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At Home

How does solar power increase your home’s value?

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Solar power could be the best way to increase your property’s value, as well as reduce your energy bill.

For many people, their home is their biggest asset and maintaining it properly is crucial to ensure to ensure it holds its value. Maintenance and upgrades of your property can enhance your lifestyle, and hopefully help hold or improve your property’s market value.

Increasing the value of your home makes a lot of sense, but what is the best way to do this? Not all renovations or changes increase the value enough to cover the cost of having it done. This may not matter so much if you intend to stay in the home for many years and will get a lot of pleasure and value out of the renovation yourself.

Take a pool

For instance, a pool costs quite a lot to install and maintain and does not always increase the value of the home because not everyone wants a pool. By having a pool, the selling reach of the home may be limited to exclude seniors, couples with toddlers or others who may not want to bother with a pool. That said, younger couples without children and those with older children are more likely to be attracted to this addition to your property. It is also possible to overvalue the home compared to the neighbouring homes and find that it just won’t sell for the extra money in that location.

What about solar power?

Solar power is one improvement much more likely to improve the value of the home over many other more costly improvements. Why? Everyone needs electricity or some form of power in the home; if the cost of using electricity can be reduced by installing solar power, people will certainly view your home favourably when it’s offered for sale.

Solar assisted hot water systems have been around for many years, so people have become more used to solar power than other alternative forms of energy. There are many more solar panels on the roofs of residences these days than there were even five years ago. Statistics indicate that up to 19% of the Australian population now uses solar of some kind in their homes, whether it is just to assist with water heating, or a complete solar power unit that feeds excess power back into the grid.

The public favours solar panels

Since solar power is viewed so positively by most of the Australian public, it follows that this can be a selling point for the home. Research indicates that the more solar panels there are on the roof, the higher the value of the home – with an estimated increase of almost $6000 dollars per kilowatt of solar power. This indicates a rise of over $29,000 in the retail value of the home for a 5kW installation.

Since the price of electricity is expected to rise in the future, the advantages of having solar power will become even more evident.

Selling quickly is part of the equation

You will probably realise that when you put your home on the market, it is difficult to achieve other goals until it is sold. It is like putting your life on hold until the right buyer comes along and signs on the dotted line. Only then is it possible to move on with your own life and get settled in a new environment. If the home does not sell quickly, it can be very frustrating.

Having solar panels installed on a home can make it sell more quickly. Compared to other homes without solar power, your home could sell up to 20% faster. This too, is part of the value that solar power can add to your home and your life.

Staying with it

Even without selling the home, the advantages of having solar power installed can still be enjoyed. Over the years, the savings made will recoup the cost of the installation and go on to save on the cost of the power bill. So in short, one of the best ways to add value to the home is to install solar power. Not only will the resale value of the home be increased, there will be the benefit of future savings if you don’t sell.

Why public perception matters

Research and surveys indicate that the general public not only favour solar panels, but actually prefer homes with solar installation over those without in many cases. This includes renters, many of whom who would be willing to pay extra rent for a home with solar panels. Therefore, landlords looking to increase the value of their rental homes can benefit from this trend also. Not only can they charge more in rent, but because renters actually prefer solar power, such homes are more likely to be rented out all the time, instead of being left empty while all those interested in renting turn to the homes with solar panels. All landlords will recognise the value in that.

Henry Ruiz, Chief Product Officer of the REA Group states, “Having solar panels installed on your roof represents a valuable investment in your property, as this research shows.”

Hints for using solar power

The savings made when using solar will depend on the location of the home and the power of the solar unit that is installed, as well as the cost of electricity in your area. Here are some useful tips to get the most value from solar power.

  • Since power is produced during daylight, using it during the day is most beneficial. For instance, take showers and do the laundry in daylight hours.
  • Change your water heater to heat up during daylight, rather than the off-peak hours at night many are switched to.
  • Use LED lights or bulbs that save energy in the evenings.
  • Use the air-conditioner to cool the house during the day and switch it off at night.
  • Make sure the pool pump is set to run during the day, not the night.
  • Replace old appliances such as refrigerators that tend to gobble up power.

Technology

Apps for a more sustainable life

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When the idea of living sustainably was just emerging there weren’t many resources for people who wanted to learn about sustainable practices.

Now, there is so much readily available information out there, as well as practical advice to help implement these ideas easily. More specifically we are talking about the type of help now available by downloading free apps onto your smart phone.

Sustainable transport

Transport is one of the many things that leave a large carbon footprint on our planet. Not only is fossil fuel consumption high in most countries, but the actual making of the vehicles is leaving a carbon footprint too.

While some people have already moved to hybrid vehicles, and it can be argued that more affordable models are being developed, hybrid vehicles still aren’t suitable for everyone’s budget. Even if you can afford a hybrid vehicle, the manufacturing of electric cars causes more than double the carbon dioxide emissions of making a conventional car. No matter what type of vehicle you own, you can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by cycling, walking or taking public transport whenever possible.

Wait, what about that app? Yes, there’s an app that can help you become more active in doing something about climate change. Better still, it rewards you for leaving your car at home. How? It calculates how much you use your car and how much you save by using any of the three alternative sustainable methods of transport.

You can then ‘purchase’ digital currency called Recoins – which are renewable energy coins. This digital currency is used to buy CO2 certificates to help fund climate protections projects. In this way you’ll be compensating for the carbon footprint created when you use your vehicle.

Not only is this app free and useful, using it can be lots of fun. You can have friendly competitions between friends, colleagues and companies to see who has saved the most. Since we all like a bit of friendly competition, this means the app is far more likely to be used. Enterprising companies could even offer small prizes for the winners.

For those who are time poor

There are only 24 hours in the day and sometimes you feel as if every one of them is filled to the brim with things to do. Another app of interest to people who feel like they are too busy to get involved in – or keep up with the news on sustainability – is the #climate app.

By using this app you can choose to hear climate change or sustainability news only from your favourite companies, e.g. Greenpeace. The app will curate the news for you and only send you projects that you have a particular interest in – once you have set up these parameters.

This is ideal for someone who works long hours and may have family commitments as well. People who would otherwise feel overwhelmed by adding more information to their daily agenda can get straight to what is relevant to them, by keeping tabs on what is happening in their chosen sub-sections of the sustainable world.

For those who need a reminder

When you’re pushed for time or have too much to think about you can easily forget the sustainable resolutions you’ve made. You may have resolved to decrease your carbon footprint, but before you know it, you’re following the same old routine over again simply because you’re on auto-pilot. When you’re ultra-busy you tend to do things from habit. If this sounds like you, another free app called Rippl would be perfect for you.

You can setup this app to give you reminders about things you want to do, like taking reusable bags to the supermarket instead of using their plastic ones. Locking such tips and reminders into your mobile phone and setting them to pop up daily (or more often) will help keep you on the straight and narrow by really simplifying the process of forming sustainable habits. You can choose the tips and the times of day to suit your lifestyle.

If you’re feeling truly enthusiastic, you can also jump into the deep end of this topic and schedule a whole heap of tips and tasks to come to your phone. The good thing about this app is that it was designed by environmental scientists from Ocean Conservancy, so the tips and recommendations are all science-based.

If you want your shopping to be sustainable

For those who want their shopping choices to be sustainable, check out the GoodGuide. This app has been developed by environmental scientists for those who want to know how the products they purchase stack up against more sustainable choices. Health and social performance ratings are other components of this app.

Scientists have devised a rating on a scale of 1-10 for health, safety and environment and the product score is based on an average of these three. So if you’re interested in purchasing safe, green, healthy and ethical products, this app will point you in the right direction.

As well as recommending products for you, the app incorporates a barcode scanner – so you can quickly and easily find the information you need on a product as you are shopping. This saves you looking up a whole list of products to find the one you want. It doesn’t get much easier than this! With more than 120,000 products incorporated into the app it’s highly likely that you will find what you’re after in there.

All these excellent apps will help make it easier to make living sustainably an established habit – in place of sustainable practices that are too hard to find and maintain in today’s busy life. There are many other apps on the market as well, so it could be worth searching for them too, if these don’t fit all of your sustainability needs.

Technology

What’s new in batteries?

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Many of us have been caught out with dead car batteries, or missed an important call because we forgot to charge our smart phones. So it’s a relief to hear about improvements that extend the life of the not-so humble battery.

It’s not only the power stored in batteries that is important, but a battery’s staying power, size, weight and ability to charge up quickly – not to mention the cost. Another important factor is safety. The elements used in batteries can be dangerous to handle, but people who use them don’t usually come into contact with these elements. However, if a battery degrades and is touched it can cause an acid burn. Also some elements in some batteries are flammable.

Batteries and technology

There are many different kinds of batteries and it’s important to get the right one for the job. Experts are working constantly on new technology to improve batteries – we’ve all seen the giant leaps forward in innovation over the last decade. This is an ongoing scenario with constant improvements – both big and little – all of which are important in the general scheme of things.

Technology is not the only consideration when it comes to improvements in batteries. It also has to be mixed with other factors such as affordability, lightness and the amount of deliverable power in each battery. Cosmos Magazine detailed a number of the latest trends in batteries which we’ve summarised below.

The lithium ion battery

Regarded as the champ of batteries, the lithium ion can be used for just about everything; from cars to small appliances and your household solar power supply. In fact, they have the potential to allow home-owners with solar power to make considerable savings. While the technology used in these batteries is mature and reliable, there are some safety concerns. Airline passengers are warned of the risk of fire, especially if appliances containing lithium ion batteries are stored in the luggage section, where a fire can break out unnoticed until it’s too late. It is better to keep such devices in the cabin where the risk can be minimised.

However, aeroplanes also use lithium ion batteries as back-up for ground maintenance and to provide electricity during flight, as well as for back-up power of other important in-flight functions. In 2013 they overheated due to a chemical reaction called thermal runaway, and caused fires in a Boeing 787. It wasn’t just the fault of the batteries; certain other issues played a part in the problem. For instance, during the investigation, Boeing and the Federation Aviation Authority (FAA) found 17 non-compliance issues, some to do with the battery manufacture, but others to do with outsourcing the manufacture of certain airplane parts. With the latter, certain changes to the design and assembly of components were made without being okayed by Boeing first. While these issues did play a part in the fire, it’s hoped that a replacement will be found for the flammable component in these batteries and with a little tweaking the new ones will be even better.

The lithium sulphur battery

According to Cameron Shearer, materials engineer at Flinders University in Adelaide, the lithium sulphur battery will be the next commercial battery that may even replace the lithium ion battery. Why? It‘s more energy dense, with the potential to hold five times more energy than the lithium ion battery. It will potentially be suitable for small appliances, cars and household power supplies. The lithium sulphur battery uses lithium instead of granite to catch the lithium ions at the anode, while at the cathode, sulphur is used instead of a mix of metals. This makes it a much lighter battery – the only downside is that it doesn’t have a long life due to the sulphur degrading and clogging up the works. Once a viable solution for this has been found this battery could shoot to the top of the list. In fact, chemists at the Toyota Research Institute of North America in Michigan are working on a polymer coating to stabilise the sulphur.

The lithium air battery

It’s always good when something that is freely available can be used in a project. The lithium air battery is so called because it uses oxygen straight from the air, rather than sulphur to soak up the spent ions. This oxygen is exhaled as the battery is re-charged, making it the lightest battery yet. It can be used in devices and electric cars and has the potential to contain ten times more energy than the lithium ion battery. The main disadvantage is that it has a very short life span – so far. In fact, this battery has yet to move off the lab bench as it needs several elements to be improved before it’s suitable for commercial use. When that finally happens it may be the best battery of all.

The sodium ion battery

If you don’t mind weight and size, a cheaper battery that uses sodium rather than lithium is available for solar energy storage. The sodium ion battery also has the potential for use in cars and devices, but so far can only be used for applications where size is not a problem. The main disadvantage is that of poor performance, at least when compared with the lithium ion battery.

The flow battery

Last but not least is the flow battery which is ideal to store renewable energy. While it’s cheap and reliable, it can only be used for stationary applications due to using two tanks of electro-active liquids to shuttle the electrons between. Since the smallest of these batteries is the size of a bar fridge, you can understand that they are hardly suitable for appliances or even cars. But they are useful for places where size is not important. They’re great for use in remote locations such as mining sites. They could also be used for energy storage in the home by situating them behind a wall or somewhere that they can remain invisible.

As technology improves and delivers different and improved methods of making things, it’s highly likely that batteries will benefit. Even now techniques for high resolution microscopy are enabling scientists to custom design better and smaller battery components. So cool! Stay tuned on this one.

Sustainable design

Prefab and modular homes reduce building costs

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Prefab and modular homes are coming into their own as technology, new materials and design allow for faster and cheaper construction. And one advantage is that there are newer building materials available that have much better insulation properties than traditional building materials, meaning that the cost of running the new build will be lower.

Most people are familiar with the high cost of building. It’s traditionally been more expensive to build, than to buy a lived in home. Additionally, the cost of accommodation that is necessary as you wait for the new home to be built must also be taken into consideration. If that was not a factor, the costs of building vs. buying an older home align more closely. Then again, the type and size of the home you build or buy also has to be taken into account.

Going modular

The latest trend in money-saving new builds is going modular. A modular home is built at the factory in ‘modules’ of contained space. For example, the bedrooms may be contained in one module, while the living areas are in another.

These modules are transported to the building site, where they are easily joined together or connected by walkways, also known as breezeways. Many are constructed so owner-builders can do the do the work themselves, thus saving costs again. Because the modules are smaller than the home as a whole, they are easier to transport and put into place. Each module is finished; that is, it contains all the fixtures and fittings that the room or rooms need. Cupboards, built-in wardrobes and often appliances are all included where appropriate for the module.

Prefab homes were once considered the poor relation of the traditional homes erected by building industry tradesmen. They were accepted as being fine for a temporary home or a holiday home where the lifestyle is ultra casual, but not for a ‘real’ home. This idea has now changed, especially overseas, which over previous decades has continued to refine and improve the quality of low cost modular homes. In fact, million-dollar homes are designed and built on the factory floor in Germany, then taken to the building site where they are put together, sometimes in as few as three days.

The benefits of modular homes

  • Today’s modular homes can be custom designed by architects to suit specific locations. This means any block of land, even those with challenging geographical features, can be utilised for a modular home. Steep blocks can be built upon with little worry about getting the building into place. And because they require very little actual site construction, sensitive areas can have a home without disturbing the environment.
  • Better still, some of these homes can actually be dismantled within a few hours and taken to another location. So if you move, it’s possible to take your home with you! Such homes can be very affordable, or they can be a little more expensive, depending on your budget, location and required lifestyle.
  • Most modular homes make extensive use of green technology with passive heating and cooling – large windows and sliding doors oriented to the prevailing breeze. The frames are strong but light. The wall panels are of composite materials that have a higher thermal mass than timber and many other traditional building materials. This means that the insulation qualities are much higher, so your home is both warm in the winter and cool in the summer, requiring only minimal use of heating and cooling appliances.
  • Another benefit of modular homes (something you can appreciate if you’ve ever waited for a standard build!) is the speed at which they can be built in the factory and erected onsite.
  • Since nearly everything is done at the factory, quality controls can more easily be put into place, making the modular home one that fits together properly, as well as being top quality when finished.
  • The sizes of these homes are made to industry standards. This ensures there’s no wastage or off-cuts in materials – saving on materials, as well as pricing!

What are modular homes built from?

Most modular and prefab homes use aluminium frames, which are both light and strong.

One company builds the module walls from expanded polystyrene enclosed between manufactured wood cladding. Made from Australian plantation timber, the cladding is made of compressed 50% recycled timber and sawdust treated with magnesium oxide. The latter not only provides extra strength and durability, it also offers resistance to UV radiation, mildew, fire and water – making it an ideal medium to build a home. Once the home is up you would not know it from any other much more expensive home.

Other companies use polymers reinforced with glass fibres. Commonly used in the marine and aeronautical industries, this material has high durability and strength even in extreme conditions. It also has low maintenance needs and is very light. This makes sense when you consider planes and boats must be capable of withstanding the worst nature throws at them. A home built of the same materials is therefore sure to be strong and durable.

Ideal for remote locations

Modular homes are ideal for remote locations where it is difficult to get builders and other tradesmen to work, who may be required to camp onsite because of the distance. That may not be feasible and even if it is, can add a great deal to the cost of the home. Because the primary part of the modular home is already built, the main requirement is to transport and erect it at your location. A short time – compared to building it onsite – and ready to connect plumbing and electricity.

They are also eminently suitable for smaller suburban or even space-constrained city centre blocks. But while modular homes are popular for all these reasons, they don’t have to be small. This is the beauty of them. They can be enlarged at the beginning of the build, or later on, by adding more modules – always assuming it is proportional to the size of the block

Building a modular home is not only quick and convenient, it makes use of environmental benefits such as energy efficiency and sustainable living. This type of housing is now popular in many overseas countries and is becoming more so in Australia, as people begin to realise the many advantages.

Renewable energy

Solar power and the clouds

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The solar PV (photovoltaic) revolution has made solar energy an increasingly powerful force in the energy arena. Solar PV panels help us harvest radiant energy from the sun and convert it into electrical energy, which can be used immediately, stored in batteries for later use, or fed back into the electricity grid.

Do solar PV panels still work in cloudy or cooler weather?

While solar PV panels don’t generate as much electricity in cloudy conditions as during bright, sunny days, they still do their job, just at a reduced rate. Depending on your specific panels and the amount of cloud cover, solar panels can still produce 10-25% of their rated capacity.

Many people wrongly assume that solar PV panels don’t work in cold or cloudy places, but solar still excels, even in some of the world’s least sunny places. Germany, which ranks relatively low on the sunny scale, is recognised as a world leader in solar energy generation, with solar accounting for an estimated 7 per cent of the country’s net electricity generation in 2014.

Solar panels have been proven to operate more efficiently in lower temperatures because when solar panels are colder, they are able to better conduct electricity.

The reason that summer is still the best overall season for solar output is because the months of December, January and February tend to have more sunny days and fewer cloudy days, and have longer daylight hours.

Saving money with rooftop solar PV panels in Australia

If you are interested in using solar power to save money on your electricity bill, you need to consider the amount of sunshine you get over an entire year, rather than on any particular day.

When you feed solar power back into the electricity grid, your electricity company will look at what you’ve produced over a full year to calculate how much to pay you.

Even if you aren’t generating enough energy to feed back into the grid, harnessing solar energy to power your own home or business will still reduce your electricity bill.

Estimate your potential annual savings on your electricity bill with this solar savings calculator or find out how to go solar with Momentum Energy.

Renewable energy

Printable solar cells

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Paper thin solar cells on paper can now be produced with inkjet printing. This will allow solar cells to be much cheaper and be placed almost anywhere.

It may still seem far fetched to imagine our houses powered by solar cells in curtains, blinds and windows. But some scientists say it will eventually be possible to print photovoltaic elements on a huge range of surfaces and materials – creating cheap, printable solar cells in place of more costly silicon panels.

Printable solar cells offer exciting potential for generating electricity more flexibly and at a lower cost, wherever the sun shines. In the traditional silicon solar PV we see on people’s rooftops, the most costly component is the silicon material that holds the photovoltaic elements. Silicon is abundant and non-toxic, but it is expensive to process into wafers for traditional rooftop solar PV panels.

New developments in printed solar cells could allow solar energy to be cheaply and easily converted into electricity almost anywhere, including walls, windows, roller blinds, shade umbrellas, and even tents.

The idea of using your tent to harvest power on trips to the beach or a camping weekend could really propel glamping (glamorous camping) to the next level, with free on-site electricity powering life’s little luxuries!

towards commercially viable printable solar cells

Currently, printable solar cells have only reached about 10 per cent efficiency, whereas traditional silicon solar PV cells are closer to 25% efficient. The life span of the printed solar cells is also only six months. So researchers are working to increase their efficiency, weather-resistance and life span to reach commercial viability.

In late 2014, a consortium from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Melbourne and Monash University announced that their printable solar cells were on the verge of commercialisation.

A team of 50 chemists, physicists and engineers – working together since 2007 – hope to see printed solar panels used in low-power applications within the next few years.

CSIRO photovoltaic expert Dr Fiona Scholes explained the team hoped they could achieve a similar power delivery at a significantly reduced cost.

“Silicon is falling in price, but think about how cheap plastic is. The ink is a negligible cost, so the raw materials are very cost effective. This is a big step forward because you can put these cells anywhere you can think of. Also the consistency is better than silicon – they work well in cloudy conditions,” said Dr Scholes.

The CSIRO’s Scholes said although silicon cells are still on top of the market, she predicts printed solar cells will be “a key part of the renewable energy mix”. While the team can’t produce the cells commercially itself, a number of manufacturing companies are stepping forward.

How are printable solar cells made?

At the moment, printable solar cells are made by printing a specially developed ‘solar ink’ onto plastic film, similar to the way plastic bank notes are printed.

Whatever the method or the materials used, the solar principles remain the same:

  • Incoming photons free electrons and send them scattering through the solar cell’s material before being channelled into an electrical circuit.
  • The efficiency of the solar cell depends both on how well the material captures light to set these electrons free, as well as how effortlessly the electrons travel through the material.

Researchers such as the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium are developing processes for printing solar cells onto all manner of surfaces using various printing, dyeing and spraying techniques. The solar cells can be printed straight onto paper-thin, flexible plastic, as well as onto steel, and can be made semi-transparent for building cladding and windows.

At Home

Integrate your home’s smart devices

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Learn the ins and outs of integrating your household's smart devices without needing to be a rocket scientist, and make your smart home as smart as it should be.

Smart homes filled can be extremely cool if the smart devices in them work the way they are meant to. Technology already allows us to lock our homes or turn off a forgotten appliance via an app on our mobile phones.  Yet no matter how advanced we seem to get, we still find that there are some problems with the true integration of devices. In other words, not all the devices you purchase to make your home truly smart will ‘talk’ to each other the way they should, to give you the kind of service you have dreamt about. Meaning your smart home may not actually be as smart as it should.

Why smart device integration is still in its infancy

Integration of all smart devices is still in its infancy because such devices are all invented and made by different companies. This may be because there are no national or international standards as far as we have seen anyway. We keep seeing ‘Company A’ making devices that work together with its own products, but not necessarily with devices made by ‘Company B’. We even tend to see ‘Company A’ creating upgraded products that don’t necessarily sync with past products. It all gets a bit frustrating for the consumer and forces consumers to keep spending money to buy products that integrate with the rest of their home.

This is the way each company ensures that consumers stick with their products so they end up with a healthy profit. For consumers who don’t like sticking to one brand this becomes a bit of an issue. Before beginning a smart home endeavour this is something to consider, especially if you already own several products made by a variety of companies. The trouble is that they won’t actually be able to work the way they were intended to work unless they can communicate with each other. There may be some basic communication, but not enough to enable them to work the way they should.

While there needs to be some kind of standard for all companies to adhere to, this requires deeper pockets than many companies wish to put in, especially because for the company it works well how it is already, so why change it? For the end user, having several different apps that must all be used to accomplish what they want in their smart home may not only be confusing, but also time-consuming – not to mention irritating.  Home automation across the board needs to be simplified, but this will take quite a lot of hard work by many different companies.

Not everyone can be a rocket scientist

Traditionally, devices for smart homes have been installed by people in the security system sector, professional integrators or enthusiastic hobbyists. The trouble is that not all the skills needed to do the job are available to each one. For instance, someone who can install the special locks needed to unlock automatically from a phone app, may not have the other skills needed to install or integrate other smart devices. And tech pros often don’t want to learn how to install a lock.

Cooperation is the new watchword

So it’s not only smart device integration that is needed, but cooperation between sectors. This is not the way things work at the moment, with companies keeping their secrets close and being unwilling, in the main, to share their specific knowledge with others. In this way they keep a large part of the market share for their investors. While there are some companies that are instigating the kind of change that is needed where coding is freely available to all without fear of legal repercussions, they are as yet in the minority.

This will need to change in the future and it’s consumers who will very likely drive that change. People want the freedom to choose what devices to purchase, especially when it comes to technology. There are many different smart devices on the market and more coming all the time. Consumers don’t want to be constrained to only purchase devices from a single brand source in order to ensure that they can be properly integrated. The forward thinking companies that make devices which can integrate with other brands easily are likely to get the largest share of the market in the long run.

According to Philip DesAutels, Senior Director of IoT (Internet of Things) for the AllSeen Alliance: “The quickest way to get lots of products into the market is to provide a core open-source framework that everyone uses.”

Once this is available, we can expect to see many products that have used the same coding and can thus integrate seamlessly with each other at a basic level and perhaps even at a higher level. Smart homes will be truly smart and able to perform at even higher levels without too much effort from the owners.

Smart homes are not necessarily only for the rich. You can start your quest for a smart home simply and take it step by step until you have what you want – or can afford. Many smart devices will even save money and increase the value of your home, making the investment worthwhile.

What integration of SMART devices looks like

Smart devices for a smart home need to be capable of not only knowing what other devices are in the home, but how they work; then they need to be able to work with them. A simple example of this is when a smart light bulb can know that the front door has just been unlocked by the owner, so it will automatically light up the foyer or living room.

There are many devices that can make your home much safer and more convenient. Devices that can not only detect smoke, but tell what is causing it and whether it is dangerous and go on to do something about it if it is will certainly save lives. Other devices can automatically adjust light and temperature settings as they sense movement throughout the home mean we will always be comfortable. But only so long as each device can integrate seamlessly with the others in a way that is easy to manage.

After all, smart home owners don’t usually want to become rocket scientists in order to manage or learn about their smart devices. They just want them to operate automatically and give them the benefits for which they were purchased.

At Home

Energy-efficient appliances save power

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How energy-efficient appliances can save you energy and reduce your carbon emissions

Did you walk into an appliance store a couple of years back in search of a new fridge or washing machine, eyes swivelling straight to the energy star rating stickers? Was this a priority in making your decision? Did a two-star rating get an instant ‘no’, while a five-star rating got your attention and clinched the sale? If so, congratulations, you’re just one of the many householders who saved some $2.7 billion in energy in Australia in 2013 by purchasing energy-efficient appliances!

By studying the data in the latest Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards Report (GEMS) review by the Department of Industry of the Australian Government’s Equipment Energy Efficiency (E3) program, Sustainable Energy and Climate Researcher Alan Pears of RMIT University estimates that the value of energy saved in Australia in 2013 alone was around $3.2 billion, and $2.7 billion of this was saved by ordinary households rather than large industrial consumers.

The review revealed that, in 2013, the E3 program reduced Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by a massive 13.5 million tonnes, which means the effective cost of carbon emissions avoided is minus $118 per tonne. According to Pears, in an article published on The Conversation, “In other words, it saved money to cut emissions. Overall, the savings delivered by embracing efficient appliances were three times greater than the costs.”

Out with the old, in with the new

Since 1986 – when those star-spangled energy stickers first began appearing on new refrigerators –the E3 program has provided the information and incentive for us to replace worn out and inefficient appliances with better-performing ones. So we’re both saving ourselves money and happy knowing we’re doing our bit for the environment.

Importantly, the program also gave manufacturers a big push to improve the efficiency of their products. Between 1986 and 2000, for example, the average efficiency of new refrigerators on the Australian market improved by around 40 per cent, while dishwashers became some 23 per cent more efficient between 1993 and 2000.

Room for improvement

Pears’ own research suggests that, for most appliances, there is potential to improve efficiency by a further 30-60 per cent beyond the best available current performance. An example would be the increased use of “smart” technology, such as load-sensing motors in washing machines.

Replacing old, inefficient appliances offers big benefits. A faulty old refrigerator, for example, could be using up to eight times as much as a modern fridge. And the most efficient new ceiling fans on the market today use just a quarter of the energy of older models.

Stars in our eyes; money in our pockets and healthier outcomes

By replacing older appliances with the modern energy-efficient ones on the market, you could benefit from energy savings of 30 per cent up to a whopping 80 per cent.

This certainly bears thinking about it when you’re next confronted by the sea of whitegoods in a large home appliance store.

And there’s further good news for our economy, community and the environment (as well as you and your family). The E3 program review forecasts that by 2030, the program will be saving 34.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas.

Simply by ensuring your next shiny new household appliance has the highest possible star-rating (energy-efficiency), you’re also contributing to a very sizeable dent in the amount of Australian carbon emissions.

At Home

Surviving Summer: 10 top water saving tips

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Use these water saving tips to help you and your garden survive dry times with less stress. It may also help you save on cost, given watering the garden can account for up to 50% of your water bill in the summer months.

Gardening is a therapeutic hobby that refreshes the mind and the body. The only trouble is when a lack of rain leads to drought or water restrictions, all your hard work can seem wasted as grass turns brown and flowers wilt.

  1. Water the garden in a way that optimises intake. That is, avoid frequent, short watering. Instead, water for longer, but less frequently – once a week should be enough, depending on the weather conditions. Soaring temperatures and hot wind will dry the ground out more quickly. The extra water will soak in more deeply and encourage roots to grow down deep. They will then be protected from the dryness and heat in the top layers of soil. And when it comes to the lawn, short, sharp bursts from the hose increase penetration.
  2. Mulch the garden to prevent evaporation and keep those roots cool and damp. Mulching can be as simple as spreading your lawn clippings over the garden, but make sure you don’t spread them too thickly, as this can prevent water from penetrating at all. Mulches can be organic material such as leaves and straw, or non-organic such as pebbles, black plastic or landscape material. Plastic should be avoided as a permanent addition as it prevents water from soaking in and the heat from it kills the good bacteria in the soil. It’s only good for annuals and should be removed at the end of the growing season to allow the soil to recover. Organic matter is best, as this gradually decomposes and provides good nutrients for your plants.
  3. Install drip irrigation. This delivers a small amount of water directly to the roots of the plants where it’s needed most. There’s very little evaporation and no run-off, so water doesn’t go to waste. If you use spray irrigation, try to situate it so water doesn’t run off into the gutter. You can set a timer so you don’t forget to turn off the water.
  4. Wash your car on the lawn, rather than the driveway. This will give the lawn a good drink. It’s also a good idea to use a bucket for the wash and a hose just for the rinse off. Much less water is wasted when you use a bucket.
  5. Make use of your grey water. You can get a special attachment that reroutes your laundry and bath water into a holding tank, which can then be used for the garden. If you go this route, make sure you choose detergents that are earth-friendly and don’t have high levels of sodium. Water from the toilet is not included in grey water. A rainwater tank can also be used to harvest storm run-off from your roof. Rather than letting it run away down the gutter, pipe it into the tank and save it for a dry day.
  6. Choose plants carefully. Many of our garden flowers were imported from Britain, where they have a much higher rainfall. That means those flowers need more water than we get as rainfall in Australia. By choosing Australian native plants, succulents or plants from other countries that are naturally drought hardy, you will have a better looking garden and minimise your water usage. Also, find out what kind of roots perennials have before purchasing them. Those with a strong tap root that grows down deep will often survive with very little water. Plants with shallow surface roots are much more likely to require copious amounts of water.
  7. When planting, combine plants with similar needs so you don’t waste water on those who don’t need it. If you live in a hot, dry area, plant trees or shrubs that will create dappled shade over your garden to reduce the heat and water evaporation.
  8. Take note of the weather forecast. If rain is due in a few days, hold off on watering your garden. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, make sure it does not come on during rain. Let nature take its course and water the garden for you. Some systems have a rain sensor that does this automatically.
  9. Make sure your watering is done during the coolest part of the day so there’s less evaporation. Watering in the evening is best because there are many hours for plants to absorb water before the sun rises to dry it all up.
  10. Choose your pot plants carefully, as hot weather dries up any water quickly. Choose light coloured pots, or paint black ones a light colour as black absorbs even more heat. Water saving crystals in the potting media will help retain water in the mix. Keeping pot plants in dappled shade during the hot summer months will also help. Use a drip tray underneath the pot to catch the run-off. This will be absorbed back into the pot where the plant can make use of it. However, not all plants like wet roots, so make sure it’s not there all the time. Again, drought hardy plants are best for pots. Clustering pots together helps to shade the outside of the pots, so they don’t get as hot. Many people overwater pot plants because the top of potting mix dries quickly and you think the whole lot is dry. Dig down a little way and see if that pot plant really does need watering.

These are just a few water saving strategies for your garden without compromising too much on your favourite pastime! Although you may not be able to implement all 10 of these tips, just remember, every little bit you do goes a long way to save water.

Technology

Phone case that charges your phone from thin air

nikola labs innovative phone charger
how nikola labs' innovative phone charger works
Phone case that charges your phone from thin air

The answer to recharging your phone battery may be in the air, and in a new phone case.

US-based start-up Nikola Labs may have found a better way to keep our smart phones charged using a phone case that converts the energy of radio frequencies (RF) into direct current (DC) electricity.

The pioneering concept not only harvests energy and converts it into reusable power for the phone; it may also extend the life of the battery by up to 30 per cent.

The patent-pending technology creates electricity by converting some of the RF signal produced when wireless phone and internet communications transmit data through the air. Only a small fraction of a phone or internet signal actually reaches the receiver, while the majority of the signal is wasted.

Nikola Labs’ technology captures that wasted signal and converts it into DC power using a proprietary energy-harvesting circuit, created by Dr Chi Chih Chen’s research team at The Ohio State University’s ElectroScience Laboratory.

The team claims its technology has no impact on data transmission rates or call quality.

Nikola Labs’ award-winning concept featured in a campaign on Kickstarter earlier this year. Although it fell short of its funding goal, the concept netted 752 backers and the early-bird special iPhone case completely sold out.

The team hopes to deliver a superior product to its backers within six months of the Kickstarter campaign, after partnering with local companies experienced in design for manufacturing.

And who knows where this kind of innovation could lead?

As Nikola Tesla, the energy pioneer for whom the company named itself, wrote:  “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

Read more at Design Taxi (external link).