Keeping Warm in the Cold Winter Months

Most people know that this has been one of the colder winters in recent memory. In fact, I’ve been taking enough heat about my views on global warming that I wrote a post entitled, Where is the Global Warming?. The effects of the cold have been serious enough to drastically raise the price of propane and to create local shortages. In fact, a few of my neighbors have been paying upwards of $6.00 a gallon for propane that normally costs around $2.50 a gallon. What this means is that a house that normally requires $300.00 per month to heat now costs $720.00. Most people can’t afford the price increase. More than a few people feel that the propane industry is engaged in price gouging. At issue is the need for propane to keep warm.

We heat our home for the most part using our wood stove. Wood heat is a lot better than propane because a wood stove will heat not only the air, but also the floor, walls, and ceiling. You get a mix of both direct and radiant heat. In addition, wood is a renewable resource. Carefully managed woods produce an abundant supply of wood that won’t ever run out as fossil fuels will. However, due to some unexpected circumstances, we’ve been using the furnace a bit this winter as well and feeling the pinch just a little.

There are some long term fixes for some of the problems with heating in the works. For example, there is a movement now to improve the standards for furnaces. The technology exists to improve the efficiency of furnaces from the current 80 percent to nearly 98 percent. In addition, newer furnace fans can save substantially on the electric bills. Unfortunately, even though the technology exists, you’d be hard pressed to find any furnaces like this for sale—they simply aren’t available today. So what do you do to improve fuel usage in your home today?

We’ve been experimenting with various strategies over the years. For one thing, we turn the thermostat way down at night—we’re talking 47 degrees. Blankets are a lot less expensive than fuel and we’ve actually found we sleep more soundly. I’m not sure anyone has ever done a study on the proposed benefits of sleeping cool (if you find such a study, please let me know). A programmable thermostat can get the furnace started up just a few minutes before you begin your day. I do know that we both sleep better and feel more refreshed when the house is kept quite cool during the winter months. We use both a blanket and a comforter on our bed and it seems to work just fine.

One of the more interesting aspects of most homes is that the bathroom actually warms quickly and is usually high on the priority list for getting heat. Even though the rest of your house is now at 47, you can run into the bathroom, close the door, and enjoy a nice warm early morning experience quite quickly. Just take your clothes with you (I certainly do) and dress inside. If you set up a schedule, other family members can just remain cozy in bed until it’s their turn to keep warm while dressing in the bathroom. Actually, it’s a technique that people have used for hundreds of years. I still remember my father telling me about running from the bedroom down to the kitchen where he’d dress in front of the wood stove in the morning.

We’ve found that running the furnace for one long period is far more efficient than running it over several short periods. An engineer who specializes in such things could probably produce the math required to tell you precisely why this is the case, but simply observing the monthly costs has shown us that long burns are more efficient. A long burn also provides some of the same radiant heat benefits that our wood stove provides. So, we get the house up to temperature in the morning and then turn the thermostat down while we work. When it’s time to sit and relax, we heat the house back up again and then turn it down about 2 hours before we go to bed (the house will most definitely maintain temperature long enough for you to get cozy beneath the blankets). Using this cycled method of maintaining house temperature can reduce the heating bill by as much as 30 percent when used correctly. Given that we work in our house, the cycled method does mean making comfort choices, but the savings are just too great to pass up. If you’re working outside the house, using the cycled approach is a given.

I doubt that there is a perfect solution to any heating problem during the winter months. Even using wood has problems. Of course, you need to go out and cut the wood. I find the task pleasurable, but most people wouldn’t. There is also the problem of the ashes. We use them around the animal cages so that we can maintain our footing on the ice (the ash adds grit), but most people aren’t in a farm environment like we are and would have a hard time finding a place to put all the ashes. The ash dust also gets everywhere, which means we’re constantly dusting the house. (Still, when given a choice, we much prefer wood, even with the downsides it presents.)

Have you come up with any interesting solutions to the heating problems for your home? Have you ever tried a cycled approach? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Working from Home

I heard an interesting statistic on the radio this morning—most Americans would be willing to take a 5 percent pay cut in order to work from home. I’ve been working from my home for 25 years now and must admit that I really wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. However, I started thinking about the whole concept of a pay cut after the radio announcer finished and thought that we’re looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. Sure, the 5 percent pay cut is real, but is it actually a pay cut? Let’s examine that for a moment. The 5 percent pay cut to work at home would result in the following savings:

 

  • Reduced driving needs, which means lower insurance
  • Less gas used
  • Less wear and tear on the car
  • Lower cost, more nutritional eat-at-home lunches
  • Less need for expensive clothing
  • No day care required
  • Less time wasted in travel (and time is money)


In short, from a financial perspective, both the employer and employee come out ahead. However, the benefits of working at home only start here. This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re an employer, you want your employees working at home. According to Business News Daily and many other sources, employees who work at home are significantly more productive in the right circumstances. So the employer not only saves on the pay required for a work at home employee, but also gets more for the employee’s efforts (assuming that the employee is actually working and not getting distracted). (In addition, there are other financial benefits for the employer such as reduced absenteeism and reduced infrastructure requirements, such as desks and office space.) Because working from home is becoming more of a reality for many Americans, a number of authors have taken a stab at making it work out better for everyone involved:

 


The one essential tidbit of information that you should glean from most of these posts is that you need some sort of schedule. In fact, a few of these sources actually draw you a picture of a schedule. Having goals that you want to meet each day is an essential part of the work at home experience.

There is no doubt that the effects of working at home extend well beyond the benefits that both employer and employee can obtain. Working at home can be better for the environment because the worker isn’t driving anywhere. However, whether the environment gains or not is really a matter of the environment in which the employee is working. A basement office using incandescent bulbs, a plug in heater, and old computer equipment is hardly energy efficient and could actually end up increasing the employee’s carbon footprint.

The health benefits of working from home are also well documented. Employees who work from home are less stressed, eat better, and spend more time doing something other than driving a car. The mental and physical benefits of working in a familiar, cozy environment make it possible for employees to live better lives. In addition, even when an employee does get sick, it’s often possible for the employee to work part of the day, rather than miss an entire day at work, so the employer gains as well.

I’m not a parent, so I have no personal experience with child rearing. However, in researching work at home statistics, I did run across a few articles that suggest work at home parents actually give their children a better chance of performing well later in life. I’d be interested in hearing from people who have significant experiences one way or the other—especially in situations where one child was raised at home and another in childcare.

Will working from home work for everyone? The answer is absolutely not. Certain professions require that employees still trudge to work. In these cases, working as close to home as possible will still save travel time, wear and tear on your car, reduce insurance payments, and still benefit the environment to some degree. Working close enough to walk to work or use public transportation is even better. However, some people will continue to go to work at a factory or office somewhere, no matter how much technology progresses.

If your employer doesn’t
offer work at home, create proposal that makes it more likely that the
employer will at least consider allowing you to do it. Everyone
benefits!
Do you think you could perform your work at home? Are you doing it now? Let me know your thoughts on the whole work at home question at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Windows 7 and the PowerCfg Utility

On page 327 of Administering Windows Server 2008 Server Core, you find the PowerCfg utility and may not even find it all that interesting. Yes, this utility makes it possible to configure the power settings for a system from a remote location. An administrator can use it to ensure that everyone has a power saving setup by adding the command to the user’s login script. However, as utilities go, it isn’t all that interesting. For that reason, the command doesn’t even appear in Windows Command-Line Administration Instant Reference. A number of beta readers said they didn’t even use it.

Microsoft is showing an increasing interest in power management with each version of Windows. In fact, from what I’ve been reading about Windows 8, power management is going to take a relatively large leap forward (read about the changes in, “Building a power-smart general-purpose Windows“). With this in mind, the Windows 7 version of the PowerCfg utility has added four new command line switches:

 

  • /Requests: Enumerates the application and driver power requests. Applications and drivers make power requests to ensure that resources are available when needed. However, sometimes these requests can also become a problem when they’re abused. Power requests can also prevent the computer from automatically turning the display off or going into hibernate mode, which wastes power.
  • /RequestOverride: Forces the system to disregard an application or driver power request. The positive aspect of this command line switch is that you can enforce a power management strategy when you have applications and drivers that abuse power requests. However, by denying applications and drivers access to resources, you could also cause system instability or data loss when the application or driver crashes.
  • /Energy: Performs an energy survey of the system. This is probably the most important addition that Microsoft has made. Using this particular feature, you can detect system elements that are consuming a lot of power and reduce its energy footprint. Generally, you use this feature with just the system running to determine what the system uses. However, you can also use it with single applications open to detect the energy cost of using that application, which I think is actually the more revealing way to use this command line switch. Most people don’t associate an energy cost with using an application. This feature makes the energy cost significantly more apparent. Yes, every application you use has a cost, so keeping needless applications open is costing you money.
  • /WakeTimers: Displays a list of timers that are set to wake the system from sleep or hibernate states. Waking a system too often also costs you money. For example, it costs more to perform individual maintenance tasks at separate times than to perform them during a single time. An organization could use this command line switch to ensure that every system wakes at the same time, performs required maintenance, and then goes back into either the sleep or hibernate states.


As mentioned in the list, I consider the /Energy command line switch the most important PowerCfg addition to date. If you’re interested in self-sufficiency, as I am, then you begin to count even the pennies of energy usage. For example, in my CFLs for Free I discuss how I bought just one CFL and turned it into a complete setup for my entire home. This particular feature has allowed me to perform an energy survey of the applications I use. I found out, for example, that streaming audio using Firefox does indeed cost less than using a separate device for the purpose (such as a radio) and also delivers clearer audio. However, streaming impacts system performance and tacks a network bandwidth penalty onto other applications that rely on Internet connectivity, so there are times where using the separate device is actually better.

Let’s look at the /Energy command line switch in a little more detail. The easiest way to use this command is to open an Administrator command prompt, change directories to a directory you can write in (I’m using C:\Temp), and then type PowerCfg /Energy and press Enter. I purposely ran the command with a number of applications running and some misconfiguration in place to generate some errors, warnings, and informational messages as shown here.

PowerCfg01

The report required a little over a minute to generate. You can see the results in the Energy-Report.HTML file. Here are the results I generated from this run.

PowerCfg02

The PowerCfg utility makes it possible to diagnose energy problems with a system and significantly reduce the cost of running it. The language of the report does require a little interpretation at times, but normally the language is plain enough for an administrator to figure out with little effort. By correcting every error and 12 out of the 13 warnings, I was able to reduce the power requirements of this system by about 15 percent (as measured by a watt meter). So, how does that equate in dollars? You use the equation: Cost = ((Watts / 1000) * Hours Used) * kWh rate, where kWh is the kilowatt hour rate provided by your power company on your electrical bill. This system was averaging a little over 520 watts before tuning it. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re using it 60 hours per week and the electrical rate is $0.12. The weekly cost of running this system is:

 


((520 / 1000) * 60) * 0.12 or $3.74

After tuning this one system the power usage was only 442 watts on average. That means the weekly cost went down to:

 


((442 / 1000) * 60) * 0.12 or $3.18

a savings of $0.56 for this one system each week or a total of $29.12 for the year.  I have three systems that I tuned this way, so I’m hoping for a $87.36 savings from performing this tuning. Each system required about 30 minutes to tune, so I’ve made $58.24/hour from this activity. If you’ve read other posts, I do like to put a dollar figure on my time—you should too. Not many people can afford to throw away money like this and the PowerCfg utility, along with a watt meter, can help you better understand how your system uses (and abuses) power.

There are two additional command line switches you should know about when using the /Energy command line switch. The /Duration:Time command line switch changes the duration from 60 seconds to some other value. For example, if you want to change the duration to 120 minutes, you’d type /Duration:120. Longer testing times are often required when you’re trying to determine how an application is using energy. Take my advice and don’t set the duration lower than the default 60 secondsyou’ll be disappointed with the results.

The /XML command line switch outputs the data in XML format so that you can incorporate the information into a database. If you have a large setup, the XML format is absolutely essential. No one has time to look at individual HTML pages. Using XML output and a centralized database also makes it possible for you to look for organization-wide trends, which could produce even bigger savings.

The /Energy command line switch can also be used with the /Trace command line switch to trace energy usage without performing any analysis. This output isn’t as helpful or as accessible as using the /Energy command line switch alone. The output is an Event Trace Log (.ETL) file. To view this file, open the Event Viewer console found in the Administrative Tools folder of the Control Panel. Right click the Event Viewer folder and choose Open Saved Log from the context menu. You’ll see a dialog box asking whether you want to convert the .ETL file into the new format used by Windows 7. Click Yes. You’ll see a list of energy events like the ones shown here.

PowerCfg03

By carefully reviewing the events, you can discern energy usage patterns, filter data about specific events, and perform other analysis. However, this raw data is a little hard to use and the administrator would be better off generating the report, unless your organization has an application designed to analyze the raw data in some way.

So, how do you save energy in your organization? Do you rely on specialized tools such as a watt meter and PowerCfg? If not, how do you tune your equipment to deliver optimum service and minimum cost? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com