Monday 15 October 2012

Insulating the floor

Since we've lived here, we've fitted HR++ double glazing to the previously single glazed upstairs windows and installed cavity wall insulation in the one wall where this possible. We're also generating our own electricity these days with solar panels on the roof. However, our quest to reduce our energy consumption is not finished yet. One of the first things we did when we moved here was to insulate the roof a little better, but that needs more to be done. Before this winter, though, we decided that we would prioritize insulating the floor.

It may seem counter-intuitive to bother with the floor at all. A normal rule of thumb is that only about 10% of heat loss from a home is through the floor, with the walls taking about 50% and the roof 40%. This would make it seem that insulating the floor is barely worthwhile. However, most of the effect of the extra insulation which we've installed over the last few years has been felt upstairs. We don't need our bedrooms to be so warm as the living room, but for the last two winters we have found that when we go downstairs on a cold morning, we go from relatively warm rooms upstairs to a relatively cold room when we get to the living / dining room. The conclusion to draw is obvious: while effective, our insulation efforts thus far have been a bit unbalanced, favouring the upstairs, and we now need more effective insulation of our ground floor.

As luck would have it, as we started to think seriously of installing floor insulation a leaflet came through our door which said that the local council would pay for energy advice and an energy performance report for our home (we had these in the UK as well and I'll write more about this later). A few days later Wietse Hiemstra, a very helpful friendly adviser from Real Advies, came to our home and made calculations about all the potential energy losses from our home. These confirmed that by far the greatest potential energy loss from our downstairs rooms was now through the floor. This is so because not only was it not insulated at all, apart from the effect of the carpet, but also because the floor exposes a greater area to the outside cold than anything else on the ground floor

We have a concrete floor with "kruipruimte" underneath. This is a space about 60 cm high through which you can crawl. It's not a cellar. The three options available to insulate this space were to have an 8 cm layer of polyurethane insulation sprayed upwards onto the bottom of the floor, a vast quantity of polystyrene packing pellets poured in to make a 30 cm deep pool at the bottom of the cavity, or pockets of reflective silvered plastic foil could be suspended underneath the floor ("space blanket" material) to reflect heat back into the house.

Initially, I was least enthusiastic about the polyurethane. This was not due to any concern about its effectiveness as polyurethane foam is clearly a very effective form of insulation, but that I didn't much like the idea of the house being made smelly for a long period of time due to the chemical reaction. However, when we considered all the pros and cons, this eventually came to the top of the list.

The silvered plastic foil seemed attractive in that it has the reported lowest cost to the environment. However, while the manufacturer is very enthusiastic about it, I couldn't find any independent verification of its efficacy. I also wasn't sure that I entirely trusted it to stay attached to the bottom of our floor. If we were to look under the house in a couple of years time and see that it had fallen to the bottom of the kruipruimte, then our expensive insulation would have effectively completely disappeared. Perhaps this never happens. However, I couldn't find independent verification. This was also the most expensive of the three options, and therefore would take the longest to pay back in reduced heating costs.

The plastic pellets were the cheapest option. However, this sounded like it would be a real bundle of laughs if there was ever plumbing work needed underneath the house. Our water supply and drainage both run down there. Therefore I rejected this on these grounds.

That left the polyurethane. This would also stick around pipes and wires, but to do work you'd just have to cut away the part of the insulation which was awkward. That left the problem of smells. The suppliers assured us that the smell goes after a couple of days. We decided to take the risk and the work was done on Saturday.

Installers from Van Den Berg Isolatie. There are four pipes, two supply the two part PU insulation, one provides air for expanding the insulation and the last provides air to breath.
Into the kruipruimte.
At first the smell was overpowering and unpleasant. We expected this from the beginning, and we ate our evening meal in a restaurant on Saturday. When we went out we left the door closed between the living room and the hallway and the windows in the living room open, and there was very little smell in either our living room or bedroom.
Spraying in progress. The washed out look of the photo is due to the acrid fumes which filled the underfloor space while this went on. An air supply for the guy doing the job was clearly essential.
As I write this, it's just over 40 hours after the installation was completed, and there is very nearly no smell in the house at all unless I open the hatch to let the fumes out (with windows open to disperse it), and even then the smell is tolerable.



Our initial feelings are good. The floor feels warmer. I've been wearing slippers in the living room for a few days now due to autumn being a bit cooler, but found that my feet were too hot last night so I took them off. I think this is a good sign.

Now we wait and see if this makes a noticeable difference to our heating bill over winter.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Rip-Off Britain

The term "Rip-Off Britain" has been used for many years to describe things which cost more in the UK than in other countries. Of course, rogue traders exist everywhere, and odd things often happen with prices of identical products which are sold in different countries. In this, Britain is really no worse on average than anywhere else. However we've found that to really be ripped off by Britain you need to emigrate.

A case on point, we recently had to renew our British passports. This, according to the British Government's own web page in the UK, costs £72.50 per passport, including postage (they recommend paying an additional £8.75 to the post office for more secure postage).

However, we live in the Netherlands and cannot order our passports in the same way. In order to receive our renewed passports we had to navigate a remarkably complex website and send our original documents to France (the British embassy in the Netherlands doesn't do useful things like this). The procedure for doing this is very odd indeed.

According to the website for the "Regional Passport Processing Centre" (this "region" being somewhat larger than the whole of the UK), the cost per passport is €170 per person, plus a €27 courier fee.

The interest/charge was levied for one of the two completely
un-necessary currency conversion, from Pounds to Euros.
Sadly, the processing centre only accepts payment through a choice of two American companies (Mastercard or Visa). For that reason it was not possible for us to pay in Euros from our Euro bank account to their Euro bank account. Instead, we had to pay from our British bank account in Pounds.

The eventual amount taken from our bank account in the UK for two British passports which would have cost £145 delivered in Britain was £309.20 - a rip-off margin of 213% relative to what it would have cost if we still lived in the UK.

That's the result of several things put together:
  1. The price for a passport is set arbitrarily higher for us than it would have been if we still lived in the UK.
  2. The higher cost of postage (I have no argument with this, but it is a small part, rather less than 10%, of the total).
  3. The bizarre requirement that payments made from a British citizen to the British government must always be processed through an American commercial corporation who take their cut.
  4. The cost of two currency exchanges - from Pounds to Euros and back again to Pounds as presumably the money is supposed to end up in the UK.
At least we have ten years before this can be forced on us again.

Update 2018: Well, we thought we had ten years. Actually, six years later we became Dutch as a result of the brexit referendum endangering our right to live in our own home. It's cost us a hundred times more than merely having to buy our passports from the UK.

Because our British bank doesn't seem to believe that merely living outside the country means we're no longer residents, our British bank account still has tax deducted from it as if we lived in the UK, meaning that we are double taxed on the small amount of money which remains in that country.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Taxation without representation

I've been disenfranchised for my entire life. While I had been able to vote in the UK since I was 18, not once did my vote ever count for anything at all due to the terrible "first past the post" electoral system of the UK.

One of the good things about the Netherlands is that there is a much fairer political system here which gives smaller parties a voice. As a result, votes are not wasted in the Netherlands and no-one is disenfranchised. Well, I say "no-one", but actually that's not quite true as I remain disenfranchised. I can't vote in national elections in the Netherlands because I am not (yet) a Dutch citizen. I could still vote in the British elections, but there's really not much point in going to the effort of registering to do so merely to see my vote count for nothing at all yet again. As a result, I am disenfranchised. I pay tax to the Dutch government, but I do not get to influence the Dutch government. Taxation without representation as Americans would likely put it.

That sounds bad, but actually it is no worse for me than it would be if I lived in a country with a less fair political system, such as the UK, USA or many others where I could see my vote count for nothing year after year. There are many people in those countries whose votes never count for anything and they are just as disenfranchised as I am.

What is needed is electoral reform to a fairer system as is used here in the Netherlands. There has long been a movement in Britain which would like to achieve a fairer political system, but last year the reformers made such a colossal mess of their campaign that they set back any attempt to fix this problem for many years.

Now that brings me to the upcoming election in the Netherlands (September 12th). There were hustings in the centre of Assen yesterday and the local representatives of political parties were out in force to convince people to vote for them. This all happened in the middle of the main shopping area in Assen, where there are always hundreds of bicycles parked. Only one political party brought along a car as the centre-piece of their display and that was Groenlinks - the "Green Party" of the Netherlands.

I've noticed before, not only here but also in the UK and other countries, that "Green" parties seem to be particularly easily taken in by the implausible claims of car manufacturers that today's latest technology (what technology that is varies from year to year and has been unleaded fuel, catalytic converters, hybrids and electric cars, for instance) will somehow transform what is one of the most energy wasting devices that we have into something altogether different. This never happens of course, because actually such claims are mere relativism. Electric cars use almost exactly the same amount of energy as cars which burn fossil fuels directly and they are just as capable of killing more than a million people each year. It is only good for car manufacturers if everyone buys a new car and throws away the old ones, not for the environment.

It's Greenwash, nothing more, and it's a shame that it is believed. I don't vote for Greenwash, so I don't vote for Green parties either. I find it amazing that Green politicians are often not particularly enthusiastic supporters of cycling, and that this is true not only in other countries where bicycles are not used much for transportation, but also here in the Netherlands where we have a higher proportion of trips made by bike than in any other country in the world.

The Fietsersbond has information on their website about the policies of each party with regard to cycling. Groenlinks does have a lot of good policies for cycling, even though they are also enthusiastic about cars.

I could vote, I'd be voting Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD) - Party for the Animals. I think the name makes many people think they are little more than a single issue pressure group, however this party seems to have more comprehensive green policies than any other, and they are the only one to really recognize the effect of animal based agriculture and diet on our world.

Anyone who has ever tried out an online "ecological footprint" calculators will have noticed that adopting a vegan diet and using motorized transport as little as possible are the most effective things that one can do for the environment.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Two megawatthours from the sun

This morning we reached another milestone with our solar energy installation. 144 days after installation, more than 2000 kWh had been generated by the solar panels on our roof. In the same period, we consumed just under 1300 kWh so we're currently generating at a significantly higher average rate than we consume electricity.

We reached the 1 MWh milestone 71 days ago on the 17th of June, so the second megawatthour took almost exactly the same time to generate as the first. I had hoped that July and August might see better average power output from the panels, but while we've had some very nice bright sunny days this summer, there have also been far more gloomy grey days than anyone had hoped for. If we lived somewhere that was more reliably sunny than Northern Europe then the performance of the system would be better. However even under these conditions the system is doing very well and we're ahead of where we need to be for the year.

In 144 days we've generated more than half the total amount of electricity that we expect to consume this year. Even with reduced output through the winter, when we'll see a drop from the current average of 15 hours of production each day, we have a very good chance of making up the rest of what we'll consume.

Our panels generated electricity worth about €370 at the price which we are billed. This is nearly 5% of the installed price of the system in less than five months. A simple extrapolation suggests that the system would pay for itself in just over 8 years if this rate of production is constant. We expect it to take a little longer (perhaps over ten years) including the effect of shorter and darker days in winter, though if the price of electricity rises over the next ten years, our pay-back period becomes shorter.

41% of total world electricity is generated by burning coal. If we had produced the same electricity from coal as we have from the sun this would have resulted in the emission of over 1100 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The Verdict
Thus far, it still looks good.

The nice pie chart comes from the World Coal Association website. And just how gloomy was this summer ? We get the same weather as the UK, and there it was officially the wettest summer for 100 and the gloomiest for ten years.

Sunday 17 June 2012

One Mega-Watt-Hour (1 MWh) electricity from the sun

1000 kWh == 1 MWh
Our solar panels were installed on the 5th of April this year. This afternoon, after just 73 days of operation, the gauge on the inverter reached the point of 1000 kWh, or 1 MWh of production. That's a quarter of our consumption of electricity last year, and as we've only actually used 662 kWh in the last 73 days, our production of electricity has been more than 50% greater than our use over this first 73 day period.

In 73 days, the inverter has been active for 1119 hours. That's an average of 15.3 hours per day and when active the average rate of generation has been 890 W. This may not sound too impressive for a system which has a peak output of 4 kW, but it is about what you can expect. Sunrise and sunset are times when there is naturally far less sunlight available to the panels, also we've had a lot of very overcast and rainy days.

This figure covers only April, May and half of June. I would expect that the number of hours per day of useful generation will increase in July and August, but that this will be very much less in the winter months.

The inverter gives a value of the electricity that we have generated so far as approximately 160 euros. However, we actually pay about 18.5 cents per kWh so actually we would have paid considerably more than this. The total cost of the system was about €8000, so we're currently generating at a rate which would pay back in about 8 and a half years. I expect the lower rate of generation in winter will bring this closer to the ten years that we expected. Of course, should the cost of electricity rise, this goes in our favour.

The figure for CO2 "saved" is amazing, but accurate if compared with a coal fired power station. When you burn coal you can only generate about 2 kWh per kg of CO2 produced. I did some calculations a couple of years back and found that I could easily put three or more times this much CO2 into the air each year by driving a car instead of cycling.

For the last 30 days, i.e. half of May and half of June, the average rate of generation has been higher than the average for the whole 73 days. This is of course due to May and June being brighter on average than April.

I expect that July and August will be better again, before the shorter days of winter have a less positive effect.

The effect of a shadow
This shadow doesn't look much, but its effect is surprising
Note that in the early morning the production is very much lower because our roof is aligned South West so at the start of the day the panels are entirely in shadow. As the earth rotates, the sunlight starts to fall directly, if at rather a shallow angle, onto the panels, and output increases. However, that shadow has a large effect at first.

We have 16 solar panels, wired up as two strings each of 8 panels in series. Because the panels are in series, a shadow like this across just one panel is enough to reduce the useful output of the whole string by a half. For that reason, in the morning one string has half the output of the other.

This isn't important for us as it only happens for an hour or two when the panels are least well aligned with the sun and while the output is in any case quite low. Therefore its overall importance is small.

We knew this would happen for a short period at the start of the day, and this is the reason why we didn't choose to fit two extra panels which could have been placed above the various vents on our roof. If we had placed panels there, these would have been in the shade for virtually the whole day, reducing the output of the string of which they were a part at the peak times, when the panels were best aligned with the sun, by more than the extra panels would ever provide a benefit. More panels would have brought us a lower output at a higher cost. If you're installing a system, it's very important to note where shadows are on your roof, especially at your peak hours (generally around mid-day, but later is important if you face South West and earlier is important if you face South East).

How the weather affects the output
I don't suppose many people would be surprised to learn that dark clouds reduce the output of solar panels. This can actually be quite dramatic. While the peak output of our system is 3995 W, and the system comes very close to this at some point on most cool but sunny days, when the weather is really bad, for instance when we had a hailstorm a couple of weeks back, the output drops as low as 200 W for a period.

Another thing which might surprise some people is that the peak output is not achieved on the hottest days. Once solar panels get too hot they actually generate less. On the hottest days that we've experienced, the peak has been only around 3000 W, 1/4 less than the peak on cooler sunny days. However, these were still good days for our system as they were long bright days and therefore the system stayed at a rate of 3000 W for a long time.

I should note that these effects were expected. Before fitting this system, I played around with small scale solar generation for over 20 years and I've seen the same things happen with all the other panels I've used.

It's working very well so far. Only hindsight can tell us if this was really worth doing, but so far it seems like not only is it a good thing for the environment, but also having paid back 2% of its cost in just a two and a half months it's a good financial investment too even though we had no subsidy to buy the system. If you can get a subsidy where you live, or even if you can't, I currently have no reason not to recommend installing a system like this.

Saturday 21 April 2012

First two weeks of solar power

Wet solar panels are not the most
productive solar panels
I was going to write this after one week, but time kept passing. We've now had solar panels on our roof for 15 whole days.

April has been extremely variable so far. We've had very bright times and also heavy rain and hail. Temperatures in the morning have been low enough for there to be a fairly heavy frost on some days.

The peak recorded output of the system so far is 3994 W, and most days a figure very near this is reached at some point or another. However, output can dip as low as 100 W during an otherwise sunny afternoon if the weather turns bad. This has happened quite often, and these two weeks have been far from optimal for generating solar electricity.

Over the last 15 days, our system has generated a total of 178 kWh. Our consumption over this period days was just 139 kWh so we've contributed 39 kWh to the grid. However, last year we consumed a total of 4048 kWh. This works out as 11 kWh per day, or 166 kWh over an average 15 day period. When viewed against this average, our excess is far smaller.

A day later, production was at 191 kWh
The figures for last year's consumption were what we used as a target when deciding on the capacity of our system. We benefit from the retail price of electricity (in our case about 18 cents per kWh) for any amount that we generate up to our own usage but can expect a far lower benefit for each excess kWh that we generate.

Our expectation is that in the summer, with consistently better weather, we'll generate more, but in the winter with worse weather we'll generate considerably less.

It's too early yet to say how well the system will work through the entire year, but performance so far does seem to be roughly in line with expectations. If electricity prices do not vary and we generate exactly the same amount of electricity as we consume then the system will pay for itself in just over 11 years. Any increase in the price of electricity makes the payback period shorter, and as soon as the system has paid for itself we're effectively on free of charge electricity for as long as it lasts.

This is part of our pension, and in essence, we have used it to make a bet that energy prices will increase. I'm not normally a betting man, but I like the odds for this.

Read more about our system.

Friday 6 April 2012

We now have our own solar power

I've had an interest in solar power for many years. There's a cost in both money and environmental damage in building the equipment, but once installed it's clean, green and gives free energy. It has been obvious to me for some time that the sums add up well for PV, and others have also shown that the best alternative to fossil fuels which currently exists is electricity from photovoltaic panels.

For over twenty years I've had small PV systems powering things in the garage and/or garden shed. Since we've lived in the Netherlands, I have had a 12 V panel on the top of the garage which runs a radio and light and little else. This, like previous efforts, is a hobby, not a serious attempt to power anything. However, now that the cost of installation of a serious system has fallen so much, I felt it was now time to get serious.

After a period of subsidies coming and going, and this rather screwing up the market for home PV installations, there are no subsidies available at the moment. However, the price has stabilized at a reasonable figure. We paid just over €8000 our system, and this should pay for itself in about 10 years - even if electricity prices don't increase. Prices are far more likely to increase than decrease, so the pay-back period could well be better than ten years.

The system that we've had installed consists of 16 ET-P660235 235 W panels from ET-Solar connected in two strings of eight each into a Power-One Aurora PVI-4.2 inverter. This gives a rated output of about 3600 W when the sun is shining directly onto the panels on a sunny day. Overcast days will of course produce less electricity. The panels are guaranteed to have over 90% of this output after 10 years and over 80% after 25 years.

We consumed just over 4000 kWh last year. That's quite a lot, but it's explained in part by our working from home and having two teenagers living at home. Our PV system's expected output is a little lower than this, but we could fit not more panels onto our roof. If we are to avoid paying for electricity, then we will have to reduce our consumption to match our generation.

I'll blog further about how successful the system is in reality. At the time of writing, it's been in operation for under 24 hours.

Our system was installed by EnergieWonen in Almere. If you contact them for a quote, tell them that I sent you in their direction.

The first panel being lifted onto the roof

Fitting of the first panel

They're big. Each is about 8x the area of the small panel on the roof of our garage.

Fitting of second panel

All sixteen on the roof.
Read more about our solar power system including a summary of its effectiveness after the first year.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Digital "Lomography"

A few days ago I came across an old camera that has been sitting in a draw for some years. It's a low quality 1.3 M pixel camera, the Packard Bell DSC-3. We were given it by a friend many years ago so that one of my daughters could play with it, and I'd remembered that some of the photos she came back with had a certain something.

There's no getting away from the fact that this is a primitive digital camera. The LCD screen on the back tells you the status of the battery and how many shots you have left on the compact flash card that it uses for storage, but it does not display a preview of your photos, or let you view your photos after you've made them.

The only way of composing your photos is to use the viewfinder, or "shoot from the hip".

Furthermore, there is no zoom lens and it's fixed focus. There's a mechanical lever on the side which changes the focal length for close-ups, and apart from that it's focused at quite a long distance. It doesn't make very good photos of people as they need to be quite a long way away to be in focus.

However, the photos that it makes have a certain something:
Packard Bell DSC-3 ignored the trees.
And actually, the sky really was blue,
not purple as on the left.
Sensible Olympus compact camera focused on
the trees
Sensible Olympus
Packard Bell gives everything an etched
appearance as if it has been processed outside
of the camera
Rain-drops in focus, a grim view of
the world. A fairly accurate depiction
of the weather for the Noordelijke
elomobieltocht 2012 (which was
otherwise very enjoyable)
The rest of the world in focus, and the weather just doesn't
look quite so bad from the view of the DSC-3.
Judy walks our dog. A dull day somehow transformed.
Hello tree. I like the way the fixed focus worked here.
So, will I use this camera for all my photography from now on ? Of course not. It's flawed. Sometimes hopelessly so.
Sometimes the Packard Bell camera
completely loses the plot and produces
photos like this one

You can forget about taking photos with low light with this camera as the amount of noise quickly becomes intrusive.

There are lots of photos that you can't get with a camera like this, as you can never be sure what it will do in any particular situation.

However, when it "works" it does occasionally produce rather pleasing results, so I will use it sometimes.

Yes, I know that "lomography" refers to a particular type of film camera. However, this sort of primitive digital camera endorses a motto of "Don't Think, Just Shoot" just as much as a real LOMO.