Friday, June 29, 2012

Guy McPherson in Wanganui 1st July

I've been grateful for all of the nice feedback and kind words of encouragement in response to our project over the last 18 months, and especially since this column started being published in April. (Although, we have been documenting the process from the beginning at The recent visits from the Wanganui Home School Group have been especially affirming. 

The column focuses on positive, simple solutions to what may sometimes appear to be insurmountable problems such as environmental degradation, rising energy prices and a volatile world economy. I have been in the field of environmental education for over 20 years and I am well aware of the challenges facing humanity. 

In New Zealand we know that food and energy inflation greatly outpace wage rises. We also know that the vast majority of climate scientists agree on the issue of antropogenic (human-caused) global climate change. Although one cannot ascribe a single extreme weather event with climate change, a number of peer-reviewed studies have found long-term trends in increases in the number of extreme weather events. Their quantitative analyses over decades appear to confirm what many 'oldies' have been saying about changes in the weather during their lifetimes. 

But it is not my intention this week to convert any climate change deniers based on the best data provided by the best climatologists on the planet, because nothing will convert them. Instead I'd like to invite them into a conversation with someone who - while not being a climatologist - is a scientist of global renown, and is a big picture thinker with few peers. 

Where I shy away from talking about "how bad things are" (to everyone except my poor wife), Guy McPherson makes a living at it. McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona. He is a well-known and respected figure in climate change circles and a lively speaker. 

McPherson, like Nicole Foss who spoke in Wanganui in April, studies the complex relationships between the environment, energy and finance/economy. His is on a speaking tour of New Zealand including Auckland, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Wellington, and of course, Wanganui. I'll let him tell you all the "bad news" that I don't. Skeptics most welcome! 

Sunday, 1st July, 6:30 - 8:00 pm. 
Josephite Retreat Centre
14 Hillside Terrace, Wanganui
Koha entry

Different Thinking: Establishing Durable Living Arrangements in Uncertain Times

Co-sponsored by The ECO School, the Josephite Retreat Centre, and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Retrospective #10: Further Draft Dodging

Last week I wrote about foam window and door seal, and home-made draft-blockers. Did anyone install either of these? If so, please write a letter to the Chronicle and share your experience. Here is a short story to motivate  you:

Last Friday night I went fishing with my mate. When I got to his home he was not back from work, so I chatted with his wife about window battens and draft blockers. My mate arrived, we went fishing for two hours and returned for tea. In the meantime, his wife put up one window batten, swapped a short curtain for a floor-length curtain, and put a long draft blocker along the base of their aluminum French doors. (Although the doors are well-sealed against drafts, they do conduct heat through the metal.) When we returned she greeted us with, "Isn't it much warmer in here now?" 

Window battens and draft blockers can be made from items found in the house and shed, but there are some other eco-thrifty items available for purchase from local businesses. For example, draft excluders can be found in the same shops as window and door seal, insulation, and compact fluorescent light bulbs. But, I have some special eco-thrifty advice on draft excluders. 

These come in a wide range of styles and prices from $10 to over $50. Here is my eco-thrifty advice: Don't by the dearest one and don't buy the cheapest one. I repeat, DO NOT buy the cheapest one. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but it brings up one of the finer points of eco-thrifty philosophy: Some times being cheap is expensive. 

Sidebar: Sometimes being cheap is expensive: A case study.
An incandescent bulb will cost you $1 but may use $10 of power in a year. Total = $11. 
A compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb will cost you $5 but will use ¼ of the power of an incandescent, in this example $2.50. Total = $7.50. 
And, the CFL will last 10 times longer! That means for the life of one CFL ($5), you would need to buy 10 incandescents ($10). 

The cheapest draft excluder is made of plastic and is held to the door with an adhesive strip. Considering the heavy traffic that most doorways encounter, I do not trust the durability of either the plastic or the adhesive. I would suspect that this product would fail in short time and then need to be replaced. Ergo, being cheap is expensive. The second cheapest one has an aluminium strip but is still held on with adhesive. As Bon Jovi would say, "We're halfway there." But an adhesive backing is just living on a prayer in a busy doorway. 

The next one on the price scale is pre-drilled aluminium with fixing screws, but it was a far sight dearer than the previous one. So my solution that saves $4-$9 on each one is to buy the middle one (aluminium with adhesive) and to drill my own holes and use my own screws. This achieves the low cost / high performance mandate of eco-thrifty renovation. 

But it also raises another point: it takes a little more work. Yes it does, but it is paid work. It pays you back in energy savings. All of the work we've done has resulted in a savings of over $200 per month (conservative estimate) compared to the average New Zealand power bill. I look at this as a kind of "wage" that has no tax withdrawn from it. In another way I see my efforts at energy savings and education as paying "rent." I'm only spending a short time on this beautiful, diverse, wondrous planet that has given me oxygen to breath, water to drink and waves to surf. The least I can do is pay my rent. 

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Urban Chainsaw

Yes, I am a redneck, and still proud of it. You may recall our solar bacon adventure. According to Jeff Foxworthy, a redneck is someone with a "glorious absence of sophistication." I take this to mean social sophistication, and not intellectual sophistication, because Foxworthy is "wicked cleva."

My latest redneck adventure involves demolition debris from our renovation....

... and a Skil saw I bought at Hayward's Auctions for $10. (Chickens not included.)

I set up a comfortable working platform...

... and plugged in.

After 20 minutes I had filled a coal bag...

... and stored enough for a week or two in an old concrete washtub.

We store the wood indoors in an old drawer in the mudroom...

... and then feed the old Shacklock 501.

A waste product is turned into a valuable resource. And all were happy, especially Billy T.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, June 15, 2012

Retrospective #9: Draft Avoidance

After writing about debt aversion and monster mortgage avoidance last Saturday morning, I was interested to hear on the radio that very afternoon about the record number of mortagee sales in New Zealand during the first quarter of the year. My heart goes out to those families losing their homes. Part of the motivation for writing this column voluntarily for the Chronicle is that it might help some families save money and avoid some of the dangers of debt. 

Last week I also reviewed some of the low-hanging fruit (shortest payback period) of energy savings that we have plucked in our eco-thrifty renovation. Those included: window battens (insulation), plastic window film (insulation), and, compact fluorescent light bulbs (electricity savings). These three examples are not exclusive to renovation, nor are they exclusive to home ownership. Nor do they even take much skill, or a building consent for that matter. Anyone in Wanganui – owner or renter, young or old, craftsman or klutz – could install these today and start reaping savings tomorrow. 

Last week I also identified some of the medium-hanging fruit such as solar hot water, insulating and adding north-facing glazing. Be aware, some of these require consent and a licensed builder. And high-hanging fruit…to be quite honest, we don't really worry about those which have payback period over 15 years. Solar electricity, for example, has a payback period of between 20 and 30 years. Together, these investments in energy savings have paid off handsomely. As our most recent power bill shows (see photo), we are now part of the 99...Cent! 

But our Occupy Arawa Place movement involves more than passive solar design. This week and next I’ll share three more of the lowest-hanging fruit that save energy and money. These are examples of the fourth of our seven design principles: draft-proofing. 

Reducing airflow through a home is not specific to passive solar design, but it is key to the goal of a warm, dry, low-energy home. Drafts account for 6% to 9% of heat loss from residential dwellings, and old villas like ours are notoriously drafty. A visitor to one of our open homes early in the renovation process exclaimed: “I’ve been in this house before. I babysat here once. This is the coldest house in New Zealand!” Having examined nearly all of the nooks and crannies in this old villa, I suspect her Antarctic experience was partly due to drafts. An easy way to find drafts is by burning incense and holding it close to doors and windows. The moving smoke will indicate where cold air in entering your home. Then plug those gaps! We’ve addressed draft-proofing in these ways: foam window and door seal; draft blockers (home-made); and, draft excluders (purchased).

The first of these is pretty straightforward. Window and door seal is available from all the usual suspects, and is advertised by them this time of year in newspaper circulars. (By the way, newspaper circulars also make an excellent internal heat source for a home when inserted into a wood burner.) Foam window and door seal is cheap as chips and easy to install. Go get some, but make sure that all surfaces are clean and dry before applying it! This product will help reduce drafts around windows and does the same for the top and sides of door frames. But the bottom of exterior doors needs something else. 

What I call a “draft blocker” some may call a “draft dodger,” but that term has a bad connotation in the USA. Whatever you call it, most people are familiar with this fabric tube (like a long sock) full of sand or beans or whatever that is placed against the bottom of an exterior door. But here's the thing: most draft dodgers have a round edge but the bottom of a door is at a right angle to the floor. That means there will be a gap in this supposed gap filler (round peg – square hole scenario). So my version is different in that it has a square edge. It is one of the easiest eco-thrifty things you can do.Here's how to make one: cut a 45mm x 45mm piece of wood 5 mm longer than my door. Then wrap an old towel around it. Lastly, tie off the ends with fabric strips like a sausage or Tootsie Roll. This gives a tighter seal at the bottom of the door and can be made cheaply and easily. These are even helpful to use with aluminum doors that may have no drafts, but conduct heat outside through the metal. The draft blocker slows the thermal bridging of heat through the aluminum. Remember, every little bit helps especially when it involves low investment and high performance. 

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Access Is More Important Than Ownership

This one goes out to my boy, Rick Estes, in the 603! Along with being the world's best ZZ Top impersonator...

... Rick has taught me much, like how to mix concrete in a tub and how to jack up a 220 year-old house in order to replace the sills. But perhaps the most important thing that Rick ever taught me was this:

"Access is more important than ownership." This is how he explained it to me the first time: "I don't have a washing machine at the moment, but I have dirty laundry and friends that own washing machines. Those same friends invite me over for dinner on occasion. I bring a bottle of wine and a basket of dirty clothes. By the time we are finished with drinks and nibbles, the load is through the wash. By the time we've finished dinner the dryer has run." 

I appreciate Rick's words of wisdom, and I also appreciated that as my nearest neighbor in rural New Hampshire, he was much better provisioned than I was regarding: hot and cold water; mains power; power tools. (I was able to use his own advice against him!) Which brings me to the most recent application of Rick's advice. 

This Hitachi table saw belongs to my friend Peter who lives at the Quaker Settlement on the other side of town.

I had to rip some long pieces of oak on a 45 degree angle for our hearth surround...

... but could not manage to hold the line with my circular saw. So I mounted up...

... and headed to the woodworking shop at the Settlement...

... where woodworking projects include making coffins. Those crazy Quakers!

At any rate, the bicycle ride took me about 30 minutes each way, I chatted with Peter for 20 minutes, I chatted with Mandy for 5 minutes, Enna for 10 minutes and various other greetings. The actual cuts took less than 5 minutes. So after two hours and change, I was back home and ready to finish the hearth. 

In the years since I left my 38 acre farm in New Hampshire, I have often thought about and used Rick's advice. To those living in a modern Western consumerist culture, Rick's mantra runs against almost everything we're told by politicians and the media. But their messages of unregulated consumption often lead to personal debt and planetary debt. The Eco-Thrifty approach to renovation (and life) aims to be lighter on the wallet and lighter on the planet while remaining heavy on purpose, fulfillment, happiness, and surfing.

Chur, Estwing

Friday, June 8, 2012

Retrospective #8: Warm Is Always Beautiful

To date this column has introduced the concept of eco-thrifty renovation and explained the first three of seven design principles that guided us through this process: solar gain, thermal mass and insulation. I’ve emphasized the concepts of payback period and “low-hanging fruit.” Before I move on to our fourth design principle – draft proofing – I’d like to take a moment to review some of the overarching ideas surrounding eco-thrifty renovation that do not necessarily qualify as design principles. Many of these ideas run contrary to contemporary perspectives on home ownership.


For example, instead of buying the biggest and best house with the biggest and best mortgage, we found one that was within our means with money leftover for the energy improvements I’ve described. In other words, we opted for a $100,000 (purchase plus renovation) insulated, passive solar home than a $250,000 house that might look nicer but have no insulation or substantial solar gain.


People say that buying a home is an emotional decision. That appears to be true, but it also appears to get some people into big financial trouble. At worst, the failure to meet mortgage payments results in the loss of the property. At best, meeting mortgage payments over 30 years means they end up paying roughly twice the purchase price. In other words, a $250,000 home ends up costing $500,000.


The focus on payback period means that eco-thrifty renovation is more like operating a business than managing a home. In other words, the process is often more rational than emotional. But this is not to say that it cannot also be beautiful. Beauty the eco-thrifty way comes slowly, often through our last three principles – reduce, reuse, recycle – and through words of wisdom like those from my friend the solar engineer in the Himalayas, “Warm is always beautiful.” Beauty also comes through the freedom offered by not living under a mountain of debt. British economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that “Small is beautiful.”


Small can mean the size of a cozy, little home, or it can represent the baby steps toward making any home more energy efficient. Those baby steps are what we call “low-hanging fruit.” The low-hanging fruit that I’ve described so far include window battens (insulation), plastic window film (insulation), compact fluorescent light bulbs (electricity savings), and an extra layer of plasterboard (thermal mass). Nearly anyone in Wanganui could put the first three of these to use right away and start reaping savings that represent a greater than 100% return. In other words, the payback period for each of these is less than one year. Please note, however, that an extra layer of plasterboard is appropriate for those homes that overheat in direct sunlight during the months of May – August.

The next idea behind eco-thrifty renovation is having the fiscal discipline to reinvest the savings from low-hanging fruit in medium-hanging fruit, which have payback periods between four and twelve years. Examples of these include solar hot water (electricity savings), pelmets and thermal curtains (insulation), adding north-facing glazing (solar gain), removing south-facing glazing (reducing heat loss), and our Schacklock 501 multi-fuel range (heat source on cloudy days and electricity savings when used for cooking).

We believe that every little bit helps and that the cumulative effects of all these small efforts make for a warm, dry, efficient home that is gentler on the planet and the wallet. This approach to renovation is more about designing for living with a home than designing for living in a home. We interact with the functioning of our home on a daily basis, and as our eco-thrifty renovation winds to an end we are set up for an eco-thrifty lifestyle where we pay about $20 per year in rubbish fees and eat fresh fruits and vegetables we’ve grown ourselves. That is the beauty of freedom. 

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


A year and a half after starting our renovation, we nearly have a finished kitchen. Two of the last projects to do were tiling the hearth and putting poly on the floor. I did both of those last week. 

For the floor, I used a water-based polyurethane that is 'eco-friendly', ie low VOCs.

Interestingly enough, 4 litres of poly cost more than all of the oak boards (125 mm x 25 mm) we needed to cover about 15 square metres. (We bought the oak as off-cuts from a door factory on the other side of town.) See this post by Jiqiao, our Chinese intern, about laying the floor, which looked like this.  

We laid the oak over the old floor, making sure to keep out any drafts, especially along external walls.

I applied construction tape along the wall/floor intersection...

... and then installed the baseboard. (Behind Billy T.)

Tiling was something else entirely. We bought the tiles and the adhesive from the shop for about $60 total. 

I have never tiled before, but following the directions on the bag of adhesive seemed to work out fine. 

And I had a supervisor looking on.

The timber frame is 25mm thick and cut on a 45 degree bevel to match the height of the tiles.

Here, the frame is removed while I finish the cuts.

Total cost: 
Tasmanian oak boards: (25 mm x 125 mm) $80
Screws: $60
Polyurethane: $115
Tiles and adhesive: $60
Finishing the kitchen: Priceless

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Retrospective #7: Window Film Insulation

Images courtesy of Space Window Insulation, an excellent source for bulk, inexpensive materials. SWI also accepts our local currency, REBS. Good on you!

Dead air is not good on the radio, however, it is absolutely fabulous in your home. Specifically, it is great in your building envelope: the walls, windows, floor and ceiling. Another name for dead air is insulation. As my friend the rocket scientist likes to say, “In double glazing the second piece of glass is not the insulation, it is the air in between.” He went on to show me a graph of the R-values for double-glazing when the two panes of glass are set different distances from one another from 1mm through 50mm. Now you may think that only a rocket scientist can get excited about insulation. Not true, I have managed to get four columns in a row out of dead air! (Maybe that’s why I’m in the newspaper and not the radio.) 

You will recall that last week I described how to make an eco-thrifty version of a window quilt that I call a “window batten.” Before that I wrote about the special relationship between curtains and pelmets, and before that it was pink batts. I promise this week will be the last on the topic…for now. 

While not everyone is in a position to insulate their walls, ceiling or floor, or even to install pelmets, I think anyone could make eco-thrifty window battens. (By the way, did anyone make one after last week’s column? If so, please write a letter to the Chronicle and share your experience.) I also think that anyone could install plastic window film insulation that you can pick up in kit form from a number of places around Wanganui. Just as the second piece of glass is not the insulator in double-glazing, the piece of plastic is not the insulator, it is the air gap in between the plastic and the glass. My rocket scientist friend tells me that a 20mm gap is optimum. Anything wider does not improve performance, but anything narrower reduces performance. And by performance I mean R-value: the Resistance to heat flow. 

For instance, the R-value of an insulated wall is about 2, while the R-value of a single-glazed aluminium window is 0.15. That is so low that even a 5mm air gap that you will get by applying the plastic film to the inside of a standard aluminium window may double that window’s insulating ability to about 0.3. That’s still a lot less than an insulated wall, but one of the mottos of eco-thrifty renovation is “Every little bit helps…so long as it has a short payback period.” 

And while it may take a rocket scientist to calculate the exact payback period of plastic window film insulation, it does not take one to compare its cost versus purchasing new double glazed windows for an entire home. We are talking a few hundred dollars versus many thousands of dollars. And as long as the air gap is well sealed, the performance should be equivalent. As a matter of fact, I learned recently that tight fitting thermal curtains can be just as effective as double-glazing. I might add that window battens are just as effective as tight fitting thermal curtains. In our home we are piggy-backing many of these strategies. For example, 1 pane of glass + 1 air gap + 1 sheet of plastic + 1 air gap + 1 window batten + 1 air gap + 1 thermal curtain = 1 very low power bill. This type of horizontal lasagna of window treatments may not appeal to everyone, but I’m confident that saving money does. To quote my friend who is a solar engineer in the Himalaya mountains, “Warm is always beautiful.” 

Peace, Estwing