Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Freezing!

I guess the term freezing is somewhat of an exaggeration. It’s actually 7°C (44°F), but as it’s close to that temperature inside my home office, and I’m sitting at my computer, it feels fricking cold.

Why so cold? We are replacing the windows and ranchsliders [Nu Zild for a fully glazed  sliding door with a moving panel that slides behind a fixed panel] on the the main floor with double glazing. Huge gaping holes where the glass was doesn’t do much for keeping heat in and cold out. However we are looking towards cheaper power bills and a more evenly heated home when the job is completed hopefully by tomorrow evening.

Our house was built in the mid 1980s and apart from a regulation requiring  minimal ceiling insulation, little consideration was given to keeping homes warm. What heating there was was on a room by room basis. Central heating was unheard of and it is still very much a rarity. It wasn’t until early this century that double glazing, wall, ceiling and underfloor insulation became mandatory for all new home construction. Why? I could claim that were are a hardy lot, but the large immigrant population are a namby-pamby softies, and can’t stand a little cold.

The truth is that compared to much of the rest of the world, we have a very mild climate. Summers are not overly hot, and winters are not extremely cold. Where I live, anything below 15°C (59°F) is considered cold and it’s bitterly cold if it drops below 10°C (50°F). We get between 5 and 15 frosts per year and a smattering of snow once per decade at most. It’s hot at 25°C (77°F) and insufferably hot at 30°C (86°F). So artificial heating and cooling is not necessary for survival – it’s a luxury to make life more pleasant.

However, cold homes are also damp homes. Dampness brings in mould and mildew, which is now acknowledged to be a serious health risk. We have a very high rate of respiratory illnesses in this country. Hence the the warm home regulations. Existing homes don’t need to be insulated to new home standards, but the government is looking at mandating all rental accommodation be brought up to the modern standard.

A few years ago, we took advantage of a government subsidy on underfloor and ceiling insulation and that made a big difference in reducing the daily extremes of hot and cold and eliminated mould from much of the house. Our sole form of heating was a woodburner, which made one end of the main floor cosy to too hot while the rest of the house remained cold. It was also somewhat expensive to run. Even lighting it late afternoon and not feeding it after 10PM cost us close to $700 per year for firewood and cleaning, even though we only used it for the coldest three months of the year.

So we had a heat pump installed. Typically in NZ they are used to heat a single room, and multiple units are used to heat a whole house. Ours is a larger unit installed in the main floor hallway with the goal of maintaining a comfortable background heat throughout the main floor while allowing some heat to rise up the stairwell to the upper floor where the bedrooms are. Mostly it works well and is very much cheaper to run even though it’s running 24/7. But on very cold days, the rooms at either end of the main floor can drop to as low as 15°C if the curtains aren’t drawn. And who wants to draw the curtains during the day, especially when we have such a great view. (If you view this blog directly in a browser and not via the WordPress Reader, the views in the random image at the top of the page are taken from our home.)

Neither of us are getting any younger, and we are both more sensitive to variations in temperature than we were even ten years ago. So we dipped into our savings for the double glazing. We’re doing the main floor except for the utility rooms (laundry, bathroom, toilet, exercise room) as they are used less frequently and/or have smaller windows. Even so, there’s 30 square metres (320 square feet) of glass to be replaced, and as our children will no doubt say, it has taken a not so insignificant bite out of their inheritance ($19,000 to be precise). Not that that worries me. I came into this world with nothing, and if everything goes to plan, that’s how I intend to leave it.

There’s a few more “big ticket” expenses that are looming on the horizon. Our car is now 12 years old, and while it’s still very reliable, the day can’t be too far away, when its reliability will be called into question. And as all cars are imports (there’s no local car manufacturing), they are not exactly cheap. A new sub 2000cc car such as a Toyota Corolla or Mitsubishi Mirage is around $28,000 to $30,000.

The exterior of the house is due for a repaint. Once upon a time I would have tackled this task myself, but age, injury and a multi-storey home means this is not a reasonable option any longer. OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) requirements mean that the use of regulation scaffolding and safety harnesses etc is mandatory for our dwelling due to its height, all of which does not come cheaply. I’d be surprised if an external paint job sees any change out of $15,000.

Then there’s floor coverings. With the exception of the kitchen, they’re all original, which means they are over 30 years old. In typical New Zealand fashion, most of the floors are covered in woollen carpet. It’s getting threadbare in places and a decision will need to be made soon as to whether we replace all the carpet or only in those rooms showing the worst wear. Re-carpeting the whole house will cost around $20,000 for a medium priced carpet, so it’s more likely to be done in stages.

Some rooms require repainting and new wallpaper – the grandchildren seem to have the ability to locate seams that have slightly lifted and then tearing the wallpaper back to where it is adhered firmly. At least this is one task I’m still capable of doing (I hope), having papered and repapered three previous homes. But If I need to hire a professional, then it’s goodbye to another $8,000 to $10,000. So this is also likely to be a project completed in stages.

And finally, we’d like to become less dependent on the national grid for electricity. Now that storage batteries are reasonably cost effective, we’d like to install a solar power system large enough to allow ourselves to be close to a net zero user of external electricity. How much? Not sure, as prices are still falling. I suspect something over $25,000, but if the Greens get their wish, there might well be a subsidy similar to the one they obtained for insulation (around 25%). Time will tell.

When we built our first home a couple of years after we married, it cost us a grand total of $12,000 for the land, house, fixtures and fittings, and we managed to finance it with a deposit of only $130! Mind you, my weekly pay package back then was around half of today’s minimum hourly wage. How times have changed!

And in case you’re wondering why I used main floor and upper floor instead of first, second etc, there are two very good reasons:

  1. Difference in NZ and US usage. What Americans call the first floor, Kiwis (and many other Commonwealth countries) call the ground floor. So our first floor is the second floor in the US.
  2. Because the house is on a sloping section (Nu Zild for lot) the main floor is the ground floor (US first floor) when accessed from the west, but the first floor (US second floor) when accessed from the east. The upper floor is the first floor (US second floor) when accessed from the west and the second floor (US third floor) when accessed from the east. And finally, the lower floor is the basement when accessed from the west, but the ground floor (US first floor) when accessed from the east. Confused? So am I!

 

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Stepping into the unknown…

Not really, but it makes a catchy title.

Today we decided to change power companies. We’ve been with our current supplier for over 15 years and two addresses, and while we have no complaints about their service, we felt that as a long term customer we had been taken for granted and largely ignored.

I don’t know how electricity is provided in your locality, but here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is a highly competitive market. A quick online search of suppliers in our region revealed we have a choice of 59 suppliers! Other regions of the country have more, while some regions have a little less less. Some suppliers generate electricity from 100% renewable resources, others have a mix of renewable resources and fossil fuels, and a few don’t do any generation themselves, but buy on the spot market. Talk about being spoilt for choice!

To make it even more complex, each supplier provides many plans for domestic consumers. Our old supplier has around ten plans, as does our new supplier. All up, I’m guessing we had a choice of well over 200 plans!

Power charges here are made up of three elements: cost per Unit (a Unit is 1 kilowatt hour); line charge (daily charge for connection to the power network; and Electricity Authority fee (the authority oversees and regulates the electricity market).

The electricity Authority fee is common across all suppliers, but the line charges and price per unit varies by as much as 50% between suppliers. Then there’s prompt payment discounts, loyalty card schemes and happy hour schemes. Some suppliers offer cheaper rates for hot water, or different day and night rates. Some guarantee a fixed price per unit and line charge fees for one or two years, others don’t. The choices are bewildering, which is why it’s taken so many years to actually decide to change.

Have we found the best deal? I have no idea. It would take far too long to crunch all the numbers. But we have found a much better deal with our new supplier. Our monthly electricity bill will be 25% cheaper than what we are currently paying, fixed for two years. We get a $100 credit for signing up with them, plus we get a 10 cents per litre (38 cents per US gallon, 45 cents per UK gallon) discount on petrol through a fuel card scheme we already belong to.

When we have been paying between $250 and $400 per month for electricity (depending on the season) on a household income of around $2200 per month, the savings are not insignificant.

Now that we’ve finally made the plunge, and found a good deal, I’ll need to seriously look at doing the same for our telecommunications supplier. How difficult can it be? After all there’s only about 70 suppliers and 500 plans to choose from.

On second thoughts…


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What ever happened to my future?

I remember as a child being fascinated by predictions of what life would be like in decades to come. In the ninety fifties, predictions didn’t include the Internet or mobile communications. Nor were microwave ovens, responsive cruise control, or personal computers. Some ideas have not been realised. I can recall seeing illustrations of high tech cities with high speed personal transport such as flying cars or vehicles that could attach themselves to trains of similar vehicles to improve traffic density, efficiency and safety.

The sixties were similar except that large scale computers were predicted to be commonplace, along with supersonic air and rail transport. One concept that was being considered was the prospect of mankind having more leisure time than he knew what to do with and this is what I want to touch on in this post..

The thirty five hour week was predicted to be just years away and a four day week was thought to be only a decade or so away. We were being encouraged to find interests that would keep us occupied during the long weekends and at the end of a shortened working day. I can remember in the late sixties and early seventies there were concerns that unless we learnt how to occupy our leisure time,the boredom might lead to social unrest.

It was envisioned that full employment would continue as working hours would reduce as productivity increased. Flexible working hours and job sharing were expected to become the norm. The gap between rich and poor had been decreasing for decades and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t continue to do so.

So what happened to that future? Where did it go? I’m not sure entirely. Some of it disappeared in the oil crises in the last decades of the twentieth century and some went with the financial collapse that followed.

A lot more has gone into the pockets of the owners of capital. The wealth that we were told would trickle down to the masses is trickling up the the wealthy few. In fact it seems to be more of a torrent than a trickle. The forty hour working week, which was protected by legislation is now only a memory belonging to those of us over fifty. Poverty was the result of life-style choices, now twenty percent of school children come from households that are below the poverty line.

I grew up in a very egalitarian society, where professionals and unskilled labourers lived side by side. I played with children whose parents were lawyers, bankers, doctors, teachers, business owners, freezing workers, tradesmen and shop assistants. How many children have that opportunity today? Now we have whole suburbs where families are on or below the poverty line, and at the other end of the spectrum we see walled communities sprouting up where BMWs, Lexuses and Ferraris outnumber children.

Single income families were the norm. It was very unusual for both parents to work. Latchkey children were virtually unheard of. Today we see the rise of the working poor, where both parents hold down more than one job, and are still unable to send their children of to school on an adequate breakfast or with something to eat for lunch.

University was a place of higher learning where students were encouraged to discover for the sake of discovery. Today they are little more than factories churning out industry specific qualifications — something that was once the role of polytechnics. Any research still undertaken is for short term industry specific goals. What has happened to pure research and even long term research greater than two years?

Continuing adult education was available to all, either free or at nominal cost in every community. Everything from home economics to glass blowing to second language learning motor vehicle maintenance, and everything in between was available and we were encouraged to take advantage of them to ensure that we would be able make best of the free time we had then and the even greater free time we expected soon. All now gone because they were “not justifiable as they didn’t improve productivity”. How about being socially justifiable? Apparently social well being now takes second place to national wealth, which is being held by a decreasing percentage of the population.

Was the lifestyle we were heading towards in the mid twentieth century just an aberration on the road to pure capitalism or is it something that is still worth striving for?


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whistling for a cuppa

I was sitting quietly beside my wife while she was watching House Rules on TV. I was catching up with the news on my tablet when I heard a kettle start to whistle. Normally I wouldn’t notice the whistle, but for some reason this one did. I looked up and sure enough there was a kettle whistling away on the television screen.

I was puzzled why that particular boiling kettle should have drawn my attention. The kettle scene was part of a TV commercial which had no voiceover. Just a series of vignettes, finishing with a simple text message. So,why was my attention drawn to that kettle? It puzzled me, and I had the feeling that there was something odd with the commercial – something felt out of place.

People who know me will recognise that once my mind grabs hold of a thought, it won’t let go until it feels satisfied. And it wasn’t being satisfied. What was it that made that scene of a whistling kettle that bothered me?

And then it dawned on me. What was a whistling kettle doing in a NZ scene? I haven’t seen one in years. In fact, the last one I recall belonged of my grandmother back in the 1960s. In the winter months it sat on the coal range, replacing the standard electric jug that was used over summer.

I can understand why a whistling kettle was used. Just like the silhouette of a steam locomotive is used on road signs warning of a railway crossing, the kettle is an easily recognised icon.

But do whistling kettles still exist outside TV land? I checked several home appliance stores but could find none. An online search found two shops that had one model each. One shop stocked an electric whistling kettle, the other a whistling kettle that required a gas or electric hob to heat it.

Compared to the hundreds of models of non whistling kettles available, it seems that the whistling variety are about as rare as hen’s teeth. So why are they so common in ads and TV shows?

Most shows broadcast here are foreign (mostly American and British), so perhaps that might be a clue. I searched major U.S. home appliance shops and was totally surprised by the results. In four major retailers, eight of the ten top selling kettles were whistling kettles. What’s more, six required heating over gas or an electric element. It’s not like they don’t have automatic cordless models that are the norm here, they just don’t seem to be very popular by comparison.

Perhaps the cost of electricity and gas is cheaper than in NZ? Consumer tests show that an externally heated kettle takes about twice as long to heat as an electric one and uses more energy. I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation why Americans prefer a whistling kettle over an automatic one, but I just can’t think of one.

I notice that the word “kettle” has almost totally replaced the word “jug” when referring to devices for heating water. In the past, “jug” referred to an upright vessel, whereas “kettle” referred to one with a broad base such as those that were externally heated, or were electric models with a similar profile. I’m not sure why the change has occurred, but it may be due to the demise of local manufacturers. For decades I’ve been heating water for my coffee in an electric jug, and the standard expression we’ve used has been to “boil the jug”. Seems like I need to get use to hearing the expression ” put the kettle on” instead.

In the context of an externally heated kettle, that makes sense as it is put on a source of heat. But the expression doesn’t make sense when where the appliance is not put onto anything – it’s simply switched on. Another expression hungover from another era.

So long as the the change in name to kettle isn’t accompanied by a whistle, I’ll manage.


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So very calm

The view eastwards from my home office window

The view eastwards from my home office window

Being well into my sixties, it seems that I should no longer be surprised by the everyday little things we encounter in our daily life. It occurs to me that I am surprised by the effect that the view from my home office window has on me.  It’s a lovely warm winter’s day – 16°C (61°F). What I find surprising is a realisation that there is not the slightest hint of a breeze. Even the the wind turbines in the distance are still.

The image shown in the header of this blog is cropped from a snapshot of the view from the terrace outside my office window. There are three wind farms on the ranges seen in the distance, although they are not easy to identify in the picture, being taken on my HP Slate tablet. I’m not sure of the total number of turbines but each wind farm has between 50 and 80. Today, not one of them is moving. The day is eerily calm and the effect is carried over into my being.

Today is not a day for ranting. It’s more a day for gentle reflection and being grateful for the blessings life has bestowed on me: an amazing wife, two wonderful children, three absolutely adorable grandchildren and good health (if I ignore the migraines). I have a mortgage free home with views that are simply stunning and change by the hour.  It’s almost perfect.

Except…

It’s Sunday, which means it’s race day at the nearby motor racing circuit. We are at an elevation so that even though the circuit is around a kilometre away, we get the tortured sounds of screaming engines from various  parts of the track, without any intervening obstructions to moderate the noise.