More lair plans

Shed plan with 
indicative view of house

Last night I knocked up a couple of changes to the shed plans, taking out the windows on the "shed" side and removing the door between the two sections to reinstate the separate doors. So we'll have a glass sliding door on the "office" side, and an ordinary external door on the "shed" side. There'll be loads of natural light and ventilation on the "office" side, and complete darkness on the "shed" side.

Latest version

The purpose of all these changes is to finally get myself a meeting with the planners at Marrickville Council. I'll be asking lots of questions about the planning process and what I need to give them to get my Development Application through. We've got a few things that force us to go the DA route. The floor space of the "shed" is bigger than the "complying development" rules, and our house isn't detached so we can't use the new rules.

View from over the fence

I'll have lots of technical questions for them too. Like the need for a retaining wall under the fence, as there's about a 50cm drop at the fence. And drainage is going to be an interesting issue, as the back of our block is lower than the street level. Big question is whether I can use a rubble pit for the gutters on the shed, or if I have to do the very complicated easement thing and drain into a public stormwater drain.

Out come the broad beans

New plantings

The broad beans came out today. We've had an enormous amount of beans from a very small space. They were lovely! However, they've been taking up a lot of space and providing a haven for snails and cabbage moth caterpillars that are munching the brocolli and sprouts. Tonight we'll eat the last beans in a risotto with some leftover salami from pizzas made earlier in the week. Yummy! I'll definitely be planting a lot of broad beans next winter. They've been an excellent crop.

In their place I've planted a bunch of tomatoes and a few lettuces. I've got a Digger's Russian Tomato mix and another 5-colour mix in there. They should come along nicely! I also planted out some peas and more beans.

New plantings

Holly and I had a bit of a seed-a-thon this afternoon, planting loads of new seeds. I've had some going a week or two: tomatoes, cucumber, more beans. I bought some of those jiffy pellets to try too, since I've not been having much luck with chillis. They apparently work well in these little pellets that swell when you water them.

As well there's more radishes, more basil, more chives, more lettuces. The summer crops which we'll need to keep going.

Fridge efficiency revisited

A while back I blogged about fridge efficiency and my idea for improving it by creating airflow over the condensors. Lance at the ATA didn't seem to think it would be effective without forced air, though since publication I've received some emails saying it will improve efficiency up to 30%, without complicated active ventilation.

As part of the Food for the Future Fair last Saturday, we took the tour of Michael Mobbs' Sustainable House. We've been there before. The biggest mistake he mentions is his fridge selection and lack of passive ventilation incorporated into the design. With a fairly small gap under the flooring, the layout of the joists meant that when he retrofitted a grill in, there wasn't much airflow.

We don't have the low floor problem, so I think I'll ensure this is in our design. We'll probably also chuck our massively-inefficient fridge and buy a better one, though I'm kinda hooked on the ice maker now.

Mobbs suggested the best approach was to have a cupboard with the fridge door attached to the door, with a grill 25% larger than the fridge on the floor and some way of venting at the top of the cupboard. That way you'll get year-round ventilation without losing room heat in Winter. I like that idea a lot!

Bugs on my garlic

on my garlic

Something is eating my garlic. Little black bugs. What's that all about then? From what I've been reading, garlic is something that repels garden pests, and that you can use to get rid of garden pests. Yet everything else in the garden is doing fine.

In other garden news, my potatoes have shot up and the fruit trees have started growing leaves.

Sun Lizard: any good?

Sun Lizard system diagram

We've been getting quotes for heating in our house, as it's starting to get cold. Initially we thought we'd go for a flued, fan-forced gas heater in the fireplace in the lounge room. A friend has the unflued gas heater recommended by Choice and it's brilliant. Heats her whole house really well. We figured flued because then the exhaust gases go outside.

Turns out gas heaters of this calibre, flued or unflued, are around $3,000 or more plus installation. Not cheap! So we decided to have a look at ducted heating, which if it comes in at under double that, I reckon isn't a bad deal since it would heat the whole house.

Now I've found The Sun Lizard which was featured on New Inventors. It uses heat from the sun to force warm air in or out of the house, depending on the season, and stores the heat in the thermal mass of the house. Given we're in a double-brick house, we've got plenty of thermal mass.

This claims to heat by 4-6° which sounds like it'd probably be enough most of the time for us. In addition, it cools by up to 10° in summer which would be a nice bonus. At under $3,000 it sounds like a nice option, and with no ongoing costs it's quite attractive.

But I'm not sure 4-6° is quite enough, even in Sydney's mild winters. I vowed when we bought a house to never spend another winter shivering with all my clothes on and a crappy electric heater sucking down expensive juice. This is the experience of poorly insulated, unheated rental properties for about a month a year in Sydney.

I wonder if the money we were thinking of spending on ducted heating might be better spent on a unit like this and upgrading our insulation. Get the roof vacuumed and the old insulation replaced with modern, high-spec insulation. As an added benefit, it would reduce plane noise. We're also looking into double glazing, which has benefits for both thermal and acoustic insulation. Perhaps with greatly-enhanced insulation and this unit, we could get by with a crappy electric heater used for only a few days a year?

So does anyone out there have any experience with this unit?

Improving fridge efficiency

At some point over the next year we're planning to renovate our kitchen. We did a very minor renovation soon after we moved in, replacing the lino floor and swapping in an Ikea bench/drawer unit, but we want to do something much more extensive.

One of the things I've been thinking about is getting the best energy efficiency out of our fridge. I've always found it a bit odd the way they're designed. Fridges work by pumping heat from the inside out to the coils normally located on the back. Wouldn't it be much more efficent to arrange the fridge similar to a split air conditioner, with the heat-release coils in a cooler location? My basic understanding of thermodynamics makes me think the higher the difference in temperature between the liquid carrying heat from inside the fridge and the air around the coils, the higher the efficiency.

Along these lines, I was wondering if efficiency would be improved by getting cooler air flowing over the coils. Since our house has a raised, wooden floor, this could be done by putting a grill in the floor, so that the convection draws cooler air from under the house over the coils. Obviously there needs to be a way for the warm air to escape as well. This arrangement should result in something of a chimney effect, with cool air drawn in at the bottom, passing over the coils, then escaping at the top.

So I dropped a note to the Alternative Technology Association who publish the excellent ReNew: Technology for a sustainable future magazine. I expected, possibly, to get a response in the magazine at some point in the future. To my surprise, I received a response the same day from Technical Editor Lance Turner.

A number of people have suggested this mod over the years, however the most important thing is that air can escape from the top of the fridge - ie, the fridge has at least a 50mm gap between it and any of the walls of the alcove, especially the top of the fridge. So long as there is enough space for air to flow freely, you will get convection happening as the condenser heats up.

Lance goes on to suggest a forced-air fan to actually blow over the condensor, particularly if you can get it to work only when the compressor is on. Quite a neat idea, but I'm keen to go with a passive approach.

So it seems that my idea has some merit, but only if there's a good way for the heat to escape. I'll look into having the hot air vent into the roof space, as well as the vent at the bottom. I think that should result in some pretty substantial efficiency gains.


It's starting to get cold in Sydney, so we're starting to think about heating and improving the house a bit. The front door has enormous gaps all around, and there's space between much of the skirting boards. This weekend I'm gonna fix the front door with some kind of automatic weather strip, as well as the squishy stuff around the sides and top edges.

I'll also look at caulking some of the skirting boards to stop any draughts. I might also consider blocking up some of the air vents, which were only ever required for gas lighting ventilation. Holly won't be keen on the idea, but we might have to look at curtains with pelmets to stop heat loss out the windows. With the right curtains, it should also reduce noise from the planes.

Speaking of gas, we're gonna get our fireplace fitted with a fan-forced, flued gas heater. These things aren't cheap, but they're very efficient and I reckon one should be able to warm the whole house enough for our needs.

Mitre 10: You suck

Conversation had with a clerk at Mitre 10 (large DIY store chain in Australia) on Saturday morning:

Me: I'm after some 50mm 6 gauge screws with pan heads, stainless steel.

Clerk: (looks around the shelves a bit) No we don't have that. We've only got what's here. You probably need to try a specialist fastening store.

Me: What you mean like a hardware store?

Clerk: ...

WTF is Mitre 10 if not a store where you'd expect to find screws in various incarnations? How difficult would it be for them to have a small cupboard with many small drawers stocked with every imaginable type of screw? The profit margin on screws at retail must be enormous, so you'd think there'd be an economic incentive.

Mitre 10, you're no more than a jumped-up $2 shop these days. You suck!

Bathroom done (almost)

Bathroom photo

Well we're finally done on the bathroom, but for two small jobs. I need to paint the door, which I'm doing today, and we have to put up the shower screen. The wall to which we're attaching the shower screen is just a cavity wall, and of course the studs are not where the screen has to go. So we'll have to open up that wall from the other side and put in a structural stud to hold the (bloody heavy and pivoting) shower screen.

So it's pretty much done! We toasted it with some mates last night and some nice Chandon NV. Thanks Matt, Maz, Mikey and Leonie for putting us up while we were toiletless. Speaking of toilets, have a look at this lovely unit:


Right, I'm off to put the first coat on that door.

The dreaded lead paint

Like most houses built before the 1970s, our house almost certainly has lead paint. Given the number of layers on the paint around the windows and door frames, I'd guarantee there's lead paint there. The rest of the house, well that's anyone's guess. So I've been researching how I can test for it, and then what you do with it.

My family have been remarkably cavalier about lead when renovating in the past. Reading more about it tells me this is insanity. Lead contamination is extremely dangerous and pernicious. It's also very hard to get rid of -- the procedures for DIY lead removal are intense, to say the least, and I imagine professional lead removal isn't cheap.

It seems the spot test kits aren't particularly reliable, and of course only tell you there is lead, not how much or how dangerous. The best method is a field-based X-ray fluorescence test, accompanied by soil and dust sampling. I'm trying to find a place that can do this assessment.

After identifying lead paint, the really hard decisions start. If all our skirting boards, window and door frames are contaminated, is it easier and cheaper to replace them? What about if it's on the walls? Ceiling cavity? This is why I'm going to engage some professionals to get advice on all these difficult decisions.

I guess at the end of the day it'll be peace of mind. We often have little kids around the place, crawling over the floors. And we intend to have our own kids some time. Lead is a really serious matter, so we'll have to take it seriously.

Anyone else got experience with old, contaminated houses?