Solar Systems & Power Use

One of the most irritating conversations around is the opinion that we need more coal and nuclear systems to supply the amount of energy required to maintain our desired standard of lifestyle. Firstly the desired lifestyle of McMansions, heated swimming pools etc is short-sited, unsustainable and unrealistic for the vast majority of our world. We can live incredibly well utilising this amazing thing called renewable energy (you might have heard of it) and a bit of common sense.

We’ve just got solar panels for our home. While we bought them last year (before the feed-in tariff changed) they’ve only just been installed last week. In fact they haven’t even been officially connected yet so aren’t even working – but don’t they look the part.

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Our brand spanking new solar system has a pretty sweet view. This photo was actually taken at moon-rise so doesn’t look very sunny

What system did we get?

We got a 1.5 kilowatt system which most people think isn’t big enough, however it is if you use energy consciously and efficiently and have a small household (there’s only two of us). Our current energy use looks something like this…

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In Tasmania (and probably everywhere) you can find this graph on your power bill which shows your energy use compared with your own a year earlier and the standard energy use of others. You can see our energy use has gone down compared with this time last year – the main difference is that since then we’ve installed ceiling insulation and draft proofed the house. 

We actually know we can get it even lower than our current use as a decent portion consists of our electrical hot water/cooking stove system – more on that below.

Just a side note – if you’re considering getting solar panels, be sure to check the condition of your roof first. Ask yourself how old is it, is it starting to leak, or has it been painted with lead paint? Our roof was both old and had also been painted with lead paint (not good if you want to catch rain water), so we had to replace it which wasn’t cheap. But we installed it all ourselves with the help of Anton’s wonderfully crazy Swedish dad which kept the price down and the good times up.

While some believe that if you get solar panels you can leave your lights on all night because it’s ‘free sun’ energy we think different. Here’s a whirlwind tour on some of the basic things we do to keep our home and lives comfortable and energy use low.

Cooking

We have an electric stove/oven which we inherited with the house – to keep energy use low we do three things.

1. We use the ‘hot box’ system which simply means we bring the pot of soup/stew/rice to the boil then turn the stove off and put it into a box (of any description) with blankets/cushions stuffed around it to keep the heat in. These days I don’t even bother with the box and just stick it in one of the corners of the couch and cover it with cushions which works perfectly. This is a brilliant system where you never burn anything and the food turns out perfectly. Love it.

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These days we simply use blankets/pillows and our couch, but the image above shows how you can make an insulated, spunky hot box. Image from here.

2. We don’t have a stove top kettle because sometimes (a little too often) we’d forget about it and it’d just boil away, which I hated with a passion. So we now have a plug in, bench top kettle which works a lot better for us. This is a solution for absent mindfulness for both gas for electric stoves.

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Our bench top kettle and our thermos which we put in any excess hot water to be used later

3. Thirdly, we invested in a quality stainless steel pressure cooker which was a bit of a revolution. No longer do we spend 5 hours cooking various pulses, instead we now pump them out in half and hour. Before getting the pressure cooker we had pretty much stopped eating chickpeas as they just took too long.

Heating

The previous owners put in two heat pumps and a new wood fire…. and no insulation – crazy we know. We do use of of one of the heat pumps irregularly when we get home late in Winter and it’s dark, really cold and we need warmth quick smart. Otherwise we use the wood fire which is superior in every way as we have access to local and ethical timber. We  make sure that only room/s we’re using are heated instead of the whole house and we’re not afraid to simply wear jumpers when we’re cold instead of insisting we should be able to wear bikinis in our lounge room.

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So far we’ve managed to source all our fire wood from our own block or our neighbour’s bush. We’ll need to buy some timber in later this Winter, but we’re doing our best to harvest as much as we can locally first.

Insulation & Draft proofing

Our house is affectionately referred to as a timber shack, better suited for balmy north Queensland (i.e. the hot tropics) then our cool temperate climate. But we love it as it’s got particularly awesome sun access and windows facing north. When we arrived there was not one scrap of insulation so we quickly got busy insulating the ceiling as this is where most heat loss occurs (we’ll do the floor and some of the walls soon). We’ve also draft proofed our doors and windows which is the most basic and effective thing home owners or renters can do as it makes an immediate and significant difference.

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We took this photo while re-roofing our house showing the R4 Earthwool insulation which, by the way, has 0% wool in it.

Hot Water

The elephant in the room using up most of our energy is our electrical hot water system. One day (when this system dies) we’ll replace it with a solar hot water system, until then we can’t bring ourselves to throw out infrastructure which is working, so we’re making do with it for now. We’ve done some simple things like given the hot water system (which sits outside in the coldest corner of our block) an insulation ‘jumper’ so it doesn’t have to work so hard to heat up water all the time. We turned the thermostat down to around 60 degrees, any lower and this can encourage harmful bacteria to thrive and installed a water wise shower head. We also don’t shower every day (unless we’re covered in mud) as it’s usually unnecessary. On average we have 2 showers a week which is more than fine.

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Before…

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And after

Overall we estimate that we’ll be able to generate approximately 60/70% of our energy from our 1.5kw system. One day when we get solar hot water to replace our current electrical system, this will increase to close to 100%, in fact it’ll probably do all of it. We’re also aware things change, that one day we’ll have a kid, perhaps a even a house mate, therefore we may need to increase the size of the solar system. We’ll do so as needed, but hand in hand with living with some common sense guidelines as outlined above to keep the energy use low, while ensuring our quality of life is comfortable, enjoyable and abundant.

Interesting Resources

  • Beyond Zero Emmissions: The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan outlines a technically feasible and economically attractive way for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy within ten years.
  • ‘Your Home’ has lots of information around energy issues for your home.
  • The Alternative Technology Association have a huge amount of knowledge and resources to help you choose the best energy systems for your home.
  • Sustainable Living Tasmania, a local NGO who can help you retrofit your home (rental or otherwise) to be as energy efficient as possible. They’ll also provide a stack of free advice and point you in the right direction for doing anything ‘sustainable’ with your home.

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

 

6 Responses to “Solar Systems & Power Use”

  1. Paul - Pip Magazine

    Great post, Hannah.

    In recent week, a debate seems to have arisen about whether electric or stovetop kettles are more energy-hungry. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that my ol’ whistler is chugging the power down. (Though, that whistle can be a bit annoying at times.) Now I need to reassess my choice and potentially buy a new one. That’s what I am grappling with – buying something new when I have something that is fit for purpose already. Greater good and all that?

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Hi Paul,
      Yeah, it can be a tricky choice sometimes. Personally I’m a fan of not throwing out things that already work well (hence keeping our electrical hot water systems for now), as you’re then responsible for the embodied energy that went into making the new product and the old one your throwing out/sending to the op shop. For us personally, we got rid of our stove top kettle (which we found in an op shop) and sent it back to our local tip shop as we simply couldn’t train ourselves to not forget about it and let it boil away (didn’t have a whistle). This didn’t happen every time, but enough to really annoy me – so it worked out better to accept that and make the choices accordingly. Good luck :-).

      Reply
  2. Paul Andrew

    Hi Hannah,

    Great work with the roof insulation and hot water tank blanket but I couldn’t help noticing that the pipes were still exposed. You might have done this already since the photo but I would recommend getting some pipe insulation around the hot water outlet pipe as well as a ‘valve cosy’ I think they’re called (I think they’re available from the ATA). Also, I know you can get a bolt-on heat pump that might be compatible with your tank to make it more efficient without having to get rid of the whole thing.

    Keep up the good work!
    Cheers,
    Paul

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Good noticing Paul :-).
      We simply haven’t got around to it yet – but have access to truckloads of it, so there’s no excuses! Thanks for reminding us.

      Reply
  3. Hannah Cooper

    Thanks for the post- it’s lovely getting some insight from other people’s choices.

    A few bits & pieces that come to mind to chuck into the convo, some of which relate to our post-offspring-arrival state:
    – when we bought our house the hydro-issue hot water system was on its last legs & there was no heating in the house, so we were able to install a wood cooker/heater with wetback. Similarly, we heat the small part of the house we live in, so sustainably harvested Poatina wood + fire = hot food, hot water & warm house. Luxury!!
    – we try to run the washing machine as infrequently as possible & so the kids have “wear it again boxes” and things only get washed when they’re really dirty eg slipped in the mud while collected said firewood!
    – when the kids were younger, we used a method sometimes called EC (elimination communication) where rather than using nappies (much) we read the signs for needing to do wees & poos (like you can know your baby is tired or hungry). As they got older- perhaps 6months old- they started to let us know via signs & sounds. Was such a lovely start to parenting, saved lots of washing & provided super dooper breastfed-milk-fertiliser!

    Good on you in all you’re doing!

    Reply

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