Just to give you an idea of how some of the ideas on Smart Renting can work in the real world, we’ve compiled our energy, water, food production and transport stats for 2019.

Some background information

  • 2 adult occupants.
  • Two bedroom unit, 65m2 (interior), part of 3 ground level units. Estimated build date, late 1980s. Relatively draught free with single glaze windows.
  • Located in Melbourne (classified as a temperate oceanic climate).
  • Occupants spent 5 weeks away from home in 2019 on holiday.
  • One occupant worked one day a week from home and the house was occupied for 50% of all waking hours.

Costs and usage for 2019

Energy

  • Electricity use was 2kWh a day on average
  • 3kWh produced on average by backup solar system, 1.7kWh supplied by 100% GreenPower mains electricity.
  • No gas usage.
  • Energy cost for the year was $600.
  • Internet and mobile costs for the year were $800
  • Power usage when home was vacant was 0.15kWh per day to power our chest fridge, an electric garage door and wired in smoke detectors.

 

Electricity use thoughout the year.

 

Main appliances

  • 90% of lighting provided by solar powered lights.
  • Solar hot water provided by portable solar hot water system with a sealed shower cubicle.
  • Two induction hotplates and an occasionally used electric oven.
  • Reverse cycle heater, required for approximately 200 hours in winter for heating (approximately one third of all our electricity use)
  • No air conditioning used, only fan based cooling, portable evaporative cooler and exterior blinds. Total estimated cooling energy, under 2kWh or less than 1% of total energy use.
  • Chest freezer converted to run as a fridge.
  • Top loader washing machine with “eco” rinse mode, 70 litres per wash with a full load.
  • Small back up power solar system with 120Watt solar panel and a decommissioned 1.2kWh ex-generator starter battery for storage.
  • Two 200Wh batteries allow the solar power to be “carried” inside and they are used to power a laptop, solar lighting, mobile phones, an internet router, a stereo and a portable evaporative cooler.

 

Testing appliances with a power meter.

 

Water use

  • Water usage was 100 litres a day on average/50 litres per person including the garden.
  • Water bill was $130 for the year.

Food production

  • 50kg of fruit, vegetables and herbs were harvested from our home garden.
  • 10kg of fruit, vegetables and herbs were acquired through bartering or foraged from elsewhere.
  • Less than a few kg of food was wasted.
  • Approximately 500kg of compost was produced.
  • We estimate that the garden produced $1000 worth of produce.

 

Food production from a portable garden.

 

Local and regional transport

  • One quarter of all travel was on foot.
  • One quarter of all travel was on public transport.
  • Almost 40% of transport was by bicycle.
  • 10% of transport was by car.
  • Transport costs were $4000 for the year.

How was life using 5% of the energy of an average Australian home, 17% of the average water consumption, living car free and growing some food?

  • Our house was comfortable all year round. We were warm in winter, cool in summer and had all the lighting and conveniences we needed.
  • Lower ambient lighting combined with task lighting enabled us to have better sleeping patterns.
  • Our back up solar system provided cooling during a hot weather blackout.
  • Our garden only required an hour a week of work on average.
  • Even though all of the above around the house required some extra effort, it only amounted to around 15 minutes a day (including the garden) which was well worth it for what we saved in home running costs.
  • The vast majority of travel was convenient enough providing exercise and time for reading on public transport. The extra time spent travelling was easily offset by the savings.

We have achieved similar results in other properties which goes to show that the ideas on Smart Renting can yield great energy, water and cost reductions across different rental properties.

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Nobody plans to get injured but sometimes you can just be plain unlucky as Steve was earlier this year when he fractured his shoulder in a bike accident. The following is his account of how it was to live a more self-sufficient life as a smart renter whilst being physically restricted.

It all happened in a split second; the bike’s brakes locked up hard on a path made extra slippery by a mix of bushfire ash and light rain. This caused the front wheel to skid which made the handlebars suddenly turn and caused the bike to go out from under me.

In that split second, my right hand shot out instinctively to grab the stone wall next to the path and unfortunately succeeded in getting a hold just as the bike went down. To my surprise and the many swear words uttered, the pain hit and this new kind of pain wasn’t normal.

A trip to hospital and an x-ray confirmed that my right shoulder had been dislocated and relocated but in the process had been fractured, taking off a 20 cent piece of bone.

Everything that was planned for the week was going to change. There would be surgery and a lengthy period off work because you can’t drive 26 metre long trucks with a busted shoulder.

The instructions from the emergency doctor and later the surgeon and physio were clear: For the 2 weeks before surgery and the 6 weeks after, you are not to use your right arm and then only use it for light duties for the next 8 weeks after that. And definitely, no bike riding for the next few months.

 

Rabea’s pull along shopping trolley really came in handy for one handed shopping.

 

Upon arriving home, I realised that some of the things that I do around the home were going to be tricky especially that Rabea at this stage was 6 months pregnant. Here’s how things worked out:

  • We are a gas free household so using a normal shower is not an option for us.
  • Our portable solar hot water system was off the table as it required lifting a 10 litre bucket in and out of a solar oven and then later pouring it into a pump shower.
  • The pump shower worked surprisingly well for one handed operation and I filled it using an electric kettle which still uses just a 25% of the energy that our hot water heater needed.
  • We put the garden into maintenance mode by just tending to the main tasks (watering, harvesting, preserving) and still collected 20kg of produce in the first three months of this year.
  • Maintaining a car free lifestyle has been fairly easy as I have used more walking and public transport instead of riding a bike.
  • Most of our fresh produce is delivered from a grocer and we discovered a bulk food supplier who delivers to our area. Although the food is a bit pricier than dry goods and legumes bought from a supermarket, they are organic and don’t add much to our grocery bills.
  • Instead of buying 7 litres of rice milk a week (and having to bring it home), we now buy half a kilo of rice flour and a few other small ingredients to make our own, saving money, packaging and effort.
  • Outside of these changes, there were no noticeable impacts. All the other things that we normally do were manageable.

 

We really like our solar hot water system but heavy lifting was out of the question.

 

Help from friends and neighbours

  • Getting to know the neighbours has been great for many reasons and we can now add that we had lots of offers for help.
  • Neighbours and friends offered to give us a hand to move heavy items if need be, something that we were grateful for when the odd wicking box (30kg+) needed to be shifted or when we bought a change table from our next door neighbour.
  • On two occasions, family and friends gave us a lift to the supermarket just after the accident to stock up on some goods which we’d normally do on the bike (or by taxi if need be).
  • It’s good to know that in a time of crisis people have your back.

Bike insurance

  • If you regularly ride a bike in Victoria, it is important to remember that bike riders are only insured against a loss of income if another motored vehicle is involved which falls under the TAC (Transport Accident Commission).
  • WorkSafe in Victoria hasn’t covered injuries travelling to or from work for commuters since 1998.
  • Eligibility for transport accident insurance or workplace insurance when commuting may vary from state to state so check your local state.
  • We are both members of Bicycle Network Australia which has an insurance component. They have covered most of the loss of my income starting from two weeks after the accident up to when I can return to work.

Although living large on less sometimes requires a little more physical effort to achieve, we were quite surprised at how well our energy, food and transport systems held up in the face of an unexpected crisis.

 

With minimum effort we still got a good harvest from the garden.

 

A final point

Australia’s public healthcare system may not be perfect (I waited for 11 hours in Emergency due to a very bad night for the hospital) but the nurses, doctors, surgeons, physio and all the other staff I encountered were highly dedicated and did an excellent job.

My shoulder is now getting better with each day, I can do more around the house and I am expecting to return to full duties at work in a month. It’s humbling to know that without a decent public health system, a bad luck situation could have permanently left me with a bad right shoulder or a very expensive private operation.

It’s easy to focus on individual actions and say in a non-fussed manner that one day the modern health system will collapse due to a variety of reasons (antibiotic resistance, energy descent and climate change) but if you’ve ever needed it, you’ll appreciate what it can do. We shouldn’t take it for granted.


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We decided to put our low power/blackout resilient cooling system to the test yesterday. Despite a high of 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), we were able to stay comfortable using just 1% of the energy that we would have needed with air conditioning.

As a disclaimer, the temperatures below where not measured with calibrated instruments under scientific conditions, they are just a guide which we used alongside the reports from the Bureau of Meteorology for our region.

To give you an idea of what we are working with, our home is a late 1980s build and though it’s well built, it wouldn’t achieve better than a 2 star energy rating based on its age and features. It has east and west facing windows and no summer shading between 8am and 7pm.

In preparation for Friday’s hot weather, we charged up our back-up system battery from our back up solar system and pre-cooled the house by leaving a couple of windows open on the previous night.

We used the screen doors to let in cool air whilst watering the garden at 7am. At this time, the indoor temperature was 17 degrees.

When the outdoor temperature reached 17 degrees before 8am, we closed everything up to keep the indoors cool for as long as possible.

We also shut the exterior and interior blinds to keep the sun out as most of the heat that gets indoors in summer comes through the windows. At this point, we were both a little cold which is a good start for a hot day.

 

If you have them, exterior blinds are a great way to shade out the sun

 

Throughout the morning, the temperature slowly climbed and by 3pm, the indoor temperature was 26 degrees while the outdoor temperature was 44 degrees.

At this point, we needed some personal cooling to maintain thermal comfort so we switched on our personal evaporative cooler. It has multiple vents, so when placed on an object like a coffee table, it can easily cool several people sitting on a couch which is how we used it.

By 6pm, the maximum outdoor temperature of 45 degrees had been reached and the maximum indoor temperature hit 29 degrees and stayed there until 11pm when it slowly began to decline.

The personal evaporative cooler kept us nice and cool under these conditions and continued to do so while we slept (following a refreshing cold shower). A fan would also have worked fine under these conditions.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, a cool change came through. The interior temperature was still 26 degrees at 6am though it quickly fell to 23 degrees after some windows were opened.  The evaporative cooler consumed a measly 6 Watts, or a total of 0.09kWh for the whole day and 4 litres of water.

A personal fan would have used 0.5kWh (5 times as much) and our air conditioner would have used 13.5kWh (roughly 30 times as much as the fan and 150 times as much as the evaporative cooler).

 

Personal evaporative cooler running off battery with a run time of 10-40 hours depending on fan speed

 

Here’s what we can share from our experience:

  • If you’ve got a reasonably cool night or morning beforehand, open some windows to pre-cool your home as it helps to keep it cooler for longer.
  • Postpone strenuous tasks if possible or do them in the cool of the morning or evening.
  • Keep cooking to minimum as it makes no sense to produce unnecessary heat in the kitchen or even make up some meals the day before that taste delicious cold.
  • Cool water from the fridge can be refreshing.
  • If you find yourself getting a bit warm from an unavoidable task in the heat, a cold or cool shower is a great way to cool down and freshen up (as is a swim if you live near water).
  • We have found personal cooling like fans and personal evaporative coolers to be effective in indoor temperatures of up to 30-32 degrees (the cooling limit of any fan based cooling is 35 degrees [1]).
  • The other advantage of personal cooling is that it can be adjusted to suit the temperature requirements of each individual rather than a pre-determined temperature that suits only one person the most.
  • You can use air conditioning for indoor temperatures above 30 degrees to bring your most important one or two rooms back to 26 degrees and combine it with personal cooling to slash your air conditioning needs.
  • Keep an eye on the weather report to see when a cool change is coming and when it does, you can switch off your cooling and throw open the windows to cool the house down.
  • Keep an eye out for neighbours, especially neighbours vulnerable to heat stress as you can help them out in the case of a blackout, or if the indoor temperature of their home becomes unsafe.
  • Learning to keep your house cool with little to no grid energy means that you are insulated against blackouts.
  • You are also a benefit to others by helping to reduce stress when the grid experiences peak demand in hot weather and can even assist vulnerable neighbours.

 

If you don’t have exterior blinds, you can make some with recycled materials and a tab (at the top) to hold them in place for 35+ degree days

 

Of course, no system is perfect. The one change we would make is to use a fan for sleeping instead of the portable evaporative cooler (as the noise of a fan is more pleasant to sleep to) and just use the portable evaporative cooler to sleep to if there is a blackout.

There’s also the option of using a 12 volt DC fan to keep the whole thing running on our solar system.

Our biggest challenge will be on a hot day that follows a hot night where pre-cooling is harder to achieve.

We made this work in Germany where we experienced a 2 month heatwave without air conditioning where every day had a maximum temperature of 30-40 degrees and the nights were warm.

The next time this happens, we’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, stay cool and enjoy the festive season.

Post script 29/03/20: We continued to use this system all the way through summer and it worked really well; our air conditioner wasn’t needed at all and we had a 2 hour blackout on a hot day where our cooling system continued to work.


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Further Reading:

[1] If you want to learn something interesting, here’s an in depth article on how fans work for personal cooling and why they are better bang for your cooling buck than air conditioning:

https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2014/09/circulating-fans-air-conditioning.html