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.

Pining for a warm floor; Installing parquet in 70s flat

So this is the first blog on “LittleEcoFlat” our 2nd renovation project we’re trying to make as “Eco” as possible. The background is that my partner got a job in the “Big smoke”, which allowed her to bring together her professional life (mechanical design engineering) and love of sustainability to work in bike design in London. Following 1 year of renting a sofa to crash on (from a rather lovely lady), we sought something a little more permanent. Searching for a flat was fun but as I was working in the US for my PhD the time, it was a pretty challenging time. Regardless we managed to find a little place needing some love and slowly started turning it into a home by the only way we know how, flooring 1st! (Although this might be a floored approach… )

The Carpet

The walls and carpets all had a brown tinge only really describable as “nicotine coloured”  (My partner actually came in in rashes from touching the carpet!). The carpets had to go. It would be great to have found a way to re-use them, but unfortunate the only option (I’m very interested in anyone has found alternate options) was to take them to to tip. As they rested directly on concrete they weren’t warm either and we were determined to have a warm floor so we started looking at alternatives and how to add some warmth. Interestingly, in a lot of houses there are often pretty floorboards unearth the carpets. If the house has been insulated to stay warm they can be rather pleasant underfoot, and just need sanding back (as is the case in “LittleEcoTerrace”). As this wasn’t the case in “LittleEcoFlat” we had to look for alternatives…

The Floor

To prepare the flat to get a new floor we got right in by pulling up the old carpet. After the carpet the vinyl tiles underneath had to come up, as many were broken/missing, to give a flat starting surface. This required a lot more effort than we expected, but did allow for a time playing with some of the more destructive DIY kit… We both have a favourite crow bar now.

Local trades

We were never going to do lay the parquet ourselves. We had already learned (from mistakes) that there are certain tasks best left to professionals and have nothing against support local trades. So after finding somewhere local to buy reclaimed floor boards (and settling on Pitch Pine) and someone who do the skilful part, work got started!

 Joseph's incredible sanding machine...
Joseph’s incredible sanding machine…

Seeing Joseph lay the parquet was impressive, like a huge game of herringbone Tetris. Then the oily and burnt reclamed boards were sanded. Once the sanding started the transformation was incredible…

The final floor was then given a protective coat which brought the red of the Pitch Pine out, and hopefully will give it a more hard wearing surface.

This project had opened our eyes to huge options available from reclamation yards and second hand shops, and the sheer number of these. There has been a lot of coverage of re-use and upcycling recent on the TV (e.g. Kevin McCloud’s Man made shed where he made a hottub out of a old aircraft turbine) and i’m always interested new uses of materials that for no good reason now classed as waste (e.g. this old radiator turned into a seat by the BareFootWelder… we have 3 of these and are seriously considering it)

 

We acknowledge that “off-the-shelf” engineered boards would have essentially done the job too. However I find the idea very appealing that for decades and decades to come the floor could just be re-sanded to restore it, then there is the “eco” side of re-use of wood.  They were many sustainable options ( e.g. FSC Cork, Bamboo, upcycled cutlet glass etc ), but for indoor air-quality reasons the choice for us could not be “standard” carpet that is ubiquitous everywhere.

 

After sorting the floor we have been on the search for second hand furniture and found where is good in west London, which I’ll blog about another time. It did take a lot more effort to prepare the floor than we anticipated (which you could say, wasn’t a walk in the parquet),  but we are very happy the end result and how warm the floor feels underfoot.

 

Links

  • Joesph Dohf – The guy who did all the hard work on laying the parquet and deserves the vast majority of the credit
  • Heritage reclamation – Where we bought the parquet from

 

“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.

http://conceptsmarketingdesign.com/puffzy/jmpovio.php?id=ke-chuyen-đêm-khua 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.

 

click here “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!

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

 

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

Floored by insulation – An alternative to more damp proofing?

Our little c.1900 terrace had a damp problem like many other terraces and we knew this when we bought it. On investigation we found that the floorboards rested directly onto Victorian tiles, atop scree & earth, leading to the wooden skirting and doors sucking up the water into the plaster. After one stormy afternoon we suddenly realised faint pencil marks on the doors were previous tenants tracking the “wicking”! Our predecessors hadn’t ignored the problem but seemed not to have known the cause – the property has already had two damp proofing injections done over the preceding ~15 years. We were informed by the surveyor and the damp contractors that this work hadn’t alleviated the problem. Could we succeed where others had failed? We started to discover we could hit two birds; cold floors and damp problems, with one well-cast stone.

Before –  the “damp” floor (laminate on quarry tiles on scree)

Options? – damp proof injections vs. insulated floor with DPM

It seemed from the response from the major “damp” companies that the options were very limited. We would have to spend ~£1-3k on “damp proof injections” or on stripping back the plaster, coating with damp proofing, and re-plastering. But a manager of a local construction company (York Eco Construction) offered something quite different, and it seemed to tick all the boxes. He suggested we dug out the floor, lay a damp proof membrane (DPM) to make a barrier from the wet earth, with a concrete slab on top and finally a joisted and heavily insulated floor for a similar cost to the injection option. Considering the similarities in cost, it was really a no brainer for us to go for his suggestion as it tackled the root cause of the damp, and would get rid of a major heat loss path in the house.

Getting stuck in

It was a pretty intensive few weeks, with full days at work then evenings and weekends doing the renovation. We took up the tiles and laminate (photos below). This was partly to keep on a tight budget, but there are worse ways to spend an evening than levering tiles up with a knife in one hand, and clutching a glass of wine in the other! The original Victorian quarry tiles were stacked outside and are going to be used later in the project when we do the backyard/bike shed. They’re far too pretty not to reuse. With the floor now stripped back to rubble and dirt, it was time for some serious digging.

Drawing the line – getting contractors in

We had always known that with our zero level of experience, we would be calling people in for certain jobs. Also with such a lot of soil to move we simply didn’t have enough time or energy to fit in digging around work. Moving the few tonnes of scree and fitting the damp-proof membrane (DPM) were perfect examples of these get-the-experts in kind of jobs.

The contractors dug out the floor exposing the expected but still alarming lack of foundations in the property! Like many of the chocolate workers’ terraces in York, the house were built just resting on a ”brick footing” – see photo below, & UWE description.

Due to a mishap with the rising spur, for a brief period our beautiful house resembled a muddy puddle and it was hard to believe a warm wooden floor could materialise there. But soon 100mm depth of concrete was poured on the damp proof membrane (DPM) by the contractors, which was left to dry for what seemed ages as we lived with all the furniture in the two upstairs rooms!

Insulating the floor – the important bit!

We didn’t want to scrimp here so we went for the established insulation boards due to a trade-off of insulation vs. space vs. cost. There’s much discussion to be had here of thermal resistance (R-values) and overall values (U-values) but I will cover that in a more technical post. The joists (2×4″) & insulation (100mm Celotex) were laid on top of this and dutifully sealed into place by the contractors with insulation foam: a very important factor in making insulation work is consistency! Then the floorboards (18mm solid wood, FSC) were laid atop.

Finishing the aesthetics 

Now it was time for finishing touches of paint, skirting boards… This “making good” was done by a mixture of us and contractors. We had some complexity with a water leak, so some of the work had to be re-done (which is at least another blog post in itself!). Some parts were a nightmare – like straight skirting boards on our curving ~115 year old walls! – and other parts like painting were great fun! We learned most things as we were going along, with one unexpected little trick we’ll uses with any project from now on is the usefulness of panel pins (e.g. holding skirting boards in together, allowing gluing, or cabinets together before the main screws go in).

This part of the project was a massive job.The work ended up being done by a mixture of contractors & us, which made for an interesting first big project! I believe eco-living means cosy living – and no cold floors & houses that aren’t damp – so us properly doing the floor insulation was a crucial part of the renovation. All-in-all it was probably the 2nd most worthwhile part of project (after the PVs), and one of the most noticeable day-to-day changes as you notice the warm boards under your feet.

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