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Home energy use gets a 'smackdown' on reality TV

Even an 'überenvironmentalist' family found it could save a lot more when a competition was at stake.

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When things warmed up in the summer, rather than running an air conditioner, they pulled down their window shades during the day to keep their two-story home cool.

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And they took cool showers – in the dark.

"You don't need much light to have a shower," Mieke says, "so Steve would keep the lights off in the bathroom in the morning during the summer when it was fairly bright in the morning. It was kind of funny."

Some of the things the families did for the competition they won't continue to do because of the hassle factor. One such change was using cedar shavings for the Cluggishes' cat litter. (Cedar shavings are considered more environmentally friendly because the Bentonite clay used to make traditional litter is strip-mined, and the shavings are a renewable resource.)

"The cat would get these shavings in its claws and drag the shavings through the house," Jason explains.

And old habits die hard: Sarah has what she calls a "bottled-water addiction" that has been hard to control even after the competition, she says.

In the end, the "average" Cluggish family decreased its carbon footprint by 63 percent (to 6,850 pounds per person annually), the highest percentage cut of all the families. But that was before the final challenge.

The "überenvironmentalist" Team van der Nou won the overall Smackdown title thanks to the final competition: the community challenge. This contest required the teams to get their friends to save as much energy as possible. Team van der Nou came up with the idea of buying 176 compact fluorescent light bulbs and giving them to friends.

"It was a good idea they had," says Sarah Clug­gish. "Most people know that fluorescents are better for the environment, but they need it handed to them before they'll actually replace all their light bulbs."

Thanks to that idea, which offset their carbon use with the decreased carbon output of their fluorescent-using friends, Team van der Nou effectively reduced its carbon footprint per person by 96 percent. Without the competition challenges and just tabulating their actual household annual carbon output, the family still only produces 5,204 pounds of carbon, about one-third the national average.

TV producer Kelley is now looking for families from Medford, Arlington, and Cambridge, Mass. (, for a second season. This time, whole communities will compete against one another to decrease their carbon footprints.

The competition aspect was an important part of what made the show a success, Kelley says.

For example, the friendly push to save energy helped inspire 4-year-old Sam to change more than typical parental nagging did, Sarah says.

"When I reminded him to close the fridge door, I'd say, 'Don't waste energy or we'll lose the Smackdown!' And he'd go 'Oh!' and close it right away,' " she says.

"It was a lot of fun," Nancy Moot says. "When you're alone trying to conserve, you're like, 'What difference does it make?' It was nice to have someone looking over our shoulders to hold us accountable. Now I think getting the community involved is the only way to go."

Indeed, the sense of community and friendly competition banter was part of the fun, Sarah says.

"People asked 'Aren't you relieved the competition's over?' " Sarah says. "But it didn't feel like a huge burden. We're paying 25 percent less for electricity, and I don't mind that my kitchen isn't overflowing with plastic bags now that I take tote bags to the grocery store."

In terms of the main idea she took away from the competition, Mieke says, "We learned it's not that hard to decrease your footprint but still live comfortably."