Another track for work and holiday travel? ; Would a train work for your trip?

Trains won’t work for every journey and they don’t loop the world, even if the phenomenal cinematographic breakthrough “Snowpiercer” suggests they can (trailer linked here). However, they often could work. They are often cheaper with a bit of research, offer greater chances to see the places alongside the route (both out the window and on stops), more comfortable (leg room, ability to walk around etc), less stressful (no “check-ins” as such, lots of luggage allowance etc) and give substantially lower CO2 emissions. A huge plus for my partner and I is that, unlike driving, no one gets annoyed when you read a good book in transit…

Some people like flying. I have always had childish glee watching the wings every time I have taken off. However, I have always found planes uncomfortable (especially for longer trips), stressful, and find the irony of being an atmospheric scientist and flying often rather too poignant. Without spending too much time on the emissions argument, I would like instead to put time to the argument that trains could be an upgrade to many trips in terms of comfort, experience and holiday time.

  • Logistics & planning

Train travel logistics can be less than obvious to those who do not often use it, and even those who do. A good example of this is my partner and I’s trip to the Balkans by train, in which by just using the Euro-star site for our tickets London to Munich lead to addition £50 charge (We should have used SNCB after Brussels as soon as we were on a line operated by them or LOCO2). I have almost ubiquitously found that buying separate tickets from the country’s provider leads to the best prices, the answer is always to check a least a few providers website’s for the same service and the general sites like LOCO2.

However, with that said there are some phenomenal sites and blogs from people who know the score with trains. My favourite (and the favorite of many people!) is a site called The Man In Seat 61. I’ve tried to list (at the bottom) a few that we’ve found useful over the years, and will happily add suggestions.

  • Work travel

Some professions end up travelling a lot. In academia, I’ve been sent to America once a year for the last 3 years which has rather ratcheted up my travel carbon footprint. I admit that, obviously, I flew across the Atlantic. But the USA actually does have a lot of good train routes (and buses too…) if you are travelling within the states and are willing to spend a bit more time on the travel. My decision to catch the train from Boston Massachusetts to San Francisco made me the subject of much amusement from my colleagues (especially the American ones!). Unfortunately the USA setup for train travel means they travel at a tiny fraction of the speed of their European counterparts (so the direct version of my trip would take ~3.5 days).  However, things like free WiFi on buses and trains puts us to shame in the UK. To do this trip you need to take holiday (only ~1 day if you included the weekend), but I really have to emphasis how much of a wonder doing the trip was. I’ve put a few photos of the trip below, however although the sights are incredible shots through train windows (or photography in general) has never been my strong suit.

 

Apart from the mind-blowing sight of a wolf in the wild whilst eating a (well priced) 3 course dinner in the dinning cart, just the scenery was enough. As Brit who has only been to the USA because of my PhD, I had not seen the USA and its vast and glorious landscapes. The university I was based at in Cambridge Massachusetts was surrounded by fantastic independent shops and the office I shared was actually with scientists from Switzerland and Denmark, suffice it to say I doubt this was representative of the USA as a whole (and after my train trip I know it wasn’t). Neither in fact were the 10 days I spent in San Francisco at a conference following the train trip. I cannot recommend the trip enough if you need to get from Denver to San Francisco (other USA summarised routes here). I guess the point I am making is that the train trip was a great way to see some of “real” America.

There is often an argument about driving being cheaper or easy. Sometimes this is valid in the UK due high rail prices, but often not. Certainly in academia when a lot of trips (e.g. conferences, talks etc) are organized in advance, advance singles are a good match.  Also, in the UK it is often cheaper and quicker to get to close Europe by train (e.g. Paris in 2h20, Brussels in 2h21, Lille in 1h22 etc…) by buying return fares not that far in advance. For instance prices to Paris from London start from £29. On our latest train trip, which was a holiday, we actually arrived into Brussels casually for 9am (UK time). I can’t easily describe my huge endearment to the Eurostar. It is both the big things (like how smooth the logistics work) and little things like dated (but in good nick) upholstery that is enough to transport you back in time, and really make you feel like you holiday or trip has started!

I am actually right now excitedly researching travel for my next work trip (to travel the weekend before) as I have recently been invited to give a talk at Copenhagen university (my 1st invited talk!). However, it is unfortunately a little complicated due to the recent cancellation of the Danish ferry to the UK. It looks like it with be as footpassenger on the ferry to Gothenburg, followed by a train from from Gothenburg to Copenhagen.

  • And holidays too? (and combining with boats…)

By combination with a through deals like “rail and sail” (Which includes any east Anglian train station to any Dutch station – like Flussinger, which is a few Euro ferry and few minute cycle from Belgium), there are lot more travel options (e.g. Bilbao… ). The “rail and sail” option used to be closer to £20 each way a while back, but at £34 from your door it is frankly still a steal. Just think about cutting out all those airport lounges, stressful queues, expensive transfers (ad nauseam…) and just boarding your local train station with a bag and a book. The standard arrival into the centre of cities is huge boon for holidays and work travel (again saving the transfer time,  which with many budget airline airports is frankly ridiculous, and costs. )

We’ve also done quick trips from York to the south France (Eurostar to Avignon, cycled the rest). The similarity times from York to London, York to Edinburgh, and London to Paris really raise questions why anyone would fly UK to Paris. I am so surprised when I frequency here of people doing this, especially from York.

The big eye opener for us recently though, was getting the to Balkans by train. It was a painless trip to Munich in fancy new trains (with a pretty LED speedometer casually reminding us we were at ~250 km/h or faster!), with a lovely evening walking round the city and eating Bavarian food with a friend. Then just another simple trip to Ljubljana (which can be done by bus or train).

The kicker? the cost out was less (£118.75 pp + 1xtransfer, London=> Ljubljana) than the flight back (£133.90 + 2xtransfer, Split=>London). Admitted this was on BA, and took substantially less time. I could have got both the trains tickets and the airfare for slightly less with more advance planning, and arguably we could have taken a budget airline (and paid the extra costs for luggage etc). But there is only so much time…

 

  • Ending thoughts?

There are lots of people who are fanatical about trains, but we just use them to get from A to B and enjoy our longer trips in them. I would strongly argue that most of the time When comparing costs of flying and trains, all costs and times need to included (baggage, transfers, parking). These considerations obviously apply for smaller trips too, and there are of course the arguments of time, experience, and carbon footprints.

Although we have only recently had our eyes opened to how cheap and easy it is to get to the Balkans via train, we have been using them for a while now and continue actively choosing them in the future. As firefly’s Shepherd Book says, sometimes “how you get there is the worthier part”…

Links:

  • The Man in Seat 61 –  A fantastic go to site for day dreaming about trips all over the world and nailing down exact details. It is a brilliant at pointing where the most update information will be found too
  • LOCO2 – A booking website for trips, which I have used and often found best prices on
  • “Rail and Sail” to holland – A fantastic deal for getting to the continent by ferry and train. Any station in East-Anglia to any in the Netherlands from £34 each way as an adult foot passenger (it used to be closer to £20, but it is still pretty good!), and a bit more from farther afield. There are Ferries to Ireland too from Holyhead, Liverpool, fishguard, and Cairnryan…
  • Eurostar – They have a good website, and lots of good deals to get to the continent.
  • International train travel summary from National Rail (This should stay up-to date…)
  • Greyhound buses (there are often other good local services too) – A cheap, and in my experience very pleasant way to get around the US (contra to the general impression and what a lot of Americans who haven’t used the service will tell you!)
  • Eurolines – A (very) cheap alternative, but less comfortable alternative to trains.

Disclaimer: I am not a travel agent and I have tried to be as accurate as possible. However information will change and I would advise double-checking any information before acting on it.

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

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.