croton blog for croton-on-hudson new york

Low Hanging Fruit for Everyone's Carbon Diet

October 10, 2008

real deal by a.w. leo wiegman

Atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are rising at rates that are unprecedented, and so is the globe’s average temperature. We tend to think of big emitters as large companies or industry sectors. These groups are beginning to take climate action. But what about the cumulative impact of individual households?

What can a family do that would make a difference?

A lot! Each gallon (3.7 liters) of gasoline burned produces in 19.4 pounds (8.8 kilograms) of carbon dioxide emissions. The average U. S. automobile emits 5.7 tons (5,200 kilograms) of carbon dioxide per year. Between 30 and 40% percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions each year come from the direct action of American households and their transportation decisions. That is 2.1 billion annual (metric) tons, or eight percent of the world’s total emissions!

Economizing on how much we use is a good financial move, especially with rising oil and electricity rates. Simple energy saving actions by regular citizens can also add up to tremendous reductions in our collective carbon footprint.

Consumers Report has a set of a dozen suggestions for home owners on greener living. Earth Day Network has a set of 25 suggestions.

But new research show the significant benefit of 7 consumer actions that would be no-cost or low-cost. In “Individual Carbon Emissions: The Low-Hanging Fruit,” by Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University and his colleagues describe seven painless changes for individual consumers that add up to very significant emission reductions.

These consumer behavior changes are “low hanging fruit” that can be part of every household’s low carbon diet. By “low hanging,” Vandenbergh means these adjustments costs nothing or next to nothing to enact:

  1. Reduce the component of motor vehicle idling that has net costs to the driver;
  2. Reduce “standby power” electricity use;
  3. Accelerate substitution of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) for incandescent bulbs;
  4. Adjust temperature settings two degrees in both summer and winter;
  5. Adjust temperature settings on water heaters;
  6. Maintain recommended tire pressure in personal motor vehicles; and
  7. Change air filters in personal motor vehicles at recommended intervals.

Together, these low-to-no-cost behavior changes alone would generate roughly 150 million tons in annual emissions reductions and several billion dollars in net social savings by 2014. That is the equivalent of removing 26 million automobiles from the road! They can be put into action immediately, and would generate a net social savings from lowered utility bills for households.

In the table below compiled from Vandenbergh’s research, the savings are based very conservative utility costs (e.g. $3/gallon for gasoline and $0.09/kWh for electricity). These costs are higher in New York (gas is $3.50/gallon and electric rates are around $0.12/kWh). So the annual savings for New York residents would be more significant, i.e. closer to between $700 and $1000 than the national average savings range I tallied below.

Seven Low Hanging Family Fruits

Cost to start
Savings to family (per year)
Reduce Engine idling
Reduce Standby power
Install Compact fluorescents
Lower Thermostat settings
Lower Water temperatures
Maintain Tire pressure
Replace Air filters

(Adapted from: Vandenbergh 2008, 19-20)

If sufficient Americans take these actions, we can reduce our emission by roughly 150 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—while saving money.

The Cost-to-Benefit Details

Here are some details of each of the seven consumer actions. Since Vandenbergh writes so clearly, his owns words below (in italic) will do most of the talking.

1. Reduce Engine Idling [Cost :$0, Benefit: immediate]

Modern car engines need almost no warm up. Few of us realize restarting a warm engine consumes less fuel and emits less pollution than idling for 5 to10 seconds. “If a vehicle will idle for more than 5 to 10 seconds, shutting the engine off and restarting it when the driver is ready to resume driving typically will not only reduce fuel consumption, but also will reduce wear and tear on the engine, improve fuel economy, and improve the performance of catalytic converters. For idle times of 45 seconds or more, the savings in fuel consumption and engine maintenance from shutting off the engine vastly exceed the minor wear-and-tear associated with restarting the engine.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 24)

2. Reduce Standby Power [Cost :$0, Benefit: immediate]

Many electronic devices use power all day and night, from cell phone chargers to televisions, whether anyone is home or in the room. Home computer and wireless networks and home entertainment centers with flat screen televisions are big standby power hogs. So are most devices with a remote control. A quick solution is to cut off power to any such systems at night by switching off the power strip into which they are plugged. Eventually, the government Energy Star program must mandate that manufacturers use lower wattage settings for standby draw. Using energy monitoring smart power strips ($30-60) in a home or office could pay for itself within a year.

Some large-screen televisions can use as much power in standby mode as a refrigerator. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 40 percent of electricity consumption by home electronics occurs in standby mode. Certain appliances, such as microwave ovens and video recorders (VCRs), actually consume more electricity over the course of a year running their clock displays in standby mode than they do while in use.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 32)

3. Install CFL bulbs [Cost :$ 5-10, Benefit: immediate]

We can replace 10% of the nation’s 3.1 billion incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFL) if every American household swap 3 CLF bulbs for the old ones. CFLs use 75% less electricity for the same amount of light and last 2 to 4 times longer.

Unlike many other emissions-generating technologies, light bulb turnover is quite rapid. The common [incandescent bulb] has a life of only 1,000 hours, so CFLs can be substituted quickly, and they produce significant short-term emissions reductions. Further, CFL prices have dropped dramatically in the past few years, and consumers are now able to purchase these bulbs for less than $3 per bulb. This means the CFL payback to the consumer will occur within months after purchase.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 40)

4. Lower Thermostat Settings [Cost $0, Benefit: immediate]

Lowering the thermostat slightly in winter and raising it slightly in summer could save $125 a year in costs per household and add up to big emission reductions. With proper insulation in our attics and sill plates, we may not notice any difference in comfort. “We believe a modest two degree Fahrenheit (F) change in ambient indoor temperatures, combined with a more significant reduction in overnight winter temperatures, does not constitute a significant lifestyle adjustment. The range of annual savings derived from a two-degree F change in summer and winter temperatures runs from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of CO2 per household, depending on the source of the energy used for home heating and cooling, the efficiency of existing equipment, current temperature settings, and other factors. ” (Vandenbergh 2008, 45)

5. Lower Water Temperatures [Cost $0, Benefit: immediate]

We may rarely think of our water heaters as overworking. Lowering the water heater setting by 20 degrees Fahrenheit would make very little difference in our comfort level and yield an everyday savings in energy and emissions. With proper insulation around our hot water delivery pipes, we may not notice any difference in comfort. Confession: in researching this column, I discovered our basement has 30 feet of new un-insulated hot water pipe-soon to be remedied!

Many hot water heaters are installed with a default temperature setting of 140-150 degrees F, when in most cases temperatures of 115 or 120 degrees F will be perfectly adequate to meet households needs. Individuals can adjust the temperature settings by themselves with only a small time cost and without any financial cost. The financial savings from reducing temperatures by 20 degrees F would be about $24 to $40 per year per household.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 47)

6. Maintain Tire Pressure [Cost $10, Benefit immediate]

Our cars produce roughly half the total greenhouse gas emissions over which consumers have direct control. Given gasoline prices this summer, proper air pressure in tires makes good financial sense. A good tire gauge is less than $10.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that vehicle gas mileage improves an average of 3.3 percent by inflating tires regularly to proper pressures. Tire gauges are inexpensive, and routine oil changes often include tire inflation as a matter of course. The low-hanging fruit action is simply to get the U.S. public to check and maintain tire pressure on a consistent basis. A two-car family could save about $120 per year by taking this action.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 49)

7. Replace Air filters [Cost about $30, Benefit immediate]

I know I just assume my car’s air filters will be replaced at the regular tune ups every 15,000 miles or so. But from now on, I will check to be sure.

Gasoline savings alone from changing an air filter at the recommended interval total about $240 per year. As a result, it is cost effective for the individual to maintain a regular schedule for changing filters. Periodic air filter changes can save the vehicle owner anywhere from 7 to 10 percent in fuel mileage.” (Vandenbergh 2008, 50-51).

The bottom line is, by adopting these low hanging fruit, we can save money and reduce our emissions with very little upfront expense. We don’t have to wait for massive government programs. We can take ownership over making a difference-one household at a time.

Leo Wiegman

Editor’s Note: The author is a former Village of Croton-on-Hudson Trustee who served three terms from 2001 to 2007.

Source: Vandenbergh, M, Barkenbus J, Gilligan J. “Individual Carbon Emissions: Low Hanging Fruit.” UCLA Law Review, 2008.

On October 15, 2008 11:38 AM, Leo Wiegman said: FYI: Westchester County is holding a Compost Bin Sale on Sunday, Oct 26, in Armonk. I realize that is 20 miles away, but these bins work well. To get such environmental updates from the County, subscribe at

Fall is here and fall leaves make great compost. Recycle your yard waste with a compost bin. Compost Bin Sale Day SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26 10am - 2pm Rain or Shine Hergenhan Recreation Center, 40 Maple Ave., Armonk, NY

Choose from two types of composting bins – a $48 “enclosed” bin or a $30 bin suitable for gardeners looking to compost mostly leaves and grass. These are wholesale prices and include tax. Also available for purchase: kitchen scrap buckets, aerators and more. Reserve your bin by October 22nd and get a FREE kitchen scrap bucket.

Please mail or fax the reservation form available at to: Town Clerk’s Office, 15 Bedford Road, Armonk, NY 10504

To reserve a bin and for more information, call the Town of North Castle at (914)273-3269 or email

Compost Bin Sale Day will also offer the opportunity to speak to a master gardener of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County. Learn how to: •Make Compost in Your Backyard •Use Compost as Mulch •Prepare and Use Compost Teas •Identify the Asian Longhorned Beetle •Maintain Your Yard and Garden With the Least Toxic Pesticides •”Grasscycle” to Benefit Your Lawn •Have a Healthy Green Lawn and Protect Water Quality

On October 11, 2008 11:27 AM, Leo Wiegman said:

Tom, Good thoughts. While recycling is always something that can be improved, Croton’s residents have a pretty good track record in recycling. Compared to other communities in Westchester, Croton is usually near the top of the list in volume of recycled paper, glass and metal per capita. For households that put recyclable glass, metal and paper in the same curb container as regular garbage, the village will place an “Oops” sticker on the bag and leave it curbside.
The bigger waste problem is yard waste. The volume of yard waste that villagers push to the curb for collection is truly huge, especially in the fall. The fall foliage pick up alone keeps our DPW workers busy for weeks.
The village recently entered into an agreement with Westchester County to operate an organic yard waste transfer facility this coming year. For the meeting video, click here. This operation will package up our leaves and compostables into large trucks each week for delivery to commercial composters in northern New England. In the spring we will go to our local garden center to buy back the results in large plastic bags to spread on our lawns. So we are exporting our fall foliage and importing the resulting compost. More backyard composting would save money, fuel, labor, and wear and tear on our hardworking DPW staff. Leo

On October 10, 2008 6:46 PM, Tom Moore said:

Leo: Thanks for the helpful tips.

As I drive around the village on re cycleing days, I see all the blue/red bins all over flowing. How about the village giving each househould another new bin or two ? I know you can pick up one down at the DPW, but people don’t do it. I took an old red milk box and turned it into bin. If you give it to them they will fill it up. Sell ad space on them so it would cost the village anything to do.

Thanks Leo


Recent Articles