By Lisa Brunette
It's become fashionable these days to opt for trendy eco-solutions, such as driving a hybrid gas/electric vehicle or becoming a vegan. I'm guilty as charged - we still own a Toyota Prius, and I was a vegetarian for about 13 years, and a vegan for a good portion of that. However, as is the case with a lot of shiny new objects, they might not do any more good than the original thing they replaced, or the gain is minimal at best and usually involves some tradeoff.
Without traveling too far down the rabbit hole, you probably have already heard that the Prius (and other hybrids like it) isn't all it's cracked up to be when it comes to eco-friendliness. Its mass production, which requires parts from all over the world shipped to assembly plants all over the world, itself carries a huge carbon footprint, and of course its expensive battery is comprised of toxic materials. Even the Prius' energy-efficient status has been a matter of debate. There's a now-infamous Top Gear episode that illustrates all of this, fashioned for its gearhead audience, of course, but the point is that the Prius ain't no eco slam dunk.
And neither is going vegan. While a lot of ire has been directed at meat-eating due to methane's effect on climate change, the truth is livestock is a relatively minor contributor in the overall picture of emissions versus heavyweights like energy use by industry and transportation. Check out the below chart, showing data compiled by the independent, reader-supported organization Our World in Data (shared via open access through the Creative Commons BY license).
Given the above, let's say you decide to replace your meat protein with plant-based sources. What little you remove from that 5.8% currently in the Livestock & Manure category gets shifted over to the other categories under Agriculture, Forestry, & Land Use - that is, unless you plan to sustainably grow all of your plant-based protein sources yourself, or commit to sourcing them all from completely sustainable soybean farms and tofu makers using artisan, small-batch techniques, etc., and not from the usual suspects, since soybeans are a huge monoculture crop, and these contribute to soil depletion and water-supply contamination. You see how it is.
It's not that I'm against vegetarianism or veganism. If that's what you want to do, there are a lot of reasons for you to do it, and more power to ya. Not everyone's health supports that diet (mine doesn't, as it turns out), but if yours does, yay for you. Just don't think you can switch to veggie burgers and then call it a day on the climate front.
What's most interesting about the above emissions data is that such a high percentage - 10.9%, or nearly double what's attributed to livestock and manure - comes from residential buildings. But don't waste time feeling guilty about that; rather, think of it as an eco-opportunity: Now this is an area where an individual can make a big difference - and without a whole lot of effort. That's encouraging!
I realize this was a long lead-in to the small, good thing I promised you with the headline on this post, but I really wanted to make the case for it since what I'm about to suggest you do might make your eyes glaze over. I mean, if energy efficiency were as sexy as Priuses and vegan cafés, we might not be in this climate change mess in the first place.
And here it is, my big eco tip of the day: WRAP YOUR PIPES.
On the left, an insulated, or "wrapped" pipe. On the right, not wrapped.
That's right. I said wrap your pipes. Not your windpipes or your half-pipes. Your water pipes, the ones in your house. The ones coming up from your basement or crawlspace, the pipes that bring water to your bathtub, kitchen faucet, washer, dishwasher - you name it. I'm suggesting you insulate those pipes so that when the water's heated by your hot water heater, it doesn't cool off while it's making its way to your shower head.
Voila! Both pipes wrapped. Yeah, you can wrap the cold ones, too. Colder water when it's hot out!
It's funny because I'm old enough to remember the 70s, when many people did this kind of thing like it was a given. But for some reason, hardly anyone does it anymore. But I just know you're going to, because it's easy, it can make a clear, positive impact on climate change, and to top it all off, it will actually save you money.
What if you don't own your own home? Ask your landlord if you can wrap your apartment building pipes in exchange for money off your rent. Keep your receipts and show him. Tell him to compare his utility bills before and after.
Pipe wrapping, in process.
OK, so how do you wrap your pipes? It's pretty durn easy. Don't hire someone to do this; you can do it yourself in one afternoon. The steps:
- Measure your pipe diameters. Our house is 117 years old, so we had several pipe diameters from different eras. This is important to know because the insulation tubes come in varying diameters. Make sure you get the right size.
- Head to your local hardware store (ours has been in business as long as our house has stood here) and buy the pipe wrap tubes. They come in convenient sheaths that look like super-skinny pool noodles, but with a slit down one side. The slit has adhesive on both sides under a strip you can remove just as you get the pipe cover in place. There are also elbow joint-shaped covers and T-joints. You might need those.
- Come home and wrap the pipes, cutting them to size, bending them if need be. Even though the pipe covers stick together with that adhesive strip, you might also want to wrap the pipes with duct tape. We did.
The pipe wrap, like so many skinny pool noodles. Photo bomb, courtesy Chaco.
And that's it. That's all you have to do.
We spent just over $100 for the pipe wrap and tape, nothing more. And we've already seen results.
I launched us into this project at the very beginning of February, just as the forecasts for severe winter storms were trailing in. After we wrapped the pipes, we had single-digit and below-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit) for more than two weeks, with a foot of snow on the ground (a lot for this area). The cold temps persisted through much of February, and you know about the power outages in Texas and other parts of the country.
Amazingly, though, our water bill was 30% lower this February than last February!
A finished wrap job.
I will admit our gas bill (which covers our household heating) was higher this February than last, but the weather was a real anomaly, so that's not surprising. Our gas bill for March was 20% lower than March of last year, and I think that's more representative of what we will see outside of rare weather events.
One thing we discovered is that you can't get cocky about your utilities, though. We saw that February water bill, got too excited, and turned our hot water heater thermostat really low. Unfortunately that encouraged us (mostly me) to run the water too long, waiting for hot water. So our March water bill was only 5% lower than last year's. Lesson learned; it's a balance.
Also want to compare this return-on-investment to the quote we recently received for solar panels. Those would cost us $8,000 (!), and it would take 20 years to pay off our investment, and that assumes the solar panels never need to be replaced or repaired. (Right.)
Even if you're not ready to jump up and throw a pipe-wrapping party just yet, I encourage you to have a look at your water pipes. It's instructive to see where the water comes into your residence from the outside main and where it goes once it's here.
Also want to credit John Michael Greer's outstanding book Green Wizardry for planting the energy-efficiency seed; in other words, reminding me of what I should have already known, having grown up in a time when energy efficiency was on everyone's mind, as it should be.
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