Posts Tagged ‘do it yourself’


Not overlooking the speckled

February 14, 2010

The move to the suburbs has occured, and while it’s been a definite shock to the system it is on average a good thing.

One result is that we have changed from the market by Te Papa to the riverbank markets in Lower Hutt. This has meant we shook out some old patterns, but also that we picked up some new ones.

For instance, this used to be a full box of speckled peaches:

Total cost, $4.70.

Awesome. Turned that lot into 5 jars of preserves, for a saving of… heaps. A heck of a lot less than we’d pay at the supermarket for tinner peaches!

The downside of this year is that the weather has been so bad that the price of many summer foods hasn’t come down. Roma tomatoes are still $5 a kilo, which means that this year it might be cheaper to buy our winter vitamins from Moore Wilsons (in Tawa) than to cure them ourselves!



Generating your own power – Wind

January 13, 2010

So, Wellington is a windy place, right? And if we’re flat out interested in energy efficiency we can go a step further than merely buying low-watt bulbs, or turning off lights when you leave the room, or putting on socks instead of turning the heater up, by generating your own power.

This old idea absolutely fascinates me.

What I figure is this. My household used around 6400 kWh of electricity last year, and that amount was elevated on account of washing nappies and running a shallow bath for the wee man every day (it was also an extremely cold winter). This means that we run and average of about 18kWh through the meter every day. Fortunately we’ve been in an apartment all year, with decent insulation, hardly any windows, and no real drafts. All the same, if I could have found a way to knock down the power bill I would have. After all, the ~$1600 we spent is nothing to sniff at, right?

Not being anywhere near running water (although we could have cheated and run a small hydro scheme in the bathroom, with all that free potable water the city provides), our options are pretty limited. Ignoring the fact that we’re in the apartment (the move to the suburbs impends), we can either run a wind turbine, hang some solar panels out for all those sunny days – I’m not joking there, Wellington has more sunshine hours per year than Auckland – or perhaps set up a bicycle with a generator (you can get up to 300w per hour, not bad really).

So I started thinking seriously about wind, and to my surprise it actually seems financially viable. The first thing I did was consider the resource. Why opt for wind?

Well, Wellington is a windy place. Using the handy table generator over at NIWA I was able to download a table containing daily windspeed and wind direction at the Kelburn station for the years 2000 – 2008. The figures I obtained were very similar to those presented at Wind Finder, with average windspeed siting around 16 or 17 metres per second year round. With the NIWA figures I drew up the following graph.

Windspeeds Wellington, 2000-2008

What this fancy box and whisker graph tells us is how strong the majority of Wellington’s winds are. As you can see, the boxes (which mark 50% of all wind) consistently sit above 10m/s or 36km/hr. Now with most models of wind turbine requiring a minimum of 2.5m/s to activate you’re going to think you’ll have no trouble with an idle fan.

In fact, the more I investigated it the trouble with Wellington isn’t so much the absence of wind, but the abundance of it. Many turbines are rated to hurricane+ speeds 60m/s, and the windiest it gets here is a little about 40m/s (about 140km/hr). But that amount of very high wind actually places a fair amount of stress on a turbine, something we’ll return to.

So. How much power can all this lovely wind generate for us?

The short answer is that it depends on the model. As I said, our power consumption was around 6400kWh last year, well below the ‘typical’ consumption of 8000kWh. This means we’d need a turbine that could make a decent dent in that usage, and drop it low enough to make the savings offset the cost of whatever turbine we need.

It was then I started phoning power companies, and what I discovered was very interesting. There seems to have been a slight shift here in New Zealand and the companies have started allowing what are called ‘import-export’ meters. What this does is allow you to import power from your local supplier. But, if you have a generator, you are also allowed to export power back out to the grid! Awesome. In principle this means that if you have a turbine going, and nothing switched on in the house, you can actually watch the metre turning backwards. Then when the metre reader turns up, hey presto! They might actually owe you money!!

Naturally… it isn’t that simple.

The first people I emailed were Contact Energy, who eventually informed me that they’ll buy my power for 17c a kWh. And they’ll also sell me power for whatever the cost of my plan is. If this is 17c then great. If not, then I lose a little.

The next people I spoke to were Meridian, and they informed me that they don’t bring in cost. They have a 1 for 1 approach, where my kWh is taken off the meter directly. And that I found pretty interesting. Essentially, If I have a 26c per kWh plan (which is what we’ve been using), then I’m ‘saving’ 26c every time my turbine generates a kWh.

At this point the calculations started. What’s great about wind is that it can potentially generate power 24 hours a day. You can be lying in bed at 3am and know that all the fresh air out there is making you money. Even better, it averages that production out across the entire year. You can run the meter backwards during our windy summers, and forwards during the power-hungry winters. The trick of course is getting the right sized turbine for your place.

So, how big to go? Turbines, like anything, come in different sizes and quality. Wellington being Wellington I figured we’d need something pretty heavy duty, otherwise maintenance would become an issue. And if we have to maintain we lose our offset costs to a repairman. Worse still, we might have to replace it.

One turbine I saw was a 1.25kWh job. Designed for the Shetlands, and looked like it was built by Soviets.

So let’s say we get around about 80% efficiency per day (perhaps it isn’t windy enough all day, or it only runs slowly). This will turn out around 25kWh, and a whopping 9075kWh annually!!

This is though, from looking at our wind graph above Wellington has wind in excess of 5m/s over 95% of the time, so we can pretty much guarantee ourselves the 80%. The sensible thing then was to work out the appropriate sized turbine. What I did was compare 4 different sizes: the big 3.5kWh boys you’d use if you lived out on a lifestyle block (but still had connection to the grid), the 1.25kWh job, and a more modest 1kWh and 800Wh models.

Potential kWh generation from wind turbines - Wellington

As you can see, the amount of power generated can be pretty big. The totals for each model are:

  • 3.5kWh – 25410kW
  • 1.25kWh – 9075kW
  • 1kWh – 7060kW
  • 800Wh – 5808kW

Which leaves me wondering – assuming my calculations are correct (and I stand to be corrected), then a modest 800kWh turbine could be just the thing. The price should come in under $10k, and the savings at the current price of electricity (taking into account the almost 6% annual rise in power we’ve been experiencing), I should be able to recoup around $1400 of my power bill per year.

That’s a pretty snappy repayment. Perhaps 6 or 7 years, and far better than solar power.

And at that, I have to admit why I wouldn’t do it.

For starters, getting council approval for anything even the tiniest bit unusual in Wellington is, by all accounts, a freaking nightmare. Most turbines need to sit on a 10 or 15m high pole, and that’s something every NIMBY in the world will complain about. But assuming you actually get the thing up in the air, and enjoying all that sweet, sweet free energy?

Noise. Turbines are really seriously noisy. Really noisy. They recommend that you don’t have them within a 100m of your dwelling to be on the safe side. Now, when you closest neighbour is likely to be about 3m away from your property line, you’re sunk. Enough complaining and the council could actually try to take your $10k turbine away, permanently.

Then there’s the noise for you. That 3am enjoyment could actually be, “WTF! This turbine is putting out 50 decibels, almost 24hours a day!” FYI, that’s the volume of a noisy office conversation, outside your bedroom, in the middle of the night.

Worse, in high speeds they can put out something like 85decibels – a fire alarm, or siren.

So maybe on the farm. Otherwise? Idea kaput.


Energy Efficiency – Why bother?

January 8, 2010

In the big news in the Tibby household stakes is our impending move to suburbia. We’re very excited, and mostly because of the requirement to make a lot of plans.

Now some would call this nesting. And they would likely be right. But! In our defence a large part of the planning concerns ways to, firstly, save money compared to living in a city apartment (our first choice…), and secondly to add value to our property (like all good New Zealand home owners).

Other than servicing the mortgage and feeding/clothing ourselves, the big cost to any household is energy – including petrol for the automobile, another post altogether. It’s important then to make sure that your place is as energy-efficient as possible. It’s a mantra the green movement has been speaking for years, and I’m well-sold on it. Not only does it assure us that we’re not being wasteful, it also ensures that we save a little money. After all, $10 a week saved on the power bill, if transferred to the right account, amounts to about $30k off the cost of a mortgage.

So in looking at this issue I started considering alternative power sources as a means to drop costs. The outcome is another post entirely, but in doing so I uncovered one big long-term reason for looking at energy efficiency – the ongoing rising cost of purchasing electricity.

Snooping around the net I discovered this handy page on the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) site. What you have there is a quarterly survey of power costs for a household using 8000 kilowatt hour’s (kWh) of power a year, around about the average for a New Zealand home. And there was some pretty interesting stuff provided in this excel spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet provides costs of electricity purchasing across the entire country since August 1999, and that’s a reasonably good time series. With a little very simple manipulation this turned up some very interesting information about power prices across the country, and how much they have changed over the decade. The first graph, below, gives us raw costs in cents per kWh averaged nationally (and yes, they include the 10% prompt payment discount).

Power Prices, National average

What’s more than clear from this graph is that prices have been increasing steadily since 2001. What this made me wonder is, how much will they increase in future? The thing about alternative energy is that once the initial outlay has been made you’re (hopefully) no longer subject to increasing in pricing – again the subject of another post.

If you consider the minimum tariff line the average household will be paying about $1800 per annum for electricity alone, a fair amount. This is especially the case if you earn close to the average weekly income of $830 (which is around $43k per annum, before tax, meaning the income in the hand is actually only $34k). In effect, the average house earning the average weekly income spends around 5% of it’s total budget on electricity. Higher earners usually have bigger houses, so they’ll also likely spend around that percentage (or more).

Now consider what prices are actually doing. As you can see in the above graph, prices trend up, as is normal. What I did then was find out the how much these prices have increased, and how much they are likely to increase in future. And I was mildly surprised.

The graph below shows both the percentage in quarterly increase in prices relative to an August 1999 benchmark. As you can see, the quarterly price difference (i.e. the amount prices change every three months) kind of bubbles along, but the cumulative cost places current prices 80% higher than in 1999 (the blue line, measured on the left axis). And that’s a fair bit. The green line (measured on right axis), shows that kWh are today costing around 23c each (whereas they cost around 12c in 1999).

Price Increases, Wellington Region only

The next thing to do was to attempt to project prices out to 2019, to see what we could be paying here in Wellington by then. To do so, I averaged the total quarterly price increases since 1999, and applied them to cost of kWh’s. When applied to the graph above I got the graph below. Of course, this assumes a constant rate of price increases close to my average – but considering the time series of data I had to work with thus far, it’s likely not far from the truth.

Future Retail Cost of Electricity, Wellington only.

As you can see, assuming a constant increase of 1.47% per quarter (the current average quarterly increase), electricity prices should rise to around 44c per kWh. This is almost 90% higher than now, and if we go back to our Joe Average family consuming 8000 kWh per annum, their bill will increase to around $3.5k!

Why I found this all interesting is that if you’re making energy efficiency savings in your house now, the ongoing saving in real terms actually increases every year. This means that as the price of energy increases – which it must – then you’re actually saving more over time, because that kWh you don’t use today hopefully won’t be used in 10 years when it will cost you almost double.

Furthermore if you’re installing some kind of energy generating device or system (the real reason I set out on this analysis), then the offset of your initial cost is actually higher as the years pass, because you’re generating the same amount of kWh you were when you installed, but saving more on money not spent. If you get my meaning.

Now the only question is how to generate that electricity… The subject of another post.


Coffee roasting at home

September 28, 2009

The instigation

Frugal reader Mel wrote to us the other day about home coffee roasting. As it happens, this something I am totally into. I only buy commercially roasted coffee when the weather has prevented me from roasting on the weekend (it’s an outdoor activity using my technique) and the occasional bag to calibrate my taste and see what’s out there.

The maths

The economics are compelling. Green coffee beans of the highest quality can be had for about $14 a kilo, and acceptable ones for less. Compare this with roasted coffee which is usually at least $30 a kilo and often more than $40.

Green beans lose 10-20% of their weight when you roast them, but you’re still well ahead of roasted coffee for price, and better than a lot of commercial roasted coffee on quality. I’m afraid I have quite a bad coffee habit, more than 250g a week, so both the expense and the subsequent savings of home roasting definitely mount up over the year.

The results

I wouldn’t want to say that you can achieve the same consistent, refined results as a commercial blender without a lot of practice and some investment in kit. But you can definitely get something better than stale beans from the bulk bin at the supermarket or over-roasted grounds in a vacuum brick. If you do it every week, like I do, you can pretty soon achieve something that you like reliably. And that’s good enough, isn’t it?

(There’s also a lot of pottering fun to be had, but I realise this isn’t for everyone.)

My technique

I have blogged extensively about home roasting on my personal blog a while ago, before Frugal Me. Here’s how I do it.

I have a heat gun which I bought for $20 from Mitre 10. It is mounted on a drillpress ($12 from Trademe) with duct tape ($2 from $2 shop). The heat gun is aimed directly over one corner of the breadmachine mixing bowl. Conveniently, the bread machine lid is removable. Roasting coffee comprises a few simple steps:

  1. Set rig up on back step so that chaff and smoke will be blown away by the wind.
  2. Tip several hundred grams of green beans into bread maker pan.
  3. Put bread maker on “knead” cycle.
  4. Turn on heat gun.
  5. When beans reach desired roast level, turn off appliances.
  6. Remove pan, tip out beans, and cool (I put them in a metal pan in the freezer for 5 mins).

I drilled a hole in the bread machine pan and mounted a temperature probe ($15 from Trademe including digital multimeter readout) and I use this to gauge the progress of the roast.

So, for a total of $50 I have rigged up something that produces similar results to a much more expensive appliance, with far more possibilities for tweaking.

The whole thing takes about 20 minutes from the whim taking me to having beans cooling.

Other people use different methods: air popcorn poppers, an oven tray with the odd stir from a wooden spoon, or even a cast iron pan on the stove top.

The important thing is that you understand the coffee roasting process:

  1. Beans should be heated evenly somehow.
  2. Beans should be heated so that they get hotter and hotter.
  3. The beans will get darker and darker, until they start making sharp cracking noises and giving off a little smoke. This is called “First Crack”, and happens at somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees. Don’t stop here unless you like very acid coffee. The papery coating or chaff will start coming off the beans too. It makes a mess. Blow it off before you store the beans.
  4. The beans get darker yet. The sharp cracks stop, but after a few minutes a second, more gentle crackling starts — “Second Crack”. This happens somewhere after 220 degrees. Somewhere between this point and first crack is good for plunger and filter methods, somewhere close after this point they are ideal for espresso.
  5. French Roast or Starbucks level — almost black, not much of the bean variety’s characteristic flavour is left.
  6. Your beans are on fire.
  7. If you rescued your beans before stage 6, cool them with a fan or on a perforated metal sheet or however your ingenuity suggests. They will improve in the days after roasting, until a week or so, after which they get worse.

There are numerous online retailers for green beans these days. You can also try your luck at your local roastery — in Wellington, People’s Coffee and Havana have both been quite happy to sell me green beans at a reasonable price.

There’s a ton of information out there if you search for “roasting coffee at home”. However, I’ve found that some of it is pretty US-centric, and the Aussie Coffee Snobs site is a more reliable source for us.


If you live in one of the larger NZ cities with good local roasters, the claims of marvellous quality that you read on the internet aren’t really true. Those people claiming home roasted is vastly better are usually Americans who live a deprived life, coffee-wise. On the other hand, if you live in the more rural parts of NZ, roasting your own from green is almost certainly better.

If you use a popcorn maker, or one of the other faster techniques, you end up with a brighter, more acid result that is usually too acid for espresso but delightful in plunger. Espresso roasts take longer, and need something like the breadmaker-based roaster.

Different brewing techniques suit different kinds of beans. Espresso in particular is often better with a blend, or at least a more “all-round” variety. For example, Ethiopian beans are aromatic and bright and acid and make for a potentially unpleasantly sharp shot on their own, but are nice mixed with Indonesian Mandheling beans. On the upside, you can make your own custom blend easily once you’ve experimented, which is an enjoyable process too.

You can burn yourself or electrocute yourself or set your house on fire once you start fooling round with roasters. Use your common sense.


Bulk buy frugality, coffee edition

July 2, 2009

As some of you know I roast my own coffee at home. I was turned on to this idea by my friend and former colleague Steve, who has been doing it for quite a while now. I don’t actually do it for frugality reasons — it’s more of a hobby — but since I am unwilling to give up the coffee habit, it’s very clearly the cheapest way to indulge it.

Yesterday Steve and I and a bunch of other people carefully divvied up about 100kg of green beans. Steve had cut a deal with a wholesaler and organised it all. Together we bought one 60kg sack and several 10kg bags. The average cost per kilogram was $11. Even allowing for 20% weight loss after roasting, that’s a very substantial saving for roasting it yourself, and actually somewhat of a saving over normal retail for green beans. Another win for buying in bulk.


Further yoghurt report

May 24, 2009

Since I first blogged about making yoghurt at home, I have made a couple of discoveries.

  1. You can use skim milk powder instead of fresh milk. This is a win on two fronts. It saves even more money, and it saves time, because you don’t have to waste time simmering the milk — you can just make it up with hot water.
  2. Cheesecloth costs about $4 per metre, and with half a metre you  have enough to strain your own Greek yoghurt, which is my favourite kind. You can use the whey that’s left in pancakes or scones or what have you.

In my unscientific way, I’ve noticed that the yoghurt mix sachet section in the supermarket has grown substantially recently. I theorise that yoghurty thriftiness is in the air, so to speak. Anyway, I don’t know what you get in a sachet that maes them better than using milk powder and old yoghurt starter. Enlighten me.



April 26, 2009

Made batch of yoghurt just now, partly following the Tibby Method ™ and partly Harold McGee at the NYT. Full report tomorrow.

I’m not sure this is really that frugal, since yoghurt is basically only twice the price of milk and it takes a while, but I have high hopes anyway.


A bit of frugal bodging

February 8, 2009

So I barbequed a chicken (bought on special, naturally) yesterday. For some time, I’ve been thinking I should make a charcoal lighter.

A charcoal lighter is a metal cylinder with a grate and draught holes at the bottom and a handle. You pack it with charcoal (or briquettes), and light some crumpled paper underneath. The whole lot soon goes, and when the charcoal has a light ash covering you tip it into the barbeque. This has several advantages over building a fire directly in the barbeque grate:

  • no lighter fluid required
  • you can add more fuel for something long and slow-cooking without smoky flames from fresh fuel tainting the food
  • all the fuel ignites pretty evenly, leading to hotter/more even/less wasteful fire (boyscout method fires always have unburnt fuel on the outside when the middle is ready)

You can actually buy these things, and they go for $40 or $50.

Or you can do what I did, and take an old tin, and a coat hanger, and make one yourself.

I didn’t actually follow the instructions here, which I googled up after the event, but they’re pretty much what I did.

I think it took about 20 minutes all up, about half of which was hunting for my Leatherman. The result is not pretty, but it does the job just fine. I don’t think I could drive out to the hardware shop and buy one that quickly, never mind make one.

Add your own moral tale below.


Lateral thinking frugality

October 26, 2008

For some time I’ve been looking for panniers for my bike. When you get a bit warm, if you’re wearing a backpack your back gets all sweaty and yuk. The commuting cyclist needs panniers.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find any that aren’t expensive (starting around $150) and over-engineered, or part of a proprietary “system” that requires you to buy a special carrier to mount them. I am not touring the Andes by bike, all I want is something that’ll take a lunchbox and a change of clothes, for crying out loud.

So today I went to the army surplus store on lower Cuba St, and bought two very cheap canvas knapsacks ($32 the pair). I’m doing a bit of surgery on the straps, and shortly they are going to become my new panniers. I’m thinking I might not even bother stitching them – riveters are really cheap, and I’d quite like to own one.

Write your own moral below.