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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Going solar #2

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.

The five most common ways your home loses heat are:

  • Ceilings (10%)
  • Walls (12-14%)
  • Floors and below grade space (15-18%)
  • Windows and doors (18-20%)
  • Infiltration (air leakage) (35%)

Here are some of the issues and solutions when it comes to my house. Some of these solutions I implemented before the big electricity bill, but thought I’d list them all the same.

  • I know I have ceiling insulation (not sure what the quality/efficiency is like – presumably it was installed when the home was built).
  • I pulled up all the original carpets before moving in and had the pine floor boards polished, but recognise that in terms of insulation, this was not a good idea (however it looks fantastic!). The only thing between the crawl space and the interior of my house is the pine floorboards – not ideal, but not much I can do about it right now unless I install a new layer of floorboards over the top of the pine. I might look at this one day when I’m in a position to renovate the kitchen and bathroom, which will involve some walls being removed. Pine is not ideal as a floor as it is a soft wood that can easily be marked by wearing stilettos or a stone caught in the tread of your shoe.
  • Windows and doors:
    • I have a 5-pane fixed louvre window with a pane missing in my toilet. Due to the fact that it can’t be closed (and the missing pane didn’t help at all), there was a considerable draft coming through the window. To reduce the amount of air that could pass through the window, I cut a piece of clear plastic (the type you would use to cover your school books) to match the size of the window and held it in place with Blu-tak. Then I replaced the fly-screen which helps to anchor the plastic. There is a small gap (about 5cm) where the plastic is a little too small so there is still an opportunity for warm air to leak out, so I keep the door closed at all times.
    • I had a noticeable gap under my front door which was originally covered by a roller attached to the back of the door. It made a horrible noise whenever I opened the door (it was probably quite stiff and rusty), it was covered in brown fabric (a sort of faux-sheepskin) and looked pretty tacky. So that went into the bin pretty quickly and was replaced with a draught excluder from Bunnings . Despite appearances it wasn’t the easiest thing to install – definitely needed a little help from dad with that one.
    • I have gaps under all my interior doors because the floors originally had carpet, so they would have been at least 2.5cm closer to the underside of the door than with just the pine floorboards. So I bought two stick-on draught excluders for the toilet door and the bathroom door.
    • I don’t think that my windows are particularly well sealed so that’s something to tackle in the future.

Anyway, all of the above is a bit of background as to why I thought about installing solar panels. Electricity prices are never going to come down, and with a huge winter electricity bill I couldn’t afford for it to be any higher.

I spoke to friends and colleagues, did a bit of googling and felt pretty despondent – solar systems can be incredibly expensive to insall! When looking at what size system I needed for my consumption, of course I was using my last (huge) electricity bill as a benchmark for my daily average consumption. The bad news was that the 3.0kW system would cost $7500 and that I didn’t have a big enough roof space for all the panels anyway. I couldn’t catch a break!

I left it for a few months but continued to receive regular news emails from the company I had originally enquired with. One day I saw they were having a fantastic sale for 1.5kW systems for $1,999. Now this was an amount I could afford, so I called up straight away to see if my roof space would be suitable.

In hindsight I probably made the decision to go ahead without having all the facts, but in my defence I was on a deadline (the sale price was only valid for a week, and it was about 50% of the standard price so it was a significant saving). I don’t have any regrets but faced a steep learning curve when it came to understanding all the implications of going solar.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Going solar #1

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.

I have a confession. I am a bit of a greenie at heart. Yes I eat meat, I drive a petrol-guzzling car (well it’s actually really light on fuel to be fair!) and I occasionally forget to switch the light off in a room I’m not using. But on the plus side, I recycle, I don’t just throw stuff away when it’s not working 100% (I take it to my dad and he fixes it for me!) and I don’t use my tumble dryer unless I’m absolutely desperate.

A few months ago I received my winter electricity bill (issued quarterly) and had a nasty shock. This was the first winter electricity bill I’ve ever received, as I was previously living in a share house with gas heating, and if truth be told, I paid very little attention to the bills except to transfer over the required amount of money when asked to.

I bought a 2-bedroom unit in November 2010. The average energy consumption for a single person household in a 2-bedroom unit with no gas (i.e. electric hot water and electric heating) is  11.6kWh per day according to my energy retailer. 

Estimate from

After chatting to neighbours (living in identical unit without gas but with a reverse cycle air conditioner) I surmised that the culprit was definitely heating. I had an old electric wall heater that attempted to blow warm air (not very successfully), didn’t have a thermostat and was most likely installed when the house was built in the early 1980s. Because that was not particularly effective, I was also using an oil-column heater with a thermostat.

As a general rule, any appliance that produces heat (whether it's the main output, such as a heater, or a by-product aka waste heat, such as an incandescent light bulb) will consume more electricity than an appliance that does not produce heat. So if you want to keep your bill out of the heart-attack inducing price range, keep an eye on your heat-producing electricity usage.

Upon receiving my bill I immediately stopped using both heaters, and used the wall heater only for an hour (I set an alarm on my phone) to bring things to a more bearable temperature. I made a conscious effort to add another blanket before turning on the heater, and checked for draughts. Still, this wasn't really a solution as some nights I was really uncomfortably cold unless I cranked up the heater(s).

So I thought about going solar. Given that electricity prices are not dropping any time soon (in fact, they are rising scarily fast), solar is a no-brainer. Of course, it's not quite so simple, but given enough time the system will pay for itself in reduced electricity bills.

I thought I would write a series of posts about my decision to go solar, what I should have known before making that decision, and other ways I have made an effort to save energy in my home.Hopefully someone somewhere will find this information useful, and hopefully it can save them some money and stress too!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bathroom renovation begins

So after more than 5 years in my house, my bathroom renovation finally happened. My brother introduced me to an amazing carpenter friend, and that made all the difference. He organised all the other trades, and was so accommodating in all of my back and forth about what I wanted to do. All of the hurdles I saw blocking my way turned into minor bumps - it's just amazing how having a tradie who is knowledgeable and keen to do the work makes all the difference.

My bathroom was original, with almond coloured fixtures and brown patterned tile. It actually wasn't so bad, except for the shower screen, which was as dysfunctional as it was ugly. The roller thingys kept falling off because the screw holes were warped and bent, which meant the door panels would get stuck or were tricky to open smoothly. It all came to a head when I was virtually trapped in the shower with a giant black spider that descended from the ceiling vent directly above me, and I could not get the damn door open! I'm sure the neighbours can still remember the shrieks!

For years I kept thinking maybe I could just use tile paint and get the back resprayed, to do a quick and cheap makeover. But that still left the ugly floor tile, along with a layout that wasn't ideal.

Here's the original layout:

So we have a separate toilet, and a narrow bathroom. I realised there was so much wasted space in the hallway between the door going into the bathroom and the toilet. My concern was that by removing the wall and squaring off the room, I created two problems:

  1. Two different windows in the one room that weren't even the same height. My immediate assumption was that it would be expensive and onerous to replace the window, and I was trying to do this on a budget. 
  2. No separate toilet in a two bedroom unit. 
After talking to my carpenter about this, he said it would be quite easy to replace the window. I could buy a second-hand/factory seconds window for a few hundred dollars, and then it would just be a matter of getting a bricklayer to deal with bricking up the gaps on the outside of the house. The overall quote of removing the wall and replacing the window was about $2000 more than leaving the wall in place (not including the cost of the window). The added advantage would be that I could replace the old sliding aluminium window which was full of gunk and hard to open. Also, leaving the original window (if I kept the wall) would have created an oddly-placed window, since the current window has the all-in-one mirrored shelving cabinet incorporated under the window, which is extremely dated and was not going to stay. You can sort of see in in the before photo:

The second problem wasn't really an issue for me, since there's no one else there 90% of the time. I thought about when I lived in my share house, which had a main bedroom with an ensuite, and another two bedrooms that shared the main bathroom. And I can count on one hand the number of times this was a problem over five years of living there. I was conscious of resale considerations, and had a look online at other new-build two bedroom apartments to see what was on the market. I knew that the separate toilet was quite an old-fashioned design, albeit a practical one! After a bit of research I felt confident that removing the wall and squaring off the room was the way to go: almost all of the new-build 2-bed 1-bath apartments I was seeing online had the toilet inside the bathroom.

To finalise my decision, I drew a to-scale version of both options, with all the fixtures cut out separately so I could play around with the layout and different sized fixtures (for example, a 900mm x 900mm shower and a bigger option, and a 1400mm or 1600mm bath length, as well as a vanity option from 900mm to 1200mm in length.

Option 1: 'basic' renovation - no structural changes, a few plumbing changes:

Option 2: 'luxury' renovation - remove wall, new window and square off the room, about the same amount of plumbing changes:

The weird toilet placement was so that there were no plumbing changes required - as we got closer to the start of the renovation I decided it looked odd, and changed it 90 degrees to sit on the same wall as the vanity. This meant I didn't need to leave as much clearance and the vanity could be moved over to ultimately have a longer countertop. 

So I finally had a plan! Remove the wall and windows, put in a new window and create a new doorway to square off the room. This would allow me to have a much bigger room with a layout that worked. After a few false starts where we pushed the schedule back a few weeks due to tradie availability, we were ready to demo. I was able to save money by having my brother and a mate do the demo, and my brother did all the electrical work for me at no cost for labour - despite these savings, the whole renovation ended up costing just under $20,000 which I paid for in cash (I say this to demonstrate that this was as a result of years of saving, and that I wasn't taking out a loan or putting things on my credit card to be paid for at a later date, not to brag about how much cash I had). I would have liked to have spent less, but in the end I decided since this was a personal renovation and I had some specific wants, that would cost me a little more. 

I can easily see how people spend $30,000 or more on a bathroom renovation, as my price tag included free demolition labour (I had to hire a skip bin), free electrician (I had to pay cost price for the downlights, plug points, cable etc) and plenty of bargain/low-cost purchases of tiles, fixtures and fittings. 

The end results was amazing. A friend even asked if I had hired a designer! Here's a sneak peek:

Thursday, October 27, 2016

2014 update

Found this in the drafts folder and instead of letting it go to waste, thought it was worth publishing! Written in 2014. 

So it has been a while....a long while!

I guess I lost momentum with many of my projects, so there didn't seem to be anything to blog about, and life just carried on.

I've been in my unit for 4.5 years now. When I look back on what I've done, I have done a lot. The big ticket items - kitchen and bathroom renovation - are still on the to-do list, but I'm making progress on the rest.

Here's my instagram picture of a sunset in Emerald, since this post would be pretty boring without some colour!

Here's a quick summary off the top of my head:

  • Whole house painted internally including walls, ceilings, doors, door frames, skirtings and window frames.
  • Carpet removed and floorboards refinished.
  • White timber venetian blinds installed for all windows (purchased at Lincraft during a 70% off sale!)
  • Got the house re-leveled due to a constantly sticking bathroom door
  • Living room: removed dated chandelier light fitting, replaced with free silver fan & light combo, removed inefficient electric wall heater, replaced with reverse cycle split system with enough power to heat and cool a larger floor area once some walls are removed in the future; added new curtains
  • Kitchen: painted cabinets with laminate paint; refinished countertops with leftover Rustoleum Benchtop Resurfacing Kit (my mom redid her kitchen and there was plenty leftover to do mine); added a shelf under the top cabinets
  • Laundry: nothing...
  • Bathroom: removed electric wall heater after it stopped working; replaced door handle with modern alternative (the original one was broken) and added hooks behind the door.
  • Bedrooms: added curtains
  • Hallway: blocked off a redundant hallway to create a linen/storage cupboard...still a work in progress; finally painted and dealt with wallpaper in the main hallway
  • Roof: had new gutters installed and the roof repointed.
  • Installed solar panels.
  • Redid backyard and front garden to create a low maintenance space to give the place some personality, removed old washing line that took up the whole backyard (I never used it), removed some trees that were taking up too much room and growing too close to the house.
  • Replaced all the architrave light switches with standard modern wall mounted switches; replaced some dated light fittings.
  • Installed extra smoke alarm
  • Repaired giant hole in the hallway ceiling (my darling brother put his foot through it while doing some electrical for me up in the roof).

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Update and a new perspective's been a while.

What have I been up to? Plenty of things! Here are a few:

  • I renovated my bathroom (it's 99% done).
  • I've recently discovered podcasts (I know I know - I'm clearly not an early adopter!)
  • I got into cycling in a big way 
  • Started a new job almost two years ago
  • Lots of work travel to amazing destinations - got to go to China and Vietnam for the first time!
  • Lots of friends have gotten married and had kids, including my baby brother! I'm now the proud aunt of a gorgeous little nephew. He had some struggles as a newborn that gave us all lots of heartache and worry, but he's a fighter and is doing really well.
  • Said good-bye to our beautiful family dog - she was 17 years old and she wasn't living a good life anymore. I miss her!

If I think about why I haven't posted anything for years, I think it comes down to this: I wanted this blog to be a beautiful space to showcase how I transformed my house from a seventies relic to a fresh, vibrant, happy place with paint and elbow grease. And I've put in plenty of work, but every time I thought about taking photos, the excuses went something like this: "everything looks messy - I'll have to wait until I do a big tidy up" - and then, after a big tidy up "oh the lighting isn't right so another time", and so weeks turned into months turned into years, and here we are.

I was so used to reading these successful home blogs with gorgeous photography and thousands of readers that I thought if I can't reproduce that, then why bother? But everyone has to start somewhere, and it's really not my dream to have a 'successful' blog with thousands of readers. It was really a way for me to document my journey of home ownership, renovating and exploring my interest in home design and decor. 

Lately I've been listening the The Minimalists podcast, and while I've been watching plenty of YouTube videos about minimalism and decluttering, for some reason this is what really spoke to me. I think it's because they really tackle the why behind being a minimalist, rather than just the how

After many times of getting home after a busy day only to be confronted by mess, clutter and stuff, I was feeling overwhelmed, depressed and suffocated. On more than one occasion I thought to myself "if my house burned down tomorrow, it would almost be a relief, as I could start over and wouldn't have to deal with all of my stuff." Yeah...that's a sobering thought. (I have zero intention of letting that happen, but why even invite the thought into my life!)

I am also letting my conditioning and family's influence get in the way. We have always had a lot of stuff and struggled to let anything go. We've moved house several times (once halfway across the world), and we have dragged all our stuff with us every time. I was talking to my mom about this the other day, and when we lived in South Africa things seemed less cluttered, more tidy. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, we had a much bigger house. Whilst we didn't bring everything with us in terms of furniture, I don't think we really left much behind in terms of decor, tchotchkes and personal items. The accumulations of 20 years of my parents being married, and two teenage kids. Secondly, in South Africa we had a maid* who worked three (full) days a week at our house (sounds extravagant, but I went to school with someone that had two full-time live-in maids!). So you could have your house clean and tidy virtually all the time, and you could get to the big spring cleaning jobs as needed. Both my parents have a hard time letting go of something - even if it's broken, my dad will save it to fix it later. Which invariably he does, but it may take years, whilst storing the broken items and random bits and pieces that might be useful one day to fix a broken item. 

And we all tend to get used to our surroundings - after a while the mess and clutter just becomes white noise, until we realise someone is coming over and suddenly you see your space through their eyes and run around in a mad panic shoving things into piles and behind closed doors. I hate the thought of someone dropping by unexpectedly, because invariably my house is so messy that I'm embarrassed to let them in the door. What a stressful way to live. If I really sit down and think about it, that is a crazy way to approach life. I would rather give up the opportunity to spend time with a friend or chat to a neighbour, because of my material possessions that I don't even care enough about to put away/find a place for. The Minimalists have a saying: "Love people, use things. The opposite never works." Based on my previous behaviour, I'd say I'm not living that at all. We are so caught up in material possessions and consuming consuming consuming - where does it stop? Yet it's so easy to do, because we're constantly bombarded with advertising and having the latest and greatest. I'm not one to keep up with the Joneses, but I still notice myself falling down the rabbit hole when browsing shopping catalogues or websites, or seeing a friend's new car, or newly renovated house, or trendy outfit.  

So, this is a bit of a random post, but I have to start somewhere. I think for the moment I'd like to use this blog to journal my journey to leading a more intentional life, surrounded by people I love and things I find useful or that bring me joy (had to sneak a Marie Kondo reference in there!), rather than being dragged down by the weight of stuff. And I'll be sharing changes in my home, whether the 'after' photos are perfect or not. 

The great thing is that this is also a way to be green - the best way to have less stuff is to stop acquiring it! 

Images: all my own. They might not make sense but they're all from the various things I've been up to in the last few years.

*the term 'maid' is no longer politically correct - the correct term is 'domestic worker', but I'm not sure that makes sense in terms of what role that person fulfils to anyone outside of South Africa. Duties varied from household to household, but included anything to do with the house: cleaning, ironing, laundry, washing windows, deep cleaning all those spaces you never get to with the regular cleaning routine, child-minding, picking kids up from school, cooking etc. Our wonderful maid was Johanna - she was a lovely lady and very loyal to our family. I hope she's doing ok these days.