6. Reducing energy use by replacing all the lights with LEDs

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According to the figures on our electricity bill, our family of four adults has below average energy use, which is a surprise as I thought we were pretty wasteful. We have all the normal white goods, everyone has a laptop and we have old and inefficient central heating. Our use ranges from about 12kWh a day in Autumn and late Spring/early Summer when heating and cooling are at a minimum, to about 16kWh at the height of winter and Summer.  Our average for the year, according to our bills, is about 14kWh, while the average for our area is between 20 and 27kWh per day. I just did an internet search for average Melbourne household use and according to the Victorian Government household energy calculator http://switchon.vic.gov.au/more-ways-to-save/household-electricity-calculator our use is less than half the average across Melbourne. This site claims average use for a family like ours is 33.5 kWh a day. I guess I should be pleased but I’m shocked with disbelief. We don’t have a pool or a garage so that might make a difference, and we do have gas hot water and stove top, but I’m having trouble imagining what people do to use all that power. However, the aim of the project here is to reduce my own emissions, so comparisons aren’t really important. If we can reduce our energy use the solar panels will cover more of it and we’ll need less from the grid.

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One of the steps on Energy Freedom is lighting http://energyfreedom.com.au/led-lighting/ and I figured this shouldn’t be too a big expense and should pay for itself fairly quickly anyway. The website claims lighting is about 13% of most households’ electricity bills, that LED downlights use 80% less energy than halogens and that LED globes pay for themselves in less than a year. Previously I posted that we already have LEDs in the kitchen and downstairs bathroom; now it’s time to do the rest of the house. I got a quote (from an old student of mine who’d completed his electrician’s apprenticeship) which was about $850 plus labour for replacing all our old halogen downlights with new LEDs (including new fittings as the existing ones are ancient and ugly 1980s models), installing new downlights in other rooms, and replacing all the globes in the remaining pendant lights with LEDs – a total of 21 downlights and 6 LED globes. If you have the more recent 12-volt halogen downlight fittings, you can retrofit them with free LEDs as part of the current Victorian government VEET scheme initiative https://www.veet.vic.gov.au/Public/Public.aspx?id=Home . However, unfortunately our fittings are too old. So can’t tick this one off just yet but it’s booked in and happening in the next couple of weeks. Very exciting!


5. Going solar and in-house monitors

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The first real step to reducing our emissions was installing solar panels. We’d been talking about this for a couple of years and I was very excited about actually doing it. After calculating our energy requirements, we decided on a 5 kW system, and after a bit of research on online forums to find out about different sorts of panels and inverters and which installers were supposed to be good or shonky, we were ready for quotes. We decided not to deal with our electricity supplier, as we wanted to get rid of them as soon as we could, and chose Solargain, who seemed to have a good reputation on the forums, and had a 5 kW system installed for just under $10,000 in mid-March 2015. Since then, some of our neighbours have signed onto a local council scheme and have been offered a cheaper deal. The technology is getting better and cheaper all the time.


Because of the shape of our roof, we couldn’t have all the panels in neat rows and needed the 20 panels split up into five different arrays with Enphase micro-inverters. The upside of this, however, is slightly higher power generation. We also needed scaffolding to fix the second-story guttering, so timed it all to happen at the same time. The installers, a company called Solar360 were great. The whole installation took less than a day and they clearly explained how it would all work, including the software and displays. The process of getting the billing changed to be two-way was a little slow on Origin’s part, but otherwise it’s all been very smooth. We’re now producing (some of) our own electricity! Yay!

Changes to bills, power use and grid supply – a bit disappointing so far

The change on our bills has been a bit disappointing so far. It was Autumn in Melbourne and heading into winter so not the best time of year for solar production, though there is still quite a lot generated on sunny days. We’ve had a slightly colder and more overcast winter this year so the heating has been on a bit more. Also, much of the savings from solar power come from changing habits of use – for example using appliances like the washing machine and dishwasher during the daylight hours when you’re generating power, rather than after dark when you’re drawing from the grid. During winter, that can be really hard, when you leave for work in the dark or get home after dark. We’ve been trying to change our habits though, and our first full bill (winter) showed that our power drawn from the grid was down by over a quarter! However, despite this, our three-month bill had gone up! Which was frustrating and very annoying. I guess if we didn’t have solar, the bill would have been even higher. Over the past few years, in addition to spiralling power costs, billing formulas have changed. Regardless of supplier, we all now pay a monthly grid supply charge that is a static amount (around $120pm), so even if you generate all your power from your roof, you can never completely get rid of the bills while you are connected to the grid. The exchange rate is terrible too. In Victoria, you get 6.25 cents kw for any excess solar power generated during the day, while it costs around 28-30 cents kw to buy power after dark. Hopefully, now the days are getting longer and a tad warmer and sunnier, our generation will increase. We’ll be able to do more during daylight hours and and grid use will go down. Longer term, we have discussed getting batteries, such as the Tesla or the new Australian AllGrid Energy batteries announced this month http://www.statedevelopment.sa.gov.au/news-releases/all-news-updates/indigenous-company-launches-solar-battery-system-in-sa. Enphase also says they will be offering battery storage very soon https://enphase.com/en-au/products-and-services/whats-next so it looks like there will be loads of different options in the next few months. The resident scientist tells me the technology is still too new and “not quite there yet” so we’ll look at it again next year.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.21.02 pmOur rooftop solar system came with an in-house display telling us when the panels come on line in the morning, how much energy is being produced and the running total. The Enphase Enlighten website gives much more detailed information about our energy IMG_3207generation – with hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and running totals of generation available in different graph and table formats.
Last year after our smart meter was installed, we took advantage of a free offer fIMG_3212or an in-house energy monitor which sits on the fridge and tells us what our
energy use is as it occurs. This is really useful and a little bit addictive. I check it whenever I turn an appliance on and have learnt which things use the most energy and how to stagger use so there’s not too much drain on power all at once, to make better use of our solar and draw less from the grid during the day. It’s certainly shown us where most of our power use is – during winter it’s for heating, which is old and inefficient central heating.  Some appliances use a lot for a short burst, like the microwave and jug, while the oven uses a lot over a longer period so is less efficient overall. I love it when the display goes into the negative, showing that our rooftop solar is supplying more than we need at that point of time and is feeding the excess back into the grid.

So, the count so far: 1. Rooftop solar, 2. In-house monitors. Two energy freedom steps done, seven to go. Just need to get better at managing our energy use so we benefit more from the solar. And we need to switch our grid power supplier to a company which supports renewables more than Origin does. I’ve been looking at Powershop http://www.powershop.com.au/  which has good reviews and claims to use 100% renewable energy, so that’s another thing to do.

4. An amazing new garden, less maintenance and less food miles

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There were several motivations for wanting a great backyard garden. Apart from the enjoyment and health benefits of lots of fresh greens, there is the issue of food miles. The less distance food has to travel to your plate, the less energy used by transport and storage, and therefore less carbon emissions. In addition, we wanted our garden to look good – to be an attractive and functional space for recreation and entertaining.

And be low maintenance! My partner and I both work and although I love gardening, I don’t want to spend all weekend doing it.

So, how could we make the garden more productive, protect it from the hungry local wildlife, look good and use water more efficiently? I researched for hours on the internet and then read a book I’d been given on Permaculture. My partner and I enrolled in a half-day workshop on Permaculture basics at Bulleen Art and Garden Nursery http://www.baag.com.au/ with an enthusiastic teacher named Angelo Eliades http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/, and this was enough to convince us to give it a go.

First we identified what we needed – efficient and automatic watering systems that would not require a lot of time and effort to manage, raised beds to make gardening easier on my back and a way of keeping the pests at bay.  I came up with an initial design for the backyard that worked around the existing fruit trees and looked for a landscaper to help build it, as we wanted the watering systems to work properly and there was more hard labour involved than I was capable of on my own.

FullSizeRenderThe landscaper we hired was excellent. We found him through BAAG nursery in Bulleen http://www.baag.com.au/onsite-garden-services/garden-consultants/simon-marshall/ and he has lots of photos of our garden construction on his own blog http://simoncmarshall.blogspot.com.au/ . Simon liked my design but suggested lots of practical things to make it work better, like building the raised beds as wicking beds which have a reservoir of water underneath that wicks up through the soil from below. This reduces evaporation, water consumption and the time spent watering, and also ensures constant water availability for plants. The beds are lined with pond liner, and filled with 30-40cms of gravel. Then there is a layer of water-permeable landscaping fabric which allows the water to wick up into the soil layer but does not allow the soil to be washed through. About 40 cms of compost and soil goes on top. A piece of 100mm pvc pipe is inserted in one corner from the top of the bed down into the gravel so you can top up the water when needed. Last summer I did this roughly once a week if it didn’t rain, and not at all through the winter as there was enough rain to keep the reservoirs full.

IMG_3191IMG_3192A smaller pipe on the outside of the beds allows drainage of excess water if the soil is getting too wet. Three of the wicking beds were custom built and two more were made in old orchard apple crates 120cm square – a perfect size for reaching into the middle of for planting and harvesting. They were so good we had two more installed a few months later.

Another addition was a grey water system from the washing machine which snakes around the fruit trees under a layer of mulch. The rest of the garden is watered by drip irrigation on an electronic timer, that can be switched between tank water and mains if the tanks run low. Timber for the wicking beds was sourced from old golden cypress trees, which had been removed and replaced after being used for farm windbreaks for 100 years. The paving under the table is recycled concrete.

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We planted more fruit trees, so in addition to the two old apple trees and pomegranate, we now have two pears, two plums, a fig, and quince, two oranges, a mandarin, a lemon, two limes and (our most recent experiment) a hass avocado. I’ve also put three olive trees in large pots on the back deck.

IMG_3193We have a raspberry and strawberry patch, a loganberry climbing on one side of the verandah and grapes on the other, and kiwi fruit climbing up the old almond tree. We have a constant supply of fresh greens, herbs and seasonal veggies. A bird net draped over bamboo stakes in each corner of the wicking boxes keeps the birds and possums off the more popular crops. The net holes are big enough for the bees to get through for pollination.

This year we also added a chook pen and three chooks and asked our landscaper back to build a low-maintenance pen and run so we can enjoy the eggs without too much hard work.

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3. The garden before redesigning

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The summer we moved in (January 2007) was scorching and there was no rain for several weeks. There were already a few fruit trees and a bit of a veggie garden started by the previous owners but they were struggling. I’d been really looking forward to growing veggies but there were severe water restrictions across Melbourne that summer and it wasn’t easy. Melbourne actually came within a few weeks of running out of water that summer and the government rushed to build a desalination plant in case of emergency. It was very hard to keep the garden alive and thriving. So, a year or so after moving in, we put in tanks to collect 10,000 litres of rain water from the roof. We planted some fruit trees and lots of vegetables and herbs. The extra water helped enormously although there was no watering system so everything had to be watered by hand.  Along with more rain during the next few years, the tank water helped until two summers ago, when we had three days over 40 º C in one week and everything fried. 10,000 litres only lasts a month or so with little or no rain.

And then there is the local wildlife. While I love having lots of birds and and native animals around, they were eating too much of our produce. Living in the river valley with lots of tall trees around means we have fruit bats, scores of ringtail and brushtail possums, lorikeets, and cockatoos. We tried netting the fruit trees but would find new holes in the nets each morning. I realised that all the work we had done on building up the garden was not enough and we needed a completely new plan.


2. The house before starting the challenge

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The nine steps described on Beyond Zero Emissions’ site http://energyfreedom.com.au/ are insulation, rooftop solar, lighting, draught proofing, hot water, in-home displays of energy use, heating and cooling, cooking and appliances, and double or triple window glazing. When we bought our house about nine years ago, there were none of these things.

Our house, in an inner suburb of Melbourne, is an Edwardian weatherboard about 100 years old with  a corrugated iron roof. For a city house, it feels a bit rural, situated close to the Yarra River and surrounded by gum trees, and with a largish backyard facing north to the sun. We moved here from a small terrace house when we wanted a bit more room for growing teenage offspring and space for growing veggies.

It’s a two-storey open-plan family house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with a laundry cupboard), two living spaces (one with an open fireplace), kitchen, dining area and two studies. The windows are all single glazed, insulation is old or non-existent and when we moved in there were no energy saving fittings of any kind. However, one good feature is the back of the house faces north and big windows capture the winter sun, making the living areas warm without heating on sunny winter days.

The oven upstairs

While the north-facing windows were great for keeping downstairs warm, it was unbearably hot upstairs on warm days. After the first full summer, and with the kids trying to study for VCE exams, we put in evaporative cooling upstairs as it seemed like the best option at the time. We probably should have fixed the insulation first. And since putting in the rooftop solar (see post number 5) and knowing what we do now about the energy efficiency of reverse cycle heating and cooling compared to other types, we may have chosen differently. All this shows it’s good to have an overall plan of action. The problem is our knowledge, needs and finances don’t always coincide and we tend to make decisions a little bit haphazardly. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.


In early 2013, we renovated the kitchen and bathroom. Both were old and grotty, with rotting chipboard cupboards and no modern appliances. We love cooking and needed more bench space to do it. We also desperately wanted a dishwasher. An architect friend drew up plans for a wonderful design that was much more aesthetic, practical and functional. Initially, we wanted to use recycled materials, but finding a builder prepared to do that proved impossible, despite a lot of research. I’m sure they exist but seem very hard to find. Most builders don’t understand why you would want to reuse old materials, as it’s so much easier (and usually cheaper) to buy and work with new ones. Eventually it got too hard. We became a bit discouraged, and wanted to get the work done, so we compromised and settled for beautiful recycled Black Butt timber bench tops, and reused a couple of old doors, but pretty much all the other materials were new.

Good quality Earthwool insulation was installed in the ceilings and walls (including internal ones) of the newly renovated areas, as well as LED lights. We also had heat-reflecting film applied to the west-facing windows and some of the north-facing ones, and heat-reducing solar blinds installed on all the north-facing windows downstairs.  But the rest of the house had to wait until the piggy bank had a few more coins in it.

1. The challenge to make our house carbon neutral

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What I am doing and why

I want to find out out how easy it is to make our house carbon neutral – or as close to it as I can, because I feel the imperative to do my bit to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel use. In south eastern Australia, water is also a big issue. So this is an experiment – partly practical, partly philosophical. If I truly believe that we need to collectively and drastically reduce our carbon emissions as soon as possible to help preserve human life on earth, then I need to change the way I live – right now. However like many middle-class Australians, I like my relatively comfortable lifestyle. Most people I know recycle the easy-to-recycle parts of their rubbish, and some have solar panels or rain tanks for their gardens. But that’s about as far as most of us like to go. Anything else is a bit too much hassle or expense. So I’ve decided to be a guinea pig and see how easy it is and to document my progress.

Both my partner and I work professionally, he as a university academic and I as a teacher, and we have three adult children, the younger two at university and still living at home. We have a fairly average Australian family income with a mortgage that soaks up a lot of it, and like most working families we don’t have hours of time to do things ourselves. So I am hoping to find ways of doing this that are not too time-consuming, difficult or expensive and hopefully encourage other people to do it too. Because if we can’t do it, who is going to? As far as possible, I will document suppliers and costs along the way.

One of the first steps for me has been convincing my partner to do this. While I am firmly convinced that we need to act now and radically to save humanity from the worst effects of global warming, he is a scientist and wants “evidence” for everything. While he doesn’t not believe in climate change, he’s also not totally convinced by all the arguments. But he agrees with the argument of “what have we got to lose?” by conserving resources, having cleaner air and water, more liveable cities, preserving wilderness, being healthier, etc etc. So he’s humouring me and going along with it. My children are supportive, though I suspect they think I’m a little weird, but it’s opened up conversations around climate change and sustainability of the planet. Their thinking is being challenged and that’s a good thing.


Beyond Zero Emissions, http://bze.org.au/about an organisation dedicated to encouraging changes in Australia’s climate change policy and  a zero emissions economy for Australia, has issued a nine-step plan to Energy Freedom http://energyfreedom.com.au/ so I’m going to use that as a guide for reducing emissions around the house. I’ll document other resources as I find and use them.  Here we go…! The first few posts will describe what we’ve done so far before really embracing the challenge. Then it’s on for real. Your suggestions and comments are welcome, I could use some help.