee machines use electricity at about the same rate as a space heater

    In shocking related news, irons, water heaters, clothes dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, microwave ovens, pool pumps, refrigerators, electric ranges, electric hot tub heaters, well pumps and toasters also draw a lot of power.

    I know what you’re all thinking… why would heating stuff up, cooling stuff down or moving stuff around use so much energy? Unfortunately, science doesn’t have any answers The mystery may never be solved.

  9. It actually isn’t hard to get from how much power you are saving to a pounds of CO2 prevented number. The DOE keeps data on the lbs of CO2/kWh for each state, based on that state’s actual energy mix. Now, there is some variability even within states, but it gets you pretty close to your local mix.

    DOE state by state emissions profile:
    (This is from 1998-2000 data, a bit old. Bonus points for finding newer data sets, but major power plant distribution has not changed much this last decade)

    Colorado, for instance, has a 1.93lbs/kwh rate. If I change a regular bulb for a CFL then here is how much CO2 I prevent the release of per year:

    Incandescent: 60W * 8 hrs/day * 365 days/year = 175kWhs * 1.93lbs = 338lbs of CO2
    CFL: 13W * 8 hrs/day * 365 days/year = 38kWhs * 1.93 = 73lbs of CO2, a 265 lb/year reduction in my CO2 output!

  10. The thing is, for roughly half the year in most places, the energy required to create the heat isn’t wasted. It’s offset by the energy that wasn’t used for the furnace to provide the same amount of heat to the living space.

    For some things, like hair dryers, there’s still a bit of extra energy used for moving things around (like the fan in the hair dryer), but a toaster oven is practically all heat. If you’re in the heating season, the energy usage is basically net zero-sum.

    An analysis that doesn’t take that into account is fundamentally flawed.

    1. Except that my furnace is 97% efficient, whereas burning coal to generate electricity and transmit it to my house is <60% efficient, and more expensive.

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