Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Environmentally-Friendly Products - Are They Any Good?

The energy crunch of the 1970’s resulted in a sudden influx of alternative products, many of which did not perform as advertised. As a result, the public was left with a perception that alternative products were not as good as traditional ones that serve the same purpose. Sadly, it seems that many environmentally-friendly products currently available also fail to live up to their advertised claims, and it’s easy to understand why the general public is slow to accept them. Here are a few examples:

Compact fluorescent lights:

I’ve experienced a high failure rate on the cfl’s used in my bathrooms. Perhaps the frequent on/off cycles shorten their life. I’ve cut my electric bill, but I’m not sure I’m really saving money or helping the environment due to the frequent cfl failures I’m experiencing.

I’ve observed that a cfl takes a minute or two to reach full brightness, but I’m not troubled by this. I use 19- to 25-watt cfl’s in locations where 13-watt cfl’s don’t supply enough light.

Energy-Star-rated appliances:

I suspect that Energy Star ratings are similar to gas mileage ratings on cars. We never achieve the posted gas mileage in real life, and we’ll never achieve the posted killawatt/hour per year figure posted on our Energy Star-rated appliances. I’ve tested my new refrigerator with a Kill-A-Watt meter, and found that it uses nearly twice as much energy as the Energy-Star tag says it should. I suppose that it might approach the posted rating if I seldom opened the refrigerator door, but that certainly isn’t practical. Or perhaps the energy use will be lower this winter, when it’s cooler in the house. While I am pleased that my new refrigerator uses much less energy than my old one, I wish that the ratings were more accurate.

Tankless Water Heaters:

While some people love them, my personal experience was not good. My contractor had little experience with tankless water heaters, and that’s where the problem began. I was willing to accept the high cost of the unit itself, but was unaware of the additional costs that I incurred when the unit was installed. I learned that I couldn’t simply tie-in to the existing furnace flue, I had to run a separate one using expensive stainless steel fittings. Then, I found that the unit would only produce a trickle of hot water. This problem was due to an insufficient supply of natural gas. For safety reasons, increasing the natural gas pressure was not an option. I was going to need a separate gas line from the meter to the water heater. Another option was to use several smaller tankless heaters, each one installed near the point of use. Instead, I decided to send the unit back, and return to a traditional water heater.

Washing Machines:

According to Consumer Reports, the U.S. Department of Energy now requires washers to use 21 percent less energy. Cleaning ability was compromised in order to meet those goals.


Terror Free Oil is not a product, it’s a company dedicated to purchasing oil only from countries that don’t export terrorism. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned effort will not work. It doesn’t matter where we get our oil from; the amount we use is the problem.

Products that DO work:

My corn-burning stove is one product that I am pleased with. Not only is it good for the environment, I’ve significantly reduced my home heating costs. See previous blog posts on this topic for details.

Since I’m trying to power my home with PV I’ll continue to use cfl’s and energy-efficient appliances to lighten the load. These measures allow me to get by with a smaller PV system, and in that context I am saving money.

Please feel free to comment on my observations, and add to the list based on your own experiences. Maybe this article can be the start of a renewable energy product database. After all, there are many sources of information, but few of them are unbiased.



d said...

Hello again SJ!

I've had good experiences with CFLs except for a few early deaths many years ago and in a couple of more recent very cheap bulbs. I even have a nice 'warm' 12V CFL desklight in my office from my solar PV.

My gas 'instant' hot water and central heating generally works pretty well, though I would like to add a solar pre-heater to trim gas consumption.

I visited an 'energy expo' today which had a lot of RE solutions, including borehole/heatpump stuff, which I hope to write up today and tomorrow. Apparently possible even for a tiny plot of land such as I have.

I think that you have maybe been a little unlucky, but I know that I've had cranky instances of otherwise quite decent technology in the past. Horror stories for another time!



Solar John said...

Thanks Damon,

I look forward to your borehole/heatpump writeup. For the benefit of others who may not know, Damon has a lot of useful information on his site. Here's the link:



d said...

Hi SJ,

It is a VERY small writeup, but its my first attempt to understand the heat-pump stuff at all in terms of practical economics for a single house. See "Heat Pumps: Cool Planet" at:


How do costs compare in your area of the world, SJ? Could you 'leverage' your 'spare' PV to drive a heat-pump and save your combustables for when you have no spare PV, eg at night?



Anonymous said...

Don't forget CFL bulbs contain mercury, a horrible pollutant of our waterways. Most people don't know this and most cities do not offer recycling for them. You should never throw a CFL in the trash and yet all these pushers of CFL bulbs in recent time do not mention this at all. They just want your money, these awareness campaigns are funded by the bulb manufacturers.

LED bulbs are the true solution, they use ever less energy than CFLs, can be used with dimmers, do not flicker, and do not contain mercury. The technology isn't 100% there yet with them, but it is close, in another couple of years they should be ready for mass consumption but now you'll usually only find them in speciality shops.

Solar John said...

Follow up:

I've saved all of my burned-out cfl bulbs because I want to dispose of them properly. I've checked, and they are all either GE or HG (brand). They were all made in China! The bulbs that are still in use in my home are mostly Sylvania (brand). From now on I'm only buying Sylvania bulbs.


Solar John said...

It seems that I'm not the only one experiencing shorter than expected life from cfl's.


I'll add Phillips, Westinghouse, and Max Lite to my list of brands not to buy.