July 31, 2012


Topped off the tank after ten days. We're in a Skoda Octavia (of which more in a later post), running on diesel. Wakeful eyes on the back seat have spied the price, prompting a remark that fuel is cheap here: only 1.39.

"Umm: that's 1.39 pounds."


"Per liter."


At current exchange rates, that comes to $2.18 per liter, or $8.24 per US gallon.

In the UK, diesel is a bit more expensive than regular unleaded gasoline, as it is in the US. But unlike in the US, it is easy to find diesel: cars running on diesel are now so popular throughout Europe, that most stations have both gasoline and diesel at all pumps, even in small towns.

In fact, on some pumps the black diesel nozzles outnumber the green gasoline ones with the introduction of "premium" diesel, which burns faster (and, hopefully, cleaner).

July 12, 2012

Have your Cake and Drive it Too: of Fuel Economy, Performance, and Moms

A survey by Consumer Reports, published in May 2012, shows that fuel economy is the leading consideration in new car purchases, ahead of traditional issues such as quality, safety and value. This is borne out by surveys of actual purchases by Truecar.com, which show that the average fuel efficiency of new cars in the US is climbing steadily.

Of course, the price of gasoline has something to do with this trend.

But apart from that, the most important consideration cited by respondents is a desire to be more environmentally friendly (62%) and to decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil (56%). Women tend to be a bit more environmentally friendly (65%) than men (58%).

To get the higher fuel efficiency, 58% of respondents are willing to trade in on size. The minivan will be increasingly abandoned in favour of smaller cars or smaller SUVs.

Consumer Reports comments, "Moving down a size class can mean a significant reduction in weight and potentially a smaller powertrain. [....And] the smaller vehicle would likely cost less to purchase, own, and operate." I would agree with that!

However, the survey found that, while 45% of men were willing to compromise on perfomance to get a higher fuel efficiency, only 29% of women did so. Surprise! So it's not just the guys who are so bent on horsepower, torque and all that. Why?

There are plenty of women who love sheer performance in a car. There are also lots of women with children, who consider performance part of the safety packet. This is why muscled SUVs have been so popular with moms: They are bigger and heavier - I mean the SUVs not the moms - so they offer better crash protection. The higher seating gives a better view of the road (and a feeling that you're more in control), and their big engines give plenty of acceleration for merging into highway traffic and for keeping farther ahead of the impatient driver on your tail. So the muscled SUV is simply part of the defensive driving strategy. I mean, how many moms do you know that use their SUVs for off-road rough-housing with their toddlers in the back?

For all the moms who are - rightly - concerned with traffic safety, here are a few ideas on how to increase your fuel economy without giving up on safety. For you can have your cake, and drive it too.

One of the areas of concern is erratic or aggressive driving; both have been on the rise. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to change the driving habits of the people with whom you share the road. It hasn't helped that the prolonged recession is contributing to stress, that tends to get expressed as impatience or aggression on the road. On top of that, in-car connectivity has increased distracted driving.

Another area that's out of moms' control is the physical infrastructure: Many highway on and off ramps were designed for a lot less, and a lot slower, traffic than is actually using them. This is true especially in the Northeast where space is at a premium. At on-ramps designed for 30 mph traffic, it's scary to have to merge onto lanes packed with Mack trucks and heavy SUVs, all going at 60 mph. But this is a recession (and TARP money went to banks instead of infrastructure improvement), so chances of getting those on-ramps updated to 21st century standards are slim.

But there are a few things that are in your control, and that you can influence.

If you can, opt for public transportation. No surface transportation is safer. And you can actually talk or play with your children on the way, or else devote yourself to texting, without endangering anyone.

If public transport is not an option, then if your lifestyle / job allows it, stay off the roads at rush hour. This is when roads are packed solid with workers under time stress: not exactly conducive to a laid-back driving style.

Treat yourself to the luxury of time and start out early. Hah! it took CelloDad years to teach me that one - and on this, as on so many other things, he's right: If you start out earlier than you have to, you have this luxuriously calm feeling that you're in control, and you don't have to scoot yourself in front of that Escalade barrelling down the next lane. Instead you can - really you can - wait for a real gap, where you can ease yourself into traffic safely, and without getting your heart rate up.

Give the right example, both to your children and to other drivers: refrain from tailgating. As a rule of thumb, the safe following distance is three seconds' worth of travel at whatever speed you're going. Of course, don't text and drive.

And for your next car, you might consider a diesel engine under the hood. "Clean diesel" cars obey strict emissions control rules. They are up to 40% more fuel-frugal than cars with gasoline engines with comparable horsepower. And they deliver up to 50% more torque.

What do you want torque for? Especially if you have horsepower?

Horsepower works over distance travelled, and over time. Horsepower is what allows you to attain higher top speeds, or gets you up the hill in reasonable time. Horsepower is what gets you from 0 to 60 mph in so many seconds. (But really, how many moms are in the habit of red-lining their RPM meters to meet that spec? With children in the back?)

Torque (which your round wheels translate into forward force) is instantaneous. Torque is what allows a tow truck to haul you out when you get stuck in the mud. Torque is what gives instantaneous acceleration, what you feel as that sweet kick in the lumbar region:

It is that instantaneous acceleration that moms are after when we look for "performance" in a car, not necessarily because we enjoy the kick in the lumbar region, but for merging into traffic, and for getting going from that light before peeving off the driver behind you. Well allright, the kick in the lumbar region is nice too.

As an example, let's look at the Volkswagen Passat Wagon, a car popular with moms for its practical layout and space for up to three car seats in the back. They don't make those any more, you say. I say Volkswagen does still make them, they're just not bringing them to the US any more. If you chase them to their origin, Germany, you will find them re-named the Passat Variant, and they come with a wide choice of engines.

For the gasoline - diesel comparison, I've picked two versions with comparable power: a 1.8L gasoline with 158HP, and a 2.0L diesel with 13% less power, 138HP. Both are turbocharged, and both have direct injection. Just to compare apples to apples.

The diesel version - and this is not a hybrid - gets quoted an average fuel economy of 50mpg, or 43% more than the gasoline version, and good for the top European "A" emissions rating. That makes a green-leaning heart sing!


VW Passat Variant 2012

Variant Variant Blue TDI
Type Comfortline Comfortline
Year 2012 2012
Emissions rating EURO 5 "D" EURO 6 "A"
MSRP € 28,325 € 32,750
Fuel Unleaded gasoline ULSD diesel
Fuel Economy
(Avg. quoted)
6.9 L/100km
(35 mpg)
4.7 L/100km
(50 mpg)

1.8L Turbocharged
direct injection

2.0L Turbocharged
direct injection
Transmission 6-spd manual 6-spd manual
Power 118kW (158HP) 103kW (138 HP)
Torque 250Nm (184 lb-ft) 320Nm (236 lb-ft)
0-100kph in 6.1 sec 6.9 sec


But here is the real kicker, so to speak: the diesel puts out 236 lb-ft of torque, nearly a third more than the gasoline version.

If you compare two gasoline engines of different size, of course the one with more horsepower will give the higher torque. But it will also use more gasoline.

The magic about diesel compared to gasoline engines is that at comparable horsepower you get much lower fuel consumption, but with significantly higher torque.

What's the catch? Diesels are generally more expensive to buy: in the case of our example, 16% more expensive than the gasoline version with nearly the same horsepower. But at 43% higher fuel efficiency the higher purchase price might be worth it in the long run. Also, diesels emit particulate matter pollution - however, clean diesel engines sold in the US fall under strict emission rules.

I should add: use that torque wisely. For one thing, delicate musical instruments don't take well to excessive acceleration. The other week, CelloDad decided to put our new-ish VW Golf through its paces. Its diesel engine also puts out 236 lb-ft of torque, but the car is much lighter than a Passat Variant, so the 2.0L diesel engine is basically way too much for a car that size. CelloDad put down his right foot hard and made the car leap forward, having forgotten about the children on the back seat.

Once they recovered from the kick, they gave him an earful. Our children have a fine sense of self-preservation, they do.


July 11, 2012

Review: Hyundai Sonata / i40 / i40 Tourer

Hyundai is trying to anoint this coming August 2012 as National Fuel Efficiency Month, and is petitioning Washington to focus the national attention to improving cars' fuel economy. I propose that one of the best ways to do that is by petitioning Hyundai to start selling us the higher-efficiency models in their worldwide fleet.

Hyundai crows that its Sonata Hybrid gets 40 mpg on the highway (35 mpg in the city, 37 mpg combined). It's also $5000 more expensive than the regular Sonata (in the GLS trim, see table below). Real drivers report an average of 30 mpg for the non-hybrid Sonata; that's good for the gas prices of the last decade. But to move forward we need to do better than that.

In Australia, the Sonata is known as the Hyundai i45, and comes with the same engines as those available in the US, a 2.0L MPI and a 2.4L GDI. But there Hyundai also offers the i40, just four inches shorter than the Sonata/i45, both in Sedan and Tourer (wagon) versions.

The Hyundai i40 is also offered in Europe in Saloon (sedan) and Tourer (wagon) versions; but the larger i45 is not for sale there. From the exterior, the i40 Saloon is obviously from the same family as the Sonata; the i40 Tourer is just an inch longer but its body is more elongated, with a lot of space in the back for a cello (or two). They both come with the same choice of engines, including a sweet 1.7L diesel engine that does a demonstrated 37 mpg if you drive it with the 6-speed automatic transmission. Choosing a manual transmission and the Blue Drive version gets you to 43 mpg in real life driving conditions reported by owners.

The Blue Drive package includes Intelligent Stop & Go, low rolling resistance tires and a clever Alternator Management System. The sippiest (i.e. smallest) Hyundai models with Blue Drive get just 99g CO2/km (try to get those to the US!), which is good for a waiver of many UK taxes including the steep London congestion tax, all of which depend on the car's carbon emission. The i40 doesn't qualify for the waiver, falling in the "C" emissions class, with a fuel economy close to the average for new cars sold in Europe in 2011.

Both the 1.7 Blue Drive Manual and the 1.7 Automatic transmission are priced about £ 1000 ($ 1550) more than the 1.7 Manual transmission. But the Blue Drive package gives better mileage, which pays you back through the lifetime of the car.

Of course the 1.7L diesel engine in the i40 Blue Drive puts out less horsepower (134HP) than the 2.4L in the US Sonata (198HP). However, because it's diesel, it kicks a torque of 240 lb-ft, quite a bit more than the 184 lb-ft on the Sonata. The torque is where the fun is. And the 134HP is still enough to get you up to 125 mph, or nearly twice the speed limit on most Interstate highways. Meaning, enough to help you acquire plenty of speeding tickets.

How about it: want to contact Hyundai and ask for their gas sippers?


Hyundai Sonata / i40 / i40 tourer

Type Sonata GLS
i40 (Saloon)
1.7 CRDi
i40 (Tourer)
1.7 CRDi BlueDrive
Year 2013 2012 2012
Emissions rating ULEV EURO5 "G" EURO5 "C"
MSRP $ 20,895 £ 21,701 £ 21,916
CelloMom Rating 3 4 5
Fuel Economy:
City/Hwy quoted 24 / 35 mpg 7.6 / 5.1 L/100km 5.3 / 4.1
Avg. quoted 28 mpg 6.0 L/100km
(39 mpg)
4.5 L/100km
(52 mpg)
Avg. actual 30mpg (2012) 37 mpg (2011) 43 mpg

2.4L 16vlv

1.7L 16 vlv
1.7L 16-vlv
Power 198HP
@6300 rpm
134 HP
@ 4000 rpm
134 HP
@4000 rpm
Torque 184 lb-ft
@4250 rpm
@ 2000-2500
325Nm (240lb-ft)
@ 2000-2500
Transmission 6-spd Auto 6-spd Auto 6-spd Manual
Fuel Reg Unleaded Diesel Diesel
Length, mm(in) 189.8in (4820) 4740mm 4770mm
Width, mm(in) 72.2in (1834mm) 1815mm 1815mm
Height, mm(in) 57.9in (1471mm) 1470mm 1470mm
Weight, kg(lbs) 3199lbs (1451kg) 1507 kg 1648 kg
Trunk volume, liters(cuft) 16.4 cuft
505 L 553 / 1719 L
Turning radius, m(ft) 35.8 ft c-c 10.9m (35.9ft) 10.9m
Top speed, kph(mph)     125 mph

July 5, 2012

Freeing our food from fossil fuels

In the early 1600s a consortium of Dutch merchants called the VOC (the United East-India Company), colonised the spice islands, now known as Indonesia, mainly for the rich harvest of peppercorn, cloves, cinnamon and other spices. These spices arrived in the North-European diet of potatoes, cabbage and kale like the sudden appearance of Californian sunshine into the grim Dutch winter (nobody has more words for "rain"), and made the merchants who imported them by the shipload fabulously rich. The 10,000 mile diet was born.

Of course, VOC merchant ships had sails, so their carbon emissions was exactly zero per mile.

We've come a long way from potatoes and cabbage: today, year round, our tables are a true cornucopia of everything the world has to offer. Oranges from Florida, maple syrup from Vermont, apples from Washington, and everything fruit and veg from California, not to mention rice and mangoes from Thailand, all manner of cheeses from Europe, lamb from New Zealand, even water from Fiji.

All those delicacies travel on average about 1,000 miles to get to the American table; and the supply chain (before the foods get to the packager / bottler / processor) accounts for an additional 4200 miles - and none of that travel is powered by wind. Indeed, the diesel-fueled trucks, the container and bulk transport ships, and air planes contribute significantly to particulate air pollution.

Suppose we were to free our food from fossil fuels?

Many of us are questioning the wisdom of shipping and trucking in our food from so far away, and have started using more local options, such as local farmers' markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) where you become a "member" of a farm and get a share in the farm's harvest.

But like many other things in the quest to be green, the question of food miles is a vexed one. If you insisted on locally sourced dinners all year round, those of us who live in colder climates would be consigned to potatoes and cabbage to sustain us through the winter, with perhaps some grains, plus preserved fruits and vegetables. Forget about pepper and cinnamon.

In the growing season, things are even more complicated: In Europe, where produce labels in grocery stores state the country of origin, people started to question why their green beans should come from Kenia, even in the summer when they could have come from the farm right outside of town.

Studies were done. They showed that the carbon footprint of transporting a pound of green beans from Kenia to, say, the UK was smaller than the footprint of the consumer taking the car to the Sainsbury's superstore outside of town to buy that pound of green beans. Detractors of locavorism are fond of repeating the statistic that growing tomatoes in warm sunny Spain and shipping them to cold Sweden is greener than trying to grow them in Sweden, because the latter would require energy-hogging hothouses.

Add to that the fact that wages are lower in Kenia (and even in Spain) than in Sweden, and that transportation costs are low enough (apparently), and the astonishing food migration becomes viable - financially speaking. The same argument holds for all those blueberries and raspberries from Chile and Argentina that so incongruously crowd US fruit isles in February.

Even from a carbon point of view, a life-cycle analysis by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews at Carnegie Mellon has shown that the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with the production of food (even in faraway places) is much larger than that caused by its transportation. "Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of lifecycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%."

The figure below, reproduced from that article, is a bar graph of the total, life-cycle climate impact (GHG emissions in millions of tons of CO2 equivalent per household per year) for the production and transportation of various food groups. The left-most part (dark blue) of each bar represents the carbon footprint for delivering food from the producer to the retail outlet (nobody but you can tell whether and how far you walk or bike or drive to your grocery store). On most bars in the graph, you can hardly see that left-most portion.

The red and grass-green portions of each bar show the footprint of the transportation of raw materials, for instance, trucking grains to the facility that makes breakfast cereals, or shipping soy to be fed to livestock. Averaged over all foods, the transportation portion of GHG emissions is about 11% of the total.

The rest of the emissions comes from farm equipment, manufacturing of fertilisers, refrigeration, etc. Remember, going the conventional route it takes anywhere from 1 to 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food (depending on the crop, and on which study you quote). Which is one reason why biodiesel for transportation is not a workable option.

So as we are questioning the issue of food transportation, perhaps we should also be looking into how to reduce the GHG emissions in our food production, the way we are now asking our cars to be more fuel efficient and emit less carbon dioxide.

The data makes one thing very clear: the two food groups with largest climate impact by far are red meat and dairy products. Cows produce methane and nitrous oxide, both powerful greenhouse gases. One of the study's conclusions is that one way to significantly reduce your dinner's climate impact is to stop eating red meat and dairy products. Perhaps it is not surprising that Weber, one of the authors of the study, is a vegan and a locavore.

Despite the factors leading to lower cost and lower climate impact of some aspects of the 10,000 mile diet, there are good reasons to become a locavore. These have been covered in many articles and in books like "The End of Food" by Paul Roberts.

For me personally, local means fresh; there really is nothing like a tomato that just came off the plant. Local means diversity, and getting away from the global reliance on monocultures that presents its own threat to our food supply. Local means you can shake the hands of the very people who produce your food, and look them in the eye. Local means chatting with friends and other like-minded people around the farm stand. Local is often less expensive. And all else being equal, sourcing your food as close as possible to your table does minimise your dinner's carbon footprint.

If you can go local and organic, there are big carbon savings: for the use of synthetic fertilisers accounts for a significant part of the carbon footprint of some conventional crops. Organic farming, on the other hand, acts as an effective carbon sequestration process, so its carbon footprint is actually negative.

So my strategy has been to adhere to the ALARA principle, which I have borrowed from X-ray workers' approach to radiation exposure: I strive to keep my food's carbon footprint As Low As Reasonably Achievable, by eating As Locally As Reasonably Achievable. After all, I've got growing children to nourish, not to mention a foodie husband, and a strict potatoes and cabbage diet won't serve them all that well.

Local farm: Alas, I am a lousy gardener. If my family had to live off my labours, we would starve. So I am a member of an organic CSA, which gives our family the bulk of our vegetables in the summer (and I freeze whatever we don't eat immediately). They are considering extending the harvest into the winter months. I would sign up for that!

Reduce waste: If I know we will be overwhelmed by a particular crop (four big heads of lettuce in a week is a bit much), and I know I can't preserve it, I either share it with friends, or put it in the donation box that my CSA sends to a local food bank.

I try to buy a little less than what I need; the occasional thin meal is good for you. The worst that happens is that CelloDad makes himself a slice of toast, particularly when the children are in a growth spurt; then I know the meal has been very thin.

Eat in season: Produce tastes best if it's fresh. I avoid eating summer berries in winter time, because those tend to come from another hemisphere; compared to when they're in season locally they're expensive, and not that tasty. For the same reason, I avoid fall crops like apples and pumpkins during the height of summer. It's helpful to educate yourself when each crop is in season.

My brother, a city dude who had no clue about crops, devised a trick: if it's less than $2 - $2.50 a pound, he'll buy it, arguing that if it's in season, its abundance will drive the price down. (So yes, he and I come from the same frugal stock).

Eat low on the food chain: ViolaPlayer has recently gone vegetarian, and the rest of my crew eat meat perhaps once a week. It's the dairy we have a tough time giving up: we love our milk and kefir, and we're just a cheesy family. ALARA, right? If I tried to cut out the dairy, I would have a revolution on my hands.

Keep exotic foods to special occasions. I would have to cut back (oh!) on mangoes and papayas, and stick to peaches and plums. On the other hand, maybe we'll have less Stilton in the house; by CelloDad's own admission that cheese smells of old socks anyway. The rest of us never touch it.

But some foods are staples as well as exotic: examples are (sub)tropical crops like rice, coconut oil, tree nuts, bananas, and so on. And some foods follow a long and contorted trail, as in the case of hogs raised in Holland, which are turned into sausages in Italy, and then exported - to Holland, among other places. When you're standing in the store, how would you know?

Work at labeling: At the store, I try to go for the produce labeled "local". But such labeling is patchy. In Europe, the produce displays tell you the country of origin, and you can sort of guess whether the foodstuff arrived by air or surface. The general rule of thumb is, if you're going to keep it in the fridge, it came by air (and racked up an incredible carbon footprint along the way).

But how do we know? - it would be nice to have a label, much like the nutrition facts, that tells us about the life-cycle carbon footprint of the foods we're buying.

It turns out, such a label exists! The Carbon Reduction Label was recently introduced by the UK-based Carbon Trust: this label in the shape of - what else? - a footprint shows the total CO2 emissions associated with the production of one serving of that food. It really is much like the nutrition facts. It's still early days for this label, but it's a hopeful sign that the mainstream UK grocery chain Tesco has adopted it for a selection of its products.

The sooner the Carbon Reduction Label is used worldwide the better. There is nothing like full disclosure.


This post was written for the July 2012 Green Moms' Carnival on Food Independence, hosted by Abbie from Farmer's Daughter.


Linked at Small Footprint Fridays



July 1, 2012

Temperature Control: Sweat vs. Air Conditioning

Are you hot yet?

The summer is turning, umm, a tad warm. And perspiration is everywhere. For some reason Western culture has a problem with perspiration, exemplified by the Victorian-era pronunciation that "Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow".

Glow my foot. When I was done with cello practice yesterday, I had to wipe the glow off my forehead. I never suspected that playing the cello can be an upper-body workout. We have the attic fan on, and the living room has been pleasant enough to sit in - until the cello practice, when one is only ostensibly sitting on a chair.

My first reaction: Ack! I'm sweating! But then I shrugged and got on with it. I mean, the cool thing in yoga now (or should it be called the hot thing?) is hot yoga, where they heat the room to 90F and make you do vigorous yoga. But I don't need that: I can do hot cello, right in my living room.

Many cultures value perspiration: think of the sauna, the spa, the hot spring resorts in volcanic regions, and hot yoga. Because it turns out sweating is good for you.

About the smell: it is the secretion of chemicals induced by anxiety that makes your sweat smell. In contrast, relaxation sweat doesn't smell (of course, all old sweat does smell). Think about it: when you're giving an important presentation, or at your annual evaluation, or when you get frustrated sitting in traffic: those are the situations that make your sweat smell. But on your weekend run, or when you're out hammering a play stand for your children and whistling quietly to yourself, or when you're paddling around the lake, you get good clean sweat.

Relaxed sweat really is clean, for it has bacteria-fighting properties: it works to keep the bacteria on your skin from invading you, thus keeping infections and colds at bay. Sweat is even on your side in your fight to keep down acne and other facial impurities. That's why when you go to a spa for a facial, the first thing they do is drape your face in a hot towel.

Then, at the end of the day (or earlier if you can't wait), you can wash the sweat plus the impurities away in a nice cool shower. Even a quick navy shower, if you make the water progressively cooler as you go, can give you a nice reset in your body temperature: there is nothing like running water to take away excess body heat.

Of course, you could turn on the air conditioning. If you are very young, or very old, or pregnant, it's probably a good idea. Once a luxury reserved for the 1%, it has made its way into most of our homes, offices, and cars. But there are good reasons to keep the AC turned off as much as you can.

Air conditioning makes the air very dry: it's hard on your skin, and hard on your breathing apparatus, so it's not surprising that it tends to give problems in the respiratory system, such as irritations of the throat, and allergic reactions. It doesn't help that the cold components collect water condensation, so AC systems tend to harbour molds.

Air conditioning takes a huge amount of energy, as everyone with an electric bill knows. On your car, it does a number on the fuel efficiency: while above 45mph it's more efficient to close the windows and drive with the AC on, at lower speeds you're much better off driving with the windows open. Apart from the happiness factor, you get a chance to really air the car interior, and you're not collecting mold in the manifolds.

The compressors make the rest of the world a lot warmer, and the refrigerants either tend to poke a hole in the ozone layer (like the chloro-fluorocarbons which have been phased out of new units), or they are ferocious greenhouse gases, like the currently popular Puron (1500 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2). Either way, they leak out over time.

Going in and out of air conditioned spaces is terribly hard on the body; I'm one of those people who get exhausted from walking into a deeply air conditioned space: all I want to do is fall asleep. And coming out of air conditioning makes a reasonably warm day feel unbearable. I find it less tiring to skip the air conditioning altogether and stay warm.

Besides, what would summer be without a little sweat?

Keep your cool:
Park in the shade
Drink enough water
Slow down (it's summer)
Eat cucumbers
Take frequent cool/cold showers
Consent to sweat a bit, and emerge acne-free