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Green Building Curmudgeon

Nudging Us Toward an Efficient Future

Simply etching a fly in the urinals at the Amsterdam airport improved "accuracy" by 80%.

I read an article in The New York Times today about the concept of “nudging” people towards better behavior. The story noted that after etching images of flies in the urinals at the Amsterdam airport, “spillage” on the men’s room floor dropped by 80%. An expert in behavioral economics stated “Men evidently like to aim at targets”.

This is an example of a “nudge” – a harmless bit of engineering that manages to “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.” Great little story, and I would probably be similarly influenced were I to pass through the Amsterdam airport.

This led me to think about where nudging would be effective in changing our behavior for the better regarding energy efficiency. The article reminded me of one of the first nudges I recall affecting my personal behavior. After buying an SUV several years ago (before I saw the light), I was captivated by the instantaneous and cumulative miles per gallon display on the dashboard. You could watch your mileage drop as you accelerated and increase as you coasted. It became a game for me, and I found myself always striving for the best mileage. Unfortunately, this vehicle barely got over 12 MPG on a good day, making me feel like I was always losing the game. I now drive a Prius, also with live mileage data, and I now enjoy playing the game while driving. On good days I can get over 45 MPG, and it continues to be fun to “win” as well as slightly disappointing when my attention slips and I “lose” a little. I think that every vehicle should have these mileage gauges in them, and people should be trained to drive efficiently. I get (a slightly sadistic) joy out of tooling down the road at or lower than the speed limit, watching people accelerating past me only to have to stop at a traffic light, to which I coast up right behind them as it starts to change, having used little or no fuel to get to the same place they just arrived.

Driving is like sitting on the couch

I may be (probably am?) different than most people, but I have heard anecdotal evidence that driver’s behavior does change when they have instantaneous feedback on their mileage. Similar evidence exists for home energy use. The July/August issue of Home Energy Magazine reported on a study of homeowners using household energy monitoring devices. They calculated an average energy savings of approximately 10% in homes which monitored their energy usage on a real time basis. Very interested owners saved as much as 13%, while even those who were totally apathetic still reduced their power use by more than 2%. I installed a TED (photo) in a house I built and the clients almost immediately changed their behavior, if only slightly, regarding power usage. While simple versions of these monitors cost less than $150.00, more sophisticated systems can run to many thousands of dollars. Regardless of the price, it seems apparent to me that with just a little nudge, almost anyone will make the changes necessary to lower their consumption. If it is possible to cut power usage by an average of 10% with a simple, inexpensive device installed in every house, what is keeping us from doing it? While there is much debate about the value of mandates, it seem to me that if at the time of sale, every home had a monitor installed, we could save a significant amount of power in a short period of time. I imagine that realtors and builders will jump up and down and start screaming about anything that might raise the cost of a house by a fractional percentage, but we need to ignore those cries and start making the simple choices that will begin to lead us on the path to efficiency (and sanity).


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