Acting locally, in the local manner

Written by erin


I was chatting with a friend in Sydney, Australia not long ago and came away with an enhanced appreciation of what it means to *act locally*.

My Bay Area was suffering an unseasonable heat wave while hers was unusually rainy, so we talked about how the weather affected our households. “At least I get my water heated for free,” I noted, explaining that we installed a solar-heated hot water system. While she was duly impressed, she replied that systems like that weren’t very practical in her neighborhood because she, like most of her neighbors, has on-demand gas water heating and no hot water tank. Without a tank, solar hot water is problematic because you can’t moderate its temperature.

On the other hand, she wasn’t complaining about the rain. “We have a rooftop rainwater cistern directly plumbed to the clothes washer,” she said. “It rains about the same amount here as there, but it’s distributed all year-round instead of dumping it all in the winter. We almost never need to supplement the cistern.” I found this idea quite enchanting, but such a system would only be useful to me five months of the year.

As we discussed our efforts to save electricity, she reminded me that in Australia, all outlets have switches built in so saving on stand-by power is a little easier. Her challenge is to make the switches more convenient: the ones in the kitchen are fine as they’re at counter height, but the switches behind the TV cabinet are too hard to reach.

These local flavors reminded me of a lecture given by a university professor known for his energy conservation ethic. He had recently visited Japan armed with energy management and measurement devices. When visiting traditional Japanese homes, he had expected to find them horribly inefficient, as they do not feature much insulation. What he found instead is that Japanese approach heating very differently than American. Some rely on micro-heat located where needed instead of central heat. When he joined a family for dinner, he basked in the warmth of a small heater attached to the bottom of the dining table.

In a similar way, I discovered one of my favorite “appliances” in a bed and breakfast kept fairly cool during a New Zealand winter: a mattress pad heater, perfect for a room where sleeping comprised 90% of the room’s use.

Which leads me to wonder what else I might be missing in my immersion in the American version of living lightly, and a West Coast version, at that. Any local practices employed which people would like to share?

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  1. Tubbs and Edward

    I have to admit I assumed you were going with a League of Gentlemen route:
    “This is a local shop, for local people, there’s nothing for you here! Are you loooocal?”
    Who knew they were really sustainability pioneers?

  2. Leanne

    My husband and me, on the west coast, instead of heating the whole house, which is very large(it’s a rental), employ microwaveable bean bags to stay warm and blankets to watch tv or read. We have 4 0r 5 of them, and they are in the stages of mending, they get used so often, even in the summer time.Our heating bill is incredible low, and our dog stays cooler too.

  3. Penny

    We are Australians living in the bay area. We have had rain barrels to collect water off the roof just this year and we are now going to move the rain barrels to collect the gray water from our washing machine. Using a biodegradable washing detergent we will water our lawn. We talk to many people about our electric and gas bill and they ask us how we do it. We don’t use the dryer we actually moved it to the garage in November. CA has this wonderful thing called the sun. If our friends in Oxford, England can do it so can we. That is how committed we are not to use it. I have a rule no more that three lights on at a time. Sometimes that doesn’t work though. Our bill in the summer is around $35 and winter is about $60-70 for 3 of us.
    There are so many things we can do that our parents are doing in Australia. My Dad switches the whole house to tank water in the winter and has been putting his gray water on his “grass” for years. Australians/Victorians are not allowed to water the grass.
    We can learn alot from other countries.

  4. PeterH

    In the monsoonal tropics where cooling is a year round issue, it is more difficult. Yes, use ceiling fans; turn them off when not needed and solar water heating is very practical and virtually eliminates electricity or gas for water heating [ heat exchange systems for large buildings are also efficient]. Open flow through design is also important in houses. But with many monsoonal nights around 28C and humid, using aircon for sleeping can be practical as you then get a good nights sleep and better handle the next warm day. A good solution is operate the a/c at 25C and use a slow circulating fan to feel a bit cooler. Good a/c design even in commercial areas uses higher airflows to accentuate cooling flows across the body.
    And outside greenery to eliminate heat load on the buildings; use newer heat reflecting paints on roof and walls, low thermal mass buildings [ not always possible]and so on. BUT…….without some energy input, not easily possible to cool.

  5. Elisa

    In response to not being able to get to the switch behind the tv, I use a remote control power strip. Check it out on You can use the remote with up to 3 power strips!

  6. Scott

    Another local difference is A/C. A/C both dehumidifies and cools. A/Cs are set to a ‘country average’ which leads to waste in the west/southwestern US (the energy spent on dehumidifying is wasted).

  7. Nathan

    My family of four has been living in Victoria for six months while on sabbatical from Ontario. We left when it was -19 and arrived to +40 and the worst bushfires in modern Oz history. The differences between Ont. and Vic have been enlightening and educational for the family. Victorians are very, very conscious of water use (11 years of drought might do that) and all have large 3000 L water tanks and grey-water systems. Cultural practices are also ingrained (need to ask for water at restaurants, everyone saves cooking water for the garden, etc.) Water, or lack of it, is the big issue. Yet most houses are not insulated, have single pane glass throughout while having CF bulbs mandated. As well, in- country flying is really common. It’s not unusual for people to fly Melbourne to Sydney and back for a two hour meeting frequently.
    Ontarians have only recently begun to care about water…power has been the big issue. These climatic/cultural differences lead me to wonder if people in different regions have a rate limiting resource that tends to dominate conservation efforts and maybe focus efforts in only one or two of the many diverse areas that need attention. Victoria=water, Ontario=Power, etc. Perhaps at some point we could develop regional centres of excellence and learn from each other? I know that on our return to water-rich Ontario, the family will be more focused on water conservation than we were before.