The Cost of Convenience

21.42. That’s how many pounds of propane I’ve burned in the last year or so. I know because I’ve kept every single one of the 1.02lb propane canisters I’ve used. I’ve thought about switching to the bigger 20lb tanks, to save money and reduce waste, but the one thing I like about the little canisters is that it helps me internalize how much gas I’m burning.

Internalizing quantities is something we have a hard time with, yet, if we are to have any hopes of reducing emissions, it’s something we’re going to have to get better at. Unfortunately, in modern society, most of our energy consumption is abstracted away from us. When you pump gas into a car, all you see is a number on the screen, and you probably don’t even know how big, physically, your gas tank is. At home, the power and gas meters are conveniently hidden away. So, understandably, it’s difficult for us to even realize how much energy we’re using even in an abstract sense, much less in any tangible way.

I remember one time while I was pumping gas, I tried to visualize the quantity of that volatile liquid I was going to burn, by picturing all the gas being in 1 gallon milk jugs. Then, I pictured 12 of those jugs and imagined lighting it all on fire. In my mind’s eye I saw a giant ball of flame, and thought for a second that blowing up 12 gallons of gasoline might actually be more fun than using it to drive about 300 miles.

A rechargeable AA battery, at 1.2V, might contain about 1.5 Amp-hours, or a theoretical 3.3 Watt-hours of power. In practice, the voltage would drop too low to be usable after a while, so let’s say, generously, that you’d get 2 Watt-hours. An “efficient” CFL bulb might use 13 Watts, so if you left it on, you’d be using enough energy to drain more than 6 rechargeable AA batteries every hour. Fortunately, if you live in the city, all that power gets delivered to you with the flick of a switch. But next time you do, pretend you’re draining an AA battery every 10 minutes, and it might help you remember to turn lights off when you don’t need them.

In any case, I’m trying to reduce propane usage on my property. Right now, I use propane for my cooking stove (at a rate of about 1lb per week), and my lamp, which also doubles as a heater (which burns about 2lb a week). So far, I’ve had two separate offers from readers to buy me a propane shower, but I’ve resisted. Once Hut 2.1 is done, I’d like to switch to electrical lighting (charged by solar, and perhaps also wind), burn wood for heating and some cooking, and only use propane for the kind of cooking that can’t be done on my wood stove.

Some people argue that wood stoves aren’t so “green.” Burning wood can be rather dirty, especially in old stoves that are inefficient and don’t have catalytic converters. This is true. But, I don’t think it’s realistic to treat all wood burning equally. First of all, when you burn fossil fuels (which include “natural” gas and propane, as well as coal), you’re burning carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, and then re-releasing it into the atmosphere now, when, if left in the ground, it may not have been re-released anytime soon. When you burn wood, you’re releasing carbon that was absorbed in the last hundred years or so. And –here’s the important part– around here, if I don’t burn the dry tinder, it would eventually be burning anyway in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t true everywhere. As far as I know, forest fires aren’t part of the natural ecosystem in rain forests, and so felling and burning those trees artificially adds emissions. But, around here, it is almost a guarantee that, if left to nature, any patch of forest would burn once every hundred years or so. So, when I pick up some dead dried branches from the woods around me and burn it, I am releasing the carbon trapped in it the way it would’ve anyway. Granted, some of it may have eventually rotted away, or otherwise have gotten broken down biologically (via termites, and other organisms), so I may be boosting emissions slightly, but not by much. On the other hand, if I can clear the forest and minimize the risk of uncontrolled natural forest fires, I may help reduce emissions that way, thus balancing my footprint (though, perhaps not, because the way to clear forests is to –surprise surprise!– do controlled burns).

Of course, CO2 is CO2, regardless of whether it comes from burning wood or burning propane. So, arguably, the two may be considered to be comparable. The difference, though, is that propane is so much more convenient, and so much denser in energy, that it’s much easier to burn in excess when compared to wood, which, by virtue of being less energy dense than propane, takes more effort to move, even if you don’t do the chopping and splitting yourself. A 20lb canister of propane contains roughly the same amount of energy as 60 to 80lb of seasoned firewood. But which would you rather move? Which would you be more willing to go buy more of? When less is more (or better), taking the less convenient route can allow us to be more conscious of our consumption habits, and in turn, moderate such behaviors. If I rely on wood for heat, I’ll need to exert more effort into gathering fuel than if I burned propane. So, I’ll naturally want to burn less of it, and therefore reduce my overall emissions.

Moral to the story? Convenience has a cost, usually in financial terms, but also in environmental terms and even health. Cooking your own meals might be less convenient than eating out, but may be cheaper and healthier. Walking or biking to work may be less convenient than driving, but will be cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally healthy. In typical modern lifestyles, it’s not difficult to find ways to do good, by enduring –nay, by enjoying— just a little bit of inconvenience. So, next time you have a chance to chose inconvenience over convenience, give inconvenience a shot. Your wallet, your body, and your environment will thank you for it.

24 thoughts on “The Cost of Convenience

    • Heh, I quickly came to the comments to suggest the same tool. Love having that, reduces the need to cycle through so many of the little bottles, or get conversion adapters for every little device.

      Using a bulk 20lb or larger tank quickly becomes more cost effective for those devices that do need the propane. Also look at getting a propane tree, and teeing off to various devices that do use it, as well as having the fill station readily available.

  1. Don’t they say wood warms you 3 times: first when chopping, second when stacking, third when burning? That makes it pretty efficient in my book.

  2. Granted, some of it may have eventually rotted away, or otherwise have gotten broken down biologically (via termites, and other organisms), so I may be boosting emissions slightly, but not by much.

    Biological break down of the wood will either be aerobic in which case it’ll emit CO₂ in just the same way as burning, only more slowly, or anaerobic in which case the emissions will be largely methane which has a somewhat greater global warming effect. One of many reasons given for compositing waste yourself rather than sending it to landfill is to break it down aerobically rather than anaerobically. Whatever, burning wood brings the CO₂ emission forward a bit but doesn’t make much difference in the long run.

    From the overall carbon point of view the best thing you can do with wood and similar materials is sequester it – e.g., make houses out of it. You’re already doing this as much as is practical in your circumstances.

    I suppose you could use natural insulation in your walls but given your legal footprint restrictions and the extra transport costs of the materials that probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

  3. And, not to beat a dead horse, but termites have been idenitified as a large natural source of greenhouse gases. Anyway you look at it you’re going to emit some sort of impact. I agree, minimizing it is the key.
    I’m a big fan of the harbor freight tank refiller; you end up having the convenience of the smaller tanks and you get the cost per lb of buying in bulk. Even if you’re looking to use less propane.

  4. The fact that you could have run 1 single 20# tank for all of those smaller cartridges is still quantifiable…and cheaper I use those tanks to run small heaters in my work shop. I can get them filled for about 12 -13 bucks….those 1 pound cans cost what? $5 each…so the cost savings alone would be $90 -100.

    At our cabin we use LED light run off the solar panels, we light the whole cabin using less than 40 watts of power.

    http://kmswoodworks.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/to-build-a-better-light-bulb/

    For cooking we use the woodstove sometimes…winter mostly and supplement with a white gas coleman. Sometimes we use some oil lamps for “warmer” light…both is the actual sense and for its kelvin spectrum.

    One of the first posts i ever did on my blog pertains to fossil fuels and renewable sources.

    It can be read at the following link

    http://kmswoodworks.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/thoughts-on-fossil-fuel-and-co2/

    • It’s true that using a 20lb tank would lower the unit cost of propane. But my point is that, I’d burn significantly more gas if I had a 20lb tank, so the total amount of gas I burn and the money I spend on gas would actually end up being more.

      There’s a related concept called Jevon’s Paradox, which states that better efficiency leads to a net increase in energy consumption. The basic idea is that when the cost of something goes down, you simply end up using more of it, enough to offset the unit cost savings.

      • I was just thinking about the 20-pound tank as a way to reduce the number of waste cylinders you generate.

        A heavy-duty metal grating (made with waste rebar scavenged from construction sites?) over your fire pit might make cooking with wood outdoors a viable alternative to cooking with gas, when the weather permits. I also love the rocket stove you made with bricks and a cinder block for outdoors cooking too.

        Have you considered adding a lean-to on your hut? It could serve as an outdoor kitchen and a method of harvesting rainwater.

      • Jevon’ pardox applies to water use as well not just energy….if every gallon is hauled in, as opposed to turning a valve….conservation quickly comes to mind. One of the many reasons we cook with cast iron is the clean up…or lack of…a simple wipe with a paper towel is all it usually takes…then that towel is burned in the wood stove.

    • Interesting thoughts. I read your post on LED lighting, great info and good for what you are using it for, and how, but I take exception, sort of, to one of your statements there. You said LED’s are “By far the best in power usage and longevity. ”

      I will have to agree with the longevity part, although the advertised hours are bogus as they do dim over time. But LED’s are not the most efficient at light “output”. For area lighting you are still better off with CFL’s or better, T6 bulbs. If you want to get away cost effectively you would need to go with 110 V and an inverter, but they are still more efficient. Now, for task lighting, which may be all anyone really needs, LED’s can’t be beat. If I was in the same situation as you I would also probably go with LED and will be for a few locations in my home when the price gets to where it belongs.

      I am not challenging you, I just don’t like the myth being spread around that LED’s are most efficient lighting option. The best choice sometimes, but not the most efficient. I expect they will be soon, followed by being most cost efficient, but they are not there yet. And even now, in some places they are the best option. Outside floodlights in cold locations. Most any lighting in cold locations (inside a cabin!). Etc.

      • I have been proven wrong again. I had not seen the specs on the latest commercial LED bulbs. Looks like the newest are now competing with CFL’s for efficiency. Good to see. Finally…..

  5. excellent post about the importance of consumption consciousness and how Efficiency/Convenience can increase consumption. especially like the bit about CFLs & AA batteries: perspective is valuable!

    In a similar vein, I’ve heard that we spend 15% more when use credit cards instead of cash: with credit cards we tend to splurge more because we don’t worry about having the cash in hand to pay for the next item we’ll buy.

  6. Wood from your immediate area always is so much better. You eliminate the whole fossil fuel industry. Refinement, transportation, etc… We cannot live in the colder climates without some form of fire. Every time we bypass industrial production we reduce our carbon foot print by leaps and bounds. For outside cooking (which is always more fun) I have started using a rocket stove, dropping the need for propane cooking to a minimum. Nice place.

  7. I second the observation given above that burning wood is not, for practical purposes, additive to greenhouse gasses (particularly if the wood is not hauled in or cut with a chainsaw).

    Natural decay releases the same gasses as would burning, and the timeline of those gasses being released this winter or over the next couple of years is de minimus. Much better that you harness that release for your use (heat, cooking) than have it happen anyway and you employ additional emissions to meet your needs.

    I’d sure keep propane around as a back up, though!

  8. One of the things I really like about heating my house with wood is that it also contributes directly to the local economy, ie, the guy who chopped down the tree 5 miles down the road who delivers it to me. We bypass the whole mega-economy with cash transactions.

    Wood is everywhere (around here at least). I think that being the most nonindustrial and basic heating process makes it the best and cheapest, though maybe not the easiest in terms of physical labor.

    One of the things I’m not crazy about is all the little bits that end up on the floor…

    Love your blog. I’m moving in this direction myself (tinyhouse living).

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