Sunday, 22 July 2018

Fixing an ABB/Solar One Aurora Uno inverter with Int. Error E031

Our Power One Uno with the fatal "Error! Int. Error E031"
A couple of days ago our ABB/Power One Aurora Uno inverter stopped working. It starts up, clicks relays and display "Error! Int.Error   E031". Nothing more happens. It's six years old, so just out of the five year manufacturer's guarantee period. Not a good sign.

Searching on the internet suggests that this is a very common fault and people claim it's a faulty relay. However, no-one seemed to be offering advice on how to fit the fault.

I didn't want to replace the entire inverter. A repair is preferred because the whole reason to have a solar energy system is to conserve resources. Throwing out a huge device like this because of a minor fault goes completely against our reasoning for installing the product in the first place.

ABB offered absolutely no help at all. Their reply to me was useless even to the extent of not bothering to get my name right: their swiftly cut and pasted reply to say "we won't help at all" was addressed to someone called "Emmanuel".

The company which installed the inverter in the first place did offer a reasonable price for a replacement (from a different manufacturer and with a ten year guarantee) but that would cost us €1000 and of course it would still mean throwing out a mostly good existing unit. It turns out that the failed part is nothing more than a €5 relay on one of the printed circuit boards within the inverter.
Discolouration about the relay shows that it's failed.
The other side of the PCB has a crater in it from the pin on the relay melting/burning away.
Anyway, long story cut short, if you want to know how to repair one of these inverters click on the following line:


Hopefully the repair will be good for another five years. If I find myself buying a replacement inverter in a few years time, it won't be bought from ABB as their customer service is absolutely useless.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Six year solar power anniversary: We're still pleased with the system.

We've had 16 solar panels on the roof of our home for six years today. In total they've generated 20459 kWh of electricity. Our electricity meter reads 7022 kWh this morning, vs. 7814 kWh on the morning of the 5th of April 2012 when the panels were installed, indicating that we've generated 792 kWh more than we've used over the last six years. You can see this in the graph below. Note how the yellow line has tilted upwards over time:

Solar power 2012 - 2018. Blue bars show generation per month. Red bars show consumption per month. Yellow line shows difference between generation and consumption. Last year we overproduced 
For the first few years our consumption was closer to the total generation but a few things changed which made a fairly dramatic difference in consumption over the last two years:
This simple switch saves standby
current to computer and printer,
making a considerable saving.
  1. We work from home and as ours is a web-based business we use computers a lot. Newer second hand computers replaced the older Pentium 4 based machines a few years ago and they consume a lot less electricity when in use.
  2. When I measured the usage of our computers and laser printers I found that they consumed almost as much electricity in the many hours when they were switched off as they did in the smaller number of hours when we were using them. The printer was especially bad in this regard. To counter this problem I installed an inexpensive switch which completely disconnects our laser printer and computers from the mains power when they're not in use.
  3. Almost all the older compact fluorescent lightbulbs have now failed and been replaced by LED lightbulbs. This made almost no difference at all.
  4. Our children left home, which made a dramatic difference to our total energy consumption.
The Netherlands. Bicycles & windmills
are a stereotype. Sadly, some people are
protesting against wind power here.
The blue lines on the graph show the production of electricity on each month. You'll note that our production in winter is far less than our consumption. On the shortest day in December our solar panels produced just 0.2 kWh of electricity. The peak output for that day was 111 W. That's from an array that peaks above 3900 W on especially good summer days. Output in winter can be as low as 1/40th of that in summer. At night time, whether summer or winter, the output of solar panels is zero. This is why solar power really cannot be used for everything. It's important also to have other green sources of energy to balance the supply. In the Netherlands that really has to mean wind turbines, though sadly some people don't seem to understand why that is important and there have been protests against wind turbines.

Standby power
The switch which I use to disconnect the computers and laser printer from the mains electricity cost about €1 to buy and has saved €100s of euros so far. This was possible because the standby consumption of the computer and monitor power supplies and, even worse, the laser printer, were surprisingly high. They totalled over 20 W. Not all such attempts make the same difference. Unplugging the likes of mobile phone chargers is completely pointless because their consumption is measured in mW. Unless something gets warm it's not consuming any energy.

Have we been economically successful with solar power?
When we installed our solar power system I predicted that it would take about ten years to pay for itself. After six years it now looks like it will take a little longer than predicted but not dramatically so, or uneconomically so.

The price per kWh has varied over time but currently our supplier gives a value of 17 cents excluding tax, working out to about 20.5 cents per kWh including tax. That values the 19997 kWh of electricity that we consumed at about €4030. Our overproduction is valued at only 7 cents per kWh meaning that this was worth about €55. i.e. after six years we've "earnt" about €4080 from the system and we're about half way to paying back the cost of installation.

While we generate more electricity than we consume that
does not mean everything in our household runs on our solar
electricity. During the night and in winter we use energy from
the grid and most of that in the Netherlands comes from
fossil ful.
Rather than taking ten years to repay, it looks like it will actually take about 13. That's still quite good. It still easily beats putting the money in a bank account (especially with the low interest rates over the last few years). The panels are expected to last a minimum of 20 years producing their rated output so will continue to produce electricity well after they've been completely paid for.

If you're considering installing a system now you will do better than us because the costs have come down considerably. Installers are now claiming that the payback period can be as short as five years, which may be slightly optimistic but this is still likely to be one of the best investments anyone can make.

How long will the inverter last ?
A friend of ours had a nearly identical system installed at the same time as us and his inverter failed a month or so ago. Perhaps our inverter will fail similarly. We expected from the beginning that the inverter would be the weak point: it's a hard working piece of power electronics. Luckily, inverters have dramatically dropped in price. The cost of replacing the inverter is expected to be about a tenth of the total cost of our system, so it will extent the repayment time by about a year. If we have to do this it will be annoying but it will still be worthwhile.

What next for us ?
We have made considerable progress on insulating our home, bringing dramatic results for our gas consumption. We've considered the idea of stopping use of gas altogether, cutting not only the €50 per month that we pay for gas but also the €18 fixed charges for the connection. If we switched to an electrical heat pump to replace the gas boiler for central heating we could eliminate this cost. Because we would no longer require the chimneys on our roof we could then install a few more solar panels instead to produce about as much electricity as our total consumption.

Unfortunately this is currently impossible to justify because the repayment time works out as somewhat longer than the expected lifespan of a heat pump, let alone the other extra costs involved. For now we'll concentrate on continuing to make our home more energy efficient while waiting for a suitable more efficient non-gas heating system to become available.

Elsewhere in Assen: A small section of what was claimed to be (when it opened in 2016) the largest solar covered motor bike parking facility in the world - at the TT track.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Brexit: One year left for the UK to leave the EU and we're very nearly Dutch

An interesting book which I read last year about
brexit from the perspective of a Dutch person
living and working in the UK.
Exactly one year has now passed since the British government triggered article 50 and announced that the UK really was going to leave the EU. The process takes two years so is now half way through, but because the British government is chaotic they appear to have achieved more or less nothing at all during the time that has passed.

  • No progress has been made on the Irish and Gilbraltarian border questions
  • No progress has been made on the rights of citizens, either citizens from the EU27 who live in the UK or British citizens who live in the EU27 countries.
  • No progress has been made on trade arrangements

A whole year has passed in addition to the nine months that it took between the referendum and triggering article 50, but rather than making any useful progress at all on anything, this time has been consumed with political in-fighting within the UK and no real progress has been made on anything. The clock is ticking, Britain !

What's more, there have been yet more revelations over the last couple of weeks of how the British people were (quite possibly illegally) manipulated by over-spending by leave.eu spending money with Cambridge Analytica to use Facebook to spread false information. We knew this from the beginning. There was plenty of factual information out there for people to read, but many preferred the lies and half truths which were especially aimed at those people who were most easily manipulated to believe them.

Sadly, since the referendum we've seen very little political support from the UK. People like us were described as "citizens of nowhere" by the British Prime Minister while our rights have been defended mainly by EU representatives (with a few wonderful exceptions).

Rights ?
When we moved to the Netherlands we did so as European citizens. We had a right to continue to vote in the UK in national elections (and in theory also the referendum, though voting forms didn't turn up) and a right to vote at local and European level here in the Netherlands. The brexit vote took away not only our right to live here, but also threatens to completely disenfranchise British people living in the EU27 countries so that they can't vote anywhere for anything and have to spend their lives hoping that policies formed by other people will not work against them. I don't find that acceptable but it's the "will of the (British) people" that other British people should be disenfranchised and it seems unlikely that this will be overturned.

We hung our flag out when we got this week's excellent news,
but we still have to wait until we can officially become Dutch.
Our response to the referendum result was quick: We did the only thing that we could do in order to maximise our chance of preserving our European citizenship. The only thing that could guarantee our being able to continue to conduct ourselves as citizens of a democracy. That's what it meant to begin the process of becoming Dutch citizens immediately after the referendum.

Our children became Dutch last year (they were educated here so had no need to prove their language ability). Judy and I are following them and we now know we've been successful in our attempt: after what was beginning to feel like an endless wait, we received the wonderful news just two days ago that we have been accepted and will become Dutch citizens. There are just a few more weeks to wait until it's made official by the King and we can attend a naturalisation ceremony.

Becoming Dutch
We are thankful that the Dutch government has stepped in and will protect our rights in future. This is the best possible outcome for us. We'll have the right to live in our own home and continue to run our own business in the same country as where our children live and we'll be able to participate as any other citizen in this most democratic of nations. It's an honour. We will be proud Dutch citizens.

When we become Dutch we will have to give up our British citizenship. This means we will no longer have the right to live and work in the UK. It's a strange thing to have to do, but one which has been forced upon us by people from the country in which we were born. We now see this loss of British citizenship as just one of the many costs of brexit for us, and we'll add it to the five figure financial sum which we've already lost due to brexit as well as the two years of sometimes quite horrendous stress which we've experienced. This will leave a permanent scar.

What about everyone else?
We are lucky enough to have now seen the worst of what brexit can throw at us and we have a light that we can see at the end of our tunnel, but brexit certainly has not finished with making other peoples' lives miserable.

The millions of others who remain in limbo, both EU27 citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU27, have my greatest sympathy. I wish success to all of those who are trying to change their citizenship in order to retain the rights that they already have, as well as those who have chosen a different path which they are trying to make work. We have read many stories about families being split apart due to brexit or about people who have moved to the UK and are leaving because of how they have been treated and it has all been heart-breaking. People should not be treated this way.

Britain, what have you done ?

Photo from the citizenship ceremony with
the Mayor of Assen, Marco Out.
Update May 2018: Changing nationality
On the 7th of May Judy and I became Dutch citizens. Dual citizenship is not an option for us and so becoming Dutch means we have to renounce our British citizenship. With this step we've lost the right to be able to visit our country of birth. It's a big step to have taken, but it's also the only step that could guarantee us a life free from stress and doubt about what brexit would force upon us in the future.

While Britain forced us out, the Netherlands welcomed us. We're extremely happy to have become Dutch citizens.

Flags out again for Liberation Day in the Netherlands, two days before we became Dutch.
Update a bit later in May 2018 - They're going after our pensions again
So we're Dutch now. Does that mean we'll no longer be affected by brexit ? Of course not. Our pensions are in the UK. We contributed over decades to both the state and private pension schemes in the UK and like most people we'd like to be able to make use of a pension when we retire (I reach retirement age in 15 years). But there are problems with the idea of having a happy old age because we were once British. I wrote a little about this in September 2016, but the situation has become more confused since then:

The state pension
The state pension has already suffered an approximately 20% drop in value due to the lowered value of the pound as a result of the brexit vote. We can expect the pound to drop further as the consequences of brexit become more clear and every drop means that our pensions drop as well, so the prospects of state pension already look poor. However that's not all:

It's become apparent that if the UK leaves the EU with no deal in place, which is still quite likely, then the UK will probably freeze the pension of every British person living in the EU at some arbitrary date; perhaps 29 March 2019. This means that when I eventually reach pension age I'll receive the rate of pension due to me as if I had reached pension age in 2019, rather than 15 years later. For the remainder of my life I'll receive a 2019 pension with no increases due to inflation. I'll have paid in the same as everyone else, but I won't get a pension in the same way as I would if I still lived in the UK.

This may all sound far-fetched, but it's exactly what the UK already does to pensioners who retire to, for instance, Canada, which is why there is an organisation there which is trying to convince the British government to treat British citizens in Canada in a more reasonable manner.

The private pension
My private pension is not large and it's split between several different schemes run by different companies due to my having worked for a variety of companies in the past. The result is that it's difficult to move because the fees to move the pension make up too high a proportion of its value. A good chunk of my pension was invested in commercial property in the UK before brexit and unfortunately as that began to drop in value due to brexit the fund itself was frozen so that I could not get my pension out before damage had been caused. This is of course on top of the 20% or so already lost to the currency devaluation.

Now I read that there are other problems on the way, including that with the loss of passporting rights, British pension companies won't actually be able to send me the money which I am due from them without breaking European law. One solution which is proposed is that they'd transfer the funds to an EU company which could pay me, but of course the transfer will take a large slice out of the remaining funds so that would have also a dramatic effect on my pension. I'll find out quite soon what will happen because when I signed up to one of my private pension funds (for the last computer company that I worked for) I said I wanted my retirement age to be 55. The fund is not large and it's not worth all that much. From this fund I should receive a pension of around 100 pounds a year from the age of 55 onwards (yes, just 100 pounds a year. i.e. about 30 p a day). But will I even get that ? That remains to be seen. If I do receive anything, how many euros will 100 pounds even be worth by that time ? That also remains to be seen.

As a result of the brexit vote we don't have a secure, let alone prosperous, old age ahead of us. Our UK pensions have been stolen or at the very least greatly diminished in value by the people who voted for brexit. Many retired people voted for brexit. Did they intend that those who would be retiring shortly after them would be thrust into poverty ? We did what we were supposed to and paid into the system, but the system is now firmly rigged against us. We do have very small NL state pensions as a result of working here for the last eleven years, but while those are not under threat, they're also not enough to keep us.

This update is largely based upon a very good article written by Ros Altmann. Ros is a pensions expert, economist and Conservative member of the House of Lords. She was previously Minister of State for Pensions. i.e. not someone who doesn't understand these issues but an expert. So she'll probably be ignored by all the ignoramuses who voted for brexit and still think it was a good idea.


My new passport eclipsing my old passport, which is soon
to be disposed of - by paying a newly enhanced punishment
extra cost to the Home Office.
Update 29 May 2018
Today we picked up our new Dutch passports. Dutch passports take just a week to be issued and they cost just €65. That's a very long way removed from the rip-off price charged by the UK government for our last passports which we bought six years ago while living here in the Netherlands. Britain has long treated "ex pats" as cash cows.

All that is left for us to do now is to renounce our British citizenship, but overnight we discover that the cost of renunciation has been put up up by 16%. It now costs 372 pounds to get rid of a British passport instead of 321 last year. An extra 100 pounds that we'll have to pay to rip-off Britain just to get rid of our British citizenship. We'll pay it because we have no choice but to pay it. At this point that extra 100 pounds is merely a rounding error. It's less than 1% of what brexit has cost us so far, and it'll become even less significant in the long term as we expect to be stiffed on our British pensions as well.

As Britain leaves the EU the country appears to be set on a path of burning all bridges. The Windrush scandal showed Commonwealth citizens the truth about the UK. EU citizens in the UK are suffering at the hands of the Home Office and now we find that ex British citizens are also being punished for leaving, when the country has made it very difficult for its citizens to do anything else but leave. When Britain wants to make trade deals in the future, who does the country expect to work with ? All the people that have been insulted and mis-treated ?

The picture is now quite clear. Britain is isolating itself. Those who can leave, those have both the means and the "get up and go" are getting up and going.

Read all my blog posts about brexit:
Brexit: My country was taken from me
Brexit: There was plenty of information about what the EU did for UK  for those who sought it
Brexit: A long journey through uncertainty
Brexit: Where two years of brexit chaos have left us

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Brexit: Where two years of brexit chaos have left us

The EU has listed hundreds of untrue stories printed by
the British press (graph source)
When we woke on June 24th 2016, the world had changed. Before that date the news was mostly about someone else somewhere else. From that date onward the news has no longer been an abstract thing but something which regularly discusses, or fails to discuss, what is happening to our rights. Why ? Because we are amongst the more than a million British people who took advantage of the Freedom of Movement offered by EU membership to live and work in a different European country to that in which we were born.

The right to live in the home which we bought in our new country and run our own business from our new location was taken from us by the millions of British people who voted for brexit based on false promises by liars. Those voters included our own relatives who preferred to believe false sources about the EU above what we who lived on the continent of Europe could tell them. Stories were believed above referenced facts.

Where does the EU's money come from ? Mostly not from the
UK. The idea that the UK is a cash-cow has been spread by
many brexit supporters. The UK was actually a net recipient
of funds when it first joined. British workers used the right
to travel to other countries to find work helping to regenerate
the British economy. Remember "Auf Wiedersehn Pet" ?
We've been living with brexit for more than two years now. Why more than two years when the referendum was only 20 months ago ? Because we had already spent months trying to explain to relatives living in the UK that much of what they had read about the EU on Facebook, or in newspapers, or in news coverage of politicians or had heard from friends who were informed by those same sources was not actually true at all. We explained that voting for brexit would cause us hardship. Our words made no difference.

We know know that this is probably in part due to the very same Russian interference as is being prosecuted effectively in the US, but unfortunately it is still completely ignored by British authorities. Of course in Britain there is an additional problem of a press which has been making up stories for years.

The facts were always out there for people to read if they wanted to, but too many people preferred to ignore them.

So where are we now ?
Over the weekend, Guy Verhofdstadt, the European Parliament's representative in the brexit negotiations was interviewed on British TV. As usual, he spoke with clarity about the position of the EU and about the many attempts that have been made to come to an agreement with the UK, all of which have been rejected because of the UK's desire for an impossible arrangement:


The content of that interview was remarkably familiar as the EU has held the same entirely logical position since before the Referendum vote. We have heard again and again such simple and obvious things as that you can't expect to force the policy of any organisation which you are not a part of and that you can't expect to retain benefits of membership while not being a member. British brexit supporting politicians continue to try to divide the EU and to seek to do these things, a position which is often referred to as wanting to "have their cake and eat it."

One of the most common lies is that the EU was once only a
"common market". This letter to the British public by PM
Edward Heath in 1972 before the UK joined the EU explained
that there was an intention to also give people extra rights.
It is notable that both Verhofstadt and the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier consistently bring up such concerns as the rights of citizens (both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU) and the problem of the border in Ireland and the predicament of Gilbrater. British politicians talk infrequently about these issues, most discussion of citizens' rights being about how to take those rights away. Though we are citizens of the country which is leaving the EU it is not our government which is fighting for us but EU representatives who are working to preserve our rights.

Over the last week we've heard the voices of three of the "big hitters" in the UK under an overall title of "the road to brexit". Boris Johnson, Theresa May and yesterday David Davis. None of them has said anything memorable or which gives a clearer picture of what the UK wants from brexit. They have instead spoken in a mix of generalities and sound-bites. Each speech has included a new catch phrase. Nothing concrete has been suggested. No sensible suggestions have been made about citizens' rights or about the issue of the Irish border.

Is this what passes for good news now ? link to article
Today it was David Davis' turn to speak. It was trailed in British newspapers, as you see to the right. He obviously thought that the Mad Max reference was funny, but no-one laughed. Davis' catchphrase was "a race to the top". Davis made vague suggestions that the EU and UK could continue to trade on an equal basis not because they'd stick to the same laws and standards, but because they would "respect" each other's standards while actually having different laws. The British position remains that of wanting to have their cake and eat it. Davis did not make any mention of either citizens' rights or the Irish border.

Davis' claim that he would ensure that standards would remain high was almost immediately undermined by his colleagues.

Something which has been seen several times with brexit is that the government claim initially to have a fairly mild position and later change this to reflect the more extreme position of other brexit supporting politicians. There have been several examples of this over just the last few days:

Daily Telegraph front page story widely held to be anti-semitic
as well as being anti-EU. Right wing news papers in the UK
continue their war against the EU through the brexit process.
Yesterday we heard that brexit supporting politicians have begun to talk down the Good Friday Agreement which has maintained peace in Ireland for the last 20 years. Why are they talking this important agreement down ? I think it's quite obvious: the Good Friday Agreement requires an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and because Ireland is staying in the EU this means an open border between the UK and the EU. Note also that the GFA incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights into the law of Northern Ireland and that many of the politicians who support brexit have opposed the ECHR for many years.

There has also been a letter from extremists written to the Prime Minister which is seen as a "ransom note" with its demands for a hard brexit or else.

At the same time, the government has been suggesting to other EU members that the proposed two year transition period (to end at the end of 2019 to fit the end of an EU accounting period) should instead be "open ended", ending whenever it suits the UK, and that during this period the UK should be able to set policy (e.g. fishing quotas) for the rest of the EU to follow. Yet again they want to "have their cake and eat it."

While all this is going on, the rest of the world can see the way the UK is heading and they are reacting. The Dutch are already training the hundreds of extra customs officials who will be required to staff the ports and airports after the expected "hard" brexit. i.e. it's now expected by many that the UK will not be able to agree either a transitional arrangement with the EU or a trade agreement after they leave the EU and the Netherlands will be prepared for this eventuality, even though the UK is not, with the head of the UK's maritime business association warning of the trouble ahead and begging the government to take notice, saying that they are "lost in politics."

How is this affecting us ?
Above you'll find links to just a small fraction of the many news articles from the last two years about issues which have a potential to disrupt our lives, and those of the other nearly five million EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU, which have resulted from brexit. We have had two years of this and the strain is extremely unpleasant.

Many of the problems which have now come to light as just as we predicted they would be. That is why we took the decision to begin the process of becoming Dutch immediately after the referendum in 2016. However, the process is slow. For our children it took about a year before they had their Dutch nationality. Because the Netherlands does not allow dual nationalities under any but exceptional circumstance, this required renunciation of their British nationality. It's a very odd thing to give up the nationality of the country in which one was born, but this is the process which our children have been forced to endure as a result of those in the UK who thought they were "getting their country back". When the process is complete you receive a letter like this:

Like everything to do with the Home Office in the UK, this letter is expensive and it takes months to arrive. It costs 320 pounds per person to become non-British and it was not until a couple of weeks ago that our daughters could finally provide the required evidence of renunciation of British nationality to the Dutch government.
Our children are no longer British. They have lost their automatic right to live and work in the country in which they were born or even to go there to visit their relatives. Perhaps in the future a visa will be required to visit? No-one can be sure.

Unfortunately, it is only our children who are already Dutch so our family's fortunes are split on nationality. For Judy and I the process has taken much longer. I first had to take exams to prove my ability in Dutch. The exams were especially difficult, but the process of booking appointments and waiting for results took almost a year. Judy could have applied on her own at the same time as our children but as it was cheaper to apply as a couple we decided to do that before realizing that this decision would cost a whole year of delay. We applied to become Dutch jointly in May last year but a decision on this can take a year and after nearly ten months we have yet to receive an answer from the Dutch government. We obviously hope for a positive outcome, but though we can't think of any good reason why this should happen it is also possible that we will be rejected. Until there is certainty on this we have nothing.

In the case of rejection we will be left only with British nationality and have a right to live and work in the UK, but not to live here and run our Dutch business, while our children will have a right to live and work in the Netherlands and across the EU, but not in the UK.

Our future, we hope. Certainty and
freedom in a country which we had
already made our home.
In the case of our being accepted we will be able to become Dutch and will then have to renounce our British nationality leaving us able to remain in the same country as our children, be able to live in our own home and run the business which gives us a living. We won't necessarily be able to visit our relatives in the UK.

Becoming Dutch is easily the preferable outcome of the two. Being able to visit relatives who are amongst those who voted to create this mess is less important to me than being able to stay right where we are with some certainty returning to our lives, and to be able to live in the same country as our own children.

This tale of woe is not just our tale. Nearly five million people have a story to tell. Some haven't started to do anything yet so their tales lie in the future. Others have already had far worse experiences than we have. Here in the Netherlands we have found a procedure which is fixed and appears to work. No-one has been threatened, we have just had to wait a long time. That is stressful enough but the story is not the same for EU citizens in the UK where the government doesn't know what they want to happen, the Home Office can't keep up and random decisions seem to be made. EU citizens have had to change to bizarrely changing suggestions and people who have spent a lifetime contributing to the UK have repeatedly been told to leave.

Update 5 March 2018
We've now had several more days of politicians talking about our rights... or not.
The bottom two made sense. The top two want extra cherries on the cake which they wish to have as well as to eat.
Britain's International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Prime Minister Theresa May both made presentations about the UK having its cake and eating it. Theresa May introduced her new catch phrase "getting on with it". Neither of these two current members of the British government managed to find a single word which could offer any reassurance to British citizens like ourselves. They also didn't say anything which moves their position on from seeking to "have their cake and eat it" with regard to Europe.

EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and ex British PM John Major both spoke sense. Barnier simply put it as it is. This is the EU and the EU has rules which it must follow. John Major spoke very much from the heart, clearly a man who is deeply concerned about the future of his own country. These wise words are being ignored.

Britain continues its course towards falling out of the EU without an agreement. This will cost the country a great deal. Those of us who are British but who live in the EU have been abandoned by our own government, apparently because to do otherwise would mean that the British government would have to promise rights to EU citizens in the UK.

Let's not forget that British Prime Minister Theresa May brought us the "Go
Home" van when she was Home Secretary. It's a mistake to expect her leadership
to result in positive progress for immigrants in the UK and it appears that she
also has no interest in British citizens who live outside the UK
For the EU and for us as well the clock is ticking. We started the process of trying to become Dutch immediately after the referendum in 2016 but because it took time to take exams and get the results before we could send in our applications for Dutch citizenship, only ten months have passed since our applications. It's actually precisely ten months today as we applied on the fifth of May last year. According to the letter which we were sent in reply to our application, it can take a maximum of twelve months for a decision to be made. We're waiting and hoping for good news.


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

More insulation for our walls and roof

When we first moved into our home in Assen we were disappointed by the lack of insulation resulting in a high energy bill even with low indoor temperatures during our first winter.

We have now lived here for more than ten years. Each year we've done something which has improved the energy efficiency of our home, including this year when we inexpensively added more insulation to the top floor of our home. The result is that this winter our home is again a little warmer and also more energy efficient so more economical than it was before.

Two days of snow followed by warmer weather and rain and
we still have solid snow on our roof. The area under the red
square is where we made the most recent change. The area to
the left of the red square is a bedroom which we had already
insulated in a similar way a few years ago.
The roof
This year's improvement was quite minor: We added insulation to the ceiling above the top floor landing and staircase. This results in the first floor landing and ground floor entrance hall being better insulated than they were before. This job actually began in the first winter that we lived here when I quickly added some thin insulation panels to this area after seeing our first winter fuel bill. It continued a few years later when I doubled the thickness of that insulation but then remained as an unfinished job until the beginning of this year when we began the last part of it, stretched out over months because of other commitments, beginning by adding yet more insulation to reach a total thickness of about 10 cm, covering this with reflective and damp proof foil and finally hiding that with plasterboard (aka gipsplaten, gypsum board, sheetrock), sealant to fill the gaps and applying some paint. Actually, the job is still not quite finished. I need to paint again.

Anyway the process was simple and can be summed up in one photo:
10 cm of solid insulation above double sided bubble wrap foil which itself offers quite good insulation and reflects back energy otherwise lost due to radiation. Gaps in the foil are closed by reflective tape where there are joins. Wooden battens are installed to support the weight of the plasterboard sheets. It's quite important that there is an airtight seal as this prevents condensation from forming behind the insulation where it is cooler.
Also the walls
It's been five years since I last wrote about insulating our home but that's not five years of doing nothing. Another job which was completed a couple of years ago was taking apart the lower parts of the front and back walls on the ground floor of our home. I had long suspected that there was not much insulation inside these walls, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were better constructed than I had expected. In total there was 4 cm of glass wool plus another 3 cm of polystyrene solid insulation bonded to an asbestos sheet which provides weather protection on the outside of the house to a height of about half a metre (we don't have any other asbestos so far as I know, except a fireproof panel on the door to the room with the central heating).

The existing fibreglass looked a bit sad, clearly it had been damp at some time, though there was no sign of any damage to the wood, all of which looks brand-new from the inside despite being 40 years old. The insulation was not very evenly distributed. I removed it and it was possible to see some gaps through which air could come from inside the house, the probably source of the damp which had discoloured the fibreglass. I sealed the gaps and all around the edges so that the wall is now both air and water tight and no further damage should be possible.

I then used the same double sided reflective bubble plastic here. It's the same double sided bubble wrap type foil as I later used in the ceilings upstairs. In this instance you can see it installed on the inside edge. On top of this I installed the existing fibreglass a bit more evenly than before. It had been discoloured but there was nothing wrong with it. On top of that there is now then another layer of reflective foil which helps to reflect out sunlight in the summer. There is a radiator mounted on the other side of this wall. The interior reflective material is intended to help to keep radiated heat inside the house.

Afterwards I re-installed the original polystyrene + asbestos outside panels, slightly further out than before because the thickness of the reflective foil has added slightly to the overall thickness of the wall. The asbestos is something I intend to dispose of in due course, but covered in paint and on the outside of the house it's not really a danger so for now it will remain until we think of a better alternative. Note the paintwork behind - one of the other problems with these sheets is that paint other than the original brown of the house seems to peel of its own accord. This has been repainted and now looks a lot better again.
Low cost improvements
Neither of these jobs cost much to do. The results of them are difficult to quantify, but thicker insulation and reflective materials to keep infra red energy within the house ought to be expected to bring improvements. We notice that even on cold nights the wall behind the radiator now feels warm rather than feeling cold so it seems that the reflection within the wall is helping. Even more obvious is that we keep snow or frost on our roof a lot longer than any of our neighbours do. Our immediate neighbour's home, featured in some of our photos because it's closest by, is far from the worst in this regard.

Neither of these two jobs was expensive to do. The materials (reflective foil, insulation, tape, sealant, glue, screws) are cheap. It required a bit of planning and took quite a few hours, but it's a reasonable DIY job.

A less inexpensive job
Last year we also had a problem with one of our windows. The seal had broken on an older double glazed unit in our front room, dating from the 1970s, and we arranged for this to be replaced by a new triple glazed unit:

The old glass looked misted up all the time because moisture was caught between the two panes. This is not a rainy day photo even though it looks like one.

The new triple-glazed HR++ panel before installation. It only covers a small percentage of our total glass area but at least this small percentage will perform far better than before.
With windows, the glass isn't the most expensive thing. Labour for fitting this new glass cost more than the glass itself. However this was not a job which I could have done myself as the glass was heavy and needed to be lifted quite high (it's the longest window at the top in our living room in the photos. This more expensive job simply couldn't be done by myself but we did need to replace the panel anyway so decided to pay the small extra cost for triple glazing over double glazing. Our thinking was this while this won't make a huge difference to our energy consumption nor even to our comfort (getting rid of the misty glass it's more of a cosmetic difference), it will at least make a small positive improvement. I estimate that the downstairs will leak energy about 5% less than before.

Our current plan is to replace other double glazed units with triple glazing as they fail. When we bought our home there was single glazing upstairs but we had that replaced some years ago.

Better insulation = a more pleasant home
Better insulation means a more comfortable home, less energy consumption, a lower carbon footprint, and lower bills. What's not to like about any of that ? Many effective treatments can be made

A white roof is an energy efficient roof ! This photo was taken later the same day as the photo at the top, after a little rain and slightly higher outside temperatures. All four homes originally had identical insulation but our home, the left-most of the four, benefits in quite an obvious way from the extra insulation we've added.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Brexit: A long journey through uncertainty

Drenthe is known as "the world's cycling province" for good
reason. We continue to enjoy riding our bikes around the
countryside but brexit has cast a shadow over everything.
Sixteen months have now passed since all certainty was removed from our lives by the brexit vote. It was obvious at once that this would cause a monumental change in millions of peoples' lives, including our own. The only way in which we could guarantee to be able to remain where we are with the rights which we have was by becoming Dutch so we started the process of applying for citizenship within a few days of the vote.

Our children now have Dutch citizenship but Judy and I are still waiting for a decision. Though we had lived here for nearly ten years supporting ourselves by running our own business we had never entered the Dutch education system. We therefore first had to complete exams the result of which would demonstrate our ability with the Dutch language and show that we could fit into Dutch society.

A group of "Nieuwe Nederlanders" in Assen in May 2017
after the ceremony in which they received Dutch nationality.
One of our daughters is in this photo but Judy and I are
still waiting.
Judy had actually taken the exams some years ago as part of an immigration course for women but we delayed Judy's application so that we could apply for citizenship together (a joint application costs €1200 vs. €900 each for individuals). I passed all the exams on my first attempt but the process still took quite a long time. I booked the first exams immediately after the brexit referendum but I couldn't sit them until September 2016 and then I had to wait for the results from those before I could book in March 2017. It took more than a month to get the official certificate and an appointment at the city hall and as a result it was May 2017 before we finally applied for Dutch citizenship.

Within a few days of application we received a form letter telling us that a decision would take up to a year. Our children received the same letter last year and for them it actually took less than a year for the entire process so we're hoping that we get lucky with this timing and that we might actually know before the end of 2017 whether we can become Dutch. It's more likely that we will not know until some months into 2018.

Geslaagd ! My exam results from March.
The process has been enormously expensive. €900 each for our two children, another €1200 for us + the best part of another €1000 to pay for exams and transport myself to and from the city where I had to take the exams and pick up the certificates. We also already had to pay the British government 321 pounds twice to renounce British citizenship of both of our children (the Dutch government doesn't like dual citizenship, though that might yet change). What's more, our cycling component export business used to sell mainly to British customers but the reduced value of the pound has done some harm to our sales to the UK and that has reduced our income by several thousand euros right at the same time as our costs have been increased. A brexit double whammy which we've had to work through as best we can: we've had no holiday in the last two years.

How much uncertainly is too much ?
Two months ago we passed the ten year anniversary of our arrival in the Netherlands. We had long planned to have a party to celebrate, but with a permanent shadow above us we were not in a party mood.

We still do not know whether we can continue to live our lives in our own home. We still don't know if we can continue to run our business here. We could still be forced back to the UK, where we have no home and no job.

There was plenty of information available about the benefits
of the EU
before the referendum but this was unfortunately
drowned out by decades worth of deliberate misinformation.
A three way race
All EU28 countries, including the UK, agreed in advance on the process. There would first be agreements about the UK leaving and then there could be negotiations about the future status of the UK. The first group of things which needed to be agreed include the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens here (i.e. the rights of my family and myself).

Unfortunately, the British Conservative government has proven itself to be completely unable to make any sensible statements which could protect our rights. They simply do not seem to know the brexit that they have brought about is for or what they want to achieve. Even from afar it's obvious that this is still an internal dispute between Conservative party factions, some of whom are so fascinated by the supposed "freedom" of a no-deal brexit that they don't mind harming everyones' rights to achieve it.

The clock is ticking in Brussels as everything needs to be agreed before the end of March 2019, but that's not the biggest problem facing us. The two year period is a maximum. The British behaviour is so erratic that they could decide to walk away at any time, leaving none of the issues addressed, including the rights of citizens. That means that we could easily lose the right to remain in our own home.

For us this has become a three-way race:

  1. We desperately hope that the Dutch government will allow us to become Dutch citizens.
  2. We hope we are Dutch before the British government does something stupid because otherwise we stand to lose our home.
  3. Everything must be resolved before the March 2019 deadline, but that's probably the least important of the three constraints.

As for those still living in the UK, I can only wish you luck. Brexit is a tragedy which will harm the UK. Given time, perhaps the UK can re-join the EU.

Does anyone in the UK know what they want ?
I recently watched two Channel Four News debates showing what the UK's population was now thinking about brexit. The first debate included only brexit voters:



The debate is introduced by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan. He claims at 3:50 that both the EU and the UK are equally interested in preserving citizens' rights but at 41:07 he talks specifically about wanting to restrict the rights of EU nationals. Such mixed messages were typical of the brexit campaign and they have resulted in no-one who voted leave actually knowing for certain what "brexit" is actually supposed to be.

Though the people in this debate are nominally "on the same side", they don't actually agree with each other. People were told what they wanted to hear, with different groups targeted specifically with messages that they wanted to hear (e.g. at 26:00 you'll hear how workers in ethnic restaurants were told that they would be able to employ chefs more easily once the UK left the EU).

The second debate included only remain voters:

I had hoped that this debate might be more enlightening, but actually this group is just as divided as the group of leave voters. Some of them now want to accept brexit, some want to continue to fight against brexit but there's no more agreement on what brexit actually is amongst this group than there was amongst the leave voters. How can you either accept or fight something which is so poorly defined ?

As time has passed it's become quite clear that not even the British government knows what they want. Their attempts at negotiation thus far have been described as a "textbook example of failed strategic thinking" and it appears that they're determined to ignore experts even if the result is enormous damage to the country. It's hardly surprising that the EU also doesn't know what Britain wants.

Citizens' rights ?
The two videos above cover many of the concerns of normal British people. There has been much discussion in the press as well. We quite often read about how the UK wants to restrict the rights of EU citizens, but rarely do we hear of concerns from the UK about the situation that their fellow citizens who happen to live in the EU, like ourselves, may find themselves after the UK leaves the EU and removes rights from EU citizens. The British people, and particularly the government, appear to see no problem in using even their own citizens as "bargaining chips".

If I were an EU citizen living in the UK now, I would be planning to leave. The position of the UK towards immigrants from the EU has been made quite clear enough.

Our situation is a different. We want to stay here. The Netherlands has always welcomed us and treated us in exactly the same way as any other EU citizen. The UK may have given up on us, but the EU continues to try to defend our rights even as "our" government seems intent on taking them away. Our children are now both Dutch and wish to stay here and we wish to become Dutch citizens as well.

To live under the uncertainty that we have for so long is causing us an enormous amount of stress, but we hope that it will turn out for the best.

Update November 2017 - Brexit Impact Studies and a useless British government
For some time now the people leading brexit, especially David Davis, have been claiming that they have brexit impact studies covering 58 different industries which show how well off the UK will be after brexit, but they've refused to publish them. Last week the high court gave a deadline for publication and the story about these studies them mysteriously turned into something along the lines of "the dog ate my homework". The have still not been published. They probably do not exist.

The EU, meanwhile, has published studies. They're publicly available and can be read. The only one of these which I've completely read thus far is that pertaining to citizens' acquired rights. There's bad news, as we expected: We almost certainly don't have any right in law to remain in our home in the Netherlands after the UK leaves the EU because the British government will have taken our membership of the EU away from us. This is precisely the reason why we began the process of trying to acquire Dutch citizenship a few days after the referendum vote. Without it we have no certainty (we've still heard nothing).

Meanwhile, the Conservative party in the UK is in chaos. Members of the cabinet have been forced to resign for unpleasant sexual behaviour and putting a foreign government above their own, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are undermining the authority of the Prime Minister while trying to push her towards the hardest possible (most destructive) brexit, but at the same time she's also threatened by an attempt to undermine her plan for brexit and in addition likely to face a vote of no-confidence. How much longer can Theresa May remain Prime Minister ? No-one knows, but it doesn't look good.

And what do I read today ? A leading Conservative and brexit supporter, John Redwood, has been advising investors to pull their money out of the UK because the economy is going down the toilet, while both Cornwall and Grimsby in Lincolnshire, both of which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit are now suffering from the result of their vote. Grimsby's brexit supporting local MP has actually called for the town to be made a special case which remains in the EU, while the Cornish have noticed that a lack of migrant labour is already causing problems with their tourist and vegetable growing industries.

Update December 6th 2017 - The British government is incompetent
Today we learn that the British government hasn't actually bothered to commission any impact studies at all. They're going into brexit completely blind about what the outcome will be, and a good part of the British population seems quite happy about this. What's more, there's been an admission that the cabinet hasn't even bothered to have a conversation about their goal in brexit.

Most people would put in more effort if they were choosing a new ornament for their house. No-one should be happy that their future is being gambled away based on nothing but a completely unsupported hunch, which has some slogans which they think sound good, but no facts behind it at all.

In other news, we've unfortunately still had no news about our Dutch citizenship application.


Read more about our experience with brexit:

Brexit: There was plenty of information about what the EU did for the UK, for those who sought it out.

Since the brexit vote I've quite often heard or read opinions along the lines of that the EU didn't do enough to educate British people about its own importance, or that remain campaigners didn't do enough. Of course it would have taken a lot to drown out the drone of negativity from the British press which has published literally hundreds of negative stories, often ridiculous and mostly completely without basis, but which unfortunately did sway opinion.

However it would be wrong to think there had never been an effort to explain what the EU is and does. When my children were at school in the UK in the 1990s they were given several explanatory magazines, one of which I have reproduced in full below:
The first page shows the countries in green, purple, pink and blue which were then members of the EU, with their dates of entry, and also prospective members in orange.

Under "Exports": "In belonging to the EU, the UK is part of a Single Market which makes it easier for British firms to trade with our continental neighbours. The removal of long and expensive customs procedures means that an estimated £135 million a year is saved by British businesses in reduced paperwork alone. Delivery times have been cut by 20% and freight charges reduced. The EU gives Britain a market of 371 million people. As 10% of UK jobs rely on exports, this means more jobs for British workers." "Job-Creation measures": "Britain receives the largest grant of all the Member States from the European Social Fund - Objective 3 allocated £1.3bn for 1997-1999..." Opportunities to work abroad: "The Single Market means that British people can set up a business or exercise their professional activity in any EEA country..."

Backing British business and industry, international negotiations: "Outside the EU, British businesses would face regulation without representation. By being part of the EU, Britain was able to benefit from the best GATT (fore-runner of WTO) deal for decades. With our partners the UK has a more powerful and influential voice on the international stage". Thanks to brexit, that's all going

The Common Agricultural Policy has been criticized a lot, but it's also offered a life-line to some farmers.

"Did you know that the problem of 'quota hopping' by Spanish, Dutch and other fishing boats exists because British fishermen sold their licenses to them ?"

"How much does it cost ? Every person in the UK pays £12.14 per day towards general Government expenditure - of this, less than 37p goes to the EU which spends it on common programmes (many of which are of great benefit to the UK as highlighted in this brochure)" "Did you know that it is YOUR MINISTERS WHO DECIDE on Europe ? There is no 'European Government' in Brussels. The European Commission proposes new laws but these can only be agreed by the Ministers of the 15 Member States. British Ministers must account for their actions in the Council of Ministers before the Westminster Parliament "
"Europe at a glance" is just one of three such magazines given to our children which I found recently when clearing out things in our attic. The EU tried to educate the British public about what it did and why.
Read more about our experience with brexit: