Oct 2013: Running a less than ideal house five times more sustainably than most

Running a less than ideal house, five times more sustainably than most

Bronwyn and Ray Dahlstrom show that it is quite possible to live sustainably (and well) in a house that was not particularly well designed for the purpose. They were forced to move after the Black Saturday bushfires and they have gone about starting up a new life on a property near Inverloch in a positive, thoughtful way and with a deliberate aim to reduce their environmental impact as much as possible.


Low energy living

Perhaps the aspect of their lives which shows most clearly how successful they have been is in their energy consumption. They only use between 5.5 and 6 kWh of electricity per day, and this powers not only the house but also Ray’s studio plus equipment around their 16ha property (electric fences, water pumps etc.). To put this in perspective an average household in Bass Coast Shire uses nearly 5 times this amount.

What’s more the Dahlstroms consumption is more than offset by the electricity produced by the 3kW array of PV cells they have installed (as part of the Energy Innovation Co-op’s Southern Solar Hub scheme). In fact so much power is produced that they have already been paid more than $2000 for the excess generated in the past 18 months.


Passive solar modifications

So how have they achieved this impressive result? Firstly by making some simple but important modifications to the house which have significantly reduced the energy needed to heat and cool it. The

simplest step was to fit a door to the main entrances to the living room to prevent the heat escaping in winter into a corridor and out through some nearby windows.

The next step was to install blinds across the windows around the house. The windows are single glazed and include large picture windows in the main room which face east and give a magnificent view down the property. Unfortunately, as originally installed, they also let in a good deal of heat in the summer and allow heat to escape readily in the winter. The external blinds that have been fitted are easily controlled so that they cover the windows completely when required, such as on cold winter nights or when a hot sun is shining in on a summer’s morning. At other times they can be set to let in enough natural light to see by but still restrict the heat flow in or out.

The overall effect of these two modifications is that the house does not require cooling at all in the summer and in the winter the only heating is from a slow combustion stove in the living room which is mainly used at night time. In addition, whereas the previous householders needed a large gas tank to run a series of heaters throughout the house on LPG, the Dahlstroms only use gas for their cook top and a 45kg cylinder lasts them at least 15 months.


Low energy appliances and fittings

As well as improving the passive solar features of the house Ray and Bronwyn have made sure the appliances and fittings they do use are as energy efficient as possible. Again some of these measures have been done simply (and for free!), others have been more expensive and required thought and



They include:

· Fitting low energy globes throughout the house – most of these cost the Dahlstroms nothing as they were part of a scheme run by the Bendigo Bank.

· Installing timer switches which turn off the TV and other appliances if they’re not being used (the switches were also obtained for free through a local electrician)

· Buying a 5 ½ star rating fridge and only using a second less efficient fridge occasionally

· Installing a heat pump to provide all their hot water. This choice not only reduced their running costs but also made them eligible for rebates which substantially reduced the purchase price.



Not renewable steak knives … but many other aspects of their lives that mean that Bronwyn and Ray reduce their overall environmental footprint.

Among them are:

Recycling              The Dahlstroms have what amounts to a passion for recycling.

· Compost – Most of the kitchen scraps gets eaten by Charlie the pet pig (another bush fire survivor) but the rest plus garden waste and some of the manure produced by horses which are agisted on the property are used to make considerable amounts of compost for the garden. The compost matures in a series of managed heaps

· Building materials - the studio was made from modifying an existing shed using, where possible, material that was available on the property plus recycled windows from the local building materials recycler. At the same time, however, attention was paid to ensuring that the room is well insulated.

· Clothes – many of their clothes are recycled

· The wood for the heater in the winter comes from fallen branches around the property


Growing or buying food locally

It is worth noting that nearly 50 % of a typical household’s carbon footprint can be due to buying food. This is because with many food items, particularly those sold in supermarkets, a good deal of energy is used in processing and packaging and in transporting the food over long distances, often from overseas. In addition, an enormous amount of the food we do buy is wasted. A recent report suggests each household throws out $616 worth a year (this adds up to around $5 billion, more than the country’s military budget!).

With this in mind Bronwyn and Ray have established a series of garden beds which they produce much of the food they eat and are regularly improved with inputs of their home made compost. Bronwyn supplements their production and adds variety to their diet by attending food swaps in two different locations (Wonthaggi Harvest Centre and Bena). When there is a surplus of fruit she also makes preserves for their own domestic use and for exchange.

Food they do buy comes from a local organics store which is environmentally conscious.

Managing the property

The Dahlstroms are improving the productivity of their property by applying a similar non intrusive but effective approach to its management. The horses are rotated every two to three weeks between the various paddocks so that they are not overgrazed. In the summer Bron drenches the horses with a product that doesn’t harm dung beetles so they, the beetles, are able do their work most effectively. As an indication of the success of their approach this year they have produced 240 bales of hay (compared with 115 previously) in a year when conditions generally have not been favourable to hay production.


And finally: They dry their washing on a clothes line not in a dryer. This is significant because in many homes the clothes dryer is the appliance which uses the most electricity after the refrigerator.