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.
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.