Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reducing landfill

Be careful thinking too much about closing the loop, it can mean you will redesign your place many times to try to turn waste into useful inputs elsewhere in your plot.  Next thing you know the only place which makes sense is to move your chicken coop immediately uphill from your vegie patch so that soil nutrients become a valuable input every time it rains rather than a pollutant for someone else.

It also means when you get your waste guide from the Council, you're likely to down tools and read it cover to cover.  That's what we did.  (Sigh).

Increasingly councils are encouraging people to cycle their waste through recycling.  There's lots of good info in the Council's guide on this, but for us, today's gem was about landfill.

Landfill is basically the stuff that isn't reused or recycled - the loop isn't closed, and it becomes someone else's problem to deal with.  Through households separating things out, landfill has reduced, but the reality is that the average household still sends 740kg to landfill each year (that's nearly the weight of a small car, every single year - imagine trying to bury that in your back yard).

What surprised us was that the biggest portion is good compostable goodies which could be used to build soil rather than generate methane (a potent greenhouse gas) at the tip (see diagram below).
We always thought that it would be good if people were charged for how much rubbish they generate, and rewarded if they generated less.  In today's guide we realised they kind of are.

In our council area (Wollongong), once a year you can change the size of your general waste (landfill) bin.  Larger bins cost more, smaller bins cost less.

We currently have a 120L wheely bin, which rarely has much in it.  By changing down to a 80L bin (reduction by 1/3), we save $79 a year and, get a nice visual prompt to stop generating so much waste and give the neighbours something to talk about.  Lovely.

If you're in the Wollongong Council area, send in this form before the end of February and there's no charge for the changeover.  You can always change back (for a fee) if things get out of hand, or change again for free next year.

If you're not in our Council area, why not check with your Council and see what you can do.

Our Council doesn't do the same thing for other bins yet (recyclables and green waste) but we'll take that option when it comes.

Here's Wollongong Council's guide to being waste-wise which we think is a pretty good read.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Saving electricity and CO2

Everything's gone a bit Dorothea McKellar

In the last few months Brisbane was underwater, Queensland and Victoria were ravaged by floods and everyone else seems to be getting heat waves, record rain, floods, plagues, bush fires or snow storms.

In the news this week there were two stories which really got our attention and have burnt themselves into our subconscious.  The first says that we're got little chance of keeping climate change to 2 degrees (the limit where things might still be manageable) and we're on track for 4 (genuine biblical proportions stuff). The other one is that electricity prices are going up again and are set to double every 5 years.  Eek, it's enough to drive you to despair. 

What can we do?  Well for the Joneses, it was time for us to do what we do best, be the Joneses we want to see in the world, and show people what we're doing (including the mandatory mistakes we make along the way so that you don't have to).

Today we went back to the drawing board to see what we could do, whether we'd done the right things and what else we can do.  We're pleased to report that we're not doing too bad and some things are paying off.  Here's a bunch of stuff we did to reduce our electricity consumption since we moved here nearly two years ago.

Tackling the big things first

The electricity in our part of the world comes from coal fired electricity which is relatively cheap in the short term but is one of the most carbon intensive forms of energy.  We wanted to get away from this.  

We looked at gas but our town doesn't have access to gas infrastructure, which means if we want gas we've got to buy it by the bottle and have it trucked in.  While possibly less carbon intensive than buying electricity, it just didn't resonate with us.

We paid the extra for Green Power and the first electricity bill was so outrageous that we just couldn't afford it.  Somehow we were consuming twice as much power as we had been at The Newtown Cottage.  We also were pretty sure that electricity companies have to have a mandatory portion of renewables, and by us paying for Green Power, all it was doing was paying them extra money to let them off the hook and didn't achieve much unless they'd already hit their targets.  Not a good option.  

We looked at solar panels, but our roof gets a lot of shade and doesn't get enough sun to make sense.

Also it seems that a large part of the increased cost of electricity is due to capacity limits of the grid during peak periods, so the real key is reducing demand.  Reducing our consumption without compromising our lifestyle was clearly the go. So the most sensible option was to invest time and money now in things which will save us time and money for many years to come (and lots of electricity and carbon emissions too).

You can spend a lot of time, effort and money on things which help a little, but don't really make much of a dent in your electricity consumption. So our first step was to focus on the big things first.  Here's a chart of the energy use of a 'typical' Aussie household. 

Source: http://yourhome.gov.au/technical/fs61.html
This gave us a good hint on where to start.

Now this data is for the typical household, so we looked at the big areas and if they looked inefficient at our place then we figured they were over the average.  Our two big ones were hot water, and heating and cooling, which we figured accounted for around 65% of our electricity bills and at least 50% of our emissions.

Hot water

We were horrified to see that hot water for the house came from two electric storage hot water systems, but because that there's no gas here we can understand why they were installed.  Given that this would be using at least 25% of our electricity this was the smartest place to start.

Needless to say we were really happy when the building report said they were at the end of their useful lives and needed replacing almost immediately.  We were also stoked to see there was still a hot water rebate available to get rid of inefficient hot water systems which would pick up about half of the cost.

As a rule of thumb traditional solar hot water systems trump everything else, followed by instantaneous gas.  Everything else is horribly inefficient.  We went with the best solar system we could afford, which was about double the price for a traditional Edwards/Solahart unit, but also twice as efficient and should last twice as long.  Other than in high use days in winter our hot water is pretty much free, even though we're in an area with two hours less daylight than most people due to being on the low side of a ridge to the north and having a lot of overcast days.

Savings: $180 per annum at current prices.  4-5 tonnes of CO2 - about the same as taking a light use hybird car off the road or planing 23 trees.

Was it worth it?  

Definitely for guilt reduction.  On a financial basis alone it'll pay for itself in about 8 years, and then keep on giving for another 20 or so.  Money well spent.  And we also got to meet Stephen from Viabuild who introduced us to permaculture, so that was a big bonus.

Would we do it differently next time

If we were city and strapped for cash we'd go instantaneous gas every time, but for where we are it was definitely the right move.  We'd definitely do it again.

Here's the skinny on our system.

Heating and cooling

Most of our appliances are reasonably efficient, we've got low wattage lightbulbs in and turn off the big appliances at the wall.  The computers are laptops.  We got rid of the big inefficient clunky hotplates that take 2 hours to heat and and cool and replaced with an efficient convection system. With this out of the way we figured the bulk of our energy use comes from heating and cooling.

The Joneshack is a 108 year old weatherboard house, built in the days before insulation. Weatherboard houses are great because you can cool the place down quickly in summer when the evening breeze comes in, but they're also hard to live in on really hot and cold days.

Mrs Jones was keen to put her mark on the new place.  We opted for ceiling fans with lights in them - they are stylish and functional, and besides, have you been able to find a tasteful light fitting anywhere that looks good with compact fluros?  The fans are great to avoid having to use the aircon, and the bright lights come in handy when the energy efficient floor lamps aren't bright enough.

We planted a nice deciduous tree in front of the main north facing windows to allow heat and light in during winter and keep it out in summer, and have trees shading the west side of the house to keep the hot afternoon sun out.  Deciduous fruit trees are growing in front of the east facing windows to deal with summer morning sun.  These will take some time but will be wonderful when established.

We moved in just before winter and were struck by how cold the house got compared to our previous place in Newtown.  There was no heating in the house - the previous owners had used fan heaters in every room, which means their power consumption must have been astronomical. This could not stand.  The Jones do not abide.

We looked at the various options, and decided that reverse cycle induction airconditioning was going to be the most cost effective option for heating and cooling.  As crazy as it sounds, induction systems can be highly efficient for heating because they extract heat from outside rather than having to create it from scratch.  Similarly they transfer heat outside of the house when in cooling mode and it means only shelling out cash once instead of having to buy a heater as well as a cooler.

In the short term while we were understanding how the house works, it meant we could turn the portable heaters off, saving a small fortune and oodles of CO2, and put the hot water bottles away and stop watching the steam coming off our breath while indoors.

But it still wasn't working.  We figured we must be losing heat out of the windows and doors.  So we sealed the doors, and put in some air tight window covers (we opted for wooden shutters, they have better thermal performance and for 50% more than the price of blinds, they look a lot better and last a lot longer).

Still no good.  We turned the laundry into an airlock so the dog can get in and out without a draft.

Still no good.  We got someone around to give us a quote of underfloor insulation, which is where we figured the last 15% might be, and it turned out that there was no insulation in the ceiling. We'd squandered our rebates on the hot water service, but for under $1000 we were able to get the Battman to do our roof with R4.0 pink batts.  Superb job, and what a difference that made.

Months later, it's still wasn't quite working out.  We'd been unable to find anyone to supply or install underfloor insulation and with our uneven joists and bearers, everything was a strange size and not square. We finally sourced and installed some Foilboard underfloor insulation in a few of the rooms and the difference was noticeable immediately in the rooms we'd done.  It's an awkward job, but pretty easy once we got the hang of it and one we should have got to earlier.  The guides say that there's only 15% energy efficiency to be picked up in insulating floors, but for us it feels like a lot more.

Was it worth it?  

Mrs Jones says definitely, she doesn't like extreme heat or cold much.  Mr Jones doesn't cope with humidity so he's happy too.  The reality is without the inverters, and insulation the place would have been unbearable during the winter and in the heatwave during the last few days.

Since installing all the kit, Mr and Mrs Jones are both spending nearly twice as much time at home and our power bills have remained more or less flat even when they should have jumped significantly.  The fact that someone is at home nearly all the time and we're still tracking below average household power use, even without gas is a pretty good outcome.

All up we've spent about $5,000.  It's hard to work out what our power bills might be without all the kit, but if we say an extra 10% on our bills, that's about $150-200 per annum, so about the same result as the hot water system, so about the same bang for buck ignoring rebates.

Would we do it differently next time

Your insulation is only as good as your biggest gap. In our case we learned this the hard way. We spent time looking for gaps, only to miss big ones. If you're going to do insulation, particularly in a weatherboard house, don't do it a bit at a time, do the lot at once.  Also if you've got an attic, don't overlook this, it needs to also be insulated, including the floor and roof cavity.

If we were a bit more confident we would have put a wood stove and bricked around it.  This would have given more thermal mass to maintain the temperature in the house rather than just heating or cooling the air, and the stove could cook, heat the house and give the hot water system a boost in winter.  

We'd probably spend the extra and get an induction cooktop instead of a ceramic one.


We pretty much did a lot of the text book things to our house, and they all seem to work, but have taken us time to get right.  We'd agree with the text books though:

1. Change to solar hot water, or instantaneous gas if its an option and you're short of cash.
2. Deciduous trees as first option around the house to deal with the summer heat while allowing winter sun in - they're the cheapest option.  If we were to do it again, we'd spend more and get more established trees.
3. Get as much thermal mass into the centre of your house as you can (which we didn't do), and have as little thermal mass around the outside of your house as you can (check).
4. Insulate the house well (in progress)
5. Efficient heating and cooling solutions.

This should give you the biggest bang for buck while you're also tinkering around the edges.

One of the best resources we've found is the Your Home Technical Manual and the fact sheets are available free online.  We found it invaluable, to the point that we could talk rings around the Green Home assessors.  We'd suggest having a really good look at it.  It's clear, simple and very very useful.

The Joneses
Be the Joneses you want to see in the world

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Integrating your worm farm into your vegie patch

I've been a bit worried about our worm farm for a while now.

We've had our worm farm for around 5 years and it's served us well for our inner city lifestyle when we had nearly no gardening space. Indeed, the worm farm probably got us turned on to all this home-scale permaculture stuff in the first place, so much so that we started giving them to people as Christmas presents.  So we owe it a great deal.

They are truly a wonderful system particularly for tiny back yards and balconies but since getting our quarter acre on the urban fringe a number of things have been bugging me.

The vegie patch is on the north side the house to get the sun and be near the kitchen, but the worm farm is on the south side of the house to keep it cool.

Not being near the kitchen means that that putting scraps in the worm farm is an additional chore rather than something you do on the way to play in the vegie patch.

Not being near the vegie patch means that harvesting the castings and liquid fertiliser is something you need to find time to do, and have to cart to the vegie patch rather than being automatically fed into your soil when there's rain.

Being out of sight out of mind is not good for any key elements in your system and a good way for it to be neglected. Not what you want for a living system.

Most purchased worm farms are raised above the ground, which means the worms have nowhere to escape to on hot days. Alas the ones I gave to people died of heat, and with yesterday's heat wave mine are really not looking well at all.

After 5 years the colony should be mature, but they're still not able to keep up with our vegie scraps.

This whole business of multiple layers and trays just makes things complex. When is the bottom tray ready? Why is the top tray always full before you're ready to add a new tray etc.

All in all, what had served us well in the city wasn't working for us any more.

It was then that we saw the idea of a worm tower on Milkwood's blog. This makes a lot of sense so we've decided to give it a go. Have a look at their website for more detailed instructions, or better still do one of their courses, but here's what we did.

Step 1 : Buy a 65 cent plastic bucket

Yes, that's right, 65 cents.
 Step 2: Drill it full of holes with a 10mm drillbit, or whatever drill bit you've got lying around that is big enough to allow the worms in and out. If you don't have a drill you can burn holes with a soldering iron, or can use it for target practice with a .22. (My redneck past is coming out, you can never get away from it entirely).
Soak 1 newspaper in water.  Shred the paper, then drill holes in the bucket.

Step 3: Soak some newspaper in water and tear it up. Half fill the bucket.

Step 4: Add some compost worms and a bit of well wetted straw if you've got it.

Step 5: Fill the rest with newspaper

Finished product, croc shoes come pre-drilled.

Step 6: Dig a hole in a place where you want soil fertility.  Plant it in.

Plant it in, nearly up to the rim.
 Step 7: Put an air / light cover on top to keep the critters out (in our case an old bird bath)
Inviting eh?

Step 8: Let the worms settle in, then start feeding them scraps under a thick wad of damp newspaper. (My worms love newspaper, they leave castings all over it)

There's a lot of reasons why we like the idea.  Here's a few.
Traffic flows
  1. The worm farm is near the kitchen and kitchen garden. This means it's integrated into where we spend our time associated with food harvesting, food preparation, planting etc. Dealing with the worm farm is no longer a separate chore, it's just part of what happens in zone 1.
  2. The worms now do the work of improving the fertility of the soil without us lifting a finger. Liquid nutrient leeches into the soil and the worms can go out and spread their castings when they feel like it.
  3. The worm farm is now protected from daily temperature fluctuations.
  4. It's no longer an industrial looking thing, in fact most people wouldn't even know it's there.
  5. It's cheap and easy to replicate. By having multiple worm systems in the vegie patch like this it means if one has problems, the others can keep going. It also means we can scale up to the size needed to handle our vegie waste by adding more 65 cent buckets. 
  6. There's a bird bath in the our system which looks nice, is good for bird habitat and attracting pest predators.
  7. It's about 1/100th the cost of buying a worm farm in the shops.
Now like most things on this blog we're bound to make a few mistakes, so we'll post updates as we learn things along the way. Once we're confident we'll start replicating them.

Most people use a taller system using a bit of PVC pipe for these worm towers. We thought that was a bit expensive, unsightly and too much like hard work (okay, the real reason was we couldn't find any PVC pipe). We thought of using other materials, the cardboard tubes out of carpet rolls for example but the buckets seemed a winner for now. Even better would probably be a food-grade bucket from a local restaurant – they're food grade, but also free instead of a whopping 65 cents.  We might do this for the next ones.

If people do try out this worm tower, we'd love you to make a comment and share what you've learned in making and running yours.  Always good to compare notes.

The Joneses