Saturday, June 21, 2008

Coping With the High Price of Energy

I'm a reasonably conservative fellow and I live within a very tight budget. I probably couldn't afford to enjoy my lifestyle if I wasn't very careful with my cash. With the recent jump in prices across the board it sometimes seems that careful isn't enough. This is especially true when considering the escalating cost of energy.

Of course rising prices accompanied by stagnant wages isn't exactly news. Few would argue against the belief that most Americans are going through some hard times right now. The topic has generated three different threads on the Sled Dog Central Forum in which several mushers have expressed concerns that the changes in lifestyles brought about due to the economic inflationary trend will be detrimental to the sport of dog mushing. Some of gone so far as to predict that the sport will "die out" as a result.

My personal feeling is that the sport will survive, and may even enjoy moderate growth as people learn to adapt to, accommodate and overcome the challenges presented by a weak economy. Those who are truly dedicated to our sled dogs and our sport will continue to train and mush dogs and those who race sled dogs will continue to have plenty of opportunities to test their dogs and their skills against those of others. That being said, there is no doubt that many of us will have to make some changes in our lifestyles in order to cope.

I've heard that the Fairbanks area suffers the most expensive energy prices in the U.S. and while I can't confirm it with any sort of documentation, I certainly don't doubt the accuracy of the statement According to, today the least expensive unleaded gasoline in the region is $4.33 and the least expensive diesel fuel is $4.99. The price of electrical power is just as outrageous. According to my May electrical bill, I used 15% less electricity than one year ago, yet the bill was 17% higher.

The biggest hit that we've taken has been the cost of heating oil. In 2007 I paid a total of $1925.00 for two fuel oil deliveries. Thus far this year I've had two delivers for a cost of $2,793.00, and I can expect at least one more delivery before the end of the year.

Of course everyone in the energy food chain is blaming everyone else in the energy food chain for the extreme prices, but really doesn't matter who is at fault. Having someone to blame won't reduce the price of energy. I've made some fairly significant changes in my lifestyle to try to keep costs under control, yet they are still way out of control. Here are some of the changes I've made and some more that are incubating in my "to do" list.

- Minimizing trips: We don't have a lot of shopping opportunities in Two Rivers. We have a small convenience type store, a single service station, a laundromat, a very basic hardware store, two restaurants and a single pub. Purchasing anything of consequence requires a trip to town, which means a round trip of 50 to 60 miles. In the past I thought little of making that trip three or four times during any given week.

Thus far this year I've been able to cut that travel a lot. Most weeks I can get by with a single trip to town, and sometimes I can go two weeks with only a single trip. To pull it off, that one trip to town has to accomplish a lot. In one trip to town during my last R&R I made stops at a grocery store, the feed store, a home improvement store, a specialty hardware store, a liquor and tobacco store, the barbershop and a tire shop.

I've also been minimizing local trips around Two Rivers. In the past I made the 12 mile round trip to the post office to check my mail almost daily. Now I check my mail about once every third day and even then I try to do it in conjunction with a trip to train dogs at my training partner's yard or other tasks requiring a trip in that direction.

- Choosing the Right Rig for the Trip: In the past I would drive which ever vehicle suited my fancy for any given trip. I frequently drove my truck simply to avoid putting too many miles on my little car, which I used primarily for commuting to my place of employment or longer trips (it's more comfortable than the truck). Since last fall I've been driving the little car (31 mpg) a LOT more than my diesel powered truck (18 mpg). Now I use the truck only when I need its hauling capacity.

In the past I frequently used my snow machine to scout out a trail and do any necessary trail maintenance before running my dog team over it. The only time I ran the machine last winter was to pack the trail after significant snowfall, though that was mostly because the machine was broken during the latter part of the season.

This coming season I'll have to decide how much to use the machine. I'm more confident in my ability to control my team and sled on bad trails, and I suspect I probably won't use the machine for much more than necessary trail grooming this next winter. Before I make that decision I'll have to measure the fuel mileage of the machine and compare it against the car. It's an older Skidoo Tundra, reputed to be very economical compared to larger, faster more modern machines. If I find it gets better mileage than the car I may actually be using it a lot more rather than less.

- Operating Equipment Conservatively: I've always been a conservative driver. I certainly can drive fast and hard, and I'm very good at it, but having spent most of my adult life in emergency services I have always been able to satisfy my need for speed on the job, and not subject my own equipment to the wear and tear that is a result of high speeds.

The trick to driving efficiently is to be as smooth as possible as much as possible. Smooth starts and stops are crucial to fuel mileage and running errands isn't a race nor a high speed pursuit. Smooth cornering prevents the need for wasteful changes in engine rpm, and the whole process of driving smoothly is mush less taxing on mechanical equipment, thus saving money in maintenance and repair costs. This is as true of off-road equipment such as a four-wheeler or snow machine as it is on the road.

My efforts to reduce transportation energy costs have been very successful. In 2007 my transportation fuel costs averaged slightly more than $150.00 per month. So far this year the average has been only $95.00 per month, though that will go up slightly as I indulge in a couple of summer-time pleasure trips on the highway system.

Household Energy Costs:
As I noted earlier, the two most expensive energy hits I've taken are in the cost of electrical power and heating oil. I'm not sure I can make any substantial cuts in either. My house is already very efficient. It's a small home, well insulated and built "upside down" compared to most modern homes. The kitchen and living area are located upstairs while the bedrooms and utility room are on the lower floor. This arrangement takes advantage of convection and naturally keeps the living area warmer than the sleeping area.

During winter I set the thermostat (located upstairs) at 65 to 68 degrees and during summer I shut it down completely. When I'm away from home I lower the thermostat to 50 degrees, just warm enough to prevent freezing the plumbing. Most of the indoor lighting is fluorescent . When I compare winter to summer electrical usage, it's evident that the blower on the furnace and increased use of lighting are the biggest power drains in the place. I may just have to live with it, as I'm not real inclined to freeze to death in the dark.

I'm tempted to reduce the thermostat a bit more while I'm home, and use an electrical space heater to warm a smaller area when I'm home to enjoy my living room, though I honestly don't know if that will result in a net savings. I'll use a bit less heating oil, but the cost of running the space heater may well off-set the saving.

I am tempted to try a couple of things to reduce my consumption of electricity. My chest freezer is usually full or nearly full, mostly of meat and fish scraps for my dogs. With the price of high quality commercial kibble spiraling upward along with everything else the ability to supplement the dog's diet is too important to sacrifice. Nonetheless I may be able to save a few bucks by draping a blanket or two over the freezer, increasing its already formidable insulation.

My garage is heated by a forced air furnace that was originally used to heat the house, but moved to the shop when a new furnace was installed for the home. In the past I've kept that thermostat at about 50 degrees, but this winter I'll have to set it as low as possible and I may have to abandon garage heat entirely.

Other Money Saving Changes:

I keep a ledger to track my spending, and as I review it I find that I've made some money saving changes rather unconsciously. For example, last year I spent an average of nearly $120.00 per month on meals out. This year my average has been only $71.60 per month. I'll bet that Jon at Two Rivers Lodge and Mia at Mia's Cafe are likely suffering a loss in revenue as I'm sure I'm not the only one in the Two Rivers area cutting back on 'luxury' spending.

Since I'm eating more of my meals at home I would have expected my grocery costs to have gone up, so I was surprised to notice that in fact I have been saving some money there as well. Last year I averaged $260.00 a month on grub and sundries, and thus far this year I've averaged only $230.00 per month. I have no clue what I've been doing differently to save the bucks, though it is probably true that my dogs do eat better than I do while I'm home from my place of employment.

In spite of the savings, I'm frustrated because I'm barely keeping my face above water financially. The cost of my recent kennel renovation very much negated any savings I made in other aspects of my lifestyle, and I still have a couple of home improvement projects that need to be done this summer.

In spite of the tight budget, I am generally blessed. At least I am still keeping above water. I have friends and neighbors who are not so fortunate and are truly suffering. I have a friend and kennel supporter who almost never has trouble finding work during the summer who is currently unemployed and seriously depressed over it. I have several friends who rely on fighting wildfires during summer for much of their income who even so much as smelled a whiff of smoke, nor seen a single dime come into their pocket books.

Thus far my house isn't under water, it hasn't burned down in a wildfire, the dogs are healthy and happy and so am I. I think I have to count myself among the lucky ones.


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