Ways to be Fuel Smart: Your Energy-Efficient Kitchen

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In many aspects of life, we make it through the day by simply following long-established habits. If we had to think every time about how to brush our teeth, tie our shoes, put on a jacket — well, we might never make it out of the house in the morning. We can do all those things almost without thinking, so they get done smoothly and quickly.

Habits can be ruinous to monthly fuel bills, though, because the inexpensive fuels of the past have led us into some very wasteful practices, particularly in the kitchen. You don’t have to drastically change your lifestyle to achieve significant savings, but you’ll have to replace some old habits with new, more efficient ones.

Some parts of our lives are optional, but not cooking and eating. What happens in the kitchen is essential, and it hap pens every day. That’s why a careful examination of how fuel energy is used in the kitchen can be vital to your wallet.

Another truth: Because using the kitchen is such an every day event — and the kitchen is often where much of shared family life happens — developing new habits there may get your family to think about energy use in general, making other aspects of your life more efficient.

Here’s an example. We all know it is necessary to put left over foods into the refrigerator soon after a meal to keep them from turning bad. But there are two ways to do this. One way is to take dishes from the table and pans from the stove and put them directly into the refrigerator in several trips. This way, your refrigerator will be laboring to keep its cool, with all those hot foods and hot pans to chill and the door opening and closing several times.

Opening and closing the refrigerator door is costly. Cold air rushes out as soon as the door is opened. The more frequently the door is opened, the more cold air rushes out.

A better way to clean up after mealtimes is to put the leftovers in storage containers (keep the lids open until cool) and let them sit on the counter for a half-hour or so until they cool a little. Then, all in one operation, they can be placed in the refrigerator for storage.

There isn’t much difference between those two methods. It’s really no more than exchanging an old set of habits for a new set. Consider, though, that the process takes place in your kitchen several hundred times a year. If it saved you no more than a penny a meal (and it will save more than that) you’re looking at a saving of $11 a year just in the way the refrigerator is used after mealtime. Eleven dollars here, 75 cents there, $3 somewhere else — they all add up to make a significant sum, just through a change in habits.

There are, of course, some other ways to save around the house that require investments of time and money. They’re worthwhile as well. It may be, though, that simple changes in your habits in the kitchen and elsewhere will save the most of all with the least effort.

Cool Cash Savings

There’s money to be saved in your refrigerator. You may be spending more than you need to just by running your refrigerator at a cooler setting than is required. Put an ordinary household thermometer in the refrigerator for a half-hour or so. The temperature should be slightly below 40°F to prevent bacteria from growing, but it doesn’t need to be higher.

While you’re at it, check the door gaskets all the way around by closing the door on a dollar bill. If the bill slips out easily at any spots, you’re wasting money. You may be able to correct the problem by putting strips of thin cardboard behind the gasket where you spot the leak, or by adjusting the latch. If those don’t do it, a new gasket is a good investment and isn’t hard to install.

Here are some other things to consider: When you stand with the refrigerator door open, thinking about what you’d like to have, you’re running up the cost of that snack. Do your best to remember what’s inside before you open the door, and then go directly to it. Try to teach your children this habit, too.

Help yourself and your family by putting a checklist on the refrigerator door, listing what’s inside and also crossing off what’s been eaten. That’s the snack menu, and it can save many door openings.

Get organized before meals so that everything you need can be taken out and placed at the ready on the kitchen counter with just one opening of the refrigerator door. Don’t forget the catsup.

After coming home from the store, empty all the shopping bags on the counter, put all the items that need refrigeration in one place, and then open the refrigerator door.

After dinner, think about storing the leftovers in the way outlined earlier in this section, with particular attention to the business of covered containers. This is most important with frost-free models, where moisture is drawn from the foods to condense on the refrigerating coils, causing the defrost cycle to operate more often. If you don’t have enough covered refrigerator containers, put the leftovers in cereal bowls and cover with a plate. Don’t forget to label your containers; this will keep you from spending time later looking — with an open refrigerator door — for what you want.

Convenient plastic containers can be bought in many stores, but you can also reuse peanut butter jars, cottage cheese containers, and similar packages with lids that can be cleaned to use for storage.

That frost-free feature certainly is a convenience, but a standard refrigerator that must be defrosted by hand a few times a year will use less electricity. When you’re buying your next refrigerator, if you really do want the frost-free convenience, look for a model with a power-saver switch. It turns off the defrost heater when humidity is low in the winter and may cut operating costs by as much as 16 percent.

While you’re refrigerator shopping, look for an Energy Guide sticker and ask for the manufacturer’s information on average annual operating costs. These may vary by as much as $100 a year for the same-size model.

When the kids grow up and have nests of their own, that big refrigerator you once needed may become a liability A refrigerator operates most efficiently when it’s full, and chances are you don’t use its full capacity Consider giving one of the kids the big box and buying a smaller model.

When placing your refrigerator, keep it away from heat producers like ovens and dishwashers. An outside wall is a good idea, particularly if it’s a north wall that will tend to be cool both summer and winter.

And be sure there is adequate air space around the refrigerator, to let the motor heat escape readily. If it’s been running hot, you could save as much as $3 to $4 a month.

Use Your Freezer Efficiently

Most refrigerators today have a freezer compartment. You may also have a separate freezer or be thinking about purchasing one. Here are some freezer-related economies.

• For openers, a freezer will likely be one of your most expensive electrical appliances to operate. A manual- defrost, 14-cubic-foot model will use about 100 kilowatt hours of electricity each month. Multiply your kwh rate (if it isn’t shown on your utility bill, call the power company) by that usage to find your cost.

• You may use 50 percent more electricity with an automatic defrost model. Weigh that against the modest effort of defrosting several times a year.

Consider your separate freezer as if it were part of a super market. Plan your meals for several days • even a week — and transfer the freezer foods to the freezer compartment of the refrigerator all in one “shopping trip.”

• Keep items that you use frequently, like ice cream and frozen orange juice, in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator so that the big freezer won’t need to be opened so often.

• Transfer big items like hams, roasts, and turkeys from the freezer or frozen food compartment to the refrigerator at least a day in advance. That way they will thaw gradually and help to cool the refrigerator while they’re doing it.

• The recommended temperature for frozen foods is 0°F. Put a household thermometer in your freezer and check the temperature. If it’s colder than necessary, change the control setting and check again. You may want to set the temperature a little below zero when you are putting away the harvest from your garden or adding many things at once to be frozen. Don’t forget to reset it.

• Keep your freezer as full as possible. The bulk of the foods will retain the cold better than empty air, making for more economical operation.

• Position your separate freezer in a cool part of the cellar, on the back porch, or out in the garage. These are cooler places, particularly during the winter, and your freezer motor won’t need to work so hard. Check your instructions to make sure that your model can withstand freezing temperatures with out damage.

• You’ll get extra mileage from your freezer — and your oven — when you cook oversize batches of favorite casseroles and freeze the extra in meal-size packages.

• Plan to have your separate freezer empty during the growing season when you’re eating fresh foods from the garden. You can then shut it off in summer when it would work the hardest.

Putting frozen foods in well-marked containers and keeping frozen supplies in easily recognized categories will make everything easier to find, lessening the time with the door open while you are searching for something.

• A freezer inventory is a good idea. It can be on a sheet of paper or in a small notebook on the wall or on a shelf near the appliance. Menu planning can be done from the inventory, which can even include a locator chart so each item can be found easily. Again, less time with the door open.

• Baking a pie? Bake three or four, and cool and freeze the extras. You’ll save money by using the oven less, and those frozen pies will be ready weeks or months later for a quick warm-up before going to the table.

• Leftover waffle batter? Make the waffles, put them in a plastic bag, and freeze them. They’ll perk up almost like freshly made with a few minutes in the toaster or toaster oven.

• A last — but not least — thought on freezers: The upright models may be more convenient to use, but every time you open the door the cold “falls out.” Chest-type freezers are much more frugal in operation.

Cook Quickly and Economically

In China, cooking fuel has been a scarce and expensive commodity for centuries. To solve this problem, the Chinese developed the method of stir-frying food in a wok. Meat and vegetables are cut or sliced into small bite-size pieces and quickly cooked in hot oil. A full meal cooks in minutes. It’s tasty, economical, and nutritious, too.

Cooking fuel is also precious in Japan, where tempura cooking has become one of the answers. Again, bite-size pieces of food are cooked in hot oil, but these are dipped in a tasty batter first, quickly fried, and then dunked in one of several appetizing sauces. Another economical treat.

Another way to use the same principle is to cut vegetables into bite-size pieces and cook them in a steamer. They’ll cook nearly as fast as in boiling water and will retain more taste and nutrition in the process.

Try to cut back on the number of burners you fire up to pre pare a meal. The ideal is something like the pot roast where a complete meal is cooked on one burner. There are many variations, including that all-time favorite, corned beef and cabbage with boiled potatoes.

When boiling water, as for pasta, once the water reaches a boil turn the burner down as far as you can and still maintain the boil. The water is going to get just so hot and no hotter. Too much heat only creates more steam — and wastes more money.

Don’t Forget the Oven

Whether it’s gas or electric, the oven in a conventional stove is an energy glutton. The problem is compounded if the oven has a preheating feature, and gets even worse if it’s the self cleaning variety.

One route to oven efficiency is to get maximum use when you fire the oven up. For instance, if you plan to bake pies, time it so you can cook dinner in the oven around the same time.

Having roast beef or pork? Try baked acorn squash for the vegetable, with baked potatoes on the side. You can oven- bake the whole meal in one shot.

Do you like mashed potatoes with your roast beef? My mother baked the potatoes; when they were done, she scooped them from their skins and mashed them. After mashing, they went back into the skins with a pat of butter and a little paprika on top, and went back into the oven. Superb.

Casseroles are limited in their variety only by the extent of your imagination. Any time you are baking cakes, pies, cookies, or even a roast, plan to bake a casserole at the same time.

After baking in the winter, leave the oven door open until the oven is cool. No sense wasting that heat. Conversely, in the summer try to schedule some of the baking for the cool of the evening, to avoid overheating the house.

Before putting frozen foods in the oven, thaw them in the refrigerator or in the sink under cold water. They’ll cook more quickly, and therefore with less expense.

For desserts and snacks, consider goodies like sliced fresh peaches with milk and sugar, dried fruits, salted nuts, and instant puddings that don’t require cooking. Over the course of the year they’ll be much more economical than pies and cakes that need to be baked.

A small toaster oven can often be used for single casseroles or individual meals, and it uses less electricity. With that appliance, plus the oven and broiler in your stove, you’ll have three choices. Use the smallest that will do the job.

Don’t forget to use your slow cooker. It uses much less energy than an oven or stove.

A pressure cooker uses much less fuel than a conventional pan. When you’re preparing boiled potatoes, a pressure cooker will use 30 percent less energy doing the job in half the time.

A microwave oven is even better in that it consumes very little energy. Take advantage of your microwave for at least some part of every meal — you’ll see a savings on your utility bill!

Heat Up the Kitchen

The heating units in electric appliances continue to radiate after being turned off. With a little practice you can learn to turn off the heat a few minutes early and finish with the leftover heat.

The kitchen exhaust fan keeps the house cleaner, but in the winter it also pushes precious warm air into the outdoors. Some of the need for the exhaust fan results from the steam and grease spatters caused by cooking at temperatures higher than needed. Cooking at the right temperature can lead to twofold savings.

Retire Some Small Appliances?

Your electric carving knife, electric can opener, mixer, orange juice maker, sandwich grill, and waffle iron are typically used only for a short period of time and do not contribute significantly to your electric bill. However, there are easy, handy alternatives for all those electric appliances that use less power, or no power at all.

Check around for those even less essential small appliances and put them on the top shelf of the closet. Individually they don’t use a lot of electricity, but together the electric tooth brush, electric shoe-shiner, electric car-washer, and the like are unnecessary expenses.

Life-Cycle Costing

When replacing an aging or worn-out appliance, look beyond the purchase price arid consider how much it will cost to use the appliance. Two appliances may have similar features but will consume different amounts of energy over their lifetimes. Comparing the life-cycle cost of an appliance, or what it costs over its entire lifetime, is an easy and effective way to figure out which appliance is the most energy efficient.

First, estimate how long the appliance will last and its life time operating cost. The yellow Energy Guide label will indicate the estimated annual energy costs. Finally, add the purchase price and the lifetime operating costs together to get the total life-cycle cost. Also, be sure to check for the Energy Star label.

An example: Refrigerator 1 costs $600 to purchase and $100 a year for an estimated 15 years. Therefore, it’s life-cycle cost will be $2,100. Refrigerator 2 costs $700 to buy and $75 a year for 15 years. Its life-cycle cost is $1,825. Even though Refrigerator 2 has a higher purchase price, it is a better investment.

Look for the Energy Stat Label when buying new appliances. It’s a valuable tool to help you identify products that, use less energy without sacrificing performance or design; these products not only save energy, they also help prevent air pollution and save money.

Appliances with the Energy Star label include refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, central-air and room air conditioners, light bulbs and lighting fixtures, boilers, furnaces, and heat pumps — as well as computers, printers, fax machines, and copiers. The Energy Star label s awarded by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy.

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