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…

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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.

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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!

Three Things Thursday… down the pan

three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy

Today – 19 November 2015 – is World Toilet Day!

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So, I’m grateful that…

  • I’m not one of the 2.4 billion people who lack access to improved sanitation (source: World Toilet Day)
  • I’m not one of the women and girls living without a toilet who, in total, spend 266 million hours each day finding a place to go (source: water.org)
  • I don’t live in one of the many countries in which it is not acceptable for a woman to relieve herself during the day. Where women wait hours for nightfall, just to have privacy, thus impacting on health and putting them alone and in danger just to relieve themselves (source: water.org)

There are lots of solutions and there are great charities out there doing sterling work to ensure that everybody, worldwide has access to toilets – providing privacy, improving health, treating human waste as a resource and freeing up time. My personal favourite is Practical Action, who do great work all year helping communities to build toilets using appropriate technology… and are also supporting World Toilet Day.

 

The world’s most impressive recycling system

National Recycle Week – Day 2

Today, on this dry and sunny day, I’m thinking about water.

The Water Cycle (from NOAA – The US National Weather Service)

Water is one resource that gets naturally recycled: clouds drop rain on the earth, which gets soaked up by the soil, used by plants or flows into lakes or the ocean, before some of it evaporates to form clouds again. Round and round it goes, sometimes being stored, sometimes being created (all living things make water when they respire, and it’s released during combustion) and sometimes being used as a building block (plants use water along with carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to create carbohydrates). This global cycle carries on unnoticed for the most part, although humans do interfere with it, for example by extracting water stored underground or by channelling it so that it flows quickly through the landscape and doesn’t soak into the earth.

Humans also, however, pollute it. We use it to wash away waste, thus requiring some sort of treatment before it can safely be returned to the environment. So, we need sewage treatment plants and  tailings pools and filters and all sorts of other ways of cleaning up the water we have used. Sometimes we also make it warm and then discharge it directly into the environment, thus upsetting the natural systems in the area (this is known as ‘thermal pollution’ and is a particular problem with power plants and industries that use water for cooling)), at least in part because warmer water contains lower levels of dissolved oxygen.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back (the are awaiting new positions with the limery construction under-way)

On a more personal scale, it’s interesting to consider the water we use in our own homes. In most cases, there’s not a lot of cycling goes on in this context, but we can be much more efficient with our water use and make sure that we contaminate as little of it as possible. Generally in domestic situations, our biggest source of contamination is sewage – every time you flush the toilet, you send 5-10 litres of polluted water down the drain, and that water will have to be processed (thus using energy) before it is safe to release back into our rivers and seas.

The best thing we can do as individuals is to reduce our water use, using our water as many times as possible before sending it out of our homes. Grey water – such as what comes out of the washing machine – can be used again to water plants or wash the car, thus doubling up on use and reducing the amount that needs to come out of the mains (which will save you money too if your water is metered). Chez Snail, we collect lots of rainwater for use around the house and garden and this means that, wherever possible, we are not using the processed water that comes out of the taps for jobs that don’t require it. For example, all the concrete that has been mixed during our building work has used rainwater… after all, it made no difference if it was a bit gritty or contained some algae.

From the Guide to Sustainable City Living

From the Toolbox for Sustainable City Living

It’s even possible to build your own little gray water treatment plant at home if you wish. I have a book entitled Toolbox for Sustainable City Living that provides detailed instructions on building a wetland out of three recycled bathtubs to filter washing machine waste water… it’s not the answer for all of us, but if you live in a city and want to process your water for re-use there are options. Chez Snail we will continue to water the plants with our used washing-up water and flush the toilet with rain water and grey water and in these ways we will help mother nature in her grand recycling operation.

Not again…

Dear Spirit of Showers

I really do not understand what I have done wrong.

Every time I have had a shower since the plumber came and installed the new unit, I have thanked you and felt deep gratitude for the hot water at the flick of a switch. I have been careful with my water use and I gave you a tribute: I donated money to Water Aid so that other people, less fortunate than me, could access clean water.

Was it because I had a bath yesterday? Do you feel that I have been unfaithful to you? Honestly, I just wanted to soak in some warm water for a while and relax my muscles. I feel that refusing to let me wash my hair afterwards under the shower was a bit petty.

I know that the shower itself is not broken and that it is the electrical switch in the ceiling that has failed this time, so perhaps it’s the spirit of electricity who is punishing me, but I can’t help being suspicious since it’s the only electrical problem I am experiencing and it is, once again, the shower that is affected.

I consider it particularly mean that you made this happen an hour and a half after the departure of Mr Snail – who could have fixed it (he’s good with electricity, even if he does struggle with carpentry). I also think that making the cord snap as I gave it a sharp tug, so that I got whacked across the back of my hand was just adding injury to insult.

I am afraid that you give me no choice but to abandon you and go and have a shower elsewhere… thank goodness for friends.

Yours in exasperation

The Snail of Happiness

For decorative purposes only

For decorative purposes only

Courgettearama

Yesterday's courgette harvest

A small harvest a few days ago

Every time I go into the garden there are more courgettes (zucchini) – clearly a run-away success this year. I’ve generally been weighing them when I bring them into the kitchen, and so far I’ve picked well over 7kg (15lbs) of them… not bad for mid-July, eh? Currently there are seven decent-sized specimens in the fridge, a pot of courgette soup on the stove (simple recipe: courgettes, curry powder, homemade stock, cook together, then stir in some creme fraiche and season to taste) and lots growing on the plants in the garden. Last night we did have a meal that did not include courgettes (new potatoes, lettuce, boiled eggs and homemade mayonnaise: all out of the garden except the oil in the latter), but we did have courgette soup for lunch!

However, not everyone is having my success this year, and I have been asked by a couple of people what might be going wrong. I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you what works for me.

Courgette plants in the compost bed

Courgette plants in the compost bed

I always grow my courgettes in lots of compost; in fact, the bed that I use for most of them doesn’t have soil in it – it’s an in situ composting system to which I add grass clippings, leaves, cardboard, shredded paper, compost, chicken bedding and anything else I can think of every year. I have grown courgettes and squash in it for the past four years and the lack of rotation seems to have had no adverse effects. I think I add so much extra material each year that, effectively, there is always new substrate. In the winter I let the chickens onto this bed to give it a good turning and to further increase fertility. When I do plant courgettes into beds with soil, I always add lots of extra compost and water sometimes with some sort of nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer (worm wee, for example).

Making use of lots of compost has two benefits: first, you are supplying plenty of nutrients and second, organic matter holds large amounts of water. Courgette plants are both hungry and thirsty! According to the University of Kentucky, a courgette is 95% water! So that means for every 1kg (2.2lbs) of courgette that you harvest, you need to supply 950ml (33 fluid ounces) of water. In contrast, a potato contains a mere 79% water. I, however, do not like to have to spend too much of my time watering plants, and all that organic matter saves me having to do so. I do give them a drink very occasionally, but even in June when we got a total of 58mm (just over 2 inches), I only watered them about once a week, despite the very sunny, warm weather. So far this month, I haven’t watered them at all, apart from giving the ones in the soil some liquid feed once. In drier climates, watering is likely to be required, but using lots of organic matter will certainly reduce the amount you need to apply.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some images of the abundance… clearly the organic matter approach is working here:

Spongy

Our garden today (taken from indoors!)

The only impermeable, soil-free part of our garden today (taken from indoors!)

Even if you don’t live in the UK you may have heard that we are having a very wet winter here. It’s been raining for a couple of months… we have had some short dry periods, but every two of three days the jet stream delivers a new low pressure cell to us with associated wet and/or windy weather. Some parts of the country, like Somerset and the Thames valley, are suffering from flooding, whilst many of us are just very wet. Chez Snail is on a hill, but our garden is currently a stream, with water flowing off the field behind and both down our drains and into next door’s garden. Today we also have a red warning for high winds, meaning there is a risk of structural damage. I am certainly not going out and about and I will be trying to dissuade Mr Snail-of-happiness from going to his Chinese class tonight because driving conditions are currently described as ‘dangerous’. At least we are safe and dry and in our own home, unlike so many folks right now.

In the face of this sort of extreme whether, it’s easy to feel disempowered and useless. However, whilst all we can do at the moment is batten down the hatches, I do think that it is important to remember that everyone can take small steps to improve our situation in the long-run. If we act collectively, we can make a difference to our environment.

Whether you believe in climate change or not (and remember that the vast majority of experts do) it is clear that we are all exposed to extreme weather in one form or another (my thoughts are also with those of you in Australia under threat of fire or tropical storms). So, what can we do? Well, as far as flooding or drought are concerned, we can help the environment by improving the soil. Soil that contains lots of organic matter acts like a sponge, whilst mineral-dominated soil has a much lower water-holding capacity and hard landscaping just leads to rapid run-off… delivering water in a fast, large pulse to those people further down the water catchment.

If you have a garden, therefore, caring for the soil – making it healthy and active and full of organic matter – means that you can create a little reservoir to hold water. This is not just good for people who live downstream from you, this is good for you. It means that you will have water stored in the soil ready for your plants to use in drier months… it may not be enough to last the summer, but it will help you along. It also means that if you do need to water your garden when it’s dry, more of the water will he held in the soil for your plants to use rather than just flowing over the surface or soaking straight through. Adding organic matter is quite simple if you make compost, although I have to confess that I could always use more of the stuff! There are all sorts of sources of organic matter, from wood to teabags, from weeds to paper and any of it can be composted to help your garden become a better sponge. Different materials require different approaches, but there’s lots of advice available if you look.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Our raised beds (photographed last summer) do not flood, hold lots of water and are really productive

In addition to acting like a sponge to hold water, organic matter in the soil sequesters carbon and thus keeps it out of the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. And once you have a healthy soil, it will be much more productive – allowing you to grown a greater diversity of plants… all photosynthesising and thus also reducing the carbon in the atmosphere and being available to compost later and thus adding to your healthy soil. This is a virtuous circle with wide-reaching positive effects.

So, don’t feel you can’t make a difference – you can – and at the same time you can see the benefits right in your own back yard.

Going over old ground

I’ve been blogging for more than 20 months now and I have an expanding readership. In addition, I have an increasing number of posts that I’m certain nobody (least of all me) is ever going to wade through. Though I do say so myself, some of my early posts were quite good and it seems a shame to let them languish deep in the snail shell of obscurity. I have, therefore, decided  that from time-to-time I will revisit some of my old writing and bring it to you with a fresh eye. So here is my first dip into the past…

Back in June 2012, Aberystwyth (a town just up the coast from us) was flooded following a reported 10 inches of rain in the hills above the town. This week the town hit the headlines again, because the promenade has been badly damaged by storms. I lived in Aberystwyth for many years – more than three of those right on the seafront. There were days when we couldn’t use the front door, and sometimes cars parked outside did get pebble-dashed, but we certainly never experienced anything more severe. And, the town was never flooded. But when I was there, the floodplain was taken up by playing fields and allotments, so it didn’t matter if the river burst its banks. These days, the area is covered in houses, shops and the new offices of both the county council and the Welsh Assembly.

Anyway, when the flooding happened in 2012, I wrote the following:

…it is remarkably short-sighted to continue to build on floodplains. First because the risk of flooding is greater there and, second, because these areas have flooded historically, they have wonderfully fertile soil. Surely we should be using this brilliant natural resource to grow things… even if crops get inundated sometimes, people and their homes won’t.

But it’s not just about where we build houses and businesses, the problem with flooding is that it’s really caused by what’s upstream in the river catchment and how quickly water moves through the landscape. If the land is wooded, lots of rain is intercepted on its way down to the ground, so it is slowed in its journey to the surface and may even have the opportunity to evaporate and return to the air. All vegetation intercepts rainfall, but trees with leaves probably do it best because they have a big surface area. Not only that, but trees create deep permeable soils, with their roots penetrating the ground and lots of organic matter from their fallen leaves acting like a sponge. The more wooded the upper catchments of our rivers, the slower the water moves through them and the more buffering there is from flooding. The opposite is equally true – make the ground less permeable and water moves through it quickly, all arriving at the rivers in a very short time and resulting in flooding. So, roads and storm drains and buildings and concrete yards and patios and field drains all contribute to flooding by speeding up the movement of water through the landscape. Grassland is not as good at intercepting water as woodland, and shallow rooted plants are likely to be associated with less permeable soil than deep-rooted ones.

Let's encourage water to soak into the soil

Let’s encourage water to soak into the soil

Whilst the latest flood could not have been avoided no matter what the land use in Ceredigion, it could have been reduced if we had more woodlands (especially in the uplands) and a generally more permeable landscape throughout the river catchments. And many of us can do something about this… if you have a garden, you could make sure that the ground is permeable  – so no more patios and paved driveways, consider gravel and grasscrete. Build up the organic matter in your garden – this will help to hold water and be an effective defence against both flood and drought. Install water butts, so that you catch as much of that precious commodity as you can when it’s plentiful and prevent it literally going down the drain. And, finally plant trees and shrubs to intercept the water, root deep into the soil to allow water to percolate down and provide shelter from sun and wind which will dry out your garden anyway.

As I watch the pictures on the television of more and more flooded areas in the UK, I can’t help wishing that planners would take into account how water moves through the landscape, so we can avoid some of the damage, loss of property and personal distress.

-oOo-

My original post Water, water everywhere can be found here.

For the greater good

I’m feeling  a bit giddy this afternoon. No, I haven’t been on the booze… I went to the vampires this morning. Not the ones with pointy teeth that only come out at night, the ones from the Welsh Blood Service, who give you biscuits and tea in exchange for the red stuff.

Welsh Blood Service LogoHaving failed to manage to bleed fast enough the last time I went, I was determined to improve my chances of success this time. So, when I got up this morning, I started drinking water and got through a couple of litres over and above my usual tea and coffee consumption by the time I went along. I was, therefore, quite surprised to be given another pint of water to drink on my arrival (it’s a new approach, apparently).

It all did the trick and I was able to manage a full donation today, although I have been left with quite a headache… I think my electrolytes are a bit out of balance!

It has got me thinking, however, about how important it is for me to give blood successfully. I was really upset when I failed last time, despite the fact that it had no negative consequences for me There was quite a wait to donate, but even so, when I checked, I found that blood stock levels for my blood type are low.

Anyway, I came away feeling quite hopeful – clearly there are lots of people out there who are altruistic and want to do something good without receiving a direct benefit. Perhaps there is hope for us human beings after all.

Splish-splash

Soaking my cares away

Soaking my cares away

I  wrote quite a bit earlier in the year about water-saving, mainly because we had managed to reduce our consumption (and therefore our bill) by so much. However, I have to confess that I do like a soak in the bath sometimes. It’s not all about getting clean – I much prefer a shower for that – it’s about relaxation. Having a shower tends to be invigorating, but having a bath leaves me feeling warm and comfortable – just ready to curl up with a mug of tea and a good book. So, how do I square the two?

Well, sometimes it seems important to care for yourself… your own mental and physical well-being. So, just as knitting has been linked to mental well-being and can have more positive effects than anti-depressants (1), I’m pretty convinced that having a bath can improve my mental and physical state. And that’s why it is sometimes the right thing to do.

However, keeping in mind sustainability, I want to get the most out of the resources that I do use. Someone suggested to me a few weeks ago that we should try to make use of every resource for at least three functions. With the bath water, the three would be: cleaning me; improving my mental state; watering plants/flushing the toilet; and occasionally a fourth function of cleaning the dogs.

So, this afternoon, having spent a chunk of the day wrestling (unsuccessfully) with technology, I had a bath. And now I’m going to start knitting another snail… no wonder I’m feeling relaxed.

-oOo-

(1) Riley J, Corkhill B, Morris C (2013) The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 76(2), 50-57

Plugging the leaks

I haven’t written about it for ages, but one of the ways that we try to be a little bit more sustainable is by boiling the majority of our water in a Kelly Kettle. In case you don’t know what one is, I’ll let the manufacturers explain:

the Kelly Kettle is essentially a double-walled chimney with the water contained within the chimney wall.  Once the camp kettle is filled with water, simply start a very small fire in the base, set the kettle on the base and drop additional fuel down the chimney (natural environmentally friendly fuels such as twigs, leaves, grass, paper, dry-animal dung, etc.!).  The large internal surface area of the chimney heats the water extremely fast so, very little fuel is required.  The fire is all safely contained within the fire-base and the chimney of the kettle itself so, a) strong wind and rain does not interfere with the fire and b) the kettle is safe to use in many areas where open fires are not suitable

A roaring success for boiling water!

A roaring success for boiling water!

They are really designed for camping and outdoor pursuits, but we use ours at home every day… usually on the back doorstep. We sometimes light it in the greenhouse if it’s raining or very windy, but that’s for our comfort, the Kelly Kettle will work outdoors in really unpleasant conditions. We fuel it with waste paper, trimmings from around the garden (especially the willow hedge) and sticks that we collect whilst walking the dogs. We boil it a couple of times each day and store any excess hot water in two very good Thermos flasks for later use.

We have been doing this for four years now… I’m not sure how much electricity and money it has saved us, but if we assume that it gets boiled 600 times a year and that it saves us £0.05 each time, it has more than paid for itself and we’re well into profit.

I suppose that most Kelly Kettles only get used occasionally, so ours has had quite a hard life. Even so, we were very distressed a week or two ago to notice that it was leaking from one of its rivets. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate replacing things and much prefer to repair them (see this post if you want an example) so we started discussing what we could do. Our Kelly Kettle is stainless steel (we have very soft water here in west Wales, so aluminium was out of the question for everyday use) and neither of us had any idea about how this is best repaired. An internet search was in order… resulting in a link to the manufacturer’s own web site, telling us exactly what to do . Now there’s a company that I have respect for: a company who don’t want you to throw their product away and buy a new one, but who want to tell you how to make it last as long as possible.

All mended!

All mended!

As a result we have a fully functional Kelly Kettle once more – repaired with food-grade silicone sealant – and a very warm feeling about The Kelly Kettle Company of Newtown Cloghans, Knockmore, Ballina, County Mayo Ireland.

Do you know of other companies who behave like this? Because if you do, they too deserve some credit.

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