Wednesday, 8 January 2014

A sunny day in Melbourne!

Why do we love sunshine?

Because we've got solar panels on our roof!

How much solar power do we have?

We've got a 2.4kW system - which is as big as our roof space would allow for, which means in full blazing sun we make 2.4kW. So an hour of sunshine makes 2.4kWh - in the middle of the day when all the panels are in full sun.

So how much energy (power) do we make?

On a day like today - a glorious blue sky summer day we typically generate a little over 14kWh.
Solar display panel for 8th January 2014

What do our power bills look like?

Quite simply they are more of a credit note than a bill!

Back in October we wrote about our average electricity usage - which is still about 4.5kWh (per day) so we feedback about 10kWh into the grid - which equates to $3.50 back into our pocket. Last month (our power company has recently switched to monthly billing) we made $43.54, bringing our total credit to $176 - which will more than cover lower power generation through the darker winter months.

The really nice thing is our solar system will have paid for itself in about three and half years from now. Which we think is $6,000 well spent!

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Good, The Bug and Ugly!

So which bugs are the good ones?

The Good, The Bug and The Ugly
Bees (the really good guys) play a central roll in pollination, but to do this they need a year round supply of flowers - free from sprays.

Ladybugs (the bug) generally bright red and polka-dotted, they can devour a colony of aphids in no time; even the larvae can devour 100 aphids an hour.

Praying Mantis (good but oh so ugly!) the praying mantis eats many nasty insects which can damage the garden. These predators take out more than just aphids and mites, they can also help you tackle infestations of mosquitoes, houseflies and moths.

After lots of replanting and replacing a very boring collection of box hedges and grasses with fruit, trees, vegetables and flowers we regularly see all three in our garden.

Last year we planted cosmos between all of our apple and pear trees

Why do we encourage these guys (especially the bees)?

The primary motivation for planting a bee friendly garden is our fruit trees and vegetable crops. When we moved in we planted nine apple and pear trees. Not long after they went in the ground we realised that we hadn't seen a single bee in our (very boring) garden. So we did some research and planted as much bee friendly food as we could manage in our relatively small garden.

What's a bee friendly garden?

One rule, and some suggestions.

  • Rule #1 don’t use pesticides. Most pesticides are not selective. By using pesticides, you will kill the good with the bad.
  • Plant local plants, they are attractive to honeybees; and adapted to your soil and climate.
  • Plant a range of colours and flower shapes. Bees have good colour vision. Bees are particularly attracted to blue, purple, violet, white and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.
  • Provide accessible water. Bees need water. Provide easy access through wet sand or pebbles; do not drown the bees!
  • Plan a garden with a wide range of plants - flowering across all four seasons.

What do our bees eat for lunch?

Ok so here's our menu:
A sample of a bee's menu

  • Lavender
  • Marjoram
  • Rosemary
  • Mints (lots of different types)
  • Pineapple Sage
  • Thymes (at least six different types on offer)
  • Salvias
  • Cosmos
  • Comfrey
  • A selection of fruit trees (apple, pear, lemon and lime)
  • Berries
  • Basil
  • Bottlebrush
  • Hakea
The seasonal menu includes:

  • Tomatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Rockmelon
  • Cucumbers
  • Passionfruit
All of these plants will attract bees and many need bees to ensure their pollination. The Australian Government has published a fantastic bee friendly planting guide, which you can access for free online as a pdf. Here's a sample of one of their planting guides.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Spring in our Garden

What space do we have in our garden?

Our house - shiny and new two years ago
We bought a 'battle axe' block - think long driveway with our house built in what was once our neighbours back yard. So we have 28 metres of driveway (with garden beds on both sides) , a small decorative garden bed at the front, a small courtyard and long narrow side and rear gardens. One of the  nice things about our garden is there's no lawn to maintain (there's a huge park across the street).

Since we bought our house a little over two years ago the biggest changes have occurred in the garden. Our priorities were edibles, or native.

What did we do?

Our courtyard (Oct 2013)
Firstly we brought in a lot of organic matter, and dug out a lot of clay! We built up the garden beds along the driveway. One side for fruit trees, the other for vegetables. Closer to the house we raised the main bed in front of the house and created a herb garden. In the courtyard we removed stones and box hedges and replaced theses with lavender, rosemary and 'snow in summer'. We also planted Wisteria. We also planted a lot of climbers, which are trained onto wires in front of the garage. 

So just how many fruit trees can you fit on a 500m2 block?

Quite a few! We've got six apple trees, three pear trees and a lemon and a lime. In addition we've got passionfruit, a grape vine, a tayberry (a cross between a black berry and a raspberry), kiwiberries, rhubarb, three types of raspberry and lots of strawberries.
Apple and pear blossom, apple tree, strawberries, rhubarb and passionfruit flowers

What are we growing for spring and summer in the veggie patch?

While we still have lots of greens (think lettuce and spinach) right now we are gearing up for spring and summer so we have lots of seeds and seedlings on the go (pumpkin, beetroot, leek, beans, lettuce, rocket, watermelon, tomato, cucumber, zucchini... to name a few). More photos to follow.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Powered down

How much power does the "average" household use each day?

While it's hard to pin down a figure (a five person household would use a lot more than a single person household) most estimates are around 18 to 20 kWh. The Australian Energy Regulator has a handy little online tool that provides a more meaningful average household usage for your 'localised zone' (you provide your postcode) and number of people living in your home. 

For a two person household in Melbourne's east here's the averages:

Just what is a kWh?

Thankfully one of us has a degree in physics and can explain this one!

A kWh is 'kilowatt hour' - which is a unit of energy (not power). 

Energy is power multiplied by time, so the 'kW' is the power and the 'h' is the time (in hours). So if you have a 1 kW appliance running for 1 hour, then you've used 1 kWh.
As a point of reference:
  • A typical electric kettle about 2 kW
  • A split system air conditioner is between 3 and 9 kW 
  • An electric oven around 1 kW

How does the typical household use their electricity?

About a third goes on heating and cooling - so good insulation and putting on a jumper when you get cold can make a huge difference. White goods have the next biggest impact - so think about what you need plugged in and running year round and buy the most efficient product you can afford, it will make a difference to each quarterly bill. Lighting while around 10 percent can easily be reduced by replacing old inefficient bulbs with compact fluorescents. Better yet replace them with LEDs - expensive just now, but prices are coming down and the range of options getting better every year.

What's our average electricity usage?

About 4.5kWh (per day) in winter; about one third the average use. Here's some of what we do to use less electricity:
  • We have gas hot water
  • Heating and cooling - our house is well insulated, so we use a lot less of both. Our heating is underfloor hydronic heating, so uses very little power. In terms of cooling we have invested in good quality outdoor blinds and inside we have thick curtains. Last summer we ran our air conditioner no more than half dozen days, and when we run it we have it set for 24 degrees.
  • We make an effort to turn off lights when we leave the room. All of our lighting is compact fluorescent, which use less electricity. We are investigating the use of LED lighting which would reduce this further. 
  • Other than the fridge we don't have any appliances on standby, even our wireless Internet is off at the mains when we're out.
  • We've bought the most efficient appliances we could afford - washing machine, fridge etc.
  • We try to run a full load in the dishwasher and washing machine - and we line dry the washing, no tumble dryer in this house.
  • And finally a confession we don't own any of the following: TV, microwave, stereo, toaster or hair dryer - which also has an impact.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Power of Gas

Why choose gas?

Gas is much more efficient for heating than electricity. For example an efficient gas heater is estimated to cost $159 a year to run. This compares with an electric radiant heater at $471 and an oil filled column heater costs $330 a year. There are also savings to the environment (and your household budget) when it comes to hot water systems. Gas hot water systems produce about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions of electric storage hot water systems.

Why should we aim to use less gas?

Gas is more efficient than electricity, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't aim to use less of it. Australia's households account for almost 20 per cent of our national greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing efficient appliances and making simple changes to the way energy is used means you can reduce your impact on the environment (which is what this blog is all about) and save money.

How much gas does the average Victorian household use?

Well the short answer is after a bit a research we’re not entirely sure. There's quite a lot of data on electricity usage (and more on that from us in a future blog) but very little on reticulated (mains) gas usage. We found this a little odd because according to Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria has the most extensive reticulated gas network in Australia, so why the lack of data on average usage? The closest we came to an estimate was 52,000MJ / year - and this was from a NSW electricity company.

How much gas have we used in the last 12 months?

Easy! We've done the calculations and know that we have used 13,582MJ, or around a quarter of the average Victorian annual household usage. To put this in perspective we have gas heating, hot water and a gas stove top.

What can every household do to use less gas?

  • If you are buying a new gas appliance (or building) buy the most efficient appliance you can afford - it will pay for itself over time. Consider a solar hot water system with a gas booster. We were fortunate to purchase a home with gas hot water and a hydronic central heating system.
  • Check your household insulation - more is better.
  • Consider what is cold, can you put on a jumper and leaving the heating off? Broad estimates are that for every degree you decrease your heating setting you can save 10 percent of the running cost. 
  • Avoid running heating when the house is empty, timers are great but use them to their best advantage, not just as a default for winter.
  • Open curtains during the day - and close them at night. This allows for passive heating from the sun during the day and keeps the heat in at night. Curtain Pelmets, while ugly also make a big difference.
  • Buy a door snake - draft excluders trap the warm air in and keep the cold air out.
  • Assuming you have gas hot water, use cold water where possible.
  • Reduce your water heater thermostat to 60 to 65 degrees Celsius. Do you even know what temperature your thermostat is set at?

Finally have a read of a post by Tom Murphy on how to slash domestic gas consumption by a factor of five - be warned it gets a little technical in places!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

How to grow fresh air

On Wednesday we finished off with a piece of advice about clean air and indoor plants. Tonight we wanted to follow up on that comment.

What's the problem with indoor air?

"The indoor environment is five to ten times more polluted than the exterior"
(1994 CSIRO review)

"In recent years, comparative risk studies performed by the US EPA and its Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health" (US EPA, 1993)

The average Australian spends 90 percent or more of their time indoors. Despite this, relatively little research has been done on the quality of air in our homes, schools, recreational buildings, restaurants, public buildings, offices and cars. According to the Commonwealth Government many chemicals present in indoor air environments have not been thoroughly tested and little is known about their long-term health effects. Even less is understood about the health effects from constant exposure to mixtures of these chemicals.

Peace Lilly
Can indoor plants really make clean air?


There is a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the beneficial effects of indoor plants including a large NASA programme.

Plants can remove toxins from air, up to a staggering 87 percent of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) every 24 hours (according to NASA research). Modern climate-controlled, air-tight buildings trap VOCs inside. VOCs include substances like formaldehyde (present in rugs, vinyl, cigarette smoke and grocery bags), benzene and trichloroethylene (both found in man-made fibres, inks, solvents and paint). The NASA research discovered that plants purify that trapped air by pulling contaminants into soil, where root zone microorganisms convert VOCs into food for the plant.

When you breathe, your body takes in oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. This makes plants and people natural partners, as indoor plants can increase oxygen levels.

What are some of the other benefits of indoor plants?

... During photosynthesis plants release water vapour which increases humidity of the air around them. By placing several plants together you can increase the humidity of a room, which helps keeps respiratory distresses at bay.

... According to researchers at Kansas State University adding plants to hospital rooms speeds recovery rates of surgical patients. Compared to patients in rooms without plants, patients in rooms with plants request less pain medication, have lower heart rates and blood pressure, experience less fatigue and anxiety, and are released from the hospital sooner.

... The Dutch Product Board for Horticulture commissioned a workplace study that discovered that adding plants to an office decreases fatigue, colds, headaches, coughs, sore throats and flu-like symptoms. 

... In a study by the Agricultural University of Norway, sickness rates fell by more than 60 percent in offices with plants.

... A study at The Royal College of Agriculture in Circencester found that students demonstrated 70 percent greater attentiveness when taught in rooms containing plants.

Still not convinced? Check out this four minute TED talk.

How are we growing our fresh air?

With indoor plants of course! Here's a couple of photos of our fresh air generators around the house.

Which plants are best for clean air?

Bill Wolverton (of NASA fame) wrote a great book called "How to Grow Fresh Air", a fantastic resource for anyone interested in this topic. The best indoor house plants to grow fresh air include:

  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
  • Golden pothos or Devil's ivy (Scindapsus aures or Epipremnum aureum)
  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum 'Mauna Loa')
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
  • Bamboo palm or reed palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii)
  • Snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata'Laurentii')
  • Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium, syn.Philodendron cordatum)
  • Selloum philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum, syn.Philodendron selloum)
  • Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)
  • Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
  • Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragans 'Massangeana')
  • Janet Craig dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig')
  • Warneck dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckii')
  • Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)
  • Gerbera daisy or Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Pot mum or florist's chrysanthemum (Chrysantheium morifolium)
  • Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)

In addition here's some really basic tips:

  • Consider the amount of sun your indoor plants are likely to receive (some can survive on less light than others).
  • Keep watering schedules regular (use a calendar).
  • Periodically clean each plant with a damp cloth to ensure proper absorption of air particles and toxins.
  • Keep their soil replenished with organic compost. 
  • If possible use rainwater for your plants.
Finally if you’re looking for the plants of least resistance try Peace Lilies, Dracaenas or Golden Pathos, they're all quite hard to kill!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Squeaky Clean, Green Home!

How toxic are your cleaning products?

What cleaning products do you use to clean your house? Can you pronounce all of the ingredients listed? Do you know which ones are harmful to you and the environment? We believe it's important to know what's in the products we use to keep our house clean. With a little reading you might be surprised at just how harmful many cleaning products are - not to mention the damage they are doing to our aquatic ecosystems once flushed down the drains.

Despite the myth that most cleaning products fall into one of two categories toxic or expensive, we believe that there are other options that don't cost much and are not toxic. So this blog is about an awesome squeaky clean and green cleaning product that we've started using.

So what's in your average collection of cleaning products? 

The average household contains a large number of toxic chemicals, which we're exposed to on a regular basis ranging from synthetic fragrances to the noxious fumes in oven cleaners. Ingredients in common household products have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity. While manufacturers are keen to point out that in small amounts these toxic ingredients aren’t likely to be a problem, we are exposed to them routinely, and in combinations that were never tested.

Some of the common nasties include:
This one is found in fragranced household products (think air fresheners, soaps etc). If 'fragrance' is listed on the label, there’s a good chance phthalates are present. Phthalates are suspected endocrine disrupters associated with reproductive effects, including reduced sperm count in men.
A very common nasty found in polishing products and glass cleaners. People who get a lot of ammonia exposure often develop chronic bronchitis and asthma. Ammonia can also create a poisonous gas if it’s mixed with bleach.
Toilet bowl cleaners, mold removers and laundry whiteners can all contain chlorine, as did chemical weapons in World War I. Do you really want this in your house.

So what do we clean with?

One of the cheapest and most simple cleaning products we've started using is Vinegar. It cost just over  $1 for 2 litres last time we shopped. Vinegar is a weak form of acetic acid that is edible (and can't harm your stomach).

Vinegar (with a citrus twist)
We've recently discovered that soaking citrus peel in vinegar for 2 weeks, before discarding the peel creates an even better product. Our citrus vinegar has cut through greasy pots and cleaned up our stainless steel cook top up an absolute treat. We think the addition of the citrus (we used orange peel) also removes most of the sharp vinegar smell. We've also used it to clean all our kitchen surfaces and the shower, where it cleaned up the tiles way better than any other product we've paid a lot more money for!

PS One last piece of advice - don't waste your money on an air freshener - open the window and buy some indoor plants to help filter the air.