Thursday, February 02, 2006

Energy Pinching Devices

Devices that leave you in the dark

by Carla Diana

ROME, May 5, 1997 -- I spent my first night in my [Image]
new apartment in Rome freezing under the covers,
for fear that the "heat police" would cart me away if I
got too toasty. The place where my friends and I live in
came equipped with a perfectly operational heater, but
we'd been told by the woman who rented us the apartment
(utilities included in a flat fee) that it was against
the law to leave the heater on while sleeping.

"The police will come in the middle of the night," she
warned us. "They'll look at your faces and see the sleep
in your eyes and you'll be hit with a huge fine!"

The more impressionable of us fell for it, but it didn't
take long before my Equadoran housemate stumbled out at 3
a.m. and headed for the heater in a half-conscious
craving for warmth. The reason for the vigilance was
supposedly fear of carbon monoxide poisoning, but now
that we've been here long enough to see how frugal the
Romans are with energy, we think it may have more to do
with our landlord's desire to save on utility bills than
anything else.

Those cold nights are gone now, but there are lots of
cost-saving measures that continue to be tough to contend
with. Public restrooms are often the scenes of such
indignities -- there are few things as degrading as being
caught in the dark in a public bathroom with your drawers
down because the electric eye was timed to shut off after
ninety seconds. After talking to friends I found that I
wasn't the only one left to wave her arms frantically as
if swatting a fly the size of a great dane in order to
reactivate the light. The sinks can be as obnoxious as
the stall lights. I felt sorry for the woman in the great
silk suit when she dripped soapy water all over herself
after repeatedly thrusting her hands under the sink's
stubborn electric eye to get a rinse.

And then there are the hallway lights in apartment
buildings: some need to be turned on by a switch, making
you grope at the wall like a lost soul trying to find his
way out of a cave, and many of these are set on
auto-timers so that any dillydallying on the stairway
will leave you tripping over the next step in the dark.
[I had similar problems at a fleabag hotel in the center
of Paris and at a similarly downscale rooming house in
north central London. Could this be a Europe-wide phenom?
-- Ed.]

Within my apartment there's more evidence of the
landlord's energy consciousness.The water tank holds
enough for four hot showers, and the five of us who share
the apartment get mighty competitive in the morning.
There's no electricity-guzzling clothes dryer, so doing
laundry is a three-day process involving decorating rooms
with the eyesore of sopping clothes on drying racks. We
swoon at the thought of taking a steamy bath when we get
back home and having a warm towel straight from the dryer
waiting to embrace us.

Not all the cost-saving devices are an aggravation. The
compact fluorescent light bulbs that are virtually
omnipresent in light fixtures do a fine job of lighting
spaces at a third of the cost or less, and electric eye
switches, when easy to use, can be both a cost-efficient
and sanitary solution for a public restroom. Though we
didn't appreciate the myth of the "heat police," we do
recognize the ultimate benefit of energy savings and
conserving the planet's resources, and will return to the
States with a keener eye for energy-saving appliances.

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This column is an exclusive.


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