Dear Umbra,

My roommate takes 45-minute showers, does 10 loads of laundry a day, and spends her days watching show after show on TV. What is a nice or subtle way to get her to “cool down” (she didn’t like us secretly turning down the water heater)?

Tested Tom
Belmont, Calif.

Dearest Tom,

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Obviously the nice way is to courteously ask. We’ll assume this was attempted and failed.

Did you read my recent effort to assist a mother with a similar issue? Her teenager took long showers that drove the mom crazy, crazy enough to ask me for help (you gotta be crazy to be driven to such an extreme). But you might get a few ideas from that column and the ensuing discussion. Apparently the mom chose to have a conversation with the daughter, who agreed to make an effort and was up for keeping an eye on a timer placed in the shower.

Can she change her habits, or just her channels?

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A roommate cannot attain the leverage of a mother, and roommate dynamics can be difficult. You’ve got to live together, but you don’t necessarily share a set of what we might call “lifestyle priorities.” Nor, perhaps, is your friendship strong enough to withstand significant conflict or encourage compromise for friendship’s sake. Let’s be frank: secretly turning down the water heater did not build goodwill between you, nor give you the moral high ground.

If you are in cahoots — I mean agreement — with your other roomies, then you have the strength in numbers that often settles roommate conflict. I think you have a few noncombative options. The first, of course: ignore the problem. The second: install various low-cost, renter-friendly conservation items such as low-flow showerheads (almost certainly available for free or cheap in California — check around).

Next, sit down with her and talk about why you are concerned about energy use. Don’t start with her as the problem; start with energy use as the problem. Talk about environmentalism. Feel free to use some variant of the elevator pitch, or just wade right in with, “One of my personal priorities is to reduce my energy use, because I believe that climate change is happening and I don’t want to contribute to it more than I must. We’ve all been trying to use less energy and I think we forgot to talk with you about it. Let me tell you a few things about energy use, blah blah. Would you be up for taking shorter showers, using only cold water in the washer, etc.?”

That conversation is the nice option which, as I said up top, is the obvious one I think you may have already tried. Niceness: don’t assume anyone is doing something wrong on purpose. Maybe they just didn’t know.

Of course, this sort of conversation can feel difficult. So your best option, conversation-wise, may be Ye Olde Financiale Incentivee. Do you pay for your electricity, hot water, and laundry facilities? If so, raise the point that shorter showers, etc., means lower bills for all.

If that doesn’t work, cease dividing the bills evenly — if the lady truly consumes far more than her share of the resources, she should pay accordingly. First, you’ll need to know the basic kWh or therms per unit of activity: Check the electric or gas meter before a load of wash, and after; before a load of dry, and after; before an hour of TV and after; etc. Subtract the first number from the second and you’ll know how much energy each action uses. On the electric or gas bill you can learn the cents per therm or kWh (if you don’t get the bill, the rates should be on the companies’ websites). Next, track her (and your) usage for a week, including all the appliances you mention in your letter. Then once you know how many loads of laundry, how many houry of showery, how much hours of TV-ery each of you use, you can each pay a proportionate fixed amount per month toward those bills, and divide the remainder (lights, stove, fridge, etc.) evenly.

If you don’t pay any utility bills, I can’t see what leverage you have beyond asking nicely and leaving occasional flyers lying about. I think it’s great that you want to try to help her change, and I understand your frustration; just remember that people often take a while to adopt new ways of thinking. Be patient with her as best you can.


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