Lime pastering course

I have spent the last couple of days on a lime plastering course in Bedford. I am learning this skill so I can deliver more retrofit services to the customers of www.ecoalex.com. One of the key ways to improve the energy performance of older houses is to add internal insulation to walls. There are lots of people offering this service with celotex and other oil based insulation materials. These are very efficient and applicable in many more modern homes, however they do require careful installation of vapour barriers in the walls and have a risk of condensation. I want to be able to offer my customers something a little different, Natural Insulation. This will enable be breathable and allow moisture to pass through it naturally rather than gathering hidden inside the construction of the wall. After talking with a vegan customer I have been looking at wood fibre insulation in batts and boards. To get all this finished properly it needs plastering, modern plaster sets solid and isn’t breathable so I have been learning to work with lime.

There is a resurgence of interest in lime plaster at the moment, partly because of heritage projects like St Pancras station and partly because of a renewed interested in it’s flexibility and breath ability. This meant there was a choice of a few courses, however a lot of them were quite rural and a good distance from London so I chose DIY plastering in Bedford and I am very pleased I did. The course was one to one so I got plenty of help from Paul and could have it tailored to my requirements.

When I got there Paul had prepared two walls, one typical brick one and a second much flatter one to simulate the type of wall I am building using wood fibre insulation. After checking my fitness we agreed to try and plaster both walls so I could tackle any different lime issues. I started with the masonry wall applying two guides across the wall that would cover all the bumps and undulations and produce a flat surface. I then filled in with plaster and used a straight edge to get the plaster flat and even.

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Then we left this to dry and I moved on to the flatter surface set up to simulate wood fibre board. Here I applied a much thinner coat of plaster, embedded some mesh in it and then a second thin coat. This was then flattened using the straight edge. Only 10-15mm of plaster are needed as the base wall is so much flatter than an older brick wall. Once these two walls had dried a little I went over them with a float, flattening the surface and adding some roughness for the skim coat. That was day one completed.

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Day two was all about getting things smooth, very satisfying it was too. After drying overnight both walls had developed some cracks, especially the masonry one where we had a much thicker covering of plaster. Many of these could be sealed again with the floats but the larger ones needed a bit more compression from the trowel and some extra plaster adding. Next we added the top coat of plaster, this had more lime and less sand to make it smoother, but went on the same way using a trowel. Once the wall was covered with an even layer of topcoat we left it to dry. During this time Paul gave me a quick tutorial in filling holes in walls, very useful for my bathroom wall. Then I went over the wall with a float to even out the plaster further.

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After this and some more drying I went over it with a trowel to get it even flatter and remove the air bubbles. It was all very pleasing to produce such a flat surface. At this point you can keep going making it flatter and smoother gradually using the trowel and the float. Looking forward to using the skills on an insulation project next month in Hertfordshire, get in touch if you would like me to help you with your house. I am based in Central London but can travel. There are lots more photos on my Google+ page.

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The Owl and the boiler part 2

So after much enjoyment of the new energy monitor and a new found fascination with how much energy the fridge uses I embarked on installing the new boiler control at the weekend.Image

This little gadget replaces the standard wall thermostat with a new one that is supposed to be more efficient. As Ecoalex I really thought I should give it a try. It was fairly easy to install, after turning off the power I removed the old wall thermostat and exposed the wires in the wall. Of course my wiring didn’t match the wiring colours mentioned in the installation booklet but a quick google search for the same set up helped here and I connected the new unit. After a careful bit of fiddling to get the covers on we were done.

Then I had to connect the thermostat to the internet via the Network Owl device. Once I had updated the firmware this was very straightforward and the whole installation would probably take half an hour if I were to do it again, maybe less.

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Now it is all online I have a secure website which shows me what electricity I am using and what the heating is doing in my flat. More importantly I am able to programme the heating from the website or a smartphone. As I have a fairly new well insulated flat in Central London my heating bills are fairly low but anything I can do to reduce them further is a bonus. Also this is the sort of gadget you used to see on Tomorrow’s World so it is very exciting to have one at last. As well as setting the programme I can turn the heating on and off remotely using a smart phone. This means if I am out at the theatre or stay out unexpectedly I don’t need to heat the flat. Alternatively if it is freezing out and I am on the way home I can

Imageturn on the heating before I get there and arrive at a warm flat.

I can also input holidays into the system so it turns off the heating when I am away automatically. As well as this I get to see what electricity the house is using on the same screen or on the smartphone app (to the left). So far I am very pleased with all the new toys and they seem to work very well. Once it has been installed a while I should also be able to get a better Idea of usage patterns and see what I can do to reduce my bills. Currently I only have 3 days data so it isn’t too exciting.

I also hope to use it to show to Ecoalex customers and illustrate how they might save money on their bills as well.

Electricity monitor and heating controls

I am having all sorts of fun today with new gadgets. I went to Ecobuild recently and talked to the good people at Owl about their electricity monitors. I have been meaning to get an electricity monitor for ages , especially as I regularly recommend them to other people. Anyway, I thought it was high time I got one and stopped procrastinating.

Then when I chatted to them they showed me their new gadget for controlling the heating this replaces the old wall thermostat with a new one that is connected to the internet. This allows you to control your heating usage from a computer or your phone and as a by product it also uploads your electricity usage in real time to your account so you can look at graphs, analyse your usage at different times of day etc.

I got it in the post yesterday and have been setting it up today. First I set up the electricity monitor

IMAG0643Then I connected the Intuition device to the internet and the electricity monitor, this was slightly trickier but I got it right second time.  Now my home is filled with devices telling me how much electricity I am using, I think when the fridge is off they may now be the biggest energy user in the house. I guess I will get over my excitement soon but it is quite cool to see my electricity use on a website:

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The next step is to change the boiler thermostat and connect that up to the system as well. I need to turn the power off for that and fiddle with mains wiring so I will wait until my partner is around and she can drag me away when I electrocute myself. A full update on that tomorrow.

Procrastination – the enemy of energy efficiency

I have a confession to make, my boiler is over 15 years old and spectacularly inefficient. Not a very good thing for Ecoalex.  According to SEDBUK  the database of boilers it operates at about 65% efficiency. A new condensing boiler could work at about 90% efficiency. I have known this anecdotally for about 3 years and done nothing about it. This time last year I was training to deliver Home Energy Masterplans for Parity Projects and had to survey my flat as part of the training. This means I have known exactly how inefficient my boiler is for over a year. Yet still I haven’t replaced the boiler, why?

I guess there are a number of reasons why I haven’t changed it yet, none of them really valid. For instance fear of tradesmen, even though I work with a number of good builders who help me deliver energy efficiency savings I am still wary of hiring someone in case they rip me off. Then I have been given worries about reliability, when I did get someone round to look at replacing the boiler there was some tutting and sucking of teeth. New boilers are unreliable I was told, you will have the repair man out twice a week. My old boiler is very reliable, it might waste loads of gas but it will work forever apparently.

I think the main reason I haven’t replaced it yet though is procrastination. I am planning to replace the kitchen soon so maybe I should wait until then? It’s starting to get cold again so maybe I shouldn’t mess with the heating at the moment. Do I have £2,000 lying around to spend on replacing something that works alright? I am sure you can think of more reasons of your own that fit your circumstances.

When writing this piece I decided to check out my last gas bill and see how much this boiler is actually costing me. My gas bill for the last year was £430, apart from the boiler the only other gas appliance I have is a hob so nearly all the gas is used by the boiler. So if I can improve the efficiency of my boiler by 25% I can save £100 a year. Prices are going up by nearly 10% soon so this will be £110 next year. Also changes in my home life mean we will probably be using the boiler more in the next year so I could expect to save £150 in the next year alone changing the boiler. Who knows what price changes are coming in fuel prices but I am sure they are only going up.

This saving may seem fairly modest on an outlay of £2,000 but the gas bill for my double glazed, well insulated two bedroom flat is probably considerably lower than yours. Savings on an £800 bill for heating and hot water would be about £200 and the installation costs about the same. There I think I am convinced that everyone else should change their boilers, just not sure I have convinced myself yet, maybe I have a little more procrastination in me. 

What can I do to reduce my power bills? – top ten tips (and a small rant)

When I am out talking to people about their homes the biggest concern they have is not the environment but how much money they are spending on gas and electricity. The announcement of a 9% price hike by Scottish and Southern Electricity is probably just a precursor to more increases from the other energy suppliers so switching is not a long term solution.

Even with cuts in the feed-in tariff solar panels are still a viable option but they do nothing to reduce your consumption and require up front investment. The first and best thing you can do to reduce your bills is reduce your demand for electricity.

I am often astonished at people’s contempt for energy saving measures such as turning appliances off standby and switching to low energy light bulbs. They seem to regard their profligacy as a matter of pride, boasting of how they have their heating up so high that they walk around their house in their pants. If they really want to do something stupid, they could try standing in the street handing out £10 notes. Presumably these are the same idiots who buy urban 4×4 vehicles, cars whose only benefits are increased fuel consumption and a much greater chance of killing a child. If even Jeremy Clarkson thinks you are a fool you are in real trouble.

However, assuming you’re not a fool and would actually like to save money quickly and easily what are the top ten things can you do?

1. Turn stuff off:

Lights, phone chargers, TVs etc. You can get Standby busters to do this for you or just get some exercise and bend down and turn them off at the plug sockets. Several options in Nigel’s eco store, that one seems to be the cheapest.

2. Close doors and windows.

Not always so easy with kids in the house but if you have the heating on and a door or window open you are heating the outside world rather than your house.

3. Get an electricity monitor with a nice big display and put it somewhere obvious.

You will find yourself horrified at the electricity use of some of your appliances. Just seeing the meter tick over will make you reduce your consumption, there is a good selection available here.

4. Carry out simple draught excluding.

Look for cracks around windows and doors and fill them. You can use builders caulk for small gaps and expanding foam or insulation where they get bigger.

5. Get your loft insulated, maybe this should be number one.

If you haven’t got loft insulation or have less than 60mm you can get it installed for free before December this year.

6. Get your cavities filled.

Again free before December 

7. Turn the thermostat down.

Walking round your house in your pants is for Homer Simpson, put some clothes on and turn the heating down.

8. Change your bulbs.

Incandescents are a thing of the past but how many money wasting halogen bulbs are there in your kitchen. Switch to a decent LED bulb now and save money straight away 

9. Draw the curtains.

A good thick curtain will keep the heat in so draw them at night and make sure they are tucked behind any poorly sighted radiators .

10. Seal your floorboards.

This used to be done by a good thick bit of carpet but the trend for wooden floors has led to howling gales sweeping through the living rooms of London. Seal the gaps between the boards with PVA or something like Draughtex, see my video on the options here.

There are many more things you can do but these will provide an excellent start and a big cut in fuel bills. Then you can think about renewable energy, switching suppliers etc to get the best value from your newly efficient house. If you would like a detailed report on your home I can offer an Ecoalex Home Survey and if you want a full analysis of your fuel usage and how much you can save I can offer you a Parity Home Energy Masterplan. See my website for details of both.

So don’t be an idiot! Save money now with some of the simple measures above. Let me know how you get on and any handy tips you may have.

Thermal blinds

Catching up with a few things round the home today and finished installing my new thermal blinds in the bedrooms. These serve two purposes, they are blackout blinds to keep out the light from buildings behind and they also thermally regulate the rooms.

 

I got the blinds from Blinds 2 Go, whilst the blinds themselves are of very high quality their cutting service leaves a little to be desired. They claim to make the deductions to ensure that the blinds fit in a recess however ours arrived too large to fit in the window recess. To remedy this I replaced the bulky and cheap feeling plastic fittings with metal ones from Fix my blinds, this gave us enough room to fit the blinds in the recess.

Now I have got the blinds up I am very pleased with them. They have a slightly spongy backing with a reflective surface that provides the thermal barrier.

So far I have only tested their ability to keep heat out and this seems to be working fine. The blinds are very close to the window so work in a similar way to secondary glazing creating an air pocket between the window and the blind. It is certainly more attractive than secondary glazing.

Although this may seem like a small thing it can have a big impact on the energy efficiency of the home. This report by Historic Scotland shows blinds to be an effective part of the strategy for your home, one of many incremental steps that can improve your home without costing the earth.

If you want to know more about what you can do to your house why not commission an Ecoalex home eco audit. If you want a full model of the efficiency of your home consider a Parity Home Energy Masterplan.

Green roofs of Verona

In Italy at the moment taking a short break. We went to the opera at the roman amphitheatre in Verona last night. In the cheap seats you have to arrive an hour or two early to get a good position so we had quite a while to look around before the opera started. When you walk round the top of the arena you are level with the roof line of Verona and get to see some lovely roofs created at the top of these buildings.

This was the best one but the position of the sun made it very hard to get a good photo.

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Maybe it will look better full screen on a computer than it does on my phone. This one was quite nice too and much easier to photograph.

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I should think their main purpose is to provide somewhere cool for the residents to hide from the heat. However they still provide much needed biodiversity in the city and even soaked up some of the run off from the rain that ended our opera after the first two acts.

Simple ways to improve the efficiency of your home – Part 2

The second and possibly shorter post on improving your home.

Water efficiency

Start with your water companies website and see what you can get for free from them. My local company Thames offer a few here. I suspect that like the energy companies they don’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts but that is no reason not to take advantage of the offers. If you get a choice you can replicate a hippo with that old fashioned solution of a brick in the cistern so the tap and shower heads are probably a better bet.

So once you have your freebies what else can you do?

Toilets

A good way to use loads of water for not very much. If you get a new one make sure it is dual flush. For older ones you can retrofit a low water flush system, mine allows you to choose as much or as little water as you want and has worked fine for over 5 years despite attempts by visitors to pull the handle off the wall. There are a number of systems available in DIY stores to do the same for you and I am sure you can find them in local stores as well as B&Q.

Get a water butt

Simple to install, you may even get a discount through your water company again. Save the water that falls on your roof and use it throughout the garden.

Install a green roof and rain garden

A rain garden is one that saves rain water and makes the best use of it. Typically they are fed by the gutters from your house. They cut the amount of water used on your garden and also contribute to reducing runoff from your garden and help avoid localised flooding. You do need a slope away from your house (however slight) to do this cheaply and easily.

You can also combine one of these with a green roof and drainage chains for a really attractive and water efficient house makeover. If you want to know more have a look at my website and get in touch

Traditional measures

There are many traditions of home decoration that can reduce the energy use of our houses:

Carpets

These provide insulation against draughts from under skirtings and gaps in floorboards, especially with a nice thick recycled underlay. They also provide much better acoustics for a room than harsh wooden floors, you might be able to hear what your friends are saying if pubs brought back a good thick carpet over the wooden boards.

Curtains

Nice lined and fitted curtains reduce draughts and provide some degree of insulation. If you have radiators under your windows (an obsession with British builders) make sure the curtain is behind not in front of them so you reduce heat loss.

Blinds

Because they are tighter to the window these can be even more efficient that curtains. Studies by Scottish Heritage have shown that thermal blinds can lower heat loss through windows almost as much as insulated shutters.

Doors

Doors are excellent insulators and shutting them is a good start to reducing draughts in the house and annoying any indigenous teenagers. Draught snakes are always nice to have and allow you to control the ventilation in your room.

Renewables

Whilst these won’t make your home any more efficient they will reduce the amount of power and heat you need to bring in to the home. There are a wide number of options which are suitable for different houses.

If you want to know more about possibilities for improving your house do get in touch.

Simple ways to improve the efficiency of your home Part 1

This is based on my recent talk at the London Green Fair and includes links to extra information and websites that may be useful.

The ideas here are deliberately simple and hopefully easy for most people to follow at home. There are no numbers, U values and technical terms, just ways for you to make your house warmer and cut your bills. Based on my experience working on people’s house s through Ecoalex ltd, I estimate a cut in bills of 10-15% is possible just by implementing a few of these changes.

Insulation

There are three main areas where you can add insulation to your house, the roof, walls and floor:

Roof

Currently you can get your loft insulated for free by many energy companies as part of the Carbon Emission Reduction Targets set for them by government. So if your loft isn’t insulated get it done now, latest deals on the Money Saving Expert site here. The offers won’t last forever and this will save you money.

Walls

Again, cavity wall can be free at the moment so get it done if you can.If you have solid walls it is more complicated and expensive but consider solid wall insulation.

Floor

If you have a cellar it can be quite easy to put insulation under your floor. If not it is probably only worth considering if you have the floors up for another reason or there is a major draught problem with the floor. Carpets can help tremendously.

Energy

You have probably replaced most of your old fashioned energy guzzling bulbs now. However, evil bulbs may well still lurk in your house, particularly the kitchen. Halogen spots are the scourge of anyone trying to reduce their electricity bills. Inefficient producers of light that heat up so much they need fire protection these bulbs are usually used as down lighters restricting their light to a small area of the room. I don’t expect people to change their lighting entirely but changing these bulbs can make a huge difference to your energy use. On a recent survey I worked out that replacing 7 50 watt bulbs with low energy LED bulbs would save £40 a year (based on 3 hours use a day) and cost about £60 so the bulbs pay for themselves in 18 months. They also last longer and aren’t a fire hazard.

Turn things off

You have probably done this already in your house but remember to turn off the TV properly and unplug mobile phone chargers etc. They don’t use a lot of electricity individually but collectively it builds up and they don’t do anything when you aren’t using them.

Get an energy monitor

These can help you work out where you are using energy and also quite fun. The list on money saving expert is getting a little old but a good place to start.

Heating

Check your boiler on the boiler efficiency website and see if it is worth replacing with a more efficient model. This can be quite expensive but save quite a lot.

Put panels behind radiators on outside walls. If your radiators are under windows make sure they aren’t covered by curtains and consider a shel above them to reflect heat back into the room.

Loft insulation with clutter part 2

So a slow update, didn’t take long to get the stilts in but got caught up in other projects and only just returned to writing this up.

The stilts arrived in a timely manner, they are made of recycled plastic and feel very tough. We then spent most of the day preparing the loft and clearing out the boards that were already there. Once this was done putting in the stilts was relatively easy. So the loft is prepared and waiting for the insulation guys to come in and lay it out. Looks a bit sinister in the photo though: Image

Find out more about insulation in your home at my website