Saturday, August 11, 2007

The worm farm

About 12 months ago, possibly more, a mate of mine showed me his worm farm and the idea really caught my imagination. Since then I’ve been giving people worm farms as Christmas presents… Once people get over the initial shock of it being an odd gift, it’s something they really get into and appreciate and share with the kids/grandkids. Check out the look on Wolfy’s face at Christmas 2006. He came around.

The problem

No matter how prudent you are with what you buy and what you eat, there’s always something left over. Whether it’s the ends of vegetables, the limp or dirty lettuce leaves, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells or when you’ve cooked too much, there’s always these bits and pieces of scraps and off cuts which would normally be on their way to landfill.

The problem of course with all this is that in Australia, fertile land is not particularly plentiful and every time a farmer crops, you’re taking valuable nutrients out his soil which he then has to replace, probably with chemical fertilizers. And any residual nutrients in your leftovers go into landfill to be lost forever rather than being recycled back into that productive land. And you pay Council rates and transportation for the privilege, while generating greenhouse gases in the process. Doesn’t sound particularly sustainable does it?

The solution

Worm farms are amazing little things. Essentially you put your food scraps into a container with worms, they chomp away on it and give you a by product of pH balanced castings (like a top grade potting mix, but probably better) and pH balanced liquid fertilizer. And all of this happens without taking much space or any offensive odour. My first worm farm was on my balcony in the Surry Hills! With topsoil such a precious commodity, the ability to create your own is quite dazzling. Charles Darwin reckons worms are the most important species on the planet for this reason.

Our tips

As far as I can tell it’s pretty difficult to get a worm farm wrong if you follow the instructions which come with your kit. You can get a worm farm and your worm starter pack at most nurseries, although they’re probably a lot cheaper at K-Mart. If I recall rightly, my worm farm cost me $79 and my box of worms cost me $39. Most councils in the area have worm farming courses – these probably don’t tell you much more than the instruction book, but you can ask questions or show off to everyone that you’ve read the book.
Some suggestions to optimize your setup based on my experience:

  • Make sure you start with a box of at least 1,000 worms. You can start with less, but it will slow you down.
    Don’t overfeed them – if the food starts building up, let them get through it before you add more.
  • If the worm farm is out in the rain, leave the tap fully open draining into a bucket. I went travelling up the coast during some heavy rains and thought I’d left the tap partially open. When I came back the active levels had compressed and the worms couldn’t get between levels. They were okay, but it’s slowed them down a lot. (see pic – still going strong, but have got some catching up to do).
  • Your worm farm is a natural incubator for seeds. If things sprout, plant them. If they take, you’ve got free plants.
  • Lastly, in winter, try to keep them warm. Guidebooks suggest putting a Hessian sack over the top. We’ve got a storage hot water system at our place, and putting the worm farm next to the hot water system allows them to tap some of that wasted warmth and also allow me to capture and dilute the fertilizer with runoff from the hot water system as we go (see pic).

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Staying warm

We moved into the Newtown Cottage in Winter. Sydney winters are mild and usually pretty nice during the day, but the heat drops away quite quickly once the sun goes down, and the days are short. Because of the mild weather, a lot of Australian houses are not well insulated or well designed to retain heat during winter.
The Newtown Cottage has a number of good features - it is double brick and it is not open plan, but it has a number of things which work against it :
  • it doesn't receive any direct sunlight in winter on any aspect of the house
  • while the main living areas are individual rooms there are no doors between them
  • there is no insulation in the roof
  • there are gaps in the floorboards which are exposed directly to the outside weather
  • the doors and windows are not well sealed which cause a lot of drafts
  • there is no double glazing
  • there's no inbuilt heating, which means heating is dependent on electric heaters.

Most of these aspects can't be addressed without significant capital outlay, so on the face of it you would think we'd be up for high heating costs, electricity bills and carbon emissions (most of Australia's power is sourced from coal, which is one of the worst sources of carbon emissions). But it ain't necessarily so. We've been getting a few ideas from the ABC TV show - Carbon Cops, but most are affirmations of what we'd already done. Here's some steps we took.

Making the switch to green power: We decided to go with Country Energy for our supply of power. The NSW energy market got deregulated some years ago, thanks to my old boss Fred. As a result there is a supposedly competitive market for green power. What we actually found in practice was that information on who was the cheapest and best provider of green power is sporadic, and in some cases biased and misleading. At the time of doing our research, Country Energy was the cheapest provider who also received a blue chip rating on their service and carbon rating. Interestingly enough, when we rang Country Energy they didn't seem to realise this or that they could provide in our area. We pushed ahead and for the measly sum of $4.40 per week now have a clear conscience. The interesting thing about how they do this is they buy offsets against the average household's usage, rather than what we actually use. In theory this means if we get our energy use down, we could actually be carbon negative (making up for other people). This topic might be worthy of a separate blog, I might come back to this.

Reduce the drafts: Draft reducing tape (the double sided foamy tape stuff) is available at most hardware stores for about $5-10. You put the tape around the door jams and window frames to eliminate any drafts. This is sticky stuff and sticks everywhere other than were you want it to do, so be careful with it. Also give the surface area a light clean to make sure it sticks - wiping it with your finger was enough for me.

Get a door snake: $5 from any hardware or junk shop. The cold air can no longer get in (see photos 1 & 2 - that's a huge gap!).

Only heat the room you're in: Normally you'd just shut the door, but in this house there are no doors. What we did was buy a self suspended hanging rail (under $15 in most hardware stores - see picture). These things are great, you can put them up and down in under 10 seconds and they don't leave any marks. From there you can make some quick curtains (find someone with a sewing fetish - Gem made ours in a few hours with $20 in calico) and hang them up. We've put them on both doors in and out of our lounge room. So for under $50 we've been able to contain most of our heat (it was freezing before we put these in - all the heat was blowing into the other rooms) and cut down our power bills. One of the other things that's interesting is that you can see whether you've got any drafts once the curtains are up because they blow around - you can then track down open windows etc. (see photos)

Put some curtains in: We had wooden blinds which helped with some of the cold escaping out the windows but didn't allow any light in. We've put in some cheap roman blinds, but these haven't been very effective as they're thin and we don't have any pelmets. Suggestions appreciated on this one.

Blankets, wheat bags and water bottles: Fan heaters are terrible things - they chew a lot of power, make the air stale and put you to sleep. Wheatbags are a great little invention - you put them in the microwave for 2 minutes and they'll keep you warm for an hour. Hot waterbottles are about the same effectiveness... actually this laptop I'm using is doing a pretty good job... why do these things generate so much heat even when they're running off batteries? (see photo 3)

Comments please. Other ideas and experiences?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Little things - a case study in sustainable living for renters

About three months ago Gem and I moved into a great little house in Newtown, NSW Australia. We're on a sustainability kick, so we've been slowly changing little things about the house and how we live.

The house is a 1920's style worker's cottage which has been extended twice as far as we can tell. The place has got a lot of character and a lot to work with, but also a lot of limitations. One of those limitations is that we don't own the place, we rent, so this means that little things are within reach and big things probably aren't. But as Paul and Kev say "From little things big things grow..."

Sarah from the Watershed suggested that we'd make a good case study, so we decided to start this blog. The aim of this blog is to summarise our experiences and research on a range of topics with emphasis on little things that can be done by renters, and how we've gone about them.

Our goal is to be well under average for the carbon footprint without reverting to the stone age. This will result at times in continuing to do things which are not perfect, but our aim is not to be perfect, just to share what we've done, how we've done it and perhaps get some suggestions of other things to try.

There's also a range of things we haven't worked out yet, so suggestions most gratefully received. As we try them out I'll aim to update the blog with the results.