Roof Vents

As I write this today, it is currently 40.3°C outside, with a projected top of 42°C. For those unfamiliar with Australian slang, this is what we like to refer to as a scorcher. A hot wind is pounding the house, and I’m praying that the ice blocks I put in the chickens’ water this morning keeps them alive until the promised cool change sweeps in.

Welcome to summer in Melbourne, global warming style.

Despite the heat outside, inside the house is still relatively cool, and it is after 1pm. We have a new air conditioner, and I haven’t felt the need to turn it on. While I have no scientific data to back this up, I think the change is due to the roof vents we installed a few weeks ago.

Roof ventThe vents are a simple piece of technology, and because we bought a cheap version ($69 each) they are entirely wind powered. The basic idea is that the heat from the sun is warming the cavity between our tiled roof and the internal ceiling. As the space up there warms, heat starts penetrating our ceiling insulation and warms up the rooms below. By installing these roof vents, the heat trapped in the roof space is able to rise out of the roof and escape, rather than being forced into the area below.

A house the size of ours requires three of these vents, but we only installed two because we don’t want to block any roof space that might be needed for our future photovoltaic system. They work better on a house like ours because we have a pale green roof instead of the more popular black roofs that are sweeping the city, which means some of the heat is reflected instead of being absorbed.

In winter we might end up with the problem that we’re extracting heat that we would prefer to keep in the house. The nice thing about this installation is that it only took about an hour to set everything up, and we still have the missing roof tiles stacked out of the way. If they aren’t working for us during the cooler part of the year, we can simply take them down again and store them until next summer.

If you’re playing along at home…

… are you able to install roof vents in your home to keep it cool during the summer months? If you have already done this, please share in the comments below how well they worked for you.

Our First Electricity Bill

We started working on reducing our carbon footprint in September this year, and we have now received our first electricity bill that has been generated entirely during this project. From when we moved into this house our usage had been consistently increasing, so we were all curious to see whether or not we had been able to change our behaviour and curb our consumption. The snapshot below is from that bill.

Our daily electricity use has dropped by 24.62% since last year.

We now pay an additional 5.10 c/kWh for 100% renewable energy, which only added $18.20 onto the bill. By managing to bring our consumption down so low, we were able to get our bill well under $200 for three months. At a time when Australians are suffering severe financial strain due to energy prices, this isn’t putting a significant financial burden on our family. The following table compares our summer usage to that of other households in the area.

Our electricity usage is significantly lower than comparable households.

As you can see, our four person household is using significantly less electricity than a one person household in our area. We’re really proud of ourselves for cutting back where we could and offsetting what we couldn’t reduce. At this point it would be easy to say that we’ve gone as far as we can and that now it’s time to sit back and relax, but that defeats the spirit of this challenge. We’re working on a lot of ideas that will reduce our household consumption even further – we still need to get through next winter in a house warmed by gas appliances – and I can’t wait to share with you next year some of the creative ideas that we’re testing.

If you’re playing along at home…

…please share in the comments below some of the emissions that you’ve been able to reduce this year. How far have you been able to come with your electricity bill? How far do you still have to go? What is your baseline for making 2019 better for the planet?

Build A Garden

When I think of a suburban vegetable garden, I immediately think of a rectangle of land in the back yard. In my imagination it is a separate, utilitarian area that sacrifices aesthetics for practicality. It provides a lot of benefits through fresh, healthy food and reducing the family’s carbon footprint, but at the cost of a play space and relaxation area.

It has taken us over a year, but we’ve finally finished building the garden beds for our home. Our block is 632 square metres, and the vegetable garden takes up just over 100 square metres in addition to the fruit trees in the lawn. Instead of being that dedicated rectangle behind the house, our garden has become a key design element, something that enhances the available space.

We’ve been able to spread the vegetable garden out over the block because the house is positioned so that garden beds can wrap around it. There is a deep bed against the front wall in the north, beds along the fence in the east, and a series of beds in the west. On the south side the garden beds run along the fence where they aren’t shaded from the sun.

Our garden is an interesting space to move through. When we started I was worried that we would be removing most of the children’s play area. I always believed that children need large open spaces to run around and ride bikes. It turns out that if we leave the paths wide enough they can still do those things. Thanks to the wildlife attracted to our garden, they can also chase butterflies, hunt caterpillars, or watch bees collect pollen. Adults are also drawn to our garden, and almost everyone who visits for the first time comments on our use of space.

Vegetable garden growing corn and squash in a narrow passageway.The area that I am most pleased with is the narrow strip of land between the house and the eastern fence. In most homes this would be an unusable part of the garden, overgrown and considered too small to do anything with. It gets a lot of shade, and several people told me that it would be impossible to get anything to grow out there. It’s currently planted with corn and squash, all of which are doing well.

By having so much space available for food crops, we can potentially become self sufficient for certain types of vegetables. Growing everything that we need would completely eliminate our food miles for those vegetables. This aspiration is very much a work in progress, but we’re hopeful that we can learn how to make it work.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have a space where you could tuck a vegetable garden? Please share in the comments below the best or smallest places at your home that you’ve found for growing your own food.

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.