Category Archives: Sustainable House

Smoko – Why I Don’t Turn Off Lights For Earth Hour

I meant to write this about a week ago.  It’s a bit late now, but hey ho, something for you to think about for next year.

There are some reasons why I don’t participate in the Earth Hour ‘movement’.

To get the obvious ones out of the way:

1.       Our home is powered by a stand-alone solar system, and fossil fuels don’t power our lights. At least not so directly as from a power station (they do have to make solar panels and batteries from something though, and it aint woven palm leaves).

2.       We live in a secluded valley.  No-one but ourselves can see the lights from our house.  So as far as making gestures goes, to perhaps influence some masses into sudden revolution by turning off our porch light, for example, it would be a pretty ineffectual one.

And then anyway,

3.       As far as making gestures goes, Earth Hour is a pretty ineffectual one full stop, in my opinion.  In fact it’s worse than ineffectual, it’s counterproductive. One would think that a world-wide movement against climate change would actually do something to address climate change, rather than add to the problem.

You see, when everyone on a mains electricity grid suddenly switches off the power, the grids don’t immediately, magically, stop burning fossil fuels.  The turbines don’t cease to turn for an hour while people light up their room full of Chinese-produced, imported candles.  I fact the opposite occurs.

Until the moment of Earth Hour, people are drawing power normally (and let’s face it, many will continue to do so throughout the entire 60 minutes and beyond), and power stations are burning and turning to meet that demand.  When, at 8.30 (was it?), everyone turns out their lights (and perhaps their other appliances? Or is it just lights?), the power stations experience a sudden drop in demand, which causes a lot of the power they are producing to be suddenly not needed and therefore dumped off / released off as heat, gases, through power surges, etc, and all the things we don’t really want happening.

Then, because it takes a fair bit of time to get enormous power generating turbines turning, the power stations not only don’t stop them for the hour, but also have to anticipate that, in 60 minutes, half of Australia is going to turn it’s lights, aircons, tvs, dishwashers, coffee machines, phone chargers, laptops, etc back on again.  This causes a sudden, enormous, power demand on the system, akin to ‘peak hour’ (dinner time, when every family gets home from work/school and switches on every appliance in the house simultaneously).  Power stations, as with peak hour, have to gear up the system to meet that demand when it occurs, meaning they have to burn more fuel and ‘rev up the engines’.  In short, power stations burn, and waste, more fossil fuels during and immediately around Earth Hour than would otherwise happen on your normal, average climate-change-causing evening.

Sydney, a few minutes before Earth Hour
Sydney, about half way through Earth Hour
Sydney, about half way through Earth Hour
Aaaand...Sydney 1 minute after Earth Hour
Aaaand…Sydney 1 minute after Earth Hour

A more worthwhile gesture, if you like, would be to invest in renewable sources of energy for your power needs.  Another would be permanently cutting your power consumption.  Yet another good gesture would be throwing away your multitude of electronic goods, keeping only those you actually really need, if you must, and turning off your stuff when you’re not using it (if you really must use it – btw, anyone selling a working old typewriter by any chance?).

Or are those not gestures, but actions?  Yes, I think that’s it!  Actions are where it is at. Gestures only gesture, but actions speak louder than words. Vote with your lifestyle, not your finger (the light-switching one, not the middle, though both of these will cause about as much positive change in the world as the other).

So I for one never have and never will, as it stands now, turn off my lights because it is Earth Hour.  Lights aren’t the problem people.

That said, it’s well past 8.30 here, and it’s time to turn off the light, turn off the sole remaining appliances (excepting fridge) that are on (this computer and that modem) and go to bed. Not because it will influence climate change, but because I am very tired.

Support action on climate change, and ACT yourself, but don’t think that turning your lights off for an hour in any way constitutes this.

One love J


Smoko – In Praise Of Pallets

Apologies for the lack of posts in recent times. We’re very busy these days; T with her PhD, me with planning, building, and organising some events in Brisbane, and both of us with the little lad, who gets less little and more laddish every day.

But, given the massive amounts of rain we’ve had recently, which has put a stop to a lot of building projects (even the indoor jobs get put on hold as we don’t run powertools when the solar isn’t charging), I thought I’d write a quick blog, in praise of pallets.

We’ve gone a bit pallet crazy round here recently (and woe betide anyone who goes to town and doesn’t bring at least a couple back without a good excuse), having discovered a myriad of ways online to recycle (or upcycle) them.

Here are some different shelf units I’ve knocked up recently. We also made a bed for T’s mum, but she’s in it right now so I can’t take a picture. Well, not a publishable one any way… 😉

This is the second or third unit I built, to clean up the veranda a bit. (Incidentally, it also houses most of our new sound system, which more than adequately solves all the problems I wrote about in a previous post. I’d tried running an 18” (like the bottom one in the pic) at my house some years ago, while living in Brisbane, but the police came. Out here, I can crank it as hard as our little amp will allow (pretty bloody loud) and no neighbours can hear. Gotta love the bush!):


Office bookcase:

Already overused tool shelves. It has, as I said, been raining ridiculously heavily for days, so it’s a wee bit messier than usual, but probably only a wee bit:

And today’s effort, a new spice rack, freeing up some much needed bench space. Now I’ve discovered how to efficiently strip pallets apart (a reciprocating saw and a trade quality 12” blade…beats the hell out of (but doesn’t totally eliminate the need for) a mallet and crowbar) things can get a little less chunky when needs be:

I also will be using pallets bolted together as a stud wall frame in the new shed/annexe we’re putting up on the east side of the house (to hold the tool and materials overflow), and there’s a good chance they’ll feature heavily in the fittings of the new guest room / office.  Will try to blog about it when it’s done!

Cheers! J


Garden envy and the beginnings of our own

I keep seeing people’s beautiful and productive gardens and getting garden envy.  Thursday and Friday were big gardening days for me and I am proud of the work that I’ve done (and all my good little plants) but I can’t help but want more, now. Still, one step at a time and, as it turns out, one heavy wheelbarrow of clay soil at a time.

Until now I’ve only ever created gardens in rental houses. These are always limited to what you can convince the owners to let you do or what you can take down when you inevitably move. This time however I have ample space and no landlord and I want to try and produce the majority of our vegetables each year. Fruit as well, although fruit trees are a much longer term investment.

So far the only thing stopping me is having the time (and money) to make the beds. We’ve managed so far to save heaps of money by constructing garden beds from the logs of trees we’ve felled. We scavanged  fencing materials from the tip and neighbours and I constructed a netted dome out of polypipe off cuts and old bird netting to keep out mice and rats (and hopefully cabbage moth in the spring). Eventually there will be many more beds and the whole lot will be fenced properly.

So far we’ve only spent money on soil improvement and seeds. To each wheel barrrow of  our very clayey soil I’ve added gypsum, lime and cow manure. The gypsum is to improve the soil structure and hopefully make certain elements more accessible to plants. The lime to reduce acidity and cow manure for nitrogen and to encourage beneficial soil microbes. That’s the plan anyway.   I dream of getting a professional soil test done to really know the limitations or important needed additions. Our worms are starting to churn out  castings which will be wonderful for improving our soil.

Humble beginnings


Starting to produce food now

To help with  the goal of producing most of our veg all year round I’ve taken Asphyxia’s advice about construting a 12mth gardening plan based on the lunar calander. Asphyxia writes for grass roots magazine (and blogs here). She is ridicuously organised and manages to meet most of her family’s subsistence needs from a small suburban block in Melbourne.  Not only do I have garden envy – I have organisational skills envy.

I struggled initially to work out a structure that worked for me for a garden plan. As it stands I’ve grouped plants by type (i.e. root vegetable, fruiting plant, plants in which leaves are eaten) as this coincides with the categories for lunar planting. I’ve worked out what my core plantings will be for each category (i.e. plants that will be sown at least once every month of the year) and then just noted monthly additions for seasonal crops. I then picked a date that works with the moon to sow each category. Some things I’m sowing straight into the bed others into seedling trays. Sowing into trays saves garden space and means that seedlings can be coddled (shaded in summer, kept frost free in winter) and the growing season extended.  They also look awesome with coloured markers saying what they are and when they were sown!

July's planting

How much does a free potbelly stove really cost?

We have been blessed with great neighbours. One in particular has really helped us out.  After long hours spent on ebay and gumtree we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to shell out about $800 to get a half decent wood heater installed. Then we scored one for free from one of our neighbours thanks to some detective work of ours. “Do you know who owns that old rusty potbelly in the shed behind the ‘white house’?”

It was very rusted and in three parts.

J spent a few weeks restoring it – and it looks so beautiful now. It’s an old Masport Oregon which has two burners on the top for cooking on (think big pots of soup and endless cups of tea).


We also managed to scavenge some parts of the flue kit from another neighbour and bought some other parts 2nd hand (and some new).

All up we’ve spent:

  • $44 at a local engineering place getting a pin put in the door and cutting out some rusted joins that were preventing it from being put back together in one piece.
  • $125 on replacement Masport pieces (a baffle, drop in grate and ash pan) from Pivot Stove and Heating. This included postage.
  • $280 for half a flue kit which was made up of some new and some 2nd hand pieces.
  • $60ish on stove cement and polish.

All up about $500! Not so free after all….

But it’s in and we LOVE it. It warms our house and our selves in a way that no other type of heating can. Something about the glow of a wood heater can’t be beaten.  And with all the trees we need to clear and those that will remain we will never want for fire wood.


The installation went smoothly enough (although there is a bit of an extra hole in the ceiling that needs to be patched (oops)) and the first pot of chicken soup off the range was delicious.

Chimney not quite straight yet in this photo...
Chimney not quite straight yet in this photo…

How not to set up a nature-loo composting toilet

When we first got here the toilet was full of poo.

Other people’s poo.

It didn’t smell or anything but we wanted to start afresh. Fill the thing with our own hard earned poo!

So, all gungho we swapped over the ‘in-use’ chamber to the one that was sitting there not in use. We did all this without needing to refer to the instruction manual once!


Everything was fine for a few weeks and then the smell started.

It wouldn’t have been so bad accept that the shower is in the same room as the toilet and the ammonia smell was so strong that you started to feel a bit faint if you were in the shower for too long. Not ideal.

About 2 weeks ago now we got serious and started again. This time we read the manual front to back, talked to the very helpful people at nature-loo (now eco flow) and we now have a completely different bathroom experience. It doesn’t smell at all.


Things we did that made the difference:

–          Thoroughly cleaned out the chamber before we attached it,

–          Bought and installed a new fan for the system,

–          Bought and started using an enzyme spray,

–          Bought a packet of ‘kick starter’ – that apparently hastens the composting process.

I can’t say if it was all or just one of these things that made the difference. I’d like not to have to buy anything to put in there.  I guess we’ll trial it without these sprays as well. At the moment it’s a pleasure to use.