There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Just when I thought that spring was around the corner, the cold moved in and decided to make itself comfortable.  We received a beautiful covering of snow three days ago.  Our first.  This storm caused the roads through Dartmoor to be closed, cutting us off for 24 hours.  Not a single person came up the track.  The clouds were low that day and visibility almost nil, so our venturing out was somewhat limited.  The whole scene had a sepia tone to it.

That was Friday.  On Saturday and Sunday, crowds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas that had received rain rather than snow arrived to go sledding, and give us headaches with their litter, noise and shocking inability to read signs (more than a few people blocked us in as they parked directly in front of our gate with its posted “no parking” message).

We have the place to ourselves again, so set out for a hike behind our house.  Drifts of snow abut tufts of ice-covered grass and rocks, dramatic skies and the climbs up to the tors combined to make one of the most beautiful winter scenes.   This week’s blog is a photo essay of our first snow at Crockern.  We are awaiting more of the fluffy white stuff tomorrow.

Crockern Farm

First snow in the morning toward the back gate.

Snow covered footpath sign to Wistman's Woods just behind our house.

Snow covered footpath sign to Wistman’s Woods just behind our house.

Looking south towards Crockern Farm.

Looking south towards Crockern Farm.

Chickens in the snow

One of the chickens having a go at her first snow.

Littaford  and Longaford Tors, Dartmoor

Roger on the way to Littaford and Longaford Tors.

Littaford Tor, Dartmoor

Littaford Tor

Icy Grass on top of the ridge looking toward Bellever, Dartmoor

Icy Grass on top of the ridge looking toward Bellever.

Littaford Tor in the snow and ice grass.

Littaford Tor in the snow and ice grass.

Littaford Tor, Dartmoor

More Littaford Tor

Dartmoor

Rocks, snow, what more do you need?

Dartmoor winter

Snow and clouds moving toward the vanishing point.

Sky, stone wall, snowy ground.

Sky, stone wall, snowy ground.

Roger and Sam on top of the ridge.

Roger and Sam on top of the ridge.

Longaford Tor with view (about 1.5 miles away) back to our house.

Higher White Tor with view (about 1.5 miles away) back to our house.

A silhouette of Sam, me and the top of Higher White Tor.

A silhouette of Sam, me and the top of Higher White Tor.

A lone tree just before Wistman's Woods.

A lone tree just before Wistman’s Woods.

Sheep in the snow.

Sheep in the snow.

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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.

Water Water Everywhere

Everybody is talking about the weather, but no one does anything about it. – Mark Twain

I’ve never known a man to rust by being out in the rain. – Martin, our plumber

England this summer kicked off with a hosepipe ban due to drought.  A ban that was immediately followed by six steady weeks of rain.  While parts of the world suffered dry, hot conditions, we were quickly becoming a swamp.  A chilly one at that.

Dartmoor has a temperate climate that is usually wetter and milder when compared to other locations of the same elevation in England.   The rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions.  As we’ve barely had two days in a row without rain this summer, the Atlantic may be due for some Prozac.

It’s not just the outside that is damp, but our old stone farmhouse is suffering in a few places, too.   It is important to note that damp in an old stone house is common.  We know we need to replace the roof, and have lined up our team.  In about three weeks, we carefully remove the slate tiles (as we will put them back on the roof with reclaimed tiles to replace broken/missing ones) and take the roof down to the rafters.  Here, we will install breathable lining and insulation; put in place proper lead flashing, new fascia boards and guttering; and, return the slate tiles.  Roger frequently says of the current guttering, “It’s very Heath Robinson.”  And we have a few examples of temporary fixes that used whatever was to hand.

Heath Robinson Drawing

There is the internal plumbing:

Crazy plumbing

Some of the plumbing works

There is the fuse box BELOW the water tank:

Crazy plumbing

My biggest concern is that our hot water tank is made of copper rather than stainless and due to a silly bit of engineering, the electric fuse box currently sits underneath this tank. With acidic water, a copper tank may last only 8-10 years. We have an electrician coming out to move that fuse box.

There is the wire holding the roof onto this shed:

Home Renovation

This wire is helping to keep the shed roof in place.

An old house necessarily has an evolution to it.  Centuries ago, people living on the moors would have had open windows; thatched roofs with large overhang, livestock living in the house for warmth, and the buildings would have been able to breath and the damp less contained.  Any moisture coming through the stones would leave through the stones, taking the easiest path.  In other words, not all that damp inside.

Over time, some of these paths have been altered as the way we live has changed.  Some of the efforts to keep water out have instead encouraged it to stay in the stones:  concrete rather than lime mortar, non-breathable weather shield exterior paint, and the modern desire to live in a warm and draft free home.

The problem isn’t pervasive, but a few spots cause concern.   To address this, we’ve wire brushed the interior stones to rid them of any moss and moved furniture away from the walls so the stones can breath.  On the outside, we’ve cleared neglected trenches around the house to improve the drainage away from the house.  Once dug and cleared of grass and nettles, the trenches are back-filled with several tons of pebbles.  This technique is known as making French Drains, we affectionately think of it as making Achy Back.  We’ve met with a stonemason who has confirmed our efforts and is providing us a tutorial on replacing the concrete mortar with a lime mortar.  And, we’ve scheduled the roofers.

Drains

Some of the newly cleared trenches.

The water we do want in the house comes from a natural spring.  Our spring is about 100 metres from the house and is gravity fed to a tank in a leaky shed outside.  From here, the water is pumped back into the house.

People have been drinking this water for centuries and it tastes wonderful.   We know ours is slightly acidic, which poses a challenge for the copper pipes and tank that transport the water throughout the house, but we recently had it tested for other bacteria.  When I took the water samples to a testing centre in Exeter, an eccentric mad scientist at the door of a dilapidated house met me.  It took a long time to locate this place as the directions were out of date,  “It’s across the road from the bus stop and there are cream pillars with red numbers painted on them.”  Truth:  Overgrown hedges covered any pillars and red paint had long since worn away.  Finding this place in a timely way was critical, as the water samples must be dropped off within a few hours from collection.  I imagined a similar sense of urgency experienced by men dropping off sperm samples.

Our water test results show that we have safe water in regards to bacteria and other unwanted bits; we just need to address the acidity.  In order to do this, we will install a UV filter and PH adjuster to the tank but not before we have the roof and flashing repaired on the shed.  Roger and I also must empty the storage tank, lay a stable floor (the tank currently rests on old tires), and insulate the space so that in winter, the water doesn’t freeze.

Water Tank

Water tank resting on tire.

It is a curious thing to have no water in a place that is known for its wet conditions and yet one day our tank was dry and not so much a drip off of the taps.  A quick inspection of our spring indicated that it was running well.  We needed to remedy the situation and so called in the experts…they came the next day.

Our waterman used a pump to reverse the water flow and push whatever was in the pipe back to the source.  Roger dug out reeds and other plant life that were growing around the stream, repaired the cover and cleared the filter.  After a bit, the water was bubbling again.  It appears that we had silt or an air block that caused the flow from the stream to just stop.  Once resolved, we had to keep the water running for about an hour to flush out any sediment in the pipes.

Crockern Farm

Roger liberating the stream.

When the water was running clearly, we turn off the taps only to discover that the entire downstairs was flooded!  One of the pipes had stopped draining into the soak-away and instead was filling the house.  From no water to flooding in less than 3 hours!

With each intervention there is an equal and opposite intervention.  This is the third law of renovation physics.  – Roger

The next day, Roger and I started to clear the offending soak away.  We removed reeds, lifted boulders, and dug a trench.  Once we saw that the water was flowing freely, we filled the trench with gravel and sand, placed the boulders strategically to prevent the pipes getting damaged and returned the reeds for water flow through the roots.  Having never built a soak away before, we were learning as we went.  So far so good.

Crockern Farm

Our completed soak-away.

We had a rare break from the rain, and this day of labor was hot and sunny.  After we completed our soak away restoration, we took our tired, muddy, and sweaty selves down to the river and climbed in for a swim.   It was fantastic to sit in the river surrounded by the wilderness and the relaxing sounds of the birds, water and breeze.

West Dart River Dartmoor

The West Dart River and our wading pool.

Returning inside and filled with a sense that all was well with the world; I noticed a bit of water on the kitchen floor.  Why this puddle?  Turns out, it was a small stream inside as one of the copper pipes was leaking.   We phoned Martin.