Squeezing every drop from a dollar

A one-man crusade to cope with higher energy costs.

When I go on my daily four-mile walk and see a penny lying on the ground, I pick it up. Scottish habits die hard, even when your family has been in America for over 300 years.

Recently here in Arlington, Va., the lowly penny became symbolic. For the first time, it now costs one cent to draw a gallon of water out of the tap in your home. Yes, even water prices are going up fast. Enjoy a long shower? That'll now be 40 cents. Wash your car? Fifty cents. Water the lawn for an hour? Two dollars.

Gasoline, airplane tickets, cooking oil, bread, and now, water – sometimes it seems that the price of everything is headed for the moon.

But you can do something about it.

My concern about higher prices started three years ago. That was when I wrote a series of articles for the Monitor about future supplies of energy. The outlook was glum then, and looks even glummer today.

So in the past three years, I've come up with several things that helped me deal with rising energy and utility costs. Among my most effective tools (no joke!):

A piece of strong cord.

A collection of buckets.

A knob that says "Hot" and "Cold."

A well-trained right foot.

The specific problem that motivated this energy crusade was the rising price of natural gas. Prices zoomed from 54 cents per 100 cubic feet in 2002 to 95 cents in 2005. Now it's $1.04.

At first I did things that experts recommend. I boosted the insulation in my attic from four inches to 16 inches. I put in 14 new double-paned windows with argon gas insulator.

When the first winter arrived, I was really excited. I thought my energy bill would fall faster than the 2008 stock market. But my gas bill hardly budged.

As the months went by, prices went higher, and my bill went up. Nothing seemed to help.

Then came my first breakthrough. And I can thank the Arlington County government for the inspiration. The county announced that to pay for costly new sewer projects, the combined sewer-water charges were rising to more than one cent for every gallon of water, even if it were used to irrigate lawns.

I thought: Maybe those deep baths and long showers I enjoyed should go. And maybe the water didn't have to be so hot.

I twisted the Hot-Cold knob on the water heater way down. I took only short showers.

It was then I noticed my first big drop in gas use.

Meanwhile, this spring I called the local Extension agent to find out whether it was safe for plants to use kitchen "gray water" left after washing dishes and vegetables from the garden. The answer: "Yes."

So at my house, we now keep buckets handy to reuse this wash water outdoors.

These efforts paid off. Last spring, we used 13,000 gallons of water in three months, much of it on the garden. This year, using our gray-water and short shower strategy, we cut that to 5,000 gallons. When I got the latest water bill, I first thought it was a misprint. But the saving, at one cent a gallon, was $80.

Meanwhile, there was the electric bill. Our local provider just announced an 18.3 percent price hike.

I had tried several ways to cut electricity costs. I first installed a dozen of those twisty, energy-saving bulbs from China. No big change.

Then came an idea. In the basement, I strung up about 50 feet of tough cord. Now after doing a load of clothes, we hang them up for 12 hours on the line. Only then, when they are almost dry, do we toss them into the electric clothes dryer to soften them.

Here are the results for June:

June 2007: 401 kilowatt-hours used.

June 2008: 290 kilowatt-hours used.

Let's see Al Gore beat that!

Then there's gasoline. That's where the right foot comes in.

My sister has a new Volkswagen Passat that comes with a device that measures gasoline mileage in real time. When I saw it in action, I could hardly believe it. We were on an open road, and I asked her to accelerate quickly. She pushed down the pedal and for the next quarter mile, the gauge showed we were getting only five miles per gallon.

That's what speeding does.

So we've become very careful drivers – moderate speeds, no jack-rabbit starts. My daughter and I tried such prudent driving on a recent trip to Florida and attained 35 m.p.g. in her Honda Accord.

Yes, prices are going up. But you can do something about it.

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