passive solar house

As summer rolls around again, my house heats up and I wish I lived somewhere else. Fortuitously, I have plans to do just that!

too hot for cats

The Back Paddock behind my house will be no more. I’m building a small (3×1) passive solar, energy efficient house. If you’re new here, the Back Paddock is the empty lot adjoining my house.

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Loving Libraries

Library Lovers Day If you’ve had enough of the consumerism of Valentine’s Day (so maybe Hallmark didn’t invent this celebration or even Mother’s Day, but they certainly enjoy the profits) you can celebrate Library Lover’s Day on 14 February. Libraries have always been eco-minded because they lend books, CDs, DVDs, etc, with many people using the same item over and over, decreasing the need for each person to buy their own copy. Consumption uses finite resources and produces greenhouse gas emissions.

I’m particularly enamoured of libraries because I’m a librarian. I don’t work in a library right now so I visit my local library once a week to get my reading and movie viewing fix. And my research on teenagers’ reading habits means I also frequent Curtin University Library. Remember to visit a nearby library to celebrate Library Lover’s Day.

To improve the eco-friendliness of libraries even more, some newly built libraries have incorporated sustainable building practices in their design. I read about two such libraries in the November 2007 issue of Incite, the magazine of ALIA, my professional association.

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Sustainable Building Design

It is no good just talking, writing or reading about sustainability. It requires us to do something toward that critical and vital end point – a sustainable world – so that we can all look our grandchildren in the eye with something like a clear conscience – Derek Wrigley [1]

For a number of years I’ve been interested in sustainable building design and I have a long term plan to build my own sustainable designed house. The first real-life example I visited was the Subiaco Sustainable Demonstration Home in suburban Perth. It was built by Subiaco Council, but is now privately owned. I’ve often wondered why more newly built houses aren’t designed using sustainable principles. I realise most such houses are individually designed by architects and this increases their cost, but some design aspects, such as passive solar principles, seem to me to be just common sense.

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Drinking Rain

Of course we all drink rain, one way or another. The water cycle eventually recycles all water into the sky and then back down to the earth, but some people drink their water a bit closer to when it fell as rain, than others. Sadly I’m not one of these people, but I look forward to the time when I have a rainwater tank.

the water cycle by John M. Evans, USGS, Colorado District

I just came across Greenfoot’s blog and her question about Sustainable House Day. Georgie commented on the Australia Street house in Newtown, Sydney.

The house incorporates all manner of sustainable features, including a ventilation stack and a low-tox or no-tox approach to paints and glues throughout. It also features a pool: a decadent, gorgeous plunge pool, tucked in a corner of the courtyard next to the living area, filled entirely by water from the house’s rainwater tank. [1]

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Electricity from the Sun

solar powered street lighting. This is the only one I've ever seen in Perth, so they're not common. In the city centre of Perth there are solar powered parking meters I have a long term plan to build my own sustainably designed house. When I build this house I want to install solar panels to generate my own electricity. The house would still be connected to grid electricity. At times when the sun was shining I might produce more electricity than I use and sell surplus back to the power grid. At times when the sun wasn’t shining I would have to buy electricity from the grid. The sun shines a lot in Perth, so solar power is an ideal form of electricity generation. Perth is also a very windy city, so wind power would work well too.

It is expensive to purchase and install photovoltaic cells, but cheaper than it has been in the past and the price is decreasing. Many governments, including Australia’s, give rebates for installation of photovoltaic cells. Matthew Warren in The Australian newspaper[1] said that, despite this rebate,

It is still some of the most expensive electricity in the market with the full cost of the cells often not recovered over their entire 30-year-plus lifetime. Critics of this [rebate] scheme argue it is great for retailers and some manufacturers, but it is still largely symbolic stimulating imports of PV cells more than a dynamic solar industry in Australia.

Robert Silvey disagrees with Matthew Warren’s assessment of the cost and discusses the installation of photovoltaic cells in his house in California (which provides rebates) and why it will increase his home equity.

Australian has been a world leader in solar technology since the 1970s and the University of NSW and Australian National University are internationally recognised in solar technology development. Unfortunately most of their ideas are commercialised overseas[1]. This happens a lot in Australia

because of a lack of government support at critical stages of the research and development cycle coupled with weak venture capital markets in Australia compared with many countries overseas.

Another Australian government scheme, the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program (RRPGP) provides a 50% rebate to offset the capital costs of establishing a renewable energy system for remote communities or households. Remote areas are not connected to the electricity grid and thier electricity was previously provided through diesel generators. Now diesel generators can just be used as backup to variable renewable sources[2]. Denis Smedley, director of the Renewable Energy Deployment Team in the Australian Greenhouse Office which administers the program, said,

The most common form of renewable energy used in remote communities is solar power.

Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth received a grant from RRPGP for a 600 kW wind turbine to supply up to 40% of the island’s energy. This will save about 430 000 litres of diesel a year and approximately 1100 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Some pictures of houses with multiple solar panels are here. And Ma Yanjun, of Qiqiao village, Shaanxi province, China rigged up his own solar water heater using beer bottles.

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Offline Sources

  1. Warren, Matthew (2007) “Politics of carbon” The Australian, 9 June, p.1 of Clean Energy section.
  2. Parker, Derek (2007) “Wind, sun switch on the isolated” The Australian, 9 June, p.6 of Clean Energy section.

Quick, quick, quick, while its hot, hot, hot

The solar water heater on my roof

I rent my house, but I’m lucky to have my dad as my landlord. This means I’m able to make a lot more changes to make my life more sustainable than most tenants could. Although my dad doesn’t agree to everything I propose. He recently painted the outside of the house and it’s an older weather board house so I thought it would look good to have two different shades for the bottom and the top. Although I suggested some vibrant shades, he didn’t agree with my flamboyant vision and every wall is cream. My dad has no sense of adventure!

In the middle of February my dad had a solar water heater installed – greenhouse gas emission free water heating! Previously the water was heated by natural gas, which was better than electricity, but not as good as solar. The old gas system had been on its last legs for quite a while, but being lazy old me, it took me a long time to tell my dad this. I was used to pretty luke-warm showers. It had gotten a bit annoying last winter, but then summer arrived and I forgot. Since the sun started boiling our water, I was in for a bit of shock. I thought you could only get water that hot out of a kettle! I can see this winter that my addiction to too-long showers is only going to get worse.

I haven’t yet turned on the electricity booster and I hope we’ll only need it for three months of the year. We’re just getting into autumn, although summer has been lingering most of March. When winter arrives I hope to only turn on the booster on overcast days and there are always a few sunny days in Perth’s mild winters. The climate of Perth is ideal for solar energy generation. If I lived anywhere else it might not be so easy.

I would also like to use solar panels to generate my electricity, but that’s going to have to wait until I build my own sustainably designed house, which is a long-term plan of mine (I have to finish studying and get a real job first).

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