Pandemic sustainability: How to conserve energy when you are always at home

Alethea Cariddi working from home
Alethea Cariddi, assistant director of sustainability at UNE, shares several strategies for conserving energy while working and learning from home.

Virtual meetings, baking projects, and shows binge-watched have become the new normal as the majority of us have adjusted to life working and studying from home.

But all those extra activities can have negative effects on our energy use, burning through electricity and raising home energy costs. Increased electrical use can even worsen the emissions that fuel climate change.
April is Earth Month and, with most of us home for the foreseeable future, it is a good time to examine ways to conserve energy. By being more mindful of our energy consumption, we can each do our part to be more sustainable and save money, says Alethea Cariddi, M.S.Ed., assistant director of sustainability at the University of New England.

“This is a great time for self-reflection in all areas of life, and it's an appropriate time for us to be more planful, even for when life returns to normal, whatever that may be,” Cariddi said.

Cariddi has been active on the Sustainable UNE Facebook page, where she has been sharing daily tips on reducing electrical use and incorporating sustainable practices into our everyday routines.

To reduce electrical use, Cariddi advises using natural light to complete work as often as possible, even if that means taking a break from the home office desk to find the brightest window. “Using daylight is really important not just for energy conservation, but also for your spirit and your body,” she said.

Those using power strips in their home offices to maximize the number of available electrical outlets may also be inadvertently wasting electricity. Even if the devices plugged into the power strips are turned off, they may still be drawing what is called a “phantom load” of electricity that could be costing more money.

The only way to completely cut the electricity to those devices is to shut off the power strip, Cariddi said. This is made easier if the strip is kept visible and easily accessible.

“People tend to stash power strips under their desk on the floor, which makes them really hard to reach. If you keep them visible and easily accessible, then you can turn them off, and that will cut that phantom load completely,” Cariddi advised.

Electricity savings are not limited to the home office. There are many ways to offset the increased electrical usage caused by working from home, such as turning down home heating and water temperatures, if you are able, and setting up clotheslines to dry clothing on nice days. 

Cariddi notes that, while clothes washing machines have become more efficient in recent years, clothes dryers have not. “Clothes dryers are still really just using heat and tumbling action to do something that evaporation can do super efficiently all on its own,” she said in an April 8 Facebook post.

Energy can also be wasted in the kitchen, especially for those with electric coil cooktops. If you need to boil water for tea or coffee, Cariddi recommends using electric kettles because they use less electricity than stove tops. If boiling pots of water for cooking, Cariddi recommends using the correct size burner for your pot — larger burners will use more electricity — and making sure the pot is centered on the burner.

And, yes, you should put a lid on the pot when boiling water — it helps the water boil faster without wasting as much energy. 

“A lot of people forget to put a cover on their pot. That just means that it takes a lot longer to heat up the water and you're wasting electricity, or propane if you have a gas stove,” Cariddi said.

When it comes to food preparation, now is the time to be mindful as grocery visits should be limited. 

“The motto is ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ and they're very intentionally in that order,” Cariddi said. “Reduce waste and anything that you don't need, and don't make more than you need unless you're planning on reusing it.”

Cariddi suggested making plans for reusing leftovers so as to not let food go to waste. She also recommended using non-traditional containers for food storage, such as yogurt tubs, if your town has suspended recycling pickup. 

“Now is a good time for us to think creatively and to look around at what we already have available to us,” she said. “Being planful and being creative in our thinking is really important right now.”

Those strategies are also important in the long term. Even amid the coronavirus threat, climate change is still a concern; so, too, is pollution, among myriad other ecological hazards.

Cariddi said this is a time for people to not only reduce, reuse, and recycle, but also to start rethinking their everyday behaviors in the hope that more environmental progress can be made once we leave our homes. 

That involves weighing convenience and cost against environmental consciousness.

“Convenience is a really important feature in pretty much everything that we do. When we weigh the pros and cons of our behaviors, convenience oftentimes tops the chart in our decision making,” she said. “I'm just hoping there's a way for people to recognize that every little bit helps, and I’m encouraging people to find the one thing they can do."

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