Hitting the Wall (Insulation)!

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

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

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

Phase 5 – Doing the bathroom

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

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

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

Phase 6 – Insulating the two internal walls

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

 

Phase 7 – Insulating the extension

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

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

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

The story before?

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

Phase 0 – From the beginning… 

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

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

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

Phase 2 – Floor 

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

Phase 3 – Ventilation/Insulation boost

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

Phase 4 – Added solar panels (PV)

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

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Solar panels on the main roof

Phase 5 – Yard (Not yet complete!)

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

Summary

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

 

Links

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

 

4 steps to solar panels – a quick test to see if PVs could work on your roof

Over the last few weeks, I have talked to quite a few people about whether panels for electricity from solar ( photovoltaic panels (PV) ) are plausible for their roof. A lot of this is due to the government consulting on cutting support for PVs from January 1st (by up to 87%), meaning the financial payback on installing panels would typically increase from ~10 to 27 years. I’ve blogged before about when we when through the steps of getting our install together (to PV or not to PV), but I thought I would throw together a more general simple step-by-step…

If you live in a flat, the roof is one you do not solely own, or the install is on the larger side, some further steps are needed ( e.g. structural survey, certificate of easement…) however the general steps below are effectively the same.

      1. Work out a few details about your roof area and angle.

You will need to know roof area, roof angle, what angle it faces, how much shading it has, and whether the building has an energy performance above the minimal criteria (an EPC of D or above).

You can calculate the approximate area from eye or just use satellite photos. I tend to use Google maps through an app on a website like comparemysolar. Using this app you just place pins on the outline of the roof to get an approximate area. Google maps also gives you an compass orientation. As for angle, I would say it should be possible to get a estimate just from looking at the roof and comparing against a few examples. Then check for shading (e.g. chimney pots, neighbours roofs, trees…) and estimate what % of day you think the roof is shaded (another approach would just to check the roof at several times of day, but bearing mind this will change a lot by season). To check an the energy performance of the house according to its EPC certificate, and you don’t know it off hand, you can quickly check it on this website. If you do decide to get quotes, then all these estimates will be refined then anyway.

(e.g.  20 square meters, 30 degrees, south facing, no shading, EPC=D,  and in York)

      2. Estimate the rating of the PV install

There are lots of different panels of differing shapes, sizes, capacity and performance around. Choosing panels for the install may be easiest once you have quotes. I would recommend two sets of calculations, one for a lower capacity (e.g. ~100 W/sq m & cheaper) set of panels and one for higher capacity set of panels (~200 W/ sq m) . To get the peak output ( rating ) of the install just multiply the panel capacity by the area.

(e.g.  20 square metres * 200 W/square metres =  4000 W)

      3. Use some apps to estimate the output and payback of the PV install

We can now just plug the numbers from steps 1 & 2 to one of many online apps that use past solar data to predict how the panels would perform.  There are lots of apps to check whether PV is worthwhile and they give give a variety of different information from just the basic payback, to yearly/monthly break downs of energy production, and ones with lots of technical gory detail. I would personally recommend getting a broad overview from the Energy Saving Trust (EST solar calculator) and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT solar calculator, Caution: the monetary values were out of date when I last checked so just use for solar). If you are interested in more detail then the Joint Research Centre (JRC solar calculator) provides a lot more technical background.

The payback is made up of payments for generated clean renewable every (feed-in-tariffs or FITs), electricity savings (from use of electricity on site), and export tariffs (price paid per unit exported to the gird for someone else to use). The is more detail on this here and this will be broken down by the apps also. I understand that Installs for a typical residential install are generally between £4-6.5k at present.

(e.g. estimated to generate ~3300 kWh/year and have a payback of 9 years)

     4. Get a few quotes

There is a great list of recommended installers (need to be MCS certified) and a list of good questions to ask on the YouGen site. I also used the quote service from EcoExperts who quickly got us 3 quotes for comparison. The industry has taken a big shock from the recent government proposals to cut the fit in tariff and a lot of people may being trying to get installs before the expected changes to the tariff so it could be quite busy at the moment.

Once you have your quotes you can choose obviously between suppliers/installers, but also the capacity/spec of your install…. and whether you want to go ahead with it. The installs typically take a day for a 4kW domestic install and then the install will need to be registered via the installer through the government’s micro generation scheme (MCS), which installers tend to help with or just do for you.

Our installation was done whilst we were away on holiday; it was done quickly and without disruption.

(e.g.  Ecoexpert say from £3950 for a 4kW install. – Ours cost a little over £6k, but was rather technical and high spec for two years ago)

Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAQs – Photovoltaic panel (PVs)

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

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

 

FAQs – Energy monitoring

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

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

 

 

 

FAQs – Lifestyle

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

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

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

 

 

FAQs – Other cheap and big things you did 

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

 

Some other larger changes

 

 

“Renewable” Cookies

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

 

Conflict of interest?

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

 

Where from here? An event next year?

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

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

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

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

 

Links

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Us: We’re Not Hippies, Honest

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

 

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

 

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

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

Our “Eco” Home

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dealing with the rubbish

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Was it worth it?

 

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

 

Yes, it was worth it!

 

Links

 

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.

links/references

To PV or not to PV? – are photovoltaic panels worth it on a small roof?

I thought we couldn’t afford photo-voltaics (PVs) on our budget. They were ruled out with a sad face and without much contemplation at the beginning of the project, but after a little brainwave ~9 months into the project I worked a way to get them without the outlay & making use of both the main roof and extension flat-roof. We are proud of our panels and feel they are one of the biggest bits of the “eco” renovation.

The idea – Split array & Scalability
As a small terrace, there are significant roof space restrictions so we had to get round this to allow for the panels. We have a small roof (~9m2) and a little extension with a flat roof of ~6m2, so there’s only a little space to get our capacity in. A PV installation of 4kW peak – the typical install size due to government tariffs – at the time we looked (Feb-Mar 13) came in range ~£5-7k, with the established 180/240W panels coming in at the lower end to newer more efficient/higher capacity panels coming in at the upper end. As the PV industry loves to tell us, the costs of PVs have dropped dramatically over the past decades (pic. below). However their economic viability as technology in the UK is currently dependant on the Government’s renewables uptake incentive – feed-in-tarrifs (FITs) – and these have been decreased in stages since their introduction. So, combined with local effects, each install’s economic case is unique dependant on when it is undertaken. Our window was with FITs at 15.44 p per unit generated (kWh) & an export tariff of 4.6 p per unit (kWh) transferred to the grid. So now the job was to work out the difference between different systems and get some people to quote for it.

PV module price 1977-2013
PV module price 1977-2013

Would the Sun shine on us?
To see whether the Sun will shine on your PV plan, there are lots of useful free resources out there like the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), the Joint Research Centre (JRC) PV and the energy saving trust (EST) tools. They take a few small pieces of info – like roof size, angle and location – and combine this with  weather data to convert this into payback stats for energy and money. I used 4 in the end (links at bottom) to get my head round the project. This gave us a great approximation for the project and we soon felt that if we could find a way to finance the panels it would not only help us reduce our bills, but contribute to renewable energy production & help provide some payback for all the work we’ve done on our little place. We had a think about the local issues, like avoiding shading on the panels from chimney pots & neighbours roofs. The siting had to carefully considered and this was especially the case of any rack mounted panels.

Spec’ing it out

We needed high capacity panels to fit the 4kW worth we were aiming for, which narrowed our search down to three panels (below). This was done via online reviews, installers/buyers comments (YouGen), old photon magazine listing (unfortunately now bust) and on-line reference databases (e.g. direct industry) for the individual panels.

Then we asked four companies to quote for this split array system; the companies we selected had to have micro-generation certificate scheme (MCS) registration to allow us to get FITs. We choose these through Google, YouGen, & EcoExpert. Surprisingly only two of them were willing to deal with the complexity of the split array, and one company was quickly our favourite for their responses to my excessive questions. There are lots of options when it come to panels, and the four installers who quoted all had their own favourites. Pleasingly these did seem to tally with what the independents (photon magazine) were saying, and we had the choice narrowed to REC vs. SunPower to meet our high capacity with low area requirements. In the end it was a combination of warrantee, entirely black aesthetics,  and physical size that made the decision, the SunPower’s 25 year extensive warrantee making it a firm winner in my thoughts.

Cost
The cost was the original stumbling block and the rather odd split array only pushed this cost up. My research had shown that install/labour/inverter costs outweigh the modules’ cost, so a larger array would be cheaper per kW and provide a better payback. I started growing jealous of anyone with a large east/west/south facing roof as this would let them use cheap panels and lots of them. However clearly from the quotes, the install was still very much worthwhile, so I looked into how to pay for the system. I found ways to avoid a prohibitive up-front cost through eco-loans (e.g. home eco improvement loan or company finance)  and ended up securing the money at a low interest rate by having it added onto the mortgage.

Install
When it came down to it, the install was done in a fast and efficient way – it only really took a day. Our neighbour kindly allowed us to reduce the height of his drainpipe (along with ours) to ensure the panel’s performance, and then we were off! I’ve not looked back (until this article!) and half a year & ~1500kWh later (see daily production graph below) we can only say we’re more than pleased…

PV electricity (kWh) production July-Jan
PV electricity (kWh) production July-Jan

I am next going to integrate a mini weather station into the system to be able to analyse the panel performance in context, but that will be separate blog entry.

Here are some refs/links :

There are also more general relevant links on my 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.

Why write a blog about eco renovating a typical mid-terrace house?

Fed up with “affordable” housing, the rental market, & houses we lived in coercing us into a inefficient, expensive & wasteful lifestyles we decided to see if we could do it better ourselves. We firmly hold the belief that embracing an Ecological lifestyle can improve your standard of living, and this is our project to test that.

This house is no grand design. It’s a standard 2 up 2 down mid-terrace with small 70s extension typical of York. Its important personally for us, as our first home after 7 years together. As most couples looking for the first home and to get on to the housing market, the budget was tight & there didn’t seem to be many options on the market. The way range of what is classed, as “affordable” housing was inextricably more often that not, completely out of budget.

Through this blog I will be talking about our forays into Eco-living/Renovation, from the small (e.g. lighting choices) to the big (e.g. aiming to become self-sufficient in electricity & issues with builders) and I will aim to post ~once a month. The project is already a year in, we’ve got a lot done (e.g. Solar PV panels & extensive insulation) & have quite a few projects in the pipeline (e.g. ventilationwhole house energy monitoring & a micro weather station). With a few digression into Eco & related things, hopefully this blog will be of interest to others thinking about alternative options in housing/lifestyles.

I look forward to hearing about other people’s ideas & hope to offer something useful to others doing or thinking about doing some Eco renovation or Eco-ing up lifestyles.