Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our "Steamy" Adventure begins

Our “steamy adventure” is all about our desire to use a steam engine to provide backup power for our solar system. This dream began in our heads about 30 years ago but at last the real thing is getting underway.

Heather first became fascinated by the power of steam energy in her childhood. On holidays in the 1950’s, her family often set up their caravan near country rail lines. From these locations they frequently encountered steam locos being used to haul freight. Often, the family would make detours just to catch sight of a huffing and puffing train hauling its load along.
Much later (in the early 80’s), we read articles about innovative people using steam technology to generate electricity. A few years later, whilst visiting an alternative energy display, we came across Rod Mueller with a working version of his “Liberty” Steam Engine. By then we had purchased our bush block at Dixons Creek, and the dream of using our wood to drive one of Rod’s engines to generate power took shape.
A Liberty Stream engine in action
During this time, Heather and her friend Jean, decided to do a boiler attendant’s certificate with volunteer workers at the Puffing Billy Railway Society, in Belgrave. This involved hours and hours of theory as well as doing 300 hours of practical work operating steam engines to put the theory into practice. Although it was hard work, Heather enjoyed working with a variety of locos as well as the “Wattle” steam boat and steam engines being used for other purposes. Eventually we found out that Rod’s boilers did not need a qualification, as they had a surface area less than 40 square inches. But at least Heather developed a good understanding of how these machines work.
Rod builds the units at his engineering works in Goolwa, South Australia. Originally he started making boilers and engines for people who wished to install them in boats. Soon he was getting orders for machines to be set up to generate power, when people realised this potential use.  
Our boiler (with door) in Rod's workshop

Over the past 30 years we have not lost sight of our dream- however a multitude of things needed to be done first (building our house and setting up our gardens for starters). In more recent times one of the factors that held us up was the fact that setting up steam engines is quite complex and we were waiting for someone else to do it so we could call on their expertise if needed. Then last year some people in Healesville (about 30 min away) set one up. They kindly showed us their system and offered to help us if we needed it. At last we were ready. We took the plunge and ordered our very own steam engine. Over the next few months we will record our “steamy” story on our blog. Hopefully it will not take another 30 years to get it all set up.
For more information about Strath Steam’s products their web address is  and Rod is very helpful.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

National Sustainable House Day

National Sustainable House Day (NSHD) is celebrating its 10th birthday this year on September 11. This annual event is held Australia wide and gives people the chance to visit houses that have been designed, built or fitted out with sustainability in mind and talk to owners, receiving unbiased advice.
For the first time we are running a tour of Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm as an ancillary event to Sustainable House day. This occurred quite by accident. We had already set September 11 as our next tour date and a friend suggested we link up with the local Sustainable House Day activities. We followed up this great idea and this lead to one of the local papers (Yarra Ranges Weekly) asking if they could include our place in a promotional piece they are putting together. So last week the reporter, Natalie and Lucy, the photographer came out and had a chat, a coffee and a short tour. The article should appear in the week prior to September 11.

If you would like to join our tour on that day you are very welcome. Bookings are essential as we have a limit of 20 people. The tour runs from 1:30 to 4:30 and the $15 per adult cost includes afternoon tea. Email us for more information at If you cannot make it on that day email us and we will let you know when the next tour is on
Of course there are plenty of houses open on that day in every state in Australia. Details of open houses can be found on NSHD website If you live in the western suburbs check out Gavin’s house, which is a terrific example of how to incorporate sustainable ideas in housing, the backyard and most importantly in the way we live. See Gavin’s blog at for more information about his place.

For more details about the tour of Tenderbreak see the “Ancillery Events “ page of the Sustainable House Day  website.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Solatube skylights

It lights up the stove area
As mentioned in the last post, our verandah works well, but it does reduce the amount of light coming in through the kitchen window. We deliberately chose narrow strips of opaque laserlite for the verandah roof to make sure we were not going to get too much heat in the summer. We have overcome the decrease in window light by installing a “solatube” in the kitchen ceiling.

This clever device “captures” light in its dome on the roof, and efficiently transmits the light through the roof cavity into the kitchen. We placed the solatube above the stove so the cooking area is now bathed in good light even on a dull day. The kitchen has ended up with about the same amount of light as before, but more strategically located.
Excuse the mess but look at the light

We installed another one in the garage and it lights up the area in the middle, that doesn’t get much window light. Solatubes are so good they even capture enough moonlight (when the moon is bright) to bathe the area in subdued light in the middle of the night. This is handy because we store firewood in the garage and do not need to turn the light on some nights.
The dome looks small but provides plenty of light
The solatube works so well, it took a few days to get used to the amount of light that came through the diffuser that is mounted on the ceiling. At a glance it looks like someone had left a light on, and our first reaction was to “turn off the light”. But of course the solatube is completely passive and works purely by capturing sunlight. If you are interested in looking at their display their website is .
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