Fight the Power

A bachelor and two housemates (plus chickens) versus a married man with an infant (plus onesies). Who saps more watts from the grid? Armed with a new device that monitors their real-time energy use, Grayson Schaffer and Christopher Keyes engage in a carbon-footprint smackdown—squarely on the grid.

Aug 29, 2008
Outside Magazine
Carbon Footprint Throwdown

From left: Schaffer and his chocolate Lab, Danger, in the backyard; Keyes at home with daughter Olive   

PLAYER 1: Christopher Keyes, editor, Outside. Square footage: 2,700. Human occupants: 3. Other: 1 dog, 1 cat.

PLAYER 2: Grayson Schaffer, associate editor, Outside. Square footage: 1,250 (house) + 250 (guesthouse). Human occupants: 3. Other: 1 dog, 16 chickens.

THE GAME: Electricity generated from fossil fuels is the single largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. What if two average Americans had their electricity monitored and were forced to reveal their correspondence about the experience—and their results—to millions of readers?

THE INTERFACE: Both players were outfitted with a PowerView home energy monitor (from $800;, created by Carbondale, Colorado, solar-energy provider Anson Fogel, 35, and sold through his company, InPower. Once hooked up to a household's electrical breaker, the PowerView uploads data to a server via Wi-Fi, allowing you to watch your electricity usage in real time on your home computer and chart it on InPower's Web-based "dashboard."

On Wednesday, MAY 7, Christopher Keyes wrote:
Chicken Boy,
I have to admit I'm pretty relieved this morning. The monitor has been live for two days, and after a couple of nights lying awake in panic that I'd be exposed as a Class VI energy hog, I've finally worked up the courage to check the dashboard. In the last 24 hours, we [Chris, his wife, Christian, and their five-month-old daughter, Olive] have burned through a mere 9 kilowatt-hours. I still can't tell you what a kilowatt-hour is, but I can tell you this: We're using a fraction of the 30.25 kWh the average American household uses per day. My relief was compounded when I checked out the data on your site. Whoa! I don't want to talk trash—actually, yes I do—but I'm crushing you. Or, rather, your carbon footprint is crushing mine. In the same 24 hours, you've sucked up 17 kWh of juice. What's going on over there, Bigfoot?

On Friday, MAY 9, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
El Jefe,
Is this going to be one of those sanctimonious "My Prius is greener than your Civic" squabbles? Even at 17 kWh per day, I'm still using only slightly more than half the juice of the average household. And that includes my roommate, Tom; the crazy Australian raft guide living out in the guest casita; my chocolate Lab puppy, Danger Dog; ten delicate young tomato plants; and 16 chickens—Tom's birds, not mine, thank you very much. It's those last two that are drawing the most energy. The chicks require a 24-hour heat lamp, and because we're still getting frost, I've had to keep a space heater going all night in the greenhouse. A kilowatt-hour, FYI, is the energy it takes to run ten 100-watt lightbulbs for an hour. A gallon of unleaded gas contains the same amount of energy as 36.4 kWh. If you'd read your bill, you'd know that kilowatt-hours in Santa Fe cost 8¢—that's about $1.36 per day to power my house. By mid-June, when I'm not having to pay Whole Foods prices for arugula, it's all going back into my pocket, anyway. What are you doing with your electrons? When Anson was installing my system, he mentioned being pretty impressed by how clean you keep your place. He kept saying, "It looks like they wear a shirt for an hour before washing it."

On Tuesday, MAY 20, Christopher Keyes wrote:
We prefer to call ourselves minimalists, not neat freaks. Do I sound defensive? Maybe it's because that last jab hit a little too close to home.
Two things I've discovered so far:
1. Our electric dryer is a ridiculous energy zapper.
2. Olive goes through an insane number of onesies (consider yourself lucky if you needed to look upthat word).

Seriously, when I logged on from work midmorning on day three, the energy dashboard showed a spike in usage that looked so conspicuous, I was worried Christian had set up a hydroponic ganja closet. Turns out she just turned the dryer on, but it looked more like a cardiac event on an EKG: The graph jumped from around 210 to 850 watts. I soon discovered that a single hourlong load in the Maytag can double the amount of energy we use in a day. I don't even want to tell you what Sunday looks like. Unless I wash my clothes less often (see painful observation from Anson you provide) or talk to my sleep-deprived, overworked wife about hanging Olive's clothes out to dry (don't think I want to go there), switching to a slightly more efficient gas-powered dryer seems like the only option. But then, what would happen to my old dryer? Wouldn't the fact that someone else was using it and sapping more power send me into some kind of green-karma tailspin?

Let me guess, you back-to-the-landers have a rotating clothesline full of wet tie-dyes next to the chicken shack, right?

On Thursday, MAY 22, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
You won't find any tie-dyes in our gas-powered dryer. I think Tom and I are the only journalists in America who eat local, shoot our own meat, and haven't tried to write a book about it.

On Thursday, MAY 22, Christopher Keyes wrote:
Hey, Carrot Top, I've now heard you make that joke about not writing a book 213 times. But I'll give you props for recycling.

On Thursday, MAY 22, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
Busted. But, please, people, enough with the "Look at me go back to nature" memoirs. Now where were we? Right, the chicken shack. Not the one we just moved the poultry into, the one we rent to Crazy Australian Guy ("CAG"). The heat lamps and space heaters are off, and we still can't get our real-time flow to drop below about 500 watts, even with everything turned off. Until yesterday, the casita had 1980s appliances, one of which was an improbable sink/refrigerator/stove unit. So I swapped in a gas range and a refrigerator that claimed to use $32 per year in electricity. Only one way to be sure if the new appliances took us below 500: I logged in to the InPower dashboard and walked around turning things off. Here's how it went:

758 watts to start. Man, I could be running an aluminum smelter.

Switched off the lights—about two dozen 50-watt halogen track lights. (They draw less than incandescents, although you end up using more of them.)

Monster drop: 106 watts. (Hallelujah. Looks like the new appliances worked.)

Unplugged the clock radio, my sole form of wired entertainment (NPR; so predictable, I know). 72 watts.

Switched my laptop over to battery. These suckers are efficient. 69 watts.

The fridge in the main house switched itself on. 322 watts.

I throw the breaker for the fridge. Down, boy. 138 watts.

Unplugged the hallway night-light. 137 watts.

One thing left to do, though: Throw the casita breaker. (Sorry, CAG.) Unfortunately, the wireless modem is also in there, so we'll never know if the appliances were entirely responsible for those last 137 watts. What about you, Mr. iPhone? How low could you go?

On Tuesday, JUNE 3, Chris­topher Keyes wrote:
That's pretty impressive, though it sounds like you run your household like one of those hypermilers drives his car. I've been curious about how low I could go without being a scold. I didn't want to put an alarm on the fridge to prevent open-door decision making, or deprive Olive of her overhead fan on 85-degree days, or unplug my TiVo and prevent it from updating schedule changes. (After all, the new season of Mad Men is coming up. Hint: It's not on NPR.) I didn't want to be the guy that tells his mother not to use her hair dryer when she visits her granddaughter. (Though I was tempted: Hey, Mom, energy use in the Keyes household over the weekend of May 24–25 is documented by a giant swell on the InPower graph.) It's not that I haven't taken some proactive measures. Every night, I disconnect so-called phantom energy loads, but even when I unplug the TV, coffeemaker, and baby monitor (trust me, Christian, we'll hear Olive cry) and take the cell phones and iPod off their chargers, we drop from 224 watts to around 187 watts—a 37-watt swing, but nothing to shout about.

A few days ago, I even took this experiment to a place you were unwilling to go. One night, while Christian was out with friends and Olive was asleep, I started replacing the incandescent bulbs with CFLs. An hour later, I felt great: According to the dashboard, with nine lights swapped and turned on, I was using 583 fewer watts. I also felt like I was living in my high school cafeteria. Until they can make a better CFL, this is where I draw the line.

On Friday, JUNE 6, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
As someone who drives a V-8 pickup, I'll take the hypermiler remark as a compliment. It would be one thing if InPower helped me see that my rooftop Santa display was overkill. As is, though, I live in a small two-bedroom house, less than a mile from work. Trying to shave a few hundred watts worrying about whether the lights are on in the living room while I'm reading in bed is a drain that doesn't, in my book, add up to 8¢ per kWh. I know some people might scold me for laziness, but I can't help feeling deeply skeptical about any environmental maxim that begins, "If we all just …" The failing of those four words is the simplest reason that governments—oh, never mind.

Ya know, Chris, I think this InPower system is turning me into a pessimist. The numbers—510 kWh per month at the beginning, 373 now—say that I'm well below the average American's monthly usage of 920 kWh, but clearly I'm no saint of sustainability. What the hell are the people who use more than average doing, air-conditioning their tennis courts?

On Wednesday, JUNE 11, Christopher Keyes wrote:
Should I be worried about you? You're starting to sound awfully cynical. Maybe you broke down, got cable, and started watching too much Adrian Grenier on Planet Green?

I do hear what you're saying. But I've had the opposite reaction to InPower. It's given me a kind of control I've never had. In the past, I would get my energy bill and, other than the little graph displaying how the past month's use compared with the same month the previous year, I had no real measure of how I was doing—or how I could lower my bill. Now I turn off the light and the result is displayed right there on my screen. If the government used the money it spends to sponsor condescending Ad Council radio commercials and gave every household one of these gizmos, we might be getting somewhere. Saving energy would be completely voluntary, be motivated by self-interest, feel like a video game, and be rewarded with instant gratification. What's more American than that?

On Sunday, JUNE 15, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
OK, I'm back from my little time-out. That judgmental green light on the InPower box is still daring me to unplug my fridge, but I also have it to thank for confirming that the fun stuff in life happens without a remote, This American Life podcasts notwithstanding. Still, now that the chickens are grown and the tomatoes are ripening, I'm uninstalling my unit and sending it to the first reader willing to cop to snow-melting his driveway.

Filed To: Culture

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