Archive for September, 2014

New gadget

September 20, 2014

I just bought an IHD—an In-Home-Device for measuring electricity consumption (and generation if you have solar panels).

It’s the Pipit 500. It collects energy usage information from the Smart Meter and displays it on an LCD screen. It connects wirelessly with the Smart Meter using a Home Area Network which is built into both the Smart Meter and the Pipit 500. I’ve installed it on the wall in the living room and I can see at a glance whether I’m exporting to the grid or taking from the grid, without having to go outside to look at the meter:


It records net usage—so if I’m exporting more power to the grid than I’m taking from it, it shows power usage as negative. When net power is coming from the grid, it shows a positive figure. I can enter in my current tariffs and it will show my energy costs and export credits. It also shows CO2 emissions and a host of other info as tables and graphs.

It needs to be connected to a power point but has batteries also, so it can be taken from room to room to see the effect on energy input of turning on various appliances.

This window shows the instantaneous net energy consumption, i.e. the difference between what is going to the grid and what is being taken from the grid in real time. The ‘sun’ icon in the centre of the circle and ‘GEN’ shows a net export to the grid, and the amount -525 W is 525 Watts, the minus sign meaning a credit:


This time more energy is coming from the grid than going to it as shown by the positive figure 707 Watts and the ‘lightning bolt’ icon in the circle. (To get this photo I had to turn on the electric jug to make it show as an import. Since the electric jug is rated at 2400 Watts, it means that most of the power to run it was coming from the solar panels and only 707 Watts coming from the grid):


This one shows the daily history over 24 hours. The bars below the horizontal represent generation from the panels and the bars above the horizontal show import from the grid—nice and short aren’t they? (smug grin). That’s how I like it! It shows that generation started around 8 am and finished around 4 pm and during that time supplied all the power the house needed. As we move into summer, those times will increase. If last summer is anything to go by, I’ll get at least 14 hours of generation:


It’s going to be quite useful.

New chook run & coop

September 10, 2014

For the last few months I’ve been building a new chook run and coop.

After I lost little Lady back in May, I decided that two chooks weren’t enough and that I would get three more. I didn’t want to introduce 12 week-old pullets into the bossy clutches of three-year old Molly & Cheeky—in any case there wasn’t room for 5 chooks in the one coop—so new living quarters for the newbies became necessary.

The run

This is the original secure run I built:

chookhouse 001

This is it much later, covered with a tarp and with plants growing along the side:

friday 001

It’s a polypipe structure and easy to build. I had to be able to do it on my own, because I didn’t want to ask neighbours to help, although I knew they would. Since it has worked so well, I wanted the new run to be identical.

It starts with two rows of star pickets hammered into the ground. These are 135 cm long and go into the ground about 30 cm, so there’s about a metre sticking up. They all have to be level, both along and across the rows. A straightedge and a spirit level make it easy. Here’s the first row of four (and the first arch in place):


The sideways distance apart is governed by the width of the roll of wire mesh that’s going over the top, in this case it’s 90 cm. The distance across the run is governed by the length of the polypipe, taking into consideration the size of the arch—not too shallow and not too high, but high enough that I can walk inside without stooping. I used polypipe from Bunnings, which they sell pre-cut to 3 metre lengths. This is what they call blue-line poly; it’s very thick and strong. The alternative would be to buy a huge coil from a plumber’s supplier (100 metres minimum) and cut my own—too expensive and I couldn’t get it in the car anyway. So a 3 metre length of polypipe needs to span a width of about 170 cm for a reasonably-sized arch with about 30 cm of head clearance.

Once the star pickets are in and level, the polypipe can be bolted on:


I had to bolt it on because I couldn’t buy the size of polypipe that would just slip over the top. It’s probably a stronger job anyway. I’ve bolted down to the second hole on the star picket. It wouldn’t be rigid or stable enough just bolted to the top hole (I found out by trying).

The four arches in place:


The arches need to be braced across the length. I discovered this when making the first run, trying to get the wire over the top, having the arches move sideways and the wire falling onto my head.

So now the arches are braced with three cross pieces. It’s very satisfying to put a spirit level across the centre brace and find it’s level. Yay! :


Next job is to get the wire in place over the top of the arches. This is where the fun starts!

The first arch has been covered with wire. Pretty easy really!:


This is where the benefit of having an arched roof comes into its own. The curve of the wire as it comes off the roll makes it so easy to fit over the arches, without having to bend, straighten or otherwise wrestle with a recalcitrant length of wire that wants to shred your fingers to bits.

I haven’t covered the entire section from ground to ground. I’ve only covered the actual polypipe. While I’ve said this bit is easy, there’s a limit to how much wire can be wrestled with by one person. I’ll do the sides  later. I have lots of short lengths left over from other projects to use up and short lengths are easier to work with.

I’ve attached the wire with cable ties. They’re relatively cheap and easy to put on (and the installers who put in my solar panels gave me a huge bundle):


Now I’ve put the wire along one side. I’ve done this as three separate panels, rather than one long length, because it’s easier and I had short lengths of wire to use up. I’ve extended it outwards along the ground to deter foxes from digging in and used some tent pegs to hold it down. Burying it in the ground is extra work and not really necessary. I have several long lengths of meleleuca saplings and I’ll lay them along the length and cover them with leaves. As it all rots down, it might attract some creepy crawlies that the chooks can gobble up. I could also throw some seeds in there and get a bit of a garden going. I’ve done that along one side of the first run.


Next job done. The tarpaulin over the top:


Looking through the run towards the old run and playground:


Closer up (and a couple of interested chooks):


In the dim distance is the old run (on the right of the polyhouse) and in front of that the playground (also a polypipe structure, but not as well made), where they spend their days. I’d like to re-do this eventually. Sticking out from that, where the Girls are actually standing, is a short section made with wire panels. The plan is to extend that to link up with the new run (where I’m standing), but initially with a barrier between the two. The New Girls will be ensconced in the new run (with their own coop and food supply), but will be able to get up close and personal with the Old Girls at the boundary. When I’m satisfied that they’re all comfortable with each other (and the newbies have been through a suitable quarantine period), I’ll remove the boundary and let them mingle. There will probably be some sorting out of pecking order, but I hope it will be without too much bloodshed. I’m hoping too that each group will learn to go to their respective homes at nightfall. If not, well they’ll just have to sort things out for themselves.

Next job is to put a door on the front and wire across the rear.

All wired up and waiting for a door. Haven’t decided what will go in the pots yet:


I was going to wait till I’d put on the door before posting this, but a regular reader is keen to see what I’ve done so will post this sans door (which is lying on the floor in the workshop waiting for wire to go on). A door is a door is a door, after all!

The coop

For the first run I bought a flat-pack coop which looked like this when made up:

And when installed in the run looked like this:

I was so pleased with the whole setup, particularly how the nestbox stuck out the end at chest height so I wouldn’t have to enter the run to collect eggs.

The chooks had other ideas. Obviously, if one is going to build a chook coop, one should ask a chook to design it.

They didn’t like the inside ramp. They wouldn’t go up it into the nest boxes and into the adjacent night roosting area. Maybe they didn’t like the idea of what might be lurking on the other side of that dark little hole at the top of the ramp. I’d replaced the silly little outside perches provided with some more substantial ones and they roosted there at night. I even put in a horizontal perch leading straight to the hole, thus doing away with the ramp. No, we’re not going in there and that’s final.

OK, they weren’t ready to lay for another couple of months, so if they wanted to nest in the nest boxes, they’d have to go there eventually. I could wait.

Not so. The chook brain is tiny. There’s no room for logical thought in it. When the time came to lay they simply dug a hole in the sand under the night roost and did it there. (On second thoughts maybe you can say that is logical thought).

I couldn’t have them laying under the roost in amongst their poop, so I put some spare floor tiles there to stop them digging in the sand. They promptly moved to the opposite side and they’ve laid there ever since. I’ve put a deep layer of wood shavings in there and it’s OK as it goes but not easy to access the eggs, particularly if your hands-and-knees days are coming to an end. I bought a long-handled plastic dog poopa-scoopa and use it to get the eggs. It’s not ideal. Eventually I took the nest boxes off the side and closed up the hole (there seems to be more bits of unused chook coop stored under the house than actually in the coop).

The upshot of all this was that I didn’t want another flat-pack coop. I would design one that a chook would like. I would develop a chook brain for the design process.

I like the idea of modules. Want more room—just add another module. Each module would be light enough to handle individually and they would fit together to make a unit, unlike the flat pack which had to be installed in situ, because I couldn’t move it on my own once put together.

I started with a basic rectangular frame, 60 cm x 64 cm x 90 cm:


Wood is expensive and besides, I thought if I covered it in wood, it would make it too heavy.

I love browsing in Bunnings (for overseas readers—our local big-box hardware chain). I came up with corflute—that corrugated plastic they use for cheap signage. It’s easy to cut, with just a Stanley knife and a ruler:


The first module is the bedroom—where they roost at night. It has a single perch, wide enough for 3 chooks (or four at a pinch—they like to cuddle close):


Next is the entry module (or vestibule if you want to be fancy). The nestbox sits beside that hole in the left side:


The nest box

It definitely had to be easy for me to access and preferably on the ground. In retrospect, putting a nest box up off the ground is stupid—chooks in the wild don’t nest in trees, they nest at ground level in some dark and secluded spot.

I started again with a basic frame:


Covered in corrugated plastic and with a top and bottom of wood:


The top can be easily lifted off:


The three modules fit together:


And from another angle:


So, the idea is, you (if you’re a chook) enter via the centre opening, turn right to roost and left to lay. Just like they do now. The floor area and the bottom of the nest box will be covered in wood shavings, mulched bracken or sugar cane mulch (it’s not there in this picture because it was taken in my living room and there’s a limit to reality photography).

The gaps at the top of the roosting module are to allow ammonia to escape and also hot air in summer. The ammonia comes from their droppings and can impact on their health if provision isn’t made for adequate air circulation.

The plan is the same as the present setup and it works well for them. With this new setup, I won’t have to stick my head inside the coop and use a scoop to collect the eggs. Just lift the lid of the box and there they are (I hope).

If I want more chooks, all I have to do is make another roosting module and slot it in next to the existing one.

I have one concern, that it will be so light it will blow over in a high wind. I’ll have to wait and see and take appropriate action. The lightness will  be an advantage when it comes to cleaning as each individual module is easy to lift.

I also think I will paint the corflute. It lets a lot of light through and it might darken the interior if I paint it. I just bought a can of paint to touch up the window frames on the house, and there’ll be plenty to spare. I hope they like Mist Green.

August update

September 9, 2014

Well it was nice to finally see some sunshine and warm days towards the end of the month and the winter blues slipping away. Here’s hoping the warmth continues.

Around the garden…..

The first of the tomato seedlings are out in the polyhouse after being sown at the winter solstice and being kept inside in a sunny window for a couple of months. I sowed three seeds to a pot and will let them grow on a bit, then take mini cuttings of the extras as I did last year :


The tamarillo season ended with a flourish with this beautiful truss of fruits. Almost a shame to eat them :


I’m really going to miss them on my breakfast cereal. Some fruits still haven’t ripened and I don’t know why, or if, or when, they will. I don’t know what triggers ripening—is it increasing warmth or lengthening days? They’ll be getting both of those from now on, so maybe there are delicious breakfasts still to come.

Leeks are looking good. These are in a wicking box. There’s a similar batch in the garden looking just as good :


Likewise garlic. These are in the garden and also in a wicking box :


This is a dwarf nectarine. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but it’s only about 50 cm high, and is supposed to grow to about a metre. The flowers are also much pinker than the photo shows. In its first year it had 5 nectarines and a rabbit/possum got them all. Last year it had 2 and I got them.  I’ve made a special cage for it this year :


All of the larger stone fruits are flowering too, but it’s a worry that I’m not seeing many bees around.

I’m not really a great one for growing plants in odd-looking containers, but when my 15 year-old wheelbarrow finally died, I decided that since it was too tall for the rabbits to get to, it was worth being repurposed for veggies in Zone 1. It’s now sporting some kale and chicory and I’ve tossed in seeds of mizuna :


While I was taking photos for this post, I saw the first Cabbage White Butterfly for the season. Damn & blast. That means it’s probably too late for netting, so daily inspections of all things cabbagy for eggs and caterpillars will be needed.

Er….? :


Fooled you?  I cut them out of some white plastic sheet. Because…..

…..on last Saturday’s ABC Gardening Australia program, one of the presenters came up with the idea of plastic white butterflies, pinned to the top of sticks and poked in around plants in the cabbage family, the idea being that if a female Cabbage White sees other butterflies there, she won’t waste her eggs but will go somewhere else and lay.

Don’t laugh…..I did it years ago and it worked! Only then I hung the fakes on fishing line above the plants. I stood and watched and it was true; the butterflies wouldn’t land on the plants while ‘other’ butterflies were hovering there. There was only one problem—I had to spend some time each day untangling wind-blown fishing lines. I didn’t repeat it in subsequent years, and think the fakes must have been thrown out, but after that TV program, I’m going to have another go. On sticks this time.

I’ve had a few meals of asparagus. There are new spears popping up every day now. To store them until I have enough for a decent meal, I just stand them in  cup of water. It keeps them hydrated and they will even continue to elongate :


I harvested oca during the  month. These were the largest tubers. I planted the tiddlers straight back into the garden, but in a different spot. I’ll probably pickle most of these. I don’t like them roasted :


This is purple mizuna. It has beautiful, lacy foliage and looks stunning in a salad :



Generation from the solar panels bottomed out in July and started to take off again towards the end of August, with 9.7 kWh being recorded on the last day of the month. Amazing what a difference a sunny day makes! Over June and July I imported more power from the grid than I sent back to it, but I’m in front again now and exporting more than I’m using. I’m still waiting for a corrected bill from the retailer. According to their web portal there are 46 days in the January-April billing period that show no export to the grid, and this represents a credit of over $200 they owe me. They keep sending me texts to say they’re “working on it”, but since these are probably automated, I doubt whether they actually are. Main thing is, I haven’t paid a cent for electricity in the last ten months and don’t look like paying anything for the rest of the year. Or ever again. Maybe.


At 64 mm, we scraped in just 7 mm above Melbourne’s average of 57 mm for the month. It’s been good for the citrus and the oranges that looked a bit undersized are now looking a normal size.

I was about to hit the publish button when I remembered the most important thing. Eggs. The Girls haven’t laid since mid-January. I’ve been giving them subtle hints nagging them for a couple of weeks now. Molly apparently got sick of me harping on the fact that it was spring and normal chooks lay eggs in spring and laid one on the last day of the month. And as if to say, “there I’ve done it, now will you shut up”, hasn’t laid since. Not to be outdone, Cheeky has laid three. And one dropped out of someone during the night and broke. Oh, well. It’s a start.