How Many Hamsters Would it Take to Power Your Home and Would This Be Cheaper Than Coal Power?

Jeremy A. asks: How many hamsters running on electricity generating wheels would it take to provide enough energy for an average American household?  Would this be cheaper than coal electricity?

hamster houseWhile the question of hamsters powering homes may seem a bit farcical, it should be noted that at one point humans did specifically breed a certain type of dog for the sole purpose of it just walking along at a steady pace on a giant wheel… (See our article The Curious Tale of Turnspit Dogs.)

Now, to begin with, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average American household uses about 901 kWh per month, which for the sake of simplicity we’re going to round down to 900 kWh. A single kWh is equal to 3.6 Megajoules. This means in any given month, an average American household uses about 3,240 Megajoules of energy. In a given year, that would be about 38,880 Megajoules.

The amount of power produced by your typical hamster running as fast as it can on its little wheel is understandably much more difficult to nail down. However, it appears that a properly motivated little ball of fluff can reliably produce somewhere in the ballpark of 0.5 joules per second while running.

Now the number of seconds in a year is approximately 31,540,000 (give or take depending on leap year and the like).  Thus, a hamster with infinite stamina and no need to sleep could produce about 15,770,000 joules or 15.77 Megajoules per year.  This means it would take approximately 2,465 such hamsters to provide the needed electricity to power a typical American home for a year.

Of course, hamsters with infinite stamina and with no need to sleep do not exist, so what about using real hamsters?

It’s estimated that a typical hamster will spend about 5% of their time exercising. Thus, instead of around 15.77 Megajoules per year, we can reasonably expect about 0.8 Megajoules per year per hamster, unless you wanted to selectively breed some super hamster or something, FOR SCIENCE, which we could totally get behind. But barring that, we’ll go with the currently existing real world variety.

Thus, it would take in the ballpark of 486,000 hamsters running on wheels connected to generators to produce enough electricity for an average American home for a year.

And for further reference, given the 3 year lifespan of a typical hamster kept in captivity, to power a home for the average amount of time a typical homeowner lives in it (13 years according to National Association of Home Builders), you’d need well over 2.1 million hamsters, with a little excess to account for baby and elderly hamsters not pulling their own weight.

Now to the second part of the question- would hamster power be cheaper than coal power?

A typical hamster costs anywhere between $4 and $20 dollars, depending on the pet store you buy it from, the breed and coloration. Thus, you’d be looking at spending around $10 million over that 13 years just on the cost of hamster alone, even at the $4 price.

However, given you’d have more than enough hamsters around to breed your own after some first starter batch, we’re prepared to say that the price of acquiring your hamster stock wouldn’t actually be anywhere close to that $10 million figure.  For reference, a female hamster can breed at a rate of about 5 baby hamsters, give or take, every 3 weeks or so, and then ready to go again, sometimes within just 24 hours of giving birth.

Further, as with many species and politicians, the males are both willing and able to get it on even multiple times per day with multiple partners if the females will let them. On top of that, hamsters become sexually mature at around 4-6 weeks.

So if you started with just 1000 hamsters, with a large percentage female, purchased at a bulk discount of, say, a dollar or two a hamster, you could feasible very cheaply ramp up to the needed half million or so hamsters with controlled breeding in under 6 months.

But we’re not done because there are a lot of ancillary expenses here. To begin with, all of those hamsters need cages- an additional expense of around $30 dollars per hamster cage. If you wanted to have one hamster per cage, you’ll need about 500,000 cages or so- a steal at just $15 million dollars.

Now, you could put multiple hamsters in a cage (assuming you aren’t using a breed like the common Syrian hamster that cannot be kept together lest they murder each other). But if you did this, you’d definitely want to put in place some sort of breeding control unless you had in mind to sell excess hamsters for profit.

But either way, according to the Humane Society, hamsters need about two square feet of cage per hamster for a happy little life- and as we all know, a happy worker is a good worker. So doubling up or more would just mean bigger cages and thus the cost benefit might not really be all that much unless you’re just a cruel person caring only for electricity to power your iPhone and not for any creatures you have to step on to get it. (#Hamsterlivesmatter)

The real savings here with regard to cages might simply just be in economy of scale. If you called up a hamster cage making company and said you wanted to place an order for 500,000 hamster cages, we’re pretty sure that after doing a little happy dance, they’d be willing to cut the price down pretty markedly.  How much is impossible to say, of course, as no hamster cage maker we could find lists the type of discount they’d give on an order of 500,000 hamster cages.  However, based on what we found from large scale hamster cage maker’s wholesale bulk pricing (when purchasing hundreds of units at a time), it would seem you can get an adequately sized hamster cage setup for $3-$5 per unit, cutting the price for cages down to roughly $2 million.

But wait, there’s more. You’ll also need food for the hamsters. A 2lb bag of hamster food can last around a month and will cost you about $5 if bought in bulk. (Or, at least, given current bulk prices of pre-packaged hamster food grain mixes.)

This means that feeding about a half million hamsters will cost about $30 million per year.

Now normally we might say that some government subsidies might kick in here similar to what coal power enjoys, but in this case probably not. You see, about 30% of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal power. Thus, if the power companies all decided to switch to hamster power from coal, this would result in a required grain mix food supply of about 400 trillion pounds per year for the approximately 16 trillion hamsters needed. Unfortunately, this eclipses the annual world-wide production of grain which currently sits at about 6 trillion pounds per year.

So we’re going to go ahead and assume given it would only be possible for a very small percentage of the population to benefit from hamster power and that it wouldn’t ever scale beyond that, until Big Hamster inevitably starts to line the pockets of politicians, no such subsidies will exist.

That said, on the one-house scale, we’ll go ahead and allow for a pretty substantial discount given the massive bulk orders one would be placing annually here. And from a little googling around on what granaries in the U.S. tend to sell various grains for by the ton, it would seem the actual price of the hamster food annually would be about $1 million per year, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars.

Of course, hamsters running on a wheel won’t do you much good unless there is some sort of electricity generating device hooked up to them. So what will that cost?

At the high end, electric motors that can generate 0.5 joules per second each at around a ballpark RPM rate needed here would run in the range of $3 million without bulk discounting. Unfortunately we were not able to find a supplier that would give us a quote for what a half a million of such motors would cost with discounting applied. But from much smaller scale bulk discounts we did observe, we’re willing to bet one could probably cut the price in half. So we’ll just go ahead and estimate those little motors would cost around $1.5 million… Work with us here people.

But we’re not done. Your hamster power plant will take up a significant amount of floor space. If you take into account the size of a small cage and the accompanying food stores and aren’t being Hitler to the Hamsters, this would maximally take around a million square feet of warehouse space. However, this can be substantially reduced via stacking the cages up as far as their structural integrity could take.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you stacked the cages 10 high and spaced the rows about two feet apart for access.  Now, the exact number of rows needed would depend partially on the design of cages and warehouse layout, but we’ll ballpark it and say you’d need roughly 300 rows, meaning a warehouse roughly 600 ft by 320 ft or around 192,000 square feet of space. Adding in space for food storage and the like, and 200,000 square feet (about 450 feet by 450 feet) seems like a reasonable estimate.

Now, the co-author of this piece, Karl Smallwood of FactFiend fame, actually went ahead and contacted a real estate agent leasing a similarly size warehouse as would be needed here and was informed that for a long term rental the price could be negotiated down. But unfortunately he was rebuffed when they asked what we’d be using the space for and he started talking about hamsters.

So, bottom line, we never got an official estimate of how much the price on the space could be negotiated down too. Thus, instead we went with the average rental cost of large warehouse space per square foot in the U.S. which is about $4.80. This would create an additional cost of $960,000 every year.

Now, a typical hamster can poop quite a bit, but we had a really hard time tracking down a figure on exact daily pooping rates of hamsters. However, after observing a friend’s hamster for an hour and spending some time on hamster-owner message boards, we concluded that they probably poop about 20 times a day, give or take.

Multiplying this by the amount of hamsters you, our fictitious burgeoning mad genius will own, this means you’ll have to deal with about 10 million tiny hamster turds per day. Estimating that each adorable little piece of fecal matter weighs about a gram, you’ll have to somehow clean up 10,000 kilos of poop every day- the cost of which varies depending on how you plan on disposing of it.

However, we’re prepared to write off the cost of disposal completely given the potential here to make the poop, composted with the soiled wood shavings, a money maker if used for fertilizer or things of this nature. And, in fact, using biogas recovery systems similar to ones developed for generating electricity via cow-poop, there’s even potential for some electricity generation this way to offset the cost before moving on to the fertilizer stage. So, again, we’re going to go ahead and summarily call the poop and wood shaving disposal cost a wash.

Rounding out the potential major costs includes things like climate control, wood shavings for flooring for your little hamster army, water, and caretakers.

We’re prepared to think you could automate the feeding and watering easily and cheaply enough (at least relative to the other costs), and thus wouldn’t actually need that terribly many workers excepting to clean the cages.

As for this, it would appear based on a surprising number of forum posts around the interwebs discussing the length of time it takes to clean a hamster cage, that a laymen would be looking at about 20 minutes per complete cleaning done weekly and only a few minutes for spot cleaning done daily. However, we’re guessing a pro-cleaner could cut those times at least in half and one could probably skip the spot cleaning without too negatively impacting the hamsters.

Thus, you’d require roughly 350,000 man hours per month to keep the cages clean, likely making up the majority of cost of labor here. This would be a little over 2,000 or so full time workers operating the facility. As this is pretty low skilled work, we’re going to assign the average salary here to be equivalent to the average McDonald’s worker, and thus bringing your labor cost to around $40 million per year… Of course, you could always save money here by employing for free an army of children who claim they want a hamster and are willing to take care of it if given one.

Or, given the pretty steep price tag for non-child labor, we’re pretty confident you could just invest some money into largely automating the cleaning process as this seems to be an easily solvable problem that no one has yet addressed owing to kids needing to learn responsibility.

But how much the upfront cost would be on cage modifications and the like to automate the process is impossible to estimate even with the types of large error bars we’re already dealing with, so we’ll leave that estimate to you, dear reader.

Going back to the daily water requirements, this would only be in the realm of 10,000 liters per day (2600 gallons). Thus, this cost is going to be negligible given the average cost of water in the U.S. per gallon from a utility is only about $1.50 per 1000 gallons. Though, maybe don’t set up your operation in Southern California…

As for the wood shavings, as noted, these need replaced roughly once a week to keep a healthy, happy hamster, and would maximally cost about $34 million per year. However, upon searching, we found a company that sells baled wood shavings by the semi-truck load of the grade and type needed for a cost of approximately 1/50th of the price of bulk hamster bed shavings found at pet stores. This brings the price down to only around $600,000 per year.

Moving on to climate control, this would vary based on climate, but in general most types of hamster, despite being desert animals by nature, tend to prefer temperatures in the range of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit or 18-24 degrees Celsius, similar to humans. So in order to avoid having to use more energy than the hamsters are generating to climate control the facility, you’d probably want to go ahead and pick a pretty mild to cool climate area for your home and hamster power farm.

You see, it turns out your half a million hamsters generate quite a bit of heat, so with decent insulation and a controllable heat exchanger system for the warehouse to get fresh air coming in while regulating temperature appropriately, you should have very little trouble keeping the warehouse warm enough in winter. You can even use some of this warm air to directly heat your house, cutting out the middle man, assuming you want your house to smell like a mix of hamster, urine, pine, and feces.

On the other end, so long as you lived in a region with mild summers and you had ability to open the warehouse up to significant natural air circulation, the summers shouldn’t cost you much of anything either.

Pick the wrong climate, however, and this would be a very different story. For your reference here, the average cost of heating or cooling a warehouse space in the U.S. is approximately 30 cents per square foot per year, which would put the hamster power plant at around $60,000 per year for climate control.

This finally brings us to wiring. Luckily you wouldn’t need very thick wiring to carry the kind of currents needed here to some central power management unit. And even with the vast length needed, with the bulk discounting numbers we’re seeing, this cost would be negligible compared to the cost of the other major factors, at under $50,000.

While there certainly would be other costs associated with rigging up such a setup, including battery storage, power regulators, etc., given the cost of the most expensive bits, we can safely assume they likewise wouldn’t affect the overall ballpark figure that much when talking about powering a single home.

Thus, to sum up the cost of enough hamster power to run one home, with the aforementioned bulk discounting applied and some reasonable sized error bars, it would appear we’re looking at around $6 million the first year (including setup costs) and roughly $2.5-$3 million every year thereafter, plus cost of labor which, depending on the level of automation you come up with and/or free child labor, would likely range from a few million dollars per year up to around $40 million.

So what does coal power cost?  According to Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, unsubsidized coal power used to power one average American home for a year would cost approximately $1,200, though it’s noted they don’t take into account external environmental and health impact costs and the like- simply attempting to strip away more direct subsidies.

But either way, very unfortunately, even if you wanted to create a breed of Lance Armstrong-esk hamsters (though maybe with both balls to maximize virility, but otherwise do go ahead and pump them full of steroids), then go the insanely inhumane route to cut down on infrastructure costs and force long running times, and then have Big Hamster push hard for government subsidies, coal power’s still going to win this one hands down- humorously probably even on environmental impact, all things considered.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • Researchers in 2009 actually found a way of creating electricity from hamsters, outfitting them with tiny jackets that converted their every movement they made into usable AC energy. Utilising flexible nanowires made of zinc oxide that produce electricity every time they are flexed, bent or otherwise moved, the small jackets allowed a single hamster to produce about 1 twentieth the energy released by a AA battery while running. The idea is to eventually use this technology to produce clothes that charge our phones or other technology such as medical devices during ordinary movement.
  • The BBC once tried to power an average UK household (which typically uses less energy than a US one) using a team of 80 cyclists to highlight the problem of energy waste. While the team of cyclists were able to power the house for a short time, they were eventually overwhelmed when the family’s children tried to play Nintendo at the same time the kettle was turned on.
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