Friday, 31 January 2014

January thrift

Why is January such a long month? I am so glad it is finally over and spring seems that little bit nearer. I have realised that the supermarket often has reduced price, out-of-date flowers, so I have been treating myself to a bunch for 99p to cheer things up. This bunch I bought a week ago and are still going strong. 

There has been lots of baking going on. Below is the chocolate cake for my good friend's birthday. There were also cakes to bake for school, which meant baking extra batches for home too or else there would be none left for school!

This was all too much for my main oven and the heating element blew. I made Rocky Road instead this week, as there is no baking required. There is also nothing healthy in them either, so a rare treat for the kids.

I am hoping my oven will be repairable because I have vowed not to buy any more electrical appliances. I was given a slow cooker and loaned a de-hydrator, I but haven't bought an electrical appliance for at least a year, maybe even 2 years. I know that doesn't really sound very impressive, but it is good to start somewhere.

When my hand-me-down food processor packed up, I made do with my stick blender and a manual whisk where you turn the handle (only the handle seems to have gone missing!), which the kids find a novelty so they do the whisking for me. If I want to be successful at reducing my energy consumption, then more electrical gadgets are not going to help. Of course if my washing machine or fridge break then I will have to get them fixed or replaced right away, but can I manage without a toaster?

I pulled out a top last week that I had bought at the car boot sale. I like it, it fits well, but I haven't really worn it. It is because it has frills around the front, which end up all scrunched up after it is washed and then they need to be ironed out before I can wear it. I try my utmost not to ever do any ironing - obviously just for energy saving reasons, not because it is boring, pointless and piles up in the blink of an eye ;-)

Anyway, I was trying to work out if I could cut the frills off without ruining it, when my hubby cleverly suggested sewing the frills down, so they can't move. Can you see in the picture above that I have sewn down one side? I'm not telling you which side! Now it is perfect, I can wash it and wear it with no ironing necessary.

I need to put my sewing skills to use on making curtains next - I have gathered all the materials I need, I am just procrastinating about getting started. I know that my heat is seeping out of those cold windows in the meantime. Maybe this weekend......

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The wind whistles through

If you look up draughtproofing you will find lots of standard advice about putting insulation strips around the joints of windows and doors. But how do you know where the real draughts are coming from?

Energy saving no.5: Use smoke to detect draughts
For this you need incense sticks, which you can get from the type of shop that sells scented candles. This was such a dangerous shopping trip for me, because I had to wander round several shops full of fancy cushions, ornaments, co-ordinated kitchen accessories and other cute appealing 'stuff', some of which were still reduced from the January sales! I was incredibly restrained to only come home with the incense...... er.... and a throw from a charity shop (which really was an impulse buy because it matches nothing, but at least it was secondhand and will go straight back to the charity shop!) I finally found the incense in Wilkos at £1 for 20 sticks.

The theory goes that you can use the smoke from the incense to show where draughts are coming in. Start by making sure all the windows and any vents are closed. Then turn extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens on to their highest settings. This should create a slight 'negative pressure' or suction in the house. The air is being sucked out with the extractor fans, and this will then be replaced by cold air that is dragged into the house through any available gaps or cracks.

If you don't have any extractors, then try waiting for a windy day. The side of the house facing the wind will be under pressure, as the wind forces the air in and there will be negative pressure or suction on the opposite side, pulling air out.

If you don't have an incense holder, just stand a mug or a jar on a plate, so that you catch the ash and have somewhere to stand the incense in to light it. Set fire to the tip of the incense, and when the tip glows gently blow out the flame. You should have a lovely stream of smoke going straight upwards.

I held a black book behind the incense so that you could see the smoke, but the reflections still make it difficult to see. This is the important bit to remember though - heat rises and because the smoke is hot it should stream straight upwards at first and then it will create swirls and eddies as it mixes with the cooler air in the room. It is that first 10cm of smoke that we need to watch. If there is a draught blowing inwards that smoke could be going sidewards or swirling around. You have to hold the incense stick steady and wait for a few seconds for the smoke to settle before you will see it.
As an example the above picture shows the draught coming underneath my gas fire (which was switched off). The smoke is being blown straight across rather than rising upwards. This is a big draught, but is not one that I can seal up. When gas burns it uses up oxygen and needs a constant supply of fresh air. If there is not enough oxygen then carbon monoxide can be formed, which is a deadly odourless gas that can kill. Vents around gas appliances are normal and necessary - don't tamper with them. 
Here is the skirting board close to the front door. The smoke is going straight upwards, so no draughts here, but look what happens a little bit further along. There are definite signs of a draught. I could try sealing up the gap below the skirting board, or take the skirting board off completely and fill any gaps behind it. I could also try taping the joints with an airtight tape before fixing the skirting board back in place.

I am sorry that these are pretty rough photos. I was holding the incense in one hand and taking photos with my other, whilst trying to keep everything steady. There were plenty of draughts around the windows, but it was almost impossible to photograph the smoke against the white PVC frames.

Energy saving no. 6: Inspect seals around windows and re-seal
Even without the incense it is worth inspecting your windows in detail. Close inspection can show where the sealant has come away and is not sticking to the surfaces. I found a little puddle in the corner of my bay window, caused by condensation forming, not from rain getting in. Warm air holds lots of water vapour, but cold air cannot hold as much. When the warm air from the house hits a cold surface or meets a cold draught, it drops some of the moisture. This is called condensation and in places that are regularly damp, mould or mildew will grow. Black mould is often a sign that there is a cold spot or the seals are not keeping the draughts out!

It was interesting to see that in the newest windows installed in 2005, the black mould formed around the seals where the window frame joins the building. The bay window pictured above is probably the best of all the newer windows as it is on a South facing wall. Can you see the black mould on the sealant between the wall and the plastic moulding, and between the moulding and the window frame? The window frame itself is fine though. I couldn't bring myself to photograph the black mould on the North facing windows, because it was really bad, worse than I had realised :-(

Whereas in the older windows that were pre-1999, most of the mould was on the black seal between the glass and the window frame. Can you see that the black seal has shrunk and there are gaps in the corners? This means that the window is no longer sealed double glazing and has lost some of it's insulating properties. There are companies about who can repair these windows, by replacing the glass for A rated glass and re-sealing them.

The newer windows were built to a higher standard, but clearly less care was taken installing them. I seriously need to look at improving the insulation around the window frame and resealing them so they are airtight.

And how is this for condensation? Can you see the big drops of water at the bottom of both the metal locks? Metal is a good conductor of heat, and these locks go right through the door. The freezing air outside is cooling the outer part of the lock and the metal is carrying that cold inside. This is called 'thermal bridging', it provides a shortcut through the insulated material surrounding it, allowing the cold to get in. These doors were installed in 2005 and are 'FENSA approved' which means that they should have been built to meet section 4 and 7 of the 2000 Building Regulations and come with a 10 year guarantee. I won't make you read the Building Regs, which are very long-winded, but in essence it boils down to this.....

Reasonable provision shall be made for the conservation of fuel and power in buildings by
(a) limiting heat gains and losses
    (i) through thermal elements and other parts of the building fabric;

So my windows should limit heat being lost through them (and around them), to improve energy efficiency. If you compare them to the old single glazed windows that were there before, then they certainly are far better, but it is clear to see that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Building regulations have become tighter regarding energy efficiency since then, but has that filtered down to the small replacement window companies yet? Let me know if you have had similar problems.

There was one other lovely quote from the Building regs. that I need to share. All building work shall be carried out....

".....(b) in a workmanlike manner. "

Hmmm......I don't think the workmen have the same idea of a "workmanlike" manner as the suited individuals who wrote this ;-)

So there is lots of detective work that you can carry out in your home. My advice is to just look at one room at a time, maybe starting with the coldest place, or where you spend the most time and can feel the draughts. Then you won't get overwhelmed! I'm going to be sealing up some of the draughts in future posts, but some councils or Transition groups run 'Draught Busting sessions', to show you how it's done, so look out for these in your local area.

I am trying to keep things clear and simple, so please let me know if I get too technical or fail to explain something. Likewise if I'm boring you by explaining the obvious. Thanks :-)

Oh careful with the incense sticks - please don't singe or set fire to your curtains or carpets or burn yourself. Make sure the area is clear, and keep the plate handy to knock the ash onto before it falls.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The sunny stuff

I didn't show the full extent of my roof in the last post because of this....

Just over a month ago we had solar photo-voltaic panels (PV) fitted to our roof. PV panels convert energy from sunlight into electricity. They aren't our PV panels technically, we have just rented the air above our roof to A Shade Greener, who have covered it with PV panels. This may sound bizarre, but it is all to do with a government scheme in the UK called Feed-In-Tariffs or FiTs.

A few years ago PV panels cost so much to install for a dwelling, that the energy saved wouldn't even cover the cost of installing them in their 30 year lifetime. There were 3 reasons for this. Firstly it was a fairly new technology and did not benefit from the economies of scale that mass production does. Secondly the UK is pretty cloudy, so you wouldn't produce as much electricity from them here, as you would if they were somewhere sunny like Spain. Thirdly the cost of electricity in the UK was relatively cheap, so the small amount of electricity that you gained from the PV wasn't worth a lot.

The government decided to follow Germany's lead and incentivise renewables, by offering a generous payment for every unit of electricity generated. By encouraging a bigger take up of PV systems, the economies of scale would kick in and the price of installing PV would drop. This has been pretty successful as prices for a domestic PV system have dropped from around £11,500 to around £4,500.

The FiT amount you receive when you install the PV system is guaranteed to be paid for the next 25 years at that rate. When the scheme started this rate was 43.3 pence per kWh, but has since been reduced (in line with the reduced installation costs) and is currently 14.9 pence per kWh. Investing in PV panels can give a 7% return with the FiTs, far better than the banks are offering at present. So the FiTs mean that installing PV makes good financial sense, if you have an unshaded, southerly facing roof.

I have been looking at ways to reduce my energy consumption, but didn't have money to invest. The PV panels have been installed at no cost to me. The company will maintain them and insure them for 25 years, but they will also receive all the FiT payments. However we do get to use all the electricity the PV produces at no cost, thereby reducing the grid electricity we consume. No upfront cost, no risk and free energy was enough to persuade me :-)

We were very pleased with the whole installation process. There was absolutely no sales pressure or salesmen sent round, they went through the wording of the contract with us line by line, it was well organised so that the scaffolding was up for less than a week, the installation was only 2 or 3 hours and within 2 days we had an online account showing the energy that had been generated. I have copied the table from A Shade Greener's website below.

So far 203 kWh have been produced (about £21 worth), but then it has been a stormy month with several overcast days. What we don't know is how much of that energy we have actually used and how much has gone into the grid, as this is not metered.

To gain from having PV, we need to use the electricity when it is being generated - in the middle of the day when the sun is shining. For the average household, where people work outside of the home during the day, they are expected to only use 35% of the energy produced. Working from home means that we have PCs on during the day and it also gives me the opportunity to switch the washing machine on when the sun comes out. Our average daily consumption is 15 kWh, so in winter we shouldn't have a problem using all the electricity from the PV, but we will have to wait and see how we get on in summer when more electricity is produced.

I have my electricity monitor set up on my desk, which displays the electricity that we are using from the grid every 30 seconds. If it drops to zero, I know that I need to switch on my appliances that are loaded and ready, or charge some batteries. If I don't use the electricity it will go into the grid and be used by someone else, but if I can use it, then I will reduce my electricity consumption.

I have been debating whether to include PV in my series of energy saving measures. My aim for the series is to give sound, specific, how-to advice for simple and cheap energy saving measures. I am benefiting from PV for free, but this opportunity won't last forever and my readers from other countries can't benefit from it. However your governments may have similar schemes that you can benefit from, and it is always worth asking. There may be grants or opportunities available that you haven't realised.

My reluctance with PV is because it is always important to spend money on insulating your house first, which will give far better energy savings in the UK and make your home warmer. The government has tried to address this within the FiTs, and domestic properties need to achieve at least a D rating to receive the top FiT rate.

The government should be focusing far more on energy saving measures first, but because reducing energy consumption would reduce profits for the energy companies and VAT (tax) for the government, it isn't much of a priority for them. Not at least until there are enough voices pushing for action. So for the sake of saving energy, reducing carbon emissions and limiting energy company profits, I have included PV.

Energy saving no.4: Install photo-voltaic panels to convert energy from the sun into electricity
For anyone based in the UK who is interested in finding out more, checkout the Energy Savings Trust website for its PV calculator, or the FiTs website for advice. There are only a couple of companies offering to install panels on your roof for free and I used A Shade Greener, who are the largest I think. You have to have a large enough unshaded roof facing roughly south to qualify. I can only tell you about my experience with them which has been good, and I haven't received any payment or incentives from them to promote them. If you decide you want to sign up with them, they are offering £50 for you and the person who recommended you. Please mention that I recommended you and I will donate my £50 to Shelter, a charity that helps homeless people in the UK. If you are local to Loughborough and have money to invest in PV, the Transition Group has a scheme for buying PV panels with a local supplier. Other Transition Groups may have something similar.

Is there anything else you need to know? I will keep you updated on my electricity savings in future posts. I would love to hear from you if you decide to install PV panels, or if you have already had them installed then let me know what you think of them.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Energy saving 2

It's been nearly a month since I posted the first part of my energy savings series, and in the UK we are still waiting for winter to hit. This morning was the first hard frost we have had round my way, as you will see from the photos later on.
This is my loft hatch insulation as described in Energy saving no.1: Insulating the loft hatch. It is not a tight fit and I could probably do with some draught proofing around the edges of the loft hatch, but I will come back to that in a later post.

I am still going to focus on heat loss for this post, but I want to know where my heat is being lost. My loft space has a snug 'duvet' of insulation over it to keep the heat in. My brick walls have a cavity, which has been filled with insulation (though many years ago). My windows and doors are double-glazed. So where is the heat being lost?

Energy saving no.3: Thermal images to find where the heat escapes
For years I have wanted to have thermal images taken of our home. You have probably seen thermal images on the telly, in the police programmes where the helicopter crew can locate a suspect hiding in bushes by his body heat. Thermal cameras take an image of the heat, so on a cold, winters night when you have the heating on inside, a thermal camera can show where heat is leaking from your home. It can reveal a hidden picture of the ‘health’ of your home, showing where there are draughts or where more insulation is needed.

I put a request out through the Transition Town Group and Karl responded. He kindly offered to bring a thermal imaging camera round to try. It took us a while to get the hang of it, as neither of us had used one before. (The camera Karl borrowed is used by vets to detect the heat of infections in animals - isn't that amazing!) Ideally you should do this on a cold evening, but it was actually quite mild, so I turned the heating up high to give a bigger temperature difference between inside and outside. The thermal images aren't very clear, so I have taken some images of my home in daylight, so that you can see what they are showing.

The blue areas show lower temperatures, which means that less heat is being lost through these areas, such as the low sloping roof and much of the brick walls. The target sign on the thermal image gives a temperature reading written in the top left corner, so at that light blue section of the wall the temperature is 6.5 degrees celsius. I didn't measure the outside temperature, but I would guess it was 3 to 5 degrees. The yellow and green areas are warmer, showing more heat loss, and the red and white areas are the hottest, showing the greatest heat loss. These are the areas for me to focus on.

The thermal image shows that the downstairs bay window of my living room, is losing less heat than the bedroom window above. At the time the bay window had the curtains drawn, whereas the curtains for the bedroom were only partially drawn with a large gap in the middle. Could this be why there is a difference in temperature? There is also a radiator below the bedroom window, which may be why this patch of wall is yellow, rather than blue. The bright red area lower down the image is the glazed arch in our front door. The images below take a closer look at the front door.

Look at the bright red areas where the glass panels are and also the door handle. They were a bit of a surprise to me, as it is supposed to be an insulated door. I could really reduce heat loss by putting a thick curtain up behind this door. The area below the sill is also letting heat out as shown below.

This area is just below the floor level, so how can this area be warm? Maybe it hasn't been sealed properly below the door, or there are cracks or gaps where the air can flow through. I need to do some more investigation work here.

Here are the last two windows at the front of the house.
I was surprised by how dark the sloping roof is. There is no access to this sloping roof area, so it can only have a minimum amount of insulation from when it was built, if any. I think that had we been able to take an image from above it may not have looked quite so insulated.

The windows however stand out as being very warm. The upstairs window has lined curtains, which were closed and tucked behind the radiator, although the small top window was actually slightly open. Even with the window open, the heat loss from this window is a lot less than that from the window below, which has venetian blinds.

The way to reduce heat loss from windows does seem to be to have thick, lined curtains and to make sure that they are closed properly - with no gaps. I am going to make improving my curtains as another energy saving measure, but for now I am making sure that I close them properly. I can test how effective they are by going outside at night and seeing how much light shines through - if the light gets through, then the heat will too!

I do have one small window that is single glazed. It is tucked away in a narrow corridor between the kitchen and the garage, so it is sheltered.

The temperature of this window is 13 degrees C and it is glowing white! (We set the temperature band between 5 and 10 degrees, so in effect it is off the scale as it is 13 degrees C.)This room is a small downstairs toilet, which doesn't have a radiator, so tends to be quite cold. Although it is sheltered from the elements there is still a lot of heat lost through it (no wonder the room is cold!).

It is very interesting to see that the wall to the right of the pipe also shows as glowing white. Look at the position of the pipe. The photo shows that it is brick wall behind the pipe and to the right of it. Why isn't this blue/green/yellow like the rest of the walls?

We took many more images and I will use some in future posts, but I hope they have given an idea of where you could be losing heat in your homes.

If you want to get some thermal images of your property then you could try contacting your local council, the energy efficiency advice centre, the rural community council or transition town groups in your area to see if they can help. You are more likely to get someone to do it for free if you can get other people on your street or in your village interested. For instance Appleby Magna village had thermal images taken of all the houses in the village. They put the images on display in the town hall so that everyone could see their house and compare it to their neighbours. This gave them a good opportunity to inform people on insulating their homes and talk about any grants available.

There are other simple ways to locate where heat is being lost and this morning's frost was a perfect opportunity to check out your roof.

To get a rough idea of how much heat you are losing through your roof, it is important to get out early before the sun is high. Try to compare your roof with others that face the same direction. If you have a garage then use it to compare with. If no heat is being lost through the roof of your home then it would have as much frost on it as your unheated garage does.

I was right about that low pitched roof needing more insulation. It may be better insulated than the windows, but it as not as well insulted as our main roof. Below is the back of our house for a comparison. 
I hope this has been helpful and let me know if you have any questions J