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.

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.

Reducing Postal Mail

For quite a while, I used to keep our recycling bin on the front porch. I would come home, empty the mail box, and dump wads of paper into it before I even made it into the house. Things became so extreme that at one point I had taught our most frequent guests to do that recycling for me.

Now that we’re trying to get a bit smarter about our impact on the planet, we want to reduce and hopefully eliminate as much of the paper that we receive in our mail box as possible. There are two things that we receive:

  1. Junk mail such as catalogues, pamphlets, and brochures pretending to be legitimate letters; and
  2. Letters and packages that we actually need or want.

According to 1 Million Women, junk mail in Australia accounts for 6% of our annual paper use at a cost of more than 100 million trees. They also advise that eliminating 1 tonne of junk mail saves 17 trees, 2.3 cubic metres of landfill, 31,400 litres of water, 4,200 kilowatt hours of energy, 1,600 litres of oil and avoids 26 kilograms of air pollutants. If I have a choice between my grandchildren being able to see an old growth forest or me seeing a catalogue filled with crap I don’t want to buy, this is an easy choice to make.

Happily, reducing your junk mail is as simple as putting a sticker on the letterbox that says “No Advertising Material” or “No Junk Mail”. Cleanup Australia advises that you can get one for free by contacting the Distribution Standards Board. You have to post them a stamped, self addressed envelope and they’ll post a sticker back to you. Since that was too ironic for me to deal with, I just picked up one from our local hardware store for less than $5.

Reducing the mail that we want to receive was slightly more work, but just as easy. All of the companies that we do business with offer email bills and statements, and making the switch was as simple as a phone call or logging in to their online portals. We have eliminated paperwork from our banks and utility companies. This has benefits beyond the environmental: it will now be much harder for anyone to use the contents of our mailbox for identity fraud.

But the biggest improvement for our quality of life? Now there is just so much less cleaning to do.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can you take any steps to reduce the amount of paper coming into your mail box? Please share in the comments any additional tricks that you and your family used to reduce the printed materials you receive.

The Toy Library

If you have young children, then you know that certain areas of a shopping centre are guaranteed to cause financial disaster and ruin for your family. Retailers aren’t stupid, and they know how to arrange a wall of monster trucks and Frozen merchandise for maximum pester power. Kids aren’t stupid, and they know how to say “Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum” until Mum snaps and buys yet another God forsaken My Little Pony figurine.

According to an article on Kidspot, you don’t need to feel alone if this happens to you, because some Australian families can apparently “save $1,000 a month if they stop buying unnecessary toys for their children”. I copied and pasted that because I was having a bit of trouble typing in that number. The article goes on to say that some families are spending as much as $5,000 a month on toys. To help you with the maths, that is a cool $60,000* per year.

I don’t personally know any families who have $60,000 to spend on toys – mostly because I don’t know that many families who have $60,000 available for anything after tax, rent and food – but, regardless of the dollars, there are two main environmental problems with this rampant spending:

  1. How much damage is caused creating these toys?
  2. What happens with these toys when the kids have stopped playing with them?

Manufacturing toys doesn’t come cheaply for the environment. The materials used to create the toy need to be grown or mined, and energy is used in those processes. Then the raw materials are transported to the factory, which uses more energy, before the manufacturing and packaging process begins. Waste products need to be disposed of somehow and then the toys need to be transported to the shop where you buy them. Your kid plays with the toy for a few hours, possibly a week or two if you’re lucky, and then the toy sits around the house before you eventually get rid of it.

We’ve almost completely stopped buying toys for our children during the year and instead we’ve bought a membership to the local toy library. It costs $70 for an annual membership – that’s less than the price of a Cook ‘N’ Grow BBQ Grill by Little Tikes, which you can borrow for up to two weeks. Our girls borrow that particular toy two or three times a year, play with it for three days, and then we take it back for another child to play with. They have over 12,000 toys available, and for an additional fee (I think it was $15) you can borrow a party pack.

I no longer dread going past a display of toys in a shopping centre now. If my oldest daughter sees something that she would like to play with, I suggest that she sees if one is available from the toy library. She’s very happy with that answer because I’m not telling her that she can’t play with the toy, and I’m very happy because I haven’t been stung $20 for something that will probably sit on our shelf at home. We aren’t adding packaging to landfill, the girls play with a much broader range of toys than I could ever afford to buy, and we don’t have nearly as much stuff that we have to find somewhere to store.

If you’re playing along at home…

…is there a toy library in your local area that you could join? The people who run our library were happy to let us look at the toys on offer before we made the decision to sign up. If you live in a different area, please share a link in the comments to your local toy library for others who live near you.


*If you happen to have a spare $60,000 lying around that you’re blowing on toys, feel free to give it to me and I’ll happily spend that money on something useful. There’s a set of solar panels that I’ve got my eye on, and I’m even happy to use that money to install them on your roof.

Reducing Refrigeration

At the start of this project I used the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. We scored well in some areas, but on refrigeration we did badly:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449

The reason we did so badly on this category is due to the fridge in our garage; it’s very old and very inefficient. We got it when we had additional people living in the house, and over time we became used to having it there. It was very convenient to be able to put meals in a second fridge instead of making space in our kitchen fridge or hiding indulgent treats from the children in a freezer that they can’t reach.

Even though we switched to 100% green electricity, and as a result our power company has to supply at least as much green energy to the grid as we use, ignoring high electricity usage areas is the wrong approach for our project. If we can draw less electricity from the grid then it will mean more green energy is available to everyone else who is still on a default plan.

The solution to this problem was obvious: turn off the damn fridge.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as quick as it sounds; there was a lot of stuff in that fridge. We needed to change the way we approached food shopping and storage. The following steps helped us transition from two fridges back down to one:

  • We composted any food items that were past their use by date.
  • We repackaged bulky, awkward things into containers that were easier to stack neatly into smaller spaces.
  • We moved all of the frozen meals that people weren’t keen on eating to the top of the pile in the freezer, which made them much harder to ignore than when they were down the bottom.
  • We finally cooked with those infrequent ingredients that were taking up a lot of space.
  • I sacrificed myself and finished off the half eaten tubs of ice cream. It was a burden, but I did it for the good of the planet. You can thank me later.
  • We changed where we stored things. Some items were moved from the fridge to the freezer, and others were moved in the other direction, which meant we were able to reduce a lot of cooking time and energy freezing and thawing food.

I’m pleased to report that the second fridge is now empty and turned off. Since we only have one fridge, and I know that it is rated at 388 kWh per year, I can use the formula at Cool Australia to work out that we are have reduced our emissions from 2.226 metric tonnes per year to just 0.454 metric tonnes. That’s a saving of 1.772 metric tonnes, and a reduction of nearly 7% of our family’s total estimated emissions.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a second fridge that you could turn off, or an inefficient model that could be replaced with an energy efficient one? There are a few charities and non-profit groups who are waiting to take your old fridge and give it a new, environmentally friendlier life. Please share in the comments below what you’ve done to reduce the energy you use for refrigeration and freezing.

Plant A Fruit Tree

One of the most obvious ways to offset our carbon emissions is to plant a tree; this is the basis of many of Australia’s carbon offset programs. When I think of planting trees, my imagination immediately goes to towering forest specimens that will live for hundreds of years. There is no denying the beauty of these majestic trees, just as there is no denying that our suburban backyard simply doesn’t have the room to plant something that will grow to be 75m tall.

We wanted to plant some trees in our garden, and our emissions calculator revealed that we were generating a surprising amount of pollution through how far our food travels to reach our plates. These two needs combined to provide an obvious solution: fruit trees.

I packed the kids into the car and we went to the nearest Bunnings. They had a modest selection of fruit trees, so we went a bit mad picking out a selection. We settled on a lime, two oranges, an apple, a pear, an apricot, a cherry with two grafted varieties and quite a few smaller fruiting bushes. The total spend came to just over $360, and incredibly I managed to get everything into the car without having to leave either of the children at the store.

Trees on the passenger seat of my car.
Getting this many trees into the car at once only worked because they were bare rooted.

At home we began the lengthy process of arguing passionately about where each tree should go. The lime went into the front yard so that our neighbours can steal as many limes as they like. The oranges were planted beside our deck to provide a visual balance and shade from the afternoon sun. The apricot will provide shade and privacy for our bedroom window, and the rest of the trees will eventually convert our open back yard into a shaded place for the children to play.

Even though we are very active in our garden, for the first time our plantings give it a sense of permanence. It will take years for these trees to reach their full height and fruiting potential but, when they do, they’ll more than pay for the purchase cost in fresh, delicious fruits that didn’t have to travel across the country – or the world – to reach us.

If you’re playing along at home…

Do you have space in your garden to plant a fruiting tree or bush? Many varieties do well in large pots, so renters don’t have to make a donation to their landlord’s property. If you are growing something, please share in the comments what you planted and if you think it was a good decision.