New house’s eco-friendly kit round-up

In spite of continuing fatigue and a very heavy January workload, I’m starting to enjoy my new home a little bit more now – albeit there’s still the issue of tying up some loose ends from the old rental place, of course. (I sadly can’t recommend Reeds Rains to anyone. In fact, I’d avoid them like the plague, as – very annoyingly – I’ve had to launch a formal dispute to get my deposit back, due to their thoroughly unprofessional behaviour… which rounds off just over two years of constant nuisance and incompetence from them…)

Anyway. To more pleasant news. I’ve found a few moments to photograph some of the eco-friendly kit dotted around the new place. I’ll save more detailed comments on each item for when I’ve had more time to evaluate the performance – and early impacts – of them. For now, I’ll just give a quick round-up on what we’ve got.

First, most obviously, there’s a large set of solar water heating panels on the roof of the place:

Solar Heating Roof Panels

Within days of moving-in of course, the panels were buried under a fair amount of snow, and probably weren’t contributing that much to our heating savings (given the -11 Celsius outside temperatures!):

Solar Heating Panels in the Snow

The panels are linked to probably the most complicated water tank I’ve ever laid eyes on in my life. Here it is, as seen from the front:

Solar Heating Water Tank

It comes with a whole assortment of panels and switches:

Solar Heating Controls

Plus a natty little readout that shows you the temperature at the panels (T1), the tank’s bottom (T2), and the top of the tank – where presumably the water for use is drawn-off:

Solar Heating Display Panel

The system was manufactured in Blackpool and is apparently guaranteed for 20 years or so. I’m really happy to see it in the house, but of course only time will tell how daily use of it plays out – and varies by the seasons.

One of our neighbours is keeping track of the performance, in terms of external ambient temperature, temperature within the panels, and temperature in the tank. If I get chance, I’ll share his results here too… I must admit, at the moment, though it feels a bit odd to have almost ‘stepped backwards’ in moving from a combi-type boiler to having a tank again… Hmm…

Second, there are some interesting control filters on the shower. There’s a flow-regulator:

Shower Flow Regulator Close-up

This seems to put a stop in the flow at around 50 percent – unless you specifically push-in the button and force a higher flow rate. The shower also has a similar control to regulate temperature:

Shower Temperature Regulator in Close-up

This way, you’re limited to about 38 degrees C – once again, unless you push the button to get a hotter shower. Bizarrely, it took me quite a while to spot these controls. They’re rather in the vein of the dual-flushes on toilets (oh, which we have here too!). But like with dual-flush, you have to know already, work out – or be told – the difference it makes to do one thing or the other… Otherwise there’ll probably be little motivation for people to voluntarily restrict flow and temperature on these systems…

Third, there are aerators on all the taps, as far as I can tell. I haven’t pictured them here, but they do take a bit of getting used to, as everything seems to froth up when you pour water. Still, it’s no hassle and you quickly forget they are there. Hopefully they are reducing our water consumption, with their illusion of greater flow than is actually taking place. We’ll see when the bills come.

Fourth, there’s a water butt in the back garden, for very small-scale rainwater harvesting. I’m quite chuffed to see that it’s plumbed into the guttering, with an overflow into the drain (which I’m sure will be quite useful given the rainfall we get around these ‘ere parts!):

Water Butt, Plumbed into the Gutter and Drain

I’ve got about 30 litres or so of water out of this water butt quite recently, actually. I managed to wash the car without drawing any water from the mains taps. So that was quite a nice experience.

Of course, the water I’m saving here is not recharging water utility suppliers’ systems elsewhere, so there’s pros and cons to this kind of decentralisation, I’m sure. Still, at least this water didn’t have to be treated and pumped to my house, only then to be used for a very low quality use of car washing. In addition, I didn’t use warm water either, so there’s some other energy savings to be factored in there too.

Fifth, there’s a composting bin – although with no instructions at all:

Composting Bin

I’ve now compiled a little collection of tips about composting from the web, but it’ll be a little while before we can get this thing going – and even longer before we get any compost out of it, from what I’ve read so far! It looks like it’ll be our second year of home-grown veg (another little plan of ours) that’ll be getting DIY compost, rather than year one

Sixth, albeit rather hidden, there’s extra insulation in the walls and roof of the house. There are also little vents that mean you can get a bit of fresh air in the house without opening the windows all the time. Whether those will reduce our heating load (and bills), I’ve yet to tell…

Seventh, and more or less finally, we’ve gotten hold of a home energy monitor unit. This hooks up to the mains electric supply then wirelessly transmits to a display unit that looks like this:

Home Energy Monitor Display Unit

This little thing has already proved quite useful – though I’m not so sure of it’s longer-term value once you’ve done an initial assessment of where your electricity ‘leakage’ is around the home. Within a day or so of getting it hooked up, I found out that my computer speakers use power even when they’re switched off – just by virtue of being plugged in. So that saved about 60 Watts straight off.

The unit is also a good way of working out which devices it’s relatively ‘OK’ to leave plugged-in or on standby. Some are really power-hungry. Others seem to have very minimal impact – barely registering under the resolution of the unit. Also, it’s rather enlightening to look at what’s happening at night when – theoretically – energy use should be very low. (We’re down to about 60 to 80 Watts at night, which still feels too high, so there’s some diagnosis still for me to do, without a doubt…)

Getting any kind of trend data out of the unit is more than a little bit fiddly though. The unit comes with an Ethernet socket. However it’s definitely non-trivial to get to see, e.g. your monthly energy use profiles. There’s a new piece of freeware, called Google PowerMeter, that can track it – if you have the right kind of ‘bridge’ kit to link the energy monitor to an Internet connection. However the whole thing is not yet – apparently – Mac compatible. It also may (or may not) need you to keep your computer on pretty much all the time to compile the data. I still have to look into that more!

On which point, it’s worth stressing my initial reservations about all these eco-friendly pieces of kit:

  1. Practically none of these features came with ‘user-friendly’ instructions (manufacturer’s fitting instructions don’t really count now, do they, Mr. Developer who told me everything came with a manual!) – or even instructions of any kind. There was also no explanation of the environmental benefits involved. This, to my mind, seriously harms the chances of people adopting them into their daily habits and routines. There’s a real risk that some of them will be shelved or ignored – particularly the composting bin (and if anyone starts to try to compost using the bins where they were left by the developers, they’re going to get a rather nasty – and smelly – shock in a few months time!). Are people really going to take up their free time to look into the best ways to use these features? I’m not so sure…
  2. I’ve no idea of the reliability of any of this kit – or if certain parts of it (like the solar water heating) are even working as they should be. Besides, some of it could break very soon. Perhaps it won’t. But I’m not sure repair people will be competent – or willing – to work on them, if they do fail. It all feels like a bit of a risk – albeit a rather low-level one at the present time. Will other people nearby feel as comfortable as me departing from the (albeit environmentally more harmful) norms they’ve been used to in previous properties though…? It’s hard to say.
  3. None of this stuff is really radical or life-changing in any particular way. It’s all rather incremental – albeit very welcome, from my particular point of view – stuff. I realise that you do need to go to higher levels of the Government’s Sustainable Homes code to get any better – e.g. to get photovoltaic-driven electric power. Perhaps I should try to have a chat with developments nearby that have gone this route, to see if these slightly more advanced steps of change have made a difference to people’s behaviour. (I should also do some straw polls of how we feel in my home and my neighbourhood too, when I get the chance!)

So. That’s a quick round-up of some new things that have been very exciting for me, at least, during the past few fatigue-laden weeks. I must say that I do feel very fortunate to have just ‘walked into’ all this stuff, ready prepared for me and my family. At the same time, I’m well aware that there’s very little one can do to install or use a lot of this stuff in many circumstances – e.g. if you’re renting (as I previously had been for decades) or if you’re in an older property (where retro-fitting can be prohibitively expensive or simply not worth it).

Still, I’m beginning to enjoy – and learn more about – the new eco-friendly features we now have. To mark a bit of a more personal take on issues in 2011, I’ll be sure to post back from time-to-time as and when I come across new insights about how they affect the water and sanitation-related aspects of my life! (With videos too, once I’ve had a bit more time to recover, I promise…!)

Duncan Thomas


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