Friday, May 31, 2013

Finding Draughts - Plugging Draughts

A couple of weeks ago, Terry Lobb wrote about Passive House – “a worldwide organization promoting sustainable, energy efficient buildings” (4th, May, 2013). The ‘secret’ to Passive House success, she wrote, is that “the houses are airtight!” She then went on with a thorough explanation of how an air-to-air heat exchanger controls the ventilation and ‘recovers’ warmth from the exhausted stale air.

It is all rather cool, and requires good design, good engineering, and great attention to detail in the building process. Think about all of the possible leaks in a home, and then think about sealing every one of them. For a builder, it requires a great understanding of how homes work, and the patience to ensure that all the detail work is properly done.

A whole bunch of little things can add up to something big.

That’s exactly what I have been saying during the first 50 free home energy audits I’ve carried out in Whanganui over the last two months as part of Project HEAT. It’s also how we were able to convert a draughty, cold villa into a warm, cosy home. The biggest difference between our home – and most of the homes I’ve audited – and a Passive House, is the level of thoughtfulness of design, and the level of attention to detail in the construction.

This is why, according to a University of Otago study, 75% of New Zealand homes fail to meet new energy standards, and unhealthy homes contribute to 1600 deaths each year and cost millions in lost productivity. Shocking is the term I’ll use to describe the design and construction of some of the homes I’ve visited lately. But there is hope for even the worst Whanganui homes - like ours was three years ago.

Many of the same principles that go into a Passive House went into renovating our villa. I’ve been writing about them for over a year in the Chronicle, and for over two years on our blog, which is closing in on 300 posts and 60,000 views. 

In it’s most basic form, the ‘secret’ to comfortable, energy-efficient homes comes down to this: good insulation and great draught-proofing. But as with things from vege gardens to wastewater treatment plants, it’s easier to do things properly in the first place than to go back and correct mistakes later.

While it would be nice if all of our homes had been designed and built more thoughtfully, there are always steps we can take to improve what we have. Dollar-for-dollar, draught-proofing is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to slow the loss of heat from a home, which can account for up to 10% of heat loss.

A good way to find draughts in a home is to perform a blower door test. Terry described this as, “a very technical test with lots of data being recorded, but in laymen’s we checked out the airtightness...”

In an attempt to explain it even more simply, I’ll write how I did it in our home. I made a blower door out of two fans, some coated fabric, and a bit of timber. I fitted this unit into our front door and turned both fans on high pushing air outside. This created low pressure within the structure and ‘pulled’ air in through every little gap. Identifying the gaps can be done with a burning candle or incense. Plugging the gaps can be done with a variety of products easily available from building supply stores.

Until the day we all live in Passive Houses, this is about the best we can do.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, May 24, 2013

Curtains: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last week’s column contained two sentences that have bearing on this week’s column:

1) Up to 30% of heat loss from a home is through glass doors and windows – nearly as much as the heat lost through the ceiling.

2) Thermal curtains are sweet-as, if they are fitted properly.

The sad truth is that most of the curtains I’ve seen in Whanganui are not fitted for high thermal performance, ie: insulation. Recently, Verti, Dani and I spent the night at an accommodation outside of Whanganui, which I’ll use to illustrate my point. The unit in which we stayed was a bit schitzophrenic in that it employed three distinctly different approaches to curtaining: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll start with the bad because it is the most common thing I see in homes where the occupants are not even aware that: 1) it is poor curtaining; and, 2) they are losing heat unnecessarily.

 The Bad

When it comes to holding heat inside of a home, a standard arm-hung curtain rail without a pelmet or floor-length curtains is almost like having no curtain at all. Even the best thermal curtains are practically useless if air can flow uninhibited behind them from top to bottom. This is due to physics (Hurray Science!), and the inverse of a principle we learned in school: hot air rises.

Luckily, it does not take a physicist to figure out that if hot air rises, then cold air sinks. Now that we have the science sorted, on to a tale of loss, betrayal and ultimately sorrow.

The loss comes from warm, indoor air coming into contact with a cold pane of glass. Heat is conducted through the glass to the outdoors, leaving the indoor air colder than the air directly below it. This cold air sinks, creating negative pressure – or a vacuum – between the curtain and window, which pulls warm air from the ceiling down and against the cold glass. This air cools and sinks, causing another vacuum that pulls more warm air down from the ceiling.

Nek minit, a convection current ‘in reverse’ is flowing through the room, cooling it down every winter night of the year. Naturally, a sense of betrayal consumes the occupants of the room when they discover that the expensive thermal curtains they’ve purchased might just be useless! Shortly thereafter, the sense of betrayal turns to sorrow when they realize how long they have been needlessly losing heat and that they should have paid closer attention during physics class in school.

The two common ways to prevent the above from occurring were well-known to our grandparents: pelmets and/or floor-length curtains. Contrary to what most people believe, pelmets are not just a beautiful accessory to a well-appointed home; they are an energy-saving device. Form follows function.

However, due to advances in curtain-hanging technology of which our grandparents never dreamed, a third possibility now exists from preventing the dreaded convection current in reverse. Although I am unaware of the official name of this technology, I have come up with my own: Screw-it.

The Good 

What possibly could be a more elegant description for screwing a curtain rail into the wall directly above a window? I characterize this as the good because it does restrict the flow of air behind the curtain from top to bottom, just not as well as a pelmet or floor-length curtains. But hey, nothing wrong with a bronze when only three medals are being awarded.

As for the ugly, to quote my Himalayan eco-engineer friend, Sonam Wangchuk, “Warm is always beautiful.” If warm is beautiful then cold must be ugly, and lace curtains do nothing to prevent heat loss through windows, even if they are fixed hard against the frame.

The Ugly 

 Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Another Autumn Update

We've had an amazingly mild and sunny autumn so far. Here is the third and final autumn update on our 2 and 1/2 year-old permaculture property.

Chilis ready for harvest and drying.  

Kale self-seeded 'volunteers' ready to be divided and planted out.

First lemon of the season.

Interplanting strawberries and kale. 

Broccoli heading up.

Some very marginal feijoas

This corner is a real sun trap, with a grape trellised above and around a guava. 

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Window Blankets: The Ultimate in Eco-Thrifty

Double-glazing is great. Secondary glazing is awesome. Thermal curtains are sweet-as, if they are fitted properly. And pelmets are da bomb!

We have incorporated all of them into a diverse strategy for improving the thermal comfort of our home in Castlecliff while keeping costs low by using eco-design thinking. The eco-design process takes in a multitude of factors and plans for efficiency, effectiveness, and redundancy. When applied to the built environment, good eco-design includes what some call the ‘Green Rule of Energy,’ which goes something like this: Saving energy is cheaper than producing energy.

My New Hampshire (USA) farmhouse inspire me to think about keeping warm on a budget.  

For example, a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) uses just one quarter as much electricity as a standard incandescent light bulb while producing the same amount of light. If a 25-watt CFL were run next to a 100-watt incandescent for 10 hours per day, the difference in running costs for one month would be about $5. The difference in running costs for a year would be – you guessed it - $60.

The dramatic difference shows the power of the Green Rule. Imagine the savings by changing two light bulbs, or five, or every light in your home or business. And, as an added bonus, CFLs last about 10 times longer than incandescents, so there are additional savings from buying one bulb instead of 10 over a period of time.

Another example of the Green Rule of Energy is insulation. Please be aware, however, that insulation comes in colours other than pink! In other words, there may be a specific product we associate with the word ‘insulation’ – batts – but insulation itself is simply trapped air, such as that in between two pieces of glass in double-glazing. The second piece of glass is not the insulator, it is the trapped air in between the two. So, in a sense, insulation is invisible because it is air! Abracadabra!

The original window blanket in my 1782 farmhouse.  

Now that I have blown your mind, I’ll describe what is quite potentially the lowest cost / highest performance way to insulate a villa, bungalo, beach bach, houseboat, or even a sheering shed. This incredible breakthrough in air technology has previously been unknown to New Zealanders because…well, frankly I made it up, and I only arrived a couple of years ago.

Of course, there is another possible explanation for such an extraordinary technological breakthrough being kept secret. And that is, of course, that the greedy New Zealand health care industry wants Kiwis to live in cold, damp homes so it can reap grotesque profits from treating preventable illnesses. Oh, what’s that you say? Nevermind.

I call it a ‘window blanket’, and it is an excellent example of Yankee thrift meets Kiwi ingenuity. When I first started building them a decade ago for my 220 year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, I used two pieces of wood, a few screws, and a second-hand mattress protector (quilted mattress pad) with the elastic cut off. Now that I build them for our villa in Castlecliff, I use two pieces of wood, a few screws, and a second-hand wool blanket.

The 'modern' version of a window blanket in our Castlecliff home.  

Because we have a lot of wood hanging around from our renovation, and there are ample op shops in Whanganui, the average cost per window blanket has been about $7. If properly fitted, they perform as well as double-glazing. This is significant because up to 30% of heat loss from a home is through glass doors and windows – about as much as the heat lost through the ceiling.

This is not to say that you should not invest in double-glazing if you have the means. What it is to say, is that with window blankets everyone has the means to make their homes cosier.

Want to learn more? A DIY workshop on window blankets will be help the 1st of June from 1:30-3:30. Registration essential.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Upcoming Workshops

Two Workshops, One Day. June 1st, 2013

1:30-3:30 pm. Window Blanket DIY Workshop
4:00-5:30 pm. Growing Great Garlic, Plentiful Pumpkins, and Tomatoes Before Christmas

Window Blanket DIY Workshop.

1st June, 2013. 1:30-3:30 pm. Quaker Meeting House. 256 Wicksteed St.

As effective as double-glazing but at a small fraction of the cost, window blankets are one of the best things a householder can do to make their home warmer, dryer and healthier. In this workshop, you will learn how to make your own custom fit window blanket to take home and install. You'll also gain the knowledge and skills to make more of them at home.

All tools will be supplied. Either bring your own materials or buy them at the workshop for a small fee.

Space is limited.

Registration essential. - 344 5013

Workshop fee: $20 ($15 unwaged)
Materials fee: $8 - $16

Growing Great Garlic, Plentiful Pumpkins, and Tomatoes Before Christmas

This workshop shares  some lesser-known tips and techniques to enhance the growing of common garden vegetables organically. On our small section in Castlecliff, we grow 400 beautiful garlic and over 100 kilograms of pumpkins with very little effort. Last year we had our first ripe tomatoes on 15th December without a glass house.

1st June, 2013. 4:00-5:30 pm. Quaker Meeting House. 256 Wicksteed St.

Space is limited.

Registration essential. - 344 5013

Workshop fee: $15 ($10 unwaged)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sun Angles: Winter and Summer

Mid-way between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice we find ourselves in the unenviable position of short days and long nights, and looking forward to even shorter days and longer nights for some weeks to come. Despite this, our renovated, passive solar villa has been performing well – the indoor temperature has not dropped below 18 degrees in 2013. (More on this in subsequent columns.)

The scientific explanation for the change in day length is that the Earth’s axis is ‘leaning’ the Southern Hemisphere away from the sun slightly more each day until June 21st. The way we perceive the sun in relationship to ourselves is that it rises a little further northeast and sets a little further northwest each day, as well as hanging lower in the sky at noon. Mind you, this is gradual. It takes 6 months for the ‘tilt’ to change from the sun’s highest point in the sky – and longest day of the year – and its lowest point in the sky.

A good eco-designer takes his of her lessons from nature. And nature takes his or her lessons largely from the sun. Using the transitive property, you can get the rest.

In the space below, I’ll explain two examples of good eco-design that take full advantage of the predictable behaviour of the sun: one biological and one physical.

 WBG, sold out quick-as.

If you were at Whanganui’s Saturday market for its last session before Christmas 2012, you may have been among the lucky few to have purchased The World’s Best Garlic. There is a lot that goes into growing The World’s Best Garlic besides humility. One important ingredient is timing. When I arrived in New Zealand five years ago I was told: “Plant garlic on the shortest day of the year and harvest it on the longest.” Generally speaking, this translates into June 21st to December 21st.

Please be aware, however, that this has nothing to due with full moons, cow poo vortexes, or Grecian Formula 44. It does have to due with soil temperature and gradually increasing sunlight day by day for half a year.

Also be aware that growing The World’s Best Garlic involves the right kind and amount of compost, mulch, and watering regimen, all of which are highly protected trade secrets.

The other example of good eco-design involves two examples of solar hot water that are dramatically different from one another but each serves its own users most appropriately. One system is set on an acute angle and one on an obtuse angle to the sky. In other words, one system is set up for maximum efficiency in the winter and one for maximum efficiency in the summer.

Solar hot water set for a winter sun. 

The solar hot water system on our home is set for a winter sun angle because we know that there are fewer total hours of daylight in winter, and that our insulated tank loses more heat each night in July than in January. There also tends to be more rain and clouds in winter, so we need to take advantage of every clear patch and fine day.

Even set at this high angle, our system can boil over any given day of the summer if we don’t use enough hot water. This ‘boiling’ water shoots down the gully trap as a safety feature to the system.

Solar hot water set for a summer sun. 

So who, you may ask, would set their solar hot water system for a summer angle when there are plenty of long, fine days. Answer: YMCA Central’s Raukawa Falls Adventure Camp. They get heaps of visitors all summer long, many of whom want a warm shower at the end of each day. But for much of the winter, the camp lays more or less dormant, and a back-up wood-fired hot water system can easily fill in when needed.

As spring follows winter, so form follows function…if the design is good. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Late Autumn Update

As we slide from summer into winter, we are saying goodbye to the last of our tomatoes and hello to the first of our guavas. 

We are almost ready for our first ever ripe tamarillo. Thanks Andy Dolling!

But no sign of our first banana. Thanks anyway, Hadi Gurton.

We do have some feijoas coming in...

... and finally chilies ready to harvest and dry.

Somehow I managed to grow the smallest Monty's Surprise apple ever. 

I found some plants on sale last week, including grapes vines...

... passion fruit...

... and blueberries.

These NZ native trees I started from seed in the spring. 

The olives (15 of them) are all putting out new growth.

And volunteer alyssum makes good ground cover in a food forest.

After two and a half years, our section is more or less planted out with over 100 edible perennials and 30 -40 native trees and shrubs.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bad Design Wastes Money and Lives

Nothing gets my goat more than a waste of money than a waste of life, but more on that later. For the moment I’ll address a couple of examples of wasted ratepayers money easily observable in our community.

First, according to my conservative calculations, the daytime running of lights under a glass skylight at the main entrance to Central Library has cost ratepayers $600 since I first raised the issue with library staff two and a half years ago. Some may argue that this is a small pittance when compared to other issues facing our city, but I suggest it is a troubling indicator of an apparent disconnect between the people who set and spend our rates and the service that ratepayers get in return.

From a holistic perspective, these are the economic and environmental realities facing our city: increasing unemployment; increasing power bills; increasing rates hikes; increasing insurance costs; and, increasing extreme weather events. I’d like to add a bit of humour to this list to break the grim mood – maybe a clever Neil Diamond reference – but I can’t think of anything.

The bottom line for all of us – especially those on low or fixed incomes – is that we will have fewer dollars in our pockets at the end of each week to spend on anything other than power, rates, insurance, and dealing with the added expenses incurred by extreme weather events. Add to this the massive debt already held by our city, and I ask the simple question: Can we afford to spend another $600 running outdoor lights during the daytime over the next two and a half years?

Now, add to the above the largely unspoken yet likely reality that we will all soon get dinged for the huge additional expense of ‘fixing’ the sewage treatment plant that was never properly designed in the first place. After wasting money and wasting life (still to come), my next goat-getting peeve is bad design. This characteristic I share with Kevin McCloud, the outspoken host of Grand Designs.

Bad design almost always costs more in the long run than good design. This relates to an important tenant of eco-thrifty renovation: sometimes being cheap is expensive. From all available evidence, this appears to be the case with our dysfunctional treatment plant. The evidence also suggests that a number of councilors and council staff are at the heart of the poor decision-making process that has saddled us all with a bad design.

On the other hand, eco-thrifty decision-making takes a long view by considering the upfront and running costs of everything from light bulbs to solar hot water to roofing iron to wind protection in the garden. Which brings me to poor design and the loss of life.

It was with a heavy heart that I visited a community garden last week to find a large proportion of the fruit trees either dead or dying from wind damage. I was especially saddened because I told a number of people involved in the garden six months ago that the garden needed wind protection. Nothing was done. Wind protection is an essential part of good horticulture design, and without it the careless planting of trees can result in an unfortunate waste of money and life. 

Along with Kevin McCloud, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of good design. Given the economic and environmental trends I mentioned above, I suggest the most appropriate design strategy for everything from outdoor lighting to treatment plants to community gardens is eco-thrifty design. What’s wrong with saving money while saving the planet? 

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Second Post by Xander, ECO School Intern

Kia ora koutou. Xander's first blog post was very popular on our blog. See it here:

There is truth in the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.  To some extent, this is what the Eco School is all about. I have often found myself repurposing a lot of what I had once considered “trash,” turning it into what Nelson indirectly calls “treasure”. For instance, after scything the lawn, the heaps of cut grass can easily be turned into compost or mulch.

To me, this is what sustainability is all about, that is, to reuse or repurpose what you’ve got (or what someone else has got). That being said, it also adds the individualistic, personal component of rethinking. For example, I would have never thought that a crate could be used as mobile chicken coop. Granted, the chickens didn’t use it, but it did have that personal ingenuity. It had the potential and the capacity to be something great. The mobile chicken coop is no different than this old house (although the house is way more functional).

Although it is overly obvious that sustainability has become a buzzword in today’s society, it is still a very significant concept to consider. Not only does it apply to everyday, practical work, it also applies to more abstract ways of thinking. It is arguably a form of environmental justice, which encompasses social and economic spheres and all the inherent spheres within each of those. To me, sustainability also means to use wisely what we got.
And it is at this point where we can see how sustainability acts upon the concepts, institutions, or systems that already exist today. It is be no means revolutionary, insofar as it does not overthrow any of the systems in place today to start a fresh system. On the contrary, I believe that sustainability utilizes the systems in place today to work towards a healthier, environmentally friendly tomorrow.

All of this is why I think that the Eco School is the epitome of sustainability, especially on the practical level. Take, for example, the mountain of compost that lies in the side yard. Since its conception as a pile of biodegradable rubbish following the Masters’ Games, I’ve watched it (mostly) turn into a meaningful goliath of compost. However, in the beginning, all that it took was an eye to see the potential of the biodegradable rubbish. Even before then, all that it took was a rethinking of the Masters’ Games and the Whanganui community (i.e. sustainability in action). The Maters’ Games and Whanganui have always had that potential, it was just a matter of tapping into it.

         Coming from America, the mental cogs of sustainability are not turning. One reason, to me, is that sustainability is at odds with get-rich-quick, race-to-the-top mentality. But who’s to say really, America is a funny place. On the environmental front, America is behind the times. Take for instance the fact that it’s hard to find a public recycling bin on the street. Sure, they collect recycling from private residences, but no public recycling?
         Sustainability uses what’s available in a mindful way. The system back in the States is quite the opposite; however, it will not go away anytime soon, although it seems to be waning. One of Nelson’s sayings is, “the problem is the solution”, which directly coincides with my impression of sustainability. In my first blog, I shared my transformation story. From all that I’ve learned at the Eco School, I have the skills and framework for building a better tomorrow. Some believe that the world has gone to crap. To some it is nothing more than a pile of rubbish from some global, economic tournament. Maybe the same is true within America. But, like I said, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.