Earth Notes: A Note On Going Green in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK

Improving a house in the north of England.

Chris Benson wrote to me (February 2008) having looked at this site, and we discussed what he might be able to do in his own home at ~55°N. Here follows an edited transcript of our emails.

Insulation, Insulation, Insulation

Chris kicked off (after a flattering preamble) with:

A suggestion from a friend of mine who has just done it: If it it's not already been done, insulate any central heating pipes running in the ventilated space under the ground floor. My friend has just insulated about 35m of pipes to get much improved heating and a reported 20% decrease in gas usage. It's not very obvious or as sexy as thermal stores, but has a very good RoI [Return on Investment].

My '70s era CH [Central Heating] piping is also uninsulated (and starts by running through a concrete floor laid directly on earth) so my new super-efficient combi-boiler has been pretty effectively crippled. I'm looking for ways of insulating that avoid pulling up carpets/vinyl and floorboards.

I had to admit that my central heating and DHW [Domestic Hot Water] is so weird that I dare not touch it, which is why I went for solar PV (PhotoVolatics, ie electricity: 1.29kWp [kiloWatts peak] due to be installed 25th/26th Feb). I will however look again at lagging any hot pipes. At least one of our floors is solid (and containing a failed non-standard loop to a now-dead radiator). Plus the boiler has been moved leaving a bizarre re-routing of pipework.

Chris said:

Ah, commiserations on the CH/HW front: ours is not too bad apart from tunnelling though cold concrete, lack of insulation and the boiler being a 30m pipe-run from anywhere solar panels could be fitted.

But congratulations on the PV system: I'll be interested in reading your experiences. The people of AtoB magazine went PV in 2006 and wrote about it at which was one of the triggers for my interest. But I need to get our electrical usage (14kWh/day annual average for 2 people) closer to your levels before it makes any sense at all. Of course being at 55N doesn't help with insolation.

We're about to replace our fridge/freezer as that will save well over 1kWh/day, though I'm still not sure about the embodied energy issue and the best thing to do with the old one, eg should I scrap the existing working unit to stop someone else using it, or can I assume that if (say) I freecycle it then it'll displace an even less efficient one? Questions, questions!

Current Status

Chris gives a potted summary of how is house is now:

These are 3-story late-Victorian terraces, so (pros):

  • solidly built
  • relatively small surface area for the volume
  • south-facing roof
  • council planning dept. have given permission in principle for panels mounted on the S-facing (street-facing) roof.


  • relatively small roof
  • draughty (I've put in double-glazing throughout, a new front door, under-roof insulation)
  • large rooms with high (>3m) ceilings
  • solid walls
  • v.little garden/yard space for e.g. a large thermal store which is a very attractive idea for me
  • a damp-proof course has been injected: we keep soil away from the exterior walls
  • built with v.little in the way of foundations: there's dirt a metre or so under the floorboards, which gets wet in wet weather so insulation on the underside of floorboards may also be in the future
  • boiler is in the lean-to extension right at the back

My initial dream was to be independent of the grid for up to 48h even during winter -- even if that meant "only" keeping fridge, freezer, lighting and CH running. I didn't realise how ambitious that was!

But reality struck and I keep coming up against the amount of energy I can collect from my little bit of roof and get depressed. The dormer and its shadows limit me to about 6m^2 of unshaded collector. I could fit about 10m^2 with the limitation that the extra 4m^2 would be in shade either morning or late afternoon.

Using the insolation tables from some of the places you've linked to as well as from 'Photovoltaics Design and Installation Manual' I'd get about 1.2kWh/m^2/day in winter = 7.2kWh/day if I used all the well-lit area (summer might give 29kWh/day), but from our weekly meter readings, we use up to 20kWh/day in winter down to a minimum of 10kWh/day in summer. 6m^2 of panels would be hard to fund but at current usage (supplying about 1/3 of winter usage), without a good feed-in tariff or net metering I can't justify it at all.

(My wife dreams of retiring to the south coast of Crete where the economics (and insolation!) are considerably more favourable.)

Chris didn't have my minor fridge/freezer-disposal conundrum:

I'm glad I don't have to try to deal with that dilemma. We had a round of failures 4-5 years ago where the fridge, freezer and washing m/c died within months of each other, so I got the most efficient then available (I need to check how efficient they are now!) and didn't have to worry about someone else using them - the fridge and freezer were ~20 years old and scrap!

Measuring and Measures Taken

I've done the easy things: replaced lights that weren't already fluorescent, put 10-way switched power blocks in the rooms with lots of devices that don't need to be on all the time ... So I've been looking elsewhere for power suckers: I have been using meters to monitor individual devices so I know that e.g. it's 0.47kWh to bake a loaf in the breadmaker, that the (large) refrigerator uses ~0.25kWh/day. I really must record all these measurements in one place in one set of units.

I installed a inductive? meter between the meter and consumer unit a couple of months back and found that usage has never been below 350W since I connected it :-( I'm going to have to go through the house and try to account for every last Watt -- I have a horrible feeling there's an old door-bell transformer tucked under the floorboards somewhere :-)

But I've not yet taken the step of downsizing the computing infrastructure: I use a couple of fanless Mini-ITX machines for firewall and wife's workstation, and there're three other diskless machines around the house, and a Mac for watching DVDs, but the house server (usually 130W, but up to 170W when busy) with all the music/video/home-dirs/... is on all the time as are the SqueezeBoxen, so I'm afraid something's going to have to give there if I'm going to get my power usage in-line with what is sustainable.

I'm also starting to think about heat: important up here in the far North :-) Our gas usage is (in old units) between 3 and 5 x100ft^3 per week in summer when it's just DHW and the cooking hob, to 35-38 x100ft^3 per week in winter.

That's been a driver for double-glazing and roof insulation. I can do a bit more insulating in the roof voids, but I'm getting to the point of diminishing returns with that. Draughts through the eaves and under the floorboards seem the most productive areas for attention.

Thermal Store and Vertical Solar Panels

Your thermal reservoir idea is attractive because I don't see better way of storing that much energy so cheaply. I could see that working well if I could gather enough heat during the summer. But I don't have room for the reservoir! Someone living in Finland mentioned that a system of 'blowing hot air through rocks in the basement' during summer, then opening vents from the basement to the house in winter was, if not common, not unusual there. Perhaps I should fill under the floorboards with rubble and try that.

Your comments about vertical mounting of PV/solar panels has made me think about measuring the shadow of the houses opposite during winter to see whether it would be worth having PV and/or solar water panels on the front wall under the eaves to increase my collection area in the winter months ... but I've been prevaricating by trying to think of ways of automating the data-collection instead of just going out and taking a photo every hour!

I had an architect look at the place last year: his suggestion was a well-insulated extension in the back yard enclosing the coldest+darkest part of the plot to retain some of the heat lost through walls, windows and doors. But doing that properly would be even more expensive than filling the roof with PV and ancilliary equipment! Another day-dream is to enclose the whole front of the house from footpath to eaves in a sun-trap/greenhouse affair made of scaffolding poles and polycarbonate sheeting -- but it'll take a complete breakdown of the planning system before I'd be able to get away with it!

My current thoughts are that the best bang for the buck for me will come from draught-exclusion, insulation of external hot water pipes but probably from getting more of the computers off more of the time :-(

Then if/when I can get down to an annual average of 6kWh/day, PV makes sense ... with a feed-in tariff it might actually be profitable! Who knows?

My Thoughts

My first thought was that his location might be very suitable for a vertical ground-source heat-pump [GSHP] collection run; especially if he has moving ground water to continue to keep the temperature steady/up. The boreholes can be inside and outside the house perimeter so far as I know...

As regards his potential for capturing solar energy, I'd see 6m^2 as about 1kWp of PV at best (eg using my preferred Sanyo HIT hybrid panels), which in winter will generate an average of ~1kWh/day. Chris says:

Yup. This is the bit that makes me depressed: we're used to such a high density of energy, having to collect it ourselves really brings that home.

[He would] probably capture much more energy as heat towards DHW and even space heating with solar thermal, and it might be possible to use the partially-shaded areas for solar thermal collectors. Chris says:

Yes, the PV Design and Installation Manual makes it clear that even with the fancy diodic(sp?) protection, you do not want to partially shade PV panels. So per my previous message a heat collection/store is of interest.

That 350W base load is horribly high: the council's not running a streetlight off your power, is it? Or maybe there's a secret MI5 unit under your house... In fact, I'd say that that is high enough to be dangerous simply in terms of heat that may be being released in a confined place. Have you tried turning off the house circuits one at a time until the load goes away? Chris says:

I suspect (hope) this is a combination of wired-in devices I can't measure with the portable meters: oven, boiler, burglar-alarm and an inaccurate meter. I've measured usage at each socket in each room with the portable meters and I've tried to measure the effect of individual circuit breakers on the fixed meter, but with the value bouncing so much it's not clear: I do need to shutdown the house and flip the Big Red Switch.

Do all the insulation first: we're not going to get a feed-in tariff in the UK for the foreseeable future and thus exporting power on a domestic scale is NOT going to be profitable in its own right, IHMO, but avoiding importing power at retail rates is starting to look sensible. Chris says:

A[nother] thread at had a German contributor giving details of their feed-in tariff: over 40c/KWh for some users (varying with later installation dates, size of installation and over time). PV really does make sense with that sort of incentive -- which is why Germany has added so much PV: farmer's barn roofs are supposed to be especially popular. Until he provided actual numbers I was wondering what planet he was from: he was talking about his parents generating all their own power[*] and making 2,000 euro/month from the sale of excess.
[*] net usage - using the grid as storage.

So, insulation, draught exclusion (I saw mention somewhere of heat-recovery-ventilators which will become important if I as the place becomes air-tight. (Ha, who am I kidding? We've got 8 fireplaces with open chimneys and another chimney that would have been for a boiler in the old (single-walled, concrete on earth floored) wash room which is now a downstairs bathroom + utility room).

Get electrical usage down. An aside: I've been looking at PIR-controlled light switches, but all the ones I've seen so far need a minimum 40W load (and of course they have their own parasitic load). If/when I can get usage down enough that PV could cover fridge/freezer/lights, look at PV again.


Ground-Source Heat-Pump (GSHP)

Chris responded on the GSHP front:

I've been thinking about that, but not got as far as doing anything! The street slopes gently (1 brick every 2 houses) so while the foundations get wet in torrential rain, they dry again which suggests the water does/can move.

A friend living nearby (he of the underfloor pipe lagging) has gone as far as getting surveys and quotations for GSHP. His garden is the site of an old 'dew-pond' -- which we take to mean a surface-level well, so he had no concern about getting heat to the pipes.

But he's been put off by the 3kW to 4kW of pumps he's been advised he'd need. He's done the calculation on CO2 cost of the 3-4kW to run the pumps and concluded that until/unless he can use RE for the pumps he may as well burn the gas (and produce the CO2) in-house.

So he's going round the insulation loop again. (And writing about it for the local paper: )

Given the history and construction of this house, I'm pretty sure that there's a good bit of reduction I could/should do first: For example, the job today is to put a door back on the sitting room. For the last ~20 years the sitting room has been open to the hallway...

(Hmm, yes, our sitting room doesn't have a door into the hall either...)

If you have a mains natural gas supply then burning that for heating is about the same in terms in CO2 terms overall as using GSHP with mains electricity AFAIK. Mains gas is also much cheaper than GSHP in capital costs.

Some things that may change the balance:

  1. If you were drawing the electricity from local PV, of course, there would be zero CO2 overall, but you may have seen my calculations showing that that would be damn hard: you don't have the roof-space for the PV to cover it in midwinter.
  2. The UK's electricity supply is going to become lower-carbon in future as the renewables portion increases, so GSHP+mains may beat gas in CO2 intensity.
  3. A seasonal thermal store and/or greywater heat recovery may significantly improve the overall effective efficiency of a GSHP system, helping it again to beat burning gas.

But burning gas is otherwise a least-bad thing to do, especially once you've insulated to the max.

All AFAIK/IMHO of course.

More Seasonal Thermal Store

Chris said:

I didn't get the sitting room door hung today, but did a few other useful things including measuring the amount of front wall usable for solar panels: there's 6.4m^2 of space available between+beside first floor windows which gets midday sun on the shortest days (perhaps 10-14). Today it was in sun ~8am to ~15:30. So that's something else to add to the mix.

I do like the idea of a thermal store from several directions:

  • it can be cold here in winter, so storing energy as heat rather than converting it from other forms makes sense.
  • collecting should will be more efficient than collecting electrons.
  • storing heat in water/rock/... should be cheaper than storing electrons.

I'm going to do some calculations along the lines of your milk tanks to see what's possible with ummm (assuming there's 1m available in the foundations over the full area of the house) 60m^3 of water and between 6 and 12m^2 of solar panel.

There's a blog I read ( which has several energy-savvy people (the founder, 'Jerome a Paris', is a banker for the RE sector, specialising in wind farms). There's been some interesting postings and discussions about gas supply policy in Europe, the most recent;sid=2008/2/8/23619/65712 which again highlights the problem of depending on The Market to provide energy cheaply when there's only one major supplier (Russia) who doesn't benefit from competition so won't play. Anyway, that's politics ... My point being that I'm expecting gas prices to increase massively in the coming years _and_ would not be surprised at supply shortages on top: Most of the rest of Europe have long-term contracts with Russia at fixed prices. What's left when the long-term contacts have been filled goes on the market where the UK gets what it can.

So heat is good! Without large capital outlay is even better.

If gas supplies run short it wouldn't even be safe to curtail domestic demand (low pressure in the pipes, air getting in, etc, etc) so industrial demand, including 40% of our electricity supply, would have to take the hit first. The UK is building storage, etc, like crazy to blunt Putin (+successor) attempts to turn off the taps, but yes I'd like to reduce dependency on gas all round.


Follow-up on the 350W Phantom Load

Chris reported that he'd done some work to chase down his 350W 'base' load:

OK: I've done some testing. (Mmmmm this has turned into a saga!)


  • 5 circuits on the DB
  • real-time monitor on the DB<->meter cable never showing less than 350W even after turning off computers and subtracting known devices


Oven showing clock, but not otherwise in use shows 0 [good!]

Downstairs Lights

All accounted for: the main hall light (on most of the day) is rated 32W and measured 35W.

Downstairs Power

The new-ish combi-boiler uses 50-123W, usually 70-87W.
I need to check the duty cycle for this.

The fridge and freezer each use about 80W when running and the fridge has a 25W bulb.
Record the duty cycle of these (and write it down this time).

The joker here is the music-centre in the kitchen (on/standby 24x7): 50W on standby, not noticably more when in use as a radio. I've put it on a switched power block until it can be replaced.
Replace, possibly with switched active speakers driven by SqueezeBox.

Upstairs Power

As expected, the main use is 'The Back Room' (the office). The main server is 130W up to 160W in heavy use. But firewall, switch, WAP, printer, 2 LCD screens, C's workstation bring the total to 280-300W on 24x7. I've rearranged the power distribution so that C and I each have a switched power block for screen and misc. power supplies (radio, phones, laptop, ...) that can be switched off when not in use. The remaining devices are classed as:

  1. always connected+filtered (server, switch, WAP, firewall)
  2. always connected (not filtered) (lamp, DECT phone PSU, Ethernet-over-Mains)
  3. not reconnected: DAT drive, old SCSI CD-R drive, old Mac server, ...)

There was also 13W previously measured in the front-attic from DECT phone, music centre, SqueezeBox + Ethernet-over-Mains.
Put all but the phone onto a switched power block.

Upstairs Lights

I found that the main front/back/half-landing lights (on when anyone is active in the house) were taking 158W: but these are just 32+20+15=67W CFLs. I narrowed it down to the biggest (and oldest) lamp and replaced it ... to find that the 20W replacement used 70W! Basically whichever combinations of lamps I used, the draw would be more than double!
Look for lose connections at lampholders, switches and junctions, lamps wired under the floorboards, check the cable run length.

So between the extra computer equipment, the boiler, the kitchen stereo and the upstairs landing lights, I've accounted for the mystery consumption. I've made some changes and got an action list for future work. I really don't know what to make of the upstairs lights...

Indeed a saga, and a bit startling to discover the rogue CFL energy monster! Another reason to get one of the at-the-meter power monitors like Chris has.

Power Monitors Lie!

After a bit more testing Chris discovered that his rogue '70W' CFL wasn't quite as bad as his power meter was claiming.

... Well [the power meter] measures VA rather than W.

Testing various light bulbs with a power meter:

15WOSRAM Dulux14250.58
18WPhylex ecolamp22360.59
32WOSRAM Circolux37620.60

*1 Power Factor: supposedly W/VA but not very accurate when non-zero!

So that's where my 158 not-W-but-VA from 67W of CFL comes from.

To test this I tested actual live usage. Having turned off all other circuits, I compared the power usage reported by the real-time power monitor (Efergy Wireless Energy Saving Monitor) and the spinning disk of the meter with different lights:

LampEfergy KW[*3]Meter rotations/minute[*2][*4]
1x75W R80 incandescent0.0350.34
6x15W R80 CFL0.2100.32

*2 300 rotations/KWh == 3+1/3Wh per rotation
*3 this doesn't make sense to me -- it should be ~0.075 for the incandescent and (assuming a 0.6 power factor for CFLs) ~0.150 for the 90W of CFLs. How does it manage to under-report incandescents by over 50% and over-report CFLs by 50% even allowing for it reporting VA instead of W!
*4 this doesn't make much sense either, it's supposed to be 75W -vs- 90W so the incandescent should use a little less than the CFLs. This might be measurement error, I was trying to record start and stop measurements on a spinning disk.

So what I take from this is that once you're down to a few hundred W, which is mostly CFLs, computer fans/disks and fridge+freezer motors, this particular power monitor isn't very useful :-(

At least I don't have to pull up floorboards again looking for more bad wiring!

That's interesting to note. So that rogue CFL that you described before (I assume the last on the list) was not so bad after all.

(Many days later I woke up in the night with the following thought: if that meter is clip-on and works as I imagine, all it can measure is current. It can guess that the voltage is the standard 240V RMS or whatever, but has no idea of phase, so cannot correct for non-resistive power factor.)

Correct! (As long as I'm being charged for what it says on the meter, rather than the real-time monitor.) I'm looking for the Efergy monitor documentation because I don't remember any mention that it measured VA rather than W (the screen only says KW/WKh) which is rather naughty.

Another possibility is to put the CFL in a standard/table lamp and see what one of the plug-in meters claims. A W-accuracy-bakeoff!

The W/VA/PF numbers came from a Maplin (cheap-n-cheerful) meter: I had to build a light-socket:plug (because the only lamps we've got left have things like SES connections!)

I was rather surprised at the W/VA disparity because I'd not noticed any difference with other things I'd been measuring (and I had wondered what the point of the VA button was): admittedly kettles, toasters & etc. would've been resistive loads.

As long as I'm being charged for (approximately) the rated value it doesn't really matter, but it would've been nice if the power monitor tallied with the meter -- then I wouldn't've spent a week worried about arcing joints or warm cables.

Anyway, he's greener by the minute, dodgy VA vs W or not...

The 50W-standby music centre has gone, replaced by a pair of active speakers (still 6W when idle, but I've put then into a switched socket so they're easy to turn off when not in use). So music/radio is now 23W when in use, 4W with just the SqueezeBox on for time & RSS feeds. (But that excludes the server running slimserver, the WAP, switch and firewall needed for radio!).

So the audit has saved about 1KWh/day from the music centre and about another half KWh/day through more devices on switched sockets. I'll be able to tell by next Sunday if there's a noticable difference.


Still a lot to do on the electrical front, but I'm going to look at heat for a while now: Get some clear polycarbonate sheeting to play with thermo-syphons on the windows and check termperatures around the house. So far my new thermometer has confirmed known draught locations, but also shows the other side of a wall supporting a radiator as 3C above the rest of the wall. So: I need to do something about all CH radiators on external walls. And the ground-floor floorboards are consistently 2-3C cooler than the internal walls, so that's another area to investigate.

We've put cardboard behind our external-wall radiators to reduce heat loss through the wall. Theoretically they should be mirrored with foil too, but I'm happy to reduce conduction first and postpone [dealing with] radiation losses to another day.

We've also not yet really considered putting shelves above radiators to push heat back into the room, though in a couple of cases I think it could really help.

Greening Home Computing

Phil Turner wrote to me 2008/02/12, soon after I started this page:

I've just read through "Going Green in Newcastle" and I thought it might be worth sharing my experience in trying to reduce the power usage/consumption of computers that I have in my home. I have a couple of servers running, one of which does the same job as Chris' "house server". I assume like my machine, Chris' is just an old unused PC. As I have my server up in the loft, I control it remotely via "ssh" and so it has no need of a monitor (an obvious power save there). But if you delve a little deeper you can reduce power usage by quite a bit by simply pulling out all the unused devices in the PC. Unless you have a need for things like cdroms, sound cards, modems, extra USB ports etc then get rid of them!, you will be surprised how much power some of these devices consume (on some machines you can even remove the graphics card).

One other thing that I have done for my "house server" is to shut it down overnight automatically by setting up a cron task (I'm using Linux as my server O/S) to power it of in the small hours, and then using a plugin mains power timer to kill the power about 10 minutes after. I do it like this because the server is so old that it cannot be powered of by the O/S, and also this means that when the timer powers back on, the server automatically restarts.

With a few other tweaks as well I have got the power down to around 35W whilst idle, and a maximum of around 60W whilst serving files. Averaged out over a week, the power consumed by this machine came to just over 32W per hour!

That's pretty good and not much above the ~27W from the mains for my low-power laptop. There's a lot of scope for trimming consumption of these boxes!

Things for Me To Do

Chris has brought to mind a number of suggestions that I should implement in 2008:

  • Get a whole-house power meter when they become available free in May or thereabouts to catch things like Chris' not-so-low-energy lightbulb that will not easily get caught with a plug-in meter (because the bulb is not plugged in!).
  • Lag any hot pipes. (As of 2008/04/06 I splashed out £4.88 in Wickes on 10x1m foam insulation sections and installed them on exposed CH and DHW pipework in about 30 minutes.) [Done, more-or-less...]
  • Put a door on our sitting-room's entrance into the hall (letting light in and out, but not heat preferably). [Done]
  • Put more insulation in the loft (to get us over 27cm) [Done].
  • Replacing at least one of our oldest/leakiest/cracked windows (all already double-glazed) with low-emissivity glass (Low-E) double- or triple- glazing, ideally using an EST-approved product. [Done]
  • Glaze in the porch to reduce heat loss and draughts through the front-door and make a little extra secure storage space.

Here's the whole list...

February 2009 Update

Chris describes his own experience using the Spacetherm blanket underfloor and tells me:

The new floor with 9mm SpaceTherm is 1C warmer than vinyl+ply+floorboards, 1-2C warmer than just floorboards. All in unheated rooms. I've re-installed radiators today so I'm looking forward to seeing what different it makes in a heated room.

Also he tells me:

In related news, when remounting a couple of power-sockets on the skirting of the room I've re-floored, I realised too late that I should have taken the skirting off and draught-proofed between the floorboards and the wall: I've insulated the floor against the outside temperatures, but outside air is still howling 'round behind the skirting :-(

In unrelated news, I've knocked 20% off my electricity at a stroke by replacing the house server (6xHDD, 2xOptical, more fans than I can count, ...) with a small shoebox machine with 2x1TB 'green' HDDs and CPU throttling). It's drawing 35-40W most of the time compared with 130W of the old one.

January 2010 Update

Chris sent me a nice note for the New Year, including:

Running a quick eye over for anything new I saw again the credo:

  1. Save electricity
  2. Improve your home's insulation
  3. Solar hot water
  4. Drive and fly less, and eat less meat

Which reminded me of our 2009 gas usage: Our total gas usage in 2009 (CH, DHW and cooking hobs) was 17680 kWh

There were 24 weeks with CH off. In these weeks the average gas usage was 32.29 kWh. So assuming we don't use more DHW when the CH is on and subtracting 52 weeks at 32.29 kWh I end up with 16000 kWh for CH.

28 weeks of CH is 90.5% of our annual gas usage! The cost split is ~480 for 28 weeks' CH, ~50 for the whole year's cooking and DHW.

Lessons I take from this:

  1. Insulation is really, really, really important. Especially up here in the North!
  2. I'm still not prepared to get solar hot water just for DWH: it would need to provide some room heat to make new boiler, tanks and general upheaval worthwhile.

I'm not sure whether I've said before, I used the U-value calculator at to estimate U-values for the outside surfaces of this mid-terrace house and combined it with heating degree days data from to get an estimate of energy loss for the year. The numbers were:

ceilingfloor front back Total
kWh 954.4 4294.9 4086.0 7661.2 16996.46
% total5.62 25.27 24.04 45.08

It gives me hope that the ~17 MWh is not far off the actual 16MWh, given that there're rooms we don't heat and the accuracy of heating degree days. But the proportions of heat loss I'm assuming to be quite good.

This tells me I really need to insulate the 90m^2 of back (N+E facing) wall but since I don't know how to do that, I'll try doing more with floor insulation this year: the dreaded underfloor insulation :-(

In other news: we got electricity usage down 17% from 4,250 kWh in 2008 to 3,518 kWh in 2009. I still aspire to your level of usage!

I had to confess to a slight wobble on the water in response (due to giving up the space for a water tank, and the thought of near-boiling water in experimental plumbing above my daughter's bed for example):

I think that your gas usage is pretty bang on the UK average, so nothing to be ashamed of, though my feeling would be to work harder on trimming your DHW usage since what you save comes off each day every day. Eg, each bath that you don't have probably saves 5kWh and 1kgCO2 for example, more in winter when the required temperature lift is greater... Your DHW/cooking 'baseload' seems to be about 5x ours and I don't think we're *very* smelly!

[Though Chris says later that they're "a showering household so miss out on that easy win"...]

As to wall insulation... I'm having another go at that this year, having found someone credible to analyse the problem with me, I think. I still fancy using the aerogel stuff, even though it's fiercely expensive.

As to solar DHW, for logistical reasons my view is moving to (1) more solar PV which will offset the CO2 emissions for gas and then (2) ASHP which in combination with PV should have about the same overall efficiency as solar thermal (eg 18%x3 for PV efficiency times pump CoP, vs ~50% for solar thermal) with the advantage that the system never 'boils' because any excess goes straight out on the grid.

I'm very much hoping to get us to a "zero carbon" home within the next year or two.

I also asked Chris what his mains water temperature is, now mine's ~10°C; his is currently (2010/01/02) between 3°C and 4°C, though it has been ~-10°C overnight in northern England at New Year. His differential between summer and winter seems to be ~10°C like ours.

And we're both still humming and hawing about the aerogel he already put in underfloor, and that I might dry-line my walls with, and whether it's really worth the hefty premium for the space, etc, etc!

July 2010 Update

When I emailed Chris to tell him work was starting on our superinsulation with aerogel project and how the builders disliked working with the Spacetherm, at least in part because it was so hard to cut with their usual tools, he responded:

I hope the Spacetherm-P does the business: I look forward to the report.

I'm still blocked: Earlier in the year I'd rounded up the the tuits to get under the ground floor and insulate the whole floor area between the joists with the non-itchy recycled-plastic-bottle insulation from B&Q. But I fell at the first hurdle: I'm too fat to fit between the joists (and bend to get into the void) :-/

So now I'm trying to find a thin+flexible perfectionist willing to tack up about 75m^2 of insulation with 50cm of head room, or find more tuits to pull up floorboards in the only room still with bare boards ...

The SpaceTherm blanket has (theoretically) reduced my floor's U-value from 2.29 to 0.9 (and also provides some noise insulation). But I could get 0.2 with 150mm of between-joist insulation *and* SpaceTherm (0.24 with 150mm only) ... and it would be much cheaper ... if only I had the tuits!


Aha, the blanket was a b*gger to cut too: I ended up wrecking a pair of large kitchen scissors rather than trying to cut it with a knife! Fortunately I didn't have to drill it.

Is there much loose aerogel? I found it everywhere: inside rubber gloves, nose, mouth, shoes and settled on every surface, all the way to top floor :-(

I noted (2010/07/13):

Not much loose so far... Just one (part) board has gone up today as they've also been doing the ceiling.

As a bonus we discovered that the existing wall insulation is better than we could have reasonably hoped (it might have had a U-value of ~2, the SAP tables gave 0.8, but it might be as good as 0.6) which would get the final U-value to close on 0.2W/Km^2

Chris said that he hoped that with a more solid substrate the aerogel will be better contained than his experience with the blanket, and re my 0.2 hope:

With current building regs at 0.3? 0.35? that's good!


Last month we had the 'NorthEast Festival of Architecture' up here. I went to several events including one on the PassivHaus standard and have made contact with Mark Siddall, one of the 4? PassivHaus architects in the UK who lives nearby. His presentations were stunning -- if I remember the numbers correctly heating requirements for PassivHaus buildings are 1/60 the current building regs, 1/16 the new green building programme requirements ... nothing near what can be got with by retro-fitting :-(

Other interesting news was that:

  • Mark's firm (Deveraux Architects) are doing a retro-fit trial on 3 pairs of houses of different constructions: trying to see which techniques or technologies work best.
  • Gentoo, the housing association that runs Sunderland's council housing is doing a retro-fit trial on 129 properties, with pre-, during- and post-installation monitoring of fuel use, with lots of user-education.
  • Gentoo are also building a mini-estate of PassivHaus houses in Houghton le Spring, due for habitation early 2011.

I'm looking forward to the results of all of these!

Mark arranged to visit me to see some aerogel in action(!) but has been away on work ... I'll send him to your page when he gets back.

He is also a leading light in the local group of "The AECB is a network of individuals and companies with a common aim of promoting sustainable building. It brings together builders, architects, designers, manufacturers, housing associations and local authorities, to develop, share and promote best practice in environmentally sustainable building. We pride ourselves on our independence, relevance and practicality."

I'm tempted to join as an individual to see more of their papers, magazine, forum, etc.

I hope the rest of the work goes well (or better than the work on a colleague's extension: he got a call from his wife at lunchtime: builders have left the site and the police are there looking for someone shooting at the builders with an air-rifle ...).

It seems difficult to keep up with (English) building regs galloping towards 'zero-carbon' requirements as we're getting two updates in 2010 alone I mused:

As our local and friendly Senior Building Control Surveyor says, which current regs? We got new ones in April and are due new ones in October, and he doesn't get to see them until a couple of months *after* they come in to force. And of course the regs are all TER and DER stuff as I understand it, rather than just plain U-values, but yes, 0.2 would be very good.

Somewhat undermined by the (20 year old) double glazing and solid floor (even with carpet and thermal underlay) for now! Next part of the plan is triple glazing for that room with whole-window U-values under 1.0.

Then Chris rounds off this exchange with:

In other news, the second event of the new 'Transition Jesmond' group was a 'Low Energy Walk', documented at:
Trying to stress the cheap&simple techniques, but unfortunately featuring capital-intensive installations ... We got a dozen or so people along, mostly allotmenteers, (none of the architecture people who'd seemed so interested a couple of weeks before :-/).

August 2010: MHRV Excitement

Chris wrote to say:

I was checking to see whether you had any updates on dealing with condensation and thought I'd share my latest project: installing a though-the-wall fan with heat recovery.

It's supposed to use less [than] 2W in trickle mode (but that's 24x7 unless I flip the mains switch) but will I hope save overall by avoiding the need to leave the bathroom window open for several hours, several times a week during the winter!

As my page says, the impetus came from a blog entry at which seems to be part of an on-going saga of Man -vs- 100 years of bodged maintenance, (I am sooo glad I don't have his house :-)

I replied that I've heard such mixed reviews about MHRV, especially on the Green Building Forum, but yes, our bathroom would be good for one of those and our kitchen (one of the cooker-hood-plus-MHRV combos).

And if I really begin to make the rest of the house air-tight, such as our living room, then some others might be needed. We will definitely need to keep an eye on condensation again this winter.

I'd like to know how this works for Chris, which he'd guessed!

I suspect that it will be all subjective though: I'm not measuring anything (accurately enough) to provide hard evidence :-( Mmmm. I wonder where I can get multi-channel wireless RH+temp sensor with a computer-readable format!? (At less than NetBotz prices).

As long as I leave intervening doors open, trickle mode should give me complete change of air in bathroom, utility and kitchen every 3 hours, (boost mode every hour) which is better than we get now (except when windows and doors are opened!).

One of the drivers for this was that I've noticed that between double glazing and a chimney pillow, the bedroom is stuffy in the mornings, even with the window trickle vent open. (I could have taken the chimney pillow out for the summer, but it lets me sleep through pigeons having noisy sex* between the chimney pots!). I'd like the place to be a bit fresher -- without having a gale blowing through the place!

I'll let you know if there's any noticeable result.

*I resisted the temptation to bowdlerise this pillow talk...

An early update from Chris (2010/09/12) is that he's had to up the boost trigger to 75%RH otherwise his SO turns the PSU off altogether ... but on the trickle speed it's enough that the smell of fresh bread doesn't reach from kitchen to bedroom! I'll be keeping an eye on relative humidity to help decide what needs doing here, if anything.

The next bulletin from Chris 2010/09/25 reads as follows:

Monitoring relative humidity in the back bathroom now the humidity controlled fan is in place:

Once again I've started recording after the event so there's no baseline to compare this with :-(

I was expecting that the fan would be on continuously and hoped that it would keep RH in the back bathroom below ~75%. But we sometimes turn it off because a/ it's loud, and b/ if outside RH is >80 at similar temperatures to inside, there doesn't seem much point replacing cool damp air with cool even-damper air!

I'm hoping that once we turn the CH on, inside will always be warmer than outside so however high the RH outside, it will be safe to bring external air in.

I'm looking ways of collecting temp+RH for all (or a representative sample of) rooms with automatic data collection. (Firing up a VM to run some VB app to download data is just not scalable!) Since I'm looking at getting some X10 PIR sensors to control hall+landing lights, I'm also looking at temp+humidity sensors ...

imeasure Carbon Clubs

I joined Chris' "carbon club" to keep him company though 300 miles north, plus one local to me. Chris noticed and said:

I've been trying for the last few months to get people up here to sign up for imeasure and join the 'Jesmond Transition' club -- so the 2nd member is 300 miles South! You give me (and anyone else I get signed up) a stiff target!

Over the summer I've talked to a lot of people interested in green housing, domestic energy production and etc. at various 'Festival of Architecture' events and we ran a local 'Low Energy Walk' last month ( ). But not one of the people who's was interested enough to come to a talk or walk or check the website has been able to spend the 5 minutes a week recording meter readings and recording them at imeasure. I'm afraid if these people can't make that minimal commitment, there's a long way to go before the general public is going to think about carbon reduction (until it really hurts).

Anyway, thanks for joining the club: it was getting a bit lonely looking at a club of 1 every week :-)

I told Chris that I too had failed to get anyone to read their meters...

I've set up the "Zero" carbon club for people aiming for zero-carbon primary energy usage. This will work better when imeasure can accommodate export and/or generation meter readings.

July 2012 Update

A long time (well a year!) ago, I wrote about replacing our fridge with the updated version of one you had so much problem with ... I've just realised I've just missed the 1 year mark, but the stats for the replacement fridge are: Siemens KG39EAW40G, Class A+++, 247l fridge, 92l freezer, 38dB, 157kWh/yr installed 2011-07-21 ~35W in use

3.16kWh in 241h = 114.92kWh/yr
4.79kWh in 366h = 114.72kWh/yr
8.58kWh in 702h = 107.14kWh/yr
12.80kWh in 1053h = 102.40kWh/yr
17.37kWh in 1444h = 105.45kWh/yr
41.90kWh in 4077h = 90.08kWh/yr
92.27kWh in 8932h = 90.55kWh/yr (using 20W/37VA during measurement)

Admittedly it's not had to work too hard this year ... but I'm still impressed. Now I really must get my act together and

  • move the monitor onto the extra drinks fridge we bought :-}
  • insulate under the kitchen floor to make the fridge work harder next year.

I'm also impressed that mains power has been on for over a year ... though that's partly down to me not doing anything exciting to the house :-)

Deeply enviable stats, though some of the difference is probably because ours is 'frost free' whereas this is "LowFrost"; frost-free is not energy-free! To which he replied:

Ah, I think that distinction had passed me by. Thank you for clarifying.

I have noticed that "LowFrost" doesn't mean "NoFrost" -- I really must to defrost the freezer because ice is encroaching on the top drawer.