QUESTION: When I buy water-saving toilet products, what should I look for?
ANSWER: Many water-saving products for toilets haven't received rigorous testing to determine long-term performance and reliability.
Until more testing is done, we can't be sure which are the best. If you do see a water- or energy-saving device you think might work, consider these buyer tips:
First, take your time. Don't be high-pressured into buying because of a \o7 one-time \f7 special price. Reputable sales people will give you time to make up your mind.
Then, look at your present costs. Estimate how much of your water and sewer bill is due to toilet flushing. Note that toilet flushing uses more water than any other tap in the home.
Once you have estimated the cost, find out the pay-back. How long will it take you to get your money back after you purchase the product? Will the product last that long? Do you plan to be in the same house that long?
Become educated about the water-saving device. Find out about the different types of devices available, their cost, and their advantages and drawbacks. Free information should be available through libraries. You might also try contacting competing firms to see if they carry the same product. Estimates from those firms can be very useful.
Look closely at claims. What kinds of tests are the claims based on? Was the testing done by an independent, recognized testing laboratory?
Check out the business you are dealing with. It's a good idea to get estimates from different companies for the water-saving device you are considering. Price should not be the only factor in making the decision. Is this a product you can install yourself, or will it require a plumber?
Contact the Better Business Bureau to find out how long the firm has been in business. Ask also about its record.
Solar Pool Heater Is Inexpensive, Practical
Q: We spent $200 a month heating our swimming pool last year with natural gas. Could we reduce costs by using a solar pool heater? How expensive, how complicated, and how practical is it?
A: They can be inexpensive, simple and very practical. Solar pool heaters let you dive into spring earlier and stroke deeper into fall.
The season in the sun can stretch from three months to as many as six. Your energy savings will pay for the equipment and installation in just a few seasons.
Solar pool heaters need a large area for the solar collectors, on average, 75% of the surface area of the pool. A 20x30-foot pool needs 450 square feet of south-facing collectors. In many cases, the pump that filters the pool water can be used to circulate water through the collectors.
An automatic controller turns the pump on and off as it senses heating supply and demand. Some installers are willing to reduce costs slightly if handy homeowners donate semi-skilled labor.
And remember, a good pool cover saves money and time by keeping heat in and debris out.
Refrigerator Consumes a Lot of Electricity
Q: We went away on vacation for a month and unplugged our electric appliances to lower our electric bills. We also switched off the hot water heater. The only appliance we left plugged in was the refrigerator.
Our electric bill still seemed high for that month. Can the refrigerator be using that much electricity? It's only two years old.
A: Your refrigerator is the third greatest consumer of energy in the home. The thermostat setting can make a big difference in how much electricity it uses. Thermostats on refrigerators are often inaccurate. Manufacturers put arbitrary numbers, like one through six, rather than temperatures on the dial.
To determine what setting to use, you'll need to find out the actual temperature inside the refrigerator. Put a thermometer inside the refrigerator compartment and look at the reading in an hour or two. Adjust the thermostat until you get a setting between 35-38F.
If the freezer compartment has a separate thermostat, set it between 0-5F. Stand-alone freezers should be set at 0F.
When you check the temperature inside your refrigerator, take it in several places. Varying temperatures may mean you need to defrost the freezer compartment or vacuum the dust from the coils on the back or bottom of the appliance.
Dust on the coils makes the unit use more energy. If the heat can't be dispersed easily, the compressor has to work longer for the same benefit.
Here are some other energy-saving tips:
Locate the refrigerator/freezer away from the stove, dishwasher or direct sunlight.
Leave four inches around the condenser coils (usually located in the back of the unit) for air to circulate.
Replace leaky or broken door seals.
Use "power saver" or "energy miser" switches unless excessive moisture buildup on outside surface occurs.
Consumer Reports magazine found a 5F colder setting increased the electrical consumption by as much as 30%. Models with the largest freezers had the biggest increases.
According to the American Homeowners Foundation (AHF), disputes often arise between homeowners and home-improvement contractors.
They usually concern issues that were not discussed clearly at the time of hire.
To help reduce misunderstandings--and legal problems--the AHF has developed a model contract. It alerts all parties to the areas most often resulting in disputes, if not addressed in advance.
You can obtain a copy of the Model Owner-Vendor Contract ($5.95). Send a check or money order payable to American Homeowners Foundation to the foundation, at 1724 S. Quincy St., Arlington, VA 22204. Additional copies are $1.95. Professionals can buy a set of 20 contracts for $24.95.
\o7 Produced by the Washington Energy Extension Service, a division of the Washington State Energy Office. Reader questions cannot be answered individually. Questions of general interest will be addressed in this column. \f7