The right power cords save power and money



Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

Many of us have a blind spot for extension cords. We tend to treat these power cables as interchangeable parts, but not all extension cords are the same.

Length is important. The longer the extension cord you use, the more energy is lost in transmission. If you only need to add 5 feet, it doesn’t make any sense to use a 100′ cord!

The thickness of the wire is also important. Thin cords lose power faster, and they can also heat up dangerously with heavy power loads. When using extension cords, it’s important to make sure that the wire is thick enough to safely and efficiently conduct electricity. Wire thickness is often referred to as “gauge”.

Gauge numbers are rather tricky. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, thicker wires have a low gauge, and thin wires have a high gauge. Many power cords are available in 18, 16, 14, and 12 gauge sizes. Of these choices, 18 is the thinnest and 12 is the thickest. Thicker wires are generally more expensive, but they can save substantial amounts of electricity. Thick electric wire can also handle higher amperages than thin wires without bursting into flames. That’s good to know if you want to avoid burning your house down or melting your tools.

So, know your cords! Pay attention to cord gauge and length, and they’ll pay you back with a reduced electric bill.



Photo courtesy of ClintJCL at Flickr.com.

The Sahara desert is reaching north into Spain



Photo courtesy of DanielKHC at Flickr.com.

Droughts are a worldwide problem, with water in short supply in many different countries. Australia and Spain are both suffering through record breaking droughts right now. It hasn’t gotten much attention in the US, but rainfall in Spain is at its lowest level in 40 years. This comes at a time when population is booming and per capita water use is rising.

Water use is a very emotional issue in Spain, and tensions are running high between neighboring cities and regions. Opinions are divided largely along geographic lines; many people living in the southern provinces favor redirecting water from the north (where the drought is less severe). No one in the North wants to sacrifice their water rights to support wasteful behavior though, and water redirection projects face strong opposition. To break this logjam,

…the government is building more desalination plants, adding to the more than 900 already in Spain – the largest number in any one country outside the Middle East.

There is some concern that these energy intensive desalination plants will drive up the price of water while also creating even more climate change. It’s a no-win situation, like trying to prevent an avalanche by running a snow maker.

Leaders in Spain are looking for a better solution. The country is currently hosting the 2008 World’s Fair in Zaragosa, and the theme of Expo 2008 is “Water and Sustainable Development”. New technologies are on display, including water saving fixtures for the home and agricultural techniques that conserve water. Government programs are encouraging people to adopt these innovations with tax rebates and grants, and if the Spanish are successful in conserving their water, they may be able to stop the desertification of their country. Otherwise, climate change will devastate the environment, with lasting effects on the economy.

If you get a chance to visit Zaragosa, you’ll see an alternative vision of the future, with clean technology offering jobs and climate security. The best vantage point to view the fairgrounds is atop the 250 foot tall Water Tower building.



Photo courtesy of Paulo Brandão at Flickr.com.

Tax laws are causing a solar installation frenzy, trying to beat end of 2008 tax credit expiration


Photo courtesy of
M.Barkley at Flickr.com.

At the end of this year, an elevated tax credit for for alternative energy projects is set to expire. These federal tax credits will decline from 30% of the total construction cost to just 10%, and several alternative energy groups have been lobbying Congress to extend the benefit. Even though some states and local power companies offer additional incentives to invest in alternative energy, the reduced Federal tax credits will have wide ranging effects. Industry experts and analysts expect companies who sell solar, wind, biogas, microturbine, and fuel cell technologies could be wiped out by reduced tax credits:

Without the credits, “I’ll essentially be out of business,” Tamas said. “Solar will be dead, other than for a little bit of residential.”

Congress was expected to renew these popular tax credits, but the Senate and House have gone into recess without doing so. Since many of these projects require months and months of construction time, there could be a lag in construction even if the credits are renewed in September. In the near term, the uncertainty is creating a solar building boom.

Many big retailers are attempting to complete green energy projects before the tax credits expire on December 31st. Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, REI, and BJ’s Wholesale club are just a few major companies that are accelerating their solar installation plans to beat the deadline. This means that solar workers are pulling overtime and likely to see big bonuses this year, but they may be getting pink slips in the spring.


Photo courtesy of
EGL Energy at Flickr.com.

In the news: reducing your AC bill, earn cash through recycling and more


Photo courtesy of
Mayank Austen Soofi at Flickr.com.

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

The news is full of stories about practical ways to save money. One easy way is to save energy and cut your air conditioning bill.

Here are 4 websites that help you earn money from recycling everything from old cell phones and digital cameras to glass bottles and old cars. Recycling e-waste is a double win – with commodity prices sky high, the copper and gold in old electronics are worth some serious cash, and keeping heavy metals out of the landfill is key to protecting the environment.

“We generally see about a 100 percent increase in recycling in mid- to affluent neighborhoods,” says [RecycleBank CEO Ron] Gonen. “In lower-income neighborhoods, it can be up to 1,000 percent, because the recycling rates are so low there.

Also, the shipping industry is taking huge steps to reduce their fuel bills. Surcharges are running out of control, and the profit margins of commercial transport companies are under pressure. In addition to driving slower, truckers are saving fuel with an Auxiliary Power Unit. APUs are widely used in airplanes to provide electricity without running the engines, but their high price has kept other industries from adopting APUs. With high oil prices, and new pollution controls that outlaw idling engines in residential neighborhoods, that could change quickly.

Due to climate change, farmers are now using sunblock to protect certain produce. Presumably, sun ripened tomatoes aren’t on that list.

Could you live a month without buying any plastic? A British Blogger is trying to do just that, and its tougher than you might think.

Is the future going to be human powered? Clubs and fitness centers from Portland to London are adding devices that harvest kinetic energy to power the lights, sound systems, and HVAC. There are even plans for a floating gym that will travel back and forth on the Hudson river under human propulsion.

Hybrid only parking – coming to a parking lot near you!



Photo courtesy of Jumbo Jack at Flickr.com.

Ikea, Home Depot, and the Green Exchange are just a few businesses that now offer preferred parking for hybrid owners. Apparently, IKEA’s Canadian stores offered hybrid only parking spots for more than a year… so it wont be long before we start seeing more and more of these spots in choice locations at the front of parking lots.

Hybrid cars not only use less fuel (and pay less fuel tax per mile driven) but they also get to ride in the HOV lane here in Dallas. Other cities offer free parking spots, discounts on city meters, or immunity from anti-congestion fees. All these incentives add up, and just might have something to do with the decline in sales for gas guzzlers.

Cynics have pointed out that many hybrid drivers get special treatment because they are often in the upper 5% income racket, but I’ve got a simple gauge for whether something is a good idea. If a certain course of action makes the mouthbreathers furious, then that’s a good policy.



Photo courtesy of Bob_2006 at Flickr.com.