Putting power in their own hands

2014-06-20 00:00

FED up with the continuous power outages experienced by Hilton residents and being highly qualified environmentalists, ecologists and sustainability consultants, Kevan and Karen Zunckel decided that it was time to put what they preach into practice. The result is a home that is almost completely self-sufficient in terms of electricity and water supplies.

Kevan uses an analogy to explain their commitment to living sustainable lives. “A doctor who deals with diseases caused by how we live, such as obesity, emphysema and diabetes, will often go to great lengths to live in a way that will prevent such diseases from happening to him or her. It comes from the understanding a doctor has of the impact that lifestyle choices, like smoking and overeating, have on people. It’s the same with us: as people who are educated in the field, we recognise the impact our decisions make on our environment, so we are trying to neutralise that impact as far as possible.”

The Zunckels first applied their expertise to their own lives and the way they live by tackling the “alien-infested, typical English country garden” that they had bought. Over an 11-year period, they have made their property about 80% indigenous, balanced with growing their own vegetables, which are picked free of pests and naturally fertilised by their resident chickens and compost. They are trying to increase their food growing at home to replace the inorganic, high-mileage food found in supermarkets.

Kevan said: “Look at the food on your plate and assess its carbon footprint. How far has it travelled to get there?” They are busy converting their back garden from lawn to indigenous grassland. Not only does it save on time-consuming and high-energy mowing, but the garden is attracting more birds and butterflies, increasing its biodiversity. The Zunckels’ next foray into self-sufficiency was setting up a system to collect rain water from their roof. The two JoJo tanks they installed have a 9 000-litre capacity and, depending on the rainfall, the water they collect is enough to fulfil all their water needs for eight to 10 months. That means that for most of the year they do not use municipal water at all.

“It’s so rewarding to receive a water bill from the municipality with a zero balance,” Karen said. “In fact, one month we even received a negative balance. Not sure how that works, but it’s very gratifying.” The rainwater that is stored in the JoJo tanks is piped throughout the house and used for everything from bathing to drinking. The Zunckels estimate that the return on their investment in this water-harvesting system is about five years, “after which it’s free”.

Kevan cited a startling statistic that if one million homes between Durban and Pietermaritzburg installed a similar system and saved the same amount of water, the water stored would equal what’s in Midmar Dam and there would have been no need to build the Spring Grove Dam in Nottingham Road. “Gone are the days when only expensive, hard engineering is considered. We need to include green design into developments.”

Water for their food garden comes from their grey water, which is stored in a 100-litre tank submerged in the ground. “We only use biodegradable detergents and soaps, so it’s safe to use this water on our vegetables, and we’ve not had health problems in this regard,” said Karen, adding that grey water containing non-biodegradable products will kill the plants it’s used on.

Most of their electricity is generated via solar power from the 12 solar panels on the roof of their home; six more panels will make them completely self-sufficient. They have what is called a “grid tie system”, which means that when enough energy has been generated by the sun, their system will automatically override what’s coming from the grid. Ultimately, they hope to be able to feed electricity back into the grid, for which they will be remunerated; however, this system is not up and running in this part of the world yet. Kevan said: “Sometimes the little wheel in our electricity box goes backwards; unfortunately the numbers don’t.”

The Zunckels went for minimum battery back-up of two deep-cycle batteries as these batteries are not yet environmentally friendly and are expensive. The batteries store enough power to see them through a two-day power cut.

“The system is so efficient that we only know when our neighbours are having a power cut when their generators go on or they call to ask if we have power,” Karen said. She added that the amount they pay on their electricity bill is the municipal line rental and about a third of what they used to draw off the grid.

Karen and Kevan employ other measures to harness the sun’s energy, like baking and cooking in a sun and parabolic stove, which uses no other fuel apart from the sun. “It’s very rewarding to dunk a rusk that has been produced using only energy from the sun, which is free and has no negative consequences,” Kevan said.

The Zunckels estimate that the return on their investment in their solar energy system is six years, but this is likely to be less, depending on the extent to which Eskom is allowed to increase the electricity tariffs.

Sitting listening to the Zunckels speak to their audience made up of members of the KZN Inland Branch of the Botanical Society at their annual meeting at the Botanical Gardens that Saturday, the thought did occur to me that while this is all very noble, many people don’t have the financial means to implement such far-reaching changes to their lives, nor do they have the luxury of waiting six years to see a return on quite a substantial investment. Addressing this cynical thought, Karen said that there are numerous low-cost interventions that can be implemented by everybody, starting with changing to low-energy light bulbs, catching the cold water in a bucket while waiting for the shower to heat up and using it to water plants, and boiling the kettle and storing the hot water in a flask. Once low-cost interventions have shown a return on investment, ring fence the savings and invest in medium-cost interventions and eventually in high-cost interventions, such as the systems that the Zunckels have installed over time.

“We need to stand back and look at the way we live through a sustainability lens and understand how simple changes can really help. Society is geared towards convenience, the consequences of which have a huge impact on the Earth,” Kevan said, citing an example of that ultra-convenient household appliance, the tumble drier. “Sometimes being more sustainable requires a little more effort, such as having to hang your clothes inside on a wet day, rather than relying on an energy-sapping appliance.”

We all know that climate change, brought about primarily by humans’ abuse of our planet, has far-reaching, negative consequences. Whether the effects of climate change can ever be reversed by more human intervention, remains to be seen, but perhaps if more people did something, however small, to minimise their impact on our Earth, all those smalls somethings may add up to something big.

DURING her travels through Africa working on a book on ecofriendly safari destinations, Karen Zunckel was struck by how much people who have so little do to empower and uplift their communities. She was especially interested in how they use waste to generate an income. She realised that she had no excuse not to do the same and with that in mind started iPhepha Beads in October 2011. iPhepha Beads is a community-empowerment project operating in the KZN Midlands. The project involves making beads for jewellery from discarded cardboard boxes and other paper products, such as magazines and brochures. Each item of jewellery comes with a label informing the buyer what it was made from, such as Five Roses earrings or Jungle Oats and Princess magazine necklace, and who it was made by. The purpose of the project is to uplift disadvantaged individuals and their families, as with the income they generate, the beaders are able to support their families in a sustainable, ecofriendly manner. A wide variety of eye-catching jewellery can be bought online at http://iphephabeads.co.za

WHILE the Sustainable Living and Indigenous Plant (Slip) Fair, which was held at the Royal Showgrounds in 2012 and at the National Botanical Gardens in 2013, and showcased local service providers who exposed the KZN Midlands community to ways of implementing lifestyle changes that reduce their impact on the planet, it was recognised that a three to four-day event may not have the desired impact. “A cyber platform would have a year-round impact and a far greater reach,” said Karen Zunckel. With this in mind, in May 2013 she developed the Verdant Life-KZN Midlands Sustainability Forum, run by a small team of volunteers. Midlands service providers who offer reliable, sustainable products and services now have a platform on which to showcase themselves on an ongoing basis. The website has an active blog, Go Green Guides, Events and Contact Pages, and a link to Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts.

In an exciting development, the Verdant Life-KZN Midlands Sustainability Forum has received funding from the N3 Toll Concession (N3TC) to assess the carbon footprint of the N3 and to find projects that can help it to offset that footprint, ultimately making it the N3 Green Corridor. This project provides the N3TC with an opportunity to invest in sustainability initiatives within a number of sectors. Last week, N3TC provided additional funds for Verdant Life to develop a Green Map of the KZN Midlands, in collaboration with Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg Green Mappers, which will spatially demonstrate those active in the green economy.

Anyone wanting to list on the map should do so via www.verdantlifekzn.com

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