During a Maine winter, with the days much colder and darker than in pristine summer months, reducing energy consumption and waste might not be on the top of everyone’s priority list when they return to their dark and chilly homes after work.
“When it gets dark at 3:30 [p.m.] — oh my goodness, of course you’re inside, your lights are on more often,” Olivia Gambocarto, sustainability outreach coordinator at the University of Maine, said. “There’s the constant struggle between [wanting] it to be brighter, but then I’m using more energy.”
Despite winter’s elements making it difficult to avoid higher heat and light usage, Gambocarto said there is a wide range of ways people can reduce their energy consumption on a daily basis, proving that sustainable lifestyle habits aren’t out of reach during the winter.
As a go-to definition, Gambocarto suggests that people think of sustainability as minimizing the amount of resources they use and discard. While true sustainability is a lifestyle that encompasses everything from food habits to human rights, Gambocarto said it takes time to begin developing sustainable habits.
“It can be slow, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just do what you can,” Gambocarto encourages.
A good first step at living sustainably during the colder months is having a grip on where heat might be escaping from your home. To get the full picture of your home’s energy efficiency, Dana Fischer of Efficiency Maine “highly recommends” that homeowners have an energy audit conducted on their home to identify problem areas where heat and energy are being wasted.
Efficiency Maine, which is the independent organization that administers energy efficiency programs in Maine, offers a $400 rebate for homeowners to have an audit conducted, as well as additional available rebates for installation of weatherization materials.
Depending on the area of the home and the severity of heat loss, costs can fluctuate on what must be done to fix the problem. But Gambocarto said caulking windows and putting a weather strip on doors are relatively inexpensive ways to address areas where heat commonly escapes.
Outlets are an area of the home where people might not think heat can escape but does, Gambocarto said. If a homeowner puts their hand in front of the outlet and feels cold air, they can purchase foam strips that insulate the outlet.
Adding insulation to uninsulated areas of a home will also help prevent heat loss, especially in basements and attics, Gambocarto said. While adding insulation is a slightly more expensive fix than simply caulking a window, Fischer said it’s an energy saving home improvement that can be done year-round. Efficiency Maine also offers rebates for insulation installation.
Making sure your home is retaining as much heat as possible is one big way to keep energy costs down. Making sure you’re lighting your home with efficient light bulbs is another.
In progressing from incandescent light bulbs to more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamp light (CFL) bulbs and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, there can be confusion when trying to make a purchase in the lighting aisle over which type of bulb is the most energy efficient. However, because of their long lifespan and energy savings, Gambocarto said LED light bulbs are the winner in terms of efficiency.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, CFL bulbs use 65 to 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and have an average bulb life of 10,000 hours. Whereas LED bulbs use 72 to 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and have an average bulb life of 25,000 hours.
Gambocarto noted that when replacing CFL bulbs, Maine law requires they must be recycled and cannot be thrown out in the trash because they contain mercury. There are several locations in Bangor where you can recycle CFLs, including Broadway Hardware, Best Buy and Staples. A full list of recycling locations can be found at the state website for product stewardship.
With winter posing darker and colder days, Fischer said this time of year there is a misconception that people need to “be really heavy” into conservation in order to save energy, but that’s not the case if they have made strides to make their home efficient.
“It’s not a big sacrifice to be able to have a well-lit home if they’re using efficient light bulbs,” Fischer said. “If they insulate their home well and tighten it up and move toward a more efficient heating system, the cost of heating can be pretty low and can the environmental impact.”
Other ways people can conserve energy within the home include modifying how and how often they use appliances. Gambocarto suggested that dishwashers and washing machines only be used when they are full and that when running the machine they use a cold cycle. In the same vein, she said taking shorter showers will also help reduce using heat via hot water.
Outside the home, a relatively simple way people can maintain sustainable habits through the winter is by using reusable materials as opposed to throw-away options, Gambocarto said. This is an avenue of sustainability that spreads into many parts of someone’s day, whether it’s bringing your own travel mug from home to fill with coffee, using metal silverware as opposed to plastic or using reusable cloth bags that can be washed for grocery shopping.
The grocery store is a place where simple sustainable habits can really be utilized, Gambocarto said. When shopping an emphasis should be placed on buying locally sourced options and staying away from food wrapped in plastic, which would just be thrown away. In order to reduce food waste, she said to focus on buying only what you will actually eat before the food goes bad. Proper food storage habits will also help reduce food waste, such as putting produce in bags that are made of cotton or freezing the produce.
With inclimate temperatures and weather deterring people from traveling by bike or walking to their destination, thinking collectively is a way to remain sustainable transportation habits during the winter months. Gambocarto said carpooling or taking public transportation — even just once a week — is a way to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
Plus, by taking travel time that is normally spent alone in your car and spending it with others, there’s the added benefit of communicating with your peers.
“It’s time that we set aside to really talk for 20 minutes,” she said. “You might find that you enjoy it, that it adds something to your life instead of driving alone.”
There is a whole realm of actions and habits that play into living a sustainable lifestyle, which in turn not only benefits you but your neighbors as well. While winter might feel limiting, Gambocarto said it’s as good a time as any to start.
“Small actions add up,” she said.