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.
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 typei 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 examples, energy 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 Box, Tesla’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.
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 £16–54 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 coopproject with @zapaman in Manchester ). Here’s to cosy, more sustainable and cheaper living!
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.