Gas Consumption--Darn, So Close!

I've gotten a kick from seeing how little gas I can put in my car--as I noted when I looked at my credit card summaries for 2008:

...the coolest thing I figured out: I spent more money on good booze than on gasoline this past year. Yeah. I'm happy on both counts. (i.e., I'd rather give my money to Scotch distillers, Guinness and local breweries than Exxon-Mobil and the House of Saud).

I was really hoping to managed to get through Q1 2009 without putting gas in my car... but I had to fill it up this past Thursday. Grr! Only 5 days away from one tank of gas = Q1!

One funny thing though--when I pulled up to the pump, it had been long enough that I literally forgot which side of the car my filler is on. Had to put it in reverse and re-orient.

Yeah, I know you non-car-owning folks are a leg up on me. But January 2 through March 26 seems pretty good.

And for reference--booze purchases in Q1 2009 are currently an order of magnitude larger than gas purchases. Heh.

But back on the subject of Exxon-Mobil: I caught a PBS Frontline episode HEAT--on global climate change:

The world needs to dramatically cut the carbon emissions responsible for wreaking havoc on the planet's climate, according to Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, whose organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize. "If we don't take action immediately, we face a crisis," Pachauri tells Smith. "Climate change is caused by human actions, and we need to do something about it. The sooner we realize that, the better."

With that sense of urgency in mind, Smith traveled to 12 countries on four continents to investigate whether major corporations and governments are up to the challenge. HEAT features in-depth interviews with top policy-makers and with leading executives from many of the largest carbon emitters from around the world, including Chinese coal companies, Indian SUV makers and American oil giants. The report paints an ominous portrait. Despite increasing talk about "going green," across the planet, environmental concerns are still taking a back seat to shorter-term economic interests.

The whole episode is available for online viewing. Particularly painful/irritating portions were the interviews with the big oil representatives and GM's VP for environment, energy and safety policy (wow... that sounds like a thankless job). When oil companies were confronted with their funding for global-warming deniers and astroturf campaigns (which they have since stopped), they did handwavey backpedaling of, "... well, that was our best decision at the time... we have changed our opinion..." And it was amusing to see GM get confronted with the fact that they ran away from hybrids, and now they're getting their asses kicked by the Japanese. Man... I will be very happy if/when fate craps on them as much as their past actions warrant.

As a side note, I have kept a quote from a Paul Krugman column on how hard it will be to create a clean power grid in this country (interviewing Prof. Nate Lewis of Caltech):

“So building an emissions-free energy infrastructure is not like sending a man to the moon,” Lewis went on. “With the moon shot, money was no object — and all we had to do was get there. But today, we already have cheap energy from coal, gas and oil. So getting people to pay more to shift to clean fuels is like trying to get funding for NASA to build a spaceship to the moon — when Southwest Airlines already flies there and gives away free peanuts! I already have a cheap ride to the moon, and a ride is a ride. For most people, electricity is electricity, no matter how it is generated.”

Anyway... off to bike to Framingham to visit A & Guy! Looks like a beautiful day for it!


Bar Review: Drink

Early this year, I was reading this article in the Atlantic on the resurgence of the classic cocktail bar. It describes a Boston bar in the Fort Point Channel area called Drink:

It has a clean, almost apothecary spareness, with lots of sharp angles and galvanized steel and slate. No bottles are on display. Spirits are measured from stainless-steel jiggers that resemble beakers, and the aromatic bitters are kept in eyedroppers, for precise dispensing. And there’s no cocktail list. The idea is that your bartender is your pharmacist and, after a brief chat, will prescribe something based on your needs and past preferences.

We found seats next to the ice station, where our bartender was doing an admirable imitation of Tony Perkins in Psycho, attacking a massive block of ice with a frightful-looking pick and afflicting those in the vicinity with small, sleety squalls. Other tools were arrayed on a white towel, like an exhibit of Civil War medical instruments: three-pronged ice tongs, dull knives, a wooden mallet. After carving out several fist-sized hunks of ice, she came over to take our order.

Drink’s decision to eschew a cocktail menu is a rarity, but the bar is representative of a welcome new trend: lounges that celebrate classic cocktails and take pains to make them with the best ingredients and according to the canon of the great cocktail books.

Huh... sounds like it could be fun... or utterly pretentious. That also matches the timbre of the reviews on Yelp. So back in January, R. and I tried going there on a Thursday night. Overall, a disappointing experience--the place was packed with the Beautiful People, and after failing to get the bartender's attention for more than five minutes, R. urged that we get out of there. Apparently, we weren't either hip, perfect, or rich-looking enough to catch their eye.

But more recently, we gave it another try... this time, on a Tuesday night, which was nice and quiet. This actually ended up being the experience we were looking for. A few empty spots at the bar, and the bartender was happy to chat, provide information on what he was serving, and give tasting notes. (To wit: when sniffing spirits, you want to bring the glass up and down, far and near from your nose. If you just stick your nose right into the top of the glass, you'll probably get a good whiff of fire/alcohol, but not much else. Think of moving the glass as taking a mass spec of the vapors coming off the booze).

My drink was a variant of the Manhattan. Apparently, rye (not bourbon) is the classic way to mix one up; they used Old Overholt--surprise, not an uber-fancy top-shelf sippin' rye. It included a cherry garnish that was dried like a raisin--an incredibly sweet and concentrated flavor, but not cloying like a day-glo Maraschino cherry (mmmm... FD&C Red #40-licious).

R.'s drink was a, um, I think a variation of the Gimlet (Are you reading this, R? Correct me if I'm wrong!). The story the bartender told was that many drinks were heavily weighted towards strong citrus flavors back in the days of Prohibition, to cover up the delightful notes of bathtub gin.

[Edit: R. wrote back to point out I am pretty sure the bartender made me an Aviation cocktail complete with the violet liqueur. And FYI, the recipe for an Aviation.]

The location is just fantastic--a basement over in the Fort Point section, where you can see shadows of people walking by on the street... great atmosphere. On a quiet night, just the place to be.

Chatting with our bartender later, we asked if he had any favorites. He said he leaned towards making rum drinks--the great varieties of rum made it an interesting palette to paint with. So I think that the place is definitely worth a return trip--although not on a busy night. If you're up for it sometime, let me know!


Chasing After Phantoms

[Warning: great big post on electrical use geekery.]

Phantom loads, that is. What am I talking about? This subject is also known as standby power, vampire power, or leaking electricity; it refers to the electric power consumed by electronic appliances while they are switched off or in a standby mode. A very common "electricity vampire" is a power adapter which has no power-off switch. Some such devices offer remote controls and digital clock features to the user, while other devices, such as power adapters for laptop computers and other electronic devices, consume power without offering any features. Here's an article from Home Energy magazine talking about the subject.


Basically, phantom loads piss me off--they are using energy without any useful output or benefit. My boss is fond of pointing out, "I don't have a problem with using energy, I have a problem with wasting energy." Since I have an Energy Detective installed, which displays instantaneous power use (I geeked out about it previously here), I wanted to start looking into it more.

The first thing I determined was that when everything with an actual "off" switch was switched off, refrigerator not running, no lights on... there was still a continuous 90 watt load. Hrm. First of all, I wondered what that means in terms of my overall utility bill. Let's see... (90 W * 24 hours *(365 days/12 months))/1000 W (per kWh) = 65.7 kWh/month. That's about $12.50. But more importantly, looking at it on my power bill, you can see it's a fair chunk of the total ("Always on loads"):

The fridge is also a pretty noticeable portion (40-45 kWh/month)--I actually have an Energy Star fridge stored in the basement, but it's smaller than our current fridge--probably not worth the work.

I have a Kill-A-Watt electrical meter, so I guess I could go around and try to figure out what is still drawing power. But that's really annoying to do... and it only works on stuff that has a plug on it. What to do, what to do....

Work at the Panel

Duh... time to open up the circuit breaker panel, turn off everything, and measure the leakage current at each circuit. Seems kinda obvious, right?

What, you don't have a clamp-on ammeter just lying on your desk at the office?

But yeah, that was my Saturday night. Yeah, and I am still single.

Anyway, I calculated each circuit's volt-amps (same units as watts, but volt-amps != watts due to power factor. But you guys probably know that.) So, I could break down the load by circuit (go and click on the graphic if it is too small to read):

The overall wattage is pretty damn close (87.6 W, and the Energy Detective only measures to the nearest 10 W). So what are these loads?

1. Mystery breaker: 2 W of who-the-hell-knows.

3. Kitchen plug: perhaps the kitty water bubbler? Only 2 W... not worth worrying about

13. Living room outlet: this is where the cable modem, network hub, and network attached storage (NAS) are all plugged in. I'll just have to live with the 24 W (by my Kill-A-Watt measurement) continuous draw for 24/7 network access.

15. Kitchen plug: microwave oven clock--again, around 1 W

6. Living room: huh... the TV, DVD player, cable box--some of the classic vampire loads. I'll have to look into that.

8. Rear bedroom: yep, that's my bedroom. Another one to look into. But also, there are a bunch of wired smoke detectors in the house... some of the load is coming from them.

12. Boiler: well, crap... looks like I need to live with a 10-15 W draw even while the boiler is off. Suck.

16. Front bedroom: JMD's room's loads. More random phantoms.

18. Panel outlet & doorbell: again, 2 watts I'll need to live with.

Well... what to do with this information?...

Technology to the Rescue!....?

The classic way to deal with phantom loads is, "... put those loads on a power strip, and turn them off when you leave the room." Yes, yes, and we all need to floss on a daily basis, watch our carb intake, and call mom.


Anyway, there are a few technology solutions to address our natural laziness.

One problem is the fact that you typically bury the power strip at the back of the stereo cabinet, bolted to the underside of the computer desk, or hiding among the dust bunnies. Turning it off ain't gonna happen... out of sight, out of mind. But the Belkin Conserve is a power strip with a remote switch (larger pictures at that link). So the power strip stays where it is, and the switch can sit on the desk.

Second is the Smart Strip, which is a bit more complicated. A lot of the time, you have a "main load"--say, a television--and all this stuff that doesn't need power unless the TV is on--say, the cable box, or the DVD player. With this power strip, you plug in the TV into the "control outlet," and it only turns on the "automatically switched outlets" when the "control outlet" is drawing power. It also has a few "continuously on" outlets--for instance, to leave your TiVo box plugged in. Cool, eh?


Even with this amp-clamp-at-the-panel exercise, I wanted to check the watt draw of the various loads. So the power strip that my bedroom desktop machine is plugged into... 9 W phantom load. Seems like a good application for the Smart Strip.

Then I started measuring individual components... monitor, nothin'; stereo, almost nothin', printer, nothin'. Main CPU box, 7 watts. Crap... the one thing I'd need to leave on all the time with the SmartStrip, and it's the majority of the phantom load!

As an aside, why the hell is my desktop CPU drawing 7 watts while it is just sitting there!? According to Bird, it might have to do with network startup... um, which is entirely useless for me. Grr.

But this ended up being an application for the Belkin Conserve--the strip is on the floor, and the switch is on my desk:

9 watts, done. What's interesting is that you can calculated the financial payback--at 19 cents/kWh, that power strip has saved its purchase price in energy in 2-3 years. After all--can you name other consumer electronics that actually provides a financial return on investment?

Living Room

Time for a similar exercise in the living room--it was 9 watts, divided among the TV, the cable box, and the Blu-Ray player. Started measuring wattages... this time the cable box was the culprit, drawing 7 W while it was off. Gotcha, you sunnv'bitch...

However, I first experimented by leaving the cable box unplugged for half an hour. It turns out that it gets very unhappy--it can't download the viewer guide info, and to protest its unhappiness, it doesn't let you even change channels until it is done downloading. So I was stuck sitting there watching The Greatest Story Ever Told for ten minutes until it regained its equilibrium. Grr. That's not going to work.

So crap... no savings possible on the entertainment center.... screw yooouuuu, Motorola DCT700 box!!!

(I just thought this shot of Clyde was cute.)


So overall, I only managed to reduce loads by ~10 watts. But at least the TED on the kitchen table reads lower.

In my measurements, I found that more recent electronics actually do a decent job on controlling their phantom loads--a watt or less, which is not really worth pursuing, I think.

One piece of advice: you have to measure before taking steps to fix these problems. For instance, if I didn't have a Kill-A-Watt, I would have put a SmartStrip on my computer, and would currently be saving about jack-point-shit of electricity.

Finally, part of the reason why electrical loads in this country have been going up over time is that, well, we're just buying more and more gadgets to plug in. There was one letter to Fine Homebuilding that pretty much nailed it on the head for me:

The Kitchens & Baths issue (FHB #191) included a feature on warming a granite kitchen countertop, as well as a separate article on choosing energy-efficient appliances. As long as our culture is worried about cold elbows on countertops, we cannot reduce energy consumption to any appreciable degree, despite Energy Star-labeled appliances.

Ours is a gadget culture. Who can fault the architect who had the heated countertop installed? He was just pleasing his clients. I have installed a sink-top mini electric instant water heater for a customer. The blasted thing cycles continuously day and night, and is seldom used.

We don’t have to return to hunting and gathering. Our appliances enable us to store, cook, and clean up after meals safely and conveniently. However, if we want to curb energy usage, we need to have some limits on how persnickety we are.

Yeah... damn right.


The Ultimate Man-Cave Accoutrement

Apologies for being non-posty as of late--yikes, about three weeks! A combination of work-slammage and actually being social for the past week (more about that later).

Anyway, JMD and I went up to New Hampshire this past weekend to visit Bird & Jen... so yeah, while the girls spent the day dyeing some yarn, Bird and I fulfilled our gender stereotypes and went to Lowe's. As we were browsing, I saw the Most Ridiculous Tool Chest Ever.

First of all, it's a ridiculous stainless steel rolling tool chest that's taller than I am. Really--here's the web listing. It looks like I could probably sleep in the top compartment. But wait, are those speakers up top? Why yes... there's a built in CD/radio/Aux input:

Not over the top enough for you? How about a mini-fridge?

Yeah, it's just the thing for your man-cave. Totally ridiculous. Just the thing to make your fellow tribesmen grunt in agreement as you assert your alpha-male-ness. Alternately, I have visions of guys in a circle around it, warily eyeing it like the apes in 2001 crouching at the Monolith ("...aaaaand cue Zarathustra...aaand cut to throwing pipe wrench into the sky...")

I know you're reacting, "...and yeah, Bats, you want it." Well, actually, probably not. I think it would be more my speed to rig something up from a salvaged car stereo, a 12 V transformer, and random trashed speakers. And also, I hope I'll never be lazy enough that heading into the house to grab some water is that much of a chore.

Anyway, Bird and I did more than just waste time there... we actually grabbed the parts to add a ball valve drain port to his water heater--one of my recommendations to extend water heater tank lifespan.

A few scary moments as we swapped out the valve ("Um... is this thing about to dump 50 gallons of scalding water on us?"), but the job was successful.