Sunday, October 12, 2014

A children's wonder garden

We're on a week's holiday in the tropics and Mr Jones is reminded that his favourite technology is the combination of a note pad, a pencil and an eraser (or erasable pen this week).

Here's a sketch of what happens if you've got nothing to do other than sit with your own thoughts and a sketch pad for a few days.  It's a first pass on our version of Mr McGregor's Garden for our (soon to be) two boys.

So what is this jumble of scribbles?

Well as you might remember from previous posts, we've got a odd shaped block (triangle) as a result of a planning decision made back in around 1921.  This poses a lot of constraints but, constraints can also be a great thing to push your creativity.  Indeed if we had a rectangle, we wouldn't have come up with this design for the back corner.

The first thing we did was work out the constraints:

  1. Dimensions 
  2. Infrastructure (the shed, soon to be man cave for Mr Jones), gas meter, fences, access points etc
  3. Shade lines - where will the sun get to at the peak of summer, winter and spring?  Where is the desirable sun to be harnessed and the undesirable sun to be calmed?
  4. Water flow (in our case a mild fall from the front of the block south east to the south west corner)
Then we did a first design to optimise for sun / shade:
  1. Shade for the man cave to the west to avoid it becoming an oven in summer and needing a lot of energy to cool
  2. Garden beds on the south boundary (will get full year's sun, but also summer shade because of the triangle shape)
  3. Other garden beds aligned to fence lines and on shade lines at various times of the year
  4. Flow, zones and hidden "rooms" for the kids to run around and get lost in
  5. Herb beds to insulate the edges of the concrete slab of the man cave
As you can see from the scribbles, and erase marks this plan has been worked and reworked quite a few times now.  Things have been added, deleted, moved around.  And no doubt it will be revised again before finalising.

In fact, here's an updated version that was done just while writing this blog.  Can you spot the differences?

We thought we'd share the process a little in case it sparks any ideas for you at your place.  If you feel inclined, click on some of the "drawings of a madman" for a closer view and see what ideas they spark for you... actually stop reading and do this now.

Yes, now.



We can't wait to get home and start marking out string lines to see it at scale.  And we'll post a few pics so you can see how it's coming together, possibly with some updated sketches.

In the mean time, if anyone's got any experience in applying the principles of wicking garden beds and root-level watering to ordinary domestic lawns, please post a comment below and let us know.  It's something we're keen to have a play with in our hot, dry summary climate.  We start earthworks in around 4-6 weeks.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Big plans

So all of the courses we've done tell us to step back, do a site analysis and think about things like infrastructure, prevailing winds, sun etc before racing in and putting things in the wrong spot etc.

It's spring so we can't stand waiting any more and have got our hands in the dirt.  But to put it all in context we thought we'd share our rough site analysis and rough plans.

Got any great ideas, let us know.  We might just try them out and tell you how they went.

As you can see the site is an odd shape, with buildings in odd spots and covered in an extraordinary number of large eucalypts.  From the main road, you can see our place form nearly a kilometre away because its the one with the outrageous amount of tall tree canopy.  How exciting.

Of course big trees provide challenges and opportunities so we'll be working through those and sharing some of the results.

The plans are evolving, but here's the rough mud map of what we're planning.  This seems to evolve daily, but here it is for now.

Anyway enough of the technical stuff, we'll be back shortly with ideas and experiments.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Water efficient shower heads that give a great shower

One of our definitions of luxury is a great shower.

Mr Jones has been travelling a lot since we moved to Adelaide which means lots of nights in various hotels and some very ordinary showers.

About a month ago we were staying in a hotel and the shower was excellent, somehow misting the water intend of streaming it.  The result seemed to be better soaking and less air between the water jets.   We made a mental note of the shower head (must get one of those one day), but didn't pay close enough attention to brand etc.

This week our shower broke, so we thought we'd find one of these things to replace the shower head.

Off to Bunnings and we came across a thing called a Methven santinjet which looked a bit like it might be the thing we could vaguely remember.  We were surprised and more than a bit happy that the flow rate was 7.5L/min instead of the normal efficient 9.0L/min.  It was about double the price of most of the other ones ($100 instead of $50), but happiness is a great shower so we decided to take a punt.

We're not sure if it was the same one, but we're very happy with it and thought it was blog-worthy.  It's not only great shower, but uses 16% less water, which means you can save water or stay in longer.  Hooray.

This is them.  Ours is the generic looking round one.

We're back

It's been quite a while since we posted anything on here.

We ended up selling the house, moving to a rental in Melbourne, having a baby, moving to a rental in Adelaide and now we're finally home owners again and going through a similar journey with retrofitting an old house - this time a 1920's sandstone bungalow in the heart of suburbia.

We moved in in December and already have done a lot of things to to the house so have plenty to talk about.  We'll post as we get time.

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. 

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