Completing the set: we now have solar hot water

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A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof
A shiny new set of 30 evacuated tubes on the roof

When the feed in tariff for solar electricity was put in place, we were one of the early movers, installing a 1.6kw solar PV system on our roof. With the limited space on our roof, we had to pick between solar electricity and solar hot water, and we chose the former.

Once we finished our renovation, however, we had 99m2 extra of flat roof to play with.

Nonetheless, we’d already purchased a super-efficient instantaneous gas system to replace our 1988-era electric hot water tank. We’d hardly be saving the environment if we threw that away, so solar hot water remained on the long-term to-do list.

With the likelihood of rising gas prices over the next few years, I recently looked back into solar hot water options.

What I discovered is that it was possible to reuse our instantaneous gas system as part of a solar hot water installation.

It’s simple really: the evacuated tubes on the roof heat up the water in a storage tank (shown below). The output of the tank goes through the instantaneous gas system. If the water is already hot, the gas system does nothing. If it’s only warm, it boosts it as required.

So no manual boosting or fiddling around, with a 100% guarantee of hot water.

We ended up purchasing a system with 30 evacuated tubes, plus a 300L storage tank. This is far in excess of what we need for two people, but with the roof partially shaded in winter, the extra tubes were chosen to ensure we take maximum advantage of the morning sun.

We’ll be getting back $1300 from the government for the STCs (solar credits).

On current gas prices, the payback period is 8-10 years, which isn’t great. But I’m expecting the gas prices to rise, which should seriously shorten the payback period.

Anyway, it’s good to complete the set of environment-saving technologies :-)

PS. after 3+ months of no rain, we had 2 solid weeks of rain immediately after putting in the solar hot water. Not great for our solar generation, but good for the garden I guess ;-)

The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house.
The 300L tank gets squeezed into the side passage of the house, alongside the instantaneous gas system.

We’re opening our house for Sustainable House Day 2014

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One of the best things about our eco efforts is the way it helps us connect with locals from across Lewisham, Leichhardt and beyond. We’ve had many conversations across the front fence, about our vege patch, the solar panels, bees and more.

This year, we’re opening the house for even more conversations, as part of Sustainable House Day 2014.

On Sunday September 14th, 10am – 4pm, you’re most welcome to drop in for a house tour, and an opportunity to connect up with other folks interested in urban sustainability. (Note: we’re only opening on the 14th, and we won’t be opening on the 7th.)

Our house will be up on the SHD website shortly, which will give you the address a few days before we open the house. In the meantime, add the 14th into your diary.

See you soon!

Digging up the last of our nature strip

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The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.
The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.

Soon after we moved into our house in Lewisham, we dug up a section of the nature strip, and planted citrus trees and herbs. While three of the citrus were immediately stolen, we continued to build up the strip in front of our door, until it was lush and vibrant.

A year ago, we pulled up another section of the nature strip, and native plantings quickly took over.

As it turns out, the local council would actually prefer us to pull up little sections of grass, rather than leave them squeezed in amongst other plantings. This makes life easier for the council staff who do the mowing, and helps to reduce the cost of maintaining the streets.

So with just one piece of grass left between the two sets of plantings, we sorted that out this last weekend.

Nothing but bare earth now!
Nothing but bare earth now!

The process of pulling out the grass is easier than it looks. The roots are shallow, so some mattock work lifts out chunks of grass. It’s then just a matter of digging through the soil to get out as many remnant grass roots as possible.

I then topped it up with some spare soil, and added a little native plant fertiliser.

I’ve been growing a number of native plants from cuttings, so these provided the start of what should become a thick bushy area. Plants include mint bushes (prostanthera), correas, dianellas, and a number of ground covers (including pigface). (We planted the grevillea six months ago.)

The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.
The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.

I collected some free mulch from the local council nursery, and the end result looks rather good I think. Over the next month I’ll finish off the plantings, and by then I’m expecting the seedlings to start putting on some serious growth.

Another piece of grass replaced by native plants, yay!

Making bee hive boxes: getting ready for a busy spring

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New finger-jointed boxes, ready for painting.
New finger-jointed boxes, ready for painting.

Spring is a busy time for beekeeping, so it pays to be prepared. And with a warm winter, and a week of much-needed rain, there’s every sign that things will be taking off early this year in Sydney.

So for the last few weekends, I’ve been making bee hive boxes, hive lids, plus extra bases. (All for Warré hives, otherwise I could just buy new boxes.)

For the boxes, I’m finger jointing them, using the new jig that I’ve purchased for my router table. As first attempts, they’re not great joints, but practice makes perfect! The bees will plug up any gaps with propolis in any case… ;-)

My plan is also to scale up this year, so I have enough honey to meet the needs of our two local cafes.

In addition to a few more hives at our house, several friends have expressed interest in having a hive in their backyard. So I’ll be doing all the setup and management, and we’ll put in place a produce-sharing arrangement. :-)

Onwards to spring!

Another natural beekeeping Q&A session coming up in Sydney (September 2014)

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Most of the natural beekeeping folks in Australia were originally trained by Tim Malfroy (including me). He is without a doubt the leading local expert in this space.

So it’s great to hear that Milkwood have organised another natural beekeeping Q&A session, in Sydney on September 6.

The last one was great, for the networking opportunity, as well as the chance to learn more about the wonderfully complex field of beekeeping.

I’ll be there, hope to see you there too!

Drying tumeric and lemon

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A month ago we harvested a huge amount of tumeric, 2.6kg in total. That’s a lot of tumeric.

Some we’ve frozen, and a lot is stored in our cool cupboard. Following some inspiration from Milkwood, I also decided to dry some, to see how well that would keep.

Tumeric, sliced and ready for dehydration.
Tumeric, sliced and ready for dehydration.

We’ve had a dehydrator for a while now, so we filled up two layers with sliced tumeric.

Sliced lemon, for use in months to come.
Sliced lemon, for use in months to come.

While we were at it, we also set up two layers of sliced lemons, following a suggestion from the excellent book Homegrown tea by Cassie Liversidge.

Two jars, of dried lemon and tumeric slices.
Two jars, of dried lemon and tumeric slices.

24 hours later at medium heat, the results were ready to jar up. Very pretty they look too! More importantly, they’ll hopefully keep for quite some time, and we can compare against our other forms of preservation…

(Not) guerrilla gardening around Lewisham train station

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Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees
Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees

The area around Lewisham train station is a desolate wasteland. Other than a row of large palm trees, there’s a disintegrating raised garden bed, and a long strip of browning weeds. Hardly a joy to behold.

Following a casual suggestion from a neighbour, I guerrilla gardened in a number of gymea lilies, underneath the palm trees. These are extremely tough, and will grow to a size large enough to visually fill in the gaps along the fence.

That got me started, so I continued on to plant a small patch of native plants at the start of the pedestrian walkway that runs alongside the train line.

I’ve since expanded this a little, and it now consists of a mix of acacias (to start enriching the soil), hardy native shrubs (westringias, etc) and strap-leafed plants (lomandras, dianellas).

The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.
The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.

This has not been without some challenges:

  • The railway put in a huge new vandal-proof black fence, and the workers trampled some of the plants in the process (although most survived!).
  • The regular railway workers tend to roll their trucks over the garden every once in a while.
  • Kids keep stealing the stakes, so the plant guards blow away.
  • It’s only rained once in the last 3 months, so hand watering is critical in this early stage.

Despite this, many of the plants, particularly the bushes, are already growing rapidly. I’ve also got a heap of cuttings that should be ready for planting out soon.

Why do this?

A few people have asked me “why bother doing all this, it isn’t your problem?”.

There are a few reasons:

  • It’s nice to live in a lovely local environment, and the current station environment is far from lovely.
  • It’s also good to increase the local biodiversity, encouraging more birds, insects, etc.
  • This land belongs collectively to us, as the local residents. The Council is just the steward of the land, looking after it on our behalf.
  • This gives us a responsibility to participate in sustaining and improving the environment.
  • Someone should be doing it! The Council, even with the best of wills, can’t do everything for us.
  • It’s enjoyable and satisfying to see something grow and prosper.

It’s now official

I also struck up a conversation with the lovely folks at Marrickville Council, who have endorsed the use of the land as a low-maintenance community native garden.

So it’s no longer guerrilla gardening … it’s official gardening. Where’s the fun in that! ;-)

Watch this space for updates as the space (hopefully) starts to bush up and spread out…