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Wordblog revived

incorporating New Life


Government-backed home energy saving scheme collapses

The number of houses where loft insulation was improved this year (2013) with the help of a government scheme  collapsed by 93% compared with 2012. In the year to end of October just 110,000 homes benefitted compared with 1.6 million the previous year.

Cavity wall insulation supported by the scheme fell by 77% from 640,000 homes to 125,000, the Guardian reports.

Why David Cameron felt the need to say, “We’ve go to get rid of this green crap” (Daily Mail) in October is becoming even more difficult to fathom: his Government had already done it. It was in 2006 that he coined the phrase “vote blue, go green”. He said (BBC) it was not a choice between economic growth or a sustainable environment: “We’ve got to have green growth.”

The dramatic fall in home insulation improvements coincides with the start of the coalition’s energy company obligation (ECO) which accounts for most of the installations in 2013, with the much hyped GreenDeal accounting for only 2%.

If the Government was serious about reducing fuel poverty it would be ensuring that homes were better insulated to cut energy bills. But, as Derek Lickorish, chairman of the government’s fuel poverty advisory group, told the Guardian, it is “perverse” that the £50 curb on rising fuel bills was largely achieved by cutting energy efficiency schemes.


Return of the New Life blog

Eleven months ago I started this blog with good intentions to keep it going. They did not last long. So with a few hours to go before a new year it is time to restart.

After almost a year work is underway at Ridgeway. The walls of the extension are up and the roof is on it. The new interior walls are in place. The holes for the new widows are made and measured, and the factory is starting to make the new double and triple glazed windows. More about all these things soon.

My resolve to maintain this blog failed because I was uncertain about what we were going to do with Ridgeway. There were too many frustrations as we went to different versions of the plans and there are times when I don’t really want to say what I am thinking.

The spark to reopen the blog was a story in the paper about the huge drop in homes getting more insulation with government support. That will be the next post.





Why should you have to be a nerd to live in an eco-home?

Eco-homes have been getting a bad press this week. The huge electricity bills for houses in a Bradford development hit the national headlines yesterday. The reasons have not yet been explained but the Architects Journal has an unrelated story saying “Eco-homes are too complicated”.

I am not surprised having never been able to master controllers for conventional heating equipment. Those for eco-equipment look just as impenetrable. Finding a simply managed system for the bungalow refurbishment may not be as easy as I hoped.

In the Bradford development, claimed to be among the most energy-efficient in the country, something seems to have gone seriously wrong with either the design or the equipment. Fingers are pointed at the biomass boiler for some of the houses and the Nibe boilers in others.

The Daily Mail reported: “Resident rocked by £1.600 charge after just six months.” Danny Hall told the paper:

We weren’t really told what expected bills would be but with solar panels, heat exhaust and all this fancy stuff you would expect it to be considerably lower than what we used to pay.

The council told the Mail they appreciated there was a serious problem and they were working with residents, the building contractor, the energy company and managing agents to find a solution.

The Green Building Council has removed a case study of the project from its website.

I suspect that the complexity of managing the system is at least a part of the problem.

The AJ reports on Sheffield Hallam University talking to tenants at three housing schemes across the UK who “found the technology in their eco-homes confusing and complicated to use”.

Aimee Walshaw, a research fellow, said:

Many respondents felt that the design of the home and its low energy features made it easier for them to save energy and live more sustainably.

But reported energy bills varied significantly between participants. Those who understood the technology within their homes tended to benefit from greater savings compared to their previous bills.

Most felt they had received limited inductions to their properties and the technology within it and some have struggled to get to grips with complex manuals, preferring to adopt a trial and error approach to operating the systems within the home.

Ecodan Quick Start manual

The Ecodan guide is not alone among use-unfriendly manuals

A trawl of the internet suggests that manufacturers have not raised their eyes from their workbenches to look at all the effort that has been put in during the past 30 years by the computer industry on user interfaces.

In short, if things are complicated people won’t use them.

Take, for example, the “Quick Start” manual for Mitsubishi Ecodan air source heat pumps. It starts:

“This guide has been produced in additional (sic) to the main home owner manuals. It will enable the end-user to quickly understand and set-up the main functions of the unit.”

Did any company executive even bother to take it home and test it with their family? Very unlikely unless they have a family of nerds.

For computer companies these days it almost an admission of failure to have to produce a manual. They are looking for things which can be used intuitively.

The energy efficiency industry has a long way to go.

Cameron says energy efficiency is good for prosperity but makes no new announcements

David Cameron

David Cameron

David Cameron’s speech today on energy efficiency and green growth failed to surge to the top of the news agenda. A few hours after he made it a Google news search showed only the Guardian among mainstream media, had a story. There were two items on Business Green and one at Blue and Green Tomorrow.

There was not even anything about it on the Department of Energy and Climate Change web site. The speech was to launch DECC’s “energy efficiency mission”. Nor did the site have the text of the speech, but Business Green did.


DECC website

It was a speech strangely lacking in passion, reading as if it was written by a hack in the press office with instructions not to say anything really controversial.

Perhaps that was the problem because while there was nothing I would regard as controversial the Guardian reported: “The remarks are likely to antagonise those Tory MPs who have campaigned for cuts to green energy subsidies and the watering down of climate targets.”

They must be easily offended because Cameron stressed: “My argument today is not just about doing what is right for our planet, but doing what is right for our economy too.”

He said:

Make no mistake we are in a global race and the countries that succeed in that race, the economies in Europe that will prosper, are those that are the greenest and the most energy efficient.

Let me be clear why that is. Energy consumption is set to grow by a third over the next two decades alone. And in a race for limited resources it is the energy efficient that will win that race.

It is the businesses that are best insulated from energy price shocks who will be the most successful, it is the consumers who are the least vulnerable to energy prices whose household bills will be the lowest and who can be the most confident about their future….

So to those who say we just can’t afford to prioritise green energy right now, my view is we can’t afford not to.

After the speech Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer told the Guardian it was “great” to hear the prime minister was supportive of green growth but business now needed “long-term policy to get to the next level”.

That sums it up. Reading the speech it is worthy but says nothing new. A safe speech. There were no announcements to energise research, innovation or industry.


LEDs are catching on as efficiency savings are recognised

Plymouth is planning to replace the lamps in its 28,000 street lights with LEDs to save £1.5m a year in electricity bills. The £13 million scheme is set to be approved later this month, according to This is Plymouth.

Here in Suffolk street lights were turned off between midnight and 5.30 am last year (East Anglian Daily Times) saving the council £390,000 a year. Lights near crossing and other danger areas are left on and lights on high poles dimmed. The intelligent lighting system cost £2.5 million which suggest pay back in about seven years: less is energy prices continue to rise.

In Debenham, our village, there has been some opposition to the switch-off and the Parish Council asked the county council to leave the lights on until 1am. The county council declined.

The bungalow will be completely lit by LEDs. In our present house we never really converted to compact fluorescent lamps because the low voltage down-lighters were not compatible. And we did not like either the delay or the quality of the light.

About 18 months ago we replaced the down-lighters upstairs with LEDs and were immediately converted. The light quality is good and not one has had to be replaced.

The initial cost is high but the electricity savings are very good and replacement costs largely eliminated.

UK policies inhibit building to Passivhaus standard

UK building policy is inhibiting uptake of the Passivhaus standard, according to a new report on the lessons from Germany by the NHBC Foundation.

Worldwide 37,000 houses have been built to the German standard of which only 165 are in the UK. The report says a Passivhaus will have a  typical space heating requirement only half of that of a home built to UK building regulation standards.

It finds three areas which have made the standard popular in Germany:

Social: The German population has a strong interest in the environment and an associated inclination to take action….

Political: In addition to national regulations for the energy performance of buildings, many individual cities have chosen to set their own energy and environmental standards which mandate an even higher performance….

Financial: The cost of building a Passivhaus home in Germany is now estimated at 3 to 8% more than building a home to the building regulations (known in Germany as EnEV), and there is a variety of assistance available for financing this cost. Government and local loans are available at significantly discounted interest rates, and grants are available depending on the level of energy efficiency achieved.

The NHBC Foundation refers to suggestion that Passivehaus certification should be “deemed to satisfy” the energy component of UK building regs.

A story at Inside Housing, headed “UK unwilling to embrace high efficiency homes“, quotes Neill Smith, of the NHBC, saying:

There are lessons that we in the UK can learn from the attention to detail inherent in the Passivhaus approach in the run up to the government’s 2016 zero carbon homes target. But it is questionable whether Passivhaus is a realistic solution for the volume market at present.

The failure of the Green Deal, launched by the British government this week, to offer discounted interest rates has been one of the main criticisms. We really do need to learn from Germany.

Eco town plans for global warming problems

Overheating caused by global warming has been identified as the “biggest threat” to new houses at the North West Bicester eco-town according to the local paper in Oxfordshire.

The houses are being designed to account for global warming with funding from the Technology Strategy Board, a body set up by the government to promote new technologies, says the Bicester Advertiser and Review.

Councillor Richard Mould of the Eco Bicester Strategic Deliver Board (I do wish they did not have such a self-important name) told the paper:

We’re trying to future proof homes, taking into account global warming for the next 50 years. There’s also provision for shutters to protect them from the heat.

I am not going to be around that long and our renovation will not reach code level five for sustainable homes but we have thought about overheating with our big south-facing windows.

Having lived in southern Spain for a couple of years we are fairly confident of our ability to manage solar gain through the use of night-time ventilation and shutters or other shading during the day. And super-insulation helps keep homes cool in summer as well as warm in winter.

But we have not really thought about the security issues involved in capturing cooler night air. That is why houses in Spain have bars (sometimes very ornate) on the windows. Maybe we will need them here too sometime.

We were told insulating the floor would be a challenge. It is

Insulating the floor and installing under floor heating would be the biggest challenge, we have been told, in doing the eco makeover. It is certainly the first challenge.

We were hoping that the surface screed on the concrete floor would be up to 50mm thick. A bit of hacking with a cold chisel shows that it is asphalt concrete and just 20mm thick. Drilling a hole through the slab has confirmed that there is 100mm of concrete above 100mm of compacted hardcore.

Removing the screed layer and then putting in 75m of insulation and a screed, containing the heating pipes of 65mm would raise the floor level by 120mm. Door opening would have to be raised and losing five inches off the heights of the rooms would do nothing for their proportions.

Breaking and removing 5 cubic metres of concrete sounds like a very expensive and risky option. Much more digging would be needed to make room for insulation, the new concrete slab and the screed. Can we afford that and do we want to take the risk of collateral damage? But it would be nice to reach a passive house standard.

Searching through internet forums brings conflicting experience. Some say they have  dug-out floors, but don’t say how much it costs. Others say it is too expensive, but again don’t quote figures.

The height increase on the existing slab can be reduced by fitting the heating pipes into the top of the insulation and using a heat spreader. But that means there is no thermal mass in the floor and the heating has to run at a higher temperature which reduces efficiency.

Every solution seems to have disadvantages. Mad thoughts flash through my mind: might not the existing slab provide a big heat store if we just laid the heating screed directly on it. Then solar gain, through the big south-facing windows, could compensating for the lack of insulation?

Dreams, dreams of an easy solution. We are just going to have to cost the alternatives and decide what to do.

We can’t be the first people do face this dilemma. It would be good to mown what they did.




Why the Green Deal sucks

Once people heard about our project they suggested we were in line for lots of help from the Green Deal (government website). We looked at it and very quickly decided it was not for us. For a start you have to borrow money at 4% above the rate of inflation. It is about the same margin above the interest you can earn on cash ISA.

It is also well above current mortgage interest rates. In other words, if you want to make your home more energy-efficient look for other sources of money first.

The idea must have sounded great in a Whitehall brainstorming meeting: “Lets have a scheme where people insulate their homes with no up-front payments and pay back the costs from savings on their fuel bills.”

As always the devil is in the detail. The Guardian has a good piece headed “Green deal home insulation programme ‘unlikely to deliver promises’“. It says:

The government’s flagship “green deal” home insulation programme provides no guarantee of saving money for cash-strapped households, and is unlikely to rescue many from fuel poverty, experts warned ahead of its formal launch on Monday.

The sense of doubt and confusion surrounding the policy was reinforced by a warning from a surveyors’ trade body that taking out a green deal loan could cost more than other ways of making home energy efficiency improvements.


There are all sorts of disincentives in the programme — cost of an assessment and early repayment penalties among them.

And it offers no foreseeable financial benefit (loans can run for up to 25 years) for the people it should be helping most: the increasing numbers of people facing fuel poverty. The evidence in a rural areas like Mid Suffolk is that their numbers are rising rapidly.

At present there are few Green Deal providers. I went to the website and put in my postcode to find local businesses. Up came a healthy nine companies. One name I recognised as being based in Suffolk. I clicked on four others. There were in Doncaster, Reading, North Yorkshire and Newbury.

Personally, I want to see as much of the work being done by local people so that employment benefits flow back into the local economy.

Yet the Guardian writes about one Essex company which cannot be a part of the Green Deal because of an insistence that Green Deal companies must provide a full range of services.

To sum up: the Green Deal sucks.





What did “Eco” written on a electric switch ten years ago mean?

On the first day of the project I am diverted when Lesley calls out that there is no hot water for her shower. After digging out a multimeter which has not been used for years, it seemed the thermostat for the off-peak immersion heater had failed.

So plans to investigate the construction of the bungalow’s solid floor are put on hold. We have a good idea already as we have the original building specifications. But we need to check. Many people have told us insulating the floor will be the most difficult task.

At least replacing the thermostat is an easier job that putting in a new heater, but it does mean a trip to B&Q after the village hardware store told me they could not get them from their plumbing supplier. It seems I was the third person in the past few weeks to want one. They are going to have another go at getting a supply.

I hope they succeed: it would make a contribution to reducing hardware miles.

The switches for the water heating are seldom seen. Generally it is only when we come back from holiday and need to use the boost heater that we glance at them.

They hint at the changes in energy consciousness this century. One is labelled “Eco” and the other “Normal”. I must have written those labels 12 years ago.

Back then I used “eco” as an abbreviation for “economy”. That was when electricity was a lost less expensive. On August 24, 2004, The Times (£) ran a story headed, “Soaring fuel bills spell end to era of cheap energy“. It started:

FUEL bills for millions of householders will rise by more than four times the rate of inflation as a decade of cheap energy prices came to an abrupt end yesterday.

British Gas, Britain’s largest gas and electricity supplier, announced its highest increase since customers were allowed to switch suppliers in 1996.

Since then “eco” has become a prefix for everything from houses to washing powder which claim to be ecological. But not cheap burgers with bits of horse. They come from the economy ranges.

Many words change meaning with time but I was a little surprised to realise that only a dozen years ago I was using “eco” as an abbreviation for “economy”.

A good thing that came from my trip to B&Q was the purchase of a pair of safety goggle, so that the floor of the bungalow can be investigated with less danger.