A House Full of Tradies

At the start of this month I applied for a rebate from Solar Victoria for a new PV system for the house. As part of that installation, we’ve had to get the external asbestos removed from the house. Since there was also asbestos behind our switchboard, this was a job that required multiple trades to do the work.

Working on this house has definitely been a voyage of discovery. “Dodgy as <insert expletive>” is a phrase that gets used around here with a high degree of frequency and creativity. Between a long list of poorly executed renovations and the mere age of the house, we’ve realised that the amount of work required to bring this place up to the standard that we want is going to take a lot longer than we initially planned.

Problem One – Electrics

We’ve now removed the asbestos from the switchboard, and we had hoped that would be the worst of it. Ha ha, no. The wiring from the street brings the standard capacity, but the wiring from the fuse to the switchboard is only half that capacity. The sparkie thought that our solar installers will need to upgrade this in order to connect the panels. Regardless of how that aspect goes, he advised us that we can’t convert our gas appliances to electric versions until the wiring is upgraded. To make this even better, we’ve got the old style of wiring that’s wrapped in cloth, and I’ve been happily assured that this is the sort of cabling that eventually becomes a fire risk.

Problem Two – Gas

Essentially another aspect of the previous problem, without a cabling upgrade to the house we don’t have the capacity to convert any of our existing gas appliances to electric replacements. This means that if any break down and need to be urgently replaced, we’d probably be stuck replacing them with a new gas model, and that is completely out of the question for us.

Problem Three – Insulation

We had two asbestos panels removed from the front wall of the house, and it became immediately obvious that the walls have no insulation in them at all. The minimum insulation rating for walls in Melbourne is currently recommended at R2.8. This is a great opportunity to upgrade the insulation for that part of the wall, so we’ve ordered some insulation rated at R7.0 and it should arrive next week. While that’s lovely for this part of the house, it does leave us with the question about what to do for the rest of it. If we put insulation inside the walls, we’re going to need to take down the plaster from inside to fit the insulation in, and that will be some major work. There are insulation options that can be applied to the external walls, but these will change the look and feel of our house. Regardless of what we eventually decide to do, the first step is going to be lengthy research.

Problem Four – Windows

We already knew the windows were a bit below standard, and eventually we want to upgrade them to double glazing or better, but we were surprised by how much the woodwork around them suffered during the asbestos removal. The frames had been poorly maintained, and sections fell off during the work, so we’re going to need to look into this work a lot sooner than planned. I’d like to say this came as a shock, but after an entire stretch of cornice fell off the living room ceiling last week… *shrug*

Problem Five – That <insert expletive> Cornice

Hole in the roof
Because who doesn’t love cabling just hanging through the ceiling?

Speaking off which, where the cornice fell off the ceiling has left a gap in the plaster. The warm air from our heater is now rising into our roof space and happily flowing out through the open eaves. It was 2°C outside this morning and a balmy 10°C inside the house when we woke up. The children were inexplicably keen to snuggle up with me under a mound of blankets. I do cherish their affection, but it makes it difficult to convince them to get up and dressed for the day. Our carbon use is going to skyrocket until we get some of these holes patched up.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a long list of structural challenges that are stopping you from reducing your footprint? Please share in the comments below the obstacles that you’re facing in your home.

What Are Our Starting Emissions?

It’s one thing to say that we want to become a carbon negative family, but quite another to actually achieve that goal. The carbon that our activities release into the environment is invisible and typically occurs far away from our home and our consciousness. When I’m standing in the supermarket looking at two products that appear to be interchangeable, but are produced by different companies in different packaging, I have no idea how I am supposed to know which one is environmentally more responsible. I don’t think about the way our energy is produced when I turn on the television so the kids will leave me alone for twenty minutes. How bad can it really be?

Australian Emissions

Since we live in Australia, it’s worth looking at average Australian Emissions as a starting point. Environmental awareness seems to be everywhere these days. People are switching from the old halogen light bulbs to more efficient alternatives, and solar panels seem to be springing up on roof tops everywhere. There has been a big push for better insulation in homes, people commute with public transport, and supermarkets have begun to get rid of single use plastic bags. Sure, our new prime minister once walked into parliament with a lump of coal that was supposedly our salvation but, that inexplicable moment aside, as a nation we must be rocking it. Right?

Well, it turns out that we aren’t rocking it at all when it comes to our emissions. In December 2017, the ABC reported that our emissions rose for the third consecutive year. Even though our per capita emissions are now at their lowest level in 28 years, we are still producing 1.3% of global emissions. Given that we have a national population of approximately 25 million people in a global population of around 7.5 billion people, that’s not great. To save on mathematics, according to the World Bank, Australians produced 15.4 metric tons per capita in 2014. It’s easy to try the developed country argument but, according to the same source, the Euro area only produced 6.5 metric tons per capita and the world average was 5.0. That means we produce more than twice the emissions of some other developed countries, and more than triple the rest of the world.

Ouch.

Our Emissions

There are four of us, so the World Bank’s calculations mean that we are contributing 61.6 metric tons of carbon emissions as a family. That number is staggering and difficult to comprehend. I want to insist that we can’t be so bad as a family, that we’re sensible and practical people who are surely under the average, but denial rarely leads to solving problems. It’s possible that we’re under the average, and just as possible that we’re over it. We need to know.

I decided to use the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category provides a quick and a detailed level and benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. Switching to the detailed level gave us sometimes dramatically different results, which were as follows:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Transport 3.708 7.303 2.766
Air Travel 1.221* 1.427 0.357
Heating and Cooling 0.456 2.07 0.843
Hot Water 0.671 4.841 0.881
Clothes Dryer 0.0 0.258 0.084
Lighting 0.306 1.109 0.424
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449
Cooking 0.841 0.858 0.621
Other Appliances 3.428 2.052 0.508
Food and Shopping 12.772 12.359 8.27
Waste -0.023 -0.024 -0.05
Total 25.606 33.493 15.153

*For flights, we typically alternate domestic and international flights each year. To calculate this, I put in the holidays for two years and then divided by two.

At the start of the calculator I felt pretty happy about how much we were under a typical household on some of the categories. Heating and cooling? Nice. Clothes dryer? Boom. Then I arrived at some of the later categories and the smugness quickly wore off. Since there are four of us in the family, this calculator gives us each an annual emissions rate of 6.4015 tonnes per person. We might be doing well in some areas, but we obviously have a lot of behaviours that need to be worked on, and quickly.

If you’re playing along at home…

…then find an emissions calculator tailored to your geographic area and find out how well your family rates. Are you doing better or worse than we are? Were you surprised by how well or how poorly you were doing in some areas? Please share your starting point in the comments below.