Mar 20, 2008

An Energy Defense of our Fulltiming Lifestyle

Thursday, March 20, 2008 -- Vancouver, WA

I've had a little time the past few days to work on an article about our energy consumption as fulltimers. With oil and fuel prices at record highs recently, it seems an appropriate topic to bore you with today. As I brush this up a little more, I'm going to use it in other ways. But here's a preliminary look at it.

An Energy Defense of the Fulltiming Lifestyle

You may know that one of my areas of interest over the past few years is a subject called "peak oil". This is the idea that our ability to pull crude oil out of the earth will hit a peak in the near future, and will go into a long slow decline after that point. I've read a significant tonnage of books and articles on the topic, from various points-of-view, and have formed opinions on the matter over time. However, my purpose here isn't to write about peak oil, per se, but to address a closely related subject -- energy consumption and conservation.

A few years ago, as we were planning our new lifestyle and about the same time I was researching peak oil, I wondered what our anticipated change in lifestyle would mean to the Hoch's true energy consumption. Big motorhomes are seen by some people as the worst conceivable example of wasteful, fuel-guzzling personal transportation. They're twice as high, three times as long, and 6 times as heavy as the largest SUV's out there... they've got to be burning fuel at unbelievable rates. If you're on of those people trying to save the planet by driving a Prius Hybrid, the mere presence of a 40 foot long motorhome on the highway is an insult.

But what's the impact of our total lifestyle change on our true energy consumption? That's what I wanted to find out. It was a great opportunity to compare where we've been with where we're going. To help make the analysis simple and easy to understand, I found that all energy can be converted into BTU's -- British Thermal Units, a unit of heat -- which gives us that common unit for a good comparison. This is a simple analysis. It doesn't consider the energy impact of the things we buy, the plastic buckets, cheap tools, clothes and all the other crap that filled all the closets, the basement, for some people, the garage and the extra storage spaces either in the backyard or rented down the street. The analysis only addresses the easily identified and measureable consumption of fossil fuels. So, here goes:

Our previous suburban lifestyle:

We lived in a modest 2500 sq. ft. two story house in the Chicago suburbs. It was a new home when we bought it in the mid-90's, so I have to assume it was reasonably energy efficient, at least as far as homes in Chicago go. We each had a job and we each had a car. We owned no gas operated adult play-things like boats, sports cars, ATV's, motorcycles, or snowmobiles. Here's a rundown of activity, fuel consumption, and BTU usage:

Transportation: we had two cars. Car 1 averaged about 15mpg and I drove it 10,000 miles per year. The other vehicle, Car 2, averaged about 20mpg and it was driven 20,000 miles per year. Car 1 used 667 gallons of gas. Car 2 used 1,000 gallons of gas. Together, they used 1,667 gallons. At 125,000 BTU per gallon, our transportation consumed about 208,375,000 BTU's.

Natural Gas: our house used about 1400 therms of gas per year according to our gas bills -- all of it for hot water, cooking, and space heat. This is 144,200,000 BTU's at 103,000BTU per Therm.

Electricity: based on actual usage over three years, our consumption of electric power averaged about 12,000 KWH per year -- a lot of it for air conditioning during the summers. At 3400 BTU's per KWH, this is another 40,800,000 BTU's of consumption.

So, for this simple analysis, our total BTU consumption for the three categories above was 393,375,000 BTU's. Since this is a simple analysis, let's agree to round it off to 400 million BTU's, OK? Remember, we didn't use energy on adult motorized toys and didn't consider the energy impact of the stuff we purchased. In addition, there are plenty of people with far larger homes than our little 2500 sq. footer who are enjoying far larger energy bills for heating and cooling. I think 400 million BTU's is a good conservative number to put on a typical Chicago suburban lifestyle.

So, how about our new lifestyle? How are we doing after almost a year in the energy department?

Our current fulltiming lifestyle:

Transportation: The motorhome is averaging 8 mpg. In the first full 6 months on the road, we put on 5100 miles. For a full year, let's double that and say it'll be 10,000 miles. This happens to be on the high side of real-life experience reported by other fulltimers we've run into. So 10,000 miles at 8 mpg is 1,250 gallons of fuel. Diesel fuel, at 135,000 BTU per gallon, has a higher energy content than gasoline. So the diesel portion of our transportation consumes 168,750,000 BTU's.

We still have a car that we're towing and using. In the first 6 months of our travels, we drove it 6,500 miles. Doubling that, we can agree on an average of 13,000 miles per year. It's been averaging about 17 mpg, so it will use 765 gallons in a full year. At 125,000 BTU per gallon, it will consume 95,625,000 BTU's.

Total transportation usage is 264,375,000 BTU's.

Electricity: we don't use much electric power. We generate some of the power we need from the diesel fuel I've already considered in transportation above. We will soon generate some of the power we need with solar panels on our roof. But based on experience in the first six months, we use between 10 KWH and 12 KWH on an average day, or about 4,000 KWH per year. At 3400 BTU's per KWH, it's another 13,600,000 BTU's.

Propane: Propane seems to go a long way. So far, we've only used about 55 gallons in 8 months, and most of those months were winter months. We use propane for heating, and occasionally, powering the refrigerator and heating water. If we used 80 gallons in a year I'd be surprised. But 80 gallons of propane, at 95,000 BTU per gallon, is another 7,600,000 BTU's.

All together, our new lifestyle has us consuming 285,575,000 BTU's in a year's time. Even if we rounded this up, for the sake of a conservative analysis, we're using only 300 million BTU's.

In other words, we're using at least 25% less energy than our previous fixed-base home and suburban lifestyle.

Even though we didn't count the energy impact of all the stuff we bought when we had a big house to store it all, I can say with extreme confidence that we're buying a LOT less stuff than we used to, and thus, using a lot less energy in that way. But we'll leave that out of the analysis. It's nearly impossible to calculate the energy impact, however significant.

We've also found the RV fulltime lifestyle to be inherently energy conservative in a number of other ways. When we're "boondocking", living without any hookups to utilities, we're motivated to stretch the electricity and water resources we have. We've learned to take short showers and turn the water off while lathering up. We've found ways to wash dishes with very little water. I mentioned above that we're installing solar panels on the roof in order to have the sun provide about half our electric needs. These little energy saving tricks become a habit and we continue to use them even when we're not boondocking and have the luxury of full hookups.

And we're always looking for additional ways to save more. When the time comes to replace the car we tow, the new one will be much more energy efficient. We have already changed some of our most used light bulbs to LED's, which consume about 90% less energy than the originals. We only heat water when we need it. We only have a little over 300 sq. ft. to heat and cool -- and when we're gone exploring, the heater/air-conditioner is turned off.

The next time you see a big old motorhome driving down the highway, you may think twice before labeling the owner an inconsiderate boob for using more than their fair share of energy.


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