November 2006

Solar &Uncategorized21 Nov 2006 04:36 pm

Solar Hot Water Panels

Spring, summer and fall, I take pride in keeping the electricity to my geysers off. The water is heated purely by the sun. With a little bit of luck I can even make it through one overcast, rainy day with the hot water stored in my tanks.

But when we were hit this weekend by three successive gloomy, soggy days, I threw in the towel. With the electricity flowing, I sensed an opportunity, however. I had always wondered how much I was saving with my solar hot-water panels. When I installed them, I was making a hundred other changes to my house. Simply comparing my electricity consumption before and after the solar panels won’t answer that question.

So yesterday morning, I decided to experiment. Assured of no sun, I switched off the pump to the panels and recorded my municipal electricity meter reading. [Switching off the pump was essential because even in cloudy weather, solar panels will warm up enough to heat water to a small degree. Waiting for a cloudy day was essential to avoid overheating the fluid in the panels that was not circulating.]

This morning, I ended my experiment and checked the meter again. My household had used 45 kilowatt hours of electricity in 24 hours, compared to 26 kilowatt hours on a normal weekday in recent months. (I monitor the meter rather obsessively.) This means the solar panels are cutting my electricity consumption by approximately 42 percent.

If we have 300 days a year of decent sun, the panels are saving about 5,700 kWh a year. That translates into sparing the atmosphere 5.7 tons of carbon dioxide annually. My financial savings are not quite as dramatic—and not as important in my mind—but still worth noting. At the current Johannesburg charge of 31.18 cents per kilowatt hour, I am saving R1 777 per year. At this rate it will take me at least 20 years to pay back my large and complicated solar hot water system. Simpler systems cost less than half as much and will pay for themselves much more quickly.

Is my 42% saving typical? Dylan Tudor Jones of Solar Heat Exchangers, the company that installed my system, tells customers that they may save up to 50 percent on their electricity bill. Given that my house used to have two electric geysers, I may have cut back that much. I doubt, however, that most people can slice their electricity consumption in half with solar panels. I have a larger-than-average system—3 panels and 600 litres of storage—and my vigilance against wasting power throughout the house means that geysers were using a disproportionate share of the total. But whether a solar hot-water system saves 20, 30 or 40 percent, it is the smartest step a South African can take toward creating a greener house.

Recycling &Uncategorized16 Nov 2006 04:14 pm

Amstel returnable bottle

All Amstel bottles are green. But some are greener than others. Today, for the first time, I turned in a case of empty Amstel bottles to my neighbourhood bottle store and walked out with a new case of Amstel in washed and refilled bottles. No silica sand was mined, hauled and melted; no recycled bottles were heated to 1500 degrees Celsius for remolding. These bottles can be reused up to 40 times.

Until a few months ago, I wasn’t even aware that I could buy beer in returnable bottles. Now, South African Breweries has made it easier. In addition to Amstel, over the past couple of months they have added 330 ml returnable bottles of Castle Lager, Carling Black Label, and Hansa Pilsner to their production lines in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Returnables for these brands were previously only available for larger bottles.

Best of all, the beer is much cheaper. I paid R86 for my case of Amstel. It would have cost me R104, or 21 percent more, to buy a case of Amstel in disposable bottles at the same store. Of course I did pay a deposit of R26 for the crate and bottles the first time I bought, but I only had to pay that once, and I can get it back when I become a teetotaler.

All over the world, the companies that make different forms of beverage packaging fight over whose package is best for the environment. Determining the environmental cost of a particular bottle or can over the course of its life cycle is a very complicated business. Local factors that must be considered include the scarcity of water, how the electricity used in manufacturing is generated, and how far a bottle or can must be transported to and from the consumer. Those in the disposable business will argue against returnables, largely because of transport costs.

It is quite possible that for a farmer in the Kalahari, a reusable bottle would waste more energy for the round trip transport than it saves in manufacturing. But to get to the brewery again, my bottle only has to travel 7 kms farther than the municipality would have to haul it to the dump. For anyone living in Gauteng, Durban or Cape Town, this is the greenest beer packaging.

The mantra of waste reduction is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” in that order. Recycling is only the third best option. Reusing is better. But reducing is not only the greenest option, it’s also the simplest, healthiest and cheapest alternative. It’s tap water. Now if only Rand Water could figure out how to make beer flow out of the tap.

Uncategorized &Vehicles15 Nov 2006 01:53 pm

You can’t always be certain that doing your bit for the earth will save you money, but driving less will. I ran some figures through a spreadsheet and figured that for each 100 kms not driven, a typical person could save R129*, or more than a rand a kilometre. Of the R129, R55 is petrol savings, the rest is wear and tear on the car.

An article in the latest Mail & Guardian suggests that staying at home could save a person even more with a new auto insurance policy from Hollard Insurance. I don’t have any personal experience with Hollard or this particular policy, but the writer, Maya Fisher-French, says that for every kilometre she doesn’t drive in a given month, she saves 21c on her premium. She claims that as a light driver, Hollard’s Pay As You Drive policy is saving her R460 a month.

If I add another 21c savings for each of my 100 kms not driven, my total savings would be up to R150. Imagine how driving habits might change if we had to pull R150 from our wallets every time we drove 100 kms.

I can’t personally vouch for the Pay As You Drive policy, but I will say this: if a company is pricing its product in a way that gives clear incentives for doing the right thing, that company is itself doing the right thing.

*These were the reasonable-but-not-terribly-scientific assumptions I used. Fuel consumption: 10l/100km. Fuel price: R5,50. A car that loses R100 000 in value after driving it 200 000 kms. R3 500 tyres that last 40,000 kms. R1 500 service every 10 000 kms.

Uncategorized &Water Use/Greywater14 Nov 2006 05:18 pm

Bad Toilet Good Toilet

                    Bad Toilet                             Good Toilet

Today I installed a new float valve in a toilet cistern that will allow me to “cheat” and fill the tank with 8 litres of water instead of 6 litres. Why would I want to waste 2 litres extra water on each flush? Because I’m already wasting even more water than that by flushing twice.

Anyone replacing a toilet should buy a water-saving, dual-flush toilet. These toilets use 6 litres of water for a full flush, but for “liquids” (that’s urine) they use only a 3 litre half-flush. But not all water-saving toilets are equal. It’s better to spend a little more and buy a quality toilet that you won’t have to flush twice. I learned the hard way.

For my house, I bought a dual-flush toilet make by R.A.K. Ceramics and sold by Plumblink. The model is called “Compact.” A year ago, it cost me R1474, which was more than I wanted to spend, but it works perfectly. I almost never have to flush it twice.

For my office, I figured I didn’t need anything quite so fancy. I paid about a third less to get a dual-flush Eton toilet from Plumb Crazy, now called Splashworks. Usually I have to flush it twice. Once I had to flush it four times, after manually adding more and more water to the cistern to top it up for a more powerful flush! My plumber assures me that it is working normally, but the design is poor. It needs a couple of extra litres to flush well. On his recommendation, I bought the new float valve to allow an 8 litre flush. He says that the problem was common with the earliest 6 litre toilets, but that some of the more recent designs work as well as older, water-wasting toilets.

Despite my troubles, I would never recommend that someone stick with an old water-waster. I figure we’re saving about 55,000 litres a year (6 people @ 5 flushes a day) in my house. At current Johannesburg municipal rates, that’s R542 a year. When buying a toilet, think of all that money you will be saving and spend some of it in advance to get a good one.

If you have a water-saving toilet that is working well—or not—let us know so that we can build up a list of recommendations.

Global Warming &Uncategorized11 Nov 2006 12:40 pm

Tony Leon

This blog is about practical changes that you and I can make in our daily lives to tread more lightly on the earth. It is not about broader environmental issues and policies. Still, I can’t help digressing a bit to touch on the explosive comments made by Tony Leon at Oxford University yesterday:

Rich people are good for the environment: they have fewer children, they can afford cleaner, efficient technologies, they use resources more efficiently, they don’t chop down trees for firewood, they don’t kill wild animals for food, and they have the time and the money to enjoy and protect nature.

I feel a little bit sorry for the Democratic Alliance leader. He has taken a lot of flak for the comment, and it was not in the context of arguing for the nerve-gassing of South Africa’s squatter settlements. He was pleading for business investment to uplift the poor of Africa. If you look at the rest of what he had to say, there was much to agree with.

Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge that my generation and yours will need to grapple with in the 21st century.

The possibility of an increased incidence of extreme and massively disruptive weather events have the potential seriously to undermine the developmental goals of my country and the continent.

Yet we require rapid economic growth to meet the challenges of the Millennium Development Goals.

Does growth for us mean greater carbon emissions?

Almost certainly yes, at least in the short to medium term.

Does it mean we must not be mindful of our current, admittedly small, contribution to climate change? No. . . .

. . . I am not arguing that the developing world must aim for the ecological footprint of, say, the United States. That would compound the impending climate catastrophe, and hasten our collective demise.

Naturally, as we aim to improve the livelihoods of those in Africa, we must not bypass the goals of sustainability, and enter into the path of what is termed “overshoot”. . .

. . . South Africa now gets most of its electricity from coal, but in the future there is no reason why the whole of Africa could not get all of its electricity, and have much left over to export to Europe, without burning one ounce of fossil fuels.

It seems rather clear from these, more complete, quotes that the South African media once again has been quoting out of context. The only thing I can disagree with in these comments is the part about South Africa’s “current, admittedly small, contribution to climate change.” South Africa ranks 10th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis.

But I cannot ignore Leon’s comment about the rich, not because it is so extreme, but rather because it is so commonly held. I have heard it all before, from rich, complacent South Africans who believe that because they never directly snare antelope, shoot rhinos, or chop down trees, they are innocent of any environmental damage. There are several other variations of this pass-the-buck mentality: “I can’t do anything about the environment because its the big corporations that do the polluting;” or “It’s the Americans;” or the latest variation, “It’s the Chinese.”

I would love to show these people, just for one day, what South Africa’s air would look like if each poor person riding in a bus, train or minibus taxi was suddenly driving a Range Rover instead. And where would there be room for forests and animals if every shantytown dweller on a 6m x 10m plot was moved onto a half-acre garden? How many rivers would run dry when they started to water their lawns year-round? How many fynbos plants would wilt in the greenhouse heat after all those former shanty-dwellers switched on the electric underfloor heating in their 250 m2 houses?

Yes, the rich have the potential to tread very lightly. Their wealth allows them to make choices about how they get around, how they eat, and how they heat their homes. The problem is that they rarely make the right choices.

To twist these facts into an argument for keeping down the poor for the sake of the earth would be even more ridiculous than Leon’s statement that rich people are good for the environment because they don’t eat wild animals. We must help the poor escape poverty not to save the earth, but to save our humanity, to save our souls. And we must create a world in which wealth and waste are no longer synonymous.

Recycling &Uncategorized09 Nov 2006 04:03 pm

Recycling Pastels

I just picked up my new phone books at the post office today. So what to do with the old ones? I checked with Mondi Recycling, emailing them at [email protected] (the Gauteng address), and within 48 hours I had my answer: recycle them. Mondi accepts any kind of books for recycling. In fact, it’s much easier to list the items they don’t want:

Dog food, potato, charcoal and cement bags (too strong to dissolve in water)

bottle labels (ditto)

thermal fax paper

waxed cardboard (usually frozen-food cartons)

greasy pizza boxes (tear off the lid to recycle if it’s clean)

brightly coloured office paper (pastels are fine)

used tissues (Ag sies!)

Other than that, if it’s paper or cardboard, throw it in.

If you live in one of the 400,000 homes in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban that have Mondi kerbside recycling, it’s as easy as tossing the phone books into your Mondi bag and putting it on the pavement on collection day. For details see, where you can find out the collection days for your suburb, or phone 08000 22112.

Uncategorized &Vehicles06 Nov 2006 10:52 am


I borrowed my neighbour’s Honda CRV yesterday when my car was in for a service. It has automatic transmission with an overdrive on/off button at the end of the shift lever. As I started driving, I noticed a light on the dashboard telling me that the overdrive was off. This got me thinking about the buttons, levers and switches in various cars that should be labeled “waste petrol/save petrol” but are instead given other, less clear labels that drivers may not understand. It did turn out that the owner of the CRV had very little idea what the overdrive on/off button was for. (It also turned out that the overdrive was off because I had inadvertently bumped the button, but I won’t let that get in the way of an informative rant.)

Overdrive switches on automatic transmission cars are far less common than they used to be, but in many makes of cars their replacements have been even more frightening. Overdrive is simply the highest gear on an automatic car, the one at which the wheels are turning faster than the engine. The point of optimum fuel efficiency is the slowest speed at which your car can comfortably drive in this highest, overdrive gear. (Or the highest gear on a manual transmission car.) Losing that gear by turning overdrive off increases petrol consumption by 20 percent or more for highway driving. The only legitimate reasons to turn overdrive off is for engine braking when heading down a steep hill on a highway, or if the automatic is temporarily shifting back and forth repeatedly between top gears, but many people leave overdrive off for extended periods.

In some cars, turning the overdrive off also tells the automatic transmission to let the engine rev higher before shifting into 2nd and 3rd gears as well—and so fuel efficiency declines at all speeds. This is the approach used today in many cars that have a switch, button, or lever for “sports mode.” At this setting, the transmission will delay shifting up at every gear, though they will eventually reach the highest gear. The higher revolutions-per-minute will make the engine noisier and less fuel efficient, and the automatic shifting becomes jerkier. (The car will also accelerate faster, but if your main goal is fast acceleration, I’ve already lost you.)

Volvo mercifully has done away with its hideously labeled “Economy/Sport” switch. To a hormonal male, it might as well have read “Pansy/Tough Guy.” Mercedes labels the switch, “Comfort/Sports,” which at least makes economical driving sound a little bit appealing. BMW and Volkswagen have a Sports mode on all of their automatics.

Toyota has done away with Overdrive-Off without replacing it with a Sports mode, and the other manufacturers should follow their lead, in my opinion. I’m generally a timid guy, not suited to the life of an eco-saboteur who would ram a whaling boat or dynamite a logging truck, but if I’m driving someone else’s car, I do them a favour and switch Sports mode off. See if they notice.