Friday, 25 September 2009

Still Here

Hello again all those interested in the hidden costs of restless houses and beyond. I am dropping a quick line to inform that I am still here despite the 6 month break in proceedings. There has been a lot of activity to update on. The arrival of a second daughter in April has distracted my attention from the demands of the conventions associated with blogging. I promise to be back soon with a series of interesting bits and pieces relating to the house and the things around it. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

22 - Another Picture Break

A friend of mine who sews things (her blog is mentioned off to the left... oh and here it is hopping through branches) recently came to stay with us and took some photos. I think you will agree that they are rather stunning.

Also about 5 weeks ago we moved into the house. The barn was driving us crazy and we wanted to be setup in the house before the new baby came along. The kitchen and bathroom have adequate temporary measures in place. When we get them done we will go for final council approval. Keep reading, those that still do, and I'll let you know what happens there.

The house now

Misty morning view from the breakfast nook window

All of us, just north of the house, with the barn in the background.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

21 - The Solar Hot Water System

While I am shamelessly plugging products with free abandon, I'd like to record my admiration for the Apricus evacuated tube solar hot water system we had installed some months ago. This thing is an absolute gem - so far. We got the 250 litre 20 tube system. We were used to living with a 50 litre electric system in the shed for the last three years. So 250 litres should be ample.

The style of laborious deliberation we have honed throughout this entire house experience was deployed when we were considering the solar hot water system. Hours of reading, questioning and misguided assumption fueled heated discussions with each other went into this decision and I think I can safely say that in the end we did the right thing.

To sum up this research in a few words, we went for the evacuated tube system because of its efficiency claims and its trouble free frost proof-ness. The flat panel systems that were frost free were potentially unsafe to roof collected water supplies such as ours. There is some additive in their that could leak if the unit was damaged in any way. One would have to isolate that part of the roof's water collection. We weren't prepared to do this. Now on to efficiency, I guess in the end all those diagrams on tube promotional material depicting arrows being emitted from the sun and hitting tubes at various angles won me over. Testimonials claiming the lack of need to turn on the water system's boosting despite 'grey days' also cheerfully chimed in until I was sold. We found a fairly local plumber who specialises in Apricus installation and it was up and going in half a day.

We have been using hot water in the house now for 6 weeks and so far I have not turned on the electric booster. It has been great. Over the last few weeks we have had a lot of rainy days with none or very little direct sun light. The water went down in temp to just warm enough for a shower on the third grey day. With winter coming along soon I am interested to see if this performance will change. Now, yes, perhaps I will stubbornly insist that we have cold showers before any boosting is done in this house, but I am still keen to find out if we will make it through.

The one downside to this system is cost. I thought before purchasing that we would be eligible for a raft of rebates that would take the pain out of the $3978 punch in the pocket. The installation cost was $800 and was perfect. We got RECS back of $989 which helped. So all up the system cost $3789. I thought we could get a further $1000 from the Federal Government and about $600 from the NSW state government because in theory we were upgrading an old system. It came with the house. However in many respects what we are doing here is considered a new house and does not attract certain upgrade rebates. Oh well. At least we still have the first home owners' grant up our sleeve.

We chose the Apricus over the Hills brand simply because it was cheaper and it came with a 20 tube sytem rather than 22. We have a lot of sun where we are and anything over 20 is really overkill. Apricus has wonderful after sales service with technicians on hand almost 24/7 to answer any questions or concerns. Fantastic.

Here it is on the roof

Thursday, 9 April 2009

20 - The Composting Toilet

Whoa that plumbing post was a bit dense on second read. Sorry for that. I will resist the urge to slice great chunks of detail from its girth in the hope that someone somewhere will find its intricacies useful at sometime. However, I will endeavour to rein in the ambitiousness of this post, as it could get out of hand considering the topic and my well established infatuation with it.

I have already talked about our purchase of the Nature–Loo composting toilet and my reasons for wanting one. I remember blabbing on about taking responsibility for one’s own poo and what not. All this is still relevant and I stand by it. I took longer than first anticipated to get around to the installation and I am taking much longer than expected to represent that experience here in writing. Nearly four months after the first long drop was heard ending with a thud I am now recounting the events leading up to it. I do apologise for the delay, but I have discovered that penning this blog’s paragraphs is a pass time that, though very enjoyable, cannot be forced. I am enticed to the keyboard by an unpredictable chain of events, moods and inclinations. All of which combine in similar but very different ways to produce the words you are reading now. Sigh. Now to put these to the best use I best be describing the toilet. Chop Chop … or more aptly… Drop Drop, let’s go.

Some posts back I outlined the beginnings of a transformation for the house’s bathroom. Remember. We moved the bathroom to the laundry off the back deck and are in the process of converting the room it left behind into a study or third bedroom. During this move we considered including the toilet in the new bathroom, but thought it best to give it its own space. This decision was mostly preference and practicality but a little bit was uncertainty. I had read about the no smell claims of the composting toilet but wasn’t going to bet the offensive odour free life that I mostly enjoy now on them. So a semi outdoor toilet in its own room seemed like a safe idea at the time. In hindsight this concern need not have been one, more on that in a bit.

The bits and pieces that arrived with the toilet are many. A lot of them are bits of conventional plumbing fittings that have been altered and fashioned into some toilet facilitating form. There are various size PVC pipe fittings with slits and holes and additions. These were not on any promotional material I perused before purchase. I guess if they were my thrifty, industrious, though clumsy mind would have conjured ways to build my own composting crapper for much less than the 2000 plus clams I parted with. Then again, mine would not have met certain standards and wouldn’t pass the final house inspection. Nature-Loo is approved in all, or nearly all, Australian States, I think. Anyway I got the bits, read the instruction booklet and set to work. There was nothing particularly special about the installation, it went smoothly enough. The hard part for me was the vent pipe. The high set nature of the back of the house meant that the 100mm pvc pipe was over 7 metres long. This was a tricky feat for a man who is new to plumbing and grossly deficient in local mates dishing out labour flavoured favours.

The basic set up is a pedestal attached to a chute. This chute is about three metres in our case. The chute leads to a chamber with a false bottom for liquids to drip through and leave via a flexible hose. This liquid can run into a mini gravel trench and then seep into the ground or, for us, be plumbed into the drain pipe leading to the grey water system. The solids are stored in the chamber until about 4-5-6 months when it is full. Then you swap the chamber for an empty one and leave the full one sit and compost for another 4-5-6 months. Then you empty it by burying the contents or spreading them somewhere as per your local council guidelines.

Both the in service and out of service chamber are plumbed in for excess liquids

Alright so the question on everyone’s nose upon hearing an intention on composting poo is usually, “but what about the smell?” Well there isn’t any. In fact it smells better than a normal flush toilet. You can go in straight after someone who is notorious for leaving an enduring toilet presence and smell absolutely nothing. This fact rests high on the solo shoulders of the small fan which sits in the base of the vent pipe. This fan draws air through the chamber and pushes it up the vent pipe beyond the roof line. At first my pipe was not long enough (ahem…) and every now and then we would be greeted by a fruity waft while sitting on the back deck. I added a metre and all is now fine. The manual states that the vent pipe should be 600mm above the highest point of the roof. At first I thought this was overkill. Later I found out that drafts and circular currents are produced when breezes hit obstacles like roofs. therefore, when talking toilet vent pipes, the smell can be pushed downwards. This must have happened to us. Considering the fan is run on electricity and it needs to be on all the time, blackouts could easily bring a whole new dimension to inconvenience. Without the fan smells can leave the pedestal and fill the toilet room and beyond. Keeping the toilet seat lid shut helps, so does having a good compost process and, in our case, having the toilet away from the main house.

The vent pipe


While capturing my love for the composting toilet here with sentences, we have encountered a problem. Vinegar flies have taken over. They have been getting into the chamber and are now in great abundance. This should pose no real threat to the effectiveness of the toilet it’s just they fly out by the dozen when we open the toilet lid. Fortunately for us the toilet is outside the house. The manual offers a few suggestions but does not convey complete confidence in any one of them. I’ll keep trying a few things and keep posting. This slight inconvenience has taken a little sheen of my admiration of the Nature-Loo but, considering its ultra elevated position in my held esteem, it didn't move much.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

19 - The Plumbing

I don’t think mere words, no matter how eloquent or precise, could adequately convey the experience of getting all of the plumbing done for the house. I can only write about it now, so late in the game, because it is almost finally finished. Much of the time was burnt up in the search for a plumber that would take on the job after reading the waste treatment report outlining the intricacies involved with the grey water. For those new to my ramblings, the house’s waste system will consist of a dry composting toilet and a simple septic system for grey water. Only due to the unholy matrimony between our house site and council requirements, we could not have the septic leech field trench business near the house as it would have been too close to gullies (watercourses). There was one spot but upon closer investigation following a heap of rain we discovered it contained a spring. The alternative we decided upon was to have the water leave the septic tank via a sump pump and travel some 130 meters down a hill and up again to be connected to our existing trench that is attached to the septic that is attached to the shed that is what we now live in. This alternative suits us better in the end as we do not have to accommodate a large leech field near the house where we want to plant things and we don’t need to pay for new trenches and stuff to be dug.

So the details of all this were laid out in a rather wordy, numbery, and somewhat costly, report. We then gave this report to three different fairly local plumbers for quoting. Here’s where time started to slip away, slowly at first and then steadily increasing in both speed and intensity, much like an animated snowball. We didn’t think about this quoting process much before adhering to it as a logical course of action for people outside of town with a big job to pursue. Preparing a complex quote can be a lot of work for a busy plumber, and then there is no guarantee that their will be any money in it for them at the end. There are all sorts of bits and pieces to price. Many short weeks, awkward phone calls and empty promises went by and still no quote came in. We finally found out from one plumber that while he was pricing up some of the materials in a shop another plumber had a copy of our report and was doing the same. The second plumber said he was given the job from one of the other plumbers we had asked because he was too busy to take it on. Anyway it all ended in plumber distrust. The ones that were too busy were too busy and the one that would have done the job was put off after discovering that we had apparently asked every Tom, Dick and Harry with a pocket full of thread tape to submit a quote. This process of hearing nothing back went on for a few months. We were torn between demanding a response and potentially putting plumbers off by such a demand. In hindsight we should not have insisted on quotes for the septic system. The “I know a good plumber” in small towns is as good as a quote. We should have showed faith in any locally referred plumber who expressed an interest in taking on the job.

In the end we pursued a referral from our neighbour who knew a plumber through family links living on the Gold Coast, an hour’s drive away. He came in and had a look and said, despite not having done many septic hookups before he would take on the job. After seemingly offending the local plumbers we signed up our Gold Coast saviour. To help him out I started to source some of the materials he would need for the grey water system.

This decision sparked the second stage of snowballing time loss. It turns out this plumber was also rather busy and managed to spread the plumbing of the house, including the septic, over 3 months. There was about 8-9 days work in it. I guess in many regards this did not matter too much as we still had many little things to complete before we can move in. However, our anxiety grew as the time passed for we had a huge tank to fill and our rainy season was fast approaching without down, or storm, water pipes to welcome it. I am happy to say that the entire plumbing job is now almost finally finished as I write these words. There are just some fit off jobs to do after we make a kitchen and sort the bathroom out. We have a temporary hook up for the bathroom basin and the shower. I will discuss these with lashings of detail in a future post.

A Few Words on the Waste Treatment System

This is all completed now but not before a couple of minor complications. The first was the confusion over the tanks for the grey water system. The report stated that we needed two tanks that were both at least 1800 L. One was for the waste water to go into and then overflow into the second that will house a sump pump. At certain fullness the pump would come alive and pump water to the trenches I mentioned earlier. For our particular site these tanks needed to be plastic. I could only find a 1600L or a 3000L tank. I almost begged and pleaded with the consultant who wrote the report to allow me to use the 1600L size tank. “What’s 200 litres between friends?” I asked. He wouldn’t budge. His reasoning was that he had to allow a capacity determined by our potential household number of people, in case of pump failure. So if the pump breaks down we would have a few days to organise for it to be replaced before the second tank overflowed. Fair enough but we don’t use much water. I suspected that his figures were probably based on well washed folk on town water before restrictions. Anyway I was left with no choice but to buy two 3000L septic tanks. While we were over capitalising I figured I may as well get a baffle put in one, so I did. And remember all this was only for grey water. There will be no black water in the system because of the composting toilet. One consolation though is that if we ever sell the house and for some crazy reason the new owner does not want to use the composting toilet, then they will have the capacity to tackle their poo with a flush toilet and a septic tank system – boring.

The septics with the drain from the house feeding into them

The trench containing the polypipe on its way to our current residence - the shed

I did get to stray from the report a little which granted me the rebellious fix I was looking for earlier. It suggested using 32mm pipe to carry the water to the trench. Considering the friction loss one gets when pumping up hill over a certain distance the man who sold me the sump and I thought 40 mm would be better. So this is what we used. Ahhhh. Also the report stated that this poly pipe should feed into the end of the existing slotted 90mm pipe running through the trench and be drilled with 5mm holes and capped off. It didn’t say how far up the slotted pipe the poly pipe should go. In the end I thought it best to run in just over half way, which is where the shed septic tank tees into it. My neighbour thought it best not to cap the poly pipe completely in case of blockages in the 5mm holes. Fair enough. But then I noticed during one of many test runs that there wasn’t enough resistance to push much water out of these holes. My solution was to reduce the outlet down to a quarter of its size. This gave more resistance and hence flow to the holes and was still large enough to dodge the likelihood of blockages. Sorry for all the details, done now though. The reason I took on this job was because the plumber had left it for ages and the exposed end of the septic pipe, plus the last few metres of open trench were getting all grassed over and annoying.

The Tank Hook Up

Our plumber saw fit to leave the hooking up of the water tank to the house gutters until last. When this was suggested before he began work I was cool with it, however, after the work started and the time between his visits spilled over from clocks to calendars to seasons, we were getting anxious. We already had to buy one load of water to stabilise the tank and help test the other plumbing work. Despite the gutting effect this had on the old wallet, it barely made a dent in the tank’s capacity. We did not want to do this again in a hurry. Turns out we didn’t have to. The plumber returned for 2 and half days work in fairly quick succession, well, quick when considering the pace he had already set for himself. The storm water hook up is now finished and as I type, no, madly tap at the keyboard with two fingers as if my hands have been replaced by woodpeckers, the tank is full. It has only been a few weeks. What joy. Thank you rain. It does not take much to fill a tank when all the down pipes are hooked up to it. In this case about 135mm.

All Up
The bill for the plumbing came in at rather full figured. After considering the things I bought such as the storm water pipe, the septic tanks, the sump pump, the pressure pump and the 140 metres of pressure pipe along with the excavation work to bury the septics, running the drain in and burying the pipe up the hill, the total cost for the plumbing was about $13 660. I am very happy with the work, I like to admire it.