Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We're in Sweden...

... safely at Marcia & Rutger's on a beautiful afternoon after a whirlwind weekend in London. We had a great birthday celebration for Sooz at our favourite restaurant, along with special guest Grant (all the way from Boston), and lots of our good friends.
We have another celebration tonight in Stockholm, and then off to Aspö tomorrow. We'll also be seeing Willie on Thursday, and there's yet another party on Saturday night.

What a fun life we lead!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

We're on our way!

I've avoided giving much advance notice of this trip, because it's all come together fairly late.

As the picture infers, we'll be stopping over in London for a bit. A certain young lady has a birthday we'll be celebrating.

We have a few other plans in Stockholm, and then we'll be out on Aspö for only a week or so. I have a few house-related tasks to finish, but mostly we'll be hanging out, I think.

Stay tuned of lots of pictures, though. It's going to be a fun couple of weeks!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

IKEA Hacks

I've posted about IKEA many times in this blog. It's pretty much impossible to live in Sweden without some sort of contact with the company. Almost all of the furniture and fixtures in our house are from the store in Barkarby.

A quick internet search reveals many parodies of the difficulty in assembling IKEA furniture. Personally, I don't find it so hard, although I've had enough practice to become pretty good at it.

Recently, though, I found a website that takes IKEA to a new level. A thriving community of IKEA hackers use their products in "off-label" ways. They throw their instructions aside and create whole new creations out of IKEA parts.

Some of the new uses are fairly straightforward repurposing: a candleholder used as a bathroom shelf, or a bird feeder made from salad bowls. Other projects are significantly more elaborate.

I've enjoyed scrolling through the website. Being a strict instruction-follower myself, the idea of  putting things together in totally different ways is intriguing.

Our stuga has a few custom installations. I ordered our entryway rug to a specific dimension, and I built a bench based around IKEA baskets. Since we need to use our space efficiently in our little house, it's useful to have items that fit specific spaces, or serve a double purpose. I'll be looking both at our house—and my local IKEA—with a different eye from now on!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recycling Update

I read a flurry of news reports recently that Sweden is now recycling or reusing 99% of their garbage. I had posted earlier this year that Sweden is actually importing trash from other countries to run their energy-producing incinerators.

The official Swedish website, Sweden.se, has a great article on the state of recycling. The country is clearly a global leader in this area. (I should also plug the Sweden.se website again, too. It is fantastically well done, both in terms of its content and web presentation.)

It's not just household waste that's being targeted, it's businesses, too. H&M, the global clothing chain, accept used clothing for reuse or recycling in exchange for store credit.

I also love videos produced by the government to raise awareness of recycling initiatives. Click for an assortment of these videos, but I've embedded my favorite here. It's hard to explain, you'll have to watch it yourself. Those crazy Swedes!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Our summer visit to Aspö coincided with quite the Swedish heat wave. It got me thinking about heat pumps, or in Swedish, värmepump.

Why on earth would I think about heating the house during a heat wave, you might ask? That's a good question, and the answer is pretty simple.

Air-conditioners or furnaces use energy to create hot or cold air. A heat pump simply transfers heat from one source to another, and the direction is reversable. This means a heat pump can cool a house just as easily as it warms.

Värmepumps are installed in Sweden not for their cooling, but for their energy efficiency. Transferring heat, rather than creating it, uses far less energy. Heating our house in cold weather is pretty pricy with a Dyson and radiators. (Doesn't that sound like a 50's rock band- "Dyson and the Radiators"? But I digress.)

I posted recently about how my March visit showed my using about 65 kilowatts per day to heat the house on a cold day. I believe a heat pump would do that job at significantly less energy cost. It would have the added bonus of providing a bit of cool air on hot days, if needed.

Our house is pretty small, 62 square meters (670 square feet), so even the smallest unit would do the trick for us, at a price of around 8000 kronor. Olle is well versed on these units and gave me lots of advice about how to choose and install them. Polarpumpen.se has a wide variety of värmepumps available.

Another fun trick is attaching it to the cell phone network. I could then use an app on my iPhone to monitor and adjust the temperature remotely. It would be great to arrive at a nice warm house, or to ensure things don't freeze solid during a cold snap. Plus, it appeals to the nerd in me; I love controlling things with my iPhone!

Here in the US, these are called "split unit" or "ductless" heat pumps. The compressor is installed outside, and a tube is run along the outside of house to the head unit which is mounted to the wall inside. The photo above shows the two pieces.

I set aside space for a heat pump when I designed the house, and in fact, also put in the electrical wiring, too. So physically installing the unit should be pretty simple.

The complication comes with charging and pressurizing the unit. Specialist tools and skills are needed to get it connected and working. Polarpumpen quotes installation costs of 3000-5000kr on their website, although I assume the archipelago isn't in their normal price list.

I thought perhaps I could buy and install the unit myself, and only have the specialist come out on a short trip to charge it up and test it. That should be cheaper, although I'll have to ask around and get some concrete advice and prices.

Stay tuned for more on this subject in the coming months!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Housing shortages in Stockholm

The Economist's recent issue has an article on property bubbles. Although it talks about European house prices, Sweden— and Stockholm in particular—is the prime example cited.

In summary, it's largely an issue of supply and demand. Not enough new homes are being built in the city to meet the need. Add to that comparatively easy credit, and prices keep going up and up.

Different countries are trying a range of solutions. The Netherlands, for example, has tightened credit and tax rules for mortgages. The UK is working to re-purpose currently empty buildings into residential use through a public forum.

Sweden is taking another tack. I remember Annika and Olle telling me about a change in the law this summer, allowing structures of 25 square meters to be built without planning permission. I hadn't thought much about it; after all, I have my guest house already, and the previous rules allowed structures up to 15m2.

The Economist straightened me out, however. These new structures, referred to as an Attefallshus, is the government's response to the housing shortage. They're just the right size to serve as a guest house or a mini rental property. A landowner could put one up in their garden with little trouble, providing quick housing to the rental market.

I found a company that specializes in these little houses. Enkelrum (English translation) provide a range of finished homes that can be dropped in, complete and ready for living, with a crane. They are nice looking little places.

We've already been thinking a bit about our guest house. It is 20m2, so a bit smaller than these houses, but still a good size. Essentially it is just a bedroom now. I think, with a bit of reshuffling, we could install a mini-kitchen and carve out more living space. If we find ourselves with more long-term guests, it would be a good project for the future.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Exchange rates

The dollar has strengthened a lot against the kronor lately. It's over 7.1 to the dollar today. (There's a real-time widget along the right edge of the blog below.)

I wonder if I should add to my little bank account over there....

UPDATE: I think perhaps I should explain why the kronor is weakening right now. I'm no financial expert by any means, but I see three factors.

First, as the Economist explained earlier this summer, Swedish authorities may have raised interest rates too quickly in relation to other European economies, which dampened the country's economic recovery.

Second, the overall economic climate in Europe is weaker than America's, and is in some ways, getting worse. The European Central Bank recently lowered their interest rates to near zero in a surprise move to stimulate the eurozone's economy. So, by comparison, the dollar looks stronger.

Lastly, Sweden has an election this Sunday. To put it simply, the current center-right government is trailing in the polls to the more traditionally leftist parties. Although the facts are more complicated, the overall fear is that a new government would be more socialist and less business-friendly. This concern causes the economic markets to look less favorably on doing business in Sweden, hence the pressure on the kronor.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The top two posts

I wrote recently that my third most popular post on the blog was about the "Word Cloud".

Now it's time to share the two most popular posts, and they aren't what one might guess.

The top —number one with a bullet, as Kasey Kasem might have said— most popular blog entry was about Toilet Technologies on October 9, 2007. It's had over 3500 visits. Second, with 2300 visits, was my December 13, 2008 post about St. Lucia's day.

One reason the older posts garner so many visitors is they've been around for a long time. Over the years, people have a greater opportunity to stumble across my past musings.

Traffic in the case of these two is thanks to Google. Both "Toilet technologies" and "St. Lucia's Day" are generic search phrases. Anyone typing in either of those phrases would be shown my blog post in the search results.

That's not true today, though. Google has become smarter over the years. Anyone searching for toilet tech or St. Lucia today will get results far more usable than my blog!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pee Power

A recent article in the Economist touched on one of this blog's favorite subjects: toilets.

Well, not toilets, exactly, but rather the question of what might be done with the 6.4 trillion liters of urine produced every year. (I think a good portion of that comes at halftime of English football matches, but I digress).

Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a simple fuel cell utilizing microbes to turn urine into electricity. Besides being a (very) renewable energy source, the broader economic impacts might help drive construction of more toilet facilities.

More people in the developing world have access to a cell phone than a toilet. A business could well profit from a facility allowing a user to safely dispose of waste, and boost their phone's charge at the same time. Nothing like the profit motive to get those toilets built!