On a Hot Tin Roof

Just over ten years ago, Roger and I tied the knot, performed our nuptials, embraced matrimony.  In other words, we married.  The tenth wedding anniversary is special, and appears to be celebrated with a gift of tin.  Why tin?  Tunafish comes in tin.  I absolutely do not want to receive, nor give, a can of tuna as a gift.  Are we certain it is tin and not gin?   But, keeping with tradition — and we are nothing if not adherents of certain traditions — we are embracing this tin thing.

We elected to celebrate our anniversary by booking a weekend in Cornwall with the dogs.  Cornwall has a rich history of tin mines dating back to the Bronze Age, so it seemed an appropriate choice for our get-away weekend.  Explorations of new villages and towns, walks along the coast with the dogs, and some yummy food awaited us.   Pack the car and let’s go!

Whoa!  Hold it right there.  Nope, rewind.  Can we really leave?  Wasn’t the generator recently playing up?  And if it doesn’t charge the batteries, all manner of disaster might befall us in the form of the boiler or water pumps not functioning.   For the dedicated reader of this blog, the answer is an easy “yes”.  Roger managed to get it mostly fixed, but we were still having problems with consistent voltage and the support team of batteries charging properly.  What this meant was that Roger continued to manually hand crank start the generator each day to charge the storage batteries.  This is no way to live and so we did have to call in our generator expert, Paul.  As it transpired, there was a problem with the AC diode…..blah, blah, blah…. I stopped paying attention and went to town to run a few errands.   While I was out, I received this text from Roger:

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Our weekend away was back on track and our generator was functioning as it hadn’t in years.  Happy Anniversary to us!  And now, a confession:  our hard working, thirty-plus-year old Lister lives in conditions which would raise alarm bells in the Geneva Convention for Generators.   The tin roof above is rusted and leaks.  The entire building needs some TLC as the stone walls need repair and reinforcing.  There are no supports for the rusty roof either, so it is a matter of time before the entire thing comes crashing down.   Standing within this falling down shed sits a temporary structure which Roger built during our first month of being at Crockern, bravely protecting the generator from the elements and the failing roof above.  It works, but it is most certainly not a forever solution.

When we arrived to Crockern, the generator was being rained upon and we could have repaired the roof then.  But the roof to the house was leaking, we had water running down a wall in what is now our bedroom, the boiler was either on or off, a fuse box lived below a copper water tank, and we had no insulation, so we had other fish to fry.  Faced with all this, our emergency, short term fix was Roger’s sturdy, moveable cover for the generator.  That was five years ago.

When I walk past this outbuilding, I can’t help but think of that famous line from the B-52s “Love Shack” a place where people of all shapes and sizes, stripes and colours head for a groovy good time. It’s Kookie’s Mad Pad filled with multifarious crowds of hipsters.  It’s state of mind.  But not at Crockern.  Our shack is just that, a shack.  Home to muck and mess, and a hard working generator.

With our bags packed and chicken care sorted, we were nearly ready to head out for our mini-vacay.   With the generator working splendidly we were departing with peace of mind.  I headed to town for my piano lesson.  Just as I was getting in the car to return home, I receive the following texts:

For about a year now, we’ve known we had to address this on-its-last-leg-water-pump.   We’ve been waiting as there is a larger project at hand regarding the water system in the house, and when the water tank got its bulge (Can’t remember?  See:  https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/old-stone-cottage-renovation/ ), we had to begin this project.  For the most part, the pump worked, but typically on a stormy night, just as we were brushing our teeth before heading to sleep, it would stop and we would have no water, whereby Roger, not I, would head outside into the wind and rain, making his way to the shed where the pump is located, giving  it a little tap, tap, tap.  Inconvenient, but in the triage of projects, not a high priority.  That is until the latest failure and death of the pump.  And Roger covered in shower gel and standing outside in his bathrobe.

As luck would have it, the plumber arrived within the hour and quickly replaced the pump.  As he left, he mentioned that we should consider a new shed for this set up.  Did we hear him correctly or was this our tin ear?  Another shed?  This is not part of the plans for the outbuildings.

We hadn’t yet set out and already this anniversary celebration was becoming an embarrassment of riches.  Tin roof riches.  We will be getting a tin roof for the shed.  Not just getting, but installing.  As quickly as the plumber left, we loaded the car and headed west to Cornwall where there was no tin in sight.  Instead, we settled into the B&B and ordered two glasses filled with gin & tonic.  Happy anniversary to us and don’t we know how to just do things in style.

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Put, put, put, put, put, put, put, put

Lately, the mellow January sunshine is struggling to reveal itself from behind thick wintery clouds.  And just like this sun, Roger and I have been busy and lazy in equal measure.   In addition to our daily projects, both new and old, we’ve added a twice weekly trip to the local pool for swimming.  Aches and pains be damned!  The first time we went, I realised I will never be able to better my time or endurance from when I was a kid.  At that time of my life, I never wanted to leave the water, sometimes holding my breath as long as I could for the shear joy of it!  I would swim fast and hard, challenging myself to go further while racing a friend.  Times have changed, and now my goal is to elongate my stroke, measure my breathing, and finish the number of laps I’ve set out for myself within a reasonable amount of time.  Oh, and not drown.

In addition to fitness, swimming is helping to change up our routine and add some relaxation into our lives.  In light of recent events, this is a good thing.  We are off the grid for electricity.  Our generator, inverter and battery bank run all our essential electoral loads.  We store the energy from our generator into two large battery packs, which can keep our lights and the water pump working for 3-4 days if the generator fails.

Imagine our surprise while watching a movie, all of the electricity went out.  “Surely, that’s not a good thing.” I remarked to Roger.  Calmly and in complete agreement Roger said, “No it’s not.”    We sat in total darkness for a few moments, coming to grips with the absence of any electricity or the chug-chug-chug sound of our Lister generator.  Like swimmers barely making a wave, we were calm and elegant in our response.  Either that, or we were in a state of shock as this could spell curtains if we don’t have a functioning generator.  A slow sinking to the bottom.

Lister

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

Over the nearly five years at Crockern, we’ve become more sanguine about these sorts of challenges, and it’s not just because we’ve returned to the swimming pool.  We’ve grown used to unanticipated obstacles and adjusting our plans.  Living at Crockern has taught us both to be flexible, determined and patient.  We know we aren’t finished with our improvements and renovations.  And when we are, we will still be engaged with daily maintenance.  That’s just the deal of living in an old house.  This week, the weather turned decidedly colder on Dartmoor, but unlike our first winter, we aren’t cold and wet inside the house.  Our interventions of insulation, new roof and windows, and a new boiler have made a difference.  We’ve simplified electric and water systems and made our lives less stressful as a result.  With this healthy dose of perspective, the generator not turning over at 10 p.m. at night, in effect shutting everything down in the house, is just another problem to solve.

It’s cold outside and, except for the glow of the moon, completely dark.  Roger takes his head torch and heads out to investigate the generator.  I dash outside and bring in a few filled watering cans in case we need them for the toilets.  Next, I fumble around by the glow of the wood burner, locate candles and set about lighting a few.  Instantly, I’m struck that candle light is lovely, but not bright enough to read a book.  How did they do it in medieval times?  Cross stitching those tapestries must have been murder on the eyes.

I’m still deep in my thoughts comparing the frugal method of medieval rush lighting, tallow candles or the more exotic bees wax candles used by nobility, when Roger enters the house with a blast of cold air following.  He stretches his shoulder and washes the oil off his hands.  While I’m cozied up under a blanket and making a mental note to purchase more candles, Roger is down to a t-shirt and not feeling the cold as he has spent the past thirty minutes and a good deal of effort to manually crank over the generator. I can’t do this, as it requires a good amount of strength.   Perhaps after I double my number of laps at the pool, but at this stage, it is not a possibility.  Particularly in the dark.

With electricity back in order for the time being, I abandon my plans to make and stockpile my own rushes.  But, just in case, I leave the watering cans where they are for the time being.  The generator is happily chugging along to power up the batteries and we resume watching the movie.  Before we call it a night, I let the dogs out for their last constitutional.  We drift off to sleep, Sam and Millie chasing rabbits or eating butterflies, while Roger and I have equally busy brains calculating the cost and headaches as we consider replacing our generator.

And Hip Hip Hurrah for Roger!   He’s a hero!  Within no time the next day he has managed to determine the principle problem with the generator.   Our reliable old lister is still motoring along and instead the two small batteries, which are relatively new, have gone flat, probably because of the cold.  Then again, it may be the alternator, so we are still investigating.  Either way, we need to improve the space where the generator is housed.  The roof is falling down.  The walls need to be shored up.  And with that, we can always add some insulation which will benefit those fussy batteries.  The project list for this spring is growing longer, but is very clear.  We will continue our swimming, charging our own personal batteries, as we move forward on this rather large, and not so exciting, project.

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.