Running Hot and Cold

We have just had to replace our 17-year-old washing machine. I won’t go into the details of its demise, but it has gone to be recycled – a service that we decided to pay for to ensure that it actually happened. So, we have had to buy a new one…


hot and cold

After some research, we chose to buy an Ebac, the only company whose washing machines are made in the UK. The choice was relatively straightforward as they seemed to have the best ethical rating that we could find and we are trying very hard to buy British whenever we can. However, the big choice was between ‘single fill’ and ‘dual fill’. (“Oh,” I hear you saying “what an exciting life you do lead, dear Snail.”) For those of you not au fait with washing machines, the difference is whether all the water comes into the machine cold (single fill) or whether you connect to both your hot and cold supplies so that not all the water heating is done in the machine (dual fill). For us, it initially seemed like a no-brainer: our water is heated overnight using cheap electricity (known as Economy 7), so let’s use the cheap hot water to do our washing. Yes?


And then we started reading up on the subject and it appeared that it may not be worth it. Modern washing machines, you see, use relatively little water and tend to wash at relatively low temperatures. So, most of the limited amount of water that is required by the machine from the hot source is supplied by the water already sitting in the pipe (i.e. cool). So the argument goes that you mostly fill the machine with cooled water whilst replacing it with hot water in your pipes, which then cools down and wastes energy. Hmmm.


the new machine

However, we needed to think about our own domestic situation. Because we live in a bungalow, and because of the way that our plumbing is arranged, our hot water tank is actually less than 1m away from our washing machine… ok, there’s a bit more pipe than that because it goes down and then up, but there’s no more than 2.5m of pipe, including the connector pipes. So, the water runs hot very quickly through to the washing machine. And, therefore, our final decision was to buy a dual fill machine. So far, it seems to have been the right choice- the machine is taking in a significant proportion of hot water, based on the temperature of the pipe, and this means that the machine itself should be using less energy than with single fill. Combining this, when possible, with only washing on days when it’s sunny and the solar panels are working, should be the best option both financially and environmentally.


It’s all too easy to read advice on the web and make what appears to be an informed decision. However, a bit of thinking is also good too… the internet cannot replace common sense!

Do things!

So you are depressed about the politicians in your country and their environmental credentials? I’m not just talking about the US now… things aren’t any better in Australia, the UK or much of Europe. Well, in that case take control. YOU can make a difference and here’s how:

Don’t want fracking and all the associated pollution and greenhouse gas emissions? Then make sure your energy supplier doesn’t support this. In the UK the Big 6 all support fracking, but there are plenty of smaller, green suppliers who don’t, so give your business to them.

Worried about greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Optimise the use of your car – never drive for a single purpose, always try achieve several goals on each journey. And, if you can, walk, cycle or use public transport instead. Buy local – locally produced goods have not been transported long distances, plus you are keeping your money in your community.


Our milk is produced using wind to power the milking parlour and refrigeration

Concerned that our governments aren’t providing enough support for renewable energy? Support it yourself – switch energy suppliers, buy a solar charger, install solar panels/a wind turbine, investigate community energy projects, buy from companies who use renewables.

Want to see a reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Plant a tree (or ten), sow some seeds, get an allotment, dig up your lawn and plant vegetables, share your surplus plants and produce, take some cuttings.

Don’t think that it is expensive to take action – use your money wisely, value the resources you have and make the most of them and never, ever believe anyone who tells you that you can’t make a difference through your actions and choices.


Oh, poo!

Over the past few days, a link to an article on the Guardian website has been doing the rounds on Facebook (at least in the circles I mix in, which are mainly related to sustainability). It’s entitled Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design and explains why we might not want to keep our toothbrush next to our toilet and why it’s such an environmental issue to mix the water we wash our hands in with the waste we flush down the toilet.

Basically, the issue with water disposal is that grey water (from washing) can safely be used to irrigate the land, whilst black water (from the toilet) needs to be processed to make it safe. By mixing the two together, we end up with a lot more highly contaminated water that has to be processed in some way. According to the Guardian:

Over 10bn litres of sewage are produced every day in England and Wales. It takes approximately 6.34 GW hours of energy to treat this volume of sewage, almost 1% of the average daily electricity consumption of England and Wales.

I don’t know what the figures would be if we separated the two sorts of water, but I know they would be significantly lower. The real issue in my mind, however, is that we see everything that goes down the drain as a problem – all waste water is pollution in the current paradigm. What we need to do is realise that, in fact, all waste water is a resource… faeces and urine contain valuable nutrients, and water itself is an increasingly rare commodity globally.

And if we are thinking about fertility, The nitrogen fertiliser industry is big business, closely tied in with fossil fuels… according to the International Plant Nutrition Index:

All N fertilizer begins with a source of hydrogen gas and atmospheric N that are reacted to form ammonia. The most-used source of hydrogen is natural gas (methane). Other sources of hydrogen, such as coal, are used in some regions. After hydrogen and N are combined under conditions of high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, many other important N-containing fertilizers can then be made. Urea is the most common N fertilizer, but there are many excellent N fertilizers that can be made from ammonia. For example, some ammonia is oxidized to make nitrate fertilizer. This same conversion of ammonia to nitrate takes place in agricultural soils through the microbial process of nitrification.

Because the production of hydrogen gas required for the synthesis of ammonia largely comes from natural gas, the price of this primary feedstock is the major factor in the cost of ammonia production. Ammonia factories sometimes close or open in various parts of the world in response to fluctuating gas prices. Higher energy costs always translate into higher prices for all N fertilizers. (IPNI)

The classic image of a compost toilet

The classic image of a compost toilet

So, we flush great fertiliser away down the toilet (remember a key function of urine is to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies), pay for that to be treated to make it safe and then pay even more to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to apply to the land to grow crops. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem sensible. Why not turn the waste into a useful resource and avoid a whole bunch of pollution?

I know that most people are squeamish about composting toilets and they are currently not readily available for use in ‘normal’ houses, but technology is changing. Soon, you won’t have to deal with the waste yourself if you want to avoid the standard flush toilet, and you wont have to have a compost loo in the garden either. Take a look at Toilet Revolution if you want to see a whole range of options suitable for real homes.


Just say ‘no’

According to Elton John ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’, but for me, it seems, in fact, to be ‘no’.

I may need to take some lessons from Max!

They say that if you want something doing, you should ask a busy person. So I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t some noticeboard out there listing busy people that has my name on. Now, don’t get me wrong…I love being involved with the various organisations that I do voluntary work for, and I’m happy with the paid work that I do, and I want to continue growing some of my own food, and making items for the house, and keeping chickens, and cooking pretty much everything from scratch, and studying for my diploma, and teaching adults, and… well, perhaps you get the idea. However, I also want to feel a bit less overwhelmed with things to do!

So, this week I have said ‘no’ twice. Once in relation to charity work and once in relation to paid work. I should be feeling relieved – I already do lots of charitable work and this was in addition to an extra role that I have already taken on recently; and I will only be unavailable for 10 days of paid freelance work – but I seem, instead, to be feeling guilty.

I normally always agree to help out with whatever I’m asked to, but recently when I mentioned this to a friend, she reminded me of the three permaculture ethics: earth care; people care; and what I have always referred to as ‘fair share’ (because they rhyme). The friend described the third ethic as ‘sharing surplus’ and suggested that I should be sharing my ‘surplus’ energy rather than all of my energy… and that I should consider myself as well as other when I think of ‘people care’. It’s true – and I guess also that ‘people care’ should begin at home, but I still can’t help feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t have said ‘no’! Perhaps I just need something to fret about, or perhaps it’s just that it’s a new experience for me…

Anyway, I’m off now to get on with a bit of work for the Permaculture Association and then I might get round to making a felt case for my camera that I have, so far, not found time for!

One more cup of coffee…

After the slightly icky post yesterday about the colonic irrigation of chickens (apologies to any new readers, it’s usually much more tasteful here… actually, you probably won’t be reading this as you were so appalled by yesterday’s ruminations) I thought I’d turn my mind to something much more palatable… my morning cup of coffee…

I have mentioned coffee in earlier posts, but I like it so much that I think it deserves to be the subject of a post in its own right and I read an interesting post yesterday about making coffee drinking more green, which inspired me to write something myself.

When I went out to work, I used to take a big flask of homemade coffee with me every day because otherwise I would have spent all the money I earned on buying coffee… some people say something similar about child care; I don’t have any offspring, but I do have a coffee habit (and a sick chicken) to support. Now that I work from home, in a sedentary job, it would be easy to OD on coffee because I could have a constant supply if I wanted. What’s worse is that I drink it black (I’m lactose intolerant) so it’s just me and the coffee. In fact I was never keen on cappuccino even in my milk-drinking days – it always looks like somebody hasn’t rinsed the washing up liquid out of the cup properly! But to avoid sitting around vibrating, I stick to one large mug of coffee with Mr Snail-of-happiness mid-morning.

We choose to drink Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance coffee at least and preferably something that is grown organically or as part of a community-centred project. There are projects that grow shade coffee, social projects such as those on Mount Kilimanjaro,  co-operatives in many places like Guatemala… I could go on, but just search for ‘ethical coffee’ on the internet and you’ll find lots of information. There’s loads of choice now and you can support great projects around the world through your purchasing . I acknowledge that coffee has to be transported a long way, but generally it comes by boat and without its sale there would be communities with no source of income from outside their local area. I like to support small projects where I know the growers are not being coerced and where they get the money directly… I hope that I am doing the right thing.

Sometimes I order coffee on-line and sometimes I buy from a little local shop that sells the beans (or ground coffee) loose. If the latter, I take my own container for the beans to be put in after weighing to minimise packaging. This way I’m also supporting a business in our area. If I do buy on-line it’s from a small company supporting specific projects.

Anyway, once the coffee beans have arrived we like to grind them either using solar-generated electricity (if it’s a sunny day) or in a little hand-grinder if not. Actually, we have got a bit lazy recently and grind more than required on sunny days to avoid using person-power when it’s dull (we need to keep our energy for the radio on dull days!).

The grounds are then transferred to the most low-tech coffee maker possible: a plastic cone (over fifteen years old) lined with a thick piece of cotton fabric. The water, boiled in our Kelly Kettle (powered by wood from our willow hedge),  is poured onto the coffee and collected in a jug below. After use, we collect the grounds and they go on the garden and the cloth is rinsed out for re-use.

The best location to drink this ethical-as possible (I hope) coffee is in the garden, where we can ponder the vegetables growing around us and discuss future plans for the garden, house, chickens, sustainability, Mr S-o-h’s next book… all powered by coffee.

Where has all the soil gone?

When we moved into Chez Snail eleven and a half years ago I was very excited to have a blank canvas as far as the back garden was concerned. All that was there was an expanse of lawn and a patio – no trees, no shrubs, no bulbs, no flowers and no beds… and, as it turned out, no soil

Well, I say no soil, but that’s not entirely true: there was about six inches of clay above the shale that represents our bedrock. About a month after we moved in, our elderly dog died. We tried digging a hole in the back garden; it was December, it was raining and we managed to get down about a foot… we gave up. At this stage we were beginning to wonder what we could do – it was Christmas and the vets was closed, so cremation was not an option. Should we put the dead dog in the freezer for later disposal? Should we go and bury her ‘in the wild’? Should we build a mausoleum? After some debate we decided the try planting her in the front garden. So, shovel out, body discreetly just inside the house and we tried again. This time was more promising, there was a slightly greater depth of soil and then we hit concrete… some part of the sewage system we later learned. Then, inspiration. There was a healthy-looking hydrangea in a corner – perhaps its roots would have broken up the ground. And, indeed, success. The hydrangea was removed, the hole was expanded into a grave (fortunately the dog was quite a small terrier) and we could proceed. At which point one of our new neighbours came over to say hello. “Doing some gardening?” she enquired. “Yes,” we responded cheerily, heartily thankful that the body was still indoors and that we weren’t going to have to make small talk about deceased pets. The neighbour eventually disappeared back home (we were grateful for the rain at this stage) and the burial commenced, with her nose towards the rising sun and her favourite cuddly duck and a stone (she was inordinately fond of those) as grave goods. Hydrangeas are not my favourite shrubs, so we planted a lilac over our canine friend (I had one waiting to go in the garden somewhere) and planted the hydrangea in the hole with the concrete in the bottom. I’m pleased to report that both plants are doing well.

So, as you can tell, we are a bit short of soil here. We shouldn’t be. The field behind our house isn’t – but there’s a step of about 12 inches up to it. In this area, when they build houses, they strip the topsoil (and more) from the plot and sell it. This leads both to drainage problems and to a nightmare in terms of subsequent gardening. We have pretty poor soils round here to begin with, so losing the majority of what there was to start with just compounds the problem.

Because gardening to produce food was a particular intention, we had to take steps. We started by installing log rolls to create some beds in the lawn and mulching with black polythene to kill the grass. Once done, we added homemade compost and hoped this would allow us to be productive. Sadly the waterlogged ground in the winter caused the wood to rot and anyway the beds simply weren’t deep enough. So, we dismantled those after a couple of years, bought some old railway sleepers and created new beds – bigger and deeper. Unfortunately we couldn’t generate enough compost to fill them, so, with heavy hearts, we bought in some topsoil, hoping that it hadn’t come from some other building plot now bereft of a growing medium. And finally we had a sustainable system – raised beds don’t get waterlogged, we keep them fertile with compost produced on site (including willow shreddings and chicken poo) and we eat fresh food from them throughout the year.

I just can’t help feeling that much less energy would have been expended and the system would have been naturally sustainable if the builders had left the soil where it was in the first place! Grumble.

Finally... productivity

Jumping bean

Today I have a mystery…

I did not visit my greenhouse yesterday because I was away attending a tutorial (more about that in later posts), so when I got up to let the chickens out this morning I thought that I would just go and say hello to the seedlings. All is well with chillies, peppers, courgettes, squashes, leeks, tomatoes and melons, but what about the beans? There are some signs of life from the runner beans, a couple of green shoots appearing and the tops of some seeds emerging at the surface, pushed up by the roots that must be growing below.

And then there are the French pea beans (a gift from Mr Snail’s eldest brother), which are so full of energy they have started jumping out of the soil! They are planted in root trainers to give them a chance to develop lovely long roots before I plant them outside. So, why was one of the beans lying on the surface of the potting compost? Not only that, but on the top of a module three spaces away from where it was planted; I know this because there is a hole in the compost of the module from which it originated. It hadn’t germinated, so we can’t blame an extra-exuberant root. It was hydrated, but I don’t think swelling is likely to have happened so rapidly that it forced it out of the soil and into the air. I can only think to blame a mouse… but why didn’t it eat the bean? There is a slight bit of damage, which could be a tiny nibble. Do pea beans taste disgusting to mice? And if they do why didn’t it move on and sample the runner beans or graze on the tender leek shoots? Either I have very pernickerty mice or the seed packet is wrong and they are actually jumping beans. I will report on further developments…

So many interesting ideas out there

Sometimes I find all the information out there about sustainability overwhelming – it’s difficult to sift through what’s relevant and what’s not. However, I’m always sure that the things Mark Waghorn posts on his blog will be worth a look and will include lovely pictures. I suggest you check it out: Off-grid design

Oh, and he successfully completed our Permaculture Design Certificate recently, so he’s a good guy!

(Earth and People) Care in the Community

Sustainability may begin at home, but it’s also good to get it out in the community. With this in mind I give my support to a local environmental education charity, Denmark Farm Conservation Centre. They are working on a great project called Wildlife Where You Live, which aims to help build robust rural communities through conservation and biodiversity work. It’s not just experts coming in and telling the community what to do, it’s about engaging all sorts of people in environmental activities.

The newly installed wetland water treatment system is just awaiting ground flora planting

DFCC also run environment-related courses, many in conjunction with Aberystwyth University. Whist I was up there today there was a beginners’ bird identification course going on… by lunchtime their species count was up to 16, they told me. It’s a lovely place to go to learn and teach (I run several courses there each year), with great habitats (ponds, scrapes, woodland, rhos pasture, wildflower meadows) and increasingly more examples of sustainability in action (a new wetland water treatment system, solar water heating, solar pv, rainwater harvesting, compost toilet, compost heaps and – coming soon – a biomass boiler). All-in-all a great demonstration site.

As well as being used as a venue for courses DFCC is open to the public, with a network of freely accessible paths: free leaflets describing the site are available. So if you are near Lampeter in Ceredigion, why not call in? And if that’s not near you, why not support your own local charities that are encouraging sustainability?


All the April showers recently here in the land of snails have been making me think a lot about water…

Nearly half of all UK water use is domestic, so I try to be thoughtful about what I do with the stuff. In particular I think it’s wrong to use drinking-quality water for things like watering plants and flushing the toilet, especially considering how much energy is needed for water treatment. It’s easy enough to install a water-butt or two if you have a garden and downspouts, but next to impossible if you don’t. We have three collecting water off the roof of the house, one on the greenhouse and an IBC (which holds a cubic metre of water) collecting from the shed roof. This may seem excessive for a relatively small garden in a wet area, but much of the saved water is used to flush the toilet… we fill the cistern manually from 5 litre bottles of rainwater. We have a hose pipe from a raised water-butt (on a wooden stand constructed by Mr S-o-h) that siphons into the bottles stored in the bathroom (we live in a bungalow, so no pumping is needed). Sounds like a fiddle, but it’s a low-tech solution and saves us some money since we are on a water meter. If we are running low on rainwater in the summer, when the priority is growing food, we save grey water from the shower and use this for flushing.

We have a low water-use washing machine, although it’s about 12 years old, so I’m sure a more efficient one would be available. Of course this raises the issue of when to replace our possessions. Currently we try not to get rid of anything unless its broken and cannot be repaired, so the washing machine stays. Actually, the embodied energy and water in any product is usually so high that this generally seems like a sensible option.

So, I try to think not only about the water that I use directly, but also that used indirectly… am I taking water from a region or country that can ill afford it because of my purchases? The answer has to be yes, so I try to be mindful of this, for example buying my coffee from Ethical Addictions, who support coffee growing projects aimed at reducing water use and supporting communities.

I’m always looking for ways to save more water, both directly and indirectly… any ideas?

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