Going green

Getting into hot water

There’s a lot of doom and gloom from COVID-19 at the moment. So here’s something positive: I got a new hot water system.

Twelve years ago this month I got solar hot water installed: a collector panel on the roof, a tank to store the water, and a gas booster.

I thought it was going to be great. But to be honest, I never really saw a great difference in the gas bills. Over summer (when the heating doesn’t get used), gas cooking and water is still about $2 per day.

Recently the hot water has been playing up. The gas booster unit started leaking, and then stopped working – meaning the morning shower was somewhere between room temperature and lukewarm.

Twelve years perhaps isn’t a bad innings for a hot water system, so I started looking at replacements.

One philosophy is to migrate homes completely off natural gas, because unlike electricity, it’s not only non-renewable, it can never be renewable.

If you can get completely off gas, you also save a bundle in service fees. For me, this involves upgrades for hot water, heating (also due for an upgrade), and cooking (my stove is ancient, so ditto).

For hot water, I’ve ended up with a Sanden electric heat pump. A fair bit more expensive than other options, but they’re known for being very efficient. It was installed on Friday.

Despite COVID-19, the installers said they’re taking precautions, but they’d keep doing jobs for now – thankfully most of their work is outside, with minimal time indoors or directly interacting with people. And we avoided shaking hands.

A heat pump is best when accompanied with solar PV panels. This is the next step. There may be a challenge due to a lack of roof space, but this should cut my household emissions even further.

It’s a reminder that when the current crisis is over, society will still need to properly resolve climate change. COVID-19 is getting a serious response. Climate change will be just as big, if not bigger (but will probably creep up on us more slowly) if it’s not addressed properly.

Home life TV

Home improvement

Yes, sometimes my blog isn’t about transport. If you’d prefer to see only transport posts, you can use this link.

Here’s a post where I ramble on about recent upgrades around my house.

Wall insulation

I had wall insulation installed earlier in the year.

The winter gas bill came in recently. It’s down 37.7% from the previous year.

We were away for a bit of time, but nowhere near that much. I’d call that a win.

My current thinking is I’d like to slowly transition off gas and onto electricity, moving towards solar PV.

  • Re-do the kitchen (it needs it!) including a move from gas cooking to electric (induction?)
  • Replace the hot water with electric heat pump, removing the existing hot water solar panel to be replaced by PV panels
  • Replace the ancient gas central heating with reverse cycle heating/cooling – the only question being whether individual units or a central unit is better. (Can individual units be controlled in unison via a timer program?)

We got a new TV

Back in 2011 we got our first widescreen digital television: a 32 inch (80 cm) Samsung.

Rather annoyingly it still works fine, but I was thinking of buying something bigger than 32 inches, perhaps around 43 inches. (Are television sizes one of the last holdouts of imperial measurements?)

Then my sons spotted the 49 inch Sony X70F on Amazon, which seemed irresistibly cheap at $649 – slightly cheaper than the cost of the 32 inch TV in 2011.

Choice’s handy guide to model numbers indicates that the X70F is last year’s model, but it’s got all the features we want, including 4K. We bought it. It’s since gone up to $849.

We also bought a TV stand so it could fit on the old (narrow) cabinet. What I didn’t realise was the stand on top of the old cabinet positions the TV far higher than suits the room. The stand is height adjustable, but only up from where we have it.

Sigh. Oh well, the old cabinet was also due for replacement (an ancient unit from Ikea that’s at least 25 years old – remember their Nunawading store and when they sold products that were real solid wood?), so I ended up buying a new cabinet as well. It’s lower but wider so has more space. Yes, Ikea again.

It took an evening to re-cable everything into the new cabinet, but it’s tidier.

New big TV

Is a 49 inch (124 cm) TV too big for my small livingroom? Perhaps. Some advice seems to be aim for a TV with a size of about half the distance you sit away from it. On that basis it’s okay, but that’s really aimed at not seeing pixelation at the highest resolution. … Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

This article from 2016 reckons most people are now buying much bigger screens, and in the USA, the average size is now above 50 inches.

The bathroom

I moved into my house 14 years ago. My best guess is it had a makeover in the mid-1990s when the property was subdivided and most of the backyard was sold off and developed.

So the bathroom was some 25+ years old and looking pretty tired. I finally got it revamped over winter.

I was able to arrange the perfect timing: Peter the bathroom guy was able to do the project in early July, when my sons were away, and during the Caulfield to City bustitution – giving me an excuse to stay home and avoid it, at least in peak hours.

Peter’s way of working is to provide a shopping list for most of the required bits and bobs, so I got to decide on and go shopping for tiles, grout, tapware, showerhead, toilet, vanity unit, towel rails.

I discovered that there are any number of places that will sell you all this stuff – but almost all of them are only open during weekday business hours, and Saturday mornings – which was not very convenient at all.

Only Bunnings has the smarts (and resources) to be open all weekend, and until 9pm on weekday evenings. In return for their long hours, and relaxed returns policy, they did very well out of me on this project.

Thankfully my house has a second toilet. No full second bathroom though. I got used to washing each morning in the laundry sink, with occasional showers courtesy of nearby family so I could wash my hair. It’s manageable, but it was good to have the actual bathroom finished.

In the end the work took a week and a half. Could it be quicker? If two people worked on a small bathroom, they’d just bump into each other.

Renovating the bathroom

Any lessons learnt? I do wonder if next time I might not use a mixer tap for the vanity unit basin. The reason is the default (middle) position is likely to be used by people when they don’t want hot water. This actually runs the hot and cold together, which means the hot water heater starts up. It might be more energy-efficient to have separate hot and cold taps, even if they mix into one outlet.

During the work we discovered why some of the pipes had been rattling – and fixed/replaced them. We also found the water takes a long route around the house before getting to the bathroom, which is why the hot water takes a while to start. Unfortunately it sounds like that would be quite complicated to actually fix.

Not to worry – the overall result is great.

Now I just have to get around to repainting affected sections of wall… put it on the list with the drill spots from the insulation.

Maybe when I get the kitchen re-done, I’ll get some painters in to do it all.

Now, what’s next?

Going green Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

Wall insulation

Improving my house’s heating and cooling and energy efficiency is an ongoing project.

This week it was wall insulation.

Obviously this is best fitted when the house is built, but in a house built circa 1930, the only way is to retrofit it.

They do this by drilling small holes in the walls all the way around the house, then spraying in filler stuff into the wall cavity.

Insulation installation

They’ve filled the holes, but they’ll need sanding and painting, which leaves me somewhat regretting I didn’t do this before I got the house painted in 2015. Not to worry, but for now the house looks like it has measles.

Last year’s winter gas bill (covering 15th June to 15th August) was a whopper, at $489 ($7.87 / 354 MJ of gas per day) – similar to 2016. (In 2017 we were away on holiday for some of winter.)

I’m hoping that by getting the new insulation in time for winter, the gas bill for winter this year can be reduced quite a bit – hopefully daytime warmth can be better retained into the evening and overnight.

It might be a while before the investment (not insubstantial) pays off, but already there’s a noticeable difference, which is good.

Future options around the house include:

  • double-glazing on the windows
  • under-floor insulation
  • PV panels for the roof
  • replacing gas cooking with electric
  • replacing gas central heating with more reverse cycle units
  • and one I learnt about recently which seems like an easy no-brainer: a balloon in the fireplace.

Going green Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

Decarbonising my home

While my most pressing home renovation need is the bathroom (planning to do this the next time my sons are away on a trip), I was also thinking:

Governments should be doing a lot more on climate change, but what are the major emissions in my home, and how could I decarbonise?

The car. I recently bought a petrol car, because given how little I drive, I couldn’t justify the cost of hybrid or electric, and with brown coal power generation, electric cars arguably just move emissions from the tailpipe to elsewhere. Hopefully by the time this car is replaced, most electricity (certainly in my house) will be green and electric vehicles will be more affordable. So let’s leave the car aside just for the moment.

In the house itself, several of the appliances involved are quite old and inefficient, and may need replacing anyway in coming years. So there’s an opportunity to move away from gas (unavoidably fossil fuel) to electricity (which can be renewable).

Gas central heating — this system is more than 20 years old, and not very efficient by modern standards. Maintenance also seems to be increasing.

Current thinking seems to be that split system air-conditioners are more efficient than has central heating, particularly from electricity from renewable sources.

There’s a cost there of course — each area of the house would need a new unit fitted. I got one for the main living area a year ago for cooling, which is the other obvious benefit of installing them.

Good insulation also helps. I’ve done the roof, and we have external blinds for summer, as well as ceiling fans, but wall insulation is worth doing too.

My ancient stove

Gas cooking — my ancient gas cooker still works around 90 years after it was installed. It’s got minor problems though with gas leakage, and both the oven and cooktop are small and lack precision. We’ve learnt to live with this, but modern facilities would be nice – for instance an oven that’s big enough to cook multiple pizzas.

Replacing these with electric could be the way to go. Electric cooktops can be induction or ceramic — I like the sound of induction, though that may require replacing some of my cookware.

Gas water heaterten years ago I got solar hot water with a gas booster. It’s worked well, though a bloke who came recently to clean the panel mentioned that parts are likely to need replacing before too long — perhaps in the next five years.

Options might include a conventional electric hot water heater (expensive to run) or a heat pump, which can be expensive to install (up to about $3000), but are apparently quite cheap to run. Though come to think about it, I think I paid about $4000 for the solar hot water system.

Solar panels on a roof in Bentleigh

Electricity — currently I pay for green power, but an obvious upgrade would be to invest in PV panels, which have dropped in price markedly, and the new subsidies make it more affordable, even if the feedback tariff isn’t very high anymore.

One benefit of removing the solar hot water would be making more space on my relatively small roof for more PV panels. Some owners of houses with a small roof have been quite creative about maximising the number of panels – see photo above.

There are also different options for PV panels, which some expensive ones generate more power — and of course one can install batteries to make use of the power generated rather than feeding it back into the grid (typically during the day) and having to buy it back at peak times (typically in the evenings). Batteries are really expensive though, well over $10,000 it seems.

Can rooftop solar generate enough power at the hottest part of the day to run air-conditioning?

I also need to keep in mind future development around me. My neighbours on the western side have rebuilt their house as two storeys, reducing sun onto the roof in the afternoon. If the same happened on the eastern side I wouldn’t be surprised — there’s been a lot of similar development in my street.

Put all these things together, and (for a cost) I could move off gas completely, and move most of my power generation to solar, cutting my household emissions to hopefully near zero.

I’m sure I’m not the only one pondering these issues. What are other people doing?

Home life Toxic Custard newsletter transport

What is a “family-friendly” house?

When you’re house-hunting, there’s a continuum of numerous factors weighed against each other, including indoor space, outdoor space, location, walkability, and plenty more, including of course price.

By walkability, I mean the walking distance to amenity such as parks, good public transport, shops. (Walkscore attempts to measure this.)

From some points of view, perhaps the traditional position is that growing families will prioritise indoor and outdoor space over other factors. Big house, big garden.

I didn’t prioritise those when I bought my house; within my budget, I prioritised location and walkability over space. This had both pros and cons of course.

I wanted to flag one of the big advantages.

When I moved, my sons were 7 and 10. Now they’re 19 and 22. Location and walking access to shops and trains (under 10 minutes away) has been absolutely crucial to them gaining a sense of independence through their high school and university years and beyond.

Public transport problems notwithstanding, they’ve been able to get themselves around relatively easily, and enjoy it too, without a long walk or a long wait for a bus to get home — either of which would push them quickly towards driving.

Just for now, my sons are holding off learning to drive, but will do it eventually. With my concerned parent hat on, the risks of personal safety issues while out walking and using public transport are far less than the risks of driving. (The equation might be different if they weren’t both boys.)

Philip Street, Bentleigh (near Patterson Road)

I hadn’t really thought about how this had played out until my sister mentioned pondering moving her family from Moorabbin (under 15 minutes walk from a station) out to “where you can get more house for your money”.

It made me think that teenagers’ mobility is an important issue. You don’t want them being driven everywhere, and neither will they. You do want them to have access to friends, jobs, events and education independent of their parents.

Lack of space has obvious disadvantages. My front and back gardens are pretty, but not big enough for playing footy or cricket or other such activities. More private open space would be great.

But we have a park down the road, and being on a quiet street, we’ve been able to use that space for outdoor activities.

More indoor space would be possible by renovating, expanding upwards, but the budget hasn’t really allowed for that.

When it comes down to it, we sacrificed private space for the ability to get around without driving — for both my sons, and also for me.

Beyond their independence, being able to leave the car at home most of the time is also good for the health and finances of all of us.

It also means they have access to opportunities without the cost burden of owning their own cars.

I’m not alone in going down this path. With pressures on real estate prices, others are raising families in smaller houses or flats / apartments.

Whether it be buying or renting, we all make our choices. Hopefully those choices take everything into account — including things that may not be immediately obvious.

I’m not trying to tell anybody what’s better for their family, but if I had my time again, I don’t think I’d change a thing.

Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

I finally got air-con

(To just see transport-related blog posts, you can use this link — which is also on the top navigation menu)

For years I’ve resisted air-conditioning at home.

Partly it was the cost, partly it was that I really wanted to pursue passive cooling as much as I could — measures that used little or no energy.

To that end, three rooms have ceiling fans, three more have standing fans. The three rooms with the biggest windows have external blinds.

And there’s insulation in the roof. (I haven’t yet explored options for wall insulation or double-glazing, which I suppose I should, especially given it’s a weatherboard house.)

All this helps the house stay cool… to an extent. It’s much cooler than outside on the really hot days, and much better than it used to be, but it still gets up to an uncomfortable 30ish degrees indoors on 35+ days.

This summer I’ve decided to bite the bullet and get an air-conditioner, which will cool the livingroom and adjacent areas.

Split system air-conditioner

Part of what got me over the line was that I finally found an air-conditioning company willing to publish useful information for prospective buyers, rather than making you ring them up and have the sales pitch blasted at you. Thanks Current Force Electrics.

For ages I’d been looking for a rough indication of how much it might cost, and no other company’s web site publishes that type of information. It’s like window shopping but there’s no prices in the window. I don’t know about you, but it puts me off.

Current Force also have useful information helping you work out capacity you need for a particular space, and they clearly explain some of the types of installations, with regard to positioning the outdoor unit. They also do quotes by email, by getting you to send in photos of the space.

I’ve ended up with a 5 KW (cooling) / 6 KW (heating) Fujitsu model, which should be plenty of power for the space, given the other measures already in place.

They installed it on Thursday. It took about 90 minutes. Since then, the weather has been cool, but it’s expected to reach 36 degrees on Wednesday, so air-conditioning will make a big difference to the indoor temperature — and to my power bills, no doubt.

A future house upgrade might be solar power to help offset the additional power, if I can figure out where on my smallish roof it should go.

I’d also potentially consider smaller air-conditioner units in the bedrooms.

My sense is the fans are usually adequate at night — in fact I’m going to get the ceiling fan from the livingroom moved into a bedroom.

But one argument for fitting out the bedrooms with split system units that can both cool and heat is to phase-out use of my old gas central heating in the winter — doing this job with green power (preferably roof-top solar) instead of gas is more energy efficient and environmentally-friendly, and quite possibly cheaper as well.

And if overall temperatures keep rising, it’s probably inevitable that passive cooling just won’t cut it anymore.

Consumerism Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

How do I pay the electrician?

A couple of years ago I got a ceiling fan fitted in the kitchen.

The electrician was pleasant, competent, and did a good job.

He said he’d send me an invoice. He never did. A couple of months later I emailed him and asked him to send it. He acknowledged the email and said he’d send it. He never did.

A couple of weeks ago I got a ceiling fan fitting in one of the bedrooms.

The electrician was pleasant, competent, and did a good job.

He said his boss would send me an invoice. He hasn’t so far. A week ago I emailed him and asked him to send it. No response.

I don’t seem to have this problem with other tradies. Plumbers and painters seem only too keen to bill me.

I want to pay for the work they did.

Some questions spring to mind:

How do electricians stay in business if they’re so disorganised?

Is it just me?

When do my obligations cease? How many times do I have to remind them to take my money?

Update: I realised the second electrician sent me a quote before the work commenced, which included bank deposit details. It’s not an invoice, but if I don’t get an invoice, I can just pay that amount.

Update 2: He rang me and said he’d been on holiday, but would be sending an invoice. Either that or he reads my blog…

Home life music Toxic Custard newsletter

TreatYoSelf: Sonosed

Brace yourself… a non-transport-related blog post.

A couple of years ago I bought a Yamaha surround sound setup, which has been fabulous. I’d single out the sound track on Mad Max Fury Road in particular; very immersive.

Heck, even later seasons of the West Wing had some subtle surround going on, adding to the viewing experience.

I’ve used it for music too, and it sounds great. I copied all my iTunes music onto a USB stick* which can plug into the front of the receiver. You can play tracks or albums by navigating through on the TV, or via a phone or iPad app. But it’s a bit clunky; it’s not really designed well for that, and it can’t fathom tracks within genres, nor play lists, and it certainly can’t do anything as fancy as random/shuffle play. (Hey Yamaha, how about an upgrade?)

You can play music from iTunes to it via Apple AirPlay, but that requires using a computer.

*By the way, I have iTunes configured to rip CDs as MP3s at the highest bitrate. I figure those files are more widely playable than any other format.

Sonos Play 1

But I was still craving J+M’s Sonos system, particularly the idea of music playing in perfect sync around the house, preferably without wires everywhere.

I considered other cheaper options. Could I achieve the same with a few Google Chromecast Audio dongles? Perhaps, but it’d be messy. And other manufacturers have Sonos-like speakers (though the good ones aren’t really much cheaper).

Then a few weeks ago JB Hifi offered $50 off Sonos speakers, so I thought what the hell, I’ll go for it. I thought maybe I could splurge for a Play:1 (the smallest speaker, $299 less the $50 discount) and get a Connect (a little exhorbitant at $549) to sync music through to the Yamaha receiver and speakers.

Nagging doubt on the Sonos Connect: Sonos speakers have a fixed delay of 70ms (to allow them all time to sync), which is fine. And the Yamaha can be adjusted to delay, if it’s ahead. But if the Sonos is ahead, you’re stuffed. You can try switching the Yamaha to Direct Mode, but if it’s still behind, you’re still stuffed. No music sync. (I also vastly prefer the Sonos gear in black. The Connect is only available in white.)

Anyway, I got the Play:1 and tried it out. Very impressive. It thoroughly exceeded expectations. Great sound.

When the kids heard it, they thought the music was playing out of the Yamaha’s big speakers, not the tissue-box-sized Sonos speaker on the mantlepiece.

Which made me think: if the goal is multi-room music, why even bother getting the expensive Connect for a (possibly troubleprone) link to the Yamaha? Why not just buy another Play:1 for half the cost?

Ingenious. And of course the Play:1 can be moved around if ever required.

Done. Bought.

Meanwhile I’d been looking around at what secondhand dealer Cash Converters had in the way of Sonos gear. The Parkdale store had a Sonos Bridge, used to configure Sonos systems to use their own network instead of the WiFi. It’s the old model (the new one is called Boost, costing $149), but was only $29. Sold.

So now I can play synched music in the livingroom and kitchen, which in my small house, covers most of the common area of the house. And the speakers are small enough that I can move them around if needed.

Some people online reckon that there’s not much difference sound-quality-wise between the Play:1 and the larger Play:3. And I think I like the style of the 1 more than the 3 or 5.

For online radio, it’s not perfect, because it’s relying on good internet. Like the Pure radio I already had in the kitchen, it seems to be occasionally prone to dropouts if the home internet (Optus cable) is clogging up. (The Pure radio also does actual radio, including DAB+ digital radio, so I can flick it to Double J if BBC Radio 6 Music is playing up.)

I still think the Yamaha was a good choice for surround-sound movies. Sonos’s option (Playbar plus Sub plus speakers) is around three times the price, and it can’t do DTS sound. It’s also dependent on the TV being about to output a 5.1 signal, which some can’t.

My next step was going to be to put my home music collection on a shared drive that the Sonos can play, such as a Raspberry Pi set up as a NAS — but I checked and my cable modem/router has that feature. It’ll share anything plugged into the USB port. So I plugged the USB stick I’d been using in the Yamaha into the router instead, then told the Sonos where to find it… job done!

Of course, Sonos is one of those things like DSLR camera lenses… addictive… I’d be surprised if I don’t end up buying more gear at some stage. Hmm, one for my bedroom perhaps?

Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

Ikea Billy upgrade

I bought some Billy bookshelves for the livingroom some years ago. I picked their beech colour… and then they discontinued it.

While I love the look, and the reconfigurability of the moveable shelves and the fact that you can always buy more (well, except in beech, so not really in my case), I can’t say I’m impressed by the strength of the shelves.

Some of the longer (80cm) shelves of the two bookshelves are noticeably flexing under the weight. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise — they’re obviously built down to a price.

Billy bookcase bowing

It may be time to have a clear out of old books (I can see a few in the pic that I suspect we don’t read anymore), and switch the contents around and put some lighter items on the long shelves. Do other people with Billy bookcases have this problem?

This article says that Ikea has been upgrading Billy: including stronger shelves. I wonder if this is why they discontinued the Beech colour? Perhaps it was more susceptible to bowing?

Ikea is a worldwide operation, but it’s unclear if/when the upgrade made it to Australia (the above link and this article indicate they started shipping them in North America in August 2014), but I’ve been pondering more Billys anyway for a neighbouring room, as the shelf options mean they are more space-efficient than the current bookshelves.

I could fill the wall with the shorter Billy option. It’d be more expensive (45% more, since it’s $69 for 40cm vs $95 for 80cm), but hopefully avoid any future shelf strength issues — and they’re not really expensive.

On the other hand the old solid wood bookcases I have are pretty tough, probably inherently superior to any Billy wood veneer bookcases, so perhaps I just need to stick with what I have, and re-arrange things to be more efficiently shelved.

Are there other good, widely-available, affordable options which include configurable shelves?

Home life Toxic Custard newsletter

Heatwave: external blinds under test

Over the weekend Melbourne went through our biggest heatwave so far this summer, and the first real test of my external blinds, which were fitted to the house early this year.

Looking at the two nearest weather stations to me, yesterday the temperature at Melbourne (Olympic Park) peaked at 40.7 at 4:27pm. At Moorabbin Airport it peaked at 41.2 at 3:30pm. Happily by about 6:30pm the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees, but the lowest measurements overnight were in the high-20s.

I was away (in air-conditioned comfort for most of the day), but inside the house on Saturday it got to about 30 degrees. This compares to an inside peak of 33 degrees when I last measured it properly in 2014.

So on the face of it, the external blinds make about 3 degrees difference, which does take the edge off the heat, and combined with plenty of fans can make for a reasonable level of comfort. Fans all night have made sleep perfectly possible, and looking at our power consumption in daytime, keeping the house to 30 degrees while using fans, computers, TVs etc and still only burning 670 kW watts of power doesn’t seem too bad.

Window external blinds

Good roof insulation was installed some years ago, but seems to help more in winter than summer. Other options to explore would include wall insulation and double glazing. (One ceiling fan, suspected to be 15+ years old, also needs repair, as it’s stopped working.)

While they slow down the warming of the house, what the blinds and other passive measures don’t do is completely stop it getting hot, or cool things down. For that I would need actual air-conditioning or a split system, which I’ve tried to avoid, but is an idea I am slowly warming to. (Sorry x 2.) Perhaps to be installed with solar, to assuage guilt about increased energy consumption/emissions. Bear in mind of course the other measures have reduced what any cooling system would need to do.