Heating and Cooling &Lighting &Pool &Solar03 Apr 2014 03:51 pm

Spread from March 27, 2014 issue of YOU magazine.

If you would like to read directly from the pages of YOU magazine about my house and how we cut our electricity consumption by 75 percent, click on the image above to load a pdf of the article.

If you would rather read it within this post, here are the nuts and bolts of the article’s advice in the orginal, unedited form. (If you want the personal tidbits about my family added by the editors at YOU, you’ll have to read the pdf.)

LEDing lights. Compact fluorescent lamps are no longer the latest, greatest and greenest. We’ve switched most of our lighting to high-tech LED globes that have a more natural tint, last a lot longer, and use only 1/6 to 1/10 of the power gobbled by ordinary incandescents.

When I first started buying LEDs to replace halogen downlights, I paid R250 per bulb for this new technology. Still, I calculated that they could eventually save me money in heavily-used rooms like the kitchen.

But LED prices have been plummeting. Recently I bought the same bulb for R50. These will pay for themselves in less than a year, even if used only a couple hours a day.

LEDs are now available in nearly every shape and size, though many globes still cost more than R100. Look carefully at the packaging for an equation that indicates the low-wattage bulb’s brightness compared to an ordinary incandescent, such as 10W = 60W.
Personally, I stick with established brands such as Osram and Philips. I have more than 50 LEDs lighting my house, some for more than two years, and not one bulb has died yet.

Penny-Pinching Pool Pump.
Pool chemicals seem expensive, but you may never know how much you are paying to run the pump. A 1.1 kilowatt pump working 12 hours a day could add R8 000 to your annual electricity costs. I pay a tiny fraction of that, with the best-kept secret in home energy savings: a variable-speed pool pump.

Variable-speed pumps save watts because they only run at full power for backwashing. During ordinary filtration, a mere 175 watts powers the Viron P300 pump supplied to me by AstralPool. Most installers still do not keep variable-speed pumps in stock, but they can find one. All of the major pump suppliers, including Speck, Zodiac and Pentair Kreepy Krauly, manufacture at least one energy-efficient pump.

Expect to pay R7 000 to R14 000 up front, compared to R2 000 for an ordinary pump, but you should earn all of that money back within a few years as you enjoy lower utility bills. What’s more, variable-speed pumps are whisper quiet and long lasting.

Sun Bathing. It’s no secret at all that a solar geyser is the most important step for homeowners who want to save electricity. Hot-water panels cut our utility bills by about R6 000 a year. Still, most South Africans continue to heat their water with traditional electric geysers—and pay for it every month. Let’s take a look at the main causes of resistance to going solar.

“I’ll wait ‘till my geyser fails.” When your geyser bursts or dies, you will need a quick solution. Installing solar takes time. It makes more sense to put up solar panels before your geyser gets into trouble.
“My uncle had trouble with his hot-water solar panels.” A lot of fly-by-night installers importing cheap panels have popped up recently. Insist on SABS approved panels as a first step, but also use an installer who has been in the business five years or more and a panel manufacturer with at least that much experience in South Africa. My nine-year-old flat panels have been problem-free.
“I’m confused by the different solar systems available.” At the risk of oversimplifying, this is my advice: Ask for an indirect system that first heats glycol, which then heats the water. Use tanks meant for solar, not something jury-rigged onto your old geyser. Larger tanks are worth the expense; I have 600 litres of storage. Ask for flat panels, unless your roof gets limited light. Evacuated tubes tend to overheat in the summer and are more vulnerable to hail.
“I don’t have a roof that gets any sun.” That’s fine. Replacing a traditional geyser with a heat-pump will save almost as much electricity as a solar system can.

Central heating, SA Style. When we moved into our Johannesburg house, it had five electric heaters. A contractor suggested we replace them with electric underfloor heating throughout the house. Back then, electricity cost less than 30c a kilowatt hour.

It gives me chills just to think of the damage five electric heaters or—worse yet—underfloor heating could do to our winter electricity bills today, at well over a rand a kWh.

I grew up in a centrally heated home in America, but I cannot see the logic of heating every room in a typical South African home, where the cold continuously leaks through uninsulated windows, walls and ceiling.

Instead we have returned to the old tradition of keeping just the centre of the house cozy, where we gather in the evenings. Then we sleep snugly under down duvets, hot water bottles at our feet.

But we use modern technology in our old-fashioned gathering place. An ultra-efficient Rinnai ventless gas heater is our go-to for quick warm-ups, especially in the mornings. Every evening I build a wood fire in a state-of-the-art, closed-combustion fireplace that creates a surprising amount of heat.

Unlike my LEDs and pool pump, the savings from evicting electric heaters from the house will take several years to cover the up-front costs. Bottled gas is not cheap. And a good quality fireplace insert or wood stove costs more than R20 000. (An open fireplace sends too much heat—and smoke—up the chimney to be efficient.)

But I cannot put a price on the warm ambience of our wood fire, which draws the children out of their rooms and into the lounge. Conserving electricity isn’t just a way to save money and the environment; it brings our family together.

Solar21 Mar 2014 09:56 pm

YOU Magazine 27 March 2014 Huisgenoot magazine 27 Maart 2014

In either taal

If you wade through the pages on Oscar Pistorius and Beyoncé in the issue of YOU magazine that hit the newsstands today, you will find an article on page 130 about Greener House.

By next week I will be able to reprint full the full text of the article, which is full of advice about saving electricity in the home. For now I will focus on a few key points about solar that were shortened or cut in the editing process.

In the original text, I decided to take a bold stand in order to simplify the many choices facing a homeowner who wants to install solar hot water panels. The uncut version refuted four of the excuses commonly used by those who haven’t gone solar:

“I’ll wait ‘till my geyser fails.” When your geyser bursts or dies, you will need a quick solution. Installing solar takes time. It makes more sense to put up solar panels before your geyser gets into trouble.
“My uncle had trouble with his hot-water solar panels.” A lot of fly-by-night installers importing cheap panels have popped up recently. Insist on SABS approved panels as a first step, but also use an installer who has been in the business five years or more and a panel manufacturer with at least that much experience in South Africa. My nine-year-old flat panels have been problem-free.
“I’m confused by the different solar systems available.” At the risk of oversimplifying, this is my advice: Ask for an indirect system that first heats glycol, which then heats the water. Use tanks meant for solar, not something jury-rigged onto your old geyser. Larger tanks are worth the expense; I have 600 litres of storage. Ask for flat panels, unless your roof gets limited light. Evacuated tubes tend to overheat in the summer and are more vulnerable to hail.
“I don’t have a roof that gets any sun.” That’s fine. Replacing a traditional geyser with a heat-pump will save almost as much electricity as a solar system can.

Even this unabridged advice may seem too short to account for the many configurations possible in solar hot water systems. I well understand the urge to find a custom solution that maximizes efficiency. But for those who will only make the leap to solar if it is simple and safe, these guidelines point in the right direction.

Hot Water &Water Use/Greywater03 Mar 2014 11:48 am

Shower Head

A Strong Buy

When I last wrote about low-flow shower heads, I focused on just two findings: The water savings were dramatic — I measured that my shower rose uses half the water of my neighbour’s — and the experience under the spray was as good as the old, wasteful showers.

This week I have calculated that low-flow shower heads are also an amazing investment that beats anything you can find on the JSE. Because they cost so little (R100 to R500), and you save on both water and the electricity to heat it, the returns can start accumulating within months.

Take this example: a family with a standard electric geyser that takes 3 daily showers of 4 minutes each — or one teenager in the shower for 12 minutes a day — replaces a typical 14-litres-per-minute shower head with a 9 l/m model. (All new Cobra heads use 9 l/m.) At the end of one year, the savings from water and electricity are more than R1200 at current Jo’burg tariffs. Even if they splashed out on a R400 shower rose, this family has profited R800. And the returns continue, with a “dividend cheque” of more than R1000 each year. If you know of an investment that good on the JSE, please email me.

Savings will be lower if you are using solar panels or a heat pump to heat your water, but a 12-minute-a-day family will still cover their outlay in less than a year. If you want to test whether you are currently wasting water in the shower, just put a bucket under the spray for 12 seconds. If well over 2 litres collected in the bucket, your shower head is using more than 10 l/m and could do better. Three litres in 12 seconds is 15 l/m, a real water waster.

My last discovery this week was a YouTube video on how to change a shower head that takes all of the fear and mystery out of this simplest of plumbing tasks. The video is by the same people who produce the black-and-yellow “. . . For Dummies” books. This one should be called “Investing for Dummies.”

Lighting10 Feb 2014 03:53 pm

OsramAtBuildersExpress PhilipsAtMakro

Nearly free

When I first began buying LEDs for my house, I was paying R250 for a single LED bulb to replace a 35W halogen downlight. I justified the expense because the kitchen lights were on several hours a day, so I calculated that the expensive but efficient and durable lights would pay for themselves over the course of three years.

Fast forward two years, and Builders Warehouse and Makro are currently offering those same LEDs for R50 rand or less. These bulbs last several times as long as any halogen and use less than a seventh of the electricity. Now they are on sale for about twice the price charged for name-brand halogen bulbs. Who needs a calculator?

I did the maths anyway. At these prices, even in a room where the lights are on just two hours a day this purchase will pay for itself in less than a year. I bought some right away, and they are already lighting up my house in the last few fixtures that I had not already converted to LEDs. I’m not sure why the stores even bother to carry halogens anymore.

A few caveats: The Builders Wareshouse and Builders Express price of R48 for Osram LED downlights is good until March 4. I visited two stores; one was out of stock and expecting more in a few days, the other had fewer than 10 on the shelf. The price is supposedly good for both low-voltage MR-16 bulbs with the straight pins and mains-voltage GU-10 bulbs with the bayonet fittings. I bought 35-watt-eqivalent GU-10s for R48, but the only R48 MR-16s I saw were 20-watt-equivalent. I bought a couple of those for a glassware cabinet, but they wouldn’t brightly light a room. The Makro price is 2 bulbs for R100 for Philips 35-watt-equivalent, but only in GU-10.

If you currently use 50 watt halogens and cannot tolerate a slight reduction in brightness, you will have to pay more for now. The best price I’ve seen recently for the brightest halogen downlights is R99 from www.karebostore.co.za. Eskom stopped giving away free LEDs several months ago, but they could revive the Residential Mass Rollout programme in the future. You can wait and hope for freebies, but by the end of 2014, these R50 LEDs will have cut my electricity bill so much that that they, too, will be free.

Appliances &Global Warming31 Jan 2014 06:32 pm

cooking test

Science, not Home Economics

The problem with too many environmentally conscious types is that they are scientifically un-conscious—too willing to believe any green claim made by advertisers. So I was very glad to find some fellow skeptics at the Eskom eta Awards: the girls of the Clarendon High School Coelacanth Enviro Club in East London.

Like me, these high school students were intrigued by a new type of stove, induction cookers, which promise huge energy savings. These devices use magnetic fields to heat a pan or pot, which must be made of iron or steel. The companies selling them typically claim that induction cooking uses half the electricity because it is faster than a conventional stove. The Coelacanth Club put these claims to the test.

Cooking a range of foods on both an ordinary spiral hotplate and an induction cooker, the girls found that the induction cooker reduced electricity consumption by 19 percent on average. The savings were high when intense heat was required: 33 percent for boiling water and 30 percent for deep-frying potato chips. For simmering, the savings were less impressive. In fact, the induction cooker was no more efficient than the spiral stoveplate when making fudge  (These girls were definitely not on a diet.)

I’ve crunched their numbers to get a sense of the savings in rands. If every day for a year you cooked their “meal” of boiled water, fudge, mashed potato, potato chips and creamy chicken, you would save R130 a year at a typical rate of R1.20 per kilowatt hour—and you would gain a lot of weight. Since induction cookers cost anywhere from R600 for the Prima brand at Makro to R1200 for the Snappy Chef brand used in the Clarendon test, it will take several years before the cooker has paid for itself.

There are other advantages to induction cooking, however. The pan reaches high heat levels much more quickly, saving time. The pan heats but the stove does not, so it is safer. Most models shut off automatically when the pan is removed, which will save ditsy cooks even more on their electricity bill. Finally, your cooking carbon footprint will fall, as long as you are not cooking fudge.

But the Clarendon girls found that for the ultimate in low-carbon stove-top cooking, gas is by far the best option. Preparing the same range of foods on a gas stove cut carbon dioxide emissions by an average of two-thirds. Greening your kitchen emissions by using to gas can be either cheap or expensive, depending upon where you live. The lucky Jo’burgers with access to Egoli Gas can save money compared to cooking on electicity. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, using bottled gas at the current price of R1225 for a 48 kg cylinder means paying 88% more compared to powering an ordinary electric stove.

More environmentally friendly meals can come without any pricetag, however, according to the Coelacanth Club. Their research shows that simple improvements in cooking techniques, such as using lids, simmering on low heat once food has come to a boil, and using only as much water as needed, can save about 40 percent of the energy required to cook more inefficiently.

The Clarendon Coelecanth Envio Club won the Young Designers category at the eta awards. And we have all won in the kitchen by learning from their efforts.

Uncategorized29 Dec 2013 12:45 pm


Accentuate the Negative

The image above is taken from my latest Johannesburg utility statement. The minus sign in front of Total Due signifies that rather than owing the municipality for my electricity and water, the municipality owes me. I would love to say that this is because I am producing electricity on my roof and selling it to City Power. That day is coming – slowly. It is, however, my reward for reducing electricity consumption.

I recently qualified for the LifeLine Tariff, which is available to customers who use fewer than 500 kilowatt hours a month. The rate that I pay for electricity itself came down only slightly, from R1.08 to R1.01 per kWh. The big difference is that I no longer have to pay fixed fees – Network Charge, Service Charge and Demand Side Management Levy – of R409 a month. In most months I was paying more in electricity service fees than I was for electricity. These mandatory charges create a perverse disincentive to save power. Previously, if I were to cut my consumption in half, my bill would go down by less than a quarter because of these fixed fees. Now I pay only for the electricity I use.

When I first enquired about the LifeLine Tariff, I was told that anyone using less than 500 kWh per month for six months in a row “automatically qualifies.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It took dozens of letters, emails and calls over the course of seven months to finally get my account changed on the system. The new tariff was backdated to the date of my application, which explains the credit that shows on my bill.

A prepay meter is another way to get out from under the burden of service charges. This comes with its own set of hassles, but is an alternative to the LifeLine route. If you are also a kilowatt-hour miser and have the patience to take on the bureaucracy, apply for the LifeLine tariff by emailing a letter with your account number and details on your consumption for the last six months to [email protected] If you first need to cut kilowatt hours before Jo’burg will throw you a LifeLine, keep reading Greener House.

Global Warming20 Dec 2013 12:13 pm


My article in this week’s Mail & Guardian looks at the economics of South Africa’s switchover from tin-plated steel to aluminium beverage cans. Coca-Cola and SA Breweries are already using almost 100 percent aluminium cans in Gauteng, and by 2015 they will be covering the nation with the shiny metal. Much of the story is on the business impact on the major companies involved, but I also examine the new environment for recycling.

The potential is both exciting and frightening. Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

Aluminium industry expert Subodh Das estimates the value of used beverage cans wasting away in US landfills at $55-$80 billion—as much as the total annual turnover of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company.

Perhaps worse, the energy wasted by not recycling those cans accounts for greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of a rather large country like Egypt or Argentina, 260-380 million tons of carbon dioxide.

In preparing the article, I worked very hard to come up with a carbon footprint for a single aluminium can made from virgin South African aluminium. Under deadline pressure I wasn’t able to work out the number with sufficient confidence, but I have since calculated that an unrecycled South African can contributes approximately 0.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. To put it in more tangible terms, the pollution released to make that can is like burning a 60 watt globe for 12 hours or driving nearly 3 kilometres. The vast majority of that energy is saved if the can is recycled. When deciding whether to toss a can, imagine it 85 percent full of petrol, because that’s the equivalent of the energy that went into it.

This example is a little bit hypothetical, because you will never know whether the can in your hand was made from virgin South African aluminium. Many of the new aluminium cans are made from sheet stock imported from Brazil, where 98 percent of cans are recycled. These will have a much lower carbon footprint. If South Africa can emulate their success, the carbon footprint of locally produced aluminium can stock will fall, and my calculations will become obsolete. I won’t complain.

Uncategorized05 Dec 2013 03:24 pm

Award Presentation to Don Boroughs

with Eskom Chief Executive Brian Dames and Group Executive for Sustainability Steve Lennon

It sounds clichéd to say that winning an award was a “humbling” experience. But there is no other word to describe the effect that the Eskom eta Energy Efficiency Awards had on me last night. Sitting next to me was the runner-up in my category of Energy Savings in Households, who lives in a house that uses about R75 worth of electricity in a month. (“Why doesn’t our house use that little?” my wife whispered to me.) After the ceremony, I was chatting with a woman who managed to not only save R170 million annually in liquid propane gas purchases at Arcelor Mittal’s Saldanha Works Plant, but in the process helped rescue the factory—with more than 500 workers—from closure. So, would you like to hear about my pool pump . . . ?

I was particularly impressed with Josephine Bröhm, a high-school student in Plettenberg Bay who has created a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TeenEnergy  that encourages teenagers to negotiate with their parents to split any savings on their electricity bill and then shows teens ways they can cut down on consumption around the house. The same concept could work with a housekeeper, as well. I successfully implemented a similar project to split the savings on my water bill with my gardener a few years ago, which I wrote about here.

Eskom has videos of each project, and I have posted two here. The one for Greener House sums up my efforts nicely, though it bizarrely pronounces my name “Barrows.” The one for Rod McGregor Mann, the runner-up in the households category, shows off his funky, wind-powered house in the Eastern Cape. (He says that his Leading Edge wind turbine is extremely quiet.)

If you want to read more about the awards, check this weekend’s Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, or http://www.eta-awards.co.za/.



Recycling11 Nov 2013 02:30 pm

Aluminium can litter

Trash to treasure

Some people play bowls. Some collect ash trays. I pick up aluminium cans. It’s probably not correct to call it a hobby. Strictly speaking, I think it would be diagnosed as an obsession. But I had my life under control until a few weeks ago. Red Bull and Monster energy drinks were about the only aluminium cans scattered along the roadside, apart from the odd imported beer. I would return from a jog or a walk with a small handful.

The people at Nampak—in their wisdom—have changed all that for me. The photo above shows part of the haul from a single bike ride from Marlboro to Victory Park. (I dropped off my car for repairs and rode home using the bike I had brought in the car.) It was difficult to ride a full block before another shimmering aluminium cylinder caught my eye. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Castle Lite, Hansa, these were all packaged in tin-lined steel cans until about a month ago. Now they come in aluminium.

There is a method to my madness. No other beverage packaging has such a high carbon footprint and yet is so recyclable. This explains why each aluminium can is worth 9 cents to a recycler, while a tin drink can is worth less than 3 cents, even though it is much heavier. I have written about this before, here and here. The basic lesson is that compared to throwing away an old-fashioned steel beverage can, if you throw away one of these shiny lightweights, you lose at least 3 times as many points on that great big green scorecard in the sky.

There may come a time when street collectors recognize sufficient value in these cans to pick up the aluminium litter strewn about. For now, they mostly look for easier pickings. When I have a bin full of aluminium cans, I find a recycler on the street collecting metal and hand over my collection. I could more easily put the bag next to my wheelie bin on collection day, but I am selfish. The true satisfaction I derive from my hobby comes from seeing the face of the recycler when he takes possession of my treasure.

Appliances21 Oct 2013 12:11 pm

Russell Hobbs Kettle

Just one cup for me, thanks

As I have proven in a previous post,  the key to saving time and electricity at teatime is to heat only enough water in the kettle to fill the mug. But this is easier said than done. I’ve tried cajoling my family. I would occasionally remember to put a full jug of water near the kettle to make it easy to measure out a mugful. Still, I would regularly find half-full kettles of hot water, gradually cooling down for no purpose whatsoever. I never felt like we were making progress.

Then my wife unintentionally solved the problem by insisting that I buy the beautiful, speedy kettle that she had used at work. I was initially resistant but came to realise that an all-glass kettle  makes the water level instantly visible to anyone filling it. I have polled the family, and they all agree that it has virtually eliminated overfilling. Our kettle is a Russell Hobbs Illuminating Glass Kettle (model no. 15082), and it is incredible speedy and has dazzling,  blue LED lights, which serve no functional purpose but use a miniscule amount of electricity. We like this model, but the key conclusion is that any glass kettle makes it a lot easier to heat only the quantity of water you need. Clearly.

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