Sunshine Came Softly Through My Spy Hole Today

This is the research paper that I presented to the recent Ceramics Triennial Conference in Hobart, Tasmania.  On the ‘Sustainability’ Panel.

Steve Harrison – Sunshine Came Softly Through My Spy-hole Today.

I was raised in the 50’s in a home where the topic of ‘health foods’ and ‘natural living’ was at the forefront of conversation. I came from a loosely quaker/buddhist background with a grounding in ‘healthy’ living. As a child, I was brought up in this environment. Aristotle said “give me the child until he his 7 and I will give you the man”. I am that man. A ‘greenie’ before the greens were invented.

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Since I decided to be a potter, I have always been a wood firer using a small, single chambered, bourry-box kiln. I wanted to fire my pots as cleanly as possible, in an environmentally sensitive way. In 1976 I moved to the country and bought a very old derelict school building, built in 1893, with seven acres of land and started planting a forest. By growing my own trees, these trees took their carbon out of the air, when I eventually burnt this timber to fire my kilns, it didn’t introduce any new carbon into the atmosphere. This was the best approach that I could think of to minimise my carbon footprint at that time.  I’ve progressed!

We have also planted very large vegetable garden and 5 small themed orchards, with a dozen cherry trees, a dozen almonds, a dozen hazel nuts, a dozen citrus, a dozen stone fruits, a dozen apples, 5 avocados, 4 truffle oaks, 3 white figs, two berry vines and a bower bird in a pear tree!

My wood fired kiln has proven to be very fuel efficient, I have worked on the design for over 40 years and written the standard text on the subject. ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’ and it is as clean as a wood fired kiln can probably get, without using an after-burner. I tried adding afterburners to several kilns, but have since abandoned that idea as too wasteful and complex. There is no point in using a premium fuel like LP gas to burn the smoke from an inefficient wood fired kiln. I couldn’t justify it. So I stopped working on that project.

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I did a lot of work on ‘flame tubes’. Fibre lined stainless steel tubes on top of the chimney that allows warm air in at the base, so that it mixes with the unburnt smokey fuel during reduction and combusts with-in the tube. All that is seen is a pale red glow at the top and bottom. The beauty of it is that it has no moving parts, and needs no external fuel source.  The blue haze at the beginning of firings has always bothered me and flame tubes don’t fix that problem. That is a work in progress.

It is possible to fire in reduction at high temperature with very little smoke, but the cold blue haze at the beginning of the firing is a very difficult problem to overcome. It was only later that I came to realise that it isn’t just blue haze smoke at the beginning of the firing when we are releasing ultra-fine particles into the atmosphere from our wood kilns. Wood firing generates loads of fine particulate matter, all through the firing. Some of these are quite fine and are hazardous to inhale. They are known variously as PM 7’s to PM 2.5 particles, they are small enough to enter deep into our airways and lungs and can cause all sorts of unpleasant health effects, even cancer.

Clearly, one kiln, fired intermittently, isn’t the problem, but when it is added to the other emissions of diesel vehicles, wood heaters and industrial pollution from factories, cement works etc. It adds to and is part of the larger problem.

See the EPA web site.   https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/environmental_info/air_quality/assistance_and_

advice/smoke_from_domestic_heating.

Added to this less-than-up-lifting scenario, there is the growing problem of global warming. Contrary to the statements of conservative politicians and the hard right media shock-jocks, the science IS settled and has been for a long time. The man-made global-warming deniers are simply wrong! They are either being disingenuous or choosing to be ignorant. Perhaps I could be generous and say that they are choosing different truths.

We used to be able to fire for 8 or 9 months of the year at home, but over the past 42 years, living in the Southern Highlands, our window of opportunity for wood firing has been reduced now down to 5 to 6 months, May to August. September is now getting too unreliable to book wood firing workshops. We have had to cancel workshops in the past few years due to hot, dry, windy weather and therefore total fire bans, as early as September. Total fire bans in our area used to only occur in January and February.

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Some time ago, I decided to develop a series of small portable wood fired kilns that could be wheeled out, packed and fired in one day. Then wheeled back away again until the next firing. These portable little wood kilns are very fuel efficient and can reach stoneware temperatures in 3 to 4 hours using a wheel barrow of wood. If you are careful, they can be fired very cleanly. They are a fun solution to minimising carbon emissions and avoiding the use of gas and coal. By collecting fallen branches from around our block, we can fire with a zero carbon foot print. This is the ‘vegan’ equivalent of wood firing . No trees were hurt to fire the kiln. The trees drop the dead branches. We have to pick them up to mow the long grass. We have to mow to reduce the fire hazard in summer. So fallen branches do not introduce any new carbon and are tree friendly. That’s nice, and the kilns are quick and fun to fire. But particulates are still a problem.

So where is all this leading? I realised that I needed to find another way to fire my work cleanly and efficiently into this uncertain, carbon constrained, globally warmed, future. The climate is changing, so we must change with it. Janine and I have had solar hot water for over 30 years and Solar Photo Voltaic panels on our roof, for the past 12 years. We installed 3,000 watts of Australian made, BP Solar, Photo Voltaic panels as soon as we could afford to do so in 2006/7.

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Our first solar panels, with the netted vegetable garden with small vineyard and orchard.

We have been using our electric kiln for all our bisque, earthenware and oxidised stoneware firings ever since then and have always paid the little extra for sustainable green power since it became available. So that if we needed to draw power from the grid, it was sustainably generated power that we used. In the last couple of years we have been working towards firing our work in the summer months of fire bans, using a new low-thermal-mass electric kiln that I built from a pile of spare parts, left over from my kiln building factory, after I retired. I designed and built a kiln that is fired using our solar panels and backed up by our Tesla Powerwall II battery.

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To allow us to fire in reduction, I made allowance to install 2 small pilot burners in the bottom of the kiln and built a small flue hole in the top. These burners aren’t used to fire the kiln at all. They are too small. The kiln fires to stoneware on solar power, the burners are only used to create a very small amount of flame to generate the reduction atmosphere needed to change the glaze colours.   I attach the burners to the kiln and light them when the kiln reaches 1,000oC. They use about 200 to 330 grams of gas to reduce the kiln load of pots steadily over a couple of hours while the electrical elements heat the kiln load of pots. It’s the best solution that I can find at the moment to give us reliable, all year round access to reduction firings that are very, very, low carbon and as sustainable as I can make them.

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The firing can take as little as 4 to 5 hours in total and give perfectly adequate reduced results. Experience with this kiln has shown that we can achieve all the normal reduced colours with our standard local milled rock glazes. I fire the pilots on 5 kpa gas pressure, but have recently experimented with pressure so low that the regulator gauge can’t register the flow and the kiln still reduces. We usually wait to start the firing until around 9 or 10 am, as that is when the sun is up high enough to give us the energy that we need to get the kiln going. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to get to 1000oC, then I attach the pilot burners and start reduction, around noon to 1 o’clock. I reduce for about 2 to 4 hours depending on what I’m experimenting with and finish the firing between 2 and 4 pm. as the sun is going down. We fire directly off the PV panels until 1 or 2 pm, then as the sun passes its peak, and the kiln is drawing its maximum power. The Tesla battery cuts in automatically to make up the short fall to finish the firing. If the weather is cloudy we can also draw down on our credit with the power utility. As we are on a ‘net’ metering system, and are always in credit. We never actually ever pay for any power that we withdraw from the grid. However, it is important to note that we pay the extra to contract to only use green power from sustainable sources when we do with-draw.

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I don’t know if you have ever seen one of these graphs?   It is the screen from the Tesla mobile app that tells me how much solar power I’m producing and consuming and/or selling/buying from the grid.The yellow area indicates the solar power generated. As you can see the solar energy starts off low at 7 am, then from 10.00 am it quickly rises to a peak at noon, hovers for a while, then drops away until 6 pm. and sunset.The green area is the energy required to re-charge the battery from its use since yesterdays sunset and running the house over night. This re-charging is usually complete by 9.00 or 10 am.The blue areas of tiny upward spikes is the fridge turning on and off regularly over night and all through the day. The sharp blue spike is the electric jug and toaster being used at breakfast time. On this day it was at 7.00 am. The white area below the line is the energy that we sell to the grid every day when we are not firing the kiln or charging the car. This generates a credit that we can draw down on in cloudy weather and covers our daily charges. This report tells me that I generated 35 kW/hrs of solar and used just 1.4 kW/hrs to run our home and pottery on that day. We sold 32.8 kW/hrs to the grid. It was obviously a quiet day with nothing much going on. I wasn’t welding in the kiln factory or ball milling rocks and pugging clay in the pottery.

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This is what a firing looks like, We simply stop selling our excess to the grid and use it our selves. The blue block is the amount of energy used to fire the kiln. The taller blue spike on the left, is the car being charged at the same time. It is worth noting that we can do both at the same time and still recharge the battery after wards in the afternoon.

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Just as an aside, we also have a solar powered electric car. A Hyundai, Ioniq, ‘plug-in’ electric car. I have written about this on my blog on a few occasions with regular up-dates to let readers know how it’s going. v< https://tonightmyfingerssmellofgarlic.com >

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This is what happens when we charge our car. We simply stop selling our excess to the grid for 2.5 hrs. There is enough power to do this, even on a cloudy day, as is the case in the chart above.

We put our pots out in the sun to dry. We call it the ‘solar drier’. The solar drier makes sure that the pots are totally dry before bisque firing. We can charge the car as well in the back ground, both using sunlight at the same time! It’s amazing that there is enough sunshine to go around! The vegetable garden keeps growing and the orchard thrives! We can also walk and chew gum at the same time.

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To help make this all happen, we recently bought into a community bulk purchase scheme and installed another 3,000 watts of Australian built solar PV from ‘Tindo’ in Adelaide. This allows us to run our house, fire our kiln and drive our car, all on our own sunshine. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to live, cook, work and drive, powered almost totally from our own solar power. We do all this and still have a little excess to sell to the grid. This covers our daily charges to be connected and even earns a little bit of extra cash. I haven’t paid an electricity bill for 12 years. You can see from our recent bill that we do all this and still use about half of what a single person household uses, and much less than half of what a two person household like ours uses.

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Now, I know that someone is going to ask me what is the cost benefit analysis? It’s the most common question that I get asked along with the statement, “I wouldn’t put solar power on yet. you can’t make any money out of it!”Well, my answer is, when you bought your new car. How did you make money out of that? Or, when you flew to Bali for a holiday, How did you make money out of that?

The point is that I did this because it pleased me. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I did it to extract myself as far as is possible out of the coal and oil economy. I didn’t do it for money. I do very few things in my life solely for the money. I’m not very interested in acquiring ‘things’. This is the equivalent of my holiday in Bali, or my ‘walking tour of the vineyards of Provence’. I’ve never been to Bali, or walked the vineyards of Provence. We each choose to spend our discretionary dollars in our own way. This is mine.

Now finally, I will add that I bought carbon credits to cover the carbon off-set of my flight here. Real off-sets in the form of planted trees. I buy a few hundred dollars worth of carbon credits each year to cover all the damaging things that I do to the environment in my life, like air travel. I think that it is worth it. I’m not proselytising for solar. You will have already made up your own mind about that. You’ve had a couple of decades to consider it. I’m just telling you what is possible, because you won’t have heard it from the the Federal Energy Minister or any one else in the government. This however, may be food for thought, if you haven’t already though about it. I will end by telling you that the future is here and this just might be what it could look like.

Autumn Draws to a Close and the Cooler Weather Arrives

As autumn draws to a close we have been in and out, travelling to the National Folk Festival, listening to some very good music. Then, recently I was speaking at the National Ceramics Triennial Conference, where I delivered a paper on sustainability. In between, as always, we were in the pottery making and firing our pots, both before, in between and after these events. Making pots and growing food are the two constants in our life.

 

We were also in the garden planting more veggies for the cool weather. The tomatoes are still hanging on with just a few tiny fruits ripening every few days, so that we can have salad sandwiches for lunch with our lettuce from the garden. The garlic that I planted in March is up and doing well. I planted 5 small beds of about 50 cloves each. A smaller crop this year. I was busy and didn’t find the time to get more in. I have planted another 100 cloves today. Maybe a bit too late to do well, but this is real life.

  

Tonight we will have baked vegetables, yesterday it was minestrone, with everything from the garden. Our gardening efforts feed us well.

I planted a couple of new avocados a few days ago. One more type A and another type B for our collection. We now have 6 different varieties. When these trees mature in a few years time, we will have a much longer cropping season and bigger harvests. The chickens love to get involved in any event that involves fresh dirt. They hop in and excavate the hole a little more, but then hop out and start to fill it in again. The don’t get it! but they have fun doing it and their eggs have super, deep, rich, yellow yokes.

 

The latest young avocado tree freshly planted with its with mesh guard to keep the kangaroos from eating the top out. As they most surely will, with any new tree that we plant in the orchard. They can’t resist having a taste of what ever is new. You can see the original 40 year old avocado tree behind the this new one. and the bare branches of the leafless cherry tree to the right.

The peaches are loosing their leaves, the cherries have finished and are barren, the apples and pears are turning yellow in preparation for the fall.

 

In the evenings it is cold enough now to start to light the fire every night. We sit by the fire and shell our dried beans. We shell them and then dry them out fully in the oven after we have finished cooking dinner. This extra heat ensures that they are fully dry and won’t go mouldy in the jars in the pantry. It also kills any little bugs and critters that may have bored their way in to the shells hoping to hatch out and consume the lot over winter. They are ideal for minestrone.  We will make many lovely wholesome meals out of them over the winter.

Driving on Sunshine – 3 month up-date

Driving mostly on sunshine is very fuel efficient!

We are just home from spending the Easter Long-Weekend in Canberra at the National Folk Festival. 5 Days of great music, camping out under the stars, catching up with old friends and drinking some very nice pear cider.

We drove down and back in our new plug-in, Electric car. The Hyundai Ioniq plug-in. Canberra is roughly 200 kms. away, so we drove the first 1/4 or so on sunshine and the rest on petrol. We get around 65 to 70 kms on a full charge of sunshine from our solar panels at home. This distance varies slightly, depending on how hard you push the car (I don’t ) and how much regenerative braking that you do, as regenerative braking re-charges the battery from the energy recovered from the braking system.
Instead of applying pressure on the brake shoes in the wheel hubs to slow the car. Regenerative braking engages the electric motor and uses it in reverse, so instead of using electrical energy to propel the car forward. The forward energy of the car is used to run the generator to charge the battery and this drag on the system slows the car. The disc brakes are only engaged when you press very hard on the brake pedal, such as in an emergency.
The car automatically swaps over to petrol when the battery charge gets very low, always preserving just a little battery power in reserve for when the car is just cruising and doesn’t need a lot of oomph to get along. Braking, when going down hill, recharges the battery, so the car is intermittently changing between electric mode from the battery and the internal combustion engine all the way along the trip.

Before setting of for home, I check the dash to see that we have a driving range of 111 kms, but home is 200 kms away, so I decide to buy some fuel.

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We have travelled 3,788 km in this car since new and we have put $50 in the tank so far. I can see that we still have 8% left in the fuel tank.
We fill up in Canberra before the long drive home and put in 36.95 litres into the tank, at $1.45 per litre.
On the way home Janine calculates that we have travelled 2,138 km on our first $50 tank full of fuel.
So this seems to indicate that we are averaging about 1.7 litres per 100km.
It crossed my mind when I bought this car that I would be able to achieve a bit better than 2,000 km on a full tank of petrol, and so it seems that we have done it.
We arrive home via the shops in Mittagong and are just short of 4,000 km on the odometer.
The first thing that I do when I get home is plug it into the solar PV system and re-charge the battery fully, ready for the next trip.
When we are driving locally, we mostly drive on 100% sunshine. The battery is sufficient to get us to the shops and back in any direction that we need to go.
We only use petrol when we go on long trips like this one to Canberra, or to Sydney, the South Coast or The Blue Mountains.
At the end of each trip, when I switch off the ignition. a small window in the instrument panel reports on the latest trip.
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This trip was 33 kms and I used 0.6 litres per 100 kms. Which means about 200mls. I’m not entirely sure as yet why the petrol engine fires up at unexpected times, even though I have chosen fully electric mode. I believe that it is something to do with charging up the 12 volt battery, that is used to power the dash, computer, air-con, head lights and other things that don’t involve moving the car forward.
We have achieved these very fuel-efficient figures in our driving, because we always drive steadily, and evenly, avoiding sudden stops and fast take-offs. The on-board computer tells me that we are averaging 390.64 kilometres per litre of fuel. This is because we usually drive mostly on sunshine.
The info below is down-loaded to my phone on the 1st of each month. This report is for March and doesn’t include the Canberra trip.
It is a very rewarding feeling to be able to drive mostly on sunshine. It fits in with our philosophy very well. This isn’t about saving money on fuel. This is all about attempting to live an ethical life with a low-carbon foot-print. Extracting our selves from the coal/oil based carbon economy as much as possible. It started 30 years ago when we stopped driving our old, but reliable VW beetle and bought a small, 3-cylinder 900 CC. engined, fuel-efficient Daihatsu car, slashing our fuel consumption, and then 12 years ago when we installed our first solar panels. Two years ago, ordering the Tesla battery when it became available in Australia.
Now we are driving on sunshine – well mostly!

Improvised Cannoli

I have relatives coming to stay and I really like them. We don’t see them often enough. So to celebrate their stay with us. I try and make an effort. Something different for change!

My niece is of Italian heritage and so I choose to make my bastardised version of Cannoli de Sicillianna.
It sounds impressive, but I don’t have any of the ingredients.
The recipe that I use comes from a book about opera by Antonio Carluccio. It is all about foods that are suitable accompaniment for opera.
I remember seeing Rick Stein on the idiot box doing a special on food and opera. I didn’t get it. I thought that he was stretching a long bow.
Anyway, I saw this book by Carluccio in a 2nd hand book shop, maybe 20 years ago and bought it.
It has a recipe for cannoli (P76), but I can’t bring myself to follow it. Apart from the need the make the tubes from scratch and deep fry them in lard!
I don’t even have any of the ingredients except the ricotta.
The recipe calls for ;
500g. ricotta,
100g. super fine sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla sugar
2 tbsp. orange flower water
50g. candied orange peel
50g. candied lemon peel
50g. candied citron
50g. glace cherries
50g. candied angelica
80g.bittersweet dark chocolate
and icing sugar
I can buy ricotta at the local shop, only a 10 km trip, but have to drive the 50km into town and back to buy the glace cherries at the supermarket.
All the other ingredients look pretty exotic.
You get used to living in the country and making do, so I improvise.
I am only making one dozen of these little cakes, so I halve the quantities.
I’m not into deep frying in lard, so instead I make some little tartlet bases and blind bake them for 15 mins.
I use the few dried fruits that I have in the big stoneware jar in the kitchen for making our muesli. Then instead of orange flower water, I decide to use finely grated lemon and lime zest, plus the juice of half the lime. Janine has some vanilla paste in her cooking cupboard. Instead of all the exotic candied fruits, I use my dried fruits muesli mix and instead of bittersweet dark chocolate I substitute half a dozen tiny ‘Aldi’ dark chocolate easter eggs finely sliced. After all, it is Easter.
 
It actually works out really well. They look rough but they taste delicious.
Funnily, they didn’t turn out like the picture in the book!

Two Flans and Marzipan, from Two Music Fans

Janine and I have just enjoyed our first house concert of the year.

We spent an afternoon with Lindsay Martin and Victoria Vigenser – again!
We had them here with us in our home last year and they were terrific, such beautiful music. Lindsay is an amazing fiddler.
They work together so well.
A wonderful afternoon well spent.
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We are starting to eat into our summer preserves. We have been enjoying sliced peaches, plums and pears recently.
We have just started to open our jars of preserved whole peaches. These were bottled in December and vacuum sealed into ‘Fowlers’ jars.
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Having been heated in a light syrup to seal the vacuum in the jars, then stored for 4 months in the pantry. These whole peaches are just starting to develop that wonderful marzipan flavour that they get from the stones.
We have also been cooking a few cakes to keep the colder weather at bay on dull days. Janine used our pears to make a flan.
She recalled reading the recipe in a book from many, many years ago. We had to go looking, but we found the book eventually, just where we though that it ought to be. I skimmed past it initially, as the cover wasn’t like I remembered it.
Larger-than-life home cook, turned TV presenter, Ian Parmenter used to present a 5 minute cooking program as a fill-in on the ABC TV, possibly in the 80’s or 90’s? Called Consuming Passions Consuming Passionsand he later wrote a book called ‘Sheer Bottled Bliss’.
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Janine remembered his recipe for pear and almond up-side-down tart. It was very nice as I remembered it and just as nice this time round. Page 143, if you are interested.
IMG_4772it’s quite rich!
I tried my hand at prune and almond flan that I saw Rick Stein make on the Idiot Box one evening when he was in the Dordogne region of France. It look easy and I thought that I’d have a go at it. What could go wrong? Ididn’t have all the ingredients, but what the hell, give it a go.
Soak a couple of cups of your prunes in brandy. I didn’t have enough brandy, so I used half Cointreau. I think that It might even be an improvement!
Mix one of your beaten free-range eggs with the drained brandy. Then add in a cup of almond meal and half a cup of sugar. More or less.
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Blind bake a short pastry base for 20 mins at 180 oC. then pour in the filling over the prunes and continue to bake for another 45 mins or more as required
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I liked it so much, I made another one.
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A Hand Made Efficient Home

As the days get shorter and the evenings cooler, we are lighting the wood fired kitchen stove most nights now. This old stove, that I have lovingly maintained and repaired for the past 40 or so years, cooks our food, heats our hot water, through its bronze firebox boiler, which is connected to our kitchen hot water system. It also heats the kitchen and us while we work, cook and eat.

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In the hottest couple of months of summer, we cook on the gas stove and rely on the solar hot water panels to heat the hot water. We have had to cover the solar panels with wire mesh, as we had a pine cone drop onto one of them shattering the tempered glass.

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It may seem strange that we have our solar panels on the ground. I have a good reason. We have a full copper hot water system, with a copper hotter tank, a bronze boiler in the stove and copper solar panels, all connected in series, so that either or both heat sources can heat the tank depending on the weather and time of year. I used all silver soldered copper piping to connect the system, so there isn’t a separate heat exchanger needed in the system to eliminate electrolysis. A full copper system has no electrolysis issues. Eliminating the heat exchanger makes the system much more efficient. I designed the system so that the solar panels are on the ground, so that the hot water will rise up into the tank by natural thermo-siphon. No pump is need in the system to circulate the hot water to the tank. (as is necessary when the panels are on the roof.) This is another added efficiency and saving on energy. By designing systems like this and others in our hand-made home, we have managed to reduce our energy usage in our home to 1.7 kW/hrs per day for the house alone. If we add in charging the electric car and firing the electric kiln from the solar system, then our total usage rises up to 5.7 kW/hrs per day.

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When we add in our kiln and car, Janine and I still use only half of what a ‘normal’ single occupant household uses. Or just one-third of a ‘normal’ 2 person household. We are quite pleased with this outcome.

The Last of the Summers’ Tomatoes

We have reached the point where the tomatoes have lost most of their leaves. There are still loads of fruit on the vines. But the vines are looking pretty much dead. We pick all the remaining fruit for the last batch of concentrated tomato passata sauce. We have over twenty jars of the stuff from this years harvest, safely stored away in the pantry cupboard.

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We pull out all the vines and compost them and remove the stakes. We pull out all the weeds. The beds are then ready for a load of compost and a new planting.

There are a basket of capsicums and chillies to harvest as well. I decide to roast them and pickle them to preserve them. They are sweated, peeled, de-seeded and then dressed with oil and vinegar. They will keep for a few weeks in the fridge treated like this.

We have only just finished the last batch of capsicums that I preserved in this way a week or so ago.

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This is all standard autumn fare.