Other than a spinning meter or a monthly bill (and maybe a changing climate), the electricity we use leaves little evidence behind. If it were water, we might understand it better. Imagine a radio dripping all day or a small stream bubbling from your computer, monitor, modem, and printer. The refrigerator would gush periodically, but the air conditioner would flood us out. Not seeing electrons helps us to waste them. Finding and fixing electricity “leaks” saves resources and lowers energy bills. Modern lighting, efficient appliances, and special gizmos can do the job of conservation, at a price. Good habits, however, can stop a lot of leaks without costing a thing.
Our family had a lesson in “electrical” plumbing when we made a solar battery charger for a science project. With UPS batteries from Axman Surplus, a mail order 20-watt solar panel, and a Morningstar charge controller, we wired together an electrical system that works on the DC 12 volt, cigarette lighter plugs. We also have a small inverter that gives up to 75 watts of household AC electricity.
Off grid solar works like a toilet, a solar panel supplies a stream of electrons that fill a tank (battery). Once full, the battery can flush into large uses like laptop charging, or trickle into cell phones or LED lighting. The real value of this experiment is not “getting off the grid” or saving buckets of money. The main benefit is how we learned to manage these pennies of electricity without wasting a drop.
Living with the solar battery charger has improved our family’s conservation habits. We shut off power strips filled with transformer boxes when we leave the computer or television. We’re better at turning off lights, too. Maybe the most significant effect is in how little we used the air conditioning in the mild summer of 2008. But, a combination of factors helped us cut our electrical use in half this year without changing a single light bulb (we did that years ago). Someday we may get a front-loading washer and an efficient refrigerator, but we’ll watch for leaks in the mean time.