/ 12 December 2016

​Save money, save the world with our DIY holiday tips

Sunspot Solar Energy Systems employees install solar panels at a private residence in Cape Town.
Sunspot Solar Energy Systems employees install solar panels at a private residence in Cape Town.

Holidays are about finding essential household tasks that take you away from endless small talk with begrudgingly invited relatives. But these renovations usually serve only to create more conflict. This festive season, however, we thoughtful folks at the Mail & Guardian have compiled a few tasks that can take you away from the living room and also save you money. (Disclaimer: we’re in this because these tasks will also help save the world.)

It’s always best to start small. Like making your bed in the morning, replacing your fluorescent light bulbs with LED bulbs is easy to do and gives great satisfaction. Bulbs can be found anywhere, but mass retailers tend to give bulk specials. If you’re really smart, you can earn rewards on these. Don’t fall for the dimmable gimmicks; just get a standard R80 LED bulb. These save you money in the long term but they also don’t blow up whenever the power fluctuates. If you can’t afford to do the whole house, focus on lights that are on all night.

That’s a productive morning ticked off. Now for your wastewater. This thing of pouring clean drinking water on your garden is a stupidity unique to South Africa. Most countries have different water streams. With water restrictions and fines for excessive use, get out there and buy some black pipes that can survive in the garden. Attach these to the wastewater pipes from your shower and sink (not the dishes sink), then cut holes in them at regular intervals. That can be a cathartic process. It also gives you water for a vegetable garden — nothing tastes as good as your own produce.

Just one note of warning on this. Most of the chemicals we use in a house are pretty bad for life. These flow down the drain and become a problem for wastewater treatment plants (which barely work, so those chemicals end up in rivers). So changing what you buy will help those plants, and your newfound grey water system. Look for chemicals that are biodegradable. They’re a bit more expensive but that will be recouped in smugness and a green garden during the next drought.

Most municipalities will also help you to catch your own freshwater. eThekwini won’t allow you to run water from your gutters into stormwater drains, because this overwhelms wastewater plants every time there’s a storm. Water legislation is heading this way. The solution is a water tank. Building one out of cement — with Rerod in the base and mesh to hold the walls together — helps it fit the style of your house.

But a standard, plastic tank is quicker and easier to install. A 5 000-litre tank retails for about R7 000, with different municipalities offering a rebate at the retailer for up to a quarter of that cost. The catch is the rebate has to be claimed through someone installing the tank. But with a tank in place you can connect it to a hose for the garden — if your gutters aren’t clean, using it for drinking water would necessitate some sort of filter.

On the water topic, heating it is a home’s biggest running cost. An insulated blanket (R300) for your geyser is a must and if its on a north-facing wall it will heat up during the day. Ask your local hardware store for a timer for the geyser’s power plug, and run it for two hours a day. That will save a couple of hundreds of rands a month.

If you’re a bit more ambitious, get a few metres of black pipe and stick it on the roof with one end connected to the water inlet and the other into the geyser. For about R1 000, this will give you a cheap option for heating water and will take pressure off the geyser. As a bonus, you can build a similar system for the swimming pool and get warm pool water for mahala. Might as well use all that roof space.

If you’ve got a Christmas bonus, buying a solar water geyser could be a good way to save on monthly electricity costs. Back when there was a rebate, this was a no-brainer but now you’ll need an outlay of R30 000-odd to get a good geyser. Don’t fall for the cheap, small options in the hope of great results. A small geyser — under 300 litres — will quickly run out and spend most of its time operating off the mains. A big geyser should pay itself back in a decade. Remember the blanket and north-facing aspect.

The same goes for going off the electric grid. Solar companies quote about R200 000 to take a large family home off the grid, with most of the cost going on batteries and solar panels. If you’re spending Christmas window shopping for a home, then it’s worth talking to your finance people about rolling those costs into a bond. That sort of investment tends to pay itself back in a decade and then you’re saving money that can go into the bond.

But let’s stick to small. With water and electricity tackled, your next week of leave can be spent harnessing the power of nature inside the house. Most modern homes — especially those built during the 1980s and 2000s — are indiscriminately plonked on a plot and then need heaters and fans to regulate them. Rather think of your home as part of the environment and help it harness the elements. Start with air and clean out all your air blocks. These attract spiders, which means allergies and blocked vents. Maybe knock a few holes for new airblocks between rooms and corridors. That’s the size of one brick. The airblocks are less than R100 each, and the cement you’ll need to fill around them can be used to finish up other odd jobs around the house.

The improved air flow around your house means you don’t need air conditioning. Also, take a look at Nasa’s list of great outdoor plants for green life in the house. These help you breathe, and create a healthy ecosystem in the house. But don’t go to the nursery down the road. Rather drive a dozen kilometres away to the fringe of whichever city you live in, where the nurseries are a whole whack cheaper. Less price means more plants for your budget. It’s also a good excuse for a great breakfast.

With plants in place, it’s worth looking at light tubes. These go through the roof and bring concentrated light into your house. Really good for small, dark rooms where artificial light is just too strong — think the bathroom or your reading nook. A do-it-yourself kit retails for R3 000 but you can’t get them at most retailers so hit the internet.

But that should be enough for this holiday. Too much DIY will end relationships and antagonise neighbours.

Go forth and tinker.