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Transitioning from Off-Grid Living to an Apartment Dwelling

Posted by: chris
February 22, 2013

For over a decade I’ve owned an incredibly energy-efficient, passive and active solar, off-grid house, way out in the boonies. But I don’t currently live there; instead I’m renting an apartment in an urban area to be closer to work (and to have a reliable high- speed internet connection). This change has caused me to reflect on the difficulty of going solar – or even increasing energy efficiency – when you live in a condo or rent an apartment.

It’s something I have been asked about frequently in the past, especially five years ago right after my book “The Carbon-Free Home” was published. You can probably tell from the title that it was more focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions for those living in houses rather than in multiple dwelling units. Yes, it can definitely be hard to incorporate renewable energy and energy efficiency into your life when you live in an apartment.

It is rare to be able to choose your own appliances, or to have a significant solar resource to draw on. But on the positive side, living in an apartment can be an energy saving decision in its own right. The ratio of building envelope to living space can mean that energy used for heating is much lower. Many electric utilities allow customers to voluntarily pay a small additional fee to purchase electricity generated from renewable resources. I do have access to my electric water heater, and can save electricity by turning down the heat so I don’t have to temper the hot water with cold. I can also turn the water heater breaker off when I leave town so that it doesn’t run unnecessarily.

Living in an urban area can mean much less driving, and it’s important not to leave driving out of the equation when you think about personal fossil fuel consumption. Another plus is I find it a lot easier to recycle now: instead of accumulating months of recycling and hauling it 10 miles to a recyling center, it now disappears as if by magic from the apartment building’s garbage and recycling center.

I could be better about hanging my clothes up to dry instead of relying on the dryer, and I wish I had a more efficient alternative to the electric range. A single or dual induction burner for the counter is an alternative possibility – they save about 12% of the energy used by smoothtop non-induction electric ranges. The microwave can be another great alternative, depending on what is being heated – for a small meal it is often the most efficient appliance choice.

On the bright side, big windows in the apartment let in so much daylight that I rarely turn on the lights. Even at night the urban light pollution has a silver lining – the construction site across the street has such bright lights they light up the entire living room. I try to be careful about water useage - the largest share of municipal electricity goes into purifying water, something I didn’t have to think about when I had well-water. Indeed, I think the most energy-saving thing I can do while living the apartment life is to not waste water. The dishwasher helps with that – it uses less water than washing dishes by hand, and I ‘ve turned off the heated dry feature to save a little more electricity.

The apartment I chose to live in is an old manufacturing building upfitted with double- glazed windows, energy-efficient appliances, and water saving fixtures. The motto of a local historic preservation society is “preservation is the ultimate recycling,” and I agree. The choices we make do matter, and by choosing to live in an “recycled” building, a quantifiable amount of new building materials didn’t need to be manufactured, transported, or installed. I can’t be sure if my herb garden is going to thrive inside the apartment this spring, but I’ve already spied two community gardens in the area!

By Rebekah Hren - PV Curriculum Developer & Instructor
NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ 091209-85
IREC ISPQ Certified Affiliated Instructor/PV US-0087
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