Mint tea anyone?

I deeply loved my Emma Bridgewater Great Britain teapot.  It was a little bit of retail therapy one day shortly after my daughter was born when my hormones were particularly prone to large swings.  Normally, I’m too cheap to buy a £50 teapot, but that day, I NEEDED it, and to hell with anyone who tried to stop me.

ImageIt was our beloved teapot for about 2 years until my husband dropped a glass on the pot.  The lid shattered, so for a few months we were using a small plate over the top to keep the steam in.  Then slowly we started noticing cracks in the teapot itself.  First little ones, then great big swooping cracks that got stained by the tea inside.  We tried to ignore the cracks, but eventually the cracks got too big and salts started leaching out of the outside.  Lord only knows what leached out into our tea, but let’s not think about that!  So, it sat empty on our counter for a while, as I just couldn’t bear the thought of throwing it in the bin.

ImageAfter a looking at a few videos on how to drill a hole into pottery, I decided to just give it a go.  I don’t have the fancy diamond bits talked about, but instead just used a regular masonry bit that I had already.  It worked like a charm!

ImageMy lovely cousin Jodie gave me some mint cuttings when I crashed at her place for the Observer’s Ethical Awards earlier this month.  No, I didn’t win, but the two of us had a really nice time at the ceremony and got to chat with some cool and amazing folks.  The highlight of my night was talking to Anne (don’t call her Annie) Power.  She is an amazing woman, and a total inspiration for never getting complaisant with one’s life.  But back to the mint.  After a week and half in water there were some nice roots sprouting.  Sprouting roots?  I’m not sure that’s the correct botanical term…

Anyhow, here’s the glorious transformation in its entirety, and now my kitchen windowsill basil has a little minty friend.  The whole process from drilling to watering-in took about 15 minutes, and I am kicking myself for letting that little upcycling job sit and linger for so long.



Crossing the Great Energy Race Finish Line #GERace

It’s been an eye-opening four weeks in the Observer’s Ethical Awards Great Energy Race.  Thank you B&Q for sponsoring this important new award category!

It has been so amazing to see how our household can reduce our energy demands.  Our energy use was never particularly high, as our household is already pretty environmentally savoy.  But we did manage to steadily reduce our electricity demands steadily over the race from 50 kilowatt hours per week to 38 kilowatt hours per week (and this last week saw workmen installing a new boiler, so extra lights and power tools were plugged in!).  Still, that’s just over a 25% reduction in our electricity usage!  Yippee!!!

The average UK household uses 63 kilowatt hours per week, so I’ve gotta say that I’m rather proud of both our starting and finishing points.  FYI, the average American household uses a whopping 208 kilowatt hours per week!  Yuck!!!

I wonder how much of this energy conciousness has been and will be retained by my children, aged seven and two.  While I enjoy saving money as much as the next person, the main reason for the last month’s endeavours is my children.  I love them more than I ever knew was possible, and I want them to be able to say that the Great Barrier Reef is alive and thriving and not lost to ocean acidification.  I want them to live in a peaceful world, and not one ravaged by wars as mass migrations due to sea level rise and limited resources inflame international tensions.  I want my children to say that they were handed a planet that was in better shape than the one their parents inherited.   I want my grandchildren to think upon my generation and say “thank you” for tightening  belts and loosening thinking caps to solve Earth’s current energy crisis.  I hope that my children will retain my values for conservation.  They will need these values in years to come!

This is why I would very very much like to see the Great Energy Race prize donated to a school.  I’ve already seen that my own energy use is pretty small compared to most, so a renewable energy measure would have a much larger impact to the planet if installed on a larger consumer of energy, like a primary school with hundreds of children.  Also, renewable energy needs to be thought of as the standard and not some unattainable luxury that only wealthy conservationists can afford.  So, if you have read through to this and fancy voting to see the £10k prize given to school children, then please take a minute to vote for me here.  (scroll down to the bottom on the right hand side)

And perhaps this will inspire a few of my fellow competitors to likewise consider donating the prize to a larger consumer of energy in their communities too if they win!!

Lots of lessons have been learned in the duration of this race, and since I’m all about top tips, I’ve made one final Top Tips list for this #GERace blog entry.  Here are my top ten tips to reduce energy consumption for free.  Actually all of these tips will save you money, so it’s like you’re making money!

Robin’s Top 10 Tips – Free!

  1. Turn down your thermostat in winter (and up in Summer for you folks in glorious warm climates).  Putting on more clothes in the winter and less in the summer is a natural thing, so just learn to live the climate that you live in.
  2. Turn off the lights.  Make a habit of going around the house and turning off lights that are left on in rooms.  Eventually even kids can learn to turn off the lights when they leave a room.
  3. Seek and destroy hidden suckers of electricity – standby and chargers!  Go around and see what you have plugged into those dusty power strips under beds and behind desks.  If you don’t use things like computers, chargers, microwaves and TV’s regularly, then just unplug them when not in use.
  4. Open up your curtains in the morning, and close them at night.  Curtains add quite a bit of insulation, so if you close them when it’s dark and you’ll limit heat loss and peeping Toms.  Open them when it’s light, and you won’t need light bulbs and natural solar heat will warm the room.
  5. Wash your clothes in colder water.  If you don’t think it’ll clean your clothes well, then give it a trail for a month and see.  If you reduce the temperature to 30C you will save quite a bit of energy and your clothes shouldn’t suffer.  Actually the hot water will make them fade faster and you’re more likely to ruin wool items that find themselves in the wash on accident.
  6. Don’t tumble dry clothes.  If you do own a tumble dyer (booo hisss) then try to use it less and less.  If I can dry all of my clothes without a dryer, while living in cold and rainy Scotland, then everyone can do it!  Plus laundry dried outside on a line is just nicer!
  7. Only boil as much water as you need.  If you want a cup of coffee, then there’s no need to boil a whole pot-full of water.  If you want hot beverages all day long, you can consider using a thermos-type flask to keep your drinks hot.  Good ones will keep contents hot for the whole day.
  8. Reduce or end your food waste.  You may be able to save lots of money here, if you make a list of what you need before you go shopping, regularly move fridge contents from the backs of shelves to the front and freeze leftovers for another day.  Also, if you grow your own produce, you’ll be a whole lot less likely to waste it!  Plant a seed today!
  9. Think before you buy things that plug-in.  The best way to reduce electricity use is to not buy things that need it in the first place.  Marketers try to sell us all kinds of stuff that we don’t actually need – like warming lotion dispensers, digital image photo frames, electric milk frothers and “mood” lighting. But really do you need lights to give you “mood” and does your lotion really need to be heated prior to rubbing it into your skin?  I think you know the answer, so try not to give into the impulse to buy new “stuff.”
  10. Use less hot water.  This can be done by taking shorter showers, periodically turning off the water when you are lathering up or massaging conditioner into hair and by taking slightly less hot showers.  Long hot showers is a weakness of mine, but I do find it nice to have more time in the morning with a shorter shower!



5 Top Tips for new boiler installations

Now that I’ve been there and done that with installing a new boiler, here are a few things to think about for long-term energy savings with new boilers.

I have a shameless self promotion first thought!  I’m in the home-stretch of the Great Energy Race, and I need your help and votes to win a £10k renewable energy prize for my local primary school – Blackhall Primary.  Surprisingly, I’m the only contestant in Scotland and the only one donating it to a good cause.  Please, please take a minute to vote here!  Tell a friend and share the link too!!!  Thanks!!!


  1. Choose your boiler efficiency carefully
    Operational costs for your boiler will probably total more than the capital cost, so it makes sense to include even small efficiency differences in your choice of a boiler.  And always chose a boiler that is only as big as you will need most days.  You can look-up boiler efficiencies to compare makes and models as UK gov standards website or a more user friendly website here.
  2. Solar Heating
    Can you afford and logistically install a solar powered heating system at your home?  It will cost you quite a bit more than a regular old boiler install (for example my plumber installed a new efficient combi-boiler in my flat this week for about £3k, but the solar option in my 3-story flat would have cost ~£9k – still cheaper than a new car!).  You could have free hot water on sunny days, so a good investment if you can install it.  A good and experienced plumber will tell you the requirements.  If you are in southern Scotland, you can call up Green Plumbers – They are great!
  3. Wood Burning Heating
    Can you use a wood burning stove to contribute to your heating and hot water system?  My plumber just installed a bespoke three-way wood and solar with a combi back-up system at a client’s home, so again it can be done with an experienced professional.   I do have some issues with wood-burning stoves for those of us who don’t live on our own wooded properties with kindling and fuel abound, but as long as you aren’t importing your wood or chopping down trees to burn, then I am all for wood-burning stoves.
  4. Passive Flue Gas Heat Recovery  
    Is your boiler compatible with one of these recovery devises?  They take the “waste” heat that would have otherwise been vented out of your home, and recycle that for use with your boiler, increasing it’s efficiency and saving you money.  Not all boiler manufacturing companies will validate their warranties with these though.  My new Worcester-Bosh has a 10-year warranty, but they would not have upheld it if I installed a heat recovery unit on it.  In retrospect, I should have asked my plumber to install an efficient Baxi or Alpha boiler instead which can use these add-ons nicely.  But you live and you learn eh?  Perhaps if we all badger our boiler manufacturers, they’ll make their engineering design teams think about flue gas heat recovery for all their models, as every little bit of heat should be used to reduce our overall energy consumption!
  5. Ground or Air Source Heat Pumps
    While I pine for solar panels, I REALLY pine for a ground source heat pump.  I think that’s because I secretly long to live somewhere warm enough for me to think about needing air conditioning!   Ground source heat pumps will require digging up a bit of your garden to install, but they use the natural temperature differences between the ground and your home to heat and cool it.  It boggles my mind that these aren’t standard issue for any large building in the US, where it gets really cold and hot!  All schools, malls, office buildings etc should install these underneath their parking lots and landscaped areas!    Air source heat pumps are smaller and more or less the size of an air conditioning unit.  They too use temperature differences in the air and your home to heat it.  It sounds a bit non-intuitive to a non-engineer, but they can provide heat in -15C temperatures.  They’re not as efficient as ground source pumps, but they are smaller and cheaper to install.

Great Energy Race Prize Donation

We’re in the home stretch now for the Observer’s Ethical Awards, Great Energy Race, sponsored by B&Q.   It’s been a really interesting and rewarding process, and now all eyes are on the prize!  Up to £10,000 on a renewable energy measure for the winner’s home.

After lots of thinking about my energy consumption as a whole, I think that the prize would be better used by my children’s current and future primary school.  They have to heat, light and provide electricity for well over a dozen classrooms, a gym hall, offices, kitchen etc.  Now, I’ve not seen their yearly utility statements, but I am sure that their bills are much much higher than mine, and goodness knows Edinburgh Council Schools can use the help!  So by helping my community, I will be helping myself and my children, so it’s really not that altruistic at all.

So anyhow, here’s my plea for everyone to vote for me and Blackhall Primary School!!  Let’s get renewable energy installed at a primary school and let hundreds of children see, use and learn to love renewables!!  Please share this with friends and family and ask them to vote for me.



The New Boiler – continued

Almost ready to turn onI didn’t realise how much of a big job changing a boiler can be!  The work began on Tuesday, and it’s still in full swing here.  It’s been a good learning experience, and I only wish we had decided to replace our old boiler earlier.  I’m really looking forward to using the new boiler, not least because it’s been COLD lately, and we’ve been without hot water for two days, and without central heating for a day.  But hey, we are saving lots of energy by not using the gas, so I really can’t complain.

When my lovely plumber offer to drag space heaters up my two flights of stairs, I told him “no”, as we’ve had the thermostat sitting on 13-15 degrees for the past month, so we can tough it out for 24 hours.  Apparently he doesn’t get any clients turning down his offer of portable heaters, because he asked me again before leaving and really wanted to make sure that indeed I didn’t want them.

I fired up my flower pot heater for the fun of it though and leave it on in my room! It radiates more ambiance than heat, but the ambiance is quite nice on a cold night!  Actually by the morning, after burning all night I can notice a difference in temperature in our back bedroom.  Usually the coldest room in the flat, this morning it is the warmest to a small degree.  The room has Georgian height ceilings and is fairly large, so I imagine in a smaller room it would actually make a warmer difference all with one little candle.  Well done wee flower pot heater!

I will need to make a top 5 energy tips for installing a new boiler.  I wish I had seen one when I was planning my boiler, as I might have altered our plans a bit if I had done a wee bit more research on the front end.   Well, you live and you learn eh?  But I’m sure that we’ll be very happy with our new boiler when we can fire it up tomorrow and finally take a warm 4-minute shower!





Planting Seeds

Planting aftermathYesterday was a great day!  Not only is my new boiler continuing along on it’s way toward installation, but I had the amazing opportunity to go into my local primary school and plant pumpkin and pea seeds with some lovely P2 (6 and 7 year-olds) pupils.  I did a bit of volunteering at my mother’s friend’s first grade class when I was an undergraduate student in California, so I had a small window into the world that is early childhood education about 15 years ago.  And let me tell you–teachers have one heck of a hard job, and they should be highly valued!!  Today, I had flashbacks to this prior experience, and I remembered how fun it is to get up in front of a bunch of eager children and teach!  If only the adults in the many many meetings, workshops and conferences I have since organised and run had half of the enthusiasm of these kids. They were all eager to participate and learn!  Wow, it was really invigorating actually.  I’m not going to go back to school and train as a teacher or anything, but I will make a mid-year resolution to help out more in the school.  It’s rewarding and fun.  I encourage everyone to get out and help out in local schools!  Either in the classroom, office or grounds, there’s always something to be done!  My amazing father has been volunteering at my old elementary school ever since he retired in the 1990’s, so I guess I have had the benefit of a very good role model here!  Thanks Dad, I love you!

OK, I am digressing from the Great Energy Race task at hand!  The point of me going into the classroom today (aside from my pure enjoyment) was to plant some seeds.  But while I wanted to physically plant some pumpkin and pea seeds into soil with these children, I also wanted to plant some metaphorical seeds for energy conservation.  And I really hope that I did that too!  We started out with me asking the students what they can do to reduce their energy use.  Most of them said that they should spend less time on computers, video games or tablets.  Since my son is well steeped in energy saving at the moment, he mentioned turning out the lights when you are not in the room (that’s my boy!!), and one kid even said that by eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk food we can use less energy!  That segued perfectly into our activity at hand, which was planting seeds for edible plants that they can hopefully get the opportunity to hand-pick and enjoy later in the summer and autumn.

It was really quite interesting to see how the kids reacted to the planting instructions.  I was struck by one girl in particular, who was obviously a pro at planting seeds, because of the care she took into patting down the soil and getting the right amount of soil in her pot before putting in her seeds.  It was honestly better than I would have done!  When I complemented her on her skill, she said that she had lots of practice before with her mom.  Yeah!    Most kids however looked like they were doing this for the first, maybe second, time in their lives.  But that was nice too, as someone at some point in their lives needs to teach them how to plant a seed!  And the sooner the better.  My mother and I used to do lots of vegetable planting when I was a kid, and I am now SO thankful that I gained an appreciation of soil, plants and gardening at an early age.  Pulling weeds for what seemed like hours on end as a kid for my weekly chore is less rosy in my memory, however, but almost equally as educational.  And yes, Mom, I love you too!!

After the planting experience, we talked about how the fruit and vegetables we eat arrive on our plates.  Lots of kids said that their food came from the shops.  And when I asked how the food came to the shops, and where it might have come from, and how these modes of transportation are powered, they started to understand the concept of food-miles.  We also had a conversation about when plants naturally ripen here in the UK, so that perhaps eating soft berries from South America in the winter wasn’t the best idea, when you can wait and eat them in the summer here.  And that perhaps apples are a better fresh fruit choice in the winter.

But time was limited, as were the children’s’ attention spans!  Again, primary school teachers are so amazing to have the energy and ability to cope with a class full of kids whose minds are all going in 25 different directions at once!  So, after a very heartfelt “thank you” from the kids that almost made me cry, I left.  Yes, it was a good day, and I really hope that the kids will remember it and take on board a bit of our conversation to try to reduce their energy use!

I need to also give a very special THANK YOU to B&Q, whose very generous gift card towards my home energy savings efforts helped pay for this planting experience for these children!