part of an ongoing series of columns I’ve written, reprinted from the TU Rambler.

March, 2009.
This week, I want to talk about electricity.  [March 28] from 8:30 to 9:30 was the second annual “Earth Hour”—60 minutes when people around the world turned off their lights to raise awareness for climate change and energy consumption—so I figure it’s as good a time as any.

To begin, let’s start with lightbulbs. The incandescent bulbs that many people still use work by pumping electricity (itself produced by burning coal or other fossil fuels) through a loop of tungsten, which heats up until it glows white-hot and produces the light that you read by. The main problem with incandescent bulbs (besides the dirty fuel we burn to power them) is their energy efficiency (or lack thereof). You see, when that loop of tungsten lights up, it throws off an awful lot of heat, and most of that heat just floats away, never to be seen again. However, thanks to modern science, there is an alternative: the CFL (compact florescent lightbulb). These twisty-looking bulbs are way more energy-efficient than incandescents, which means that they last longer (so you don’t have to buy them as often) and produce the same amount of light for much less energy (which means less coal to burn). And no, they don’t make that sickly green color or annoying buzz that regular florescent tubes do.* So that’s another plus.

So with all these benefits, you may be asking ‘what’s the catch?’ Normally, the catch would be the price; a CFL often costs three times as much as an incandescent bulb. However, the energy savings mean that they quickly pay for themselves. Like other energy-saving devices, CFLs are a sound investment.

Lightbulbs aren’t the only source of energy waste, though. It seems that every gadget we buy—iPods, cell phones, CrackBerrys, laptop computers—has its own charger. The problem is that many of these chargers continue to draw “phantom power” when we leave them plugged in (this, apparently, is due to the capacitors, transformers, and other gizmos inside them, which I don’t pretend to understand). In fact, as much as 10% of home electricity is wasted by turned-off-but-still-plugged-in electronic devices. The solution? Show those machines who’s boss and stop the waste at the source! Plug all your gadgets into a powerstrip, and then, when you’re not using them, use one switch to turn them all off at once!

*(Aside from their longer life, why anyone would want to use regular florescent lights anyway is totally beyond me. That greenish glow isn’t flattering to anybody. Like the late, great George Carlin said, “Didya ever notice how awful your face looks in a mirror in a restroom that has florescent lights? Every cut, scrape, scratch, scar, scab, bruise, boil, bump, pimple, zit, wart, welt and abscess you’ve had since birth all seem to come back at the same time! And all you can think is: “I gotta get the fuck outta here!””)

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