Monday, November 7, 2016

Going solar #5 - hidden leaks

A few weeks ago I noticed a discolouration on my bedroom ceiling. I had a fleeting thought of water damage and then promptly forgot about it. Another week passed, with plenty of rain, and I noticed the discoloured patch growing in size and getting darker.




I had my roof repointed and gutters replaced fairly recently (within the last 2 years) so the next viable explanation was a cracked roof tile, and judging by the location, I guessed that the brackets holding the solar panels were to blame.

I called my handyman and explained the situation. He said it could only be a handful of things, and either way he'd be able to help. A quick exploration in the roof revealed exactly what I had thought: a cracked tile under the brackets holding the solar panels. He guessed that it was likely cracked at the time of installation, but may have moved recently to widen the crack and allow water to penetrate. I suppose that is the risk you take when something is screwed into a terracotta tile.

We waited for a couple of dry days to let the crack dry out, and then he filled the crack from the inside with silicone. This was the best solution as the cracked tile was under the solar panels, and therefore inaccessible from the outside. This is not a permanent solution, and will likely require the same treatment in a few years as the silicon can degrade over time, especially if it is exposed to sunlight.

Seriously, a good handyman is a godsend - they can do most things and don't charge ridiculous prices. In fact, I'm still waiting for him to send me the bill, which is all of $25.

To ensure the repair was working, I drew a pencil mark around the stain and monitored it in the following weeks (in which we've had plenty of rain). The stain hasn't worsened in colour or size, so I think I'm in the clear. The handyman was quite impressed with my idea of drawing around the stain, which I got from seeing medical shows where they will draw around a rash to monitor whether it is spreading and how quickly!


So the next step will be to prime and paint over the stain, and hope that it blends with the rest of the ceiling so that I don't have to repaint the entire ceiling!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review: K-Mart Multi Grater, Slicer And Dicer

I recently purchased the K-Mart Multi Grater, Slice and Dicer after watching Mind over Munch videos on YouTube.

There are eight different attachments for slicing, dicing and grating. The whole thing seems quite sturdy and made of good quality plastic. Dealing with all the blades is a little tricky but I didn't cut myself.


So during my recent meal prep, I used it to grate my zucchini, chop capsicum and chop red onion.

The grating attachment did great (get it :P) job with the zucchini. I didn't use the safety guard as I had the stalk of the zucchini still attached and I was careful when getting closer to the end.

So far, so good!


Perfect for grating zucchini so far

Then I put on the larger chopping attachment for the capsicum. I had cut it into larger pieces and could fit 3-4 pieces on the blade at once. This is where things started to go downhill...

To chop, you push down the lid, essentially squashing your vegetable onto the blade. You have to push with a fair amount of force until the vegetable suddenly gives way to the blade and is chopped. My concern with this is that the vegetable is becoming quite crushed and bruised in the process - fine if you're going to eat it or cook it straight away, but I'm not sure how well the produce will go in the next few days.

I switched out the large chopping blade for the smaller one to chop red onion with the same issue. The onion was getting quite bruised and battered. And it didn't prevent the tears from flowing when transferring it from the bowl to the dish I was preparing! I've read that the secret to cutting onions without tearing up is to use an extremely sharp knife, as the gas that is released from the onion that makes you tear up is released when the onion's cells are broken or crushed. So that makes sense.

Things did not improve when it came to cleaning this gadget. While it comes with a little multi-pronged pick to clean out the part of the lid that pushes the food through the blade, cleaning the blades themselves was a nightmare. Because the food wasn't cleanly chopped, bits of crushed capsicum and onion were stuck in the blades. Added to the fact that I was trying to avoid cutting myself, I was finding it impossible to get the chopping blades clean. I eventually resorted to using my eyebrow tweezers to pick off all the vegetable matter!

See all those globs - thats bits of mushed onion that I had to use tweezers to remove!


Whilst the vegetable chopping might have taken less time than using a knife and a cutting board, the clean up well and truly used up that saved time and then some.

I suppose I should have thought this through - in my journey to minimalism, purchasing another kitchen gadget that takes up space and costs money when my existing knife and chopping board can do the same thing was not a good decision.

I've washed it all thoroughly and will be returning it in the packaging as soon as possible!

Overall, if you don't already own a mandolin and a cheese grater, this gadget would be useful. Cleaning might be easier with a dishwasher but handwashing it is a PITA!




Friday, November 4, 2016

Decluttering: eating the elephant

In the interests of tracking my journey to minimalism, this is what I've tackled lately. And because a post without photos is pretty boring, I've put in a few of my instagram photos. To keep it simple I've gone with a black and white theme!



Digital clutter


  • Feedly - I deleted lots of blogs I no longer read, or are no longer active. In the process I discovered some old favourites where my subscription wasn't updating, and listed all the blogs in one list, rather than lots of different folders. 

  • Gmail & Email subscriptions - huge changes here! At one stage in the past I had over 1000 unread emails in my inbox. Many of them were things I'd signed up for but never read, or forwarded emails from my dad that I never had time to read. I would periodically spend a couple of hours filing all of these emails into folders, to get my inbox down to 100 or so unread emails, but recently I decided even that was too much. I filed a lot of things, but also took the time to read the forwarded emails, deleted things that were no longer important, unsubscribed from all the mailing lists I never read, and also went through my previously filed emails and deleted hundreds and hundreds of emails I finally realised I would never get around to reading. My aim is to keep my inbox within one screen (I think that's 50 emails), and be more mindful with my email - open things I've subscribed to, delete the emails that aren't of value to me, and respond to emails in a timely manner (specifically those emails that are 'hey, I thought you'd like this/find this interesting/this is the thing I was telling you about - I used to ignore them upon first seeing them, thinking I'd get around to reading them at some point). 

  • Facebook page likes - I use Facebook daily. My feed was cluttered with articles and content that I wasn't really engaging with so I decided to go through all my page likes and cull them - anything I didn't recognise or no longer supported/identified with got deleted. In the end I got rid of over 100 page likes. I can't tell yet whether it has made much difference. I also do this with my friends list periodically. My rule is that if I wouldn't recognise you in person, or I would but I'd cross the street to avoid saying hello (just because I didn't feel like a superficial conversation with someone I didn't really know well anymore) - you're gone! Also, if it's your birthday and I can't be bothered wishing you happy birthday then DELETE! It sounds harsh but it's so liberating. Now my friends list is carefully curated with only the people I want on it. Since a huge cull a few years ago, the list has grown with friend requests from people I meet. Mostly I do accept them, because I know I can always delete them later, but if it's truly someone I don't know very well, or know in a more professional context, I don't accept the request. Of course there is also the unfollow option for when you don't want to offend someone you still see in person, but don't really want to see on Facebook either.


Decluttering digitally is a great way to start a decluttering journey - it seems easier than removing physical items from your life. It's also quite quick and the results are instant. There's no in-between mess or trips to the op shop/uploading items for sale to eBay etc in the middle.


Physical Clutter


This is the overwhelming part. When your entire house is stuffed full to the brim with possessions, it's hard to see the goalposts. A marathon session getting rid of bags and bags of things doesn't seem to make much difference overall. But as a dear friend used to say - how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

I think the gradual approach also helps to build positive habits - it becomes a regular action and part of the routine.


Last night I had a bit of break, but I've tackled small spaces each evening, while watching TV or listening to podcasts. So far I've tidied and decluttered my wardrobe (plenty more to go!), nighstand, book collection, handbags, shoes, lipsticks and lipgloss and miscellanous items everywhere- coffee table, random boxes under the bed etc.


My strategy involved a couple of approaches:

  • keep only the items that belong in that place
  • return other items to their rightful place - maybe that's just shifting clutter but when I get to decluttering that box/cupboard/shelf at least I'll be looking at all the lipsticks/pens etc.
  • don't be afraid to throw things away - whether they're sitting in your house or in a landfill makes no difference (with the obvious exception of items that can be reused/donated/gifted because they are still useful, functional or in good condition). The act of throwing it in the bin is hard because I hate the thought of it all going to landfill. But that difficulty is momentary - like getting an injection, and saves you from having the same angst again and again with the same item because you never got rid of it the first time.









Thursday, November 3, 2016

Decluttering: starting small

Recently something clicked and I starting decluttering some stuff. I donated some handbags I never used, clothing, a lot of books and about 5 years worth of magazine subscriptions. It felt a little overwhelming but I persevered and made sure I took the items to the op shop that same day so that they weren't hanging around for weeks, tempting me to change my mind.

It doesn't look like much in the photo, but this is what I donated:


Getting rid of all this stuff hardly seemed to leave a dent. It made me realise I had a long way to go if I really want a peaceful home, only surrounded by the items I love or find useful, rather than being suffocated by stuff that I never use or forgot I owned.

I heard some advice to tackle decluttering which seemed to make sense: if it all seems overwhelming, just start with one space. A cupboard, a drawer - whatever you can tackle in the time you have. To keep the momentum up, I went through a tray on my coffee table that held remotes, pens, a tissue box and an assortment of other crap. Having it all on a tray was my solution to containing the mess. I put things away in their rightful place, threw out papers, perished rubber bands and lots of little things that I had no use for (and no one else would). The results were great!

The next night I continued with the 'drawer' in my nightstand - the nightstand itself is a box with a shelf near the top and a bigger open space below. I had a large shallow rectangular container and a smaller one acting like a drawer, housing my lip balm, nail files, moisturiser, charging cords etc. Over time this had become full of random safety pins, receipts, hair pins etc and it desperately needed a clean out.


Before

After - not beautiful but clean and intentional, and the smaller container is empty!
I'm aiming to continue this a few nights a week, but I've found the mentality is spilling over into everything at the moment. I took 20 minutes to go through papers and files at work and got rid of a few things. I filed about 800 emails in my work inbox in about an hour, and in the process found flagged emails I needed to respond to that would otherwise have been buried amongst the rest. I got my unread emails in my Gmail inbox down from 400+ (at times it has been over 1000!) down to 24. I have never had such a clear inbox before. Some of that was just filing them all in folders, but I also deleted a lot of previously filed emails that I realised I would never get around to reading.

I had held on to all of these emails thinking that they contained valuable information that I wouldn't otherwise be able to access. But realistically, the chances of me reading these emails to stumble across a unique insight I can't find anywhere else on the web or in a book is just crazy. So I deleted hundreds and hundreds of emails, and unsubscribed to as many as I could. And it felt amazing! Now I can really focus on each email that comes into my inbox, rather than quickly scanning everything, deleting the obvious junk and only opening the ones I thought were important. Time will tell if I can keep it up, but it would be really amazing to keep the inbox to one screen of emails at all times.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mealprep

I try to eat healthy, homemade food, but it's hard to do when you're not prepared. To make sure I have plenty of lunch options for work, along with easy dinners I decided to do a bit of meal prep. I planned my meals for the week, went grocery shopping and planned my meal prep:


  • Marinated mushrooms
  • Pesto Zucchini slice - I Quit Sugar recipe from one of the programs I've done (will make 8 slices for the freezer, which I usually take for lunch along with cherry tomatoes, snow peas, mini cucumbers and a hard boiled egg)
  • Lemon & herb chicken
  • Roast potatoes
  • Mexican bean salad
  • 1/2 dozen hard boiled eggs
  • Chorizo, bean and kale soup (will freeze the whole batch)
Get all your ingredients together...except now I have no counter space! 

I will share the some of the recipes in upcoming posts. 

To plan the meal prep, think about the order you're doing things. This is what I did:
  1. Put the eggs in a saucepan, covered them with water, added a splash of vinegar and turned the heat on. My strategy is to let the water come to a boil, let it boil for 1 minute and then turn the heat off. I take the saucepan off the stovetop (I have an electric stove top which retains the heat for a long time) and leave the eggs in the hot water to gradually cool down. Once cool, store in the fridge.
  2. Preheat the oven for the Pesto Zucchini slice.
  3. Make the slice - by the time I've made it, the oven is preheated.
  4. Chop potatoes, toss with olive oil, garlic powder and smoked paprika, add to the oven.
  5. Make the soup
  6. Make the Mexican bean salad
  7. Wash and quarter the mushrooms, boil them in salted water for 10 minutes, drain & let cool
  8. Make the chicken - by this time the slice and potatoes are done so I switch the oven to grill mode and grill the chicken on a foil-covered tray for easier clean up.
  9. Use leftover marinade to marinade a second batch of chicken - put in ziploc bags in the freezer for use at a later date.
  10. Make the marinade for the mushrooms and mix through the cooled mushrooms

Pesto zucchini slice is ready for the oven


Lastly, let everything cool and transfer to appropriate containers - store in the fridge or freezer.

I also tried using this vegetable chopper for the first time, similar to the one Alyssia from Mind over Munch swears by, thinking it would save me time. I'll review it in a future post.

The soup is done!


Because I have a small kitchen and no dishwasher, I actually washed dishes continually throughout the process, about 3 or 4 batches. Otherwise I wouldn't have any space to store all the dirty dishes, or be able to have all the clean ones out to dry! 


Finally done!



Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Going solar #4 - hidden costs

Another draft post that I never quite finished so it was never published. A few tweaks and I'm hitting the publish button! Originally written in 2012.


So at this stage, my solar system has been installed and things are going great - my meter is turning backwards whenever the panels are generating more electricity than I am consuming.

At some point the power distributor contacted me to say that I had to turn my solar system off until a bidirectional meter was installed - I was not allowed to have it on whilst having the old meter essentially running backwards. But damn, it was good while it lasted!

So after coughing up for the truck fee of $420, the meter was installed and it took about 2 weeks for it to be remotely programmed, during which time I had to leave the solar system switched off.

Somewhere along the line (I'm writing this 5 years after the event so my memory is a little hazy), I discovered that I had a problem with my hot water electricity service. With the old meters, the hot water system was hooked up to an off-peak meter. I don't quite know how it worked in terms of the heater knowing when to turn on, but presumably the off-peak supply was only available during off-peak hours. So the problem I faced with replace the two meters (one peak, one off-peak), was that the hot water system would be on and heating 24 hours a day, which would mean that it would consume electricity during peak hours and at a higher cost, but also that it would never be off.

The power distributor advised I should have an electrician install a time switch. I contacted my sparky that did the switchboard, and after much explaining (he had never come across this situation before), he could do it for me. This was another additional expense I was not expecting and I think it also cost around $400 from memory.

Separate time switch panel

Had I known this from the start, I could have had him do it at the same time as the switchboard, saving on callout fees, but also he would have installed a switchboard with more space. In the end, there is a separate time switch panel because there was not enough space on the switchboard. This separate panel added to the overall cost.


Here you can see the time switch panel above the switchboard, which didn't have enough space for the time switch
The great thing about having the time switch is that I can control how many hours my hot water system is on - I can make sure it is only heating overnight during the off-peak times, and in summer I can reduce the amount of time it is on for, or if I'm going away for an extended period. I can even switch it off if I'm going away, but I just need to remember to turn it back on so I have hot water when I want to have a shower or wash the dishes (learned from experience...oops!)

I do need to keep an eye on it if I have any power outages or change the clocks for daylight savings - whilst an hour out of whack won't make that much difference (as the time I've set it to be on is right in the middle of the off-peak period), over time the small time differences add up and it can creep into the peak period, with a much higher rate, which is significant as hot water heating is one of the big ones when it comes to electricity consumption.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Going solar #3

Another draft post that I never quite finished so it was never published. A few tweaks and I'm hitting the publish button! Originally written in 2012.


So I had made the decision to get a solar PV system. I paid my deposit and I locked in the price. I had signed up for a 1.5kW solar system to be installed any time I cared to pay the full amount owing. That was in early November 2011.

My system specs are:
8 x 1.52kW Daqo Panels
SMA SB1700 Inverter 

The solar company had assured me that my roof space was big enough, which had previously been a barrier when looking at a larger 3kW system. They made this calculation using satellite software (like Google Earth but a different website) to view my roof from above. I have since read that it’s best to get the company to actually come out and physically measure your roof as the satellite images may not match reality, but I had no problems.


Before my system could be installed I had to submit a number of photos of my roof, my meter and my switchboard. Which wasn’t so much a switchboard – it was a fuse box. I had known that if I ever wanted any electrical work done I would have to get the fuse box upgraded – no electrician will do any work without the switchboard being to code. So this was an extra expense that I was able to anticipate, and I knew it had to be done anyway.

Luckily my brother is an apprentice electrician, so he was able to recommend a qualified electrician who charged me ‘mate’s rates’. It took about 4 hours on a Saturday afternoon, and while he was there I asked him to disconnect the wall heater (which was hard wired like your oven is) to avoid the temptation to use this electricity guzzler.  I’m looking into installing a reverse cycle split-system air conditioner at some point anyway.



Once the switchboard had been upgraded I emailed a photo to the solar company and they called me to arrange an install-date. As I had annual leave before Christmas I had the installers come on one of those days (I had to be home as my switchboard is inside the house).

The installation took about half a day. Initially when speaking with the sales consultant they had asked whether I wanted to have the inverter installed inside our outside the house. Apparently it needs to be installed as close to the switchboard as possible, for reasons beyond my understanding. I asked how big it was and in my mind pictured a box approximately 50 x 60 cm and maybe 5cm deep, so figured it wouldn’t take up too much room and it would be better inside to avoid the elements. When the installer started putting it up I had a rude shock! It was an enormous bright red box that stuck out about 20cm from the wall. Not a good look at all. When the installers returned from smoko I asked nicely whether he could install it outside instead. He said no worries although I suspect he was somewhat annoyed. But I figured if I didn’t ask, I’d be stuck with a giant red box on my spare bedroom wall, and it would be pretty complicated (not to mention expensive) to move it. I have since learned that some inverters can be quite noisy so that is another reason to install them outside (and upon thinking about it, if they are made to go outside then they are clearly able to withstand the elements). The one and only benefit I can think of to having your inverter inside the house is that you don’t have to go outside to read the output.

Since then my meter has been spinning backwards (it’s an old-style analogue meter) which is tres exciting!

The next step is to get a bi-directional meter installed so that it can measure your consumption and electricity export. This is important because generally the Feed-in Tariff (the rate that you will be paid by exported electricity by your electricity retailer) differs from the rate you pay for electricity that has been consumed. Unfortunately this is quite an expensive exercise if you don’t currently have a smart meter. I’m waiting on a final figure but the “truck fee” (i.e. the cost of your electricity distributor sending the truck and staff to change over your meter) is between $370 and $420. I was not aware of this cost when making my decision to go solar although it was specified in the fine print that the price of my solar package did not cover any costs associated with metering (I just didn’t understand what the meant until now!).

As far as I understand, most solar contracts are Time of Use contracts, which means that you pay for your electricity based on when you use it. This is why the government is rolling our smart meters – they can measure what time you used the electricity so that you can be billed accordingly.
I currently have a two-rate plan where my electric hot water is on an off-peak rate, and only heats overnight when there is less demand on the electricity grid. This is great because it forms approximately half of my electricity consumption in a normal month (i.e. not winter when I’m turning on the heater). All other electricity is charged at a peak rate (about double the off-peak rate).

The Time of Use plans also have a peak and off peak rate, but what is great is that the off-peak rate doesn’t just apply to the hot water system anymore. Plus the off-peak period includes Mon – Fri 11pm to 7am and all day Saturday and Sunday. Since I am at work during the week this plan suits my lifestyle. It seems that a lot of the controversy around Time of Use metering (and by extension, smart meters) arises from people who are unable to delay their electricity consumption to off-peak periods. It appears that the peak rates for Time of Use plans are higher than the maximum rates people currently tend to pay.

I have a real opportunity to reduce my electricity bill even further by shifting my usage to off-peak times wherever possible. For example, instead of doing laundry during the week, I can shift that to the weekend. One thing that may make a significant difference is to only use my oven and stovetop (remember I don’t have gas) on the weekend, and use the microwave during the week. This would probably make a significant difference on my lifestyle too – I won’t get home and wonder what to eat, as I’ll have prepared it the previous weekend!

So, to summarise:
  • Before you can have solar panels installed, you will need to check whether you need your switchboard upgraded. If you have an old-school fuse box then you will definitely need a switchboard upgrade completed by a qualified electrician and signed off by an electrical inspector. This can cost anything from $600-$1000.
  • Have your inverter installed outside unless you desperately want to be able to check the display at any given time of the day without going outside.
  • Do you research about solar retail electricity plans and work out what works for you.