Rental Retrofits: Lease On Life

retrofits

Identify and use the building’s light- and heat-giving potential.

Words & Photos By Anna Matilda

With almost one in three Australians now living in rented accommodation, it’s more important than ever to ensure permaculture practices are not just implemented by those who own their own home. Even if you’re renting, there are plenty of simple and reversible things you can implement in your home to reduce your living costs and make positive environmental impacts.

Invert And Convert

Portable solar electricity systems, comprised of solar panels, batteries and an inverter can be installed with very little fuss and are capable of powering many small appliances in modern homes. While the initial outlay can seem expensive, these systems can enable a move away from reliance on the power grid, reducing both costs and carbon emissions.

Thinking outside the square can return great results, too, like using a freezer as a fridge. If you consider how well insulated a freezer is compared to a conventional fridge, and how much less the compressor needs to work to keep the unit at above-zero temperatures compared to the below-freezing temperatures it’s designed to run at, it’s easy to see the energy-saving potential. In most cases, a successful conversion will require replacing the thermostat, so do your research depending on the age and model of your freezer.

Grow Your Own

Depending on property size and lease-length, it may be desirable to install raised or straw-bale (see breakout) garden beds to maximise fruit and vegetable growing space. It’s good etiquette to liaise with the landlord or body corporate before erecting structures that affect the appearance of a property, and real-estate agents can offer advice on the best way to broach the subject.

It’s also possible to grow a thriving and productive food garden in containers. This is a good approach for apartment-dwellers and shorter lease-holders, as the entire garden can be moved whenever you do, and it often requires less time and money to establish than larger beds. When living communally, you can work with other tenants on shared garden spaces or join a nearby community garden. Small, portable composting systems or worm farms can address food-waste issues and simultaneously create rich growing mediums. You don’t need a lot of space for a successful compost system or warm farm, but if space is a particular issue, it’s worth checking if you have a local group who will collect food and garden scraps in return for compost.

Using containers, climbing frames and vertical planting structures makes it easier to capitalise on seasonal microclimates around a property, thereby increasing potential yields. Grouping pots, mulching well and using no-dig soil layers or wicking beds helps reduce the amount of water needed to keep plants productive, too.

retrofits

Clockwise from above left The collection of greywater doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective; Removable worm farms convert food waste into fertiliser and can be made using recycled materials; Even small water tanks can make a huge difference to water bills.

Water Wise

Most Australians have been well versed in basic water-saving behaviours for decades, but there are plenty of inexpensive water-saving hacks to help reduce your water usage.

On average, Australians produce around 120 litres of useable greywater per person per day. Of that, 60 litres comes from the bathroom, 40 litres from the laundry and 20 litres from basins. The simplest method of greywater collection is to place a bucket in the shower or basins to catch the water before it goes down the drain. Using an extra-long outlet hose and eco-friendly detergents also means you can direct greywater from the washing machine or bath onto fruit trees and ornamental plants. But avoid using greywater directly on vegie crops.

As well as simple DIY methods of greywater reuse, there are commercially available off-the-shelf systems specifically designed for this purpose. More in-depth information can be found in our 2019 Reducing Water Waste feature (Pip, Issue 14).

Replacing old shower heads with modern water-saving units and installing aerators in bathroom and kitchen taps will greatly reduce water usage, too. These can be included in maintenance requests, but they’re not difficult to do and don’t need to be installed by a licensed plumber.

A water-filled plastic bottle in the toilet cistern is a handy hack that will reduce water usage with each flush. This is particularly useful in older homes where dual-flush toilet systems haven’t been fitted.

Installing a small water tank to catch and store rainwater is simple and effective, but if it involves cutting downpipes and the landlord doesn’t give approval, an alternative is simply placing empty buckets in the yard when it rains. If you can catch enough to water your vegie patch or refill the chickens’ water, then you’re in front.

Use What You Have

Heating and cooling your home makes up over 40 percent of energy consumption in the average home. Block any cracks around windows and doors – even the humble door snake can make a significant difference to indoor temperatures by preventing hot and cold air from entering the house.

COOLING

With Aussie summers now regularly hitting record highs, keeping a home cool has never been more challenging. Rather than flicking on energy-sapping air conditioners once things heat up, planning ahead and using shade and airflow can keep a building cool from the outset. Clever positioning of outdoor umbrellas and shade cloth can be effective, but don’t underestimate the power of plants to drastically reduce temperatures indoors. Placing tall potted plants or, better still, training climbing vines (like beans or grapes) up removable trellises in front of northand west-facing windows will make a significant impact. Placing medium-sized bodies of water such as birdbaths or portable ponds outside windows can help produce an evaporative-cooling effect and be great for wildlife, too.

Sectioning off areas of your house by closing internal doors will make it easier to keep specific areas cool; shielding windows with folding screens helps reflect radiant heat back outside; and floor fans can create air currents from open windows at night to help cool the whole living space. Growing indoor plants can also aid in evaporative cooling.

HEATING

It won’t come as news that donning a jumper and closing the blinds at night will help reduce the need for heating, nor may it be news that ceiling fans can help warm the house. Most ceiling fans have a switch which changes the spin direction; in reverse and on low, ceiling fans will pull the cold air up and push the warm air which is trapped near the ceiling back down into a room, meaning heaters don’t have to work so hard to warm living spaces.

Using soft furnishings like thick curtains (which can be taken from rental to rental), rugs and blankets helps trap heat in living spaces, but so can a bit of interior decorating. Grouping furniture away from doors and windows and using room dividers or bookcases to create smaller living spaces within a large room is one way to reduce costs in winter, as these areas require less energy to heat. Hanging thick decorative fabrics behind doors and on large exposed walls not only adds visual interest, but can do a lot to keep a room warm as well.

If a property has a lot of windows, in addition to thick curtains and removable pelmets, these can be insulated with removable faux double glazing panels (available commercially), cellular blinds (their honeycomb structure traps air) or even a layer of recycled bubble-wrap if budgets are really tight.

Efficient Appliances

Straw bale garden

HERE’S AN INEXPENSIVE GARDEN BED SYSTEM THAT CAN BE COMPOSTED OR USED AS MULCH WHEN IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED
A bale of straw
Organic pelletised and liquid fertiliser
Compost or potting mix

METHOD
Place your bale in a sunny position. Ensure the edges with the baling twine is forming the sides, leaving the cut edges of the straw facing upwards.

If you can, allow 10 days to condition the bale before planting into it. It’s not essential, but doing it will return far better results.

Start by watering the bale thoroughly and continue to do so to ensure the bale remains wet for three days. On days four, five and six, sprinkle organic fertiliser over the bale and water in with a liquid seaweed or fish emulsion. The fertiliser will speed up the decomposition process and should feel warm to touch. Halve the amount of fertiliser used on days seven, eight and nine, making sure the bale remains moist the entire time.

On the tenth day, feel the top of the bale. You can’t plant into it until it has begun to cool to something resembling body temperature – a meat thermometer can help you gauge this.

Once cool and you’re ready to plant, make a hole in the top of the bale and add a small amount of compost or good-quality potting mix to plant into. If your conditioning process was successful, you won’t need as much as you would if you’re planting directly into an unconditioned bale. Plant seedlings, water in as normal and keep the bale moist.

Making do with the appliances you already own helps keep costs down, but they can become inefficient energy sinks if not used and managed carefully. A dripping dishwasher or brittle fridge seal can waste a huge amount of water and energy and can often go unnoticed, so it’s important to have your appliances checked and serviced regularly. Instead of waiting for your routine rental inspections, it’s a good idea to check hoses, taps, cables and seals and alert the agent or landlord with issues as you spot them.

Dialling down the temperature of your hot-water system is an often-overlooked but effective strategy to reduce the amount of energy required to heat your home’s water. Investment properties will generally have one of two types of hot-water systems; a traditional storage-style electric system which heats a large volume of water and stores it in a tank ready for when you turn on a tap, or an instantaneous, continuous-flow gas system which heats the water as and when you need it.

According to the Australian government-supported guide to sustainable homes, storage-style systems should not fall below 60 ºC or else you’ll run the risk of the body of water forming Legionella bacteria. But because an instantaneous system isn’t storing water, the risk is negated, meaning the thermostat setting should be no higher than 50 ºC in order to achieve optimum efficiency.

Having well-maintained heating and cooling systems, an efficient hot-water service, cooking appliances and plumbing system will mean lower energy bills, less emissions and a clearer conscience.

This article represents the permaculture principle INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE.

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