Modular and prefab conference in Sydney

Construction leaders and strategists from the big builders and architecture firms will be convening at the 2nd Annual Modular Construction and Prefabrication ANZ to discuss the latest technologies and innovative design techniques to achieve better efficiency and timeliness in project delivery, enhance process and labour productivity and a more cost-effective way to build.

When: 28 February – 2 March 2017
Where: Amora Hotel Jamison Sydney
Info and registration: http://claridenglobal.com/conference/modconandprefab-anz2017/

Conference highlights include:

  • Sustainability in the Prefabricated Housing Market: A Case Study on the World’s First Carbon-Positive Prefabricated House – Bill McCorkell, Managing Director & Founder, ArchiBlox
  • Big World Homes: How Prefab Panelization can be the Future of New Home Ownership – Alexander Symes, Founder & Architect, Big World Home & ASA

Sanctuary is the media partner for the event. Copies of Sanctuary and its sibling publication Renew: technology for a sustainable future will be available at our stand. Come and say hello!

Community Energy Congress coming up soon

Have you registered yet?

Sanctuary’s publisher the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is helping organise the congress, and we can’t wait for it to kick off in Melbourne on February 27.

Not only will the speakers include Barrack Obama’s community energy adviser Candace Vahlsing, there will be lots of seminars and opportunities for networking with people from around the country pursuing community energy projects.

The ATA will be holding Speed Date a Community Energy Expert at the congress and a workshop on Sunulator, our free tool which estimates the economic feasibility of community-scale solar.

Sanctuary 38 out now

Sanctuary 38 is on its way to letterboxes and newsagencies near you, full of advice and inspiration for sustainable living and building. In addition to beautiful house features, in the upcoming issue we delve into the world of kitchens and bathrooms and profile some of our favourites. Kitchens and bathrooms are the most renovated parts of a home because they are among the most personal, reflecting something of our values and culture. They also need to be functional spaces, able to cater for the business of living, such as intense use and regular cleaning. Over 24 pages, we consider what it means to ‘green’ these spaces and explore different designs, new and recycled materials and practical cost-saving ideas. We also bring you expert tips on efficient appliances and show you ways to maintain surfaces without resorting to toxic chemicals. I’m sure you will find lots of ideas to inspire your own projects!

LIVING THE HIGH LIFE?

More of us are now living in apartments, and apartment construction is outstripping single residential dwellings almost two to one in Australia’s major cities. Unfortunately, the poor quality of many of these buildings is now daily news fodder. But we hear little about when urban density is done well – such as a new project in WA – and even less about what apartment residents can do to improve the liveability of their buildings. In this issue’s Design Matters, Anna Cumming shares stories of resident-led improvements, including energy action plans and living roofs.

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE

We visit four exemplary homes including an impressive passive solar extension which experiments with new materials; head outdoors to dip into the world of natural swimming pools; and help you optimise your solar system. Design Workshop returns this issue too, and architect Ian Sercombe provides design tweaks for a Sanctuary reader’s strawbale house planned for the Blue Mountains. If you would like your project to be workshopped next, please email us: designworkshop@sanctuarymagazine.org.au.

And as always we feature a wide range of innovative sustainable products and design tips for your home.

We welcome your feedback. Perhaps there’s something else you would you like to see in Sanctuary? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Beyond the brand: appliances guide

Appliance selection can seem simple, but in fact can be a bit of an art form. There are a number of steps, the first of which is to list the requirements of the new appliance. For example, for a fridge you need to know the total volume required, as well as the individual volumes of fridge and freezer sections. You also need to know the maximum dimensions the fridge can be, allowing for the required airspace around it, the basic layout (freezer on top or bottom) and list the features it should have, such as should the freezer have drawers or shelves. And then there’s how much you can spend on your new appliance.

ENERGY AND WATER CONSUMPTION

Probably most importantly, you need to consider energy consumption of the appliance. Over the life of an average appliance, the energy use and hence running costs can be considerable. Choosing an appliance based purely on initial purchase price, without considering ongoing running costs, can result in you paying more over its lifespan than if you had bought a more expensive but more efficient model.

Comparing energy consumption between appliances is simple, as many appliances such as fridges, dishwashers and washing machines are required to carry an energy ratings label. The label has two energy usage indicators: the star rating (the more stars, the more efficient the appliance) and the annual energy use in a typical situation (the lower the number, the less energy it uses).

Water consumption also influences energy consumption for appliances that use hot water such as dishwashers, so lower water use is better, provided it doesn’t compromise the appliance’s effectiveness. Appliances will generally have a water ratings label just like an energy rating and you can search www.waterrating.gov.au for the most water-efficient appliance.

RELIABILTY

An appliance isn’t a bargain (and it won’t be an environmentally sound purchase) if it only lasts a few years or requires regular repairs. It’s worth doing research to see how generally reliable a model, range or brand is, and what sort of issues other owners have had with a particular appliance. Product review sites can help with this. Check out Choice, or another popular site is productreview.com.au, where you can type in a model number and see what others have to say about reliability and problems with that particular appliance. Not all appliances are listed, and very new models may have few or no reviews, but often there will be reviews for older, similar appliances that can guide you.

Of course, even the best appliances will have the occasional bad review. Production line manufacturing, even with the highest quality control, can result in a faulty appliance. Don’t necessarily discount an appliance with one or two bad reviews when it has dozens of good ones.

QUALITY AND VALUE FOR MONEY

Another thing to consider is the quality of an appliance. While the general rule is that more expensive appliances are generally better quality than cheap ones, this rule doesn’t always hold. There have been some expensive appliances that seemed like quality units, but have turned out to have poor efficiency, low reliability and high maintenance costs. The same applies at the other end of the market – cheap doesn’t always mean unreliable and inefficient. If you do your research, you may be able to spend $1000 on your new washing machine and get similar efficiency, ease of use and reliability as a $4000 top-of-the-line machine.

Generally, you will want your appliances to last for as long as possible, to provide the best financial and environmental outcomes, but many, if not most, appliances will need at least a small repair over their lifetime. How much that repair costs depends on the availability and price of replacement parts, so check this. Some expensive appliances can have high spare parts prices and low-volume models may not have parts available. Big Warehouse Spares is a good source of parts for those who want to avoid the repairer’s mark-up.

RECYCLABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY

When it comes to appliance recyclability, most people will have to use local facilities such as the local tip (or sometimes scrap metal dealers), most of which will take appliances for recycling, rather than landfill. However, some appliance manufacturers have recycling programs in place and may take your old appliance for recycling. Some appliance repairers and installers will also take old appliances and strip them for the good parts. Recycling options vary enormously from region to region, so check the RecyclingNearYou website for your local recycling options.

When it comes to sustainability of materials, most appliances of a particular category will contain similar quantities of similar materials – all fridges have steel or stainless steel cabinets, copper or aluminium coils and (usually polyurethane) foam for insulation, for instance. There are some areas where appliances will differ, such as the refrigerant used in a fridge, air conditioner or heat pump water heater. You may need to look at datasheets to glean this information, but for air conditioners and heat pump water heaters the refrigerant type is considered a selling point. Look for a refrigerant with a lower global warming potential (GWP). See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_refrigerants for commonly available refrigerants and their GWP.

SPECIFIC APPLIANCES

In addition to the general considerations above, here are some points to consider when selecting specific appliances for your kitchen and bathroom.

Dishwashers

  • Number of place settings – don’t buy a large machine if there are only two of you – the temptation will be to run it part full.
  • Machines that use less water also use less energy to heat that water, but there is a limit on how far you can reduce water use. Some machines with low water use don’t wash well, so check reviews.
  • If the racks and slides are cheap plastic, they may break easily, so look for an appliance with robust internals.
  • Make sure the filter is easily cleaned – a filter that’s hard to clean tends to get ignored, resulting in a less efficient machine and poor cleaning performance.

Refrigerators

  • Select a fridge that suits your needs – too small and it will forever be crammed too tight, resulting in uneven cooling; too large and it will use more energy than required.
  • Make sure that door seals are low cost and easy to replace.
  • Select a fridge with the most environmentally benign refrigerant that you can get, balancing other requirements.
  • Avoid fancy options like icemakers in the door etc; they add cost and complexity and usually increase running costs.
  • Always provide plenty of ventilation around the fridge, especially above – a fridge chimney to duct warm air away from the fridge can be built into fridge alcoves when doing renovations.

Ovens and cooktops

  • Look for a well-insulated electric oven; gas ovens are likely to be less sustainable, particularly if you’re using GreenPower or solar. Don’t pay extra for features you won’t use, such as rotisseries and the like. It’s just more to break down and can compromise the oven insulation, increasing heat losses.
  • If your oven needs are small, consider a combined microwave/convection oven. This reduces energy use and eliminates the materials required to make one of the ovens.
  • It’s hard to find ovens without digital controls, which can add to standby power. However, this is less of an issue nowadays as standby power of most appliances has greatly decreased; most draw less than one watt when not in use (a one-watt draw costs less than three dollars a year to run).
  • Induction cooktops are efficient and allow fast cooking temperature adjustments. However, if your cooking needs are modest, a simple resistive element cooktop could be a good option – it’s much cheaper, doesn’t use much more electricity and will be much cheaper to repair.
  • Whether induction or resistive element, fit a cooktop with a flat glass top. It will be much faster to clean, requiring less effort and little or no cleaning agents.

Small appliances

The first consideration for any small appliance is “Do I need this?” Always look for a model with a good reputation for longevity and reliability. Don’t double up on appliances. For example, if you have a toaster-oven that toasts well, do you need a separate toaster? Eliminating excess appliances not only saves you up front, but gives you back more bench space.

Most of the cheaper small appliances are designed to be non-repairable, although parts are available for some models. Some manufacturers still make devices designed to be fixed. Dualit and Magimix are two examples, and while their appliances are expensive, they generally have a good reputation and most parts are available.

Bathroom appliances

Radiant heat lamps can use considerable energy if used for long periods, so they should not be used for lighting. Look for a combined heat lamp/lighting system that has decent lights that provide the desired lighting levels, to eliminate the temptation to turn on the heat lamps for extra light.

Heated towel rails prevent towels becoming smelly from staying damp, but if run continuously can result in large energy use. A single small 100-watt towel rail will use 2.4kWh a day, or 16.8kWh per week. Over a six-month winter period it would use around 440kWh, or over $120 of electricity.

There are far fewer appliances in a bathroom compared to a kitchen, but radiant heat lamps and heated towel rails have the ability to use a lot of energy if they are not used correctly. Remember, it’s not just the power rating of an appliance, but how long it runs for each day that determines its overall energy use. This bathroom also houses the washing machine opposite the vanity. Image: Hilary Bradford

There are far fewer appliances in a bathroom compared to a kitchen, but radiant heat lamps and heated towel rails have the ability to use a lot of energy if they are not used correctly. Remember, it’s not just the power rating of an appliance, but how long it runs for each day that determines its overall energy use. This bathroom also houses the washing machine opposite the vanity. Image: Hilary Bradford

WARRANTIES

Regardless of the appliance, you want a good warranty. For appliances like fridges, warranties of five years or more are available, but, for small appliances, 12 to 24 months is more likely. A warranty can be an indication of a manufacturer’s faith in its products, so it should be taken into account when selecting a brand/model.

Extended warranties, as offered by some of the large appliance chain stores, may sound like good insurance, but they can be expensive and may not cover all possible faults. They can also be a waste of money if they cover only what you are already covered for under Australian consumer law. See Choice’s extended warranty page for more information.

MATERIALS SELECTION

There is a wide range of materials used in kitchens and bathrooms and it’s not possible to cover them in depth in a short article. In general, look for materials with low toxicity, low or zero-VOCs and low embodied energy. Materials like ceramic tiles have a high-embodied energy, but also have a long service life and can be reused if removed carefully, so this should be taken into account when compared to other materials. For example, timber has a low embodied energy and is biodegradable, but if used in wet areas and for benchtops can have a short service life unless regularly maintained.

Materials that require little or no maintenance can have a lower environmental footprint than those that need regular maintenance. For example, polished stone needs little effort to keep it clean and looking nice, whereas wood needs regular oiling or refinishing. The cost of producing and applying those finishes needs to be included in the equation.

This kitchen by Element Builders in Western Australia uses Paperock for kitchen joinery and recycled timber for benchtops and for the ceiling lining. Nice touches include the dining table on castors built by Michael Cicanese, easy-to-clean concrete floor and efficient light fittings and appliances. Image: Ruth&Me

This kitchen by Element Builders in Western Australia uses Paperock for kitchen joinery and recycled timber for benchtops and for the ceiling lining. Nice touches include the dining table on castors built by Michael Cicanese, easy-to-clean concrete floor and efficient light fittings and appliances. Image: Ruth&Me

Look for locally produced materials if possible, provided they meet other environmental criteria. Stone quarried 50km away has a lot lower energy footprint than stone quarried and shipped from the other side of the planet.

Especially in wet areas, avoid materials like MDF, chipboard and similar compressed fibreboards for cabinet carcasses. Water quickly damages these sorts of materials unless they are specifically made for damp locations (most grades of compressed fibreboards are not) or have been properly sealed. More resilient materials include marine ply (available in low-VOC E0 versions) and composite materials such as Paperock. While these materials are more expensive initially, they will outlast cheaper materials such as chipboard.

Feature image: Whether induction or resistive element, a cooktop with a flat glass top will be much faster to clean, requiring less effort and little or no cleaning agents. Kitchen design: Megan Norgate, Brave New Eco; image: Emma Byrnes.

Optimise your solar

Solar panels need very little maintenance. This is great, but can mean they are taken for granted and problems can go unnoticed even when they significantly reduce the benefit you get from the solar system.

Some companies claim that around half of all solar systems are not performing to capacity. This sounds alarming, but probably includes a wide range of cases from complete disconnections through to panels affected by dirt, which will fix itself with the next heavy rain.

The more serious cases are relatively rare, but can impact your bill significantly. Australian households often pay around $2000 per year for electricity, which many have managed to halve by adding solar. Households still on the high feed-in tariffs can gain an additional benefit of several thousand dollars per year.

There are two easy ways to see if your system is working: check your electricity bill and your solar inverter.

There are two easy ways to see if your system is working: check your electricity bill and your solar inverter.

There are two easy ways to see if your system is working: check your electricity bill and your solar inverter.

Your electricity bill

Your bill can show whether or not your solar system is working: if there is no export showing on your bill there may be a problem. Often your panels generate more electricity than you’re using, for example when you’re not home during the day. The excess electricity is automatically fed in to your local electricity grid, earning you money. Your bill will show this feed-in as a separate item, see Figure 1. (The rare exception is if your local grid can’t cope with your excess, so the local electricity distributor has required your solar installer to add a device blocking all feed-in.)

Figure 1. Your electricity bill can show whether or not your solar system is working: if there’s no export showing on your bill then there may be a problem.

Figure 1. Your electricity bill can show whether or not your solar system is working: if there’s no export showing on your bill then there may be a problem.

Your solar inverter

The solar inverter is a ‘box’ that takes electricity from the panels and feeds it to your switchboard. It’s often located on the wall near the switchboard at the front of the house or it might be in the garage or at the side of the house. They come in a range of colours – red, blue, grey and off-white are all common.

Most have a few lights and a small LCD screen on the front. The screen will generally tell you the power being produced at that moment, measured in watts (W) or kilowatts (kW). Most of them have a button that you press to scroll through other information. If the inverter is showing a strange message instead, it’s likely your solar system is inoperative (refer to the ATA’s Solar FAQ for some examples of error messages). Inverters work quite hard and like any electronic equipment do not live forever; 10 years is a reasonable lifespan. Inverters shut down at night.

Is it generating as much as it should be?

When your system was installed, it was rated to generate a number of kilowatts of power. You’ll find this on the quote and other paperwork, but if that’s not available it can be tricky to work out the system’s rated power. Each panel’s rated power is on its label, but of course they are on your roof! As a rough guide, recently installed systems have 3 to 4 panels per kilowatt of rated power. For example, if you have 16 new-ish solar panels, your system’s total rated power is probably 4 to 5 kilowatts. Panels have increased in size and power – most systems installed before 2010 needed about 5 to 6 panels per rated kilowatt.

Don’t be surprised if your inverter is reporting less than your system’s total power, as this was rated under laboratory test conditions of bright, direct sunlight and cool air. Such conditions are rare in the real world. For example, if you checked your north-facing solar system at midday on a clear, sunny day, the inverter might report 80 per cent of the system’s rated power, however if it’s generating only 50 per cent or less for a few clear days in a row there is likely to be a problem.

Many solar system panels are organised in two separate groups (or ‘strings’). If your system is generating only half what it should, perhaps one group has become disconnected.

Comparing with the neighbours

One way to check your system’s performance is to compare it against a similar system nearby. A good measure is the total energy your system generated on a particular day, measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Most inverters report this number, often under a heading such as ‘e-day’. It’s best to check daily energy near dusk, when the inverter is still operating but there’s very little generation to come.

Many solar enthusiasts have computers continually monitoring their generation and uploading it to a free community website called pvoutput.org. On this site you can search for a solar system within say 20km of your postcode, and see how much energy they generated yesterday in kWh (see the ATA Solar FAQs for details on how to find this).

For example, if your inverter reported that yesterday your north-facing 3kW solar system generated 12.1 kWh of energy. And someone in the next suburb has a 4kW system (also north-facing) that generated 16.3 kWh yesterday. Allowing for the fact that their solar system is bigger, the two systems performed similarly. If you find that your solar system is performing much worse than comparable systems, there may be something wrong.

Possible causes of under-performance

Most people with panels on a decent tilt (say greater than 10 degrees) find the panels self-clean in the rain. However this does vary with microclimate. If dirt, bird droppings, moss or other materials build up on the panels to the extent that they reduce the system performance, panels can be washed down with water with the help of a soft broom if required. Do not use detergents. It is best to avoid climbing on a roof for safety reasons; many companies offer panel-cleaning services.

A small amount of shade can have a big effect on performance. As well as the obvious trees, watch out for antennas, power lines and creeping vines. Shade may occur only at certain times, for example winter afternoons.

If your system especially underperforms on hot summer days, your inverter could be overheating. Ensure the heat sinks (fins) on the back or top of the inverter are clean and nothing is stored on top of the inverter. If it’s mounted on a sunny wall, you could consider installing an awning to give it some shade.

Panel quality failures are more serious problems, such as ‘yellowing laminate’ and ‘micro-cracks’ (also known as ‘snail trails’). In cases like these, try to get the panels replaced under warranty.

Site inspections

A number of companies offer on-site solar inspection services. If you were happy with the original installer, ask them to come back and do the service. If not, you could look online for someone who specialises in this or for a local company willing to do a service.

Some companies are charging around $400. This is too much, I would suggest $200 to $250 is more reasonable. It is worth asking if the service provider uses their own electricians. If they sub-contract the quality of the service could be less, as the contractor may want to rush in and out as quickly as possible. Even if your system is performing well, it’s a good idea to get your system professionally checked periodically, perhaps every five years. This would include checking electrical connections and panel mounting.

Online monitoring

There are some companies offering remote monitoring services for your solar power system. These will probably give a handy program or app that gives you statistics or charts, and perhaps automatically alert you if they detect that the performance has suddenly dropped. Identifying the cause of the problem is trickier. Some services claim they can diagnose some faults from their distinctive effect on patterns of solar generation, but to really understand the cause and fix it you’ll still need a site inspection. Many solar installers can add remote monitoring at the time of install.

Optimising your solar bill savings

Unless you have a feed-in tariff greater than your retail cost of buying electricity from the grid, solar electricity gives the best savings when it powers your appliances directly. So if practical, run your energy-intensive appliances during the daytime. For example, hot water uses a lot of energy, so you could use an electric hot water system (or a heat pump) running on a timer from 11am to 5pm. Water pumping is another prime candidate, for example irrigation or pool filtration.

If your home is well insulated and well sealed, it may be worthwhile to run your reverse cycle air conditioner during a sunny day, leaving the living spaces comfortable well into the night. The ATA has an independent advice service to help households optimise their systems in this way.

Batteries can also save your excess solar for use in the evening. For more information on batteries and if they are right for you, see recent articles “Just add batteries?” and “How green is my solar” in ReNew 137 and “Should you quit the grid?” in Sanctuary 37.

Repairs and upgrades

In the worst case, a failed or underperforming system may need to be repaired. The solar industry is developing quickly, so in practice it can be hard to repair, replace and upgrade systems because the original panels are no longer available. Also the replacement inverter has to be compatible with the panels. In recent years, safety standards for solar systems have increased, so a solar installer repairing or upgrading your system should take it up to current electrical standards. This may be expensive in some cases.

Finally, if you have a good feed-in tariff, upgrading your system could result in you losing your attractive feed-in tariff as repairs are only permitted to replace ‘like for like’.

In some cases, repairing a system can cost more than the cost of the original system. This is particularly common where the system was very cheap in the first place. The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here.

Solar is a wonderful thing. About 10 years ago a 100-watt solar panel cost about $1000. Today the same panel would cost around $100 which is a massive change. With prices now so low, don’t hesitate if you have a system that is hard to repair: buy a new one and bask in the joy of making your own power and paying less to energy companies.

Mick Harris is director of one of Victoria’s leading sustainability retailers EnviroGroup/Environment Shop. He is also the founder of the Alternative Technology Association (Sanctuary’s publisher) where he continues to provide independent technical advice to ATA members and supporters.

Feature image: If your home is well insulated and well sealed, like this house designed by Jerry Wolveridge featured in Sanctuary 17, it may be worthwhile to run your reverse cycle air conditioner during a sunny day, leaving the living spaces comfortable well into the night. Image: Derek Swalwell