Killing Vampires

Garage door opener
I want to suck your power.

When I hear of vampire power, it doesn’t conjure up images of my appliances sucking the life blood out of our planet. Alas, that’s pretty much exactly what it means. Also known as standby power, this is the power used by your electrical devices when they are in standby mode. This wasted electricity doesn’t come cheap, costing Australians “a combined $860 million annually” and “almost 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year”.

Now, stabbing your appliances through the heart with a wooden stake might be fun, but it’s a challenge that could see you electrocuted if you aren’t careful. Happily, there is an easier way to tame these vampires so that you’re only using electricity when you’re, well, actually using electricity.

Introducing: the off switch at the wall.Power switch

This little switch is a nifty device that stops your devices from drawing electricity, and it was an astonishing discovery – for some people in this house – that once they are turned on you can actually turn them off again. It requires the Herculean effort of reaching over and flicking the switch so that the little red line isn’t showing. We’re lucky to have these switches in Australia, because poor unfortunates in other countries have to go to the trouble of actually pulling the plug out of the socket.

Once I discovered how much vampire power was costing us, I was on a mission to turn off everything at the wall. Microwave, computers, stereo, it was all powering down. The data from our smart meter shows that this has reduced our base hourly electricity consumption from 0.1kWh to 0.04kWh per hour. That might sound trivial, but over the course of a year this is a change of 525.6kWh or 0.48 tonnes of carbon emissions. Did I really need to have my exercise bike drawing power all the time? Since I didn’t even know it was plugged in until I checked the points, I suspect that I didn’t.

Turning things off at the wall has led to some unexpected changes. Our reliance on electronic devices for entertainment has dramatically reduced. The children are stuck playing with each other instead of watching the television because I’m too lazy to turn it on for them, and their relationship has dramatically improved. I tend to look things up on my mobile instead of powering up my energy guzzling PC. Even my partner has discovered that he doesn’t need perfect WiFi signal when it requires walking all the way into the next room and turning on our signal booster.

If you’re playing along at home…

… what can you turn off at the wall or unplug that doesn’t need to be running all of the time? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Germinating In The Greenhouse

In a sunny spot on our deck we have a small greenhouse. It takes up less than two square metres of space and is probably the best investment that we’ve made in our garden so far. We use it to grow most of our vegetables from seed, and the benefits are enormous:Greenhouse with seedlings

  • Food miles were a major area that needed improvement according to our carbon estimate, comprising almost half of our family’s emissions. A packet with hundreds of seeds weighs less than a single seedling in a nursery and considerably less than the final vegetable in the supermarket, so the energy required transporting them is drastically reduced.
  • Seeds planted in our greenhouse germinate much faster than they do in the garden. We recently tried to plant some zucchini outside the greenhouse, and after three weeks I assumed they had failed so I tried again inside the greenhouse. Our greenhouse seedlings were all growing strong before the first of the outside ones appeared.
  • Seedlings started in the greenhouse are protected from many more predators than ones out in the garden. Birds, snails and caterpillars don’t snack on my tender baby plants when they can’t get to them.
  • We can prolong the growing season for our vegetables by germinating them in the greenhouse where they are protected from frosts in early spring and we can keep the soil a bit warmer in early autumn. Last year we were able to get two pumpkin crops with early and late germination, and we didn’t need to buy pumpkins from the supermarket for almost six months.
  • Have you ever tried to grow a new plant, only to realise that you can’t tell the difference between the seedling and weeds? We don’t have a weed problem in the greenhouse, which has saved a lot of our vegetables from untimely deaths.
  • Because seedlings are so small and we are making use of vertical space in the greenhouse, we can literally germinate enough seedlings to completely fill our vegetable garden. We started germinating the lettuce to replace our broad beans before we finished harvesting them. Overlapping growing times like this means that we can sometimes get an additional crop from our garden each year. If we want to start growing something, but there isn’t room in the garden, then we just move it into a bigger pot so that it can keep growing until we’re ready to plant it outside.
  • You can get much more variety when you start with seeds than you can find in a nursery or supermarket. Our seed collection now has over 150 varieties of herbs and vegetables. We’re currently growing red spring onions, purple broccoli and multi-coloured corn.
  • Growing vegetables from seed has mentally completed the life cycle of plants for the children. They can put the seeds in the dirt and watch how they sprout, grow, fruit and then get turned into compost that feeds the next generation of plants.
  • If a packet of 75 seeds costs less than a single seedling, I don’t care much if I accidentally murder half of them.

Despite all of those advantages, the biggest one by far is financial. It doesn’t matter how much a vegetable or herb costs in the supermarket, because if I can pick up a packet of seeds for under $5 and grow kilos of food from them then we’re winning. A packet of seeds can last for years, which reduces the annual cost even further. This year I spent less than $150 on seeds, which will completely fill our garden and leave a lot left over for next year. To put that in perspective, that’s the same as our weekly budget for fresh fruit and vegetables. If we do as well this year as we did last year, we’ll get half of our meals from our garden.

Most of the materials that we use in our greenhouse are reused. I’ve got a large collection of punnets, seed trays and pots that have been donated by other people after they’ve gone shopping for plants. To keep everything moist and cut down on how much I need to water the seedlings, I put my pots and punnets into the plastic trays we get with meat from the supermarket. For the large seed trays, which don’t fit into the meat trays, I put one inside the other and use a plastic bag as a liner to hold the water.

Setting everything up for a season takes me an afternoon with the kids or an hour by myself, plus an hour going through my seeds and deciding what I want to buy for the coming year. Germinating our plants has quickly become quality time for the family, and we get much more out of it than I ever expected when we started.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a sunny, sheltered spot where you could grow a few plants from seed? If you’ve tried this and have a few recommendations, please share them in the comments below.

The Baby Stash

When I was pregnant with my first child, one of my girlfriends decided that her family was finished and it was time to get rid of all her baby things. Before I knew it I had plastic tubs filled with more baby stuff than I knew what to do with. There were clothes, wraps, cloth nappies, bottle sterilisers, food warmers, a bath, and a few things that I still haven’t discovered the purpose of. It wasn’t a complete set because she had already given away a few items, but in a single afternoon we had almost everything that we needed to be prepared to welcome our baby to the outside world.

Going through the boxes was thrilling. As I washed and sorted everything, I satisfied almost all of my nesting drive. I added a few items along the way from second hand markets and the occasional discount rack at the shops, but we saved a small fortune. Then our daughter was with us and suddenly we were receiving more second hand things from friends who no longer needed them.

By the end of the first year I had boxes and boxes of things that our daughter no longer fit into or needed. We didn’t want to get rid of anything, because we were planning a second baby, but it was taking up an enormous amount of storage space. Then someone we knew announced that she was pregnant. We asked if she would be interested in borrowing any of our stuff, and she said that she was. Suddenly we’d helped someone avoid quite a few small expenses and our baby clothes were being worn instead of clogging up the shed.

Tubs of baby clothes
Half of the stash

A few weeks before her baby was born, someone else that we knew announced that she was pregnant. This friend was also interested in borrowing the stash, as it had come to be called. There were six months between the births, which was more than enough time for clothes to be grown out of, washed and put back into the tubs. After picking up the stash from the first friend I dropped it with the second friend, so it didn’t even make it back to our house in between.

By the time we needed the stash back for our second baby it had clothed two other babies. Once I made a few small repairs everything was in good enough condition to be used, and a few new items had been added. Going through it was exciting with the blend of memories and discoveries.

Our second daughter barely had time to grow out of the clothes before they were off again to the next baby. This time I won’t even have to transfer the stash between mothers, because the mother who has them knows the mother who needs them next, so they’ll sort that out between themselves. It has now grown so much that it includes bassinets, prams and toys.

Reusing and sharing the things in the stash has helped us to collectively reduce our environmental impact, because instead of having five sets of things between this group of families, we’ve only had one. Some of those clothes and bottles will have been used by nine babies by the time they come back to me next. Instead of transporting a new item from a factory in the northern hemisphere, we’re transporting a used item from the next suburb. Best of all, seeing a friend’s baby in something that your baby wore not long ago really brings on warm fuzzy feelings.

If you’re playing along at home…

…and you have a lot of clothes in storage, that you aren’t ready to get rid of yet, do you have someone you could lend them to or swap with? Have you done something like this with your friends? Please leave a comment below telling us what you shared and how it went.

Introducing Henrietta and Friends

Last year, we promised our daughter that we would get her some chickens for her birthday. Happily, we never specified which birthday that would be. It was one of those projects where the benefits were obvious: home grown eggs from chickens that were living healthy, cruelty-free lives. Life kept getting in the way, as it so often does, and her birthday came and went. The conversation about chickens, however, stuck around.

We recently found ourselves with a week without plans. The kids were stuck at home, bored out of their minds, and we urgently needed a distraction project. Our chicken time had come. It seemed even more important now because we are looking at ways to reduce our food miles – one of the biggest problem areas for us highlighted by our carbon estimate – and our worm farm wasn’t keeping up with the food waste from our garden.

It was important that Project Chicken didn’t break the bank while still providing our birds with a good amount of space and shelter. We looked at commercial chicken coops, but for the size we wanted they would cost around $2,000. Reducing food miles is important, but that much money would get us half way to installing a photovoltaic system, which would give us significantly better environmental bang for our buck. We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Building the coop and run took just over a week, and cost a total of $462.26. One of the ways we were able to get the price so low was by salvaging materials that my parents already had lying around at their house. The roof of the chicken coop is from metal left over when their garage was built, the door frame wood for the ramp came from an old wardrobe, and some of the wire is left over from an old aviary that has since been dismantled. Even half of the chickens are salvaged – they’re ex-battery hens.

Our coop is approximately 1.8m cubed. The chickens can go underneath the coop, so our run is 1.8m wide and 6.6m long, which provides almost 2m square per bird. There are six nesting boxes – one for each hen – and we can access them without going into the run. We painted it with British Paints colour Gracious – I swear I’m not the one who chose the colour – and we’ve left the inside plain because I doubt the chickens care as much as our five year old does.

Having the chickens around has caused some unexpected lifestyle changes. It took two days for our outdoor table and bench to be moved to the back yard. Other families were probably watching television while they ate dinner, and we were watching our birds. Our kids like walking the dog when they visit my parents, and now they’re looking for edible weeds while they’re on those walks. We also decided it was time for our oldest daughter to start earning pocket money, so her new jobs are tied in with caring for the chickens.

Of course, the main motivation for getting the chickens was to reduce our environmental impact, so how did that go? Well, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of food waste that we’ve been composting, because instead that is going to feed the chickens. We rarely use our green bin any more, because our weeds go straight to the birds, and it’s an incentive for the kids to keep up with weeding. On days where we haven’t had many scraps to feed them, we’ve harvested food from our vegetable garden. At first this seems very wasteful, but it turns out that we had a lot of vegetables in the garden that we planted as an experiment and quickly decided that we were never going to eat. Now that those plants are being removed from the garden we have more space to grow the things that we will eat. Our chickens are repaying us with manure that we can put on the garden much faster than with our compost. They were moulting when we got them, and it took two weeks, but now they’re laying tasty, fresh eggs that are beyond exciting for the kids when they find them.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have space in your garden for a chicken coop? Please leave a comment below if you’ve kept animals for food and let us know how it went.

Buckets In The Shower

If you’ve ever tried to grow a vegetable garden in Australia, you’ll know that it isn’t as easy as it first appears. Even if you plant your spring vegetables at the very start of the season they’ll be trying to ripen during summer. If a solid heatwave sets in you can admire lush vegetables in the morning and dead plants in the evening. We’re in Melbourne, which has permanent water restrictions, so even if we could afford to water our garden all the time we wouldn’t be allowed to.

One of the benefits of this house is that it was built during a drought. As a result it has approximately 10,000 litres of water tank capacity underneath the deck, and the entire roof area feeds into it. We connected the whole vegetable garden to the tanks with an irrigation system, so we can literally run out into the heat, turn the system on for five minutes, and hide back inside our cool house again. Our vegetables survive and we can eat food that hasn’t got any attached miles of transport.

The problem for us is the pump. It might help us collect and save water, but it’s at the cost of electricity. I have no idea if the emissions from running it are more or less than the emissions generated by how far our food travels, but I do know that it’s noisy and irritating to run.

Buckets in a shower

We need to find a better solution to the electric pump, but in the interim we’ve got a wall of buckets in the shower. They’re old yoghurt containers that we’re reusing, and each has a 2 litre capacity. In winter we just have a couple on the floor of the shower and we scale up for the summer months where we end up with as many buckets as we have in the house.

A secondary benefit to the buckets is that we can fill the first one with the cold water in the hot water pipes. We’re not wasting hot water waiting for it to get warm, or the energy used to heat it, because as soon as I sense the temperature difference I can turn the tap off. It makes showering easier on the days when I have the kids in with me, because I can sort out one thing at a time and I know that when they’re ready we can just get in to water that’s already going to be the right temperature.

By using water from our showers we are not only able to reuse our water, but we can also reduce the electricity from the pump. We can water just the plants that need watering, and therefore not turn on the pump at all, or we can pour the water into a 60 litre bucket that sits underneath our laundry window and also feeds into the irrigation system. We’re less likely to empty the water tanks, which happened last year, and more likely to get through the hottest months with our garden intact. It’s a small change, but it has a big impact for us.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you reuse the water from your showers or elsewhere in the house to water plants? Please comment below if you’ve found another use for the grey water from your showers or a better alternative to buckets.

Switching From Tissues to Handkerchiefs

If you live in a house with small children, avoiding the cold and flu season feels impossible. During those years where cold and flu season stretches into hay fever season it is game over for the sinuses. The combination of colds and pollen was particularly bad for us this year.

When we got our new worm farm, I decided to start putting the used tissues in with the other waste. Seeing our tissues for just half an hour piled up high in the worm food bucket was a revelation. I knew we used a lot of tissues, but it wasn’t until we collected them that I realised just how habitual they had become for us. Runny nose? Grab a tissue. Small spill on the table or floor? Grab a tissue. Child with a dirty face? Grab a tissue. I was even blowing my nose because I was walking past a tissue box, not necessarily because I needed to do it.

The obvious solution to this problem was to switch back to old fashioned hankies. It had been so long since I last used any that I didn’t know where you could even buy them anymore. I knew that they were still around somewhere, because our oldest daughter had been given some as a gift, but those had also been sent from overseas.

When I asked my mother if she knew where to buy them, she said that she still had all of my grandfather’s hankies in a drawer that we were welcome to take. I said yes, so the next time I saw her she brought around the surplus. Some of them were still in unopened packets, the tape so old that it stained the fabric yellow.

As soon as I had the hankies in my possession, I immediately remembered why I switched to using tissues. I first learned how to iron by ironing these hankies and, as I threw them into the washing machine, all I could think of was how many hours of my life were going to be dedicated to this chore. Then it dawned on me that if I didn’t care whether they were ironed or not then there was no need for me to do it. My partner saw me folding them and putting them away – unironed – and was weirdly excited that we had made the decision to skip ironing.

Once it came time to use the hankies, I found myself resistant to making the switch. The texture on my face was different, I wasn’t throwing it away as soon as I had used it, and it took me more than a week to get past the ick factor of reusing it. However, as soon as I realised that since I’m the one washing them I can swap mine as often as I like, it immediately stopped bothering me.

Hankies

Getting to the point of happy hanky use took me longer than anyone else in the family. The kids like the colours and patterns of the hankies far more than the plain white tissues, and my partner really couldn’t give a stuff either way. Where the change became real for me was when I went through the house and literally hid all of our tissues in a cupboard so that I wouldn’t use them. I now have a few strategically placed collections of clean hankies where the tissue boxes used to be.

By switching from tissues to hankies we’re saving about $100 a year. Our laundry costs haven’t really changed because the hankies are going in with our regular load and washing them takes less time than buying tissues did. Then there is the obvious environmental benefit from eliminating a type of single use item from our lives. Most importantly for me, the skin around my nose has stopped cracking and peeling the way it does when I use too many tissues.

If you’re playing along at home…

…how can you reduce the amount of tissues that you use? Please let us know in the comments if you have switched to hankies or found another alternative.

Reducing Plastic Bags

This year two of the major supermarkets in Victoria stopped providing shoppers with single use plastic bags. They’ve replaced these throw away, thin grey bags with sturdier plastic bags that cost 15c … and will probably be thrown away because who wants to reuse such an awful bag? Then there are those other thin bags that are everywhere in the fresh food section, and they’re such a convenient temptation that I’m sometimes filling one before I even realise that I’ve taken it off the roll. When you step out of the supermarket and into the other stores, it’s still a plastic bag free for all.

Plastic bags are habitual, but they’re also a major problem for several reasons:

  • They need to be manufactured, transported, and all those other energy using activities;
  • They’re clogging up land fill – if we’re lucky;
  • They’re clogging up the oceans and being eaten by marine wildlife – because we’re not that lucky.

We’ve all heard about bringing green bags with us to the shops, but there’s a big gap between buying a reusable bag and using a reusable bag. No plastic bag that enters our house is single use any more. Changing this behaviour was surprisingly easy.

Reusable bags and plastic bags.
The green bag on the left contains our reusable bags, and the plastic bag on the right contains all of our remaining single use bags for more than a year.

We have a space in our pantry where we collect our bags. The reusable bags are folded as soon as we unpack our shopping and put inside the green bag. Inside this bag is also a zip lock bag that has all of our single use bags from the fresh food section. We simply shake them out when we get home, fold them up, and put them back in for the next trip. Whenever someone is going to the shops, we take this bag on our way out the door.

Since remembering to bring the bags is sometimes difficult, we have a small supply of bags in the glove box of each car. These bags are for those days when you’re already out of the house and you realise that you need to pick up something on the way home.

Because I’m a paranoid sort of person who doesn’t trust her ability to remember anything of any importance when dealing with small children, I also have two small bags in my backpack. These bags tend to be what I use if I’m shopping outside the supermarket. I keep them next to my purse, which makes it easier to refuse a plastic bag at the cash register.

There are a lot of times when getting a plastic bag is unavoidable. Sometimes you just don’t have enough reusable bags with you. Friends and family will bring things to you in a plastic bag. I’ve even seen single use plastic bags used as padding inside a parcel. We just collect these bags in a central location and use them for taking things back to family and friends, holding wet clothes if the children need to be changed when we’re out, and as bin liners. If our pile of bags gets too big then we pack them up and take them to a bag recycling drop off point.

If you’re playing along at home…

… where do you keep your reusable bags so that you don’t forget to take them to the shops? Please share your ideas in the comments below.