Reducing Moisture in a Home

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

No, it’s not the Tasman Sea but something even closer to home.

Many Whanganui residents wake up each morning between May and September surrounded by water as condensation covers every window of their homes. More than just a nuisance, weeping windows can indicate conditions within a dwelling that are, to put it bluntly, unhealthy.

In some homes, high humidity can be as much as a concern as low temperatures in terms of comfort and health. We all know that cool, damp homes are common across New Zealand.

Research by Beacon Pathway found the following:

• New Zealand homes are on average 6 degrees Celsius below World Health Organization recommended minimum temperatures in winter.

• 45 percent of all New Zealand homes are mouldy.

• New Zealand has the second highest rate of asthma in the world, and an excess winter mortality of 1600, a much higher rate than other OECD countries.

• 300,000 New Zealand homes have an unflued gas heater.

• The air inside New Zealand homes can be more polluted than outdoor air.

• Cold, damp homes pose serious health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in the community who spend the most time at home.

Like many problems in our lives, it is more important and effective to treat the cause than the symptoms. In other words, addressing the causes of moisture inside a home is better and cheaper than investing in expensive ventilation systems, which in most cases make homes colder and drier.

The main sources of moisture within a home are as follows: cooking, showering, rising damp, unflued gas heaters, house plants, and airing laundry indoors.

Addressing each source can be done differently. For example, polythene can be fitted under a home – directly on the ground – to effectively reduce rising damp in the same way wearing gumboots keep your feet dry in a muddy paddock.

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However, polythene will do nothing for the damp clothes airing in your lounge. The strategy to address this problem is simple: Don’t do it.

Water vapour released by cooking and showering can be addressed in two ways: cap it or vent it. In other words, cooking with pot lids or installing a shower dome hold steam in, while extractor fans vent steam outside.

That said, we also use certain cooking techniques that reduce steam (and energy use) by over 90%. This win-win combination, however, does require some thinking outside of the box – specifically by cooking inside of a ‘straw box’.

In a strange twist of fate, our straw box contains no straw, but instead is stuffed with Op Shop blankets and tea towels. Either way, the function is the same: insulation. Here is how it works. Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 7.33.12 PM

One of our favourite recipes is 10-Watt Pasta. We take 500 grams of pasta and put it into the ceramic vessel of a slow cooker. Then we boil about 1.75 litres of water in the electric kettle and pour it over the pasta. Last we place the pot, pasta and water into the straw box for 22 minutes, which happens to be the exact amount of time it takes to make an excellent sauce with fresh veges from the garden.

Compare this method of cooking pasta to the traditional way, and you’ll see where that 90% reduction of power and moisture comes from. I suspect it will be highly unlikely for anyone else in Whanganui to adopt this cooking method, but for those with damp, cold homes, it’s worth considering.

Peace, Estwing

Momentum: Both Debt and Climate

Today is the winter solstice – “the shortest day of the year.” This weekend marks the time of year when hours of daylight are shortest and hours of darkness are longest.

For a home like ours that is powered mostly by sunlight energy, this is not good news. But every cloud has a silver lining. Here’s what I mean. Screen shot 2014-06-20 at 6.04.34 PM

Although the end of June marks the time when hours of daylight are shortest, it is not necessarily the coldest time of year – that comes later. In other words, as June turns to July and temperatures drop on average, the days actually get longer.

This may sound counterintuitive: more sun but colder. What’s up with that?

It all has to do with lag time, or what may also be called thermal momentum or seasonal inertia. Put simply, there is a delay in the system between energy input (amount of sunlight) and how we experience that energy (air temperature).

Most of the seasonal delay is influenced by large bodies of water: oceans, seas, very big lakes. These large bodies of water are the thermal mass of the planet – they absorb heat slowly and release it slowly. Sunlight energy is loaded into the world’s waters only for it to be released at a later date.

On a very large scale, most climate scientists say that much of the excess heat energy that the Earth is currently absorbing is going into the world’s oceans. They refer to oceans as “heat sinks.” The major concern with this situation is that the ‘sinks’ will become ‘sources’ in the future. In other words, the chickens (massive amounts of heat energy) will come home to roost (wreak havoc on us with extreme weather events).

While this energy is being stored in the oceans everything appears to us to be OK. It is a lot like running up a large debt. I suspect there were few complaints in Wanganui while council was running up our current debt while holding rates artificially low. Only now do we hear complaints.

This is the same strategy that U.S. President Bush (the second) used with the Iraq War. He did not tax Americans to pay for the war, but put it on the national credit card. There were few complaints at the time, but now after a trillion dollars we hear complaints about the “unsustainable levels of federal debt” in America.

Similarly, climate scientists continue to warn of “unsustainable levels of carbon debt,” but I suspect more and more people will echo them in the future, especially because another and perhaps more ominous delay is also built into the climate system.

Once fossil fuels are burned the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades causing more and more warming. Many scientists say that even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today that we would continue to experience the effects for the better part of most Chronicle readers lifetimes.

In the same way, even if WDC balanced the city’s budget next year we will all still be paying for debts racked up in the past and the accrued interest for years to come.

OK, now for the silver lining…for our house anyway. Heading into July and through August, as temperatures remain low, the increasing minutes of sunlight every day make our solar home that much warmer. Additionally, we use a ‘delay system’ inside our home to capture the daytime warmth and release it at night.

This delay is, of course, thermal mass and it acts just like the Tasman Sea outside our front door: absorbing heat slowly when it is in abundance and releasing it slowly when it is in deficit.

Understanding complex systems and their associated delays, oscillations, changes and feedback loops helps us to ‘see’ into the future and plan accordingly. This way of seeing the world is called “systems thinking,” and is at the heart of eco-design. It has helped us design and renovate an inefficient old villa into a low-energy eco-home, and it has the potential for humanity to come to grips with global climate change and unsustainable debt.

Human beings are notoriously bad at looking toward the future and planning ahead. Systems thinking is a tool to help us all look toward an increasingly volatile and indebted future, ask if it is the future we want for our children, and then decide whether we have the courage to do anything about it today.


Growing Great Garlic: A Matter of Design

Eco Design is a large and growing field. Facing a future of rising energy prices and increasingly volatile weather patterns, it is the inevitable future of design thinking as well as the future of business modeling, education, and governance. Those individuals and organizations that embrace eco design as early adopters will be at an advantage and those that put it off will have squandered time and money unnecessarily.

In my experience, eco-design thinking is applied in two distinct ways. The first and most intuitive way involves biological systems. In other words, using lessons learned from observing natural ecosystems to design and build managed ecosystems that serve human needs. The most obvious example of this is an organic garden.

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 The other way eco-design is used is in non-biological systems, which can include buildings, vehicles, energy production, industrial processes, management, and even governance. Our renovation is a perfect example of eco-design thinking applied to a draughty old New Zealand villa. This column and Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) are attempts to promote eco-design thinking throughout our city.

Today I’ll stick to biological systems with a focus of food production.

Organic agriculture goes all the way back to the dawn of agriculture because there were no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides back then. Imagine a time before Monsanto!

Organic growers use eco-design thinking to produce as much food as possible while working with nature, not against it. Their ‘toolbox’ consists of a range of techniques, equipment, compost and on occasion naturally-derived pesticides. The vege plots at our home and the organic techniques we use were recently featured in a film profiling super abundant home gardens throughout New Zealand.

Eco design thinking along with a decade and a half of experience have allowed me to produce abundant healthy kai for our family at very little expense of time, effort and money. This is the type of win-win-win outcome that is almost always provided by eco-design.

Although there is no substitute for experience, one good way to leap frog your own experience is by engaging in well planned experiential learning. While I was developing my organic growing skills I took advantage of local farm tours, I enrolled in workshops, and I practiced…a lot – sometimes 14 hours a day while I was market gardening.

Those days are behind me, but I draw on that experience to manage our low-input/high-productivity gardens, or what I also sometimes call “Lazy gardening.” From my experience, one of the best crops for lazy gardening is garlic. Over the years I have grown and sold many thousands of beautiful and delicious garlic. Growing great garlic is all about working smarter instead of working harder. (See sidebar to learn more.)

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Another example of low-input/high productivity food production on our property is the way we grow tomatoes: lots and lots of tomatoes. This year we have enjoyed five months of continuous garden ripened tomatoes from the middle of December through the end of May without a glass house. This abundance was made possible by designing for sun, concentrating fertility, and successive planting. But we’re still three months away from putting tomatoes in the ground so we’ll save that story for another day. Screen shot 2014-06-14 at 7.31.32 AM


Growing Great Garlic Workshops

Learn how to grow the best garlic in the world. Workshops include the world’s best organic seed garlic for you to take home and two litres top quality organic compost. $15.

21st June, 9–10 am

22nd June, 9–10 am

22nd June, 3-4 pm

Registration and deposit essential., 022 635 0868, 344 5013

Child’s Play

As our daughter gets more and more active, she engages in more of our daily and weekly work patterns. One thing we have observed is that she loves water. As such, we try to engage her in chores that involve water.

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She also appears to love sorting objects into containers. We harnessed this energy when we had lots of beans to shell.

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She is also quite insistent in helping with larger chores and larger tools.

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But sometimes she also likes to just sit and watch.

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She was a little skeptical of our meager kumura harvest.

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And sometimes she just likes to be a super hero.

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But at the end of the day, we have had lots of fun and gotten some work done.      Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 8.20.46 AM


Peace, Estwing

Draughts or Drafts? Either Way, Reduce Them.

Windows and doors can account for up to 40% of the heat lost from a home. In many instances, more heat passes through windows and doors than through ceilings, which themselves can account for up to 35% of heat loss.

Of course all homes are different, and there can be ranges based on the number and quality to doors and windows, and the thickness of ceiling insulation. For example, there are differences between timber windows, aluminium windows, single-glazing, double-glazing, and the R-Value of insulation.

Additionally, it matters whether windows and glass doors face north or south on how much heat they lose during winter. For example, south-facing windows emit heat from a home to the outdoors nearly every minute from May through August. On the other hand, north-facing windows can gain heat during sunny winter days and only release heat at night.    Screen shot 2014-06-07 at 8.39.25 AM

The bottom line is that in many cases glazing accounts for more heat loss than ceilings. This is significant for a number of reasons:

1) The government subsidizes ceiling and floor insulation but appears stop there.

2) Even with government funds, insulation often costs thousands of dollars.

3) Many landlords have no intention of insulating their properties.

4) Dealing to doors and windows can be done at a fraction of the cost of insulating ceilings and floors.

When it comes to doors and windows, heat is lost from a home in two ways: free exchange of air (aka draughts) and heat radiating through glazing. I have written about insulating windows with window blankets and I will write in the future about options for DIY double-glazing. Today is all about draughts, and more specifically it is about plugging them.

During our renovation, we engaged in lots of high-end draught-proofing around new windows and doors as required by the New Zealand Building Code. This involved foam and spray foam and a bit of a mess. But it works very well. Screen shot 2014-06-07 at 8.33.49 AM

Additionally, we engaged in many low-end draught-proofing strategies on existing doors and windows that anyone can use, whether they are a renter, owner, Chiefs supporter or die-hard Hurricanes fan. Some of these strategies have essentially no associated costs while others may have price tags ranging from $4 to $20.

Approaches to draught-proofing take two basic forms. The first is using adhesive foam strips to seal narrow gaps around timber doors and windows. This product is usually cheaper than a flat white in a café, and comes in a number of colours to blend in with your paint choices.

The other strategy involves blocking the passage of air underneath doors. In my free-home-energy-audit travels with Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) I have seen gaps as large as 2 centimeters beneath front and back doors. On a breezy Whanganui winter day, that can mean a lot of air transfer!

Blocking such draughts are about as easy as ‘home improvement’ gets. A low-cost option is to buy a draught excluder and fix it to the bottom of the door. I recommend against buying the cheapest plastic models as I do not believe they are durable. The one pictured has an aluminium strip holding a thin foam barrier.

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A free option is to find a piece of off-cut ‘two-by-two’ (4.5cm x 4.5 cm) and cut it to length as wide as your door. Wrap it in a towel and tie the ends like a Christmas crack. At the end of winter throw the towel in the wash and store the wood for next year. Screen shot 2014-06-07 at 8.33.41 AM

One final note: I have noticed on occasion cold air blowing in through power sockets on exterior walls. My suggestion in this case is to keep electric plugs in them at all times or use a baby safety plug.


Peace, Estwing