19 December 2018

Green gift ideas

The green thing to do is NOT to buy stuff, right - but many of us still want and need to buy gifts for our friends and family. So, what to buy? I have a few ideas that might help with this conundrum, some of which are inspired by lovely gifts I've been given recently.

Cork yoga mat

This was a particularly yummy birthday gift I got this year. I have even used it quite a few times! I reckon keeping your body healthy is one of the most environmentally considerate things you can do. I spotted a lightweight version of this on sale in Kathmandu - a company which I've noticed has really pulled up its environmental socks recently.

Home made bag

Until recently I was of the opinion that you can have too many reusable bags. That's still possible, but I've since realised that these are brilliant for organising your stuff. Rags for cleaning. winter hats you don't want to clog up your drawers with, fabric you'll certainly sew something with one day ... surely ...

Handmade soap

I don't use a lot of cosmetics, but I absolutely love the treat of a handmade soap. I've found these at markets at very reasonable prices, and they aren't scented so strongly as to blow out my nasal passages like some of the pharmacy ones. They smell deliciously right, and I think they're a great way to inject a little bit of luxury into every day.

Little plants

I think I've mentioned I have a slight houseplant obsession, and I particularly love succulents. Any house plant - or a garden centre voucher so your recipient can choose their own - is a special gift for people inclined that way! Palmers have a great selection of pots. I have set myself the challenging of only sourcing mind second hand - but it's a challenge, all right. Good ones don't turn up very often from what I've seen. This one was an old op-shop find.


I planted these Mother of Pearl poppy seeds this year, attracted by the fact that they were selected by an artist. They are indeed little works of art in our garden! I'm fascinated by their delicate colours and designs. They are also popping up in unusual dusky shades of pink and purple.

I also particularly value vegetables that give us food again and again without needing replanting. These things are great for lazy gardeners - and we all have a decent streak of lazy in us.

Garlic chives last for years with no care at all; these red bunching onions look, taste and behave like spring onions except that keep producing more of themselves (we have had the same two patches for about three years, and they just keep on giving); and cavolo nero kale is like a semi-permanent micronutrient tree! We pick and eat its leaves from about May to January (the hot weather ruins it because it gets insects like white fly and white cabbage butterflies). I slice it finely and stir fry it with olive oil, salt and pepper. I'll be sowing fresh seeds in February and covering them carefully with mesh so the first leaves aren't instantly devoured by insect jaws.

I eat these garlic chives nearly every day! In late summer they get aphids, but survive them just fine.

Cavolo nero "trees". The one on the left has some brown spots on its leaves - its last days are upon us.
Kings Seeds and Egmont Seeds have voucher options on their website that could be a good gift. Hopefully they can email them rather than having to post - I'm aware it's too late for that!


A hot New Zealand summer is not the right time to be planting plants. But a garden voucher lets people choose goodies to plant later on. Or you could even give the right recipients a handmade voucher letting them know what plants you'll be passing to them in autumn, when planting time begins.

Last winter a friend gave us some raspberry canes with a bit of root attached. Here's the first of their edible gifts to us. These are mightily delicious.

Years ago I planted a tiny bunch of red alstroemerias bought from a church fair for $2. Shortly afterwards my chickens ate the lot and I thought I'd lost them. But decent chicken fencing meant they sprang back to life, and now I have this semi-permanent display of red South American lilies that look amazing in the vase and last for ages. Every now and then I dig a bit up to give to a friend and spread the love.

I'm also a bit in love with white hydrangeas, especially if they have a tinge of green. I get the feeling they're quite fashionable at the moment. I don't have one, but our local bush has some hydrangeas growing as weeds, which I'm happy to forage to voluptuously fill a vase. I see flowering white hydrangea plants for sale in garden centres and florist displays outside supermarkets.

Ahem - this is not my garden.

Commercial bunches of flowers aren't generally very environmentally friendly - although I'm sure some are - so it's much better (and cheaper) to have your own source, particularly if they involve almost no work!

Just to finish off, here's some gorgeous flowers currently growing in Hamilton's main street - a gorgeous visual gift for anyone walking past. Right next to these flowers will be a market of handmade goodies tomorrow night - I will pop in and just might buy a few more soaps.

8 November 2018

What a Zero Waste Home tour changed for me

A couple of months ago I was fretting over whether I should do a Zero Waste Home tour. It was to cost $40, and I've had a very spendy year. I'd already read and been inspired by Bea Johnson's Zero Waste Home book, and I felt I was already living a low-waste life. What if I learnt nothing?

In the end I went, and I learnt heaps! I emerged inspired and informed. This post describes what I've changed as a result.

The tour was by Nic at Mainstream Green in Cambridge. She opened up her minimalist, stylish and inspiring home. I highly recommend it.

Nic reveals all as she opens her fridge.

House plants

The ornaments in Nic's house are almost all plants. They look fantastic! I've been reinvigorated to care more for my own, and have been given a couple of new ones by a friend who propagated them.

Anthurium rescued from near-death at Countdown about a year ago.

String of pearls propagated by a friend.

Birds nest fern that my daughter bought me for $2 last Christmas at the Warehouse. It was tiny back then!

Freezer organisation

Nic is very into time efficiency, and swears that since undergoing her zero waste revolution she's saved time and money. One of the keys to that is her chest freezer. I've been using ours more by making double quantities of meals and freezing half, and also freezing things I hadn't thought of before, like milk, to save dashing to the shops as often.

Our freezer is now fuller than this but better organised.

Shortly after the tour as I was queuing at the Hamilton Farmer's Market for my favourite milk (which is also Nic's), I spotted people filling their own glass bottles with the milk! Turns out it's even cheaper to fill your own! My neighbour gave me some one-litre bottles she didn't need and I've started my refilling habit. I wash the bottles very well and dry them thoroughly.

I recently froze the first one without tipping out a bit of milk first, and even though the lid was on loosely, the bottle broke as the milk expanded. Bummer. Lesson learned.

I've also snaffled small cardboard boxes from Pak'n Save to help organise our small chest freezer. Previously it was pretty chaotic, which made it hard to find things.


There is so much space to reno your routine in the bathroom! Firstly, I instigated a new bathroom rubbish system. The old one consisted of an ice cream container in a drawer, and the new one consists of two ice cream containers in the drawer. The second one takes biodegradable waste for the worms.

Here are the other changes I've made:
1. Nic uses sweet almond oil as a moisturiser. I went to buy some, and the herbalist at the shop recommended jojoba oil instead because it's lighter. I love it! It goes on like an oil but a minute later it's absorbed. In future I hope be able to refill the bottle I bought originally because I noticed that the herbal shop gets it in big bottles.

Previous experience has taught me that because homemade moisturisers don't have preservatives, they are prone to growing germs. Therefore, you don't want to add bacteria by dipping your fingers into them. I don't know if that's an issue with oil, but in case it is I poured a portion of the oil into a glass eye dropper bottle. The rest went in the fridge to keep it fresh (oil tends to go rancid). To apply the oil I drip some on the back of my hand and smooth it on my face from there.

2. Silk dental floss. It's bothered me for years that dental floss and its packaging goes to landfill. However, I strongly believe in taking personal responsibility for my own health to prevent pain, expense and further consumption in future years, and that includes keeping my teeth shipshape. Now I have a solution!

Like Nic, I use Do Gooder silk floss. The glass and metal container (which is far more attractive than any other floss I've seen) gets refilled with paper-wrapped refills. The cardboard packaging and the floss itself is compostable. My first lot went into our worm farm and has disappeared!

As a bonus, it's about the best floss I've ever used - it has more grip than most and doesn't break.

I'm keen to use Do Gooder's toothbrushes too, but the head shape's not quite right for my tooth needs at present - although they tell me they're working on smaller, pointier heads. In the meantime, I use one from Grin.

3. I noticed Nic had some Underbalm deodorant in her bathroom drawer (there was no clutter in there so we could see everything!). I've since experimented with Underbalm's magnesium version, and I am delighted that it actually works to cut out the stink! I have tried many natural deodorants over the years; they've all let me down. This one's packaged in glass (recyclable) with a plastic lid (which appears not to be recyclable).

4. My old plastic razor has been going for years, but I was keen to move to a safety razor because they're all metal and therefore recyclable. Nic had one and seemed to be happy with it. I was put off by the price tags of the new ones, and then remembered my mother used to have one. She produced it for me and now I have a vintage Gillette safety razor! We reckon it's probably from the 1950s or 60s, and it's still perfect. I am amazed at how much more closely it shaves. I haven't cut myself.

5. Encouraged by the success of all these changes, I went a bit wild. I decided to try cutting my own hair, mainly because it was getting shaggy and my next appointment wasn't due for a while. As a curly-top I had successfully cut it when I was a student - curly hair is forgiving. Turns out I enjoyed the snipping so much that I went a bit far and now have shorter hair than I've had for years! I don't mind it, though, and I generated a whole lot of curls to feed our worms. The downside is that I missed my quarterly chat with my lovely hairdresser.


Decluttering is a crazily popular zeitgeist at the moment. Nic appears to be a queen of it while I am a mere underling. Nevertheless, her house inspired me madly and I am determined to achieve a tidy, clear house. Progress has been brilliant so far. There is now so much space on my desk that my cat has room to pose as a fluffy grey cushion next to me as I work.

The most telling reason to declutter came when I tackled the laundry cupboard. There were several products there that I'd recently bought more of, not realising we already had them. That is a maximal waste way of living!

Nic's wardrobe

As for so many women, my wardrobe needed tackling. Although almost all my clothes are second-hand, there was still so much I rarely wore. Nic mentioned the documentary The True Cost, which I duly watched and found fascinating and horrifyng. Once you've watched it, you'll NEVER buy cheap imported clothes unless they're second hand. (I am forced to do so occasionally for my daughter's dance costumes - at times all the dancers must be dressed identically. The mothers are thrilled not to have to sew.)

A particular statement of Nic's has stuck in my mind and is helping me clear out the house: If you have something you're not using, and someone else could be using it, that's a form of waste, too.

Worm farm envy

I dislike buying more stuff to be zero waste! That approach seems twisted to me because buying less is central to zero waste living. So when the zero waste home tour led to me buying a $330 hunk of virgin plastic, I was shocked.

My desire was launched by final stop on the tour, Nic's backyard. It had a flowering kowhai with numerous singing tui - divine. It also featured a Hungry Bin worm farm to gobble up her family's food scraps and other biodegradable waste. Several people had already told me how much they love their Hungry Bins, and when I spied Nic's one I could see the brilliance of the design. A serious case of worm farm envy washed over me.

Our new worm farm: a Hungry Bin
I already had a worm farm, but it was inconvenient and messy to feed and empty, and I repeatedly neglected my worms. This was in spite of being inspired years ago by this TedX talk given by a large-scale New Zealand worm farmer who talks about the magic that occurs when food scraps pass through a worm's digestive system.

My envy spread when, that evening, I watched the video on the Hungry Bin website. My husband happened to be in the room and his eyes lit up. "We should get one!" he said. Such rash expenditure is unlike us.

We managed to delay for all of two weeks before he bought one. My worms are loving their new home and for the first time ever they are getting fed regularly.

Other people buy takeaways for dinner; we eat home grown vege-and-egg omelettes and buy a worm farm.

My old worm farm, which I nearly managed to turn into a worm coffin. It has now been sold for $20.

The deets

Nic runs her home tours quite regularly: check her events page. I'm sure everyone comes away with different tips; I've just talked about what resonated with me, but there was so much more!

A zero-waste gift I received earlier this week.

31 October 2018

The enormous satisfaction of making stuff

At this start of this month, I made a small pot plant cover. It was for Anna's friend, and while we loved the plant we'd bought her, we didn't like the pot colour so much.

The plant is a zebra plant.


So, inspired by a knitted pot cover I'd seen on Etsy, I gave it a crack, although I hadn't done any knitting for thirty years. After the first ninety minutes, I unraveled everything I'd done and started again. An hour later I'd finished.

The wool was old balls I had stashed away.
The finished product

Sounds painful, doesn't it? In fact it was BLISSFUL. I loved the challenge and the creativity and the dredging up of long-forgotten skills and memories. I remembered how my mother knit fast and how she held her needles, and how I'd always wanted to hold the needles like that but couldn't do it. So I mimicked her in my memory - and lo and behold, I can now hold my needles like that, too!

I was absorbed in what I was doing and energised by it.

I was channeling my inner Laura Ingalls.


I sew, too - mostly to mend or make children's dance costumes, and I'm very basic about it - my old machine can't even do a zigzag stitch, but it marches forward or backward very powerfully. I'm always thrilled at my achievement. I have saved many garments from the dump and saved a lot of money on having to buy new things.

The old girl keeps going - my mother bought this second hand from a church fair about forty years ago.

A pair of school uniform shorts that no longer has a hole in the pocket.

What have we lost?

It was so recently in human history that a family had the capacity to make most things they needed. People were resourceful and skilled. My knitting experience made me think that all that work wasn't just drudgery - I think that deep energy and pride I felt was what they must have felt, too, at least sometimes.

I was stunned in June this year by the craftsmanship on display at the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford. Sidenote: if you are interested in ethnolographic treasures, go there. Definitely go there.

The Inuit clothing captivated me the most - possibly because my cold tolerance is so pathetic. They made needles from bone. They sewed this gorgeous, life-protecting clothing with the tiniest stitches.  Such skill! The bottom photo is of a parka cape made from seal intestines. It is exquisite.

A cosy outfit on display at the Pitts Rivers Museum.

A waterproof cape made of seal intestine, Pitts Rivers Museum.

It's sad, then, that we now spend our evenings in front of a screen instead of creating with our hands and minds. The skills will be lost in a few generations. Not long ago every girl learnt how to sew and knit when she was small - those years when the brain picks things up so very easily. Now I know mothers who cannot sew on a button.

It's sexist, isn't it? Girls learned to sew, boys learned to build stuff. I would LOVE to know how to build things and may yet do a woodworking course. But the old process was efficient - each gender concentrated on one set of skills.

I should point out that my husband can sew and knit (not that he does). He told me how to cast off the knitting when I was finished because I'd forgotten that bit. I ignored him and made a hash of it. Next time around I watched a YouTube video - and he was right.

In my further defense, the top photo of this blog shows the plant in a hexagonal shelf beautifully made by my daughter at school and now on her bedroom wall. I should do a woodworking class with her, because that girl is full of ideas of things she wants to make.


The wonderful thing is that we have it all: we have all the information we need to make anything on YouTube! Let's use it!

4 October 2018

Carbon capture: Keep doing these easy things!

So often we hear about what we should be doing to heal the planet, and it's hard to know what makes the most difference. So I was delighted to read recently that a few things many of us are already doing really do make a difference.

The Drawdown project drew together experts from around the globe to quantify what behaviours and technologies have the potential to actually draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, essentially leading to reversed global warming. Some of the things they rank as important are already part of daily life for many of us. So pat yourself on the back and read on!

You can also check out their website here, which contains a lot of the information in the Drawdown book.

1. Plants: grow and let grow

"No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as capturing carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis." Drawdown, page 54.

Taken by my 12-year-old (she has started a photography blog here and an Instagram one here). Thanks to Hamilton Gardens for this spectacular spring display in their Indian Char Bagh Garden!

Tending your garden or pasture, growing plants or letting them continue to grow is a huge help. It needs to be done a way that adds carbon to the soil and nurtures soil microorganisms. Forests do this naturally, but as gardeners we need to add compost and mulch to the soil, and avoid much digging or tilling. Instead, just pile stuff on top like nature does.

"When soil is tilled and exposed to the air, the life within it decays quickly and carbon is emitted. Professor Rattan Lal estimates that at least 50 percent of the carbon in the earth's soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries." Drawdown, page 55.

Cover crops are brilliant for this, too - see here for what Kings Seeds has to offer. These are extremely easy-sprout seeds that you scatter onto the soil after you've yanked out your crops. They grow fast, out-compete weeds, and add goodness to the soil. It's better than the weeds that will otherwise invade bare soil!

Our soils are massive carbon stores, so we really need to look after them. It's useful to remember that carbon-rich soil grows much healthier plants that also extract carbon from the atmosphere. It's a win-win!

You can read more about the carbon-locking magic of plants and soil in the regenerative agriculture section of Drawdown. The principles of fixing more carbon in soils and crops also appear in many of the books other suggested approaches.

Many of us approve of a mulched garden.

2. Love, restore and protect the NZ bush (or forest wherever you are)

Out of all the solutions to reverse global warming, Drawdown ranks temperate forests such as ours as number 12.

I often walk past this tree and think about how it hosts an entire city of life.

Protect and restore them; they are a massive carbon sink.

"Protecting loss of forest is always better than trying to bring forest back and cure razed land. Because a restored forest never fully recovers its original biodiversity, structure, and complexity, and because it takes decades to sequester the amount of carbon lost in one fell swoop of deforestation, restoration is no replacement for protection." Drawdown, page 129.

Gosh, all that PLUS the beauty, birds, bats and everything else that's good about our bush!

3. Cut food waste

I know we hear a lot these days about how important it is not to waste food for environmental reasons. But stunningly, Drawdown rates this as the number THREE way to reverse global warming. That's one heck of a recommendation!

The reasons to do it are:
1. Rotting food releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas (not if it's properly composted, though).
2. Food uses up greenhouse gases in its production, transport and packaging. If you waste it, you waste all those emissions, and need to generate more to replace it.

Some cities have fantastic schemes to reduce food waste. Hamilton's is Kaivolution. Support these places! Donate! And be grateful you have a fridge and freezer, and know how to make soups and stews with your odd bits of this and that.

The Love Food, Hate Waste website has great tips and recipes.

Icky fact: My chickens think that if I flush a cockroach down the toilet, it's a great waste of their favourite food. Their love for them has made me hate cockroaches just a little bit less.

4. Recycling

I have been recycling paper for about 25 years! Hardly anyone bothered back then, but it may not surprise you to learn that I am an early adopter of environmentally friendly behaviours. Now, of course, recycling is available to almost all of us, so it was reassuring to read that Drawdown rated it in its top 80.

Around of half of all the paper use in the world gets recycled, says the book (page 167)*. It can be recycled five to seven times! Compared to making paper from virgin materials, recycled paper uses less water, spares forests, uses fewer bleaches and chemicals, and produces far fewer greenhouse gases.

The only paper I ever buy is for our printer, which we use sparingly. As a result of the book, I've started to buy recycled paper for it. It's $15 a ream instead of $10. I can cope with that.

Other household recycling gets an energy tick, too. Forging recycled aluminium products uses 95% less energy than creating them from virgin materials. Recycling also means that the virgin ingredients don't need to be extracted from the earth.

Paper recycling box in the bottom of our pantry.

Clearly, recycling is a very poor cousin to not using the stuff in the first place. Recycling produces greenhouse gases of its own (but less than creating virgin products). It's good to know, though, that if you generate waste, recycling is really worth doing.

I used to compost as much of our paper as possible, and it is good for the compost heap (although we never put anything glossy or too colourful in there). Since reading Drawdown, though, I put more of it in the recycling bin and less in the compost.

*South Korea recycled 90% of its paper in 2009! That country popped up repeatedly on the all-star list of countries carrying out good environmental practice.

5. Eat lower on the food chain

Eat less meat. Sigh ... I am eating more meat, recently, for migraine control reasons. Eating less meat is ranked as the number four way to reverse global warming.

The case is compelling: "A groundbreaking 2016 study ... [showed that] ... business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70% through adopting a vegan diet and 63% for a vegetarian diet." Drawdown, page 39.

It's also worth noting that another way to reduce emissions is simply to eat less! Eating too much essentially wastes all the emissions that went into making the food and, quite frankly, makes us fat and unhealthy, neither of which are planet-healthy ways of being.

6. Turn off the tap at home

Water waste turns out to be surprisingly energy-hungry.

"Using water at home - to shower, do laundry, soak plants - consumes energy. It takes energy to clean and transport water, to heat it if need be, and to handle wastewater after use."

The big two fixes are low-flush toilets and water-efficient washing machines. (I think I have mentioned before how much I want a composting toilet - no water use! I like the look of this bambooloo.)

Old-fashioned actions work after all

There's nothing mind-blowing here - these approaches are all fairly ho-hum these days. But they matter, and that encourages me. I hope you feel as pleased as I do to make a difference!

Soon I'll be writing about what totally surprised me in Drawdown. I couldn't believe the things that will make a huge difference! One involves mammoths, kind of. Count me in ...

29 August 2018

Our tiny power bill and solar panels

Recently there was some uproar about a Stuff article featuring a couple who have an electricity bill of $70 a month in winter thanks to cooking over a wood burner fueled with foraged wood, and taking sponge baths. Some of the readers' comments are fascinating - I'll paste a few below.

We have even lower bills - around $85 for our family of four, including gas hot water and its dastardly fixed monthly fee of around $35 a month.

I've scribbled out. our home address. Note that this bill is for two months.

We achieve it by a combination of things that you might be interested in.

I am a firewood forager

Our 2002 Mazda Atenza works hard for us.

I had to laugh yesterday when I was loading up our own aged station wagon with foraged wood! I was just like the Stuff couple. I'd walked past someone felling a tree in our neighbourhood, and, as usual, asked if they had someone who wanted the firewood. They spoke little English, so it took a bit of gesturing, but two hours later the wood was on our property, and I'd got to move my body well.

Most of it was already cut up to perfect sizes for our woodburner. We're used to such luxury, though - every so often a tree crew that doesn't want to pay for dump fees drops off a load of pre-cut wood onto a our driveway! I asked them for it one day, and they keep on giving. The hardest part was being brave enough to ask.

Sadly, yesterday's tree was a lovely native tanekaha. I would prefer it to still be standing.

We dry the wood for a couple of years, then feeds this lovely thing.

I cook over it sometimes, but mostly use the kitchen. We heat a lot of water on it for dishes and hot water bottles in winter. We have a fancy system (a DVS reclaim) that transfers some of the fire's heat to the rest of the house, while also mostly eliminating our household condensation. It's great.

Unlike the Stuff couple, we have real showers and baths, and run a dishwasher.

We really like the extra exercise we get from the firewood, believing strongly that a sedentary western lifestyle is bad in many ways, including environmental. He who choppeth wood is twice-warmed, says the proverb. I will add that so is she who lifts wood into the car, then into the wheelbarrow, then pushes it around the back of the house and tips it out.

Anyone who thinks this is caveman living (see comments below) is seriously under-educated about how humans lived for almost all of our history. I drove it home in a car, and someone had cut it down for me with a chainsaw, and I had a sturdy plastic wheelbarrow to shift it, and there may even be a chainsaw involved in cutting the big pieces (although I doubt it - we have an axe and muscles).

Although, as we soak up the heat of the fire on a winter night, gazing at the flames, we feel happily cavemanish.

Some family members love the fire more than others. Our small grey lion is a true fan.

Our solar panels

We pinch the sun's energy not only via burning trees, but more directly. Nearly four years ago we got 12 rootftop photovoltaic panels. These are tied to the electricity grid, through which we export our excess electricity and buy in electricity when we aren't producing enough to cover our needs. I wrote my first post about them here.

I often hear even the greenest of people wondering whether it's financially worth it to get some.

Sometimes, these same people are taking regular mid-winter trips to somewhere nearer the equator. They might be willing to pay more for organic food or other eco-friendly actions, but for some reason the solar electricity option seems to require far more analysis about whether it will pay for itself or, even better, bring financial returns.

How we make money from our panels (or feel like we do!)

In NZ, the electricity companies don't pay you much for the electricity you export to the grid. It's generally 7 to 10 cents per unit, whereas when you buy it in you pay three or four times as much as that. 

But there are some things to remember that make the picture much brighter:

1. Use the electricity, don't export it.

The amount you'll see on your monthly electricity bill as a refund or negative amount, which accounts for the amount you exported, is only part of the bonus. This is because you only export your 'excess' electricity - in other words, the stuff you don't use as it's being generated.

The big savings come with every watt of electricity that you use as it's being generated. You do this by using every appliance you need, while the sun's shining (as long as you don't use too many at once). Each unit you use while the sun shines saves you buying in full-price electricity at 33 cents per unit, or whatever your rate is. This figure won't show up on your electricity bill, because your company won't know about it. You will be supplying your own electricity, and paying them not a single cent for it.

The upshot of this is that you are discounting your own electricity bill, and the saving is 100% per unit. This is where the real money-saving happens. It helps to have someone at home during the day, although these days many appliances can be set in advance to run.

Our PV panels got 'switched on' with Meridian in January 2015 - but the previous spring, our wood burner was installed, so we no longer use our heat pump. Therefore, we're not comparing apples with apples.

2. Exporting adds up when the sun is shining

When the sun shines, those clever panels make a LOT of electricity. They make far more than you are likely to be able to use as it's generated, so you will be exporting a lot to the grid. You might only be getting paid a quarter of what you'll pay to buy electricity at night, but because you're pouring so much of it down those power lines, it adds up.

The amount you'll be exporting on hot sunny days depends on how big a system you get. Ours is 3kW, not all of which can be generated at once because a quarter of our panels face west to grab the late afternoon sun to help with dinner time electricity demands for much of the year. For our exported electricity, we get a credit of about $20-$30 a month in summer, and $10 in winter (we have a 3 kW system).

Shop around for your provider(s)

It's really worth shopping around the electricity and gas companies, and this is a rapidly expanding field, with exciting new providers popping up regularly. Not all of them pay you for exported electricity, so that cuts out a few as potential options. In fact, I need to shop around again, in case there is now something better for us.

We were initially with Meridian. The export rate was about the same as the other providers, but then suddenly a sneaky little 'tax' came in, where they actually charged us something like 3 cents a unit for each unit we exported. This is a big deal when you're only receiving 7 to 10 cents per unit! It was a charge from WEL, not Meridian. 

We moved to Contact, and while their export rates aren't much different (8 cents per unit), they don't pass on that charge. Our power bills (electricity plus gas) dropped dramatically. This is partly because they offer such a generous discount if you have both electricity and gas with them.

Now, for a family of four, our bills are around $80 year-round including gas, and incorporating our export earnings. But note our last Meridian charge, minus gas (this was post-solar):

And the gas is a big chunk. Here's a sample bill, this one from Contact. Contact has the most confusing bills I've ever come across, but the basics are that the monthly fixed gas charge is around $35, plus whatever you use. This bill is for two months, hence each item being mentioned twice:

I'm also tempted by Trustpower, who run a buddy scheme that involves pairing up with three or so other families and selling them your exported electricity at whatever price you agree between yourselves. You can supply your parents, for example, with at least a chunk of half-price electricity, and still be getting twice the price you're getting from your provider. (It's not actually your electricity they'll get, of course; it's just a financial exchange.)

But do we make money from our solar panels?

The set-up cost us $12,000, which is more than you'd pay now, and more than someone with a standard roof would have paid for the cheapest system four years ago.

In doing a rough calculation, let us ignore two factors that really should not be ignored if you truly want to crunch the numbers: the interest and/or dividends we could have earned if we'd invested the money instead, or the interest we'd pay if we had increased a mortgage to borrow the money. Oh, and then we could also count the interest on what we save by having lower power bills!

Without that messy interest calculation, the $12,000 can be spread out to $100 a month over ten years. Do we save that much? I don't know! This is because we had our wood burner installed just before the solar panels, so we simultaneously stopped using the heat pump and starting using solar electricity, and that muddied the calculation waters. I could probably do the calcs anyway, but I cannot be bothered, because:

1. We really, really like having our solar panels.
2. Once the theoretical pay-off period has finished, all our solar-generated electricity will be free.
3. If we sell our house and don't get to enjoy (2), we think the house will sell for a bit more because of the panels.

A couple of  pre-solar bills from Meridian - which is only electricity, not gas - suggests that we are saving somewhere in that vicinity, depending on the time of year. Of course, it's all much rosier with Contact - but it might have been so without solar, too.

There is a whole lot more to be written about whether solar really does help the environment in a place like New Zealand with so much renewable energy. Maybe I'll write about that another day!

Selected reader comments from the Stuff article:

No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short92 square metre home!  Living like my great grandparents used to live!  You are welcome to it.
No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short
92 square metre home!  Living like my great grandparents used to live!  You are welcome to it.
No fun living like a pauper.  Life is too short

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