Caveat Emptor

Have you ever been rung by a company promising you a product that will improve the health of your home? Have you ever been told over the phone that you qualify for an insulation subsidy? Have you ever been promised a “free estimate”?

Yes, it’s true, when something seems too good to be true it usually is.

I have been amused recently by an advertisement on local radio claiming that solar energy is a great way to “save” power. Um, excuse me but solar photovoltaic panels do not save electricity. They generate electricity. This is about as fundamental a flaw in understanding of electrical power as our local authority’s demonstrated understanding of wastewater treatment. And we all fear what that will cost.

The same ad claims that solar panels “essentially” pay for themselves over their lifespan. First of all, what does “essentially” mean? It does not seem like a guarantee of performance to me. And even if it did, the last time I checked, the lifespan of most photovoltaic panels was 30 years. A payback period of 30 years represents a very marginal return on investment that does not compare to dozens of better investments one can make in power savings for the home.

On one level this type of marketing is amusing but on another level it is concerning because it deceives most of those who hear it.

Please understand, I do not mean to pick on one particular company. I am simply using this as an example to demonstrate my point. Businesses are in business to do business. This means selling you products or services that you may or may not need.

This is not to say that all businesses use questionable sales pitches. Many do not. What it does mean is that enough do that it should make all consumers very cautious. We often hear about “cowboys” in the building and home improvement trades.

Perhaps “bandits” would be more accurate. Sadly, there are enough of them out there to colour the whole industry.

Here is a short list of things to be aware of to protect yourself from getting less-than-your-money’s-worth:

Cold Calls – If you are contacted out of the blue with a “special offer”, ask yourself why have I not heard about this in other ways?

High Pressure Sales Techniques – The more pressure salespersons apply to you (ringing repeatedly, urging you to sign an agreement without having time to reflect), the more skeptical you should be!

Unsubstantiated Claims – Ask to see data that proves the claim. Ask for a guarantee of performance in writing.

“No money down” and Payment Plans – When you buy something on credit you always end up paying more.

Unneeded Products and Unneeded Services – Remember, a salesperson is just that. If you speak to one on the telephone or one comes to your home, they have one thing in mind: to get you to open your wallet.

Sadly, we know that pensioners are targeted in many of these ways. Over the last two years I have visited many homes in Wanganui occupied by seniors who have not been given value for money on everything from curtains to heating systems to ventilation systems. It’s frustrating to come in after the fact and witness the impacts of slick salesmanship or simply bad advice, particularly when it effects those on fixed incomes.

Yes, in this world, good advice comes at a price, but bad advice is almost always more expensive. Fortunately, when it comes to the housing sector there are a number of sources of free, independent, expert advice. Here are a few:

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA):

Beacon Pathway:

Eco Design Advisors:

These are considered among the most accurate and trustworthy sources of advice in New Zealand on everything involving heating and cooling, insulation, controlling moisture, and appropriate ventilation.

Closer to home, you can contact the Whanganui Regional Health Network for advice and to see if you really qualify for a government (EECA) insulation subsidy. Additionally, you can submit your questions to the Chronicle and I will answer them over the next three months. Please submit your inquiries to Anna Wallis, Wanganui Chronicle, PO Box 433 Wanganui or

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Byline: Dr. Nelson Lebo diagnoses unhealthy homes and prescribes cost-effective remedies for any budget.

Free Range “Big Girl”

Verti is quick to say, “I’m not a baby. I’m a big girl.”

Yesterday she was keen to watch a movie after her breakfast. This is what we did instead. Verti took her chick, “Boot,” for a walk.

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A very muddy walk.

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A sort of clay mud that sticks.

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But so much fun.

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Some apple picking.  Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 8.42.29 AM

Finally it was snack time.

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A good morning with no digital technology involved.

Peace, Estwing

No Really, I Am a House Doctor

Editor’s Note: This is my regular weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.   For three years I have strived to provide topical and accurate advice and commentary on eco-renovation, healthy homes, edible landscaping, solar energy, composting, organic gardening and creative reuse, as well as on local issues of sustainability or lack thereof. That’s 156 consecutive weeks, and as far as I recall there was only one instance in which I have been corrected: a case of writing about a change to the New Zealand Building Code that had been reported inaccurately to me. (I should have done my homework.) The point is I would never intentionally mislead readers and I go to lengths to cite my sources where appropriate. The legitimacy of columnists relies on the accuracy of the information they share. And so it was with great surprise that I opened last Saturday’s paper to see hash marks around my educational prefix: “Dr.” Although the extra punctuation was probably an error during sub-editing, I want to ensure Chronicle readers that I am indeed a Dr without the inverted double-commas. My father says I’m “not a real doctor” because I do not practice medicine, but I am at least as much a doctor as Dr Russell Norman, co-leader of the Green Party. It is widely recognized that Dr Norman has brought a new level of legitimacy and acceptance to the Greens since he assumed a leadership position. If it means bringing legitimacy and acceptance to the concepts of healthy homes and energy efficiency then call me “Doc.” Hardly a week goes by that we do not hear something in the news about the major challenges related to housing. In last week’s Chronicle it was Chief human rights commissioner David Rutherford who urged all parties to come together over this “very serious” issue. He called for the provision of adequate housing which “would reduce the incidence of childhood illnesses due to cold, damp, overcrowded accommodation, and the call for more of our elderly to be cared for in homes which are in many cases likely to be unsuitable for elderly habitation to name just a few of the issues.” Just before that article appeared, Melissa Wishart reported on Professor Paul McDonald’s visit to “Wanganui” during which he discussed a holistic approach to the health sector that addresses social issues first: “Most people think that health is a series of medical challenges that sometimes have social consequences…health is a series of social challenges and opportunities that sometimes have medical consequences.” Both Rutherford and McDonald undoubtedly draw on the work of Dr Philippa Howden-Chapman, professor of public health at Otago University, Wellington. She is widely recognized as the premier ‘House Doctor’ in New Zealand, heading up Healthy Housing/He Kainga Oranga, a housing and health research programme, as well as the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities. If Dr. Howden-Chapman is the brain surgeon of healthy homes in New Zealand I would qualify as something like a general practicioner. In my day job I visit up to four homes a day (yes, I do house calls) to discuss with residents the things that constitute a healthy home and what are the first and best steps for them to take given their budget and lifestyle. Every home I visit is different and every family is different. Being able to provide the most up-to-date independent advice specifically tailored to a young family or retired couple is a rewarding way to make a living. The strength of my advice relies completely on trust, as clients rely on my diagnosis of problems with their home, and my prescriptions for how to address them. In this way, I do very much feel like a medical doctor. It is an honour to serve society in this way, but also a great responsibility to maintain the highest levels of accuracy and integrity. As we roll into winter 2015, I will be happy to answer your questions on insulation, ventilation, heating, moisture and condensation, mould, heat transfer, household appliances, and even light bulbs. Submit questions to Anna Wallace, Deputy Editor, Wanganui Chronicle.

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Peace, Dr. Estwing

Raising Backyard Chickens

Below  is a link to another article I wrote for

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Their graphic artists have done a terrific job. Here is their version of the iconic permaculture diagram of a chicken.

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They have done a great job of making our little chook shed look presentable.

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This is what it really looks like.

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Same with the tractor.

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Here is what ours looks like in our food forest.

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And finally, a clear graphic for clipping wings.     Screen shot 2015-04-18 at 10.03.43 AM

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Peace, Estwing

Local Innovation

Editor’s note: This is my regular weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


Periodically we hear talk of “innovation” in and around our River City. The term is spouted, touted and the “innovators” are outed. But from what I can tell, innovation must be a lot like beauty: it is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, many of the so-called innovations are simply not very original and/or useful to society.

Meanwhile, what I consider one of the most innovative local businesses has gone unrecognized for its success and even moderate growth despite considerable headwinds. Who is that business? You’re holding it. Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 6.11.25 AM

The Wanganui Chronicle is a thriving regional newspaper in an age of global print media decline. For example, the New Orleans Times Picayune reduced its print run to a Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule in 2012. The New Orleans metropolitan area has a population of around 1.2 million. Compare that to the Whanganui region.

I’ll admit that New Orleans had been through hard times, so I’ll give another example. In 2009, the new owners of the Boston Globe – one of the finest newspapers is America – aggressively pursued $20 million (US) in cost savings due to decreasing revenues.

As with any business, there’s income and expenses. As income is squeezed and expenses rise or remain static, innovation is essential. Although there are probably many innovations of which I am unaware, I’ll mention a few here.

Three years ago this week the Chronicle launched its tabloid-style Monday-Friday paper and its new-look weekend broadsheet edition. These changes were accompanied by the beginning of a trend in regular local columnists of which we three on page B5 were the first. (Happy Anniversary Terry and Kate!) With over a dozen local writers now contributing regular weekly columns, the Chronicle is supplied with abundant, relevant, and shall we say “cost effective” content to fill the pages with issues that matter to our community.

Let’s classify the above changes to the Chronicle as right-sizing and using local resources. From one perspective, these can be considered eco-thrifty strategies. Add to these the fact that APN shares printing presses with rival publisher Fairfax, and you have a series of innovative, cost-effective measures that ensure our local paper continues to publish six days a week.

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Another innovative organisation I discovered recently in Palmerston North is Reclaimed Timber Traders. To put it bluntly, I am amazed by this organization. From their website:

“In an effort to contribute to a more sustainable environment and conserve native forests, we are recycling treated and non-treated timber that would otherwise go to landfill here in The Manawatu, extending to other regions in the near future.

Whilst providing employment, training and social opportunities for disadvantaged and unemployed in our community.”

The environmental benefits of RTT are clear and admirable, but the social benefits are truly impressive. Also from their webiste:

“Some of us at RTT have faced barriers to working, and as a Social Enterprise we actively try to help others find employment by offering work experience and volunteering opportunities. Many of our volunteers have found employment.

We provide a supportive family / whanau environment to encourage life and social skills in order to raise self worth, and work readiness to reduce unemployment and associated negative outcomes. E.g. imprisonment and suicide.”

If that was not enough to earn this tiny organisation huge praise, they also provide shipping containers full of reclaimed building materials to international disaster areas. This function is facilitated by their charitable arm, Human Aid Focus.

I recently purchased a selection of native timbers to frame a kitchen island. While the top is a reclaimed rimu bar I bought on Trade Me last winter, the matai legs come from RTT, and the tounge and groove is the former lean-to ceiling of our Castlecliff villa. Total cost: $107. Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 6.11.00 AM

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If you would like more information about Reclaimed Timber Traders or Human Aid Focus, their website is:


Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Update: Part Two

Well, it did not take long for our new “pond” to fill.

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Overnight it filled with another 20-30 mm of rainfall. Now in the last 6 days we are approaching 150 mm (6 inches) of rain. Now I am thinking less about swales and more about drains. This building is at the foot of a slope and has received a lot of water in the past.

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The rubble road we are building also acts as a drain for this building made of steel and wood – neither of which like water.

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The water flows away from the shed and also away from the house, which suffers from serious drainage issues at the moment.

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The swale has actually decreased the amount of water flowing through this gate and down the drive toward the house. That alone is a huge benefit of the swale.

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Closer to home, the drain I finished last weekend is working well. It takes the water coming down the concrete pad next to the house…

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…and directs it under the house…

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…through a bicycle water bottle adapter (no joke) and into novoflow flexible piping under the house and out the other side.        Screen shot 2015-04-13 at 11.27.05 AM

With water it always seems like too much or too little, and the climate scientists warn us that we’ll be getting more of both in the future. Buckle up for a bumpy ride.


Peace, Estwing

Early Autumn Permaculture Update

After an amazingly long summer it feels that autumn is finally here. I wore my winter wetsuit surfing yesterday for the first time since October. I’ve put new fire bricks in the wood burner and it looks like this will be the week to light it.

After a significant dry spell, we have had 100+ mm of rain in the last 4 days. As a result of that we have an unexpected pond on our property.

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Truth be told, it is not unexpected, just not in the space planned for it.

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We have been building a swale in combination with a rubble road and a raised area to plant avocado trees.

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But at the moment the pond is in the excavated area for the rubble road and not behind the swale.

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Just for fun I started digging the pond today. Under about 250 mm of topsoil is a clay pan.

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Ultimately we can line the walls of the pond with the clay so it holds water longer.

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 But it’s all good. The ducks love the temporary pond, and why spoil their fun.

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Peace, Estwing

Bamboo Flooring

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Three years ago we installed an attractive, low-cost laminate floor in our lounge and hallway. Sadly, it did not take long for buyer’s remorse to set in: 20 minutes to be exact. That’s how long it took to put a noticeable gouge in the new floor while shifting a large wardrobe back into place. Next it took a week for our kitten to wee under a sideboard, which seeped between two pieces of flooring and caused the ‘Wheatbix’ substrate to swell and warp. Later I heard from a man who used to work in a factory manufacturing such flooring. He said the process involved toxins and that he had left the job for health reasons. Thrifty: yes. Eco: maybe not. The laminate floor was a conspicuous outlier in our renovation in that it did not represent an investment in durability and performance. I have learned my lesson. Recently we were in the position of covering a wide swath of 1980’s linoleum with some sort of ‘floating floor’ but not another cheap laminate.The term ‘floating floor’ refers to any flooring product that has no nails, screws or other type of brackets to hold it down. It is usually applied on top of a thin foam/foil material, and simply ‘floats’ on it. One of my colleagues at recently wrote an article on sustainable building materials. Four flooring types were included: FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood; natural-fibre carpet; cork; and, bamboo.

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(If you want to read the entire article, go to, and open the web page for Green Living.) After a bit of research, my wife and I decided to go with bamboo. The reasons included: durability, scratch resistance, eco-friendly, and easy to install.

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Thanks for helping. 

Alongside energy-efficiency and reusing materials, durability (aka, resilience) is a cornerstone of eco-thrifty renovation. Regarding durability, bamboo has been tested to a Janka Hardness Level of 15.3 kilonewtons. So what, you may say, until learning that rimu has a score of 3.6 and kwila measures 8.2. Even ironwood only reaches 10.5 on the Janka scale. Screen shot 2015-04-04 at 8.24.26 AM In terms of its eco-cred, here is what the website, has to say: “Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth, with some species growing several feet per day. Bamboo flooring is a renewable and sustainable resource.” Additionally, our floor was coloured using a process called “carbonisation”, which means that there is no need for toxic stains or worrying that the finish may scratch off. The bamboo strands are pressure heated, which turns them a beautiful coffee colour throughout.

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New meets old.

But all bamboo floors are not created equal. We went with what is called “solid strand woven bamboo flooring” made from long kiln-dried fibres mixed with resin as a binder, and then compressed. This process results in the densest and hardest of bamboo flooring options. This also results in a product that is easy to install for what I would consider an intermediate DIYer. Don’t get me wrong, the floor clicks together marvelously, it is just all the cutting around the edges that requires some skill and confidence. In order to get a clean look, keeping tidy edges is key, especially because you have to leave expansion/contraction gaps all the way around. Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 7.37.22 AM Many rooms have four corners, but our new kitchen has 16! What may have been a one-day job in a rectangular room turned into a two-day job for us. Patience is essential for a good finish, along with a new blade in your circular saw. I reckon a couple extra hours of focused work is worth the 25+ years of life the bamboo floor will give in return, not to mention its stunning looks.   Peace, Estwing

Get on the Bus!

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe, 1968) is recognized as one of the great non-fiction literary works of the Beat Generation. The New York Times called it an “essential book” among the great reads of the time.

Using a literary style called ‘New Journalism’, Wolfe conveys the story of poet Ken Keysey and his Band of Merry Pranksters as they make their way on a second-hand school bus across the United States from West Coast to East Coast. Along the journey they have a number of wild adventures and meet the likes of Jerry Garcia of the Greatful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, and the Hells Angels.

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As one might expect, ‘Pranksters’ came and went throughout the long and winding trip. As the driver, Keysey used a simple phrase over and over before closing the door, starting the engine, and pulling back onto the highway: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” The bus was appropriately named “Further.”

Fast-forward 2015: Any talk of cultural icons and named buses leads only to Winston Peters and his “Force for the North.” Ironically, while Winny was physically on the bus, it was Prime Minister John Key who metaphorically urged Northland voters to stay on the National Party bus. At present, riding that bus means supporting the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Peters, however, has said he won’t stamp that ticket. “We’ll stop them passing this law. It’s about foreign corporates suing you as a taxpayer. That’s a challenge to this country’s democracy, which has been going for 167 years. It’s about our sovereignty and right to make our own laws.”

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Peters appears to have won a decisive victory in the National Party stronghold by sticking to his message: This government has neglected the regions, and particularly Northland, for too long.

I have never been to Northland but one thing I hear about the region is its dreadful housing stock. On this issue, the Whaganui region cannot be far behind. If you live in a home built before 2008 it almost certainly cannot be characterised as warm, dry and easy to heat. Even many homes built since 2008 would be considered low-performers when using an international yardstick.

It is well known that many Kiwis live in cold, damp homes far below World Health Organisation standards. Research shows that these conditions cost the nation dearly in medical expenses, missed days at work, illness related absenteeism in school, and high power bills for those who do turn up the heat. This creates what appears to be a lose-lose-lose situation, especially when applied to our Wanganui community.

Not having grown up in New Zealand I don’t fully understand the cultural tolerance for grotty housing and why it is so hard to rally people to ‘get on the bus’ for healthy homes. I would have thought that a wide range of organisations in the River City would get right behind the idea of healthy homes/healthy people/healthy economy. But the concept doesn’t seem to gain traction here.

Over the last two winters I have had the pleasure to work with a very small group of concerned individuals and businesses to provide free independent advice on the most affordable and best performing ways of keeping any home warm and dry. The feedback from participants has been excellent.

Ironically, during one of our free presentations at the Josephite Retreat Centre last September on “How to use your heat pump effectively,” Winston Peters was in the city campaigning. Since Peter’s voter base was the exact target audience of the presentation, you will not be surprised by our low turnout on the night. Maybe I should have asked to be his warm-up act!

But seriously, do you have any ideas on how we can rally our community to ‘get on the bus’ for low-energy/high-performance homes? Or am I just spinning my wheels?

To Quote Ken Keysey, “There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.”

Peace, Estwing