The Blog (archived)

Category: General



More On Dodgy Green Nozzles

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In an earlier blog post [How green is your nozzle?] I questioned the environmental claims of low-flow water-saving nozzles. I was referring to shower nozzles then, but my doubts apply to kitchen taps too. A fine example of dubious green logic involving kitchen taps has come to my notice.

tap aerator A large organisation I’m familiar with, but prefer not to identify, has fitted flow regulators to about 600 conventional taps throughout all its many buildings and locations. It was boasted that these small devices fitted to existing taps will save massive amounts of water while cutting bills and helping the environment. However, the taps which have been modified, that I’m aware of, are in kitchen areas. I’m still scratching my head wondering exactly how these new flow-restricting devices are supposed to achieve any real savings.

You see, most tasks done using the taps in the staff kitchens depend on a certain volume of water. Filling a one litre jug uses one litre of water. Filling the kitchen sink to do the washing up takes one sink of water. To make one cup of tea requires - you guessed it - one cup of water! Restricting the flow doesn’t affect the amount of water needed - it just means it takes three times longer for the water needed to squeeze its way out of the tap.

Water usage might have even increased. Previously the taps just delivered water neatly to where it was needed, and nowhere else. The fancy new water-saving nozzles disperse water finely in a broad high-speed spray, resulting in surrounding surfaces being coated with unwanted splashed water which then evaporates or drains away. Isn’t this a waste of water, not a saving?

tap flow regulatorOn the one hand you have the feel-good environmental claims:

  • Significant savings to water consumption
  • Money saved on water bills
  • The environment is helped

On the other hand, my observations:

  • Water saving is doubtful, as most kitchen tasks need a certain volume regardless of the speed of the tap
  • Staff time is wasted, as people wait longer to fill their cups or jugs (instead of working)
  • Water is wasted due to splashing by the new nozzles

And don’t forget the costs:

  • The financial cost of buying and installing 600 flow regulators
  • The environmental cost of producing the flow regulators: mining and processing the metals, then manufacturing, packaging and transporting them. All this takes energy (from fossil fuels), and probably some water is used too.

The real winners, rather than tap users or the environment, are surely the manufacturers of these allegedly water saving products. I think they deserve congratulations for their marketing skills. They know that saving water and being concerned about the environment - clearly good things - have become fashionable. People want to be green, and to be seen to be green. Water saving product makers have exploited this situation with magnificent shrewdness to make a lot of money.

I see it as a great contradiction - in an age when our environment needs us to consume less stuff, makers of “green” products have enticed us into consuming more stuff … in the name of helping the environment! As for the flow regulators I’ve written about, the water savings may be questionable, but the marketing has been a great success.

P.S. For kitchen tasks where a slower water flow is practical, don’t forget that flow can be reduced by simply not turning the tap on as far!

 


When Soup Goes Off

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Most of us have probably done it at some time … covered some leftover food and put it in the fridge for later, and then forgotten about it. Sometimes the result can be interesting.

A bowl of moldy soup
A little bit past the use-by date, maybe?

A few months ago I made a thick vegetable soup, of which an extra bowl was covered and stored in the bottom of the fridge for another time. A few days ago I rediscovered it, covered with mold - but not just any mold. I’m no fungus expert, but there appear to be five different types of mold on the soup, ranging from black, cream and grey to orange and green. The colours and variety of the growths fascinated me, so I couldn’t just get rid of the soup without first photographing it for posterity.

If I was a famous artist, I could probably proclaim this soup mold to be art, and exhibit it in a gallery. As I’m not, I’ll share my fungal art here on my blog (click on it to enlarge).

 


How Green Is Your Nozzle?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

You may have read that you can save water and be environmentally friendly by converting to a water-saving shower nozzle - one which restricts the flow of water so you use less of it per shower. Is that true, or is it just a load of marketing propoganda used by tap companies to make money out of people’s concern for the environment? I have doubts about how green these low-flow nozzles really are.

I grew up with the old “water guzzling” shower nozzles, but when I moved into my current home I found it had a low-flow water saving shower nozzle. At first I thought this was a good thing - by saving water in the shower I’d be doing the planet a favour, and my green halo would shine brighter. Alas, it didn’t work like that.

A shower flowing fast enough to wash quicklyBy limiting the water flow to what seemed like a pathetic trickle, it was taking me nearly twice as long to wash properly. Even after much practice, this didn’t reduce much. The saving in water flow was nearly being cancelled out by the extra time I needed to have a proper shower! So much for slashing water usage.

But isn’t even a small saving good? Not necessarily, because it’s not just about the water … there’s the heating to consider too. My water is heated by an instantaneous gas heater, which heats on-demand as the water flows through it (for very low use this is more efficient than a storage tank). It’s either on or off, and burns gas according to how long it runs. If the shower takes twice as long, then twice the gas is burned.

To put it in numbers, I estimated that using a low-flow nozzle might have halved the water flow rate, but led to an increase in shower times from 6 minutes up to 10 minutes. The result: I was using only 16% less water, but burning 66% more gas!

That’s not what I’d call environmentally friendly. Gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel which can’t be replaced, and burning it adds CO2 to the atmosphere. Water, on the other hand, is comparatively replaceable. What goes down the drain ends up as groundwater or seawater, which can eventually be used again somewhere.

But wait, there’s more! Often overlooked is the environmental cost of producing all this shiny new tapware. Materials such as iron ore have to be dug out of the ground, transported to where they are processed into stainless steel and whatever else goes into tapware, transported again to a factory for manufacture, enclosed in packaging materials (which have undergone transport and processing of their own), then distributed to the retailers. Simply putting a new shower nozzle into a shop consumes energy, fossil fuels and finite resources.

This cost may be justified if buying a new nozzle or tap is the only option - when the old one has failed, or when building a new home. But if the old one still works, the environmental cost of buying a new one probably outweighs the questionable benefit of saving a little bit of water.

In the end, my inherited low-flow nozzle deteriorated to the point where I had to replace it. I reverted to a high-flow nozzle and noticed a substantial reduction in my shower times and gas consumption. I use slightly more water in the shower, but still have a green conscience because I save water in other ways, like washing my car only once per year.

So are low-flow shower nozzles any good? If you have solar heating or a hot water storage tank (not instant hot water), AND you can somehow shower just as quickly and effectively with a lot less water, AND you need to buy a new nozzle anyway, then changing to a low-flow nozzle might be worthwhile and green. Otherwise we’d probably be doing the environment a favour by sticking with the plumbing we already have and not buying so much new stuff. There are other ways to save water which don’t have environmental costs … and if you really want to shower with less water, just turning the taps down a bit can often work.

 


Happy New Year, Unless You’re Ethiopian

Thursday, January 1, 2009

If you live in a country which uses the Gregorian calendar - that’s most of us - today is January 1st 2009. Happy new year to you all! However, because the internet reaches all countries, and because I’m a little pedantic, I must point out that not everyone starts their year at the same time.

If you’re in Ethiopia, then today is Tahisas 23, 2001. Tahisus (approximate translation only) is the fourth month of the year in Ethiopia where the Julian calendar operates, and where new year happens on what most of us experience as September 11 (or September 12 in years prior to leap years).

Ethiopian coffee growers
Ethiopian coffee growers -
producing great coffee, but
not celebrating new year today

To people in east Asia observing the traditional Chinese calendar, today is just another day in the year 4706. The date of the Chinese new year varies with the new moon, the next one being January 26th 2009.

Residents of Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura are still plodding through year 1415 of the Bengali calendar, and won’t start their new year until April 15th (April 14th for those in Bangladesh). The rest of India uses the Indian national calendar which starts on March 21st.

The northern spring equinox - March 21st - is also used as the start date for the Iranian calendar. This is observed in Iran and Afghanistan, where today is nearing the end of the year 1387. The Bahá’í calendar starts on the same day, though for them the year is still 165. Just to be different, Assyrians are currently in the year 6758, and celebrate new year on April 1st, whereas the North African Berber people start their year on what to most of the world is January 14th.

These are just a few examples of the world’s calendar diversity, and to further complicate matters, countries such as China and India observe the dominant Gregorian calendar as well as their own traditional calendars … good for international consistency, but could cause some confusion.

Even if today is January 1st, pinpointing exactly when the year began isn’t always straightforward. Consider the folks at the Antarctic research base on the south pole … at the point where all time zones converge. They use New Zealand time for convenience, but midnight must seem a bit meaningless where the sun neither rises nor sets.

If today is January 1st where you are, then I wish you a happy new year. For anyone else, I’ll draw upon my training from when I once worked at McDonalds, and just say “have a nice day”.

 


Good Service From A Bank

Friday, October 19, 2007

You don’t often hear “good customer service” and “bank” mentioned in the same sentence. In Australia, banks are commonly viewed as greedy and heartless organisations which ruthlessly bleed their customers dry. Sometimes this sentiment is justified, and bank-bashing is popular. Today, however, I was pleasantly surprised to receive good service from my bank in spite of its public perception.

I was depositing a pile of coins, and only had to queue for about two minutes. Not content with just being prompt, the teller was observant enough to notice that my home loan interest rate seemed higher than she thought it could be. She asked if I’d like to talk to a lending officer to see if they could work out something better for me, and I agreed. Another very helpful and knowledgeable woman appeared within minutes, and she went to some lengths to understand my circumstances and see what the bank could do to make me better off.

Having previously compared banks and accounts, I’m familiar with assessing fine print, fees and charges, and am good enough with numbers to weigh up benefits with costs. That’s why I hadn’t already changed to a cheaper home loan - usually the savings are offset by disadvantages and higher costs in other areas, such as credit card and transaction accounts (these came fee-free as part of a package with my existing loan). The woman I saw today was able to sort out a combination of home loan and other accounts which really do work out cheaper for me. I felt she wasn’t merely doing a job; she appeared genuinely keen to do what was best for the customer.

Saving money obviously pleased me, but equally impressive was the way two bank employees took the time and effort to provide very good customer service … not what we are conditioned to expect from banks. Especially in a busy bank, on a friday.

It got me thinking about the negative image of banks, government departments, and other large organisations. Much dissatisfaction stems from procedures, policies and prices: things determined by management. Customer service problems often arise through lack of staff or training: something management is responsible for. The bulk of the employees, who do the work - the ones we deal with - are regular people trying to do as good a job as they can in their circumstances.

Today’s experience was a reminder not to let an organisation’s bad image prejudice our judgement of its staff. Good customer service does exist … yes, even in a bank!

(For the curious, the bank I refer to is the Dianella branch of BankWest)

 


When Procrastination Isn’t Bad - 3

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some time ago I started writing about times when procrastination can be good - but I never got around to continuing with the subject. Recently my interest was renewed by reading a blog article by John Wesley, titled “14 Ways To Procrastinate Productively“. Just the sort of thing that simply must be read when you ought to be doing something else!

In describing how procrastination can be productive, he divides it into two categories. There’s Structured Procrastination, where the desire to avoid an important task can act as motivation for doing other valid tasks - like getting organised, networking, planning ahead, unresolved odds and ends, meetings, errands, getting up to date, and assisting others.

That makes sense to me; the last time I was a student and needed to study for exams, my procrastination led me to do vacuuming and other household chores as a means of avoiding studying. Necessary chores got done, which may not have happened if I’d had nothing to procrastinate about. Similarly, unblocking the gutters is a necessary task I usually put off, but given the choice between unblocking gutters or starting my tax return, I somehow find the motivation to go up a ladder and get my hands dirty.

Procrastinating at Lake Ohau, NZThen there’s Unstructured Procrastination, which John Wesley describes as a way of recharging creative energy and allowing the unconscious mind to work on difficult problems. He includes examples like lunching, exercising, walking, relaxing, coming up with great ideas, and reading good books - in other words, using downtime (while procrastinating) to rest and refresh the mind. An example of someone flat out recharging his brain (at Lake Ohau, NZ) is pictured. If this means returning to the original task with renewed vigour and fresh ideas, then it could indeed be productive.

If you’ve got other more important things you should be doing but want to avoid, then you’ll probably appreciate John Perry’s Structured Procrastination website as well.

 


Australia - Home of Cow Racing

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In 2000 a retired dairy farmer - Pete Ondrus of Michigan, USA - realised that the Guinness Book of World Records had no record for the fastest cow. In response he founded the Mid-Michigan Cow Racing Association and the World-Wide Cow Racing Association, with the motto “Don’t milk them, race them”. He held his first cow race that year, and it appears to be an annual event although his website has not been updated since 2004. Most people would not be surprised to find that such an event began in America, but did it?

compasscup.jpgPete Ondrus was apparently unaware of the Compass Cup, a cow race which has taken place every year since 1974 in the town of Mt Compass in South Australia. As far as I can tell, this was probably the world’s first organised public cow racing event. It began when a 12-year-old Guernsey was called in for milking and ran full speed for the milk shed. This fired the imagination of a Rural Youth Adviser, who formed a committee and organised a cow race as a fund-raising event for the town. Its popularity grew, despite the challenges of getting any cow to go fast, and the 34th annual Compass Cup was held last weekend.

If you picture people sitting on dairy cattle and trying to make them race, and making a big community event out of it, the phrase “only in America…” may be a normal response. So for me it’s strangely satisfying to think that Australians can lead the world in this delightfully unconventional activity.

Photo credit: CompassCup.com.au

 


When Procrastination Isn’t Bad - 2

Friday, January 26, 2007

Another time when procrastination is potentially a good thing is when “warming up”. This could be when getting up in the morning and launching into the day, or when arriving at work and starting on the day’s tasks.

Some people can dive right into things - being alert and busy within minutes of waking up, or reaching their full speed and productivity within minutes of arriving at work. Others, like me, are simply not built to operate that way; we need more time to get mentally into gear, organise our thoughts, and build up to full productivity. For the latter type of people, trying to “hit the ground running” prematurely can be counterproductive, whereas we work much more effectively after a warm-up time, which others may view as procrastination. Both approaches may achieve the same end result, but in different ways.

An article at lifehack.org - Are You Just Getting Warmed Up by Tony Clark - explains the warming up type of procrastination well:

“I’m honestly not procrastinating in the traditional sense, but need some time to ramp up into my day. How do I know I’m not just slacking? Because when I jump right in, most of what I produce is crap. But if I give myself time to get warmed up - have some coffee, check some feeds, read some mail - when I do get to work, I’m way more productive. I’m also much more focused.”

He draws an analogy with warming up a car on a cold morning - scraping off the ice then leaving it to idle while the engine warms. This warm-up time improves the performance and the life of the car … and some people need this idling and warm-up time too! You just have to be careful to know whether your procrastination is the legitimate warm-up time you need to function at your best, or just slackness. We are all different, so only you can judge that.

 


When Procrastination Isn’t Bad - 1

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To procrastinate - to put off till another day or time; defer; delay - is usually thought of as a bad thing. Indeed, some dictionary definitions allude to “habitual carelessness or laziness” as causes, or describe such delay as “needless”. I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. While most procrastination may be counterproductive, there are times when putting things off can be good, and I’d like to share some examples.

1. As an antidote to impulsiveness, particularly impulsive shopping.

Have you ever bought something on impulse and later regretted it? More procrastination when shopping can avoid this, as it gives an opportunity for reasoning to overcome impulsiveness. This may not matter with something like a tub of yoghurt, but with expensive items it can be very important indeed.

In my line of work I’m exposed to a lot of expensive computer gadgetry, and read magazines which heavily advertise such gadgets. I also read outdoors magazines and frequent shops which sell all the latest hiking and camping gear. Gadgets and cool gear can be tempting when shopping, so on the odd occasions when I see something that I just have to have, I deliberately procrastinate. Even if I feel that buying an item is justifiable and the price is good, I usually put it off - the higher the price the longer I’ll put it off. After several days or weeks and some contemplation or research, if I still think that buying the item is justifiable then I’ll do it. More often than not, I’ll realise that I don’t really need the thing, or that something cheaper will do. The result: deliberate and purposeful procrastination when shopping has saved me a lot of money.

I’ll share some more examples of good procrastination … when I get around to it!

 


Comet McNaught

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Comet McNaught has been in the news lately, not surprisingly as it is the brightest comet to be seen in 40 years (see ABC news story and Spaceweather photo gallery). Last night I visited Perth’s City Beach to get a clear view of it, and of course some photos.

It became visible to the naked eye as soon as the sun dipped into the Indian Ocean - although at that point it was easily missed if you weren’t looking at exactly the right spot. Gradually it revealed its full glory, looking brighter as the sky darkened, but disappearing beneath the horizon before the sky was fully dark. A strong sea breeze made photography difficult: even with a tripod most of my long exposures were blurred. However I was pleased to get one reasonable photo, as shown here. It was an eight second exposure which I have not enhanced or modified in any way - it shows realistically how the comet looked to the naked eye.

 


Average TV Viewing

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I just stumbled across some statistics (source here) for the average viewing time of television, and was flabbergasted at how long people spend in front of the box per day:

Japan: 5 hrs, 1 min
USA: 4 hrs, 28 mins
Eastern Europe (inc. Russia): 3hrs, 43 mins
Western Europe (inc. Britain): 3 hrs, 35 mins
Australia: 3 hrs, 7 mins
World average: 3 hrs, 7 mins per day

Most drivers (it seems) ignore speed limits and many drive like lunatics to shave a few minutes off their travel times. People get anxious if the checkout queue is moving slowly. I spend five seconds per day collecting my navel lint and people accuse me of having too much time on my hands (see my guestbook). Yet according to the statistics these same people who get upset about trivial amounts of time being “wasted” are probably, on average, happy to spend more than three hours every day sitting in front of the television.

Being anxious about minutes, while letting hours slip away, appears to be normal. If that is the case, not being normal may be a good thing!