Thursday, 28 February 2008
Just after we finished planting in the vegetable garden (May 2007), Kim and I decided to install a Solar Hot water system to lower our natural gas usage. This was because we had learned that heating water made up 16% of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the average Australian home. We knew that because of our weekly monitoring that our daily average gas usage was 55 MegaJoules (Mj). This was the non-winter average (we have gas heating), and it still seamed quite high to me. My existing hot water system (HWS) was a 6 star rated AquaMax 340 litre natural gas system, which I purchased about 18 months before hand. At the time it was more efficient than the previous HWS which used double the amount of gas. Not efficient enough, as far as I was concerned!
I was browsing through the Origin Energy website and found out that Origin advertised that they could "solarize" your existing HWS for approximately A$2100, and be fully installed by a licensed plumber. Not a bad price as I had seen other systems for over $4000.
After discussion with Kim about the pro's and con's, we decided to sell some shares that I had saved up and buy the system from Origin Energy. I would get a far better return on investment from a solar HWS than I would the shares. The proposed system had one large collector, a 300 litre pre-heat tank, a low wattage pump and a temperature sensor (located in the collector).
On the installation day, two plumbers arrived at 0830 in a Land Cruiser with a huge box on the roof and another in the back of the truck. After a quick inspection, they recommended that the collector be placed on a west facing roof. This was because the copper pipe run was about 8 metres shorter than where I wanted it, which was a north facing roof. The reasoning behind this was that during Winter the heat loss from the pipes would be greater than the heating value of the collector. Therefore there would be no heating effect. Also in summer the water would get so hot (99 degrees) that the safety valve on the tank would activate and then dump half the water until enough cold water entered and cooled it down. So being a wise man, I took his expert advice and let him install the collector on the west facing roof.
The plumber was three quarters complete when the electrician arrived to install the general purpose outlet. It was a simple job as there was already a 15 amp cable run that was the remains of a previous electric HWS. The cable run terminated in our fuse box and therefore only took them 20 minutes to complete. The electrician left as soon as his job was finished. Then something crazy happened. About 15 minutes later another electrician arrived to install a GPO! He was so surprised when I showed him the newly completed GPO from the previous electrician. He had just driven 80 Km from Frankston. Now that is what I call service!
Soon after the second electrician departed, the plumber announced that he was finished the job. He now showed me how it worked. The mains cold water entered the pre-heat tank. When the sensor on the collector determined that the collector was hot enough, it started the pump. The water was drawn from the bottom of the tank to the collector and returned to the middle of the tank. The pre-heated water was then fed on-demand whenever the existing gas HWS required a top up. Fairly simple really!. As the water is already heated when it enters the gas HWS it does not required to be reheated by that system.
My experience so far has been that the solar HWS is reliable. For five months of the year I have turned the thermostat of the gas HWS to zero, effectively only leaving the pilot light on. I did this so that if we had more than four cloudy days in a row, I could turn up the temperature of the water quickly to one and a half on the dial which equals about 40 degrees C.
Since the installation in July 2007, we now average 17 Mj of gas per day in the non-winter months, which is all taken up by our cooking needs. During the 3 or 4 colder months of the year we now average about 26 Mj, which is still greater than a 50% reduction in natural gas use. This we considered a great result, and the cost avoidance of gas purchase will pay for the solar HWS in approx three years. After that we technically have free hot water for 75% of the year.
You have just got to love the Sun!
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
On May 23rd 2007, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar held at Crown Towers by a company called Renewtek. This company had recently achieved accreditation from the Australian Greenhouse office and they wanted to show off their green credentials of which they should be rightfully proud. They invited Dr Tim Flannery to speak to us about the threat of climate change. Dr Flannery was given the award of Australian of the Year 2007, and the author of "The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change".
I was so excited to be going along, as was my green friend Jennifer! So excited in fact that I arrived an hour early at the venue and had a nice light breakfast and waited for everyone else to arrive. Three cups of herbal tea and a visit to the toilet later, most people started to arrive. So did Dr Flannery, and I had the good fortune to talk to him before his presentation. I told him of my journey so far and what I planned to achieve in the next six months. I could see that he was impressed, and we also talked a little about how he lived off of the grid and was self sufficient in water resources. He even gave me a suggestion on how to solve the energy problems I was having with my pool pump. He suggested to convert to a DC pump and use a solar panel with battery backup. A pretty good effort, as this guy walked the walk as well. How cool was that!
His talk was informative and he had some interesting concepts. For example the concept of "The Great Aerial Ocean", which is how he describes our atmosphere. And when you think about it, it is quite true. The atmosphere supports all life on the planet, as does the water based ocean for marine life. And the shame of it all is that we are polluting both at an alarming rate!
I have posted the video of his speech below so that you can experience it as well. It goes for about 39 minutes.
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
What are food miles? This is a question I get asked on a regular basis. I consider food miles to be not only the distance that the food has travelled from garden fork to dinner fork, but all of the CO2 emitted during cultivation, harvesting, transport, storage, and sale. All of these steps in the process use large amounts of oil and energy, therefore contributing to climate change. So grow your own food and reduce food miles!
This was one of the two reasons I chose to grow my own food. The other reason was that I didn't want my food to be contaminated with herbicides, pesticides or be genetically modified. I was sick of the lack of taste from supermarket bought fruit and vegetables, all bland and picked far too early so that the grower could be first to market and get the best price. How many times have you bought expensive produce, only to find that it tastes horrible! Far many times, as far as I am concerned.
Two great books that helped me to decide how and what to plant were "The Australian Fruit and Vegetable Garden" by Clive Blazey, and the "Organic Gardener" by Jeffrey Hodges. They taught me about how crop rotation works, what vegetables to plant in what season, how to compost successfully, and the science of mulching. I highly recommend each of these books for anyone starting out in growing your own food.
I knew that planting in May was not the best time to sow, and that being late in Autumn 2007 it was better to plant seedlings where possible. So it was of to Bunnings (our closest nursery) to buy a selection. I only chose what I thought the kids and Kim would eat, so as to cut down on wastage. I planted broad beans, snow peas and peas in the first bed; beetroot, carrots, spring onions, and Spanish white onions in the second bed. In the third I planted green dragon broccoli, mini cauliflower, Savoy cabbages, red cabbage, and Brussels sprouts (big mistake). In the fourth and last bed I planted a herb garden but soon moved all the herbs to large pots so they were easier to manage. I replaced the herbs with a second crop of broccoli of a different variety, and a few more cabbages. Ben loves broccoli, hence the reason I planted so many.
Everything was successful and I harvested gradually over the next few months. The snow peas were first and we couldn't stop grazing straight from the bush. The only vegetable that didn't make it to the table was the Brussel sprouts for two reasons a. no-one liked them except me and b. the heads didn't form properly, so I broke them up and added the plants to the compost.
I can positively say that all of my organically produced food tasted fantastic. Fresh, crisp carrots, eye watering onions (I pickles 50% of them) and mouth watering broccoli. I could go on forever about the taste, but I won't, however I do urge you to grow your own vegetables if you have the room. Even in pots if you have a balcony! There is very little maintenance if you mulch well and I watered from the rainwater tank about three times a week depending on the frequency of the natural rainfall. I would say that between the planting and harvesting, I would spend about five hours a week working in the veg patch. Not much of a sacrifice, and much better than watching the rubbish available on the television these days.
Lastly, I found that I got back in touch with the cycles of nature. I became more aware of weather cycles, and could pick a rainy day without Met Bureau's assistance and i just felt good to be outdoors and nurturing all of my plants.
It felt good to be green.
Monday, 25 February 2008
I happened to stumble across a great BBC2 TV show called "It's Not Easy Being Green". It is hosted by a retired Lieutenant Colonel, called Dick Strawbridge.
Dick and his family embarked on a quest to live a more sustainable 21st century lifestyle without any major impacts to their existing way of life. He still wanted to be able to have his coffee machine, fridge, washing machine etc, and all the other modern conveniences that make up the western lifestyle. He sold the family home in Worcestershire and moved to derelict farm in Cornwall, with no electricity, heating, water or toilets. Crazy or what!
The first series consisted of seven episodes, which took us on a journey of the family for the first year in their new home. Some of the things they did were;
- Build a water wheel to power their household lights,
- Grow an organic vegetable garden,
- Fix and insulate the roof,
- Install solar hot water,
- Install a whole house ventilation system,
- Draw drinking water from their spring by wind power,
- Raise pigs and chickens,
- Make bio-diesel from waste vegetable oil, and
- Had a great time doing it!
As we were already started on our own sustainable living journey, and had kicked off our eco house challenge measurements and reduction campaign, we decided to take one of the suggestions from Dick's show and try them out at home.
In late April 2007, I began to plan an organic vegetable garden for one side of our house. We had a garden (if you could call it that), that was the main entrance and it was half dead because of the lack of rain. We thought that if we built the garden beds as a feature of the house then we were more likely to maintain it. This was based on permaculture principles (not that I knew this at the time), whereby your basic food needs should be as close to the back door as practical. Well, our patch was going to be at the main entrance, so even better. Everyone who visited it would see the wonder of our vegetable patch in all its glory!
I based the design on the "No Dig Garden" developed by Esther Dean. I read her little book, which was full of great information about establishing a garden for Australian conditions. I modified the method slightly as per "Greeniology" and added raised garden beds to make it easier to work on. The soil in Melton is clay based and is very hard when dry. There was very little organic matter in the first 2 cm of topsoil, so I had to improve the soil before I planted and improve drainage.
I decided to use red gum sleepers as the frame for the beds and constructed them 2100 x 1200 x 100 cm and spaced the beds 70 cm apart. This was enough space to lay some pavers for a little path between each bed. The beds were fastened together with 100 mm galvanised nails with a butt joint, and the wood was so hard that I had to pre-drill each nail hole. During the construction I managed to hit my left shin with the full force of a hammer blow! It swelled up like a melon. Nice and sore for the rest of the day, but some ice helped the swelling go down.
As recommended by Esther Dean's book, I filled the beds in the following order. The first layer was a cover of cardboard and newspaper about 5 sheets thick. This ground cover was to kill the weeks, grass and provide food for the earth worms. Next was a 10 cm layer of either lucerne hay or pea straw. I chose pea straw and Amy and Megan laid it for me. The third layer was a 2 cm layer of Dynamic Lifter (you can use well rotted manure). For the four beds I finished off an entire 25 Kg bag of very smelly Dynamic Lifter. I then covered the DL with another 5 cm layer of pea straw and then a layer 20 cm thick of mushroom compost garden mix. I think it was a 50-50 mix of mushroom compost and a loam type soil. It was filled with organic matter and was very suitable for the purpose of growing vegetables. I ordered 2 cubic metres and used it all! Adam lugged most of it from the roadside and Kim and I raked it level in each bed. Lastly, I topped it off with a 5 cm layer of sugar cane mulch, to help conserve water by stopping evaporation.
It was a very satisfying feeling to finish all of the beds in one weekend. Read on in Part 2, to see how and what I planted in my first Winter crop.
Saturday, 23 February 2008
Waste was always going to be a messy challenge (pardon the pun). It was difficult to measure, and today's modern industry designs stuff to be disposable and short lasting. Nothing is made to last for ever any more, and most people are suffering from Affluenza!
I tackled the problem from a couple of directions, one being to cut down on waste, and the other to help feed my vegetable garden with wholesome organically produced fertiliser.
First of all I have tried to instil some of my personal values into my family's way of thinking, being the importance of the 3 R's; Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Before anything else, we ask ourselves these two questions, "do we really need whatever we are proposing to buy?" and "Is it a need or a want?". This question helps stop waste at its source, which is the initial purchase. There is no use buying something, getting it home and finding that it doesn't suit its purpose, or makes you happy, and then throwing it into landfill a few years later. I think that our habit of taking our own shopping bags to the shops everywhere we go is another example of avoiding waste, by negating the need for plastic shopping bags. Another way of reducing is putting a "No Junk Mail Please" sign on your letterbox. If it doesn't get delivered, you don't have to throw it away, or cut down the forests to make the stuff in the first place!
Secondly we try and reuse stuff in a different way. For example, Kim went through her wardrobe about two months ago and found a whole lode of clothes that were in disrepair and then cut them up for cleaning rags. We also send unwanted clothes that are too small for our growing children to either the local MS shop or to friends that have smaller kids. The same goes for any type of glass jar or ice cream container. The jars get used for storing jams and preserves, and the containers store all sorts of things. We hold on to all of the free local newspapers and I use them in garden beds or shred them to add to the compost bins. Kim keeps all the plastic takeaway meal containers to store leftover dinners in. It is amazing what you can reuse if you think about it!
Whatever waste remains, we try and recycle it. If it is food scraps from the kitchen (except meat which goes to the dog most of the time), it goes into compost or the worm farm to be recycled back into the garden. Similarly any garden waste goes straight into the compost bins. However, if it is non-organic, and can go in the council recycling bin i.e. cans, glass, plastics #1 to #7, or paper that we can use, then off to the recycling centre it goes. As a nice touch, Kim drew a picture of a happy worm on the little bin I keep the kitchen scraps in before I blend their food each week. Very cute!
We find that our landfill rubbish bin is only a quarter full or sometimes less, whereby before we started it was always overflowing on bin collection day. It only contains plastics that are not recyclable, usually plastic bags from fruit and vegetables (which I use first to store the food scraps for the worms), dog poo in biodegradable plastic bags (I will be feeding this to my next worm farm soon), and other plastic packaging with no recycling symbol. So based on this fact, I believe that we have reduced our landfill waste by at least 75%. Seeing that we set out to reduce our landfill waste by at least 50%, I believe we did a sterling job at this challenge.
Kim doesn't like touching the worms. They squirm too much, but she loves the tomatoes and other vegetables they help to grow! Ben loves it when I show visitors the worm eggs. He thinks the worms are really cool (so do I) and watches me feed them every few days to see how many there are!
Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) said it best about worms with this quote;
The plow is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man's inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly plowed, and still continues to be thus plowed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.If you would like me to go into more detail about things like worm farming or composting, just leave a comment and I will document the way I went about it in a few posts time.
Friday, 22 February 2008
So I knew that saving water was something we had to concentrate on. About the same time winter 2007 arrived, I ordered a water tank, and wouldn't you believe from the time I ordered it to the time it was installed, it rained constantly for three weeks. It wasn't drought breaking rain, but it would have been enough to fill my 2300 litre tank to the brim. It was installed just after the rain and took another four months to fill up. However, Kim came up with a fantastic idea on how to increase the capture area flowing into the tank. She suggested that I block the downpipes on the east side of the house in such a way that if the gutters got too full, they would simply flow over the barrier and go down the drain pipe. The beauty of her plan was that because the guttering was connected to the same gutter as the tank inflow, we effectively doubled the catchment area for the tank and all for two $6 downpipe pieces at Bunnings. Well done darling, you are very clever! During the next downpour the tank filled up to the top. I use the tank water to ensure that the vegetable patch remains moist but not flooded. I also use the water to fill up our 50,000 litre swimming pool when it gets a bit low during periods of very hot and dry weather. You really begin to appreciate the value of water when you harvest your own!
To curb water usage in the house, I installed water efficient shower heads with a flow rate of 7 litres per minute and have placed a shower timer in the shower cubicle. Everyone has 4 minute showers with no exception. I figured that the old shower heads used 20 litres per minute so the saving over the week is 7224 litres for showering for the six of us. That works out to be 375,648 litres a year or 7.5 of my swimming pool full! Pretty good for two $12 shower heads and a $15 timer!
We also now use our dishwasher once a day, and only when it is full. The dishwasher is only connected to the hot water tap, and as we have solar hot water it is more efficient than letting the dishwasher heat it up with electricity. Both of our toilets are dual flush, and most of the time we use half flush. We have flow regulators on the more frequently used taps, and use the eco mode on our washing machine in the laundry. I also have run a hose from the washing machine and it now waters our side garden beds most days. Make sure that you don't use grey water to water edible plants, it is not safe for health reasons an it is against health regulations in most Australian states. Also if you do use grey water to irrigate gardens, make sure you change your laundry detergent to a no phosphorous and low sodium brand. We use Aware laundry detergent, and the plants love it. If there is too much sodium it increases the pH of the soil and stops nutrients from being absorbed by your plants.
The only other large use of water is the swimming pool. We installed a pool cover to cut down evaporation, and as the tank remains full most of the time, I divert the water out of our first flush diverter into the swimming pool every time it rains. It doesn't take long to connect the hose and plonk it into the pool. It stays topped up all year around without using mains water. Last summer we were topping the pool up at least every three weeks, so at 2000 litres a top up we must have saved about 10,000 litres this summer so far.
Overall, I believe that we have reduced our water consumption by at least 50% and are now able to grow our own fruit and vegetables with our increasing our water consumption. All on a sub $2000 investment. In the future, I would like to install another tanks and plumb it to one of the toilets and to the washing machine. It will have a mains backup if the tank goes dry. I will have to save up for it, however the state government subsidy is very generous for rainwater tanks and having them plumbed to your house.
I will leave you with this quote for the day.
“Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason."
Thursday, 21 February 2008
Natural Gas is the other type of energy we utilise in our house. It is used for hot water, heating, and our gas hob and oven. As heating and cooling are a large part of our resource usage, it was essential that we tackle our gas usage.
Firstly we had to look at our cooking methods. We tried to use the oven to ensure that it is full when we cook, and cook in batches if we are cooking cakes or biscuits. When using the stove top, ensure that the right sized pan was used on the right ring. If the pan is too small and the ring too large, energy is wasted, and visa versa, if the ring is not adequate for a large pan then it take twice as long to heat what you need. Also when boiling water ensure that the lid is on the pan. It boils quicker, and if you don't believe me, try if for yourself. Here are some further tips;
• When cooking small to medium amounts of food, use a microwave, toaster
oven or crock-pot instead of the oven.
• If you have two ovens, use the smaller one whenever possible.
• For soups and stews that require long cooking time, use a crock pot.
• Unless you are baking breads or pastries, reduce or eliminate preheating the oven.
• Cook double or triple portions and refrigerate the extra food. It takes less energy to
reheat food than to cook it (and you can do it in the microwave).
• If you have a self-cleaning oven, run the cleaning cycle right after baking. The heat
of the oven will help minimise the heat needed for the cleaning.
• Don’t open the oven during cooking time. Use a timer/ thermometer.
Heating was a problem in our home as we have two space heaters at different ends of the house. Firstly we tried to use passive solar techniques, like having the northerly blinds drawn so we received maximum sunlight into the front of the house. When the sun set, we drew the blinds and made sure that any windows were shut. This warmed the house up during the day in Autumn and Winter, and worked well. We just had to change our habits. For the first month of Winter we managed to keep the house at about 18 degrees C for most of the time. If we needed the heater on, we turned it on till the house reached 19 degrees then turned it off again. In this way we drastically reduced our winter heating bill. I also installed self closing draft strips at the bottom of each external door, and added rubber strips around each external door frame. This cut down on heat leakage and prevented cold drafts from entering the house. I went around to all the doors and windows with an incense stick alight, and used the smoke as a draft detector. It worked well and all the windows and doors were OK. I checked the roof to ensure that the ceiling was sufficiently insulated but didn't have to do anything, as we had cellulose insulation and it was at a sufficient depth throughout the roof space. It was the best I could do at the time and I believe it worked well.
The hot water service was only 6 months old, and is a 5 star gas hot water storage system made by AquaMax. It still used a fair amount of gas, so I turned the temperature down to number 1 on the dial, waited for a few days, and found that the family was satisfied with the new temperature. Just by turning the temperature down, so that you didn't need to add cold water, reduced the gas consumption by about 25%! However, I wanted to do better than that. In about June 2007, I sold some shares I had been keeping hold of, and purchased a Chromagen Solar hot water service. I purchased it from Origin Energy, and basically the system has one large roof panel and a storage tank situated next to my existing gas hot water system. It works by pre-heating the mains water and then feeding the existing hot water system with warmer water. In winter it basically takes the chill out of the mains water and you save a little gas, however in the other three seasons the system really comes into its own, and the water reaches approx 70 degrees C. I installed low flow shower heads on both showers which also cut down the amount of hot water use. We also made a point of washing our clothes in cold water also reducing our hot water consumption. From late Spring to Early Autumn I turn the gas hot water system off and just leave the pilot light running in case I need to give it a boost if we have about 3 cloudy days in a row.
Our total gas usage is now down approximately 75% from last year, and I am very proud of what we have achieved. The only time that gas usage goes up during the warmer months is when I am preserving fruit and making pickles from my vegetable garden or we have a week of cloudy days!
Well done to all the family.
Wednesday, 20 February 2008
This is a continuation of the previous post.
Week 5. No More Pool Pump.
Week 7 to 10. A Sustainable Result.
Our first 11 weeks gave us a fantastic result. The weekly average for electricity was 14.9 kWh per day for the week. That was a reduction of 52.1% from our baseline week! All very simple things to do, without spending too much money. The only expenditure for this part of the project was for the CFL's and I haven't replaced one since I bought them over a year ago. We managed to continue at a relatively steady base line for the next four weeks (see graph).
I was so impressed with our efforts. This put us in a good place for the installation of our solar photovoltaic array. During week 11 I ordered a 2.8 kW system from the team at Energy Matters, however installation was not due until September 2007, but that was another challenge!
I will continue with the other eco hotspots in the following posts.
After completing the front yard, I begun to look for another challenge. A good friend of mine, Jennifer Treacey, mentioned to me that a new eco TV show was appearing on SBS Australia in the next few days and that it was touted to be informational.
The program was called "The Eco House Challenge" and was hosted by Glenn Hall as the presenter guy and Tanya Ha as the eco host. The synopsis is that two families volunteered to take up the challenge of reducing their impact on the environment by taking a series of cuts to their household consumption. Each week the families had to reduce one of the four environmental hot spots by over 50% and at the same time remain above a baseline set by the presenter. The four hot spots were energy, water, transport and waste removal.
It was a great show over six episodes and it really taught Kim and I a lot about reducing a homes consumption. So much so we decided to take action and see if we could reduce our consumption against three of the four hotspots. We believed that we already had transport licked as Kim's main mode of transport was walking, I had my Hybrid, and the kids used public transport to get around town.
I knew that before you can make changes to anything, you have to be able to measure the current situation before you start. Otherwise you will not know if your changes have been effective or ineffective. So on the 14th of April 2007, I took the meter readings for our electricity, gas and water. For the waste challenge we would have to measure how much waste we produced by bin volume on a monthly basis. The first weeks readings were as follows for week one:
- Electricity daily average - 31.1 KWh per day
- Gas daily average - 55.8 Mj per day
- Water daily average - 575.4 litres per day
We started on energy first, mainly concentrating on electricity as we saw that as the easiest to do. Here is a week by week account of what we did for our power challenge;
Week 1. The Baseline
Week 2. Awareness.
This week Kim and I began the campaign to educate our three wonderful, yet wasteful children. We continued to watch SBS on Wednesday nights. We also began small and started to replace our incandescent light bulbs around the house with Compact Fluorescent lights (CFL). I also started to turn my PC off at night. Beforehand, I had run it all night downloading TV shows from the
Week 3. Standby power.
Week 4. The Solar Powered Clothes Dryer.
We discovered something that we had forgotten about that was lurking down the back of the house. It was the trusty old Hills Hoist clothes line. We began to utilise this seldom used appliance that dries clothes by the Sun. Amazing technology! As we began to use the Hills Hoist more and more, we saved power by not using the Electric clothes dryer (rated at 1950 watts!). I replaced a few more CFL’sContinued in part 2.....
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
During the Summer of 06/07, water restrictions in Melbourne hit my front lawn with a vengeance, so much so that most of the time it was either dead or overgrown with golden oxalis (soursob) weeds. Kim and I decided to do something about it. The previous year, my father, Adam and I built a white picket fence around the frontage which stopped the local riff raff from cutting the corner (we live on a corner block) and walking across the yard. The fence was nice and sturdy, and cordoned off the area, so now we could landscape the yard.
Knowing the predictions regarding climate change and the likelihood of reduced rainfall in our area, we decided that the lawn was a waste of precious water and effort. A Native and drought tolerant planting would be the way to go, with one exception. Kim wanted an Ornamental weeping cherry tree as part of the planting, and I didn't condone the idea, but had a funny feeling that it would struggle to survive with limited love and attention.
We chose a concrete type of paver that would be laid as the garden bed border. In hindsight, I should have used recycled bricks for the edging because I now know that the process of making concrete is a large producer of GHG.
Kim and I started early in the morning as we know it was going to be warm in the afternoon. We had to dig a level trench about 12 metres long, and it was very hard work, mainly because part of it was under a large eucalyptus tree and the roots were very shallow. So out came the axe and mattock to cut through, as I knew that a few copped roots would not harm the tree. It took six hours to dig and lay the border, and by the time we were finished it was 36 degrees Celsius! It was definitely time for a swim in the pool. It was a tough slog but worth it.
The next day we planted a row of Photinia around the fence line ensuring that there was a good handful of blood and bone fertilizer in each hole. Then we laid weed matting and pine bark to top it off as mulch. If I remember correctly it got to 40 degrees that day and the plants were well watered in for the next few days and then once a week to ensure survival. We were so tired after this weekends work, we didn't do any more work for a month. In fact I was so put off by the whole thing, that Kim suggested that some professional help would be in order.
We had been recommended by friends a local guy who ran the "Grey Army" franchise. Greg was a nice bloke who quoted a decent hourly rate and all we had to supply was the materials and plants. Seven more garden beds later, and many loads of soil, all of the plants were in the ground and well watered. All that remained was the 3 cubic metres of Tuscan style pebble to finish off the paths around the beds. We decided to elicit the help of Amy, Amy's then boyfriend Shaun, Megan, Kim, Ben and myself, and do it all without any outside help. Over the course of the next weekend we laid the weed matting to inhibit weed growth, and all the pebbles. Boy, were we tired after all of that, but what a sense of achievement! It looked fantastic.
Kim and I were really impressed with our handy work. Sixteen or so months on, the cherry tree died and so did some of the smaller plants, however the remainder are surviving well. It all grows on limited hand watering, and mainly survives on the limited rainfall we now receive. I fertilize with blood and bone once a year and keep the beds well mulched to about 5cm. I only hand water if we have a long dry spell over summer and leave it be over the other seasons.
By drought proofing the front yard, we have halved our home water usage based on previous years usage, which was a great result. The project cost us about $3500 all up (including Greg) and was well worth the effort. I never have to mow the lawn again! I have had many positive comments from passers-by when I was first watering in the garden. I am very proud that we did it as a family (except Adam. I can't remember where he was).
Special thanks go to Kim, Amy, Megan, Shaun, Ben and of course Butch.
Monday, 18 February 2008
A month into my journey and my family began to think I was going crazy. I was behaving in ways that were most unusual for me. I was moody when I saw waste, upset when I saw excess, and generally down in the dumps. I believe that this was because I knew something that they did not, and that was if humanity continues to spew CO2 and other GHG into the atmosphere, then catastrophic climate change was around the corner, if not already here. Sure, they had heard of the term "Climate Change", but didn't really understand the impact on themselves.
The Australian media was not helping at the time (November 2006), with limited coverage on the issue and only focusing on the extended drought which they kept reporting was the result of an unusual El Nino effect. I cannot remember at any time when the press mentioned the real reason for this prolonged event.
So, to get all of my family on the same page so to speak, I managed to borrow a copy of "An Inconvenient Truth" and I held a family meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to show the movie and then discuss it. All family members attended, and about 30 minutes in, I saw a familiar look upon some of their faces. It was the same look I noticed upon the the people at the cinema where I saw it! Firstly disbelief, then shock and a sense of overwhelming. Kim was the most vocal during the film and was shocked to see the melting ice around the globe.
Once the movie was over, we had an intense discussion. Adam rightly argued that he felt powerless and that not everyone could afford a Hybrid car like me. Amy indirectly blamed my generation and those before me for creating the mess, and I felt guilty as charged. Megan and Ben understood, but didn't say much.
Kim and the kids now knew about as much I did, and felt just as helpless as I did. The only action I had taken was to change about 20% of our incandescent light bulbs to compact fluoro lights and had bought a Hybrid car. A good start, but not good enough for me. At the time I just did not know what else I could do! A lot more research was needed before I did know what steps we could all take.
However all was not lost, and I am happy to report that the "Al Gore Effect" worked on my family as it did on me. There has only been action in the right direction ever since we saw the Academy award winning documentary. Thanks Albert Gore for going out on a limb for the human race. You are a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace prize!
Sunday, 17 February 2008
Yesterday, Amy and I travelled to Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne to spend the day at the Sustainable Living Festival. To get into the spirit of the event, we decided to make as little impact as we could from when we left home until we returned. We started off by walking and took public transport for the remainder of the journey.
We first of all sat in on a presentation by Associate Professor Geoff Wescott called "Seachange and Sustainability. I personally learned to not to live near the coast in the near future because of climate change induced sea level rises and of the increased chance of storm surge events. Also that the human coastal infrastructure is incapable of handing the growing influx of part time Seachangers and tourists and that State Governments need increase funding and action in these areas. As over 83% of Australians live near the coast, you would expect that this issue would be high on politicians agendas. Unfortunately it is not, and water security seams to be the number one priority.
The second presentation was very interesting and dear to my heart. It was called "Green as Green does" and presented by Greg Donoghue. It was essentially about green waste management and he explained how plants grow, and then decompose, and what are the best ways of mimicking this process at home with food waste. Three examples were given, Composting, worm farming and bokashi bins. Greg described the efficiencies of each method, with composting being 70% effective at trapping the carbon in the processed material, worm farming being 90% effective and a bokashi bin being 99% effective. Unfortunately, only really kitchen waste can be processed in a bokashi bin, so I will still continue with my work with the other two methods of waste management. The other problem with a bokashi bin is that you have to continue to purchase microbes to add to it, which increases the ongoing cost of processing waste. At least with a worm farm the worms multiply by themselves and self regulate their population, dependant on the amount of food available. And the only cost for a compost bin is the construction of it. I did a bit of research on Greg's business (eco organics) and what do you think he sells? Well you guessed it, Bokashi Bins! All in all a good presentation but a bit bias, I believe.
We then had lunch, and we both opted for a vegetarian meal prepared by the nice gents at the Hari Krishna food stall. A wonderful chickpea curry with rice, with some nice ball things in a tomato sauce and a semolina pudding on the side, all for $9. A great feed and all washed down with fresh Melbourne tap water as provided by Yarra water. The great thing about lunch was that the cutlery and plates were placed in baskets when you completed your meal and collected by the Wash against Waste staff. The plates were then washed on-site with solar hot water! It really impressed me, as did the four type of bins available for recycling and waste collection. This should really be the norm at all events in this day and age.
After lunch it was time for a little lay down on some cool grass under the shade of a beautiful elm tree. My back was a little sore at this time from sitting at two presentations and lunch so we rested for about 15 minutes. We then visited nearly every single stall and had a chat about what service they provided and what part of sustainable living did their product or service impact. I also caught up with the nice guys from Energy Matters, who installed my Photovoltaic system last September. I discovered that I could install another 6 panels on my system if I wanted to. I also put my name down to be contacted by one of the sustainable auditing companies, as I am interested in this type of career.
Then came the highlight of my day. A presentation by eco chick Tanya Ha, the author of "Greeniology", a book that helped kick start the second phase of my eco transformation (which I will continue to document in subsequent blogs). She presented two talks, one about the theme of the festival which was "Being sustainable like an elite athlete" and how to reach your personal best, and the other was "The Story of Stuff: What makes a product truly green". Both were well presented with lots of audience participation and humour. She makes understanding the impact of climate change easy, and believes that one person can make a difference by their choices. For instance, we have the choice to save power by turning off the beer fridge in the shed, we can switch to Green Power, or insulate our homes. These all make a difference to your ecological footprint. She argued that the many products claiming to be organic, or green, or "environmentally friendly" are on the increase, but are simply green washing. Consumers should be aware to looks for further evidence of a green products credibility before they spend their hard earned cash on it. To top it off, I managed to get Tanya to sign my copy of Greeniology, and I even got to have a chat and shook her hand. I won't wash it for a week! She is a great ambassador for the green movement, and is attempting to make it mainstream. Kudos to you Tanya! I hope my work helps as well.
After my excitement died down, Amy and I decided to call it a day and head back to Southern Cross station. We just missed our train, had to wait for an hour for the next, so Amy insisted that we go to Direct Factory Outlet. What an extreme contrast to the festival. The people at the festival were all there to learn and understand how we can save our society and assist the planet in healing itself back from the abyss. It truly gave me hope to see so many like-minded people all in one place and learning about possible actions they could take to avert catastrophic climate change. DFO on the other extreme, was full of people consuming useless stuff that was made in sweat shops by low paid workers in China and elsewhere, that will be thrown away when they find it does not make them any happier, then not recycled and be dumped into landfill. A bit over the top, but that was how I felt. The time of endless consumerism is over, wake up! It looks like the Al Gore effect has not affected everyone! I will now get off my soapbox.
Both Amy and I agreed that the day was educational, entertaining and enjoyable. I can't wait for next year's event. Well done on a great festival, Sustainable Living Foundation.
Thursday, 14 February 2008
Three posts into my eco blog and it has been amiss of me not introducing the other members of my green team.
Kim, my wonderful wife, life partner, and soul mate, has been my biggest supporter along the journey so far. She was a bit dubious at first, but after I managed to explain about climate change and after viewing of "An Inconvenient Truth", she reacted in the same way I did. Kim loves shopping and selling on Ebay, and she is a big fan of reuse.
Adam is my eldest son, and alas he is not very environmentally aware. However he ensures that his PC is turned off at the wall to avoid standby power loss, and he is the muscles of the family. He helps me build any new garden beds that I require. I wish he would buy a bike and ride it around town!
Amy is my eldest daughter, has just started University and is completing a Bachelor of Psychological Science. She also helps with building garden beds, and we have great conversations about the environment we live in. She is the most passionate of all my children when it comes to our planets plight. I believe that she will join an environmental activist group whilst at Uni!
Megan, my teenage daughter, is only just becoming aware of environmental issues, but is still very much in the conformity, and consumption habits of a teenager brought about by peer group pressure. She has just discovered dress making, which is a wonderful trait. She is very outspoken and with a bit of coaching will make a great environmental advocate.
Ben is my youngest son and is at primary school. He is very aware of climate crisis and is always helping me out in the garden. He is also an active member of the "Power Police", and remind everyone else if they leave lights or appliances turned on and not in use. He constantly helps to remind me that sometimes it takes the mind of a child to ask the really hard questions regarding climate change!
They are all wonderful children who support Kim and I and visa versa. All still live at home, therefore lowering our footprint by increasing our living density.
Last but not least, how could I not mention the smallest member of our clan, Butch, our Australian/Silky Terrier dog. We took over his welfare when he was 2 years old. His previous owners had to work overseas, and put him up for adoption. He is the wisest of the family members being 92 dog years old. His is also the biggest food recycler of leftover dinners with not a scrap going to waste. His other duty is to ensure the properties fences are well patrolled and protected!
The other pets we have are two goldfish called "Donkey" and "Lady Dragon". We also have about 5000 nameless compost worms that I feed kitchen scraps to. It is pretty hard to name them all as they all look alike and move too fast when I lift the lid of their worm motel!
As for me, I enjoy everything that life throws at me. I enjoy pottering about my vegetable garden, which is low maintenance, and it gives me time to reflect on life and all its challenges. I dislike creating waste in all its forms and subscribe to the adage "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". I treasure the raw power of the Sun. After all, it makes my plants grow, gives us free electricity, and free hot water. What more can you ask from our closest star! I am also into renewable energy, and am a member of the Alternate Technology Association.
I love my family very much and you will hear more about them as the blog develops.
I will leave you with a quote which I often think about when proceeding on each step of our sustainable journey.
"We must become the change we want to see"
Mahatma Gandhi Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 - 1948)
I had been looking for a replacement car for my petrol guzzling 1997 Toyota Camry for about 6 months before my epiphany. I hadn't talked much about it to my wife Kim, but I now begun to think about the possibilities of low emission vehicles.
I had only just watched "An Inconvenient Truth" a few days before hand and noticed that at the end of the movie it mentioned something about hybrid cars. No knowing much about this type of technology, I did what all good technologists do and "Googled" the word hybrid car for Australia only. I was disappointed to find that only two car companies distributed Hybrids in Australia and none of them manufactured in Australia. At the time, only the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid were available on the market. You would think that Australia would be at the forefront of this technology, but I soon realised that we are just puppets of the U.S. vehicle giants GM and Ford.
After studying both models specifications and the price tags for both, I was swayed towards the Honda Civic Hybrid because of both looks, low emissions, and price. Now I had to sell the idea to Kim! We had an evening of deep discussion, and her main concern was the vehicles performance compared to other cars on the road. We hit the net, and looked for car reviews about the Civic and found a range of extremes, with a few good and one bad review. I believe that she was a bit taken aback by my sudden urge to buy this car, but then she hadn't seen the movie, and didn't know what I knew. I don't blame her, and I must have looked like a real nut case at the time.
We came to an agreement that we did need a new car and that the Civic was a good as any, but that we had to take a test drive first and then both agree that it was OK. I booked it for the very next weekend at the Werribee Honda dealership. The next few days wait was painful, but the weekend arrived and off we headed to Werribee for our exciting day.
When we arrived we were shown the vehicle, and it was an appealing style and exactly the same as the normal Civic (Kim liked it straight away). Only the drive train was different. The dealer was more than happy to point out all of the aesthetic features of the car, however, when I asked him how the engine worked to reduce emissions, I could tell he did not know, and he tried to fumble his way through an explanation. Click here to get a real explanation of how the car really works! It just goes to show that the technology was new to him, however that does not excuse Honda for a lack of dealership training, especially if their role is to sell their cars!
Anyway, the test drive as wonderful and the car performed above my expectations. I noticed the Auto Sop feature whereby the engine automatically turns off when you are in Drive and come to a stop. A bit daunting at first, but you get used to it quickly. I began to smile as I realised that I was not creating any Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) when stopped at the lights! You also soon learn about the electric motor assist when driving. The 1.3 litre internal combustion engine really feels like a 2 litre when accelerating as the electric motor helps when necessary. The batteries are Nickel Metal Hydrate, and are charged by using the wasted power of braking or deceleration. The other eco feature is that the car is entirely driven by the electric motor whilst cruising steadily between 30-50 kph. All with the fuel economy of 4.6 litres per 100 km.
After returning from the relatively short test drive, both Kim and I knew it was the car for us, so the very next morning I ordered a nice alabaster silver model through my employers novated leasing company. The leasing company called me late the same afternoon, and informed me that I could take delivery in three weeks! Fantastic, much better than the 6 month wait the dealer had hinted at. What a slow 3 weeks that was!
I took delivery of our new car on the 24th of October 2006, and it has run very well to date. Our average fuel consumption is 5.6 litres per 100 km, which is a little above the 4.6 as advertised in the Honda media. Still it is far better than most other petrol guzzling cars around me. Honda also has a great programme whereby they purchase offsets on your behalf to neutralize the vehicles remaining emissions for the first 3 years of the cars life. This is via Greenfleet. I hope it is not green wash and that they really do it.
On looking back 17 months later, I see that a car for me is a necessary evil, as I live 50 km from my workplace. Public transport is unreliable out here in Melton.
I wish I could ride my bike to work and instead of low emission, I could be NO emission except for the sweat of my brow!
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
As this is my first entry, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Gavin and I live in Melton, Australia. I am an Information Technology professional.
What a day! After the movie, a wave of emotion came over me (more like guilt for sins past), and as my office building was some 5 Km from the cinema, I chose to walk and think long and hard about what actions I could take. There was no way I was going to place more carbon into the atmosphere after knowing what I now knew.
I remember getting back to the office after the 1 hour 40 minute walk, with throbbing blisters on my feet. I forgot that I was wearing a new pair of leather shoes, therefore the blisters! I don't believe that I did any work all afternoon, I just wanted to know more, and what action I could take.
After driving home, I tried to explain my feelings to my family, but no-one understood what I was going on about. There was not a single person that knew what the ramifications were of the human race warming the planet above the historical high of 280 ppm of Carbon Dioxide. I went to bed, tired, confused, but determined to do something, but still not really knowing what.
An amazing day in retrospect!