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Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Words of advice for the power-hungry

Tech passion stretches our resourcs to the limit


While we've had a few close shaves over the years, Tokyo's power grid has fortunately been spared a major, city-wide blackout. This year, the closure of 17 nuclear power generators for safety inspection led many to fret that there might not be sufficient power over the summer; fortunately demand has been less than anticipated due to unexpectedly cool weather.

But the fact is, per capita electric power consumption has grown in quantum leaps over the past several decades. Back in 1966, I occupied a humble 6.5-mat room with exactly three items that consumed electricity. The first was an overhead fluorescent "kasa" mounted in the center of the ceiling. It was turned on by a long cord.

I also had a reading lamp on my low table. The third appliance was my sole source of hot water, a small coffee percolator that I used to boil each morning. Half the water went in a cup for instant coffee; the other half in the sink for shaving of the non-electric variety. (Small wonder I gave up shaving and have not resumed since.) My little transistor radio did not count, since it used a 9-Volt battery. My alarm clock was of the windup variety. My hair dryer, its label indicated, was composed of 100 percent cotton.

Nowadays, it's a different picture entirely. I live in a modern home full of wonderful electronic amenities. My fax and PC have got me wired to the whole world. I've got cable TV, a real hair dryer, stereo, two VCRs, a DVD player, copier, microwave oven and several air conditioners.

Am I being silly here in feeling just a little guilty? Is there anything a person can do to consume less energy? And hopefully save a few yen in the bargain?

Maybe. One thing that's certain is appliances have become amazingly more efficient.

"We develop and build power-saving features into our appliances on an ongoing basis," explains Kevin Hamilton, assistant manager in the overseas advertising department at Mitsubishi Electric. "In addition, our owners manuals stress that users can minimize power waste by using products properly and performing the recommended maintenance."

Kevin was able to back up his assertions with some impressive data. Take the motor that drives a refrigerator's compressor; thanks to digital control, the power consumption of Mitsubishi's large-capacity (480-liter) home-use model has been cut to roughly one quarter of what it was 10 years ago -- from 1,133 kWh per year (at an operating cost of 26,059 yen) to 280 kWh/year (6,440 yen).

The new generation of ecology friendly appliances not only consume less power, I was told, but are built almost entirely of recyclable components. In addition, the government has required manufacturers to halt the use of ozone-damaging CFCs for their internal coolant.

But even the smartest appliance is at the mercy of a dumb user. If you overfill your fridge, for example, this will prevent the chilled air from circulating internally, causing power consumption to increase. And you shouldn't set other appliances or objects immediately next to it or on top -- it needs room to breathe to dissipate the heat it generates while cooling the interior.

Refrigerators, by the way, work hardest of all when frequently opened and closed.

Air conditioners are another type of appliance that have become far more energy efficient of late. Ten years ago, a medium sized model used year-round for heating and cooling consumed about 3,273 kilowatt hours a year; a current model with the same capability is now down to 1,645 kw/hr. All other conditions being equal, this translates into a not inconsiderable savings of 37,400 yen per year, which means by buying a new one you're likely to recover your initial investment within two or three years.

But again, it takes a smart user to get the most out an air conditioner. The type of building you live in, and how many hours a day the rooms are exposed to the sun have to be factored in. Ferroconcrete apartment buildings, as a general rule, provide much better insulation against both heat and cold than do wood-frame dwellings. If you live in the latter, you have to try a little harder to improve efficiency.

Ordinary glass windows offer poor insulation -- likewise for thin walls -- during the hottest times of the day. Hang heavy, two-ply curtains over the windows and keep them closed during the day.

Even with the thermostat set to a power-thrifty 27 or 28 degrees, you can make the setting seem cooler by setting any old fan on the floor and make the cool air circulate.

My local appliance dealer advised me that window air conditioner units tend to be noisy and comparatively inefficient. Still, you may have to consider one due to space considerations.

The least expensive varieties of the other type, using separate indoor and outdoor sections, now sell for under 40,000 yen, with an installation charge of around 10,000 yen tagged on.

Oh yes; be sure to clean the filter regularly. Neighborhood appliance shops will perform on-site maintenance and reconditioning (to drain and replace the coolant, spray clean the grills, etc.).

If the unit is five or more years old, this is a must as severely dirty heat exchange vents and fans can help to increase power consumption by as much as 30 percent.



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