Blog U › 
  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

A critical decision
February 18, 2008 - 7:51am

It’s funny, how sometimes the best way to understand big issues in big, complex, institutional contexts is to solve little problems in little, simple, personal contexts. A case in point ...

Last Friday, a terrible thing happened in my house. I put coffee in the filter, put the filter in the basket, added water, hit the button and nothing happened! (If you want to take a moment to recover from the sheer horror of that situation, it’s OK. I’ll wait for you. Just say when.)

Now, it wasn’t as bad as you may have been imagining. I had a Plan B. (As Hank, Jr. put it, a country boy can survive.) I pulled out the old aluminum percolater from the camping equipment, stuck it on the stove, and brewed up a pot of jet fuel. However, it was plain to me that the glory that is camp coffee is significantly less glorious when you substitute your kitchen for the wonders of the outdoors. A replacement was clearly necessary.

So, on the way home Friday, I made a stop at the local big box retailer. ( Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.) Once I found Small Appliances (’two states down, and it’s on your left’), I was faced with an array of probably 20 different models of coffeemakers. Some of them seemed to differ only in choice of designer color (does anyone actually perceive color before their first cup in the morning?), but cosmetics aside, there were three basic designs available.

  • The most common design required water in the base of the unit (poured down the back, but pooling in the base nonetheless), spewed coffee into a glass carafe, and had a warmer under the carafe to keep the coffee hot after brewing.
  • Two units were designed with insulated carafes, and no warmers.
  • And one unit ("commercial style") had a reservoir of water in the top of the coffeemaker. Add cold water to the reservoir, the previously heated water is displaced and flows through the ground coffee into a glass carafe on a warmer.

From a sustainability — and personal economy — point of view, the decision was easy. Coffeemakers draw a lot of electricity (900 Watts seems typical). A warmer which runs for 2 hours before turning itself off would use almost 2 kilowatt-hours daily, to do the same job an insulated carafe would do for free. In my part of the country, that’s an operating cost differential of about 30 cents a day. A unit with an insulated carafe cost about $30 more to purchase, but in 100 days I’d be even, and after that I’d be ahead. Done.

The real eye-opener was the “commercial style” unit. Its proclaimed virtue is that it brews fast — coffee in only three minutes. But to achieve that brewing speed, it keeps at least a pot-full of water at brewing temperature all day long! To the 30 cents a day to run the warmer, add another 40 cents a day (if the reservoir heater runs about one minute in every ten) to keep the water warm for 24 hours. Add a purchase price which was $40 higher than the insulated unit I chose, and the thing’s clearly a non-starter.

But the decision which was so easy for me on a personal level seems to confound Greenback U. I don’t know how many coffeemakers there are on campus, but it’s a lot. And all of them which were purchased through the U itself are “commercial style", only worse! Not only do they keep a pot-full of water hot all day, every day, but they have three warmers rather than one. And the warmers don’t turn themselves off after two hours (as anybody who’s had to scrub out a quarter-pot of solidified coffee on Monday morning will attest). How much of the time is the reservoir heater running? How many warmers are typically turned on? How long do they stay on each day? Any estimate I could give of of power consumed, money wasted, or CO2 emitted would be wrong, but it’s clearly a lot. And for what?

Some of the behavioral changes we’ll need to make to achieve sustainability will be difficult. But this one’s easy. Brew coffee into an insulated carafe rather than a glass one, and wait a couple of minutes longer for the pot to brew. (My new unit takes between 5 and 6 minutes to brew a full pot. That’s longer than 3, but not by much.) If one of us does it, the impact is trivial. But if all of us do it, ...

The really critical decision is the one I made implicitly, when I knew I had to get a new coffeemaker. It’s the decision to consider future energy consumption as part of any purchase choice. My purchase decision took maybe two minutes longer than it otherwise might have, but the benefits of it will accrue starting on day 101, and lasting for probably 2-3 years (if previous experience is any guide).

Got a sustainability question? (Got a really good supplier of Fair Trade dark-roast coffee beans?) Email me at


Please review our commenting policy here.


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top