Even if we couldn't invest in new appliances for our rented apartment, I did learn a number of tricks anyone can use to reduce their kitchen's energy output.
It was no surprise to learn of our household's biggest energy consumer: the refrigerator. Fridges use about 14 percent of a home's total electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
I found out that refrigerators built today are far more efficient, using less than half the energy of models made a couple of decades ago. For that reason, the department recommends getting rid of any fridge more than 10 years old and replacing it with a new one bearing the EPA's Energy Star seal denoting energy efficiency.
Even though I couldn't replace our old fridge, I discovered ways to minimize its energy consumption. For instance, it may seem counterintuitive, but a full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one. This is because every time you open and close the door, the fridge has to kick in to reregulate its temperature. So the more food that's in there already, the less outside air that's introduced and needs to be cooled - a great excuse to pick up a few extras next time you're tempted.
If your fridge, like my bachelor brother's, is merely home to condiments and beer, you can fill up the extra space with water-filled containers. Just don't overstuff it or the air inside won't be able to circulate (leave a couple of inches of space between the food and the walls of the fridge). Also, let hot foods cool before refrigerating, and never leave food uncovered - it releases moisture, making the motor work harder.
Going green gave me some needed motivation to defrost my freezer - a buildup of more than one-quarter of an inch of ice on the coils makes it run longer, wasting additional energy. It also made me reconsider where our fridge is located. At the time, our fridge was tightly sandwiched between the wall and the hottest appliance in our home, our stove, forcing it to work harder to maintain cool temperatures. Even if your kitchen is small, like ours, try nudging it over so it's at least a foot or two away from heat-generating appliances such as the stove or dishwasher.
Speaking of dishwashers, I thought for sure the fact that we don't have a dishwasher and thus wash our dishes the old-fashioned way, by hand, would be an eco advantage. Wrong. According to the California Energy Commission, you save 37 percent more water cleaning dishes in a dishwasher than washing them by hand, as long as you restrain yourself from prerinsing dishes in the sink, run the washer only when it's really full, and use the air-dry setting instead of heated dry.
Since we could not afford to replace some of the bigger-ticket items, I decided to focus my green research on small changes. For instance, while I was not about to attempt installing solar panels on our roof, I could handle switching some lightbulbs. Standard incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of their energy as heat. Today's compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) no longer emit unflattering cafeteria-style lighting, are enormously energy efficient, and last years longer. Fluorescent bulbs do cost more upfront, but they save you money in the long run - the EPA estimates that changing a quarter of your home's bulbs to CFLs can cut a lighting bill in half.
And thus, one of the best benefits of going green: more green to go around.