Hitting the Wall (Insulation)!

It’s been an intense few months for everyone in the UK (and now globally too…), and a lot has changed for me personally too. I’ve made a decision about “LittleEcoTerrace”, and I’m going to do my best to “finish the job” and see if we can make Superhome status. We already moved the house from a D to an A (CO2 via EPC) for ~10% of its value, but I know there are lots of things we can still do that might just be enough to push our CO2 saving to the 60 % required to get Superhome status.

A bit over a month ago, I passed my final exam (viva) on to become a Dr. of Chemistry, for which I focused on atmospheric chemistry motivated by Climate Change and Air-quality. A personal hero of mine is an American lady called Katherine Heyhoe (and she even liked one my of tweets once… *swoon*), who recently publicised a study showing climate scientists’ credibility is affected by their actions (insideclimatenews article). I strongly believe this, but I think it is more poignant that if even those who can start to understand the sheer scale of impacts climate is having don’t act… then who does?

There are some obvious things that we should be doing for our LittleEcoTerrace project, but we won’t as they should have been done earlier in the project if they were going to be done at all. One of these is extending our insulated floor through our 70s kitchen/bathroom extension, another is installing full mechanical heat recovery (MHR). There are some little ideas that might happen in the future too, like putting a light well in at the top of the stairs… But below are my loose plans for work on the house over the next bit. I am very open to any  suggestions or comments!

Phase 5 – Doing the bathroom

This is the most simple and standard bit of work I want to do. Our bathroom needs some love and most people end up doing this at some point. In our place it has been workable, but not great, since we moved in. We spruced it up a bit with some paint and added the active ventilation (see “Its draught to let hot air escape“). However the whole extension remains hard to heat due to large heats sinks of the floor and ceiling (which I want to tackle in Phase 7). As well as generic aesthetics, I will insulate the (metal) bath.

375_4
bathroom on arrival… a few things have changed, but not much…

Currently the bath touches two external walls and un-insulated tile floor. It keeps its heat for a mere few minutes. So i intend to move it slightly away from the walls and put some insulation in the gap and around the bath. I want to replace the metal legs with plastic ones to insulate from the floor too. It’s been an aim ever since we arrived to one day have a proper hot bath!

Phase 6 – Insulating the two internal walls

Two of the large heat sinks are the two solid external walls of the old terrace. The simple and cheapest option would be to do external insulation, but we are rather fond of the traditional Victorian brickwork. Therefore we are looking at internal insulation, and one that doesn’t take that much space from the room. The one that we are often recommended is called SpaceTherm. It is a aerogel, like the insulation used by NASA on the Space Station, it is high performing and takes up little space but is quite expensive.

 

Phase 7 – Insulating the extension

The extension is a massive heat sink in the winter and overheats in the summer. It is very common and most extensions and badly thought out conservatories you see around will suffer from this. To sort this I’m looking into insulating the walls and ceiling. The floor also needs doing (currently just tile on scree), but I can’t do this without ripping out the kitchen that was put in only shortly before we arrived.

The simplest option would have been to put insulation atop of the flat roof, but as we have solar panels there (see blog post “To PV or not to PV“) it would be troublesome. I’m still looking into this and open to ideas. However, currently the winning idea is to attach kingspan inside to the ceiling of the extension. To make this happen I will have to be convinced that we won’t end up with/can avoid condensation.

I also am keen to have a go at doing external insulation, but as we already have the cavity wall insulated this would have less impact. making sure the (flat) roof covers the extra depth of wall might also pose some challenges.

The story before?

Just for completeness and to put the new work in context… here is a brief history of the work we’ve done so far ( inc. previous renovation and “eco-renovation” ). To summarise the changes to the original house to date i’ve clumped together the broad “phases”. Technically some of these overlap, or the timings are mixed between phases, but for the sake of this blog article I will pretend that I had more of plan…

Phase 0 – From the beginning… 

Many years after the original (~1899-1902) construction of the 2-up-2-down terrace, a 70s extension with was added to the back. This had no insulation. The house also went through a typical modernisation with electricity and central heating.

Phase 1 – Recent updates to house (up to ~5 years before we moved in)

A bit had been done to the house in recent years. Double glazed  windows ( not very good PVC )… and I am disappointed by this, especially as the house had a beautiful wooden and stained glass door about ~1 year prior to moving in… However costs limit the ability to replace these and this highlights the need to do things right first time with the large expenses. A new (modern, but non-condensing) boiler was fitted, which unfortunately died within 5 years. And a recently installed IKEA Kitchen. This is the point it was at when we moved in.

Phase 2 – Floor 

We dug up the whole downstairs floor to deal with a damp problem and added lots of insulation and a new solid wood floor at the same time. (described on blog post “Floored by insulation”).

Phase 3 – Ventilation/Insulation boost

The house was very leaky and poorly insulated. We boosted the insulation in the walls, roof, ceiling hatches, and installed bathroom active extractor at the same time as insulating up all vents (as described in blog post: “Its Draught to let Hot Air“)

Phase 4 – Added solar panels (PV)

We are very fond of these. They produce ~3.3MWh a year (record so far: 3.53 MWh), which approximately equals the gas from our 1st year in the house and the electricity from the year before we moved in (total: ~3.3 MWh). Nowadays we consume a very variable amount of electricity and gas,  depending many people are in house/usage/etc but generally it is a lot lower as we are using energy off the panels. (described on blog post: “To PV or not to PV“)

img_3359
Solar panels on the main roof

Phase 5 – Yard (Not yet complete!)

An underplayed part of sustainability is lifestyle change. It’s not that sexy, unlike fancy tech solutions but it can make a very large difference to a carbon footprint. We are most of the way through redoing the back yard to make it easy to be a base for cycling. So far this has been re-making the shed into a seat, building a bike shelter, and finally we aim to lay the Victorian quarry tiles we took up from inside the house (upcycle!).

Summary

I am not sure whether we will be able to make it to the 60 % Co2 saving requisite for being a Superhome with these savings. My approach to everything so far has been piecemeal and been a big learning journey. I am very keen to reduce the footprint and learn how to do a few things along the way. Whatever happens LittleEcoTerrace is definitely, in a plodding way,  moving towards being an “Aspiring Superhome”.

 

Links

Hello from “LittleEcoTerrace” & also from “LittleEcoFlat”…

So this is a short little update blog on blogs posts to come. It’s been busy times for me over the last bit and will continue to be for a few months more… but I’ve still been doing lots of “Eco” projects and have several draft blogs i’ll be aiming to get posting once work calms down a bit. I guess the big news is that we’ve started our 2nd eco-renovation project. I’m still doing work on “LittleEcoTerrace” and it will continue to be my main base for the foreseeable future, but now there’s a “LittleEcoFlat” too… The reason for this is that my partner got an opportunity to combine her work (mechanical design engineering) with her love of bikes (and sustainability), but the job required a move to London…

So we did it again, we found the cheapest place we could that fitted us generally and needed a some TLC. I didn’t really think we’d be able to do that many “Eco” things in a flat, as we can’t change a lot of the energy systems/building fabric etc. However, it already has shared community heating and we are finding that there are things like sourcing reclaimed flooring, starting a high-rise allotment, getting involved in community projects etc… So although I’m not going to be able to upgrade to place to a SuperHome, I still think we should be able to do quite a bit and continuing working on trying to have lower carbon footprints. Watch this space…

 

 

As well as renovating “LittleEcoFlat” there are goings on in York for us too, with York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) running again this year and us be taking part on May 14th (the event is also happening on the 21st). There is a training event coming up on the 7th if you might be interested in taking part or would like to hear from the organisers and those involved last year (summary teaser video here). Aswell the few bits I have done (like building bike storage etc), I’ve been day-dreaming (and researching) about finishing up some jobs that money or time has put on the backburner. These include tripling installation in the main roof (As well explained by @PostCarbonLife’s youtube video) and choices for internal solid wall insulation

 

Anyway, I hope you are having a nice start to 2016 and hopefully i’ll have time to post project updates soon !

LittleEcoTerrace/LittleEcoFlat

“Eco Show & Tell” – YOEH II

Back in December, York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) and St Nicks hosted an “Eco Show & Tell” where anyone was encouraged to bring items costing less than £50 that had helped make their homes cosier to live in, cheaper to run, and/or more sustainable. The event was a casual evening where successes of smalls items (<£50) were shared. Engaging demonstrations and discussions of how to use and install the items were given, including a energy use of different lights from using an energy monitoring plug showing hugely differing energy use of different types of lights and we even had a lovely cake made in a low energy/slow cooker.

This blog is just a summary of items presented at the event, which you can also find collected on a pinterest board. This will continue to be added to, and all credit and thanks go to everyone who came and brought them along. Please do say if you think of anything that has been missed or you think should be included. Hopefully this list will be of interest to others – maybe some of these items will make your home cosier, cheaper to run, or more sustainable?

 

This event was the 2nd in YOEH’s series of events, following the inaugural event of a talk on “Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes” from local architects (Native Architects). The next event will be a session in April preparing for this year’s Open Homes event in York (on 14th and 21st May), with more information to follow in the near future…

  • Chimney Sheep

This item was 1st of the night, and several people including myself expressed interest in trying it for ourselves. The cost is ~£20-35, it is made 100% Herdwick wool and available from ChimneySheep.co.uk. There is lot of information on the website inc. energy loss and money saving calculations or air escaping up chimneys. One obvious advantage over a chimney balloon (see below) is its natural material and thus breathable composition which may help prevent potential build-up of moisture

Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
Chimney Sheep! Cost: ~£20-35 ( depending on size )
  • Door sausage

A  way to keep out drafts that many people have used for years. The one presented was bought cheaply (~£6), but it is also possible to make them. Many DIY guides exist online ( e.g. OvoEnergy) and people make different and amusing shapes from snake to sausage dogs.

Coincidentally I was actually given a rather impressive and pretty “Fantastic Fox” one for Xmas that my family had made following a Rowan pattern.

 

  • Slow cooker

This item may have been many people’s favourite of the night as a delicious apple cake made in it that day was brought and shared. Slow cookers have a low energy consumption and require a different approach to cooking but with a bit of planning can make almost any dish. Not many people use them for baking but the tasty cake proved that it’s possible too. They are widely available and costs can vary, with ~£25 being typical.

Slow cooker - Cost: ~£25
Slow cooker – Cost: ~£25
  • Plug socket energy meter

This item puts an exact number on energy consumption of appliances at a point or over a period of time. We were given a demonstration of different power requirements of LED, compact fluorescent, and traditional electric lighting which varied widely. It costs ~£10 and is available from Maplins. Interestingly the person who presented the item highlighted that many items he had tested gave unexpectedly high or low readings during use – manufacturers’ labels are not always true to actual running costs.

FYI Another YOEH host has also put together a guide to choosing the right LED lighting, which is well worth a read if you’re planning to buy some or think your existing lights are too dull or bright.

Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug - allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.
Energy Monitor How much? £10 Where to Buy: maplan (link) Key info: More Info here? An energy meter that fits a 13amp plug – allows comparison of appliance settings eg washing machine.

 

  • Keyhole cover

A simple and cheap way of avoiding loss of hot air through key holes (a surprisingly big consideration in Passivhauses). It cost ~£3-5 and is available from lots of hardware stores (e.g. Barnitts in York).

Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )
Key Hole Cover How much? £3-5 Where to Buy: hardware stores ( e.g. barnitts )

 

  • Curtains/Stopping draughts

A cheap (approx.. £40 for curtains + £10 for pole) option to deal with draughts around doors (and windows). I have a similar setup to the one presented in our house, with a thick curtain over the front door (photo below). As with a lot of terraces in York, the front door leads directly into the living room, so as well as the noise/heat insulation we find it actually improves the aesthetics of the room.

Thick Curtains
Thick Curtains

 

  • Chimney Balloon

Another option for stopping loss of hot air from unused chimneys. It differs from the chimney sheep in that it is made of plastic. I have had one for a while now and think it does the job nicely. It cost ~£25 and is available from lots of places, including ecotopia.

 

Chimney Balloon - How much? = £25 - Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/
Chimney Balloon – How much? = £25 – Where to Buy: http://www.chimneyballoon.co.uk/

 

  • Electric Oil Heater

This is an item I brought, and it may be counter intuitive. Since our house has solar panels, any extra electricity from the panels can be directed to heat the house through this electric heater. Obviously cost/CO2 savings would differ if power was used directly from grid.

 Oil Heater - How much? £50 - Where to Buy: Widely available
Oil Heater – How much? £50 – Where to Buy: Widely available
  • Energy Monitor (OWL)

For ~£50 or less it is possible to monitor your electric consumption in real time with an “owl“. This little device works by placing a magnet around the mains cable into the house to measure the electricity flow. This item gives real time and cumulative whole house energy consumption in money and energy terms, as well as useful info like temperature.

Energy Monitor - Cost: £30 "Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor"
Energy Monitor – Cost: £30 “Owl Micro+ Wireless Energy Monitor”
  • Thermostatic timers

The first of these just plugs into any socket (and costs only ~£17) and allows for temperature controlled settings of anything plugged through it. The  timer is used in a flat with electric radiators, which previously had to be set manually. The second example was wired in to control a radiator without a plug socket.

 

 

  • Immersion heater timer

Energy can be saved by setting a hot water tank immersion heater on timer rather than using a manual on/off control.This “Time guard NTT07 ” cost: ~£35.

Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
Immersion heater timer How much? = £34.40 Where to Buy: = www.timeguard.com/
  • Trickle Vents

Cheap (~£7) but require careful work aligning the vents in order to prevent damage to windows.  It was made clear during the presentation that technical help to install these is recommended if in any doubt. Available from hardware/trade stores (e.g. YorkTradeWindows).

 

Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows
Trickle Vent How much? = £7 Where to Buy: YorkTradeWindows

The event was a lot fun and I think everyone who attended got exposed to something new. Hearing about other peoples’ experiences with items, including some that I certainly have had less experience of, was a learning experience for me. Do feel free to get in contact if you want more info and I will try and connect you up with information or with the person who presented the item. I will keep adding to the pinterest board (below) and, like other people, am interested in hearing about other cheap but effective items. Please feel free to send/pin suggestions.

 

 

Further links

DISCLAIMER:

These items were presented by individuals and shared here for reference. By inclusion within this YOEH does not recommend use/installation of specific items. Decisions on energy saving are home specific, and if in any doubt please consult relevant professionals/tradesmen.

“Show & Tell” of items (<£50) to make homes cosier, cheaper to run, or more sustainable + YOEH's inaugural talk

First things first: Thanks to Native Architects for giving a great talk last month as the inaugural event of the York Open Eco Homes series (YOEH). It was a insightful talk, followed by a Q&A session with lots of good questions and discussions. Our next event will be a “show & tell” session where anyone is welcome to come along and talk about a item for less than <£50 that has made their home cosier, cheaper to  run, or more sustainable.

Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes –  A talk from Native Architect’s for YOEH’s inaugural event

Sally from Native Architects gave a talk with insight into successful eco building projects from renovation to new build. There was a lot of discussion on use and choice of materials. The highlight for me and possibly others in the room, was hearing about eco-building for a bottom up perspective that few people get the opportunity to do. There were many interesting digressions prompted by audience questions including sally highlighting historical lessons from eco-architecture ( for instance cold bridging, even evident within St Nicks’ environment centre). Having samples of low energy construction materials (such as Pavatherm and Pavadentro) made the evening a hands on experience!

Topics covered included net CO2 emissions per kg of material. With a nice graph on one of the slides showing how emissions generally led to materials being ordered (in emissions terms): “natural” ( with strawbales etc being negative )  < ceramic < synthetic (e.g. plastics) < metal. The audience was also shown spider charts highlighting how multiple characteristics of a materials should considered ( e.g. breath-ability, thermal conductivity and density) to find the right materials or fairer compare multiple materials. The role of influencers on a project or on product choice was also mentioned ( e.g. salesman, contractors and consumers).

Lots of time was given to successful strawbale projects Native Architects had undertaken (e.g. Bodner House), and lime plastering (including some fun photos of a workshop for stakeholders). The challenges for choosing bio-based construction also were discussed. Namely high profile mistakes, poor installation, lack of individual research into building materials, industry inertia, certification processes (e.g. BBA) and of course cost.

The talk was well received, with good questions throughout. The Q&A session was vibrant with lots of questions on approach and materials. YOEH thank Sally for giving a such a fascinating and insightful talk.

 

“Show & Tell” – YOEH’s next event.

Simply put, there are lot of cheap actions that can be done to make our homes cosier, cheaper to run and more sustainable. However, some of them work better than others and its often experience of lesson learned that we work this out. This is therefore a opportunity for people to share cheap solutions that have worked and maybe could work for someone else. Some ideas could be chimney balloons, compact water butts, energy monitors, small insulation works, etc…  I am looking forward to hearing about everyone’s items.

I am continuing being told being eco is expensive, which I find bizarre as a lot of the measure I and other York Open Eco Homes participants have done are cheap or they have saved money by doing them (sometimes alot!).

This is event is open and hopefully will allow everyone present to learn from each other. I just ask that you please message me in advance by email(littleecoterrace[at]gmail.com)/twitter etc if you would take part… Personally, I would love to do a talk on using open source motoring (e.g. openenergymonitor), but this is more around to ~£150 so will have to wait for another event. Instead I will talk about my chimney balloon and how to install it. Other items people have volunteered to talk about so far include: draught curtains, a competing “all natural” chimney “sheep”, and an upcycled wood cutter.

There are speakers and ideas in the pipeline for future YOEH events, please do contact me if you have any ideas for speakers or events you might be interested in.  I look forward to seeing what people bring, and I hope you can make it!

Further links

Post Green Open Homes/ York Open Eco Homes (YOEH), and where to now…

The York Open Eco Homes (YOEH) event (part of the national Green Open Home network) was popular, and hopefully has helped many people think of things that they can do to make their homes cosier, cheaper to run and “greener”. It was several months ago now but we’re spinning out a cool quarterly series of talks and workshops from it starting with talk from a local architects (Native Architects) on building low energy healthy homes. It should be a good evening from a firm that has delivered lower energy footprint schools, village halls, and artist studios to name a few.

As for us, we enjoyed being a host home and I remain staggered by the feedback and attendance. We did not expect over 40 people, the level of interest in our project and certainly not people arriving before the allotted time (teaches us to enthusiastically put the balloons out early!). It was exciting to see so many people thinking about trying to do small measures and being interested in the larger choices. Over 300 people attended the event in York and over 40 popped by by our place. There was a lot of feedback from people that were going to try some the ideas they’d seen on their own house/flat/rental. On top of that the prize of the event, to encourage return of feedback, was a whole house energy audit (worth £250!) kindly donated by Yorkshire Energy Partnership (YEP). Hopefully has helped the lady who won it start saving money

Who came? What did people ask? Or want to see? FAQs?

The event was attended by a real mix of people including: families who’d been living somewhere for a while, young couples about to buy, people in rental houses and flats, and people already considering a renovation project.

We put a lot of love into our ecorenovation & it’s a always joy when people who are also frustrated by how under performing houses typically are in the UK  are starting to explore the options to circumvent waste in energy and money. The main questions were first about the cookies then split by major and minor changes. Often people were interested in things I’ve done little blog articles on before including the floor insulation, chimney balloon, draught proofing, lifestyle, PV panels, and energy monitoring.

FAQs – Photovoltaic panel (PVs)

One of the most common phrases about PVs we heard was that people had “… seen them about, but not thought about putting them on my roof…”. A lot of questions were about cost. Generically when we got ours installed the typical quote for a stardard single roof  was £4k for 4kW (which is still often advertised, e.g. by ecoexperts) with prices increasing from that point. I asked the local company (Solarwall) for the current price range for a low and high end 4kW installation and they said £5.5-6k, which is inline with quotes we got a while back.

As i’ve blog about before, our panels are great and are producing more that we consume in electricity terms and even managed in energy terms last year according to our energy provider’s estimates.

 

FAQs – Energy monitoring

I like data. Graphs, pretty graphics, and anything that conveys information better that words ever could. I was so happy when the guys @openenergymonitor managed to get an updated version of their open source energy monitoring system (EmonPi) to me prior to the event even though it had only just finished kickstartiing. I had previously made the system (EmonTx) for ~£100 + (~£50 extras) and made it during an evening in.

Since building my original system, I’ve become aware of housing groups etc buying sensors systems in excess of £2-3k. This is upsetting. I use open source humidity and temperature monitors (EmonTH), that cost me ~£30. These give me a heads up into how the house is doing in energy terms and whether I need to be worried about damp issues.

 

 

 

FAQs – Lifestyle

There were a lot of questions about lifestyle and about the effort involved in “going green”.

Transport was a particular question point as people were interested in how we managed without a car. The answer to that is really we have tens of vehicles, including vans, electrics, hybrid and along with the usual set from citycarclub. Bicycles are our main transport and we use trains often too.

One biggest messages I tried to get across was that the simplest wins are often through changing little things so that the “green” choice is easier. I think a good example of this is recycling. I have lived places not long ago where throwing the majority of your waste into a hole in the ground is the only option (north Manchester, 2012) and had to make extra effort to not be wasteful. It shouldn’t be that way. For the vast majority of things that come through our homes, it is energetically worth while to recycle (e.g. glass, paper, most plastic, tetrapak… etc ). Food waste can be converted to energy or at least food and pretty plants through composting (community composting can exist for the many of us without gardens ) or anaerobic digestion to create energy with an end product of fertiliser.

 

 

FAQs – Other cheap and big things you did 

A large amount of energy and money saving is possible from cheap tech. e.g.

 

Some other larger changes

 

 

“Renewable” Cookies

For a bit of fun we thought we’d make 3D printed cookie cutters for the event, which raised a surprising about of interest. For if anyone else wanted to give them a try we put them up on thingiverse where they have garnered (as of August 2015) ~300 views and ~60 downloads! I’d love to see photos of anyone else’s 3D print of them…

 

Conflict of interest?

Since posting on micro-scale renewable investing and our PV install two companies I recommended have started doing “kick backs” (Trillion Fund & OnePlanetSolar). Since I recommended them prior to this happening, it is entirely reasonable to say my endorsements are uneffected. To gain a “kick back” people would have to state it was littleecoterrace that recommended them, and in the case of Trillion Fund this would be £50 each. Trillion Fund & OnePlanetSolar are both incredible companies and I stand by my recommendations and leave up to you whether you want to say littleecoterrace is who suggested them to you. We’re more interested in seeing the propagation of renewables so any money we do receive through this, we shall donate to an environmental charity.

 

Where from here? An event next year?

The event was a massive event on numbers as talked about by the organisers (St Nick’spress release. As for us, we would happily get involved again and it looks like I might hopefully be more involved next year. I would sort out some more demos of how the tech works we have used works, and hopefully finished outstanding tasks (like relaying the yard with the tiles we took up).

The enthusiasm of hosts has lead to a spin out quarterly series of open talks and workshops in York for people interested in make their homes cheaper to run, more energy effecient and sustainable. The inaugural talk will be from Native Architects at the environment centre (St Nicks). They have been involved in lots of cool projects aswell as being part of a fantastic proposal to tackle the affordable housing crisis in York by creating a co-housing group (YorSpace) within York Central.

As for non Yorkshire people, in the UK there is a rolling calendar of GreenOpenHome and SuperHome (>60 % CO2 saving) events. So, chances are there will be an open home nearby at some point to see what people have done, what worked and didn’t, & maybe what might work for you.

As for me, I’ve been very busy over the last few weeks so I’ve not been posting blogs. I’ve got drafts on eco product shopping, energy and retrofitting events so I’ll be aiming to post those back towards my original once a month aim…

 

Links

  • Green Open Homes – National organisation leading events that showcase a variety of energy saving improvements in homes. Local events are led by local groups and individual houses are hosted by the people who live in them. The initiative is funded by DECC
  • Super Homes – a network of houses that have achieved at least 60% carbon emissions savings and willing to open their doors to show you how they did it
  • Native Architects – Local architects firm talking at St nicks for a joint event which is that the YOEC inaugural event “Building Low Energy, Healthy Homes
  • Solarwall – Local one stop shop for home eco stuff.

 

York Green Open Homes – Living in a “Eco” home

We’re part of York Green open homes this weekend! If you are about York, come see what “eco” measures people have done! These include from a “Passivhaus” under-construcion (more about passivhaus), 1960s council house, a 1930s semi, detached, bungalow, and many more. Green Open Homes is a national project and they have a even have a nice video intro of the project.

Frankly, flattered doesn’t quite cut it to explain how we feel about being asked to do Open Eco Homes. Our project is a lot smaller budget than a lot of projects you hear about. For the event, we’ll be showing how we reached our goal to take a thoroughly normal terrace home in York from a “D” to “A” grade (EPC) eco home for less that 10% of the value. We’ll show how we achieved that and also made our house a net exporter of electricity with low bills. There’s another aim we always had but didn’t mention often; we wanted to make sure it was still a “normal” home. One that we can live in comfortably, and be eco without having to drastically change anything about our lifestyle.

 

As the hosts (@StNicksFields) say: “Find out how to turn your house into a comfortable and efficient home from people who have done it!”

Us: We’re Not Hippies, Honest

Both of us have long been interested in the environment and technology that reduces our impact. That’s based on our concern about climate change. But being a scientist and an engineer, we’ve often noticed that we’re much more interested in the cold evidence than the sentimental stuff. You’re more likely to find us obsessing over doing our recycling correctly than getting upset about pandas.

 

This means we sometimes choose different paths to an eco lifestyle. A good example is being vegetarian – we’re not. A lot of our friends in the eco world are; some for ethical reasons, some for environmental impact. We like eating meat now and then so we’d find giving it up unenjoyable; instead we eat meat infrequently, and eat less of the most environmentally detrimental meats. Using the information we have, we can reduce our impact without having to change our underlying habits and lifestyle.

 

So this means we need an eco home where:
  1. we’re happy every change made had a rational, evidence-based argument to support it.
  2. little day-to-day input or behaviour change is needed from us.

Most of our blog topics have been info-heavy and focused on the numbers. This one catches us in a thoughtful mood as our Eco Open Homes weekend approaches and we start talking about what we’ll tell our visitors about what it feels like to live in a home like this.

Our “Eco” Home

 

The goal of this project was to convert the cheapest house we could get in York to a “A” grade (EPC) eco home for less that 10% of the value. We essentially achieved this. Due to cosmetic choices and additional non eco measures (like our FSC oak floor + relaying backyard with our reclaimed victorian tiles) it may end up being closer to 15%.

 

The project has involved some big changes such as installing solar power panels, insulating the floor and dealing with damp problems, and some smaller changes of insulating and draft proofing the house and installing a chimney pillow.

 

What’s it like to use electricity in an eco home?
 

Well, in 2014 we produced 3.4 MWh and in 2013 we used 2.6 MWh. So overall, we’re producing 130% of what we need. On the face of it, we’re golden. If we assume out consumption is constant and you look into it a bit further, it’s more likely that a portion of that 2.6 MWh came from the grid when it wasn’t sunny. So we sold spare units at sunny times, and bought National Grid units at others.

So we’re happy with the total amount of power we use. We do the sensible little things; we switch off stuff at the socket when we’re not using it. We hang clothes on a line instead of having a tumble dryer. But we keep an appliance others might identify as wasteful; a dishwasher. We just like it too much. Our routine is to wash up by hand, but when we have guests or have a big elaborate meal and then feel lazy, we love having that dishwasher. Over the year it looks like it’s OK really, so although we discussed ditching it we decided it wasn’t necessary.

Full array - extension and main roof
Full array – extension and main roof
The main change we made when the PVs were installed was not what we did but when we did it. It’s better for the environment if energy used in our house comes straight from the PVs, directly displacing a CO2-heavy unit of grid electricity. If we use power at night, we’re taking an eco hit twice; once because we’re getting grid electricity at a higher emissions content, and twice because we’ve sent our sunshine power to others via the grid at a noteworthy transmission loss; ~8 % doesn’t make it to the other end. That’s rubbish.
So, the washing machine and the dishwasher go on in the daytime. High energy stuff like the kettle and the shower are going to consume more than the panels punch out whenever you do them, but daytime is better, and when a wash isn’t on is better still.

 

There’s more we could do; we have an average kettle and an average shower and they use a lot of power. The shower is 8.5 kW. And we are both too addicted to long hot showers to ever get a shower timer. But we’re honest with ourselves that we enjoy these luxuries and we want to keep them.

What’s important to us is we never, ever have to say “you can’t turn that on”. We just get on with life as normal. You quickly forget why laundry-time is about 11am when the sun will be high and it’s just habit. We use our laptops a lot and have a constant tea-making operation going on. When we break 20 kWh in a day it makes us smile, but if it’s a rubbish

We like that any set of people could move into this house, and without changing a single bit of behaviour, they’d have a massively decreased electricity footprint.
With the recent developments in home storage batteries, Tesla PowerWall being the most widely-promoted, it could soon be even easier. 10 kWh storage provides 10 x long hot showers, maybe 60 x boiling the kettle. 2.6 MWh a year averages to 7.1 kWh a day. So this battery would instantly take our house off-grid for a long stretch of the year, since it could provide a day to two day’s power even if PV output is very low. Based on our 2014 generation data, we think we’d have around 200 consecutive days entirely grid-free; we’ll be able to calculate this better once the new Open Energy Monitor is installed. We’d only need to take from the grid in the depths of winter.

 

Is an eco home cold?
 
No, ours is pretty cosy. Because it’s insulated so well, the sunshine and the people tend to warm it up ok. We keep our gas boiler off completely between mid-March and mid-October. It doesn’t cause a problem. We have two little low-power electric heaters, 400 W each, which we specially bought to suit the PVs. If it’s a cold but sunny day, first port of call is to switch these heaters on to top things up. We’ll pick a room or two we’ll mostly be in for the day and just heat that area. When it’s a small house anyway this isn’t particularly difficult to accommodate.
If it’s both cold and overcast, we make use of the boiler. Because we both work full-time, it’s on a fairly restricted timer, and then controlled with a thermostat. We have a wireless one you can take with you. We carry it about so the temperature is set right for where we are.

 

Since our old boiler packed up and we got a new one, we’ve had new thermostatic flow taps on the radiators. They haven’t been very useful though, since if you change it and then move rooms you have to alter the taps set up again. We don’t really see the point, and we don’t really use them, they’re just all set the same.
New Boiler!
New Boiler!
It’s worth saying, our preference is for a moderate temperature in the house. We dislike having a home heated really hot, and we have both cultivated exquisite jumper collections we love to wear.

 

Sometimes our guests want the place hotter than we’d set it up. We will happily turn the boiler on outside of normal months for their comfort, and since the new boiler’s been in, it’s easiest to just hand them the wireless thermostat and say “set whatever you like”. It doesn’t make a big difference to the overall picture, it’s our day-to-day habits that influence it more.
What are the bills like?
 
Basically energy bills don’t exist for us anymore. We use about £25/month of grid electricity, and about £10/month gas which is heavily in the winter and obvisouly pro rata’d.

 

FITs and export tariff payments are made quarterly. Obviously they vary depending on generation. But it’s always significantly more than the energy bills.
So overall our house doesn’t cost us money to run, it looks after us.

 

Dealing with the rubbish

 

In the house, we recycle as much as possible. Our council pick up recycling for paper, card, plastic containers & caps, glass, and tins. There’s no food waste collection, but we compost our raw food waste/teabags for the community garden down the road. We collect up more unusual recyclables over time and take them to the main centre now and then; tetra pack containers, small electrical items, batteries, bits of metal, bits of wood. Old furniture goes to the community furniture warehouse or up on Freecycle. Old clothes go to the charity shop or the cloth bank if they’re really knackered. We’re in the habit of making use of packaging again in the house where we can.

 

By recycling everything possible, you become aware of it when you’re buying things and try to avoid them or only buy the minimum you need. So examples of stuff that’s a pain to dispose of responsibly  are paint/highly volatile chemical items, things that are not possible to disassemble like metal items moulded into plastic, food with tons of packaging particularly if it’s got foams, and cheap electronic items that won’t last long. Sometimes you have to buy them but it’s good to avoid just accumulating unnecessary stuff.

 

What goes in the general waste bin is mainly cooked food waste, plastic films, plastic-coated foils (like crisp packets) and expanded foam packaging. Actually food packaging and food miles/seasonality would be the next big thing to act on to continue getting our carbon footprint down.

 

Was it worth it?

 

We started this as we were fed up with what is described as affordable housing being completely not so (about us page). The money costs were largely as expected, the time costs were pretty high. It meant months of living in a not-finished home, of organising every detail of the bought-in work, and painting or sanding or sawing every night as soon as we got in from work. Occasionally we got really frustrated by it. But we’ve met our energy and cost goals, whilst making the house a cosier, cheaper and more sustainable place to live. We also got the chance to make a comfortable home that’s just right for us, and we’ve found it’s far easier here than in any rental places we’ve lived to follow an eco lifestyle even when you’re really busy. We think this place is set up so that anyone who lived here would be more eco even if they didn’t really think about those issues. We’ve always believed that living in an eco house should improve your quality of life too, and we feel like this house does that for us.

 

Yes, it was worth it!

 

Links

 

Mid-Terrace to Mid-Terrific!

Recently we were asked to be part of the York Green open homes! This has caused me to reflect a little on our initial goals and how we have fared. As we spoke about in our first blog/“about” section, we are extremely frustrated by the how inefficient the homes we have lived in are and what is classed as affordable housing these days.

Essentially our goals were to make a home nicer to live in, making it more energy efficient and more sustainable at the same time. Quantitatively, we aimed to do this via spending ~10% of the value of the house on energy saving and producing measures that would allow us to meet the “A” grade EPC standard. As we’re doing Green open homes, i’m going to try and briefly highlight the rough interim energy and finical costs of the project.

As an attempt to preempt what i expect will be the biggest FAQ, i’m going to try and outline the money side on the project. To be 100% clear this is rough estimate. Although we can talk about the money and carbon case generally, honing down more figures is challenging as we don’t really have a good handle on the house’s prior performance. This is because we started doing our retrofit slowly from day one, we don’t have any data before we moved in, and then had an some alteration re-done by an insuracne company. This is a broad (very) rough attempt at approximating what we’ve achieved so far. In a year or so i will have enough data to do this more robust, but is i suspect the money side of things is a big questions for people so here it goes…

The (estimated) overview Financial Case for our EcoRetrofit
It make me a little uncomfortable giving away such exact details… but as everyone asks because it is a litmus test for the project’s success and since we live in the age of Zoopla it’s not like its difficult to find out anyway.
So we bought the terrace for £121k, this was the bottom of the market for houses close to central York. There were some issues, like a leaky roof and a damp problem, which is relatively common for a house of this age and type. Following our eco-renovation, the house was recently re-evaluated to be worth £145k, an increase of £24k (20%). This far outweighs the cost of all of the energy improvements (~£12k). The attribution of the increase in value is challenging as the housing market has increased the price as as-well as the renovation, but as zoopla tells me this is 10% it is fair to say the eco-renovation played a part although the percent due to the “eco” and “renovation” part of the eco-renovation is unknown. However, it is important to caveat this with the obvious fact that until we sell the house (which we currently have no intent to do!), we cannot know for sure that this increase is real.

The real savings that will payback the cost of doing all the work are seen through the bills (assumed at £26/month, 50% 
usage at house). For the first year after installing the panels our bills total of ~£37/month for electricity and gas, which is paid for in excess by income from the PVs (~£60/month, albeit offset as one payment is quarterly and the other is monthly). These bills are low, for a house our type i would estimated expected bills to be £700-900. I predict these to increase after next winter as we essentially had just electric heaters this winter due some issues with the boiler, although with that said the electric heaters are more expensive per kWh, but regardless it is low.Getting the money to do these kind of work and the upfront nature of the costs often deters people. We paid for the work using a mixture loans, savings and income. With current interest rates low borrow money if someone is willing to lend it currently. So this shifts paying back for the cosy/cheap to run house to over the payback period. The government “Green Deal” scheme could be an option for many and it has been extensively discussed on the internet, including on MoneySavingExpert with some great worked examplesenergy saving trust, and YouGen. The point needs to be made though that a lot of improvements that have a large impact are cheap like managing drafts or made very simply subsidised/free by the government such as installing loft insulation.

Best & worst of our larger choices

 

Best of our larger choices: Photovoltaic Solar Panels
The solar panels (PVs) are out performing our expectations. Not only in energy production (130% of consumption in the first year), but also in the impact on our bills. The payback is currently less than 7 years and could be lower if the we use more at the house rather than sending it to grid. This would be easy if we had hot water tank, as you can just route the excess electricity to heat the water that would have been heating by gas or electricity for baths etc later in the day. For us it is more likely that a battery storage system like Ecotricity’s Black BoxTesla’s PowerWall or Enphase’s energy storage system as our consumption is majority through electricity.

 

With a guaranteed lifetime of 25 years, and even if the panels do degrade by ~25% in output terms over this period (maxim allowed by warrantee), its hard to imagine them packing up straight after this. I’m intrigued to see how they fare over longer timescales, but just taking the next 20 years that they receive government subsidy they represent a huge saving in carbon dioxide emission

 

On the carbon side, they have already paid off their carbon from production. We’ve recently done a lifecycle assessment on the panels, and will post this shortly. Without giving too much away it looks good, and depends heavily on the choices of how you treat the export of electricity to the grid from he PV panels.

 

 

Worst of larger choices:  Upgraded Boiler (D=>A)
We weren’t naive about this, but this was a compromise we had to make. Although we were told, and i know others often are, a new boiler is the best action. for low users like ourselcves the enormous cost of a new boilder (£2.3k, installed), just doesn’t add up. And thats not even considering the embodied energy cost of new boiler. The boiler broke whilst i was working out of the country and we had previously refused to upgrade against recommendations, along through the tick box exercise of EPC certificate  this and the TRVs have pushed us firmly into the A category.
 

Financially the payback can only come from savings. Considering our gas bill is currently ~£10 a month (although, i expect this to rise to £15 a month),  this is basically impossible. This is low as our shower is an electric one, we may not keep our house as hot as some do, and hopefully some credit to all of our eco-renovation efforts! I estimate the payback period for the boiler to be greater than the current UK life expectancy. The last boiler was only 5 years old (Chaffoteaux et Maury, Minima Mk2 30 FF), and although we’ve got for a more reliable model with 10 years warrant (Worcester, Greenstar 28) i won’t be holding my breath.

From an environmental angle, even though we are on biogas tariff, we pull from the main grid and this essentially still fossil fuel. On this count an air source heat pump would actually have been better, but for cost reasons and due to working out of the country at the time we needed to replace the boiler it wasn’t an option. I remain skeptical this technology and would prefer ground/water source for energetic reasons if we had the space, although I have friends who are convinced.

Any lingering thoughts, Would you do this action again to another house?

Yes. On the financial side alone it was definitely worth our while over a 6.2 year timescale (with less than 4.5 years remaining). Over long the financial case gets stronger. If we include other qualitative improvements like how draughty/cosy the place is then the yes is even more resounding. The smaller and cheaper changes will have contributed a lot to this. I will be able to do a better analysis when i have more data, from which the real savings in energy consumption and costs can be calculated.

 
I’ve just tried to outline the broad money side of our project with a few examples. But i can’t personally do this without pointing out that “Externalities” (e.g. costs of air quality) of conventional heating/Electricity options are thought to be huge. Although we pay for these via our taxes etc, it is important to bare that in mind ( a back of the envelope calculation gives air-quality costs as £250-850 per person per year, which is from £1654 bn in costs and ~64.1m people ). Trying to look at more of the picture (but by no means all!) rather changes the way we can see the economics of energy pricing.
 
Its is challeneging to express quite what a improvement it is to live in a warm cosy house without huge cost ( energetic or financial ). It will be possible to quantify this in the near future, and there are some great examples of projects that have managed this ( like a carbon coop project with @zapaman in Manchester ). Here’s to cosy, more sustainable and cheaper living!

 Links
Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor and do not work in finance. This article links to research/information I’ve found and expresses my own opinions and experiences. I hope it is useful to you but in no way am I offering financial advice or recommending a particular course of action. If you’re considering any investment you should seek information from a wide range of sources and speak to an independent financial advisor before making any decision. I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can, and when prices have been quoted those were available openly on the date of publication. If you see any errors/broken links/have any comments please just drop me an email or comment.

Getting A Flue Shot For Our Chimney

In the run-up to the York Open Eco Homes weekend, we’re getting a few final jobs done that we’ve been meaning to do for ages. One of those is to block up the chimney with… a chimney pillow!
It’s tricky to block up old chimneys completely, because the years-thick coat of soot gets salts into the bricks. Salty bricks pull in water. Whilst your bricks are ventilated by an open chimney it’s no problem, but if you just blocked the air off then it’d be bad news; the damp can get pulled through to the inside wall, and that’s how “grease marks” on the chimney breast happen.

 

However, we want our chimney stoppered up since we don’t use the grate, and it just lets cold air into our house. So the solution is a chimney pillow. It blocks off the draught but allows a little bit of air to pass, enough to stop the bricks getting damp.

 

Installing a Chimney Pillow

 

Fireplace
Before the “Shot”
 
It’s a pretty simple item which looks like a giant whoopee cushion. You unwrap it and give it an initial puff just so it’s easy to stuff up the chimney.
 

 

At this point I realised that although the mouthpiece had seemed nice and simple initially, in practice I would need to stuff my head up inside the grubby horrible chimney and get puffing. Rather put off by this, I cast around for other ideas. Luckily help was at hand…
photo 2-3
Our beloved track pump doesn’t mind dusty chimneys
 
…and gave the pillow a good pump up with the bike pump. Once the pillow feels firm, you close the tap and there you are.

 

The pillow seemed to want to slip down on our fireplace, even though it had been stuffed through into the flue. However it’s blocking up the opening OK and isn’t visible from outside the fireplace, so I’d say that counts as mission accomplished.

 

This took about 15 mins to install, and cost £25. I think we probably would have been OK with a small rather than a medium.
 
Anything else to know?
 
The pillow can deflate over time so you’re supposed to check on it every 3 months if you’re not using the chimney. We’ll re-check this one in a week or so since it’s the first time we’ve used one. If you are an absent-minded sort and might put a chimney pillow in, then light a fire under it, the instructions reassuringly advise that the thing will shrivel up and drop out of the chimney, but not catch fire. Punctures can be repaired with Sellotape according to the instructions.

 

We’ll see if it needs taking out during storms with high winds, which could cause high suction in the chimney. It can, on occasion, be very windy where we are so we’ll find out.

 

Does it work?
 
We’ll only really use the pillow during the winter,  so it’s a bit early to tell. It seems to. Our boiler is off now so we won’t be able to track any gas bill change, but it’s a low-cost low-fuss improvement and it should make the living room quicker to heat up.

 

Links
  • Ecotopia – A extensive (UK) online ship for “eco” products –  it is where we bought the chimney pillow
  • York Eco Open Homes – A opportunity to see a range of “Eco” improvements to different homes through York, which is part of the larger Open Eco Homes Project
  • The (US) Chimney pillow site with lots of useful information

It’s Draught to Let Hot Air Escape!

Our House was Full of Holes!

The house had rather better ventilation that we would have liked when we got it… due to a hole in the roof! So that was obviously first priority. Seriously though – just walking round the house and holding a ear or a hand to gaps you can hear where you heat is escaping. We obvisouly need airflow to be able to breath and avoid damp buildup, but in reality the old terraces are extremely leaky and that air is carrying money spent on heating a house with it.

The double glazing and uPVC doors were installed a couple of years before we moved in, which is a major and costly part of most retrofits. Although aesthetically these don’t appeal to everyone (myself included), their thermal and draft performance really do beat the wooden doors typical of a house of this age.

The real decisions we had to make were on how to avoid losing precious indoor heat from the house. The power of controlling the flow air and exchange with the outside is huge. If our project were larger we would have probably invested in mechanical circulation combined with a heat exchanger (like these people did); this kind of system give you all the benefits of a leaky house in terms of fresh air and humidity but without the extremely costly heat loss. However, we choose the simplest and easier options to keep the project on budget.

Wall/Loft Insulation

The easiest and cheapest stage in any retrofit project is loft insulation. It has short payback periods, you can buy it cheaply from any hardware company and at the time of writing you can get free loft insulation installed if your house doesn’t met the standard (links at end of article). For us the loft insulation needed topping up by ourselves at small expense as it hadn’t been done properly and we didn’t quality for any grants.

If you have cavity walls, again currently the easiest route is a single phone call to get cavity wall insulation of the government’s energy company obligation ECO schemeThere used to be some scepticism about this as with all “green” technology, but for typical houses the consensus is clear that this is the cheapest and best option. We had the extension done and this took a few hours with little effort under the ECO.

If you have solid walls (like us for the main building) then the question is rather different. Solid wall insulation is costly, but considering the massive amount of house stock for which this is currently the best option it is being funded on and off by the government by schemes including GDHIF (here is a worked example with the grant). It is worth checking if any funding is available whilst if you are thinking about doing any work and I would recommend YouGen as the place to start checking. Solid wall insulation for the two external walls of the house would have been a great option, however we missed the funding window during our works and at the time it was unfortunately out of budget.

Gaps – Ceilings, Loft holes

Whilst re-laying the loft inulsation we released the extent to which the loft hatches were just vents for hot air. There were simply un-insulated boards with gaps, this would have had a massive effect on heat loss. Our approach was to re-board the ceiling to create a new loft hatch, fill up the previous one and insulate both.

Other places you could hear air escaping were by pipes passing through walls where a gap was presen the material would make a gap when expanding or contracting with temperature. These kind of air leaks were solved simply using silicone sealant or expanding foam.

Insulated pipe, but gap for air loss
Insulated pipe, but gap for air loss

Air Vents

We had 3 vent covers downstairs, which when removed really showed the horror of hole size in the walls of the house (photos below). The amount of air that would escape through these would be huge. The controlled/”active” air flow was argued to be the best intermediary, compared against managed/mechanical ventilation by those we spoke to and it makes a lot of sense. Although humidistated fans were mooted as a first option, conversation with people who had installed them lead us to the conclusion that a switch linked to the shower was best. So we installed a single iris fan for the extension to control the humidity. During the summer the windows are often open so it is of little relevance, but it is important to increase ventilation in the winter.

The vents look the same now, they are just filled with insulation and aren’t costing us money.

The bathroom is vastly nicer now with the new fan (photo below), and very much less damp. As the decision was mad to have a single fan, the timer is currently set for 30 minutes and it can also be turned on whilst using the kitchen.

Our house has become less cat friendly. However, by insulating the cat-flap and vestigial vents with kingspan it is obviously noticeable the difference in the drafts.

Of our two fireplaces, one is sealed and the other remains an open flue. We’ve bought a chimney balloon too, and this is only used in the winter to cut out heat losses.

Did it Take Lots of Effort?

These are small changes. They cost very little and make a large difference. The external wall insulation would have been the largest expense if we had done it, but it would have been done by contractors so it wouldn’t have been much effort on our part. Still, the most effort was in installing the loft insulation and insulating the vents which took at most a few hours.

If is possible to achieve a lot more than we have here, and there are lots of great examples on the low energy building database (LEBd). Many people have achieved houses that through design or retrofit do not require heating

The key thing is to remember to still keep the place airy and keep a note on how humid the it is and whether any damp problems exists or are developing, if they are then further air circulation is need. We track this using an arduinio linked to our energy monitor. We’ve not had any issues, but if we do I will install a second fan that would be constantly on and have heat recovery.

Links

– The Green Deal Home Improvement Fund (GDHIF) – grants that can pay upto 67% for energy-saving home improvements

– Passive House Trust (PHT) – the UK national body, which has lots of information and links up

– low energy building database (LEBd) – a database of case studies with more information.

– Cheap heat exchanging extractor fans (<£300 installed and <£5 a year to run)

more links on the blog’s links page

Mmmmmmm Pi… – Setting up Open Source Energy/Home Monitoring via Arduino & Raspberry Pi

I’ve wanted to do this for 2 years, ever since I heard about the guys at Open Energy Monitor. Getting actual data on how the house heats & powers itself puts numbers to the evident differences we’ve noticed from things like added insulation. It also highlights where the greatest improvements can still be made. This system will hopefully do just that; and by combining this with air quality/weather measurement developed by some inspiring London sixth formers (AirPi) we might get useful insight for managing energy load & energy automation. But that’s stage II once we’ve got the data, so before that here is stage I: the install!

Spec’ing the setup

We already monitor our PVs’ energy production and plot that up using some simple open source code I wrote (on GitHub): there’s an example in the plot below. This uses the proprietary system which came with the system (fromgeo monitor) to track the output. To its credit, this is working fine, however it doesn’t give us the full picture. We don’t get consumption data & to get a proprietary system that does this as we’d like costs at least >£200 (even the basic one that came with our system was ~£100!) and most of these monitors are still based on the pulse counting technique rather than continuous current measurements.

PV Production March 2014
PV Production March 2014

So we wanted the system to be able to:

  • monitor electricity production from the PVs
  • monitor net electricity use
  • monitor gas consumption (analogue) – not 1st build, but i’ll add this later & others have already done this
  • monitor temperature/humidity around the house
  • monitor outside air quality/weather (Inc. CO, pressure, N2O etc) – done via AirPi with a raspberry pi currently, but I’ll add this to the system via Arduino & data later and get it to sent its data via radio
  • monitor O3 & CO2 – not 1st build, i’ll add this later
  • stream data to server & store locally
  • use WiFi/Radio frequency (RF) connection between modules – to avoid mess of wires everywhere

It turns out its quite simple to meet this spec, and the build guides on the open energy monitoring ended up basically meeting this, making it all quite simple at this 1st stage.

Putting it together

Digging out our old soldering iron from the loft & picking up some solder was easy, but it had certainly been a while since I had done any soldering! Luckily the guys @Openenergymon have put together a guide for the Arduino assembly. It was quite fun once we got into the swing of it, and it was satisfying to make good connections on the board.

To monitor the temperature and humidity in the house we added additional sensors via radio connection – there are up to 30 sensor slots available through the base station, so this is easily done. These are pretty simple, and the first 2 nodes I bought came practically fully assembled.

EmonTH - Humidity & Temperature node
EmonTH – Humidity & Temperature node

The weather station (AirPi) goes together nicely as well, and has simple build instructions. It’s been designed to be attached to the Raspberry Pi directly, however I’d prefer to remotely connect to the AirPi’s outside measurements in the same way as the other sensors. So I am looking at RF linking it directly to the Raspberry Pi “base station” (more detail on that in a sec) to cut costs and collect all the data through one route.

The Raspberry Pi “base station” is the bit that gets the info from the arduino and other inputs via RF and then acts as a gateway, forwarding the readings to the internet etc. These are easily purchased pre-made & the setup is pretty simple to use. You can get the system already set up on SD from @Openenergymon & a few steps  is all it takes to get it up and running. Since this is all open source, the firmware/code is written & freely available on github.

Installing the system

This bit was very easy. We just put the clips round the household consumption & PV production cables. The nodes for temperature/humidity are automatically received by the Pi base station, so its straight to checking out the data & what it means…

 

EmonTX - Arduino AC-AC, Production and consumption monitoring
EmonTX – Arduino AC-AC, Production and consumption monitoring
Production and consumption monitoring - CT clip on PV input & home consumption
Production and consumption monitoring – CT clip on PV input & home consumption

 

What to do with the data?

The data is streamed to a server (kindly provide free-of-charge by @Openenergymon) as well as stored locally. It is viewed via a web interface & fully accessible by customisable dashboards for web browsers/iphones/etc. Again, all of this is opensource so is free to tinker with or use as is.

We’ve setup monitoring screens for the house on web/phone so we always know how the energy balance is on a particular day. But lots of people have played around more than us and come up with some pretty cool ideas. The options for exploring/plotting with the data are pretty unlimited, and we’re still testing ideas from other people like these rather cool ones below:

credit: forum submission

 

emoncms_v3credit:  nathan.chantrell.net

 

What’s next?

Although my geeky side will have a lot of fun with the data, just plotting & looking at what is happening, the real power of this data will come after about a year. Hopefully it will be possible to draw some useful insight, allowing us to predict patterns of production for PVs, just like energy companies predict generation and consumption for other renewable/fossil fuel production. We’d love to then use that to automate some of our energy use (e.g. washing machines and heating). Knowing when it’s cheapest and best to use electricity should be easy with just a couple of red/green indicators  (like the open energy monitor guys have done), but I’m really keen on automation of heating of the house during the winter when it’ll make the most difference to the bills.

I also intend to build the system further, to monitor and generate suite of air quality relevant variables (e.g. CO2 & O3) & to more completely monitor the house (e.g. gas consumption – on a analog meter! – & ventilation).

Anyone could do this, which is the part of this that gets me excited. To do the mini met station all you need is a Raspberry Pi (~£30 on RS) and an AirPi shield (~£55 on tindie) or a set of open energy parts (~£100 for energy monitoring or ~£100 for PV monitoring) for energy monitoring. Its all open source, and there are loads of far more adventurous ideas out there including voice controlled houses, cool ideas, and more quirky projects.

 

Here are some refs/links :

There are also more general relevant links on the links page.

 

 

Disclaimer: I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can, and when prices have been quoted those were available openly on the date of publication. Obviously I take no responsibility for any of the prices quoted or products mentioned, and in no way am I providing financial advice or recommending a particular course of action. If you see any errors/broken links/have any comments please just drop me and email or comment.