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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_web_F4

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.