Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Phillip’s Story

Have you changed your life to live more sustainably, and if so, what has been the key motivator of that change?

I was first introduced to the Woden SEE-Change committee in late 2008, not long after I bought my first home in February.

After helping organise and attending many Woden SEE-Change workshops and ‘Over the back fence’ tours on sustainability issues in our society and in our own homes and gardens I began to look critically at my own home and garden. All this had made me realise the sustainability of my home and garden could be greatly improved and make my life more comfortable at the same time.

I had always considered myself a fairly intelligent guy. So it alarmed and appalled me to discover through the members of the committee just how bad for the environment many of the features of my home were, even the ones which had enticed me to buy it in the first place. The negatives of down lights in particular were an unpleasant surprise.  I still can’t understand why halogen downlights are sold at all and why so many new homes have them installed!

Since then I have been inspired by the vision, experience and knowledge of many of the members of SEE-Change but most importantly the members of the Woden SEE-Change committee. Their willingness to welcome me into their group and their homes and to share their journeys to sustainability truly touched me.

Around the same time my partner started work at a local environmental products firm which sold everything from solar hot water (SHW) and photovoltaic (PV) systems through to grey water irrigation tubing. It seemed the planets were in alignment as I checked out all the gadgets and asked how they all worked. My love of science and nature had come together in one passion!

What changes have you made?

Garden – My journey began in the garden as we were in the middle of a drought and I was struggling to keep the plants watered and many were obviously stressed. I realised that although my home had a grey water treatment system, there was only two of us in the house so we didn’t generate much in the way of waster water. Well, not for watering a large garden in any case. So my fist task was to look at how my garden could be sustained through the worst of the drought with a minimum of water.

I attended an ACT Government sponsored workshop on water-wise gardening run by a local garden designer. It taught me all about choosing the right plants, preparing planting sites, mulching and clever watering techniques including drip irrigation. That first summer I designed the lay out and installed a drip system for both my front and back gardens, removed the horrible red painted wood chips and laid around 7.5cm of Canberra Organic Mulch over all the garden beds. Most plants thrived although I did lose a few to the heat and extreme dry spells.

I later extended my knowledge further with another ACT sponsored initiative the Water- Wise assessment which included a visit by a certified horticulturalist and a basic assessment of household water consumption. They helped me pick out plants to suit the style of garden I wanted within a range of drought tolerant and water-miser plants. They also gave me some simple ideas for reducing my household water consumption including aerators for taps and low-flow shower heads.

Home – I then turned my attention more fully improvements around my home. Through my attendance of workshops and tours and discussions with SEE Change members I had started a list of achievable home and garden improvements. I soon had a very long list, which appeared very daunting. So, following some advice from one of the SEE Change workshops, I started with the cheapest and easiest fixes first.

Draught sealing – Draught sealing was first on the list as a quick and cheap option. Draughts were particularly noticeable by this time as winter had come around. External doors and frames were sealed and then I began zoning my house by closing off unused rooms to reduce my ducted heating gas consumption. This is when I noticed the draughts caused by the ducted gas heating system itself. All the closed rooms leaked cold air underneath the doors as the fan pulled air from the ‘closed’ vents within. Simple white stick-on strip seals with flexible rubber flaps did the trick nicely and stopped all but the smallest air movement. I also repaired a big hole left in the plasterboard behind the dishwasher, identified again by the large draught on a frosty winter morning standing at the kitchen sink.

Downlight replacement – As all the draughts at floor level were sealed I started to notice the leakage of cold air from the ceiling around the down lights. While the 30 or so 50W halogens were pleasantly warm in winter (they had felt bakingly hot in summer!) there was a distinct cold draught around each one which was more noticeable in the heated rooms where no lights were on. It was odd to experience the reality of the effects I had heard so much about in earlier discussions of the many flaws of halogen downlights.

For a long time I researched the best alternatives to low voltage halogens. In the end decided to convert all the fittings from low voltage transformer to 240V mountings so that I could install compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). These turned out to give the brightest light (lumens) per watt and also offered the broadest beam spread at 120o. I installed these progressively over the summer and noticed they were much cooler to sit under than the halogens and saved quite a bit of electricity as well – around 23% of my total electricity consumption! See the chart below on electricity consumption.

Elec

Insulation repair – With the CFLs installed it was possible to install insulating cones above each downlight hole and repair the roof insulation over the top.  In combination with draught sealing and repair of other gaps in ceiling insulation this made a huge 22% reduction in my household gas consumption over the winter quarters (see chart below).

Gas

Wall and under-floor insulation – At this point I was unsure of the best improvement to make next so I requested a Home Energy Advice Team (HEAT) assessment (another ACT Government sponsored initiative). The assessment cost only $30 (worth every cent) and on completing one of the key recommendations, blow-in wall insulation, saved me another 19% on my gas consumption and made me eligible for a rebate of $500! Around the same time I installed under-floor insulation and foam lagging on all the hot water pipes under the house right from the hot water service to the shower, bath, sinks, laundry and the furthest point at the kitchen sink. These combined to make the house more comfortable by providing more even heating, warmer flooring and hotter hot water.

PV system – It was about January 2010 by this time and the Federal Government had announced interest-free ‘Green Loans’ of up to $10,000. I applied for one of these loans (including another compulsory assessment) to purchase another of the most expensive recommendations from my HEAT assessment. It was a choice between three options in order of increasing cost: SHW, PV system or double glazed windows.

In the end I decided to use the loan to purchase a PV system. The prices for a 3kW system were around the level of the maximum $10,000 loan amount and PV could either produce income (gross feed-in-tariff or FIT) or reduce my electricity bill significantly (net feed-in). Federal Government incentives (through rebates and then renewable energy certificate multipliers) had brought system prices down considerably to around $3 per watt and the ACT had not long ago introduced a premium feed-in-tariff of $0.5005/kWh (compared to around $0.15/kWH retail price). So all in all I would only be out of pocket by around $500 a year under the FIT (income ~$2,000 and repayments of $2,500 per year over four years) with an ongoing income stream for a further 16 years!

After having the PV system installed in May it took longer than I thought to have it connected to the grid but by late June it was generating electricity. I received my first credit in the October quarter and have received a credit each quarter since.

SHW service – Installing my PV system gave me visions of a future with an electric care and I started to think longer term where I would want to power it using my own generated electricity. At that point my home was still using more electricity on average (12-14kWh per day) than the PV system was generating (around 11kWh per day). So I went back to the HEAT assessment and it was staring me in the face, the best way to significantly reducing my electricity consumption was a solar hot water (SHW) service. Hot water heating was approximately half of the remaining household electricity consumption (based on my off-peak usage).

So I squirreled away the $5,500 for the system and ensured installation was as northerly facing as possible (on the north wall of my east-west facing home) and angled at around 60o from horizontal to maximise winter sun exposure and minimise overheating in summer. The rebate of $1,000 after installation was a welcome return as well.

My electricity consumption fell a further 56% in the first full quarter since installation (April 2012 – see first chart). Electric boost was required for only 3 days following 8 days of cloudy weather in early March. I’m hopeful that, because it’s a 30 tube system, we can make it through most, if not all, of winter without boosting (except for long periods of cloud cover). This leaves 5.5kWh/day of PV generation available to run an electric car!

I have also been motivated to change my behaviour outside of my home. Over the last two years I have reduced my car usage through riding my bike to and from work each day (about 8 kms each way) and feel much healthier and fitter for it. It was tough the first winter wearing only shorts but with good cycling pants my legs and body are very comfortable on even the frostiest mornings though my next investment will be a ski balaclava to keep my nose and ears warm!

How do you feel about the change and how much further do you intend to go?

The changes have had very positive impacts on my life, not just in terms of comfort, but also in the way I feel about climate change and our ability to meet its challenges.

I feel inspired to help others achieve the same or similar changes in their own homes and lives.   The change have also altered the way I approach every day tasks where I now consider the impact of my every action, if only subconsciously.

I have significantly reduced my meat consumption and have also started shopping more locally through the famers’ market for my fruit and staple vegetables but intend to try to eat more seasonal vegetables in the near future.

I also intend to investigate installing double glazing and honeycomb cell blinds, perhaps starting with the bathroom and living areas. This combined with a solar space heater or heat exchanger ventilation system should significantly improve the air quality and reduce temperature variation making the house much more comfortable.

In the not too distant future I hope to look at buying an electric car to replace my 13 year old petrol car when it is no longer serviceable.

I hope also to continue to be inspired by the changes people make in their lives as well as the new technologies which will help us adapt and also to provide a good example to others, to show that, yes, it can be done one step at a time.

What has the change given you that you did not expect?

An obsession with reducing my energy consumption!

It has also given me a lot of joy seeing others happy with making improvements in their own lives influenced by my example or suggestions.

A sense of community and hope which sustains me in the face of the daunting challenges facing us as individuals and as a civilisation.

To what extent has being involved with SEE-Change contributed to this change?

SEE-Change and particularly the committee members of Woden SEE-Change have been a constant source of inspiration and their generosity of time, knowledge and experience has been a wonderful gift.

I hope to follow their example and be generous in sharing of myself and giving back to others in our community.

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