How Low Can You Go? Japanese Movement Clamps Down on Amps

You should really put a door on that. (Photo: Randy Hooker [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article and accompanying video on Ampere Down, a grassroots energy conservation movement in Japan that goes above and behind rather quotidian methods of saving a few bucks around the house like being mindful to turn off the lights and installing smart power strips.

Instead, a growing number of residents in the land of bagel heads and bird apartments are lowering the capacity of their circuit breaker boxes — physically swapping them in with utility companies for smaller models below 30 amps. In effect, the dramatic drop in juice that they're capable of drawing without blowing a fuse forces these bold energy-savers to rely on brooms instead of vacuums (10 amps), hand-held fans instead of AC units (10 amps), clay pots instead of electric rice cookers (13 amps), and old-school washboards instead of washing machines.

This scenario may be unthinkable for those of us who have on more than once occasion had to fumble around for a flashlight in the dark after running a hairdryer and a space heater simultaneously (in my apartment, the magic combination for fuse-blowing is air conditioner + toaster oven + TV). Although we may do our best to conserve, the U.S. is a convenience-driven, amp-hungry nation where the norm for a main breaker box in a new home is 100 amps. In Japan, more than 40 percent of Tokyo Electric Power Co. customers rely on 30 ampere breaker boxes — the Ampere Down movement is all about driving that figure down even further.

Interesting enough, Ampere Down can be traced back to the 2007 efforts of a grassroots "slow living" organization called the Sloth Club. This obviously predates last year’s catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis when the already energy-conscious nation, faced with rolling blackouts and outages, went into full-on conservation mode. Since then, the idea of capping breaker boxes has only gotten more popular as the country pledges to wean itself off of nuclear power and further explore renewable energy options including solar.

The brains behind Ampere Down is actually a Canadian expat, English teacher, and energy activist named Peter Howlett. A resident of Hokkaido, Howlett and his family initially downgraded their circuit breaker boxes from 30 to 20 amperes, but not without a whole lot of, umm, tripping up. You see, amping down is all about trial and error; estimating — or knowing — the exact amount of amperage drawn by each household appliance and experimenting with how many gizmos and gadgets can be operated simultaneously without overloading the system. It's also about scheduling and communication. At first, the Howletts were tripping the breaker on a daily basis. Eventually, they got it down to once a month. “It makes us more conscious about the energy we're using. We're always worrying about the breaker breaking — especially when my son has just typed something on his computer,” Howlett tells the WSJ.

And then there’s Megumi and Makoto Arakida, a couple living in the rural community of Nirasaki City. They made the plunge from 30 to 10 amperes this past February. In the process, they sacrificed their washing machine, television, electric toothbrushes, and vacuum cleaners. They even parted with their electric range and gas heater and replaced it with a wood-burning stove. During the summer, they cook outside on a charcoal grill. And on colder nights, they even do without the circuit with the refrigerator.

"When I told my parents our electric bill was under 1,000 yen ($13) a month, they asked 'What kind of life are you two living?'” says Makoto Arakida. He adds: "They’re a bit worried."

Well, apparently Arakida’s parents are going to have to keep on worrying, because in the words of his charged-up about amping down wife: “We’re just getting started.”

Have any of you fiddled around with or replaced with your circuit breaker or fuse boxes in order to conserve electricity? Or is the thought of blowing a fuse every time you try to run the microwave while watching TV while fiddling around on your laptop simply infeasible?

Via [WSJ]