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.

source url 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.

purchase celexa 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.

http://winchestertu.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Lateral-Lines-February-2015.pdf 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.