'Many a mickle maks a muckle'
(Old Scottish saying that, in plain English, means 'Lots of little things make a big thing')
UPDATES AT END OF PAGEWHAT'S ALL THIS ABOUT THEN?We believe that, since we've all had some part to play in the decline of our planet, it's incumbent upon us all to do something to try and reverse that. This is reinforced by our view that our current crop of political 'leaders' are, at best, incompetent and, at worst, dangerously distracted by the interests of big business.Whilst we certainly feel that we must all do our bit to keep up the political pressure on these reprobates, we also think there's much to be said for the adage 'Think globally, act locally.' This blog is about what we're trying to do locally and we're posting it because we think it's important to share opinions and experiences. As we're already discovering, moving to a more sustainable lifestyle isn't half as easy as it should be. Hopefully posting our experiences will make it a little easier for others.A BRIEF HISTORY
Two years ago, in early 2004, we initiated our plan to move out of London and into a more rural environment where we could 'do our own thing' (as we used to say in the Sixties!). Our own thing includes, but is not limited to, sustainable living. Phase One of the plan was lots and lots of research on what the sustainable bit might actually look like (see picture for a small selection of the paperwork involved!). We joined the Centre for Alternative Technology, bought books and magazines, scanned the internet and attended the few 'green living' events we could find. Whilst there was a bit of a shortage of events, there is no shortage of other resources - indeed, we now have a small library of publications and our list of 'green' websites seems to grow by the day. We'll list some of the most important organisations, websites and publications in a separate section. We won't list them all as it is possible - as we have found - to suffer from information overload to the point of stagnation: too many possibiities, none of which are 100% perfect - so you end being indecisive.In March 2006 we moved on to Phase Two - leaving London in search of our new home. And that is where the story begins...BIG THINGS AND LITTLE THINGS
a) The Little ThingsAs it says at the top of the page; 'Many a mickle maks a muckle'. Or, in other words, 'Lots of little things make a big thing'. That's the starting point for us; if we all make little changes then the effect would be incredible. For example, if every household replaced just two incandescent bulbs with low energy bulbs it would reduce energy demand by the equivalent of two power stations (and, if Blair has his way, they'll be nuclear power stations at that!). UK supermarkets currently give away 17 billion plastic bags every year - largely because we are too lazy or disorganised to bring reusable bags. And, on average, each person throws away the equivalent of seven times their own body weight in waste every year. All of this - and a lot more - can be improved by each of us making small scale changes of our own. So, our 'little' changes include - putting in low energy light bulbs wherever possible, installing low flow showerheads and tap inserts, putting a 'water hog' in the toilet cistern to reduce the amount of water used in flushing, switching appliances off at the mains when we're finished with them (rather than leave them on standby where they continue to guzzle energy), using 'eco-balls' instead of detergent in our washing machine (this saves energy and water as well as reducing pollution), taking our own 'long life' bags with us when we go shopping, avoiding over-packaged goods wherever possible, not using the car to travel walkable distances and boycotting Esso when we fill up the car.These are low cost, low effort strategies that would have a massive, positive impact if everyone implemented them (and, in many cases, would result in cash savings on power and petrol bills).
b) The Big Things
As classic DINKs (Double Income No Kids) we're fortunate to have a bit of spare cash to spend as we choose. And we currently choose to spend it on fairly significant investments in sustainable items for our new home. We have considered the following:
1) Beefing up the insulation. We have to do this anyway in order to get the Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant but, ideally, we'd like to have a super-insulated house (like the one in The New Autonomous House book, available from the Centre for Alternative Technology) as this would massively reduce heating bills.
2) Generating some of our electricity from photovoltaic cells. This is barely cost effective in purely monetary terms but well worth it in environmental terms. Amongst other things it helps us distance ourselves from the inefficient and unaccountable centralised power generation system. In case you hadn't already worked it out, we are utterly opposed to nuclear power; it's massively expensive, lethally dangerous, highly inefficient, hugely polluting and goes absolutely no way towards preventing global warming. Furthermore, the expansion of nuclear power will undoubtedly be accompanied by an even greater limitation on public debate and civil rights on the spurious basis of 'security concerns'. There's no reason why we shouldn't avoid the security risks now - and scrap nuclear power immediately. Unfortunately, the nuclear lobby is already donating generously to the Labour Party so there's little hope of an objective assessment there!
3) Heating some of our hot water with solar panels. Even here in the rainy UK it's still possible to generate a significant amount of heat from solar panels (and, again, it reduces our dependency on fossil fuels).
4) Heating our home with a ground source heat pump. Now this has been a tricky one. The pro's are that it extracts heat - quietly and harmlessly - from the earth, aided and abetted by a little electrical boost from our PV cells. However, we're finding this a lot more complex than we had originally thought. For one thing, in order to extract the energy it requires the laying of pipes in trenches over a very large surface area (two lots of 50 metre long trenches, for example). If that surface area isn't available, it is possible to drill down a couple of hundred metres or so. But, of course, that's not cheap, the ground may not be suitable (e.g. if there are disused mine workings in the area it can be downright dangerous) and may (as far as we are aware) require a drilling licence from the local authority as well as various other types of permissions. Then there's the stuff that actually goes in to the pump to extract the heat - hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These are potent greenhouse gases and a leak could wipe out all the benefits of using GSHPs at a stroke. Not all heat pumps use HFCs, although our experience seems to suggest that more do than don't. The alternative is natural fluorcarbons like propane and isobutane - although we're not really sure whether these are totally risk-free either!
Then there's the cost. As with all the other sustainable technologies, it's not cheap - and, more to the point, as with all the other sustainable technologies we've found it really difficult to get any sort of rough estimate of costs. And that's a real pain when you're trying to plan on a limited budget (which, presumably, is the same for most people).
And another thing. (Yes, there's more!) Ground source heat pumps only seem to be at their most efficient when used with underfloor heating; radiators just don't cut it apparently. So, we'll also need to put in underfloor heating to get the most out of our system. And we'd certainly like to but, again, that's another cost.
5) Rainwater Harvesting and Greywater Recycling. Water usage still isn't seen as a problem issue at the moment. Admittedly the drought in South East England has people thinking about it while it's actually happening but, once the drought is declared to be at an end, it will go out of public consciousness - until the next one, when short term thinking will prevail again. Anyway, drought or no drought, it's still an outrage that we flush our loos with something like 10 litres of drinking quality water per flush - and pour drinking quality water onto our gardens to water our plants too! What is wrong with people!
TO BUILD OR NOT TO BUILD, THAT IS THE QUESTION!
Our preferred options are:
1) To build a sustainable house from scratch
2) To renovate a run down house
3) To convert a house that's already in reasonable condition
Now, the basic principle in finding any type of property seems to be to keep in with real estate agents; keep dropping into their offices as often as possible and just generally keep on their cases as much as possible. Weekends seem to be the worst time to go looking as the world and his dog is out there with you too. And some agents have been really helpful and take a genuine interest in what we're looking for and others have been absolutely hopeless - ranging from those who treat us like they've never seen us before - despite the fact that we've visited twice a week for the past six months - to those who are blatantly disinterested in anyone with less than half a million to spend.
Option 1. Build From Scratch:
By far and away the most cost-effective, but certainly not easy to achieve. Finding a building plot at a reasonable price is really, really difficult. So far we've studied 'How to Find and Buy a Building Plot' by Roy Speer and Michael Dade, signed up to various online plot finding services (e.g Plotbrowser), scanned the newspapers, put ads in parish newsletters, put ads on community noticeboards, knocked on various doors in our local village in our attempts to find out who owns what piece of vacant land, and just generally asked anyone who looks like they might know somebody who might know something about anybody who might have a piece of building land to sell! (It's getting that desperate!) It has been an interesting experience: generally most people have been sympathetic and as helpful as they could be (although one cranky old so-and-so slammed the door in our faces!) But, ultimately the search came to nothing as the owners were either unwilling to sell or couldn't sell it as building land due to planning restrictions. Of the few other people we know or have heard of who are looking for plots, we'd have to say they're experiencing the same thing.
In the unlikely even that we find a plot we'd like to build a strawbale house on it. We originally thought we'd like to build a house like the one in The New Autonomous House book, mentioned earlier (essentially super-insulated brick and mortar construction with a big conservatory on the side for passive heating). However, we were fortunate to attend a green energy fair just outside Presteigne in Powys, Wales and got the chance to try our hand at strawbale building. Not only is it amazing and empowering (amazingly empowering even!) it's the right green building option for so many reasons. For one thing, it absorbs CO2, unlike concrete, which generates massive amounts in production. And for another, if and when it comes to demolition time, you simply compost the walls! (Again, unlike concrete). It's incredibly thermally efficient and is also brilliant sound-proofing. For more information go to the Strawbale Futures site listed above.
Option 2. Renovate a Run Down House
It seemed like a fairly reasonable ask; getting a run down place and doing it up. But it seems that half the property market is on to that one - everything from barn conversions to tumbledown dwellings is snapped up before you can say 'global warming'. This is one area where good real estate agents can make such a difference; if they're really up for helping you they'll ring you as soon as they've been out to value a property - even before the vendor has even signed up to sell through them. We've seen a few places this way - although sadly none were suitable.
Option 3. Convert a House That's Already in Reasonable Condition
We didn't really want to go too far down the path on this one as we are reluctant to take apart a property that's already in good condition. However, needs must and the same rules apply here as they do for Option 2 above.
To be continued...!
PART TWO: A VIEW WITH A ROOM
Well our property hunting strategy seems to have paid off as we're now in the process of buying a two bedroomed bungalow on the outskirts of Ludlow (high up on a hill so the view is great). We called into the real estate agents the same day that it came on the market; we viewed it, liked it, negotiated an acceptable price and it was all over in a matter of hours (subject to exchange of contracts, of course)! So now we know exactly what we're getting and we can start to develop our plans in terms of possibilities.It's a 1950's bungalow (not quite the stone cottage or Victorian house we had in mind but, ultimately, it fits our purpose and, more importantly, it fits our budget!). It stands in approximately 900 square metres of garden (which will give us the space for things like a wildlife garden and pond as well as vegetable patch and so on). Not sure whether the land is big enough for ground source heat pump pipes though.
ADDRESSING OUR SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES
Time for our 'sustainability audit'. This is an assessment of our electricity usage (using a spreadsheet at www.esru.strath.ac.uk/EandE/Web_sites/01-02/RE_info/cgi.htm ) and another of our water use (using information from' The Water Book' by Judith Thornton and 'Sewage Solutions: Answering the Call of Nature' by Grant, Moodie and Weedon - both available from Centre for Alternative Technology).
The latter is also related to the fact that our new home is not connected to a mains sewage system: all our waste goes into a sealed cesspool and is then emptied at regular intervals by a tanker. From an environmental perspective this is a huge waste of resources so we will investigate alternatives. Of course, even if it was mains connected, it still represents a huge waste of energy and resources; all the drinking-quality water being used to flush the toilet, the cost of shifting it through miles of pipes, then the cost of processing it etc, etc. However, with mains connection it's just too easy simply to flush and forget about it.
Anyway, mains or no mains, the first step should be to look at how we can actually 'reduce, re-use and recycle' our water in the first place. Figures in The Water Book state that showers use an average of 35 litres (although a power shower uses 100 - which is more than a bath at 80 litres. Toilet flushes average 10 litres per flush, a washing machine is average 70 per use and a dishwasher is 35)) We've already mentioned strategies to reduce water use (fitting low flow shower head and taps inserts, using eco balls to do our laundry, insert in toilet cistern). To get this down further we'll look at installing a low flush toilet (an Ifo Cera ES4) and, possibly, an Airflush water and chemical free urinal (since we're both men). See http://www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk/ for details. A cheaper way (but less effect in terms of water saving when compared with the Ifo Cera ES4) is the 'Interflush' device, which costs around 20 pounds (http://www.interflush.co.uk/).
Options for reusing seem to focus largely around greywater (i.e. water from dishwashing, laundry and showers/bath) and don't seem particularly simple - or cheap, for that matter. The 'Reusing Greywater Factsheet' from CAT seems to reinforce this view (i.e. unless your greywater can be diverted into various greywater processing tanks on your property the only other option seems to be carting it out in a bucket and throwing onto your garden). There is some useful information about these systems at http://www.greywater.com/.
Apparently it becomes quite smelly (and, presumably unhygienic) if stored in a container for more than a few days therefore options such as diverting it to flush the toilet may create as many problems as it solves.
Rainwater harvesting is another option we've considered although again (again!) 'proper' systems are expensive (we were given a rough estimate of about 4,000 pounds by a firm at a green building fair). That being the case we've chosen to follow the line of The Water Book - that it is much more important to focus on reducing water use. We will, however, install water butts to collect rainwater from the downpipes. We can then use this on the garden and also to help fill up the pond.
We've looked at a device (http://www.watertwo.co.uk/) that claims to divert greywater from the bathroom but, again, it doesn't address the issue of storage. It is, however, less than 30 quid so, once we've moved in we may investigate possible uses for it. In the meantime, looks like our re-using strategy will be limited to carting out water to the vegetable garden in buckets.
Recycling water, as far as we can see, will involve a reed bed. We've certainly got the space for one but (here we go again!) the estimate we've been given is 6,500 pounds plus VAT (so, almost 7500 in practice). Also, the reason there's a sealed cesspool on site is because the ground is very heavy clay therefore won't readily absorb any run off and some run-off capacity is necessary for a reed bed. So, no reed bed.UPDATE 17/7/06ELECTRICITYOur basic energy audit has given us some idea of how much electricity we are likely to need overall (although we need to refine this to establish the daily and weekly pattern, times of highest and lowest demand, and the pattern in both summer and winter). This is the first step in sizing up our photovoltaic cells/panels, which we hope will generate a significant amount of our electricity.
What the audit has also helped us do is establish where we are currently using the most power so we can start to think about strategies for reducing this. Obviously low energy light bulbs are a must. The biggest consumers after that are the cooker, the fridge/freezer and the computers.
Our new house doesn't have mains gas so our options for cooking seem to be calor gas,some kind of Aga stove using wood, oil or electricity, or another kind of electric stove. We've decided to buy a 'non-Aga' electric stove (probably with ceramic hobs as we think they're more efficient but we need to confirm that). Strategies to reduce electricity consumption so far centre around switching pans off once they've come to the boil then letting the residual heat cook the vegetables, using stacking pans so we can steam all our vegetables using only one hotplate, and some form of 'haybox' cooking.
Haybox cooking also uses residual heat but in a much more efficient manner and it can be used for 'bigger' dishes (e.g. meat) as well as vegetables. The basic principle is to heat the dish up - either in the oven or on a hotplate - until it reaches boiling point then put the dish in a highly insulated box and let the residual heat cook the dish over a matter of hours. Obviously it gets its name from the hay that people used to use as insulation material but now there's a whole range of other possible material - including that expanded polystyrene stuff that's used in packaging and is generally discarded as soon as the package is opened. We may insulate one of our kitchen cupboards to act as our 'haybox'. Another option that we're looking at is a 'thermo-pot' (don't know if this is just a trade name). Thus far we've only come across it on the web sites of Chinese food stores (http://www.wingyip.co.uk/) but it works on the same principle as the haybox - although it's obviously a lot more attractive and, from the pictures we've seen, probably a lot more mobile (but also a lot more expensive!).
One other possibility (although this one will almost definitely fall into the 'just for fun/novelty value' category) is 'solar cooking'. In a nutshell this involves putting the cooking pot into a box that has been lined with kitchen foil, putting a pane of glass over the top and leaving it out in the sun to cook. No doubt it is at least theoretically possible and we probably will give it a try. However, given that the key principle here is the magnifying and reflection of the sun's rays it can be a bit risky for the eyes (you need to wear serious eye protection by all accounts - and that rather dampens the appetite!).
Not really sure what we're going to do about this one yet - other than buy the most energy efficient fridge/freezer and ensure we put it in the coolest part of the house. One of the reasons we moved to this area was because we can buy locally reared meat and we can buy it in bulk (i.e. half a pig, lamb etc). So we do need somewhere to store what will effectively be a year's supply of meat. Buying in bulk should mean various savings elsewhere (e.g. in terms of fewer trips to the butchers, less packaging etc) so we'll currently console ourselves with those particular savings. Also we have heard of a gadget that is supposed to work with fridges/freezers to reduce the amount of energy they use. Haven't fully investigated this yet - for various reasons including the belief that this gadget is only of value on older fridges/freezers. But we'll put it on the 'To Do' list.Computers
The electricity spreadsheet gave a pretty high rating to computers and monitors. At present we are using two computers because we're setting up a commercial website and also writing a book. Once the website is up and running we'll be using the second computer a lot less so that should reduce some of the energy demand. However, we also need to find out if there's any difference between the energy usage of a PC/monitor and a laptop computer as our second computer is actually a laptop that sits up on a docking station. Just in terms of the relative size of the two computers (and the noise - the PC is much noiser than the laptop) it's hard to believe that the laptop would use as much power as the PC. However, at present, finding out is just another job on the 'To Do' list.
Update 19/7/06BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (WELL, THE COUNCIL, ANYWAY!)
Off to the local council to discuss our plans for the house so that we can identify any potential problems. Whilst neither of us are particularly good artists we have taken a couple of drawings in to give some idea of size, perspective etc. As well as our plans to put in PV cells. Solar water heating, ground source heat pump, wildlife pond and – maybe- a reed bed we also hope to do an attic conversion as this will give us greater access to the spectacular views.
Strangely, it’s not the attic conversion that is flagged up as a problem – it’s the PV cells and solar water heating. We are advised that the house is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, therefore, the panels won’t be allowed because of ‘the glare’. But then it gets even stranger; according to the Planning Officer, PV and solar panels are unacceptable but Council would be favourably disposed to a wind turbine! Yes folks, that’s a 4 to 5 metre rotor atop a 10-metre tower. Something that we don’t want, something that is far more expensive that PV cells and, in our view, less reliable (and also, in our view, a tad more conspicuous than solar panels on the back roof!)
The logic for the turbine seems to be based entirely on the fact that we’re 300+ metres above sea level (which surely makes it even more conspicuous?).
But there’s still more. The Planning Officer now suggests that the turbine should be situated as close as possible to the existing row of houses to help it ‘blend in’. Clearly he has no idea of the actual mechanics of wind turbines as they need to be sited away from buildings, trees etc in order to avoid the turbulence those objects generate. As for the opinions of our new neighbours – who will have the turbine situated less than 10 metres from their own house – these, according to the Planning Officer, are irrelevant! They can’t object. And so it gets ever more bizarre: we can put a 10 metre high wind turbine within 10 metres of our neighbours property, blocking their view of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and probably driving them mad with the endless whirring of the rotors – but we can’t put solar arrays on the roof because of the glare!!
Needless to say, by this stage we’re beginning to get a very strong feeling that this Planning Officer really doesn’t know what he’s talking about so we smile politely and move on to the next item. This happens to be the wildlife pond; apparently we may need to get planning permission for this if it goes beyond a certain size (although that size was not specified).
Oh, and before we forget – somewhere in this conversation we are advised that Council supports sustainable development!
The meeting ends with us being given a form to fill in and return to Council to see just which of our plans will require planning permission.
A (GREEN) LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
Fortunately by this stage we have already made contact with our local environmental group – Ludlow 21. Through them we’ve been introduced to Bob, a man who has installed solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system in his house in the middle of a residential estate. We ring him to arrange a visit to inspect his array (so to speak!). Needless to say, when he hears about the ‘advice’ we’ve received from Council, he’s unimpressed and gives us various people to contact, including a local councillor. He also promises to chase it up with his next door neighbour, who has something to do with planning in the Council.
Bob’s reaction is certainly not untypical so by the time we actually get to visit his house we’re pretty much convinced that things will not be half as difficult as we had originally been led to believe. Our visit leaves us feeling even more optimistic. This optimism is fed in part by Bob’s feedback from his neighbour. According to the neighbour solar arrays are not going to be the big deal we were originally advised. But it’s also been really helpful to actually talk to people who’ve already done some of these things and also to see what they’ve done (indeed it’s one of the main reasons we’ve put this blog up).
We now need to get our Council form completed and submitted so we can get an official response to our plans and then we’ll know where the battle lines are drawn. (It would, of course, be nice if there are no battle lines. However we’re both so convinced about the importance of what we’re doing and, conversely, about how absurd the Council line seems to be that we can only conclude that we will challenge any opposition to our plans. - Pause for dramatic effect!!!)
But before we put our form in, we need to do a bit more research so we can be more specific on how big things are likely to be and where they are likely to go.
Well, now we really have to decide on the large items that we want to put into the house.
First thing to do is a bit more research on the site of our new house. Since it’s fairly obvious that we won’t have the land area to do a ‘horizontal’ installation of a ground source heat pump, the only other option would be to drill down a couple of hundred metres. In order to see just how practicable this is we do, quite literally, need to check out the lay of the land. The area has a long history of both quarrying and mining so it would be unfortunate (not to say potentially ruinous!) if we were to drill our way into some flooded mineshaft or some such.
Ring the County Council and talk to a very helpful man in the Minerals and Quarries Division. Happily we are just outside the coalfield, which means that not only are there no old coal mines, there won’t be any new ones in future. And (since you ask) we’re sitting on a thin level of clay, which in turn sits on top of a finer grain shale, then Upper Devonian sandstone (although, bearing in mind that about 20 metres down there’s a thin limestone layer of about 6 to 8 metres!). Isn’t it fascinating just how much information you need in order to become a bit more sustainable!
But wait - there’s more! We also establish our height about sea level (322.5 metres) on the local Ordinance Survey map. Not really sure why we did this – possibly because we think it might tell us something about local wind conditions (and also because it doesn’t take a great deal of energy to pick up an OS map and look at it!). Actually, if we’d been half serious about wind power, it would have been more useful to go somewhere like the Energy Technology Support Unit (www.dti.gov.uk/renewable) who can, apparently, provide information about things like local windspeed. Oh well, at least we have the reassurance that rising sea levels won’t get up to our house – even after all the ice shelves have melted.
Our next stop is the Centre of Alternative Technology which, fortunately for us, isn’t too far away. Unfortunately time constraints mean that we end up driving there. We do try to minimise the impact of that by registering our trip with Liftshare (www.liftshare.com) but, sadly, there are no takers. All in all it’s a bit of a disappointing visit as there seems to be no one around to whom we can address our questions so it’s largely a question of looking at installations that we already know about. But nothing that actually helps us size up the options for our house. Even the person behind the Information Desk seems unable to tell us much other than the rates for using their consultant. We console ourselves by buying various books including ‘It’s a Breeze’ – a CAT publication on wind power (just in case this does become the only option that Council will allow).
At this stage in the proceedings we’ve gone right off ground source heat pumps. The main reasons for this are:
1) Our concerns about the refrigerants used
2) The fact that we’d have to drill down – which would be an added expense and may also require even more hassle with the council
3) Very mixed messages as to the effectiveness of it all. From what we can work out it seems that ground source heat pumps are only ideal in a relatively limited set of circumstances (e.g. if underfloor heating is used, if there is a cheap supply of electricity). Plus the fact that it’s no good for water heating (so that’s another system to instal! It never ends!!)
So now we’re considering something that is fuelled by wood. We had originally thought that this was not environmentally sound but our reading leads us to believe otherwise. Whilst we don’t relish the prospect of trees being chopped down to provide our fuel, we can at least comfort ourselves in the thought that the wood is acquired by coppicing (i.e. just chopping off branches from a living tree). A useful resource here is the Log Pile page at the National Energy Foundation (www.nef.org.uk/logpile).
We’re even veering very much towards wood pellet boilers. Wood pellets are, apparently, the most efficient form of wood fuel (something like 95% efficiency) in large part (we think!) because they’re so dry so no energy is wasted on drying the wood. What is more (we think!) wood pellets are made from either sawdust or wood shavings so it’s a perfect way to use up what would otherwise be waste material.
Of course they also cost around 10,000 quid, require an additional space of approximately 3m by 3m for the pellet storage module and still need some form of supplementary water heating when the boiler’s not on. Then there’s the whole issue of pellet availability; because this is fairly new technology in this country so there’s a fairly limited supply network. Apparently all of that is set to change (one supplier has told us of at least 20 planning applications to set up pellet making factories in the West Midlands alone). Anyway, even at current prices it still works out cheaper than oil (which is the heating system currently in place in our new house). Also Patrick, in particular, is attracted by the automated nature of the whole thing (apparently on some models you can even send it instructions by text!).
And, of course, no matter what heating system we end up with, it still remains crucial that we get our insulation right. An issue that’s emerging for us here relates to our plans to convert the attic space into a living area. According to one article we’ve read, the Low Carbon Building Programme grants are only available in households that have a minimum of 250mm of insulation in the roof. However, if we do an attic conversion we simply won’t have the space for this thickness of material – not least because there is also a need to have a space above the insulation material to allow for ventilation.
At this stage we’re still unclear on the issue. We have read of various insulation materials that are thinner but claim to be just as effective. The bottom line is whether or not the Low Carbon People will accept this. An email to our local Energy Efficiency Advice Centre has produced an unhelpful and unclear one line response so we need to research this further. But then research seems to be the name of the game when it comes to sustainable living (well, that and money!) However, we will not be put off; at this point, at least, it’s still quite an exciting adventure.
Turbine or Not Turbine – That is the Question
Never let it be said that we don’t give other people’s suggestions due consideration. We remain luke warm about the option of wind turbines – because we think the supply is irregular, the whole set up is inappropriate to where we want to live and we have concerns about how much noise they ake. However, in light of the Council Planning Officers’ comments we thought we’d do one final investigation to see if there’s any possible reason why we should learn to love them. We bought the book ‘It’s a Breeze’ during our visit to CAT and it’s done nothing to change our view. However, we are fortunate to have a well-respected renewables company Wind and Sun (http://www.windandsun.co.uk/) about five miles away and, since they have a working turbine on their site (that’s the one in this rather crappy photograph), we thought we’d pay them a visit.
We also wanted to check out trackers. For the uninitiated (like us) these are essentially movable mountings for PV arrays. They automatically follow the sun across the sky therefore ensuring that the PV cells are always pointing directly at it and, thus, achieving maximum uptake of solar energy. Apparently they’re something like 15% more effective than static PV arrays (and given the price of PV arrays, you need to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth!).
So, our first task on arriving at Wind and Sun is to listen to the turbine. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it! Seriously though, it is something you need to do if you’re considering buying one as it’s one of those things that could either send you into raptures of delight or screaming mad within 24 hours. And no matter how much you read on the subject, you’ll never get a true sense of it from the written word. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we listened, decided it sounded too much like background traffic noise and, since we moved out of London to get away from all of that, we wouldn’t be adopting a turbine.
It’s probably worth pointing out that, had there still been any doubt in our minds, the price (at £20,000 for a 2Kw system) would have been the final clincher. And so we say a swift farewell to wind power.
Next stop at Wind and Sun is the tracker system – as seen in yet another crappy photo (sorry about this, Colin took these on his new camera phone!). This, again, was a major education as we’d imagined them to be relatively compact little things. If you look carefully at the photo you will, hopefully, notice the picnic table and benches just behind the tracker. You will also see, therefore, how the tracker dwarfs them; it’s huge! And that’s just a 1Kw system - we’re looking at something nearer 4Kw. In practice this wouldn’t be much smaller than the house itself! And so, it’s back to a static system for us!
The only issue now is whether we can put them on the roof (as we want to) or have to put them at ground level in the garden (to address Council concerns about ‘the glare’). Since we’re looking at any array of at least 25 square metres, this is no small issue; we could put that area of our garden to much better use. Also, we have finally established the orientation of the house: it faces South South-East, which means that a roof-mounted PV array would work very well as it would get exposure to the sun for most of the day.
Well we’ve done lots of research and have been particularly pleased with the number of people who have given up their time to talk to us and answer our questions. Obviously ‘greenies’ are a helpful bunch! On the basis of these investigations we’ve decided to go back to the Council with the following plans:
Roof-mounted Photovoltaic (PV) cells – around 3Kw capacity with some batteries for back-up. We originally had concerns about batteries as we’d always thought they were filled with acid and contained lead, which would lead to disposal problems. However, after during our visit to Bob’s house he showed us batteries that are filled with distilled water. We may or may not have missed something here and we will double check. However, his batteries do seem much more environmentally friendly and, given that our new house is in an area that’s subject to blackouts, this does seem to be quite an attractive option.
Roof-mounted Solar Hot Water (SHW) – after some mixed messages from various suppliers we’ve decided to go for the evacuated tube type. One supplier told us that the flat panel type was more suited to our climate but then two others have told us exactly the same about evacuated tubes! Anyway, we’re currently choosing evacuated tubes but, who knows, South Shropshire Council might have something to say about that (as tubes are shinier than flat panels). We’ll use the SHW for domestic hot water and topping up the central heating system. We have been advised by one SHW user that it will be necessary for us to change our showering habits - from morning to evening in those months when the boiler’s not on. The logic behind this is that the SHW won’t have time to heat the water in the morning. However, we remain optimistic that a well-insulated hot water tank may suffice (obviously this is an area where we may fall flat on our faces next summer!)
Wood pellet boiler – we’ve abandoned ground source heat pumps for the reasons given earlier. Wood pellets seem to be a reasonable option as they’re made up from sawdust and wood shavings, therefore reusing what would otherwise be waste material. Supply is a bit limited at present although one supplier has told us there have been at least 25 applications to set up wood pellet factories in the West Midlands alone in the past few months. Let’s just hope the increasing number of wood pellet manufacturers will lead to reasonable prices.
Storage will be an interesting challenge; one manufacturer (Okofen) makes a ‘pod’ that needs a space 3 metres by 3 metres. The other key contender (Windhager) offers a more flexible range of storage units that would fit better into our garage. Both companies are Austrian; they have many years experience of these things, whereas they’re still very much a novelty in the UK. And both companies products are incredibly ‘techy’; for example, some of the boilers can be programmed for months ahead and, in one instance, you can actually control the supply of pellets by texting the boiler from your mobile phone! Let’s just hope they also keep us warm!
These are the major items; as mentioned earlier we will also beef-up the insulation but that’s not really an issue for the Council. Indeed, the boiler won’t be either, as it will be contained entirely within the house itself. And, of course, there’ll be no bloody wind-turbine!!
So, we send off our initial application form to Council to see whether on not we need planning permission. Two weeks later we receive the official reply: not very detailed but we will need planning permission for something (they don’t specify which part or parts, we need to have another chat to the Planning Officer). And that’s exactly what we do. We’re not going to be put off out-dated planning rules or procedures; as far as we’re concerned, the very nature of the British landscape is under serious threat from climate change and, in that context, objections to ‘glare’ from a solar energy installation is petty and irrelevant.
So we have another meeting with the local Planning Officer. This time we’re determined to find out exactly which parts of our plans need scrutiny and precisely what the relevant rules and regulations are.
We’ve recently read that the government is proposing to take away local council’s powers to block micro-generation installations. This is good news and bad news; good news because it means that, if Council continue to object, we can simply sit it out for a while then install them. Bad news because it’s yet another example of this government’s dangerous centralisation of power.
WHEN WE SAY ‘NO’ WE DO, OF COURSE, MEAN YES!
OK. Same Planning Officer, same plans. Alright so far? Pay attention as it gets a bit weird shortly.
Initial discussion covers our proposals for an attic conversion. These definitely need planning permission. We have no problems with that one. Then, after a bit of humming and ha- ing, during which we all studiously avoid the subject of the renewables, Patrick bites the bullet, points to our diagram of the solar installations on the roof and asks outright what the situation is.
Thankfully we were sitting down.
The response on this occasion is ‘The more the merrier as far as we’re concerned’. (We kid you not, that’s what he said!). ‘As much as possible’. ‘Whatever you want’.
A complete reversal on the previous advice (which, for the record, we did write down at the time of our first meeting, so we’re not imagining it). Needless to say it rather took us by surprise but there you have it; meeting over in less than five minutes!
In retrospect (and after a chat with a couple of people) it seems pretty clear that our engagement with the Council has come just as they’re in the process of changing (for the better) their planning rules. The Chief Planning Officer is known to be very much pro sustainability but it seems that message hadn’t got down to the ranks at the time of our first meeting. Four weeks later, it had – much to our relief.
So, next step is to engage an architect so we can really get this process underway.
THAT’S ONE SMALL STEP FOR TWO MEN…
Well we’ve just moved into our new home and have started taking the first steps to make it more sustainable. These are focussed largely on water and electricity usage.
To reduce our water usage we’ve bought some ‘Tapmagic’ inserts for our taps. The blurb in the CAT (http://www.cat.org.uk/) catalogue claims that these can reduce water usage (from the taps at least) by up to 70%. We’ve chosen the Unifit ones, which are designed for taps without internal or external threads. These fit our bathroom taps (see photo - they're the little black extensions on the end of the taps) but don’t fit the ones in the second toilet. The latter already have some strange insert which, we suspect, is related more to design than water saving as they’re integrated into the actual structure of the tap (i.e. we can’t remove them). Since we plan to undertake some renovation on the area housing the second toilet we’ll leave them for now (as we may not have a toilet there at all when the renovation is complete!)
The kitchen tap is a mixer style that, again, features some kind of immovable insert but, again, this insert doesn’t seem to do much aerating of the water so we’re unclear as to its function. Since we’re planning to upgrade the sink we may replace this tap with a more effective one.
We had originally thought of replacing the toilet with a low-flush Ifo Cera ES4 toilet. However, for reasons we don’t fully understand, it appears that the existing toilet in the main bathroom (the one in the picture) only uses around 4 litres per flush as it is. We’ve looked at the internal mechanism and, despite the fact that Patrick’s done a six-day ‘Basic Plumbing’ course, we still can’t work it out. There’s certainly nothing untoward about the mechanism – it hasn’t been tampered with, for example – it’s just that we’ve never seen such a mechanism before. However, in this situation, we choose to opt for the strategy ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!
The toilet in the second bathroom is the traditional ball cock mechanism (which means we understand it a little more!) What we’ve done here is simply bent the arm of the float so that less water comes in after each flush. Indeed, so enthusiastic has been Patrick’s bending that it seems to use even less than four litres per flush. That being the case, we are monitoring its performance very closely to ensure that it does effectively clear the pan on every occasion. So far so good.
We are also very conscious of the possibility of valves leaking and thus releasing a constant stream of water into the pan (which would undermine our water saving plan). There’s a bit about this in the book ‘Sewage Solutions’. However, our understanding is that this is really only a problem in toilets that are not monitored (i.e. public toilets, workplaces etc). We’ll be watching ours like a hawk (well, within the limits of good taste and good living, of course.)
We had originally considered the idea of installing an Airflush waterless urinal, since we’re two blokes. However, the literature we got from the Green Building Store (http://www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk/) seems to suggest that these are designed largely for large-scale usage (i.e. several in a row) rather than individual installation. So we’ll just continue with our practice of not flushing after a pee (unless we have guests, of course, as it can be a bit disconcerting for them).
Because all our water discharges into a sealed cesspool (i.e. one that requires regular emptying by a man in a big tanker) we’re very conscious of the need to limit the outflow from the house. We still haven’t worked out a way to fully recycle our greywater but, in the interim, we’re doing all our dishwashing in a bowl in the sink then pouring the water into a bucket and simply throwing it onto the garden. It’s a pretty random approach at this stage; it’s not really about watering the garden as it’s rained more than enough recently to do that. At this stage it’s simply about reducing the amount of water going into the tank.
Because we use Ecover washing up liquid we don’t think there’ll be any adverse effect on the garden (e.g. from phosphates used in more mainstream washing up liquids). And the garden is certainly big enough to take this amount of water. And using this bucket method has also helped us measure the amount of water we use in washing and rinsing the dishes (average 20 litres per wash). This gives us something to use when we look at the water usage of electric dishwashers (taking into account the fact that dishwashers would probably take a much bigger load per wash).
Longer term we’re still intending to install photovoltaic panels to meet some of our electricity needs. In the short-term, however, we’re currently looking at ways to reduce our electricity usage. First step has been to install low energy light bulbs around the house. We’ve not yet completed this task as we’re just coming to realise how many electric lights we have (or, to put in another way, we’ve run out of low energy bulbs!). Apparently the national average is 25 per household; in our little bungalow we’ve got 18, plus three fluorescent tubes and three outdoor security lights.
We’ve also just discovered that we can’t use the dimmer switch on the ones we’ve put in the lounge. This may be just a temporary problem as we’re fairly certain that there are some low energy bulbs that can be used with dimmers – we’ll just have to keep a look out for them.
Other than low energy bulbs the other short-term measures to reduce energy use are:
1) Switching off appliances at the wall socket when we’re finished with them.
2) Switching off the electric hobs before a dish is fully cooked and letting the residual heat finish the job (longer-term we’re planning to get an induction hob and also look at turning one of the cupboards into a haybox cooker.)
3) Using a pressure cooker when possible
4) We also got a handy hint from Penney Poyzer from the Nottingham Eco-Home (www.msarch.co.uk/ecohome) on eating more raw foods.
FIRST STEPS IN THE GARDEN
As should be fairly obvious from the photos, we have a fairly large garden and we intend to get the most out of this. In practice this means:
Growing our own vegetables (and possibly keeping chickens – although we’re undecided at this stage as we feel chicken ownership might tie us down a bit)
Creating a ‘leisure’ garden (i.e. flowers, shrubs, and so on)
As part of that process we want to make sure the garden is wildlife friendly. Wildlife habitat is being lost at an alarming rate and for a number of reasons. The building of houses, roads, factories and so on uses up a huge amount of land (including trees, woods, rivers, ponds and wetlands). As agriculture becomes ‘agribusiness’, hedgerows are ripped up to create gigantic fields that can be prepared, planted and harvested by machines: chemicals are pumped onto the land to boost production and we now have the immense threat posed by genetically modified crops.
And, yet again, politicians come out with the usual platitudes in the hope that people will think they’re doing something when, in reality, the situation continues to decline at an alarming rate.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon anyone with even the smallest patch of garden to do what they can to provide support for wildlife. We see that as meaning four things:
1) Providing shelter for wildlife
2) Providing habitat for wildlife
3) Providing food for wildlife
4) Avoiding the use of harmful materials such as chemical sprays and so on
This is about providing places where wildlife can feel safe whilst visiting our garden. It can include places where they can take their food to eat in safety, bolt holes they can escape to if they feel threatened and sheltered or covered routes that allow safe passage from one part of the garden to the other.
Obviously creatures need places to live and breed. We don’t envisage larger creatures such as badgers setting up home here but we’ve certainly got room for everything from foxes all the way down to insects and microbes. And, of course, since most of these things form part of the food chain (we’re not sure what eats foxes!) then their presence will, hopefully, attract other wildlife.
Insects are a perfect example of this; work done by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (http://www.rspb.org.uk/ ) suggests there’s a serious decline in insect numbers and this, in turn, has an impact on the bird populations that feed on them. Since we’re now living out in the countryside we don’t – at least at present – seem to have a shortage of insects (indeed, as I write we’re currently being driven mad by an invasion of crane flies!)
Nonetheless, we recognise that these and various other insects make an attractive meal for birds such as thrushes and starlings – and will be particularly valuable during the breeding season. So, we’re taking a few small steps towards ‘habitat enhancement’.
One example is in this photograph. It’s basically the first step in a process that will provide shelter for a range of creatures from insects to frogs, toads and small mammals. At this stage is consists of an under layer of small conifers that we chopped down (because conifers don’t offer half as much to wildlife as more interesting natives like oak, hawthorn and holly) with a thick layer of grass cuttings on top. This, in itself, will serve as a breeding ground for insects and possibly a shelter for small amphibians.
The next stage is to plant a hedge of more useful hedging plants (hornbeam, oak, holly, hawthorn) in front of this. This will create an area that will be protected by the existing hedge (that can be seen in the photo) and the new hedge that will grow up parallel to it. We like to create this kind of organic ‘clutter’ under hedges as it does encourage all sorts of creatures.
Our compost bins also create habitat for various creatures at various times of the year (although for more on this see below).
Longer term we have plans to install a large wildlife pond in the front garden as part of a more informally planted wildlife garden. We’ll also put another pond in the back garden, where we’ll have our more formal ‘leisure’ garden.
And this brings us conveniently on to:
PROVIDING FOOD FOR WILDLIFE
We are quite lucky at this stage to have acquired this property from someone who obviously had a real interest in gardening. In practice this means they’ve already planted a significant number of shrubs and trees. Most of these will provide shelter but quite a few (such as the rowan tree) also produce berries and other fruit (such as the apple trees). And, of course, there’s the plants that produce seeds.
We shall enhance these plantings to provide and even wider range of food; it won’t be too difficult as most of the garden is currently laid to lawn so the greater majority of that will come up in favour of garden beds.
Our choice of plantings is particularly influenced by two documents.
One is a list of plants, shrubs and trees that provide food for bees at various stages of the year. It’s quite depressing to learn that bees are among the many insects in serious trouble in this country – some species are extinct in some areas and close to extinction elsewhere. As well as being sad from an aesthetic point of view, their decline is also likely to cause serious problems for those people who grow fruit and vegetables (commercially as well as hobbyists) as bees obviously play such a central role in the pollination of plants.
So, we’re doing our bit by choosing plants from this list (produced – we think – by the Bee Keepers Association; although we’re not really sure as it doesn’t have any name on it). It’s a bit too long and complex to post here but if you’d like a copy contact us and we’ll send you one.
The second document is a list of plants we picked up at the RSPB Garden at the Chelsea Flower show. Basically this lists all the plants they put into their display on ‘a wildlife friendly garden’. It’s by no means exhaustive but it is, again, useful to have some point of reference from which to develop a planting scheme.
We do, of course, have lots of other publications – mainly books and pamphlets – that we’ve picked up over the past couple of years and will refer to from time to time but, for the ‘time poor’, the Bee Keepers list in particular is extremely useful.
Of course, one of the ways we shall be ‘passively’ providing food for wildlife is when we get our vegetable garden up and running. Whether we like it or not, we will undoubtedly be ‘blessed’ with lots of little visitors wanting to chew on our cabbages or suck on our strawberries. And this provides a convenient segueway into our next bit:
AVOIDING THE USE OF HARMFUL MATERIALS
At this stage we’d describe ourselves as organic gardeners – although that’s largely because we haven’t really done any gardening yet! However, we can’t imagine using chemicals and other ‘nasties’ and we haven’t come across any obvious problems in the garden.
For us the key elements of organic gardening will be things like companion planting, keeping the plants strong and disease resistant by enriching the soil with good compost and encouraging friendly ‘predators’ into the garden by using plants that will attract them.
The most immediate issue is the condition of the soil. The whole area sits on heavy clay and it’s obvious from a few test digs that the clay’s not very far from the surface. Compounding this (literally and metaphorically) is the fact that an inordinate amount of the garden has been given over to car parking. This is only a two-bedroom bungalow (so we’re not talking country estate here) yet there is space in the garden to park at least ten cars! Since much of this is a gravelled area at the back of the house we do intend to dig it up and turn it into our vegetable plot. However, a test dig under the plastic that’s under the gravel reveals the surface to be compacted shale on top of heavy clay. At this stage we will have a bash at digging up the surface but, if this fails, we’ll look at establishing raised beds – possibly using old car tyres filled with soil to provide the elevation. Watch this space!
RE-CYCLING UNWANTED GARDEN ORNAMENTS
We inherited this 'lovely' wishing well with the house. Until recently it sat in the middle of the front lawn. However, after removing several wheelbarrow loads of soil, we finally got it into a much less conspicuous position round the back of the house. Then we set about turning it into something a lot more useful and attractive – a compost bin.
Although the exterior was painted, the wood on the inside did not look like it had been treated in any way; if it had we would have thought twice about using it.
STEP ONE – GET THE ROOF OFF, BASH OUT SOME PLANKS AT THE SIDE FOR VENTILATION AND A FEW MORE ON THE BOTTOM SO THE WORMS CAN GET IN.
STEP TWO – START TO FILL WITH ORGANIC MATERIAL – AS THE BIN FILLS UP WE’LL PUT TWO LAYERS OF CHICKEN WIRE AROUND THE POSTS AND PUT THICK CARDBOARD BETWEEN THE CHICKEN WIRE TO PROVIDE A BIT OF INSULATION.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
We bought a new car last week. Well, second-hand new. Whilst neither of us is particularly wild about cars, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t survive in the countryside without one: public transport is virtually non-existent. We have a bus service that goes into town (5 miles away) once every two hours. Should we ever need to go any further than that, the travel time would just be ridiculous, as we’d be travelling on extremely infrequent buses from one point to the next – and then back again! And should we ever have to get somewhere at short notice…
Anyway, our new car’s a Subaru Legacy Outback estate (we need an estate car to transport Patrick’s various art works once he’s got his workshop set up). At present it’s got a petrol-driven engine but we’ve booked it in for conversion to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). This is still a fossil fuel but is significantly less polluting than mainstream unleaded petrol. Figures from the LPG place (www.autogasdevelopments.co.uk) claim that we’ll produce 75% less Carbon Monoxide, 85% fewer Hydrocarbons, 40% fewer Nitrous Oxides and 87% less Ozone than with petrol. Compared to diesel the results are even better – 90% less Carbon Monoxide, 90% fewer Hydrocarbons and 50% fewer Nitrous Oxides.
Of course, it’s not completely straightforward; it’s going to cost us around £1800 to do the conversion (and our inquiries suggest this is slightly cheaper than if we’d had it done elsewhere). And even better news – the Subaru Legacy is one of the few vehicles where conversion will be quite a complex process. Apparently it’s already incredibly finely tuned to ensure maximum fuel efficiency so we’ll actually lose a bit of performance and (wait, there’s more!) one of the valves (don’t ask us which one, we’ve got no idea when it comes to cars) will burn out prematurely.
Nonetheless, we will proceed with the conversion – purely on environmental grounds. We have considered all of the other options – which seem to be diesel or bio-diesel or a ‘hybrid’ vehicle at present – but none are particularly appropriate.
Diesel isn’t really much better than petrol in terms of emissions and bio-diesel is, quite simply, unsustainable. It’s all very well to talk about recycling the oil from fish and chip shops to produce bio-diesel but where does that oil come from? There simply isn’t enough land to grow crops for bio-diesel and, as is already happening, it’s the people in the developing countries who are suffering.
For example, palm oil is possible ingredient for bio-diesel but it puts farmers in developing countries under pressure to replace food crops with palm oil (for Western consumption, of course, not their own). Furthermore, it’s expediting the destruction of even more tracts of rainforest as the trees are ripped out to make way for palm oil plantations. And, as usual, the locals see no benefit from this.
Vehicles with hydrogen cells seem to be the only ‘viable’ option as they run on water but, at this stage, there’s still massive amounts of research to be done and governments have done next to nothing to encourage it (no doubt prompted by generous donations from oil companies). Perhaps if hydrogen cell companies made equally generous donations to New Labour we might see a bit of a policy change in the right direction. (Just don’t hold your breath!)
And, ultimately, private car ownership is not the answer to anything. They create more problems than just pollution – for example, the huge amounts of land that are being given over to building roads, the massive amount of resources necessary to ensure that everyone has their own individual vehicle and, of course, the disposal of used parts like tyres. We should be seriously cutting down on private car use, not seeking to increase it, and one way to do that is to invest in a proper public transport system.
It’s somewhat ironic that Richard Branson is currently making much of his $3 billion contribution to ‘research’ on global warming. If he simply slashed the price of his train fares and made them run a bit better then that, in itself, would slow global warming as it would get people back onto public transport. However, this is obviously not a particularly glamorous option so Branson’s not interested. He’s still focussed on options that allow us to sustain our ravenously consuming lifestyles, rather than challenge the wisdom of those lifestyles in the first place. Always the showman - and clearly not the environmentalist.
NOVEMBER 4TH CLIMATE CHANGE MARCH AND 'BLACKOUT LONDON'
As hundreds of thousands of people prepare to march through London to try and get the government to take climate change seriously, the government responds with it's usual spin. This time it's Gordon Brown promising to implement 'green' taxes. (Presumably he's saying it because no one would believe anything that comes out of Blair's mouth). And, as usual, it's more about being seen to be doing something rather than actually implementing truly effective measures. For example, Brown says he's determined to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2060. Sadly, the much reported Stern Report says we need to cut them by 75% by 2050!
Yet again, the blinkered mantra of 'protecting the economy' is brought out to justify what amounts to complete inaction. Of course the economy will be completely devastated by this government's stubborn refusal to address real 'economic' issues such as 'where is the bloody energy going to come from?'. As we'll find to our immense financial, environmental and personal cost, nuclear power will do nothing more than enrich Labour's wealthy corporate donors. It certainly won't stop global warming or meet our energy needs.
However, it's obvious the government are hoping that this announcement will make people think they really are going to do something this time and that this will reduce the crowds at Saturday's Climate Change rally. It's becoming a regular - and boring - strategy to deal with huge protests (other than their favourite one of simply ignoring them). Hopefully people will now be sufficiently fed up with Labour's carefully timed but ultimately meaningless announcements and will see through it.
A friend has just emailed us details of the 'Blackout London' campaign. On 4th November Londoners are being asked to switch off as many electrical appliances as they can to create a noticeable dip in local energy demand (see Workface website listed above). In an attempt to achieve some 'Shropshire solidarity' we've forwarded the email to as many local people as we can. The Blackout campaign is a brilliant concept and it would be great if we could build on it here in South Shropshire too.
A CHRISTMAS BREAKTHROUGH
As the season of rabid consumerism descends upon us again we've actually made a big breakthrough in relation to our part in this meaningless excess. As with so many people, Christmas with the family has been about buying things that people don't really need and probably don't like in return for them doing the same for us.
However, this year we've made a stand and advised all our relatives that we only want items from Oxfam's 'Oxfam Unwrapped' scheme (www.oxfamunwrapped.com). Under the Oxfam Unwrapped scheme people 'buy' us gifts that actually go to people in need (for example, they can buy us a goat, but we'll never see it - it will actually go to a family in a developing country and we'll just get a nice card telling us about it).
Weren't really sure how the family might embrace that but, to our pleasant surprise, they're really into it so it looks like we'll be getting a few goats, donkeys, cows, sheep etc for Xmas. This is absolutely brilliant because not only does it mean a reduction in Xmas-related waste it also means it'll make a big difference to the real recipients of the gifts. It's diverting some of the excess consumerist zeal of our vastly over-stuffed country to people who really are in need. Now this is the kind of Xmas we can cope with!
Meanwhile we'll also be buying a few gifts from Oxfam Unwrapped and also the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds scheme 'Good Nature Gifts' (www.goodnaturegifts.com - same principle as the Oxfam scheme).
THE GREEN, GREEN PAINT OF HOME
We're very keen to liven up our 1960's bungalow and give it a real sense of style; apart from anything else we do want to demonstrate that living sustainably doesn't mean you have to sacrifice style.
One way we're doing that is re-vamping the colour scheme (or, more to the point, actually introducing some colour as all the walls are currently boring white wallpaper). So we've spent the past few weeks searching for some environmentally friendly paint. Most paints contain chemicals (a.k.a volatile organic compounds or VOCs) that are bad for your health and also bad for the environment. Apparently they're a major contributor to low-level atmospheric pollution that leads to global warming, they're a hazard to asthmatics and can affect the breathing of new born babies.
In our naivety, we were almost looking forward to the smell of newly painted surfaces - because a couple of the rooms in our house still retain the odour of the previous owners dog, so we thought it would get rid of it! Anyway, it turns out that the smell of old dog is a lot less of a health hazard than the VOC-charged paint smell. So, we'll still re-paint but with odourless 'green' paint - and get rid of Fido's lingering fragrance another way (by replacing the carpets).
We've looked at various types of paint - claypaint, powdered paint that you make up yourself (reminds me of my school days when we had to mix up our paints in Art class), ready-mixed paint etc, etc. (See photograph of the results of tester pots on one of our bedroom walls)
The biggest disappointment has been the pretty uninspiring range of colours. That's particularly true of the claypaints but we've also found a lot of other types are fairly limited too - not necessarily 'drab' but a bit too much emphasis on pastel shades. This initially raised a bit of a dilemma - it's all very well to paint with eco-friendly paints but when you're surrounded by what I think would be a pretty depressing colour scheme day in and day out, then it begins to affect your mood. We like bright, vibrant colours (at our age we need all the help we can get when it comes to getting out of bed in the morning!) and were just beginning to get a bit shaky when our local eco-shop owner Paul (Precious Earth - www.preciousearth.co.uk) showed us a new range of paints which are (Hooray!) bright and vibrant. We've just ordered 'Burnt Orange' from Naturepaint in Wiltshire. It's still a bit of a DIY paint in that you have to mix it with water but, if the results look anything like the colour sheet, we'll be very happy. We hope to get the first lot on the walls this coming weekend so watch this space. (See Update 8/2/07 below!)
PROGRESS - IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD!
Just received an email from our architect to say that we've got planning permission for our proposed renovations! This is great news in itself but what's even better is the fact that the Council's letter says that 'the quality of design outweighs the fact that it does not conform with all relevant policies'. For 'design' read 'sustainable design' and for 'all relevant policies' read 'red tape'. Well done South Shropshire Council Planners for thinking outside the box and giving real support to sustainable development! You had us worried initially but you've come good in the end!
WARM AND COSY
As part of our 'reduce' strategy we had cavity wall insulation installed today. Our local council subsidises it (we get 50 pounds off our Council Tax) and it should, in theory, mean we lose heat much more slowly from the house therefore we use less energy.
There are various types of material used for cavity wall insulation; unfortunately the most environmentally friendly are - as usual - the most expensive and our budget simply doesn't stretch that far. As much as we'd like to use sheep's wool it's out of our price range - particularly given the other things we've still got to spend money on. (And god forbid the government should subside the eco-friendly options - far better to spend 17 billion pounds on updating our nuclear submarines!).
Anyhow, the material used is mineral wool. We had no idea what it looked like till they started installing it. As you can see from the picture, it looks a bit like snow (although the similarities begin and end there.) It does, no doubt, have some element of toxicity about it but, again, what do you do when faced with the choice of insulating to save energy or not insulating to avoid petro-chemicals? We've chosen the former. Not the perfect solution but at least a gesture in the right direction, we hope.
Patrick has spent a large amount of time trying to mix up and apply the powder paint we had been hoping to use for our re-decoration. Unfortunately it's incredibly labour intensive and the results - particularly in the second bedroom - have been terrible. Despite having applied four coats of paint (never let it be said we don't give things a fair trial!) the wall looked extremely patchy and the paint finish was very inconsistent.
Fortunately, we have discovered that the Rendona Paint range (i.e. proper liquid - but still chemical free - paint) has some pretty vibrant colours after all (even if they don't look very vibrant on the colour chart). So, we've used 'Archangel' and 'Stonecrop' to excellent effect. And we will never use powder paints again - painting simply shouldn't have to be that difficult.
SO MUCH FOR 'GREEN' LABOUR
In case anyone (other than Tony Blair) actually believed that this government gave a toss about the environment, the latest fiasco must surely be the final nail in the coffin for that particular delusion. The much vaunted Low Carbon Buildings Programme, that is supposed to give grants to householders seeking to install sustainable energy systems, has run out of cash and the government aren't prepared to do anything about it!
After much fanfare about giving 60 million pounds to sustainable energy grants (the majority of which is for business not householders) last year, the uptake was so good they ran out of cash last October. So, in typical Labour 'spin' style Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks announced an 'additional' 6.1 million. And, in typical Labour spin style, it's not additional at all - they simply took it from next year's allocation with absolutely no intention to top up funds from elsewhere.
But even that wasn't enough so, in January of this year, the Department of Trade and Industry, who allocate the grants, started rationing them on a monthly basis so it looked like there was enough money to get to the end of the year. It had all gone by the 12th of January. And it gets even worse. The February allocation had gone by 11 a.m. on February 1st!
In spite of this, the government is making no moves to top up the fund - despite being perfectly happy to write a cheque for 17 billion pounds - 17,000,000,000 - for nuclear submarines (that nobody except Labour's generous arms industry donors want). So, if you want to do something constructive for the planet, you have to go begging. If you want to destroy it, Blair and Co can't wait to write you a blank cheque. Why on earth do ordinary people continue to believe that New Labour gives a stuff about them?
Anyway, this disgraceful position now puts our plans for photovoltaic cells in jeopardy. They will cost 26,000 pounds as it is. Even if we get a grant, that will only be for 9,000 - we still have to find the other 17,000! However, we can't afford to do it without that grant. (What chance do you think there is of nuclear weapons manufacturers being asked to contribute two-thirds of the costs of the nuclear submarines?!).
Our supplier has told us the Department of Trade is telling grant applicants that if they don't get their applications in online and within the first few minutes of March 1st, they won't have a cat in hell's chance! So, we will be sitting up till midnight on Feburary 28th with our fingers poised over the Send button. Presumably we'll also have to synchronise our watches with Department of Trade time: a second too soon and we may officially be deemed to have applied in February. A second too late and we may have lost the race!
This would be a joke if it weren't for the fact that it's such a serious issue. As the warnings on climate change get more severe every day, this government remains focussed on rewarding its big business donors and expecting those who really are keen to do something constructive to pay through the nose for the privilege!
RUNNING OUT OF STEAM
Well, after much thought and soul searching we've decided to drop our plans for photovoltaics panels on the roof. A major contributing factor has been the overall farce that the Low Carbon Building Programme has turned into. The grants for March will be allocated within the first five minutes of applications opening on March 1st - what does this say about the government's stance on renewable energy and climate change? Not a lot.
Meanwhile, we also learn that Science Minister Malcolm Wicks is to fly to Antarctica to see 'the scientific monitoring of climate change'! Apart from the obvious stupidity of this exercise, didn't Labour go out of their way to pan Tory leader David Cameron for doing much the same thing in Greenland?
And we've just been told that, rather than increase the Low Carbon Building Programme pool to meet the increased public demand, the government is going to cut it in two months time! What will it take to get these people to take climate change seriously? Our guess would be a nice fat donation to the Labour Party from the sustainables industry as this seems to be the only thing that guides government policy these days.
CESSPITS AND SO ON
It seems logical that we follow our previous reference to Tony Blair and the Labour government with a posting about sewage.
We have just discovered that our sealed cesspit is, in fact, letting water in. In practice, this means that we have to bring in a large tanker to empty it every six weeks or so (as opposed to the usual rate of every three or four months). Needless to say, this is not really sustainable in any shape or form (indeed, the Environment Agency guidelines on 'non-mains disposal' of sewage puts sealed cesspits as the worst possible option, to be avoided at all costs). Sadly, the previous owners of this house obviously thought it was a good idea at the time and so their legacy to us is a 7,000 gallon tank buried in our front garden and embedded in 40 tonnes of concrete.
In order to ascertain whether or not our cesspit was leaking we had to have it drained entirely then a man from the installation company had to climb inside it (our definition of worst job in the world but, apparently, he quite enjoys his work!). So, we officially have a leaky cesspit - but the fun doesn't stop there. Bizarrely, despite the fact that it took a huge amount of effort - and concrete - to install it two years ago, the tank is only guaranteed for a year. And we've also been given two opinions that leaking tanks can't really be fixed - they have to be replaced!
So, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that this means emptying the 7,000 gallon tank, digging up the 40 tonnes of concrete that surround it, taking the tank out, putting a new one in and embedding it in another 40 tonnes of concrete. Sustainable? We don't think so!
However, they may be a small silver lining around this particularly smelly cloud. We have previously discussed with the Environment Agency the possibility of having a reed bed treatment system but this has been ruled out because we don't have a water course to discharge the treated water to. We can't put in a septic tank that allows the water to soak away into the ground because our soil has a very high clay content (indeed, it's solid clay about a foot below the surface). Fortunately, the Environment Agency put us onto a company called Biologic Designs to discuss the possibility of a 'managed wetland'.
They have done this on the basis that, at least in theory, we can discharge a certain amount of effluent into the ground as long as it doesn't find its way into other areas. For the first time in our search for sustainable options, the high clay content of our garden may actually be an advantage, in that it prevents the water seeping away. What we need to do now is find out whether we have enough ground area to plant up a whole variety of shrubs, small trees and plants to soak up the effluent. This would be absoultely brilliant if we can because, not only does it provide a 'green' disposal solution for our grey and black water, the entire system - plants and treated water - will also create an excellent habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
At this stage, Jay from Biologic has been around to dig a test pit and he seems quite convinced it's a real possibility. Now we're just waiting for him to draw up his proposals so we can then start to discuss them with the Environment Agency and the Council. Watch this space!THE LAST POST - 14th January 2008
Sadly we've given up on our attempts to turn our bungalow into a more sustainable place to live and our house is now on the market as we contemplate a move to something a lot simpler. It would have been nice to have seen it through but in the end various things got in the way - the largest being the government, who not only fail to support people trying to stave off the impending environmental crisis but actually seem determined to undermine them.
So, we're giving up on this project - and we're not at all happy about it but we're sick of being taken for mugs simply because we're trying to make a difference for the better.