It Isn’t Easy Being Green

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”  Volcanoes, the tilt of earth in relation to the sun, and the movement of continents have helped to change the earth’s climate dramatically over the last several billion years or so.   More recently, our own human activities such as burning coal, long-haul flights and driving our cars have added to the increase in greenhouse gases.  Scientists are still working to determine the extent of our human impact.

Globally, we’ve seen more hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and most recently, the devastation wrought by Sandy hitting the Eastern Seaboard of the US.  Hoboken, New Jersey, where I lived for over twenty years, was among one of the hard hit areas.  How we cope with energy alternatives and the capacity to sustain ourselves either off grid, or when the grid goes down during a disaster, is very much on my mind.

We’re not die-hard green fanatics, but in taking on this restoration project, we are hoping to create a sustainable home, or as close to one as we can get.   “Greening up” seems to be pretty easy on a new building, but a several-hundred-year-old-stone farmhouse presents challenges.  The house is drafty, poorly insulated and has an old and inefficient boiler to heat all the rooms bar the kitchen.

We are off the grid for electricity.   We have a generator, inverter and battery bank to run all our essential electrical loads.   We store the energy from our generator into two large battery packs, which could keep our lights and the water pump working for 3-4 days if the generator failed.  Our future plans include installing solar panels on the barn roof (also in need of repair) to top up the batteries, reducing the generator’s diesel consumption and extending the capacity to provide electricity.  We plan to invest in a newer generator that runs more efficiently and quietly, relegating our 30-year old (mostly) reliable Lister four-stroke to a much deserved understudy role.

Lister generator

Our workhorse, the 30 year old Lister 4-stroke generator

When considering renewable energy systems, we’ve had to start thinking about what are the “essential loads”, in other words, becoming more aware of how certain materials and designs affect our energy use.  There is nothing better than being reliant on a diesel guzzling generator for electricity to prompt you to unplug appliances immediately upon charging and switch out the lighting to low-wattage LED lights.  We’ve dropped our demand for energy significantly with a couple of quick fixes.  For example, changing our lighting to LED bulbs in the kitchen dropped our power use from 400 to 36 watts!   We’ve changed how we cook to make the most use of the steady slow heat in the Aga and the installation of the wood burner added to our heating repertoire, making the central heating system less of a daily need.

To keep the house warm, we currently have three things working in combination:  The newly installed wood burner; the oil-fired Aga that heats the kitchen and our hot water; and, an old boiler that runs on heating oil.  It is estimated that about 60% of CO2 emissions from a home is from the boiler.    We try not to use it too often as it is not very efficient and suffers a limited design with just two settings:  “on” or “off”.  There is no timer, nor is there a temperature gauge.

Replacing this boiler provides a huge opportunity to embrace a more sustainable solution, but making such a choice is harder than I first thought.   We either look to finding a more efficient oil-fired boiler that gives us the flexibility to heat different sections of the house and hot water, or we look to greener alternatives to accomplish this same goal.   The wood burner has been on daily since October, and while it doesn’t heat the entire house (the layout of the house doesn’t permit that), it does make for some cozy and warm spaces.   What we’ve discovered is that we can keep the rooms that we are in during the day warm by burning the stove and not running the central heating system. That’s fine for us, but we’ll need to solve the central heating question for the comfort of visiting friends and family.

Roger and I have considered a ground source heat pump.  This method works with a mixture of water and antifreeze circulating around a loop of pipe buried outside the house.  When the liquid travels around the loop, it absorbs heat from the ground, which then gets used to heat radiators, under floor heating systems and even hot water.  This sounds great because the temperature beneath the surface of the ground is a constant all throughout the year.  Installing isn’t cheap, but our bigger problem is that the ground around the house must be suitable for digging a trench or borehole to install the ground loop.  We’ve tried digging down to plant a couple of blueberry bushes recently and hit stones (huge boulders to be precise) more times than not.  The bushes are now planted, but not in ideal locations.    So, we’re not certain how this would play out for installing a ground source heat pump.

We’ve looked into air source heat pumps as they are being touted as the next big thing since sliced bread (or solar, really).  They extract heat from the outside air in a similar way that a refrigerator extracts heat from within.  They can be used to provide heating and hot water.  The thing is they require electricity to operate, and for us, that means our diesel-fired generator gets more of a workout.  This option may work in partnership with those previously mentioned solar panels on the barn roof.

More recently, we’ve started reading about biomass systems, which burn wood pellets, chips or logs and can power central heating and provide hot water.    This may prove to be our way forward given the potential limitations presented with the other options.

Crockern Farm

A roof with a view

This week in Dartmoor, the weather turned decidedly colder, and every draft in the house has revealed itself.   We won’t have our new heating system in place any time soon as there is much to consider (both in the system we choose and in the architecture of the house) and we want to do it right.  Happily, we’re making progress — albeit slow — in other areas, namely the roof.   For the past 5 weeks, the roofers have been working in all sorts of lousy weather.   And never mind the leaks that necessitated the original repairs, our roof was seriously lacking insulation!  One day one of the roofers laughed and remarked, “It looks like someone installed this rockwall with a shot-gun.  There ain’t enough of it and it be full of holes.”    So the rockwall is now being replaced with thick layers of Celotex insulation.  On the inside, with the great help of our friend Mark and his 5 year-old son who were recently visiting, we’ve added additional insulation, insulating board and plasterboard.  Where previously there was nothing but loose tiles, cold air and rain, we now are getting water tight and snug!

Crockern Farm

Lorenzo hard at work

We have added weather-stripping inside the windows to reduce drafts.   Roger’s diligence has paid off and we are receiving a free installation of loft insulation, which will greatly help our bedroom and office area, for the parts of the house where we aren’t having the roof repaired.

Ultimately, we shall have to replace most of our windows.  They are, for the large part, single pane, poorly installed and in some instances the frames are rotten.   As much as 20% of heating energy is wasted through single-glazed windows.  With double-glazing, not only will we keep more of the heat in the house, we will also reduce the condensation build up that currently blocks some of our views.  For this winter, our attention is on the three obvious offenders:  the large single-pained-cracked-slipped-leaky-8-foot roof windows.  We’ll do the rest later as the weather improves.  But here we have encountered a serious delay.  Five weeks into the roof project, and we still don’t have any indication when these windows will arrive.  I’ve learned a thing or two watching just about every episode of Grand Designs and it is always the glass that delays the project.  So, our roof is off, the insulation and felting in place, and the windows aren’t here.  We’ve been told, “next week.”  Yes, I know how to translate that because it is universal:  “They aren’t ready yet”.

Crockern Farm Before

One of the offending windows as evidenced by the running water!

This may prove to be our coldest winter at Crockern as we are not fully up to date on all of our interventions.   I find myself drawn to sitting by the wood burner for longer stretches planning and researching our future projects.  Sitting on the small table next to me is my coffee or glass of wine (depending on the time of day), a couple of novels on the go, my lap top, my seed catalogues (this is the time of the year to start that planning!) and more and more resources to digest regarding making our home a little greener as we do these renovations.   We want to be prepared, not just warm and dry, but also with enough provisions that if we get snowed-in, we’ll be okay:  Batteries, candles, wind-up radio, solar battery chargers, etc.  We have plenty of wood, a river with water, different heat sources, and enough back up food and wine for about 10 days.  We’ve ordered in the oil and diesel, so we should be fine.  Should we get cut off, we’ll head down to the hotel at the end of the lane where it is always warm and the Jail Ale on tap is rather good.

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8 comments on “It Isn’t Easy Being Green

  1. Jenny says:

    Really interesting post Catherine. We had a weekend in Lewes back in September when people who had installed various green energy saving systems opened up their houses and gave advice on what they had done. It was really useful and has prompted me to get my cavity walls insulated – another big source of heat loss (35%). Down here we have an organisation called OVESCO which advises on such matters. Do you have anything similar in Devon? Although I imagine that the fact that your house is unique means that to a certain extent you need to do your own unique research!

  2. Thanks Jenny. As we don’t have the cavity walls — just super thick stone walls — we don’t have that option/concern. But, it would be GREAT to find someone or agency that could come in and offer all sorts of clear advice on what we could do at this property, not in general. It is a challenge to sort through it all. Anyone know anyone?

  3. Sheila Shepheard says:

    I’m booking my place with you NOW for the End of the World on 21st December – sounds like the best place to be to ride it all out.

  4. Dana Crowe says:

    I admire your efforts to live a ‘green’ lifestyle tremendously. Now that it costs me $900 to fill my oil tank in the basement I have become a convert to the green team. However, I think the absurd increase in the price of fuel is a good thing. It forces one to rethink the way we have taken our resources and our creature comforts for granted. And It forces is to seek alternatives. I want to move towards a less dependent lifestyle too.

  5. Julia Hough says:

    Love your posts, especially this one. I’m thinking a lot about conserving energy and it’s great to hear about new ways (to me) of doing that. I lost power for 5 days, as did many people around here. The camraderie in Hoboken was lovely, you would have been proud.

    • It seems to me it is easier to be more green when we live in cities (centralized services) or far in the country (off grid). It is the suburbs that seem caught between a rock and a hard place. Really glad you are okay after the storm, too.

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