Friday, February 08, 2013

On coming down in the last shower

Room (Detail) 2009 by Pants

A few days ago a curious thing happened. There was a knock on the door here at Seat of Pants. I opened it to a chirpy young woman from the Victorian Government. She wanted to talk to me about a 'water-saving incentive'. She would test the showers in my bathrooms and, if they failed her 'bucket test', I would be entitled to have my old shower-heads replaced with new water-saving ones for free. As an enthusiastic environmentalist, I readily agreed to the procedure.

Water-saver woman conducted the 'bucket test' by holding a well-worn plastic bucket under my running showers for 15 seconds. To fail the 'bucket test' a shower must gush more than nine litres of water per minute. Naturally, both of my showers failed because each of them produced, with great enthusiasm, the requisite amount of water required for an abundantly enjoyable ablution. There are two things you should know about the Seat of Pants showers. Firstly, they are old. Secondly, they are the best showers I've ever experienced anywhere in the world. They are six-star showers in one-star bathrooms. I get in my little en-suite shower in the morning and it's heaven in a geyser. Put like that, you will think that what I did in allowing them to be messed with was madness. And you would be right, but it's complicated.

When I owned a top-floor flat in the East End of London, someone 'from the government' came around and offered to put a draught excluder on my front door and some extra insulation in my loft - free of charge. I allowed it and my gas bill turned into small change, so I'm all too ready to believe that someone from the government can save me money. Last year a guy turned up on my doorstep touting free energy-saving light bulbs. Unfortunately, he was sleazy and not liveried in reassuring government markings. And he began his pitch with, 'this is not a scam but ...' I sent him packing. I found out later that it was genuine and I could have had twenty new bulbs fitted for free. As some of my lights are so high I need to hire an acrobat to change them, this would have been a very good deal. So, I was still smarting from missing out on that one. And yes, I was suckered into wanting something because it was free without really thinking it through.

Brace yourselves, I'm about to say a sexist thing. A woman is more likely to believe another woman making claims relating to household economics. I will happily admit that I would have been wary of a man presenting himself in the same situation. It's not that I'm afraid of men or the idea of them being in the house. I'm fine dealing with male contractors, of which there are currently many at Seat of Pants, but they're people I've hired myself and I know where they live. The water-saving device installation teams come from 300kms away, something I didn't find out until later. As it turns out, wariness would have been warranted.

Water-saver woman assured me that my wondrous, reviving morning gush would be unaltered despite the fact that only half the usual water would be rushing out to meet me. Yes, I should have paused here and done the maths, but I didn't. She'd already made the switch in the guest shower downstairs and, although I don't use it myself, I judged that the flow from the new shower-head was adequate. Still, as we made our way upstairs to my precious lair, a niggle began which I suppressed. Instead of asking her to explain the exhilarating new technology that would enable half the flow of water to maintain an equal exuberance, I took her at her word. She was a busy mother. She used one herself. I would save money.

Now, here's another point that should have given me pause. I wrote a post about the first water bill I received here at Seat of Pants back in 2009.  The total bill was for $176.00. My actual water usage was $6.00. The bulk of the money most people pay towards their water bill is for maintaining our inefficient infrastructure. My water usage has gone up a wee bit since that first bill. Ever more people come to stay and food production via the veg patch increases year on year but my actual usage isn't ever more than about $25 per quarter but the standing charge, which I can't control, continues to rise. There was almost no chance of my saving money by installing new shower-heads in two bathrooms, one of which has infrequent use.

The new shower-head went in and, predictably, it was crap. To call it a trickle would be flattery. My morning heavenly awakening turned into 'should I just stand at the sink and splash myself instead of going to all the bother of climbing out of my pyjamas for something marginally less interesting?' When it was probably already too late, I was forced to do the thinking I should have done in the first place.

The first thing I did was call up the installation company. I froze when I saw that its head office is in another state. In Australia, it's quite hard to get satisfaction across borders if something goes wrong in a transaction. My fears were surplus to requirements. The phone was answered immediately and my complaint was dealt with as if it were an entirely routine matter. I began to understand that it is. It was at that moment, and some of you will be thinking 'not before time', that I took to the internet and discovered that far from the marvellous new technology I'd imagined that makes a dribble seem like a torrent, the revolutionary new 'water-saving' shower-head simply contains a washer with a very narrow opening which stops the water from coming through. Since I have a water pump which is set to deliver water at the pace necessary to have a lovely shower, it seems comically absurd to have something installed that will halt its progress centimetres from its objective - i.e. my head.

I found instructions for removing the washer but I'd not had my showdown so I was determined to go through with getting the installation company to rectify the problem. The man at head office could not have been nicer. Water-saver woman returned clutching my old en-suite bathroom shower-head. It was unusual and easily recognisable. However, when she tried to re-install it, it was clear that it had been damaged after being thrown into a heap with the rest of the discards. I was able to maintain my cool as I knew there was an easy solution. I could remove the washer myself but not before I'd dispensed a really hard time to someone.

Water-saver woman had taken the precaution of bringing along a male colleague for backup. The three of us had a conversation which began with them presuming to tell me how I might save the planet by having a miserable morning shower. I have been interested in water conservation since I was eight and had one of those influential teachers who instigated a project in primary school which I have never forgotten. I was ready for them. What follows is the gist of my contribution.

We live in a country that wastes about half of the food it produces and a big portion of that is meat. Food production, especially meat, uses vast quantitities of water. We live in a country that makes little coherent effort to collect and reprocess water when it arrives in bulk. Most rainwater goes to waste. We live in a country that allows the coal-seam gas industry to threaten both the quality and quantity of our groundwater. But these problems require big thinking and we are living in a time of small thinking. Hence, the incentive that trapped even the likes of me, who really should have known better.

I told them that in this shire, over 90 per cent of our domestic waste-water gets recycled for environmental or industrial use. They didn't know that. They come from another part of the state so why should they? I questioned the cost of replacing a device that works perfectly well just to (potentially) save a couple of bucketfuls of water a day, that would be usefully recycled anyway. We covered only the very basic points. All I aimed for was to give these decent people a reason to question the rhetoric they'd been taught.

But, if you factor in the cost of manufacturing and shipping those shower-heads from China (and the water involved), the cost of disposing of the discarded shower-heads (and the water involved), the cost of transporting teams of installers around the state and putting them up, (in seaside accommodation in high summer in our case - and the water involved), you begin to wonder if anyone has done a cost/benefit analysis at the macro level. Does the quanta of bucket'o'water benefit amount to a hill'o'beans in environmental currency?

I'd like to think that the installers listened to my arguments and will ponder what I said. I don't expect my views to make a difference to how they'll act. They've got a job to do and they're doing it well and, I'm guessing, many people are happy with flow inhibitors on their showers. If you have a big family with young children who've never known what it is to have an energising morning shower which will also clear their hair of gooey product effectively, then it just might work.

You will recall my $176.00 water bill of which $6.00 was for actual water. I was not about to forgo my brilliantly invigorating morning wet ritual for a tokenistic sham, and I think water-saver woman got that, because she did something astounding which changed the game completely. When it was clear that my old shower-head was not going to go back from whence it came, she told me that she could remove the flow inhibitor from the new one. The irony will not be lost, I'm sure. She did it effortlessly and showed me in case I wanted to remove the one in the guest bathroom.

I gleaned from this encounter that enough people complain for there to be a process for dealing with we the difficult. That process empowers people working on a government initiative to disable a device that they are paid to install for environmental benefit. That has to raise questions. I don't blame water-saver woman. She and her company wanted to solve my problem and I very much appreciate that. They had found my old shower-head but I had seen the pile into which it had been hurled as junk and was not at all surprised that it was not capable of performing the tasks at which it had previously excelled. However, I also deduced that the company gets paid a bounty for the old shower-heads it produces and mine was needed.

I'm thrilled with my new free shower-head, which is now exactly the same as my old one only newer. Be assured I will continue to save water just as diligently as I've always done. My 4.5* water/energy-efficient washing machine and dishwasher will continue to run only twice weekly, off-peak. I will continue to refuse any and all meat products and eat fish once a week because I live in a fishing town and I know that what I buy is fresh and will support our co-operatively run fishing industry. I will maintain my lifelong pledge to never waste food - ever. Inedible peelings go into compost, which ends up on my own garden and I will always save and regrow seeds. I will contine to grow as much food as I can and the water that goes into its production will never be wasted because every single morsel will be eaten by someone.

Now, let's please address the idiocy and naivety of tokenistic government schemes that focus on the behaviour of individuals. Some Pants family members who live in Queensland were gifted water-proof egg timers to put in their shower stalls. At the time I found it difficult to see how such a thing related to the adult world, but there it was, rolling out acrosss the vastness and vacuity that is Queensland. I may well be a renegade in an otherwise compliant population but it was easy enough for me to find the instructions for removing the flow inhibitor on a 'water-saving' shower-head. Not even the staunchest of advocates can believe that these silly little gimmicks could amount to anything more than a drop in the metaphorical bucket of environmental stewardship.

So, why isn't everyone screaming? The millions that are being spent on these pointless shower-head replacements and countless other fiddles in the face of the Roman inferno that is climate change surely should be going into thinking about water conservation on a national and even global scale. But, in this country, we haven't even reached a point where we can understand that rivers don't stop at state boundaries, so thinking global is going to be a real stretch.

 Maybe we collude with these schemes because we want to participate in something, anything that will contribute to climate-change mitigation. Even I was drawn into it, perhaps for the lack of any other opportunity to be involved in the so-called 'big conversations' that we're always meaning to have about the 'issues that concern us all'. One day, perhaps, we'll have those but I don't want to spend the meantime fending off hawkers with good intentions.