Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Things you can do at home to help save our environment

What could you buy… what WOULD you buy… if you wanted to help save the world?
How would you design your house?  What would you put in it?
In what way do your activities… the way YOU live… affect the planet?
How can YOU stop being part of the problem, and make yourself part of the solution?

I’m T.H. Culhane, a National Geographic Explorer, professor of Environmental Sustainability and Justice, and an urban planner studying urban ecology -- ways to make cities, and in particular the lives of the poor in cities, better. Cleaner.  Healthier. Safer. And a lot more fun.

My focus:  Kitchens and bathrooms.  
My rationale:  Kitchens and bathrooms consume the most energy, use up the most water, and produce the most pollution, disease and danger.

Yup. Kitchens and bathrooms.

It isn’t the bedroom.  It isn’t the living room. It isn’t the dining room.  It’s the kitchen. And the bathroom.  They use up and account for over 60% of our electricity and water bills, and are entirely responsible for our garbage collection fees, if our garbage is collected at all. They pollute our water and they pollute our air.

And yet, despite the fact that these domestic spaces cause the most misery around the world -- from indoor air pollution that kills 7 million women and children a year in developing countries due to the use of firewood and charcoal and kerosene coookstoves, to the disease burden of cholera, typhoid, and dysentary, rats and other vermin and plague, to say nothing of bad smells and a plastic bag problem that clogs landfills and kills marine life as it accumulates in the oceans...

... and despite the fact that what flows from these domestic spaces is a flashpoint for violent conflicts like for instance the settlement contamination issues in Israel and Palestine, where we do a lot of our work...
kitchens and bathrooms also hold the most promise to solve our problems and put us firmly on the path to sustainability.

That is what my research is about around the world. And that is why I am proud to be sponsored once again, for my fourth speaking tour of Turkey, by Bosch, a company that really understands kitchens and bathrooms.  Bosch is a company that cares, and whose people, like me, know that the battle for a sustainable environment is being waged, and will be won… in kitchens and bathrooms.

So to return to our question:  What can you buy, right now, as a consumer, to make the world a better place.

Let’s take a look first at what’s already out there on the market that can turn your act of simple consumption and daily living into the actions  of a hero.  By doing these things you join our National Geographic Explorer's E-team, folks like yourselves who have a passion for the possible and work together to solve problems:

We will talk about the simple things you can do at home. Then we will look at what may still be missing and talk about what you can MAKE to make the world a better place.

So for starters:
You need to save energy.   And you need to save water. That way your ecological footprint -- the amount of resources you consume and the amount of pollution you personally cause -- is much smaller.

Right now you are probably spending between 3 and 6 % of your budget on electricity alone, and depending on how you heat your water and your house the figure could be as much as 10%, the benchmark affordability level. 

And with rising income disparity we have to be sure that everyone has a chance to lead a good life. A study by the World Bank stated that “poor households are less flexible in adjusting electricity consumption because they use electricity for basic needs and are close to their minimum consumption levels. By contrast, wealthier households are more likely to own price-elastic appliances (such as air conditioners and dishwashers) and exhibit greater responsiveness to rising electricity prices.”

Usually this price elasticity involves simply not using the appliances when the economy is hurting and people’s budgets are tight.  But once the level of affluence of a region goes up, the ecological footprint simply grows again. As shown in this chart, the richest countries are doing the most damage...

 And in fact we are mortgaging our future, drawing on the "bank account" of the earth's resources faster than they can be replenished. 

The Bosch website gives great tips of things you can do at home right now to save energy and water, simple things like merely moving your refrigerator 10 cm or handwidth from the wall to save more than 10% in energy costs because of the increased airflow or using a pressure cooker to save over 30% in energy costs, or using the right amount of detergent to save an extra rinse cycle. 

 Here are some other great tips:


In order to decrease power consumption make sure to place the fridge far from all heat generating

electronics and make sure the fridge door is properly closed.

Don’t forget;

Fridges more than 8 years old consume 3 times more energy than new ones.

Washing Machine

For energy effeciency with your washing machine make sure you use the lowest temperature with

any given cycle.

Make sure the machine is full capacity.

And with the appropriate cycle chosen according to the laundry type you will save water and


Drying Machine:

Drying your clothes in any given room or close to your radiators creates energy and heat loss

throughout the house. By drying your clothes in the machine you can prevent significant energy loss.

Dish Washer:

You will save 10 times more water when you wash your dishes in the machine. With only consuming

6 lts of water every cycle, Bosch dish washers’ energy effeciency levels are 20 times more than hand


Make sure to wipe the dirt off your dishes with a napkin instead of rinsing them before placing them

in the dish washer and always use the machine at full capacity.


To save energy try not to pre-heat the oven.

If the food is frozen try to defrost it beforehand.

Make sure not to open the oven during its heated and try to cook 2-3 types of similar food at once to

save energy.

Air Conditioner:

In order to save energy place the air-conditioner where adviced by the authorized technical service

by controlling the air flow in the room.

Make sure all doors and windows are closed during the air-conditioner is on.


Make sure you iron your clothes while they are still damp and use the right setting for each type of

piece for maximum energy efficiency. Try to unplug the iron close to the end of ironing so you will be

able to iron few more pieces at a effecient heat rate although the iron in unplugged.

 All of these techniques are simple and they may seem small, but they really add up. So that's the first line of defense in turning your home into a part of the global solution for sustainability.
But another way Turks and people around the world are dealing with rising energy prices and energy shortages and the threat of climate change, and reducing their ecological impact without sacrificing comfort and convenience,  is simply  to “commodify your dissent” we used to say in my Ph.D. program. The idea is to  make a huge impact by purchasing appliances that are engineered green and use much less energy and water to begin with. That way you don't have to lower your standard of living because you are "doing more with less" and in fact making not just you life, but all our lives better!

Bosch is a leader in this market, with a range of products that save more than 5% more energy and 15% more water than other appliances so the savings and benefits start as soon as you use them for the first time.
For example their dishwashers use 180 kilowatt hours per year, use only 1.5 gallons of water per cycle and exceed NAECA standards by 159 percent.

The new  “Green Technology Inside” product line goes even further and  is part of a social responsibility campaign that demonstrates savings across the board. 59% water reduction, dramatic reductions in packaging and 92% recycling of the companies waste products adds to the savings.
The Green Technology Inside appliances by Bosch help you with many of the  tips and recommendations I made  by adjusting automatically. 

Besides offering much much more efficient appliances and great tips, Bosch is changing the game by offering two very important technologies for heating water and for heating and cooling homes that those of us in the sustainability movement have been championing for decades.

Bosch’s website gives two major areas of explanation for important technologies that can drastically reduce our energy bills AND create a cleaner healthier environment.  

The first is the idea of on demand heaters.

The idea is simple -- heat where you need it  and WHEN you need it. 

In the US we are just beginning to catch on to this simple, powerful and efficient way to radically reduce energy consumption and cost and radically increase our efficiency, our comfort and easily obtain  luxury standards accessible to everybody. It may be hard to imagine, but In most households we still waste enormous amounts of energy heating  a huge tank of water and then try to keep it warm with insulation and then always run into the problem of running out of hot water. With tank heaters we have to wait up to a half an hour each day just to get the shower ready and inevitably run out just when we are all soapy.

I used to go to my grandmother’s house every summer with 16 other cousins and 1 bathroom.  She tried to limit us to 5 minute showers, but somebody, usually me because we showered by age, little kids first, and I was older.. Somebody would end up taking a cold shower. 

On demand heaters save 27% to 50% of the energy you would normally use to heat water for washing dishes or bathing or cooking and because they instantly heat water and there is no draw off, you save on water two.

So that takes care of water. But what about air conditioning? One of the most exciting innovations Bosch has for heating and cooling the house, as well as preheating water, is their geothermal heat pumps systems. 
These systems use the constant temperature of the earth to providing heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, using a device that works sort of like a refrigerator. They save 25% to 50% of your energy bill compared to conventional air conditioning and heating systems and do it all in one, so you only have to buy one unit for both functions.  The payback period is as little as 5 years, and you are helping make a greener planet at the same time.


But beyond saving energy and money, there has been a revolution going on for a few decades now as more and more people realize they can not only save energy energy, but MAKE ENERGY.

Electricity and hot water are the easiest to make at home.  

Bosch has two different kinds of  solar panels:  Photovoltaic to turn Turkey’s abundant sunlight into electricity, and solar thermal hot water panels, that turn the sun’s light into heat. They have two kinds of solar hot water panels - those made of flat plates of glass over copper pipes that get water up to 70 C and those made of insulated vacuum tubes that can get over 100 C boiling water.

Let’s turn our attention to Photovoltaics for a moment.  Few people realize just how simple a solar electric set up is.  Any 12 year old can set up a solar electric power system.  It is basically plug and play, simpler than hooking up a computer.  
There are four main components to a stand alone solar electric system.
  1. The PV panels, like these Bosch panels shown here, which can easily be mounted on the roof or in the back yard or porch and can even be set outside when the sun is shining and pulled back inside at night.
  2. The charge controller or regulator that ensures batteries don’t overcharge
  3. The battery storage system
  4. The inverter that turns the DC electrons from the panels and battery into AC power for use with home appliances.

Bosch sells photovoltaic panels of many sizes.

If you are grid intertied, running your electric meter backward when you produce more than you use, things get even simpler because you don’t need batteries.

This Bosch BPT-S 3 3.2 Kw home inverter connects you to the grid effortlessly, so all you need are the panels and this and you are ready to go, helping your whole community offset dirty electricity.

But should the grid go down, you can easily integrate a battery back up, like this Bosch BPT-S 5 Hybrid Storage Solution, a lithium ion battery back up just like what you use to backup your mobile phone, only larger.

Naturally you can power Bosch’s on-demand electric hot water heaters with this solar electricity, but in terms of the physics of energy transformation, using resistive load heating, that is to say, using electricity to heat up metal coils to generate heat to transfer to water, is  very inefficient.
For that the best option is to heat your water directly using the sun and then use your Bosch on-demand gas or electric heater as a backup for cloudy days.   This is what we do in my house in Germany.

Bosch has two types of solar collectors.  One is the traditional flat-plate solar absorber.
The other is a vacuum tube system.  In both cases the hot water storage, can be on the roof on in the house.  In my case in Germany we have 50 heat pipe vacuum tubes on the roof which go to a 500 liter basement tank in the basement that is also connected to the on-demand gas heater.

This is how I did it when I ran my apartment in Los Angeles completely off of solar electricity back in 1999 through 2003. 

At that time I was running my apartment completely off grid. Even the shower water was pumped up to the roof to go through this series of water filters  that then went into a hand made solar hot water system and then returned to the shower; the ultimate in water recycling.

In fact my apartment in Los Angeles in the inner city was part of a personal experiment in total offgrid living called "California Unplugged" at the turn of the century that was quite successful. 
My entire apartment -- refrigerator, air conditioner, microwave, lights, computers, stereo system, television, keyboards and electric guitars -- were run on a 1.2 Kilowatt solar electric system that I set up myself, connected to 6 deep cycle marine batteries .  For rare weeks of clouds and rain I had two bicycle generators to help charge the batteries. I had an on demand electric water heater under the sink, but because it used so much power I relied mainly on my hand made solar hot water heater.  I had two electric bicycles I charged to get to campus an hour away, and once we realized how easy it is to make an electric vehicle, which is basically just an electric motor, a charge controller, a regulator and batteries, my students and I started converting my car to be an electric car.

Back then, living in the urban eco-village, we didn't have easy to obtain energy-star rated appliances with "green technology inside" so guys like me had to do it ourselves, innovating and inventing and experimenting.  It wasn't always easy being an urban sustainability pioneer, and sometimes people would act like we were crazy. But we proved that you could start approximating a biosphere in the city, thinking of our apartments as modules on a space station or a moon or Mars colony.

And in fact that is the focus of my research today.  As a professor of environmental sustainability and justice, for the past 4 years at Mercy College New York and now the Patel Center for Global Sustainability at University of South Florida, I am involved with great teams of students and faculty who are researching ways to make kitchens and bathrooms become part of the solution rather than the problem.  At USF we are working with NASA on the "Next-Gen Kitchen" project, redesigning kitchens so that they can help us survive both here on earth and in outer space.

As you can see from this article on the NASA website,
 through our work students are now designing into the next generation of kitchens better ways to capture food wastes and turn them into biogas right in the kitchen.

It starts with having a food grinder.  In my opinion, food grinding is actually the key to sustainable development.  As the Insinkerator company and their parent company, Emerson Electronics, has been advertising all over the world, you can "Grind virtually any kind of food waste into an unending electricity source for a city. It's never been done before. Consider it solved".

 My non-profit organization has been at the forefront of this solution at the home and community scales, and just as we have been kindly sponsored by Bosch to spread this good news of sustainability here in Turkey for the past 4 years, Emerson's Insinkerator sponsored us to build biodigesters and integrate food grinders into schools and community restaurants in  the favelas of Brazil.

Bosch has been integrating food grinders and dishwashers for some time now, such as the  SHE55M12UC series. The idea is that food waste has such a high energy value, you never want to throw it away. 

And isn't it nice when you don't have to worry about scraping your plate... just put it in the dishwasher and know that as it is cleaned, the energy of the residual organic material that you didn't or couldn't eat makes it's way to a municipal biodigester that turns it all into clean renewable energy and fertilizer.

 I believe that everybody should have a food grinder.  When jaws and teeth appeared on the planet in the Devonian/Silurian periods of our prehistory it created an explosion of biodiversity.  Animals could finally break food molecules down into particles small enough that the microbes in their digestive systems could rapidly transform them into useful energy and rapidly into bodily wastes that could build new soil. 
If you simply grind up your food waste and put it in a compost pile you can get soil not in three to six months, but in three to six DAYS.  In fact, you can even grind food waste and scatter it in the garden without composting at all. The worms and ants will transform into soil in no time, and if applied correctly it won't smell at all and won't attract flies or larger vermin.

For this reason I've been calling food grinders, otherwise known as "garbage disposals" as "compost companions". But even if you just let it go down the drain, ground up food waste gives a welcome energy boost to septic tanks so they work more efficiently and to  waste water treatment plants so that they can produce enough biomethane to justify capturing and using it to generate municipal electricity. Food waste produces ten to 100 times more energy per kilogram than animal manures or sewage.  Throwing it away is like throwing away money. If you don't want to use it directly at home, then you can do your part as a citizen and give it to the city biodigester, which can either be a dedicated system like in Germany and Sweden, or a retrofitted waste water treatment plant. They can then use it to offset enormous amounts of fossil fuels.

The amounts we have to work with are huge.

In most areas 40 to 60% of garbage is organic waste, most of it generated by kitchens and bathrooms. You've heard the saying, "one man's trash is another's treasure"?  Do you really want to give it all away?

Our work at Solar CITIES, however, which we've been conducting in Turkey as well for the past several years, is not about municipal scale biodigestion.  As I mentioned, we are about things YOU can do at HOME or at SCHOOL.  Our work involves helping people integrate biodigestion right by the house or on campus.

This is because we believe that biodigestion sits at the very center of the environmental sustainability debate.  

 With a biodigester providing constant energy and fertilizer we close the cycle.  The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow, the rain doesn't always fall and the rivers don't always flow.  But garbage sewage and organic wastes we will always have. They are a constant and something we ALL have in common.  So good urban ecology starts with transforming these nuisances into something valuable and grows out from there. This is a first principle of permaculture -- start with what you've got. And we've got plenty of garbage.

Creating biogas and fertilizer through digestion is  so simple and such an effective way to eliminate problems that we often wonder why not everybody is already doing it.  A biodigester is simply any watertight, airtight tank you can put manure and food waste in.  Anybody can build one anywhere out of almost anything that holds water and almost any scale.

We started in the Zabaleen or trash recycling area of Cairo Egypt where over 40,000 people recycle more than 2 million tons of waste every year:

We used to build them on the roofs of buildings in the old Islamic City of Cairo and the Garbage Pickers community, where there is plenty of food waste.

 But  lately we've been building biodigesters IN the house.

We developed the Urban IBC tank based biodigester system so we could do that, testing it in a lab closet at Mercy College, and then, after proving its safety and effectiveness for a year, taking it into peoples houses.

 You see at Solar CITIES we believe that the digester is like a baby dragon. A domestic dragon. It is like a house pet:

We feed it.

It breathes fire so we can cook...

And it makes great fertilizer so we can grow food again.

Our latest home scale biodigester is what we call our "purple dragon", the solar CITIES Salchicha or "sausage" digester.  

All of these digesters that we create in Solar CITIES are open source, meaning that you can download the plans and instructional material and make them yourself.  We teach people to do this because we believe that your kitchen wastes and toilet wastes belong to you, and can benefit you.

Fortunately, for those who don't want to make their own solutions to environmental problems,  these days companies are getting on the band wagon, creating products that can complement your eco-friendly kitchen.  To go along with your energy efficient and water saving refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, on-demand water heaters, you solar panels and geothermal heat pumps and all the incredible appliances from Bosch that make your kitchen and bathroom and laundry room a solution rather than a problem, you can now purchase a homebiogas system from a company in the Middle East that I have been working with for many years.

  This year, home biogas, which comes in an Ikea like kit and can be assembled and installed in a couple of hours, is available in over 20 countries in the world.

 We have all the solutions and we should all be experts in integrating them into our lives. So please, Do try this at home!


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