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…
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 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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
@L_EcoTerrace Hi, prices for 4kWp range from £5,500-£6,000. Great to hear you've had a successful weekend! #nicebiscuits 🙂
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.
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’s) press 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…
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
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:
we’re happy every change made had a rational, evidence-based argument to support it.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.