I Bathe in Liquid Sunshine – my journey towards a low(er) carbon home
I became a householder for the first time in January 2004 when I moved into my new home. A three-bedroomed semi-detached ex-council house built in the late 1940’s, it came complete with an old solid fuel central heating system that ran off a coal-fired stove. After a couple of winters spending many hours on my knees coaxing the stove into life, and then waiting two hours before I got heat from the radiators, I decided it was time to reconsider my heating system. I was also uncomfortable about relying on coal, the most CO2-polluting of the fossil fuels. At the start of my long and winding journey towards a more sustainable home, my initial assumption was that I would go for a combi gas boiler so that I could remove the hot water tank and airing cupboard to allow a much-needed bathroom makeover. As a great lover of log fires, I also imagined toasting myself in front of an open fire in place of the stove. The first step was to get connected to mains gas, which is available in the town but was not yet connected to my house. In came Transco to lay the pipework, and then a meter was installed. So there I was with a gas supply but as yet no appliances that would use it.
Here began the painstaking process of trying to figure out what to do next, with countless questions and brain-ache: what kind of heating system; should I go for solar thermal too; what type of boiler – a vented or unvented system; if I wanted the possibility of solar hot water I would need a water tank, but then what about my bathroom space that I wanted to reclaim? Could a tank go in the attic instead – or would this be costly or structurally dodgy? Or should I stick with the idea of a combi – but then that would make me totally reliant on gas for heating and hot water. I started to think more about the long-term feasibility of fossil fuels and was becoming increasingly uneasy at the idea of depending on gas. With rising energy prices and the prospect of Peak Oil and dwindling fossil fuel supplies, and not least the problem of CO2 emissions contributing to climate change, I was keen to try and reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible.
So, rather than an open fire I realised that a woodburning stove would be much more efficient. But if I was going to burn wood, could I use some of that heat for hot water, as with my coal stove? But how then to combine this with a gas boiler – and perhaps also solar thermal? The obvious thing it seemed to me would be to try and combine a mix of wood, solar and gas to each contribute towards the heating system and not be totally reliant one any one fuel source. My hope was to mostly use the woodburner to heat the house in winter, solar for hot water in summer, and gas as a backup when necessary.
Somewhere in my early enquiries, when I was as yet relatively ignorant of what is out there in terms of information and support for energy efficiency measures (and before I knew about our local Household Energy Service), I happened upon the offer of a free household energy report via a leaflet dropped through my door, and received some very useful information from the Energy Savings Trust about free insulation schemes and grants. So I fortuitously managed to get my whole house insulated – with cavity walls filled, extra roof insulation, draft excluders and thermostatic radiator valves fitted, which cost me not a penny (this was in 2005 and has now been replaced by a different scheme). The difference this insulation made was extraordinary. I think the cavity wall insulation made the single biggest difference, and my house suddenly felt like it was wrapped in a warm blanket. As the coal fire was such a pain to get going, I was well used to living without heating for much of the year and wearing thick jumpers, but with the insulation we could stay warm enough even in winter by lighting the stove only every two or three days.
Now comes the part where I risk making myself a social pariah – in an ongoing round of interrogating every plumber, heating engineer, woodstove installer, energy efficiency expert, solar energy provider, local Household Energy Service staff or volunteer or any hapless individual who might have done something to their own household heating that I stumble across or manage to lay my hands – or endless questions – upon. In trying to wrap my brain cells around the various considerations, options, permutations and implications, it felt like I was having to gain a vicarious degree in heat engineering as I endeavoured to understand the finer points of thermal stores, heat exchange mechanisms, system or standard boilers, vented or unvented systems, gravity feed or mains pressure, double or triple coil hot water cylinders, flat plate or evacuated tube solar panels, freestanding woodburners or ones with a back boiler – vainly trying to triangulate the various advice and often conflicting opinions I managed to extract from these poor browbeaten but very helpful and patient folk (sorry everyone!). From the morass of often contradictory information and pages of scribbled notes and diagrams made during countless conversations, I gradually gleaned that combining gas, wood and solar into a central heating system is not feasible without a thermal store or heat exchange (naked flame and gas not a good combination…), and that having a woodburner with a back boiler would use three times as much wood, lose the clean burn efficiency advantage and take lots of feeding which would not be practical with my working lifestyle. Despite my bemusement that surely if we can land a man on the moon it can’t be beyond the wit of humans to create a simple heating system that can efficiently use three different heat sources, I realised that in endeavouring to ‘future proof’ my house and cater for various eventualities I was, typically, overcomplicating things and ‘overspeccing’ the system for my type of house, as a few plumbers pointed out. I never did quite fathom the functional difference between a thermal store (water heated by various sources) and a triple coil cylinder (separate coils heated by gas, wood and solar) but in the end just gave up and decided to follow the advice of a good friend who suggested that a compromise which was ‘good enough’ for now would suffice. And if in a few years time there is no more gas, then think again.
After three years of intermittent research and information gathering, missing grant deadlines and having to wait another year to reapply, getting several quotations from gas boiler installers, solar panel installers, woodburner installers, fireplace builders, chimney repairers, endless brain-picking and head-scratching, I eventually and at long last reached some Decisions. With all the pieces of the puzzle finally in place, a date was set and the chosen installers were commissioned to do the work. The guys were all brilliant and within one week in October 2009, hey presto, I was the proud owner of a brand new heating system – comprising a freestanding Clearview Pioneer woodburning stove in its smart new fireplace, a solar thermal hot water system with unvented twin coil cylinder (mains pressure, you understand) relocated to the downstairs loo, and a system gas boiler for back up hot water and central heating using the existing radiators.
I was very grateful to receive generous grants from Powys County Council via the West Wales Eco Centre of £1000 towards the solar thermal, £500 towards the gas boiler, £500 towards the woodburner, with an additional £400 from the national Low Carbon Buildings Programme towards solar thermal. A total of £2,400 grants, plus the sale of my old coal stove, was a welcome contribution that made it all just about feasible in financial terms.
I am totally delighted!! With the extreme Arctic winter of 2009/10, my heating system was certainly put through its paces and performed amazingly. Even in that freezing weather my little Pioneer was brilliant and as I had been assured, but scarcely believed, it did indeed manage to heat virtually the whole house. I adore this stove which quickly became my New Best Friend! We used additional gas central heating for maybe an hour or two each day during the coldest spells, but otherwise I have hardly turned the heating on since the boiler was installed in October. My gas bill is thankfully minimal! Even better, as an electricity and gas customer of Good Energy I am now earning about £90 per year for generating solar hot water thanks to their pioneering Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. As for the solar thermal, I absolutely love it!! Since early March our hot water has almost entirely come from the sun, sometimes on dull days topped up by gas, but with the sunny weather this Spring I am regularly getting a whole tank of 50 – 65 degree C hot water, and the gas boiler lies idle, just as I had hoped it would.
And the best bit of all, that I had not quite anticipated, is the great thrill, joy and pleasure I get from soaking in a hot bath of liquid sunshine at the end of a hard day! As I lie there relaxing and unwinding, I contemplate those hot rays travelling through 93 million miles of space via the solar panels and into my bathwater, and my body feels sun-kissed… it is a wonderfully tangible, sensory and embodied experience of direct connection to our star and reminder of how all life on this planet depends upon the Sun.
Despite my bemusement that surely if we can land a man on the moon it can’t be beyond the wit of humans to create a simple heating system that can efficiently use three different heat sources, I realised that in endeavouring to ‘future proof’ my house and cater for various eventualities I was, typically, overcomplicating things and ‘overspeccing’ the system for my type of house, as a few plumbers pointed out.