It's not the tools, but how you use them
Whether you want them to boil water or make a feast, most new ovens and cooktops (together called "ranges") use about the same amount of energy. Gas ranges are a tad more efficient than electric ones, but not enough to make much of a difference in your utility bill. You may want to consider scrapping your old range because it has, say, an energy-hogging pilot light. But the biggest driver of your future energy use will not be which range you select, but the way you cook. Below are some easy ways to become a model of efficiency.
- Match pan size to burner. If the pan is much smaller than the electric element or if gas flames are licking up the side of the pan, you're wasting energy.
- Keep a lid on. Lids help retain heat, allowing you to lower the temperature setting.
- Keep plates clean. If the plates under the cooktop's burners have grown black, they won't reflect heat as well. If they're still black after a good scrubbing, line them with aluminum foil or replace them.
- Boil with care. Put only as much water as you need in the pan. When the water reaches the boiling point, turn down the heat. Keeping it on high just wastes energy.
- Size appropriately. When possible, use toaster ovens or microwaves rather than the full oven. Smaller appliances use less energy.
- Preheat only when necessary. Cakes, bread, and other baked goods that need to rise quickly should go into a hot oven. But most dishes don't need a preheated oven.
- Coast to completion. With many dishes, you can turn off the burners and oven a few minutes before the dish finishes cooking. The heat retained in the oven and in the food itself will finish cooking the dish.
- Use the oven light to check on food rather than opening the oven door, which can lower the oven's temperature as much as 25 degrees.
When shopping, look for
- Electronic ignition. Replacing an older appliance that has a continually burning pilot light can reduce the appliance's energy usage by 50%, saving you $60 per year.
- Self cleaning. Ovens with a self-clean option typically have the best insulation.
- Simplicity. More expensive pro-style cooking appliances won't give you better energy efficiency, or even necessarily better cooking performance, than more moderately priced model.
- For safety, install a carbon monoxide detector if you have a gas range. A carbon monoxide detector can help protect your household from dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas should your stove malfunction
- Convection ovens, which use an internal fan to distribute heat, cook food more quickly at lower temperatures, and may reduce the oven's energy use by as much 20%. The technology cost hundreds of dollars more than traditional ovens, however.
- Another non-traditional electric cooking technology, induction, is starting to make inroads in the U.S. market. It's the most energy efficient of all cooktop technologies, and it rivals gas in terms of its responsiveness to changes in temperature setting. An induction cooktop works by transferring electromagnetic energy directly to the cooking vessel rather than heating up the cooking surface, so little heat is wasted. Its main drawback is that it can only be used with ferrous metal cookware such as stainless steel and cast iron--not aluminum, copper, or glass-and high cost. And cost may be another hitch. These cooktops cost hundreds of dollars more than traditional types.
...to your wallet, to your health
In general, it's slightly less expensive to cook with gas than electricity. But gas cooking can introduce pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide into your home.
...to the Earth
The choice between gas and electric appliances makes an environmental difference, but it's a minor one, since cooking accounts for only 3% of a typical household's energy use. For the record: cooking with gas is more energy efficient and has a smaller carbon footprint because you're burning the fuel right where you need it instead of transporting energy over power lines. When you use electricity, a lot of energy is lost during generation (when fuels such as natural gas and coal are burned at power plants to create electricity), and again during distribution (when electricity is transported great distances across power lines).
If you're really looking to lower your carbon footprint, consider a solar oven. It's a simple device used for cooking outside under sunny skies. You can buy one, or make one yourself using a cardboard box, aluminum foil, black paint, and a piece of glass. On a sunny day, food placed in a pot in the solar oven reaches temperatures up to 275 degrees F., and the food cooks slowly. Some groups, like Solar Cookers International, are making solar ovens available to families in the developing world as a healthier, less expensive, nonpolluting replacement for cooking with wood or other fuel.
- Neglecting burners. If your gas burners produce flames with yellow or orange tips, they're burning inefficiently and producing too many pollutants. Ask your gas company to inspect the appliance and adjust the burners.
- Too much self-cleaning. Don't use the oven's self-cleaning feature too often. It uses a lot of energy.
- Using the oven as a furnace. Never use a gas oven or cooktop to heat your home. The buildup of carbon monoxide in your home could be deadly.
- Cooking without a fan. Whenever a gas oven or cooktop is turned on, it produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and other pollutants. Use the range hood exhaust fan to remove these pollutants. Note, however, that recirculating fans don't remove pollutants; only exhaust fans that are ducted to the outdoors will work. If your kitchen doesn't have an exhaust fan that vents to the outside, open a window when cooking with gas.
If you're replacing an oven or cooktop in good working condition, consider donating it to a local building materials reuse store. If it's not usable, have it recycled--cooking appliances contain a lot of recyclable steel. Contact your local waste hauler or recycling department or visit www.earth911.org for recycling options.