Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to put together a budget that I can live by. As a result, I’ve made an effort to spend more time in my kitchen, preparing my own meals, instead of at restaurants, paying someone to prepare them for me. Growing up, my mom cooked most of our meals, but when I left the house to go to college, somehow the value of a good, home cooked dinner got lost. Eating out has been a serious vice of mine for about the last 6 years. Now that I am trying to save more money, it’s time to rediscover the value of my kitchen.
Every room in your home is bursting with potential to save you money and lower your dependence on finite resources and your kitchen is no exception. Technology has evolved quite a bit since your mother made you muffins to take to your grade school class party (or was that just my mother) and today we’ll take a look at the role appliances play in the efficiency of how you and I sustain ourselves.
Shiny, new, efficient appliances
Assuming you actually use it (like I am trying to do), your kitchen likely uses the most resources of any room in your house, condo, or apartment. The appliances you use are a huge part of that. I have always been of the mindset that if it still works, you should still use it. However, there has been a lot of hype lately over the advancement in technology over the last few decades. It’s regularly reported that you might pay yourself and the environment back faster than you think by replacing old, out-dated appliances, such as that old, leaky Whirlpool dishwasher, with newer, more efficient models. I am slightly skeptical because 1) I am skeptical about everything (thanks, Dad) and 2) I’m not sure I see how it pencils out after you consider the environmental impact of manufacturing, transporting, and selling a new appliance and the impact associated with recycling something that is still functional. I don’t doubt for one second, though, that if one of your major appliances breaks down, you’re much better off in the long run purchasing a newer, more efficient model than trying to replace it with another antiquated one. Consider these compelling arguments:
- Refrigerator: According to the US Dept. of Energy, these suckers account for, on average, 14% of a home’s overall electricity usage. This is your single best opportunity to improve your carbon footprint and lower your electricity bill, so make the most of it and get the most efficient model you can afford.
- Range: Whether you decide to go with a gas or electric range is really up to you and what your home is already equipped for. One will not save you that much money over the other. A few things to consider though are that gas ranges emit more toxins into your kitchen, requiring more exhausting but electric stoves take longer to heat up and cool down compared to the superior temperature control afforded by a gas stove. If you’re replacing an old range, at least consider upgrading to one with a convection oven as they are currently the most efficient on the market.
- Dishwasher: Today’s new models use up to 75% less water than their counterparts from a decade ago. When you consider that 60% of the energy used by these handy appliances goes to heating water, you can see how the savings can add up. If you don’t do a lot of dishes, make sure you don’t pick a dishwasher that is too large for your needs. You’ll either waste water running loads that aren’t full or run out of dishes trying to fill it up.
- Microwave: New or old won’t make that much of a difference. Just know that using one at all is, oftentimes, much less energy intensive than cooking in a conventional oven. Microwaves are better suited for smaller jobs so you’ll still need your oven for those larger meals, but technology is continuing to improve and the newer models are getting better at cooking larger items without destroying the flavor. I can’t be the only one that thinks some things just don’t taste good coming from the microwave?
No matter what items you decide you need to improve the efficiency of your kitchen, you’ll get the most eco bang-for-your buck out of those that are approved by Energy Star. Energy Star is a government organization – a joint program between the EPA and the Department of Energy – that bestows certification to the best performing appliances available to consumers. In considering the long term costs of ownership, you’ll find that it’s almost always more frugal to pay a bit more up front for a more efficient appliance. I also think it’s important to mention that it’s possible to attain these shiny, efficient appliances gently used. Just like a new car loses value after you drive it off the lot, so does a new refrigerator or dishwasher when you carry it out of the store. It’s unfortunate that not everyone thinks the way you and I do, keeping their new items until they’re worn out, but as long as those folks exist, it is practically our responsibility to make the best of it by taking these things off their hands (and educating them about their wasteful ways – without being preachy of course). Most major cities have at least a few used appliance stores, but I have to plug Craigslist again as my favorite site for buying and selling used things. Find the city closest to you and begin your search. You can find anything on Craigslist. I dare you to go looking, but not too hard. You might frighten yourself.
But I don’t need any new appliances!
No worries, I hear ya. Maybe you don’t have a need for a new appliance right now. Maybe you can’t afford one yet. Maybe you’re currently a renter, like me, stuck with whatever your landlord decided to buy. I often dream of someday buying a house and filling my kitchen with the most efficient modern appliances. Until that day comes, though, I will continue to do my part by using the appliances that I have in the most efficient ways I can. Here are some of the tricks I’ve learned and can pass along:
- Make sure your temperatures are set right. The refrigerator should be set between 35 & 38 degrees F and the freezer should be set around 0 degrees F - any less and you’re wasting energy keeping things too cold. And who really likes to work so hard to eat their ice cream anyway?
- Keep the unit away from other appliances that create heat (like an oven or dishwasher), don’t place it in direct sunlight, and keep the back of the unit a few inches off of the wall to allow the coils to breathe.
- Make sure your door seals tightly when you close it and, like your mother always told you, don’t leave it open! Decide what you want before opening it. Hint: Keep your grocery list on the front of your refrigerator to help you remember what’s in there.
- Make sure you’re using the right size pots on your stove top. A tiny pot on a big burner is a waste of energy.
- Always thaw your foods in the refrigerator or at room temperature before baking. Sometimes it’s hard to plan ahead, but as we all know, you’ll save yourself money and resources in the long run if you do.
- Turn the oven off a few minutes before your food is done and let the dissipating heat finish it off. This is a good idea in the summer when you want your oven on as little as possible, but in the winter I prefer to turn it off when the food is done and leave the door open, allowing the escaping heat to warm the house, relieving my furnace a bit.
- Resist that urge to run the dishwasher when it isn’t full. It’s working at maximum efficiency when it is. If you find yourself doing this often, consider washing single items you need regularly by hand or getting a back-up. Don’t wash a half-load of dishes just to clean one item that you need.
- Skip all the fancy wash cycle options like pre-washing and all that nonsense. If you effectively scrape your dishes (without water!) before loading them, you shouldn’t need those extra steps. And by all means, turn off the heated dry option! When the machine is done, crack the door to allow the dishes to air dry. Or, open it all the way and pull the trays out to get the job done faster.
- Don’t pre-rinse your dishes unless absolutely necessary. As I said above, scrape them the best you can without water before putting them in the machine. If you spend much time rinsing your dishes before putting them in the washer, you’d save more water and money just finishing the job by hand.
There aren’t many ways to improve your microwave’s efficiency, but if you don’t have one, you might consider buying one for all the reasons mentioned above. You might even consider picking up a toaster oven. Sure, there’s an upfront cost, but you’ll save yourself:
- time cooking things that don’t need to be put in the oven
- energy by cooking things faster
- money by saving on the two points above
When it comes to greening your kitchen, you’ll make your biggest gains with the appliances that you use whether they’re new or old. Keep in mind that if you do opt to buy something new, you should still participate in all the efficiency tips explained in the second half of this article. They’re just as applicable. While new technology is designed to make life simpler, I still strongly believe it is our duty to continue to find better ways to use what is available to us. It is through this process that we persist in getting the most of the things we might otherwise take for granted.
Do you have any tips for picking the best new appliance or for getting the most out of the ones you have? Is it easy for you to implement tips and tricks like the ones I described or is it something you struggle with? What else do you do in the kitchen to be frugally green?