The case for peeing outside

July 21st, 2013.

First published February 2009, last updated July 2013

Our peeing habits have quite an impact on water consumption. The water we flush it away with is often water fit for drinking; a resource we’re in short supply of.

Even a dual flush toilet will use a minimum of around 3 litres (.8 of a gallon) of water each flush, so we tend to use far more water each day just flushing away pee than we need to stay alive.

In the case of old style toilets with only a single flush setting, the amount of water used is incredible – up to 13 litres (3 gallons).

So based on a low flush toilet, used 4 times a day:

4 x 3 x 365 = 4380 litres (around a thousand gallons) a year

With an older style toilet:

4 x 13 x 365 = 18980 litres (over 5,000 gallons) a year

Those are big numbers, but now multiply that by the population of your country and it becomes truly astronomical.

The old saying goes “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down”. I’m all for conserving water, but I think the time I spent as a contract cleaner, cleaning dozens of toilets a day, has well and truly turned me off that idea. I have some awful flashbacks when contemplating that strategy. Still, it works for some folks and good luck to them.

Unless you’re an apartment dweller or have no privacy from your neighbors, considering taking a whizz outside instead when you can, particularly on your garden. This will not only save a stack of water, but urine is a great fertilizer as it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. In fact, the world is running out of easily sourced phosphorous so you’ll not only save some cash on store bought fertilizers, but you’ll be doing your bit to conserve phosphorous supplies.

I do acknowledge that peeing outside is far easier for guys than for gals – I’m sorry ladies; I have no practical advice to offer.

Peeing outside is not “dirty” as urine (unless you have a urinary tract infection) is sterile. Still, it’s not really a socially acceptable practice, particularly if you attempt to do it in public or in your neighbor’s yard. Discretion and common sense is advised of course :).

Just a couple of other tips:

When peeing outside, it’s advisable to aim away from plants a little as it can burn the roots of some species due to its high nitrogen content.

If you’re going to collect urine for use outside at a later time, it shouldn’t be kept for more than 24 hours as chemical reactions will cause ammonia levels to build up that could also damage your plants – and it could become quite whiffy; particularly during the warmer months. In bulk urine reclamation projects,  the urine is stored for months until all the reactions settle.

Also, don’t target the same spot each time, for the same reason – unless it’s your compost heap. It seems that urine is a fantastic additive and will get your heap working faster.

If you’re even more adventurous, check out my article on composting human waste.

Tips for saving water

September 12th, 2012.

First published February 2007, last updated September 2012

A few years ago, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned that within two decades, the majority of the earth’s population could face serious water shortages. 

More recently, the Interaction Council, a group of elder statesmen including former Canadian Prime Minister  Jean Chrétien, former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Helmut Schmidt and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, again sounded the alarm that the world is confronted with a water crisis with critical implications for peace, political stability and economic development.

The reasons are many – climate change, population growth and poor water management practices among them. For example, I live in Australia – the driest inhabited continent in the world; yet we appear to be one of the leaders in water consumption per capita.

The biggest water consuming industry is agriculture. The FAO states 70 percent of all fresh water drawn globally is for agricultural use – higher in some countries.

The Interaction Council  says approximately 3,800 cubic kilometers of fresh water is extracted around the world annually. Given there will be another billion  mouths to feed worldwide by 2025, the Council states global agriculture alone will require another 1,000 cubic km of water every year; which is the equivalent of the annual flow of 20 Niles or 100 Colorado Rivers.

This is not going to happen as that amount of fresh water is simply not readily available. 

The blame for our water woes can’t be laid at the feet of farmers – we are all in this together and we as consumers fuel demand for water hungry crops such as cotton. It takes around 925 gallons to produce a single pound of cotton and over half that water is lost through evaporation or other poor water management practices. 

While there will always be X amount of water in the world, much of it will be useless or require a great deal of processing at the rate we’re going – and that processing requires energy and creates toxic by-products. Rather than us all looking towards processes such as desalination as the cure, as welcome as they are, we should see them as a sign that there’s something very wrong in our approach to water.

As individuals, there are so many things we can do to reduce our water consumption – and save cash in the process too! Here are some brief and simple tips most of us can apply:

  • Shorter showers with less pressure
  • Install a water saving shower head – under $10
  • Ensuring taps, water pipes and hose connections don’t drip
  • Checking toilets for leaks. Use a few drops of food coloring in the cistern, wait for a while and check the bowl for signs of color – be sure to flush afterwards prevent staining.
  • Buy clothing made with fibers that aren’t so water intensive; such as hemp
  • Installing rainwater tanks or even just a small rain barrel
  • Using greywater from sinks and washing machines to water the garden
  • Using low water car washes
  • Installing tap aerators
  • Turning off the tap while brushing our teeth
  • Turning off the tap while shaving
  • Washing veggies in a sink partially filled with water instead of under a running tap
  • Setting washing machines at the lowest possible water level for the load
  • Watering gardens just after sunrise or just after sunset to reduce evaporation
  • Mulching gardens to reduce watering requirements
  • Installing drip irrigation systems
  • Cutting grass a little longer during summer
  • Reducing the temperature of water heaters which lessens the amount of mixing needed to be done in order to achieve a temperature that won’t scald your skin
  • Installing dual flush toilets or displacement devices in cisterns
  • Fill a dishwasher completely before running it
  • Don’t use water to accelerate thawing of food
  • Instead of using a sink rubbish disposal unit, establish a compost pile or worm farm
  • Use drought tolerant plants in your garden and drought resistant grass for lawn
  • Never use a hose to blast leaves or litter off a driveway – sweep it, it’s good exercise too :)

While saving a gallon here and there may not seem like much; bear in mind that every small action when multiplied millions of times can have a huge impact. For example, if every person in the USA reduced consumption by just 100 gallons per year, and it’s not that hard to do – that would represent a saving of over 30 billion gallons of potable water annually, which is enough to provide 5 billion people with sufficient water to meet direct consumption and basic hygiene needs.

We really undervalue water when you consider humans can go for weeks without food, but only days without water. The amazing thing is, we only need a few litres (a gallon or so) a day through our food and directly to sustain ourselves. Added that, to maintain hygiene, we only need about 25 litres (6 gallons) a day in total. In developed countries, we currently use 500-800 litres (125 to 200 gallons) per day per person!

Groundwater – Out Of Sight Shouldn’t Be Out Of Mind

June 18th, 2012.

I considered having a bore constructed on a previous property I had, but the cost was out of reach for me – and I’m glad it was.
Others in the area had bores that had been supplying their homes and farms for generations. Levels had been dropping, but not alarmingly so until a very large agricultural operation set up shop 5 miles away. Practically overnight, most of the previously existing bores over a very large area ran dry; such was the amount being drawn by the new kid on the block.
Groundwater doesn’t necessarily spend all its time hidden from view. When we see water in rivers, we often don’t consider how that water got there. Depending on the region, it may be rainwater runoff or snow melt – but it also may be heavily dependent on groundwater springs as a feed-in source.
Early in 2012, scientists again sounded the alarm about the very real threat to the Earth’s groundwater supplies due to over-extraction and pollution. Groundwater tables are falling throughout the world and the general quality of this water is also being affected.
According to Australia’s National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, groundwater currently makes up about 97 per cent of all the available fresh water on the planet and 40% of humanity’s water supplies.
In Australia, most of the groundwater we tap into is from the massive Great Artesian Basin, which covers around 1.7 million square kilometres – getting close to around a quarter of the continent. It was tapping into this resource that allowed Europeans to settle in otherwise inhospitable areas and made arid areas bloom. 
It’s hard to fathom that we could have much of an impact on such a massive storage system, but recharge rates of the basin are far less than current extraction rates – and we’re set to more than double our water use by the middle of this century. 

Part of the issue is water waste in the form of unregulated and abandoned bores that spill their liquid gold onto the surface of our sunburnt country where much of it evaporates. There has been a push to cap these bores for some years, but addressing that problem alone won’t solve it.

The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training now says the situation is so dire, we could face major problems with fresh water scarcity within a decade or two. That on top of more severe droughts more often could be a disaster; the likes of which we’ve never seen.

While some of our emergency response measures are desalination plants, that offers little comfort (or water) to flora and fauna outside the cities being serviced – and desalination has its own environmental issues.
As mentioned, this is not a threat unique to Australia. In the USA, over half of all Americans rely on groundwater for drinking – and as many as 800,000 new wells are being drilled a year.
Another threat posed to groundwater supplies comes from fracking for gas, which involves using toxic solutions injected under high pressure underground to break up rock to release gas. The process can contaminate the ground water with the fluids and the gas itself.
What Can We Do?
As individuals, addressing this specific problem is difficult as so much is in the hands of policy-makers. However, the less water we use, the less these underground resources need to be drawn upon – and that is where we can all play a part. 
There are many ways to save water in the garden and generally around the home. They range from very basic strategies such as shaving a minute off each shower through to the choice of appliances we buy. For example, if you’re considering buying a washing machine soon, a front loading washing machine can save thousands of litres of water a year and provide power bill savings to boot.
Water will become like electricity in some areas in terms of rapidly escalating costs, so it also makes good financial sense to get water-wise.

It’s also important to sit up and take note of news relating to groundwater and provide support where possible to those trying to address the problem – however you can.

Rainwater Tank Materials
Rain Barrels
Waterway Care

Selecting a rainwater tank – materials

April 10th, 2011.

First published December 2007, updated April 2011

Drought is a part of normal life in many parts of the world and given the threats posed by climate change, place with traditionally low rainfall may become even dryer and long established rain patterns give way to major rain events – a feast or famine scenario. A way to better utilize the feast to help through the lean times, or in other disasters where mains supply may be cut or contaminated is to install a rainwater tank 

Here in Australia, the corrugated metal rainwater tank is somewhat of a national icon. In South Australia, around 30% of homes have rainwater catchment systems. Water tanks haven’t been an overly attractive home addition until recently; although seeing the old style tank does make me feel very nostalgic! These days, tanks come in all sorts of shapes, colors, materials and sizes to suit any home and space.

Even if having a full size water tank isn’t an option for you, rain barrels are a very cheap and easy to install option. These look like a pickle barrel, are mostly made of plastic and hold up to 80 gallons – you can pick them up for around a hundred dollars. Ever gallon of water saved counts!

In regard to larger tanks where construction is a more important aspect, in this article we’ll take a brief look at the various materials commonly used, their advantages and disadvantages.

Poly (plastic) rainwater tanks

Poly tanks are made from polyethylene; a UV stabilized, food grade plastic. The tanks are light and you only need a sand base to place them on. They come in a wide variety of colors, usually molded into the plastic, and have a long serviceable life. Many poly tanks carrying a 25 year warranty, although many claim 15 years is a more realistic lifespan. They are also usually the second cheapest of the options covered in this article.

One of the major disadvantages of polyethylene is the material is made from petrochemicals. Even after their serviceable life has ended, there’s still a great big hunk of plastic that will take generations to break down and will release toxins as it does so.

However, polyethylene tanks can still be easily recycled after 15 years, so it’s just a matter of breaking the tank up and then carting it away to a recycler.

Some poly tanks are made with a vertical seam – this is a weak point that may cause splitting and subsequent water loss – so a seamless tank is probably a better choice. Polyethylene water tanks and fire don’t really mix either as they’ll just melt should the flames get too close. This can be a real problem if you’re in a rural area and you need that water to fight a fire.

The other issue is the long term effects of drinking water stored for such a long time in this material. Polyethylene tanks are relatively new on the market, so there’s no serviceable life studies been performed in relation to these issues as far as I know.

I had a polyethylene rainwater tank at my original place in the outback where temperatures would get up to around 46C (115F) degrees Celsius in the shade and below freezing during winter. The tank performed well over the couple of years I had it before selling the property, but there was a bit of an odd taste to the water on hot days (it was placed in full sun). A subsequent poly tank I acquired for my current property has also stood up well to similar extremes – and without the odd taste being added to the water.

Just on that point – before purchasing a poly tank, check the warranty for temperature stipulations as some manufacturers will void the warranty if conditions where the tank is installed can get extremely hot.

Steel tanks

Three materials are most popular – Galvanized steel, Zincalume®  and Colorbond®  (the latter two may be called by other names in different countries).

Galvanized tanks have been around for over 150 years and are usually the cheapest type of tank. Hot-dip galvanizing is a process used to coat steel or iron with zinc. The Zinc helps slow down corrosion, but depending on environmental factors, a galvanized tank may last well under 5 years, particularly if the roof of the structure capturing the rainwater is made from Zincalume. This is due to electrolysis.

Zincalume®  has been around for about 30 years and was originally used for roofing. It’s a a mix of 55% aluminium, 43.5% zinc and 1.5% silicon bonded to steel. There’s a lot of conflicting information around about lifespan, but the general consensus seems to be about 10-15 years.

Colorbond is Zincalume with a conversion layer applied to the surface of the steel to improve adhesion; then a polyester primer baked on, followed by a top coat of paint that is also baked on. It’s not unusual to find a 20 year warranty on these tanks, but a deep scratch to the paint can be enough to accelerate the corrosion process.

Some metal tanks now also have polyethylene linings to further help slow down corrosion – escaping plastic altogether can be a difficult thing to do these days.

If you do buy a steel based tank, look into installing extra sacrificial anodes to further delay corrosion.

Concrete water tanks

Concrete rainwater tanks can be installed either above or under ground. The latter is a good option if you’re short on space as they can be constructed in such a way to allow for load bearing, for example, under a driveway.

Given the material, they are very heavy and often poured on-site or delivered in sections that are then basically cemented together. Again, a polyethylene liner may be used. Without a liner, the tank will leach lime and over time you’ll have a slightly alkaline water. With concrete being porous, without a liner water will penetrate into the concrete over time which may cause corrosion problems in relation to steel framework.

Concrete is also an energy intensive product that requires a great deal of heat and water in its production. Additionally, the components need to be mined – but the same goes for any material.


This is another long-lasting option that can be installed above or below ground. Fiberglass tanks resist corrosion and are not generally affected by chemicals.

As fiberglass tanks tend to allow more light in than other types of tank materials, this can encourage the growth of algae, so they should be painted or gel coat applied. Fiberglass can also tend to be brittle, leaving it prone to cracks – something you don’t want, particularly in an in-ground situation.

Choosing a tank material

Choice is wonderful, but as you can see, there’s advantages and disadvantages with each type of tank, particularly when it comes to environmental impact – so it’s really a matter of gauging your needs and budget and then choosing the lesser of the evils. In regard to the financial side of things, bear in mind not just the initial cost, but how many times the tank will need replacing over X years. This also plays a role in the amount of resources used. 

Something worth checking into are rebates on rainwater tanks and/or associated plumbing – many governments now offer cash-back schemes.

Even with the various disadvantages of each material, given the length of serviceable life of most tank options and the tens of thousands of gallons of water you can collect over that time; installing a rainwater tank is still a very green move.

A brief note on rainwater tank regulations

Regardless of the material you settle on, before buying and installing a tank you should check with your local authorities as in some places you will need a special permit and in others they may be totally banned – which is absolutely ridiculous in my opinion. Even in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, some local governments had bans in place until relatively recently – but the Millennium Drought thankfully sorted out most of those short-sighted councils.

Australia wasn’t the only country with crazy laws regarding rainwater harvesting. Up until 2009, in Colorado in the USA, it was illegal for households to capture rainwater as rights to water were allocated in the state; i.e, that water that fell from the sky was owned/leased by other parties.

I’m pleased that sanity prevailed in that case also; but no doubt there are still some regions where similar silly legislation is still in place. If you’re unfortunate enough to live in such an area, consider organising protest action rather than letting the status quo remain.

How sewage wastewater is treated

March 2nd, 2010.

Yes, it’s time for another “finish your lunch first or better still don’t start it” article. In this article we’ll take a brief look at what happens to that lunch once you’re entirely done with it and how that relates to green living.

Just about everything about our modern lives is so complex and our labor saving devices and systems have come at a huge cost to the environment.

Take the simple process of pooping and peeing.

If you’re out in the real boonies and nature calls, answering that call can be very straightforward – point (or squat) and shoot, or dig a hole, do the necessary, clean up (using toilet paper made from recycled content of course) then cover the hole. The more adventurous may choose to do without the toilet paper, using whatever nature provides.

Wonderful. Let’s leave it at that, you get the idea.

Start doing that in your local park or front yard in full view of neighbors and you’ll soon be hauled off.

I’ve covered the topic of humanure and composting toilets before as alternatives to conventional sewage treatment, but this is more to flag why we need to treat waste differently than we currently do. The best way to do that is to first understand how it is treated now.

I’ll skip the bits we all know about (the steps leading up to the flush) and we’ll pick up the story from there. This deals with sewage that isn’t treated on site, such as in the case of a septic tank or blackwater recycling system.

Wastewater, which includes sewage, is 99.9% water, with the remaining 0.1% generally dissolved or suspended materials. Around half of the water a typical city in the developed world uses, not including industrial activity, is returned to sewers from household toilets, sinks, showers and washing machines.

Getting it to the sewage treatment works

Do you know where your sewage is treated?

I wasn’t sure of my closest waste water treatment plant, so I had to look it up. Adelaide’s wastewater system serves the city’s population through more than 7000 kilometres (around 4,400 miles) of sewer pipes and three major wastewater treatment plants. The closest one to me is about 4 miles away! The sewage from our place doesn’t get there under its own, ahem, steam – it needs to travel via pumping stations.

Sewage pre-treatment

Usually a raked bar screen is used to remove large items to minimize risk of damage to pumps and skimmers used during primary treatment. The sewage may also be directed through a channel at a controlled rate to allow for grit and other items to settle.

Sewage primary treatment

This usually consists of pumping the sewage into huge holding dams where solids settle to the bottom and oils and lighter solid matter floats. The “floaties” are skimmed off and the heavier sludge is scraped towards a chamber where it is pumped elsewhere for further treatment.

Sewage secondary treatment

This removes dissolved and suspended organic matter and while the process varies, usually is carried out with the help of micro-organisms who digest the organic material. As it is an aerobic process, air needs to be pumped into the water.

The micro-organisms may need to be removed from the treated water prior to discharge; so even more processing is required.

Sewage tertiary treatment

This involves filtering and disinfection prior to discharge into a waterway, or for reuse in watering gardens or parks. The filtering may occur through sand and common methods of disinfection include ozone, chlorine, ultraviolet light, or sodium hypochlorite.

But I’m missing something here – what happens to all the “floaties” and sludge I mentioned earlier that is collected during the primary treatment?

More liquid is removed the sludge and then through aerobic/anaerobic or a composting process, the resulting substance called centrate is typically reintroduced into the wastewater process. In more advanced systems, it may undergo further processing to become fertilizer.

What about the pre-treatment stuff that is filtered out? What happens to that? Given my own previous experience as a contract cleaner and seeing what people attempt to flush down toilets, I can only assume it winds up in landfill or incinerated.

So as you can see, what is such a simple function out in the boonies is an incredibly time and energy intensive exercise in the suburbs, requiring a ton of infrastructure and resources to make it happen and keep it happening – and bear in mind the above was only a brief overview.

I’m still amazed that all these processes used to occur in our own blackwater recycling system at our previous house. I can’t tell you what the energy savings were (if any) compared to normal sewage treatment, but it sure didn’t have to travel so far and all the waste generated from our household eventually wound up watering our own gardens.

Given the complexity of treating sewage wastewater, as part of our green living efforts we need ensure what we send down the pipes is what is meant to go down them and try to send less to be treated.

For example, the most common way of disposing of old pills and potions is down the toilet. Unfortunately, many wastewater treatment processes can’t remove the dissolved substances – these medications are winding up in our waterways. So what should we do with them? That will be a topic for another article. No, I’m not trying to keep you in suspense; I just don’t have a clue at this point :).

In terms of sending less wastewater for treatment; using dual flush toilets helps, as does using low flow showerheads and other simple water saving tips including reusing washing machine water to water your garden (this is called greywater) – you can even consider taking your pee outside. Believe it or not, your pee is precious!

Until such time that urine reclamation becomes commonplace (and it likely will, due to a looming shortage of phosphate) and humanure practices become more accepted, it’s just a case of us all thinking a little more before we flush or use water that winds up in the same waste treatment stream as our sewage.

If you are fascinated by the concept of humanure; i.e. composting human waste, check out my related article. It includes a link to download a free comprehensive manual – it’s the good poop on poo!

Choosing a reusable water bottle

December 30th, 2009.

 The reputation of bottled water is lying bleeding in the gutter, which probably isn’t a bad thing. 

While the product certainly does have its place, disposable plastic water bottles have become a blight on the planet due to the levels of consumption of bottled water products.

The plastic in disposable water bottles can be recycled, but where there is no deposit system such as we have in South Australia, the majority of the bottles wind up in landfill.

According to statistics from the International Bottled Water Association, in 2000 Americans consumed 4.7 billion gallons of bottled water, which represented less than 9 percent of total beverage consumption. By 2008 bottled water consumption increased to almost 8.7 billion gallons.

However, after the bad press bottled water received regarding plastic waste and water quality a couple of years back, an interesting thing took place.

In 2007, Americans were drinking on average 29.0 gallons of bottled water a year; a 5.3% increase on the previous year. In 2008, that had dropped to 28.5 gallons; a drop of 1.8% and the first drop in over a decade.

The International Bottled Water Association acknowledges that environmental concerns may have played a role in the drop.

People didn’t stop drinking water, so what happened? 

Refillable water bottles did. 

Aside from the environmental benefits of using a refillable water bottle, I ran some quick calculations for my article “Is water too cheap?” and found that the water we get from our taps here in Australia costs about USD 0.4 cents per gallon. I have only ever bought one bottle of water a few months back and that quart cost a few bucks!

With the addition of a home water filter, you can have water as good, if not better than many bottled water brands – as some of the bottled water brands pull their water directly from municipal supplies and at times don’t even bother filtering it.

So, a reusable water bottle is definitely the go.. but what type of bottle should you buy? 

Reusing PET based disposable bottles

You could always use a PET based disposable water bottle over and over (which I’ve been known to do) ; but this can present some health risks from bacteria and chemicals from the plastic leaching into the water; although the latter is still being hotly debated.

Polycarbonate water bottles

Polycarbonate water bottles used to be quite popular as they were lightweight, strong and flexible, but they’ve been shown to leach Bisphenol A, commonly abbreviated as BPA, into the water. Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor, a substance that acts like hormones in the endocrine (glandular) system.

Glass bottles 

Glass can be recycled and while a cold beer in a glass bottle is a truly wonderful thing, for dragging around the place, glass bottles are a little weighty and prone to breakage.

PVC water bottles

PVC can contain DEHP, DEHA and softening phthalates that are reportedly not very liver and kidney friendly. PVC water bottles are also difficult to recycle.

Polystyrene water bottles

Polystyrene, like most plastics, is made from fossil fuel. It’s highly flammable and a chemical called benzene, which is a known human carcinogen, is used in its production.

Stainless steel water bottles

A good stainless steel bottle will last you for life. They are lightweight and with the addition of a wetsuit style sleeve commonly referred to as a tote, will keep your water cool for ages. Stainless steel will not affect the taste of the water.


Aluminium water bottles are also recyclable and long lasting, but remembering back to my old aluminum water canteen, it certainly added a taste to the water. That’s why many modern aluminum reusable water bottles have a plastic liner I guess.

A word of warning

While stainless steel or aluminium would seem to be the best choices, these bottles will usually have some sort of plastic cap or seal and may even have a plastic liner in the case of aluminum. It’s important to determine that the plastic used doesn’t contain Bisphenol A. Look for co-polyester, water-based liners that are BPA and phthalate-free.

A major manufacturer of metal water bottles was brought to task on this recently after declaring their product didn’t leach BPA, when it in fact it contained the substance – it was a case of marketing sleight of hand. Needless to say, when the BPA content became public knowledge, the repercussions were huge.

A fresh approach to clean water – vending machines.

December 11th, 2009.

Note from Michael: the following information was provided by the merchant. Attentiongreen businesses,  do you have a special coupon or discount offeryou’d like showcased on Green Living Tips? Learnmore here.

Both bottled water companies and municipal water systems have come under fire in recent years. The former because of the huge burden the manufacture, distribution and disposal of single use plastic bottles puts on our local communities, landscapes; in fact every ocean on the planet.

Many environmentalists advocate we simply return to the tap for our drinking water. The problem? Evidence is mounting daily that a vast array of man-made chemicals in the form of industrial solvents, pesticides and pharmaceuticals are percolating through our watershed and back into our commercial drinking water sources, having the potential to create undetermined long term health hazards. 

Despite the environmental negatives of throw away plastic, many still opt for commercially bottled water as the”safer” alternative.

While home filtration systems are a great idea, what about when you’re out andabout and your supplies have run dry?

Aqua Star International has developed a new type of water vending machine that now gives the eco-conscious consumeron-the-go an alternative choice between plastic or the tap. The new machines dispense high quality chilled water into theuser’s own bottle. The machines are designed for high traffic retail, campus and recreational settings; indoors or out.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle)
Water Vending Machine

Realizing old habits die hard, Aqua Star International has joined forces with Cynergreen, a leading manufacturer of stainless steel water bottles to create marketing promotions designed to encourage use amongst the community surrounding the locations of these water stations.

Early interest has come from a varied audience;  from transit authorities and parks to upscale resort properties. In fact, the very first installation of “b.y.o.b.” (bring your own bottle) machines has had a major impact. 

Six machines were installed at transfer stations of a public bus transit system. Installed for the needs of the 500 bus drivers in the system, the transit company has eliminated the use of over 200,000 plastic water bottles in just seven months.

If interested in owning and operating b.y.o.b. water vending machines or getting them placed in your community, please contact rick@aquastarintl.com for moreinformation and be sure to mention Green Living Tips.

Exclusive offer!

As a special offer to readers of Green Living Tips, we are offering an exclusive 15% discount off our standard pricing for purchases or a free gift basket of sustainable products for leads that result in placement of machines in your community.

Learn more about our water vending machines at Aqua Star International.For further details about the discount and gift basket offer, contact Rick MacNealvia rick@aquastarintl.com (mentionGreen Living Tips).

A basic guide to solar hot water systems

August 16th, 2009.

Continuing in my series on solar power basics, in this article we’ll take a look at solar hot water – the benefits of heating water via the sun, how it works and the costs involved.

Solar hot water benefits

One of the most energy intensive (and therefore costly) processes in any house is the heating of water. Heating water accounts for more than 20% of residential energy use in the USA and around 40% of energy used in Australian homes.

This represents not only a massive chunk of your power bill, but also a substantial proportion of carbon dioxide emissions. A solar hot water system, over a period of time, will save you money and lessen your environmental impact.

Solar hot water equipment types

There’s two main types of solar hot water systems

Passive: A passive system consists of a tank for hot water storage, a solar collector, piping and frame. The entire system is mounted on the roof. Water heated by the panel flows upward naturally and then is gravity fed into the house.

Active: An electric pump is used to circulate the fluid through the panel collector, meaning that the tank does not need to be on the roof. The advantages of an active system include:

a) can be easier to get local government approval
b) less weight and strain on the roof
c) doesn’t require major roof modifications
d) more aesthetically pleasing design

Solar collectors

The solar collector is the business end of a system, heating the water and many advancements have been made in solar collector technology in recent years to improve performance. The most common types of solar collectors:

Flat plate
A flat plate collector is the traditional type and consists of an insulated box containing a black sheet of metal with embedded pipes. The heat is absorbed by the sheet and transferred to the water in the pipes.

Evacuated Tube
An evacuated (or vacuum) tube collector consists of glass tubes with a layer of heat absorbent coating through which water pipes run. As the tubes encasing the water pipes are a vacuum, this reduces heat loss; making them more efficient than flat plate collectors; so these are particularly suited to colder climates. While evacuated tube systems are a little more expensive than flat plate, their increased efficiency (up to 97% thermal energy retention) more than makes up for the added cost.

Heat pumps

Heat pumps are a form of solar hot water technology that don’t use any sort of collector. Heat pumps use heat in the air to raise water temperature – even in freezing conditions down to -10 Celsius (14F). A heat pump is like a refrigerator, but in reverse. I’ve spoken to a few people who have these units, and even in the depths of winter they’ve had no problems with a steady supply of hot water.

Evacuated tube solar hot water system
Evacuated tube solar hot water system
Image courtesy Energy Matters Australia – solar hot water specialists

What about when it’s cloudy?

While a solar hot water system can still warm water on cloudy days; if the cloud is too heavy for too long, the effectiveness of a flat plat system and to a lesser degree, evacuated tubes, is greatly reduced. For this reason, many solar hot water systems also come with an electricity or gas assisted system whereby if the temperature falls below certain point, the backup system automatically kicks in to maintain the desired temperature.

What about the equipment’s environmental footprint?

Renewable energy naysayers are quick to point out that the production of renewable energy equipment is an energy intensive process. This is quite true, however, given the equipment is designed to last a very long time, the amount of energy required to create the components is more than offset by the amount of energy it saves.

While it varies with the type of system and location where it is used, a flat plate passive system energy payback time can be as little as 18 months. A solar hot water system can also save up to 4.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually!

How much does solar hot water cost?

Again, it depends on the type of system, but for a family of 4, expect to pay anywhere from $3,500 for an evacuated tube system to $4,000 for an evacuated tube system with electricity assist. In addition, you’re looking at between $1200 – $1600 to have it professionally installed. It’s a lot to outlay, but there’s ways to cut costs substantially.

You can buy retrofit kits that can decrease the price by around a thousand dollars. The cost can also be dramatically decreased by taking advantage of renewable energy rebates that many governments offer. In some cases, rebates can be so generous they’ll reduce the price of a solar hot water system to make it comparable with traditional hot water services.

Solar hot water payback time

To calculate an approximate payback time, deduct any applicable rebates and then take a look at your current electricity or gas bill. If you’re in the USA, calculate 20% of the bill as being attributable to hot water, or if you’re in Australia, take 40%, then divide the residual cost of the system by that figure.

This will give you an approximation of how many months or quarters it will take to reach a stage that the system has paid for itself – after that, it’s basically free hot water heating up to around 25 years, when the system will likely need to be replaced.

A viable, green alternative

Solar hot water systems have been around for many years and are certainly not just a gimmick for hippies. The copious amounts of energy consumed in heating water has seen some governments make their installation compulsory. For example, Hawaii now requires all new homes to install solar hot water systems and in Israel, 90% of homes have solar water heaters installed.

By the way, if you want to experience solar hot water for under 10 bucks, try a solar shower bag – I use one when I’m roughing it :). If you’re interested in learning more about other solar and wind power energy options, check out some of the articles listed below.

Earth friendly water heating tips

August 11th, 2009.

Heating water or more accurately, keeping it heated, is an expensive process and especially unfriendly to the environment if you’re not using solar hot water system. Electric and gas hot water systems account for up to 20% of a household’s greenhouse gas emissions.
We generally set our hot water services to a temperature that’s too hot to immerse our hands in. Instead, we add a ton of cold water to achieve the desired temperature – which is rather wasteful; not to mention a safety issue. 

Also, every time you turn off your hot water tap, there can be gallons of hot water still in the lines – the heat is wasted and your hot water service then needs to reheat the equivalent of the water lost. Additionally, the hotter the temperature of your service, the less working life it will have.
For each 10ºF reduction in water temperature, you can save between 3%–5% in energy costs! When we were on bottled gas, we certainly noticed a substantial saving just by dialing back the thermostat a couple of notches.

Other strategies for saving on hot water:

–  Use faucet aerators

– Install low flow shower heads – this is very cheap to do and will save incredible amounts of water. 

– Check the laggings on external pipes regularly and replace if necessary

– Buy a water heater insulation blanket that can help reduce heat loss (more suited to electric hot water systems) – another very cheap item

– Wherever possible, use cold water in food preparation and cooking. Heating water on your stovetop consumes less gas/electricity as your water heater is likely to go into a heating cycle whenever hot water is used. Better still, use a microwave to heat the water

– Use cold water for washing your hands – there are really no health benefits in using hot water as the temperatures that kill bacteria are also too high for human skin.

– These days, with the improvements in laundry products, there’s little need to use hot water in washing cycles. We use cold water for wash and rinse cycles and haven’t experienced any problems with getting our clothes clean – just be sure to use earth friendly detergents.

– If you’re replacing your dishwasher soon; consider buying one with a in-built water heater, which will save energy.

– If you are in the market for a new gas hot water service, consider a tankless system. Tankless systems operate on an “on demand” basis; heating  water when it’s required. Anywhere up to a third of the energy used  by a standard water heater is consumed by maintaining water at temperature in between uses.

Maybe you’ve considered solar hot water in the past, but it was too expensive? It might be worth your while to look into it again. Not only have prices generally dropped and the technology improved; but many governments also offer renewable energy rebates that can substantially offset the cost; in some cases making these systems comparable in price to a standard hot water service. By switching to solar hot water, you’ll not only slash your household carbon emissions, but up to 75% of your water heating costs.

Garden water saving tips

April 29th, 2009.

(first published July 2008, updated April 2009)

It’s wonderful to have a garden and add a splash of green in an urban environment; but our gardens tend to consume massive amounts of water; something that’s becoming an increasingly scarce resource in many parts of the world.

Irrigation accounts for the bulk of water use in homes, particularly in drier areas over the summer months. A few of the biggest mistakes made are:

a) Plant selection; usually by using plants that aren’t native to the area
b) Sprinklers that throw water up into the air, which is then windblown or evaporates
c) Watering during the hottest part of the day
d) Over-watering

Here’s some tips for reducing your garden watering footprint – and to save some money on water rates at the same time.

Plant selection

When you’re next shopping for plants for your garden, consider not only your area’s current rainfall, but what’s projected for the future. In many regions of the world, rainfall is dropping; so a plant that might get by fine now without additional watering may not do so in the future.


Many sprinklers throw out fine droplets and on a hot day, these droplets simply evaporate. While your garden gets some water, much is lost. Look to buy a sprinkler that throws water closer to the ground in large drops

Drip irrigation

This can save you a ton of water. Drip irrigation (aka  trickle irrigation or micro-irrigation) consists of a series of pipes with drippers hanging off them that deliver water directly to where it’s needed. Given the targeted nature of the delivery, far less water has to be used.  Using a special piercing device on the main pipe, you can attach drippers exactly where you need them and you can plug the hole at a later date if need be. The equipment is simple, easily scalable, pretty cheap and durable and can be purchased at most hardware stores and nurseries.

Tip: when using drip irrigation, you’ll need to check the drippers regularly as they can get clogged with water-borne particles, particularly when used with a greywater or blackwater recycling system. Birds also have a tendency to move the dripper hoses as they forage.

Irrigation timers

If you use an irrigation timer, set it to run half the normal time, but run it a second cycle a minimum of half an hour later. This will dramatically reduce runoff. 

Check your equipment

Check over your hose and sprinkler connections for leaks – a drop wasted each second can add up to a couple of gallons each day. Also check the heads of your sprinklers are clear for maximum effectiveness. 

Watering time

The best time of the day to water is either just on sunrise or just on sunset, as this minimizes water evaporation

Make use of old soda bottles

Richelle D. contributed this tip: “I have several 3 liter bottles, filled with water and pushed upside down into the ground to water my outdoor trees.  The soil draws the water from the 2 liter bottle or even gallon jugs when dry.”

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulching is adding layers of plant material such peastraw or bark to keep the sun off the soil and therefore retain water. Mulching is one of the most effective ways to reduce water needed in a garden – up to 50%. Mulch has the added benefit of preventing weed growth, deters pests, helps to stabilize soil temperature and provide nutrients to the soil as the mulch decomposes.

User fertilizer sparingly

Try to avoid using high nitrogen fertilizers during dry conditions as they will encourage growth and your plants will need more water.

Aerate your lawn and garden

Aerating tools can be purchased at most hardware stores for around $50. An aerator pulls out small plugs of soil allowing air and water to penetrate deeper. Deeper moisture means deeper root systems; which makes plants more resistant to dry spells and requiring less water.

Make trees a watering priority

Grass may die, but it grows back quickly, whereas a tree may take decades to grow. Trees also provide protection from the harsh sun for other plants and can reduce ground temperatures in a garden substantially. If you have to choose between watering your lawn and watering your trees; prioritize the latter.

Consider a rainwater tank

Given the amount of water gardens require; consider adding a rainwater catchment system to your property – it can help act as added insurance for a reasonable supply of water during the dry months or when your local authorities introduce restrictions.

There’s all sorts of rain water tanks and barrels available to suit your premises, ranging from holding a few dozen gallons, to thousands.

Rainwater catchment formula

So much water is wasted through not harvesting rainfall. To get an idea of how much water you’re missing out on, use these simple rain water catchment formulas:


1mm of rain on 1 square meter of roof equals 1 litre of water


Roof square feet multiplied .6 for every inch of rain = gallons

By the way, many local governments now offer incentives and rebates if you install a water tank, so check with your local council for any programs they may have in place.

Recycling household water

Just as water is wasted outside the house, so it is inside. Thousands upon thousands of gallons go down our drains each year from the the washing machine, shower, sink and toilet. You can do simple things like:

– putting a bucket in the shower
– run a hose from your washing machine outlet to the garden (if it’s not uphill)

.. or you can opt to spend a bit of money and get a greywater or blackwater recycling system installed. We had a blackwater recycling system in our last house and it was fantastic – I greatly miss having it.

Do you have some tips for saving water in the garden you’d like to share? Please add them below!