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Sunspots - Prairie Penny Pinchers 5-4-13

Jenn, Ely and Troy Goodnough

Sometimes when you lose, you actually end up a winner.

From Earth Day 2012 to Earth Day 2013, Troy and Jenn Goodnough and son Ely (pronounced like Ely, Minn.), age 5—aka team Prairie Penny Pinchers—along with hundreds of close personal friends, acquaintances, colleagues, community residents and family—competed in the CERTs Family Energy FACE-OFF. Their opponents were the Mill Pond Minimizers—Jeff Vetsch, coordinator of west central Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTs), Anne Dybsetter, and their children Henry, age 5, and Hazel, age 2, from New London. Their goal: to see who could save more energy.

This community-based energy competition was a partnership between the Minnesota-based CERTs and the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM), Office of Sustainability, where Troy Goodnough serves as the director. According to CERTs, “The families are pitted against each other, taking actions to conserve energy and resources in their homes, and extending the competition to their communities and networks. Participants from across the country choose a family they want to join and then check off actions they have taken to contribute points to their team.”

Scoring for the competition was based on the top five most popular completed actions:

1. Turn off lights at home when no one is in the room for a week (5 pts)

2. Turn TV off when no one is watching for a week (10 pts)

3. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth (10 pts)

4. Grab a sweater instead of turning up the heat for a week (15 pts)

5. Use a reusable water bottle with tap water instead of purchased bottled water for a week (15 pts)

“The goal was to create community awareness and make it fun at the same time,” said Troy, “a way to ‘game-ify’ energy savings.”

“You start for one week to turn down the heat,” said Jenn, an associate professor of chemistry at UMM. “You need to put on a sweater, but then you get used to it.” The Goodnoughs discovered by checking their electricity bill that 40 percent of their energy was used for heating hot water.

When the Goodnoughs purchased their home, built in 1908 by a former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, R. A. Stone, “we knew energy was going to be an issue. Luckily, the kitchen was about a year old when we bought the house and so the appliances are relatively new and have decent ENERGY STAR ratings.” The family has made some energy-saving changes to their home without compromising its historic integrity, such as:

• Invested in a high-efficiency natural gas boiler  

• Turned hot water heater down to 120 degrees

• Installed and programmed a programmable thermostat

• Purchased high performance windows and insulated window weight space with insulation that keeps heat in during the colder months and works as air conditioning to keep the sun out during the hotter months

• Changed most of the lights to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) and LEDs (light emitting diodes)

“A regular light bulb produces both heat and light,” said Troy. “The new light bulbs provide the same light, without the heat, and use one-third the electricity.”

Although energy-saving light bulbs may cost more initially, they also last longer.  “The CFL lights we bought for our home in 2002 still work,” said Jenn. “We want to have at least a couple of lights that we can bequeath to Ely when he leaves our home.”

In addition, said Troy, “What seem to be costly changes to save energy add value over time. Turning off the TV adds more family time,” and all three Goodnoughs have a part in saving energy at home.

“Ely’s job is to turn off his night light. He stays on us and is the first to notice hypocrisy. When we go somewhere, he wants to walk or ride his bike. We talk about where energy comes from and Ely knows that ‘trees make oxygen for us.’ They also talk about Earth Day at Ely’s school.”

In the end, the Goodnoughs “lost” the contest by a point score of 152,015 to the competition’s 198,555. According to the contest rules, Troy had to shave his head and the Goodnoughs are paying the Vetsch/Dybsetter household energy bill for a month.

But did they really “lose”?

The Goodnoughs discovered that even community residents who weren’t a part of their contest team stopped them in the grocery store and on the street to ask how the competition was going. People were interested and engaged.

“People have already been saving energy in a variety of ways,” said Jenn, such as hanging clothes outside on the line to dry, filling the dishwasher before running it, composting in the backyard. “This is a reminder to continue, and also a way to discover new ways to save energy. A lot of things are behavioral or simple changes, such as ‘are you doing your laundry all in cold water?’ Or, what if each Morris household changed out just one light bulb?”

“Families are talking about their relationship with nature and that the environment gives us clean air, clean water and clean soil,” said Troy.  

The Goodnoughs discovered it’s true what someone once shared: “When we all help one another, everybody wins.”

And their energy-saving changes are helping them to realize yet another significant goal: “We’re not saving the planet,” said the Goodnoughs. “We’re saving for college.”