Sunday, December 04, 2005

Batteries Not Included.....

Part of my renewable energy remit, has been to generate my own electricity using waste vegetable oil, using a modified diesel engine, and use the waste heat to contribute to my home heating.

I would like to reach the point where all my domestic energy either comes from waste veg oil or from firewood.

With the recent 15% rise in prices - my domestic energy bills are now costing me about £3.00 per day in December so I am interested in exploring other options.

In any modern home, one is increasingly dependent on electric appliances, and with the threat of power cuts and rising electricity prices it is important to have a back-up so that you can remain comfortable should the supply be disrupted.

It is getting more difficult to have a home that runs on just gas, and reaching for the candles when the lights go out may be romantic but hardly practical. Modern gas boilers rely on having a maintained electricity supply to keep them operational, so if the power goes off - so does the heating.

It is for this reason that I have decided on a set of contingency plans to keep the home warm and functional even if the power goes off.

I recently "invested" in an emergency back up supply, previously used in a Bingo hall in Port Talbot to power the emergency lighting.

The unit contains sufficient lead acid batteries to allow the electricity to be maintained for several hours, during a power cut, or ultimately, replace the incoming mains electricity all together.

I hauled the unit back from Wales yesterday, a large 6' tall cabinet, 28" wide and 28"deep, that contains the battery charger, the inverters and the lead acid batteries - a complete (but very heavy) floor standing unit.

It uses 9 lead acid batteries to run the inverter from 108V dc, and there are 2 of the 2.5kW inverters linker together to make 5kW.

I am in the process of recharging my batch of 160Ah batteries, which I hope will run this unit for about 24 hours on my current electricity usage.

The back-up supply unit will be housed in the shed, along with the veg oil diesel generator. When the mains supply fails, the control system disconnects the house wiring from the incoming meter supply (to maintain safety) and then starts up the inverters. These will continue to run either until the mains supply is restored or the batteries reach their lower charge limit.

The intention is that the Lister generator can be started daily to recharge the batteries, and keep them permanently topped up. It will run for several hours at a time at close to peak output and then shut down when the battery bank is fully charged.

When mains electricity is available, the batteries can be recharged directly. It would even be possible to recharge the batteries at night using cheap rate power, and then run the house off the batteries during the day. This could potentially save about £60 per year based on existing electricity usage.

The batteries are Trojan Pacer types and originally rated at 160Ah. Because they have already done a season or more in an electric car, I do not expect them to be capable of much more than 100Ah. I am currently in the process of giving all the batteries an individual top-up charge, and if necessary run a desulphator unit on them. See here for more detailson desulphators:

It is hoped that I can make the generator and battery charging automatic, so no intervention is needed on a day today basis.

Once a week, the fuel tank will be refilled and the batteries topped up with distilled water if necessary.

Lead acid batteries are cost effective for this type of application, provided that they are kept in a good state of charge and free from frost.

Now that I have the battery bank and inverters, the possibility exists to expand the system to use photovoltaic panels to recharge the batteries or possibly a wind generator. However as these options would both be quite costly to implement, it is unlikely that I will persue them for the moment.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

As the sun sinks...

I return to my blog after a week spent in southern Portugal. The occasion was to celebtrate my father's 75th birthday which fortunately co-incided with a bout of my winter depression.

The Algarve region,on account of its southerly lattitude, gets 2 extra hours of daylight per day at this time of year, and last Thursday the temperature was in the low 20s. Here in Blighty, the sun has almost sunk below the horizon at 3:50pm.

Despite rain and electrical storms last weekend, the week soon improved, and my father and I spent most afternoons walking the hills and coastline of the Algarve. Dad celebrated his birthday by swimming in the Atlantic!

I returned to Gatwick on Friday night to find the temperature 20 degrees colder and southern Britain hit by snow storms and freezing fog.

To make matters worse, I find that my utility company has increased gas and electricity prices by 15% in my absence. I am now paying nearly £3 per day to keep warm and the lights burning - it is obviously time to commence with my home heat and power generation scheme.

Here I am on the Algarve coastal footpath having walked from Armacon to Benagil and back.

The sea temperature is still about 17 deg C, and the night-time temperature seldom drops below 15 C at this time of year.

The Algarve has tremendous attractions to the Northern European at this time of year. Warm climate, sunshine, extra 2 hours daylight, fertile soils with crops in full growing season. Economically you can live easily for about £20 per day, with food, wine and beer ( & fags) not subject to the crippling levels of taxation we "enjoy" in the UK.

For those who want to experience the Algarve out of season, try Flightline or where return tickets cost as little as 39 Euros.

Roll on retirement, I know where I'm headed!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Economic Reality

The weather recently has been poor, and so stuck indoors at my desk, I decided to catch up on some web research.

Monday began by looking into the cost of heating oil in the UK. I found that on the Tankerfillers website that they would deliver 1000 litres of domestic heating oil to my door for £355.

I then checked with Tesco, I can buy 1000 litres of rapeseed oil for £416, albeit 3 litres at a time! That's not a lot of price difference, and the price of heating oil can only rise as the colder weather continues.

With rising fossil fuel prices it is now becoming economically viable to burn vegetable oil, corn or wheat, as well as firewood as renewable heating fuels.

The problem is how to convert veg oil or corn into something that can be readily burned to provide home heating.

In my case I have a 55 year old Lister engine to run on veg oil and provide heat and power. The photo shows me demonstrating the Lister generator running on veg oil at Kew last April.

For others there is the pellet burning stoves, that are now becoming available. In Minnesota last February, I saw these burning maize, in preference to wood pellets.

For the DIY enthusiast, there is the Babington Burner. A simple type of oil burner that can use waste vegetable oil direct from the chipshop or pub/restaraunt.

Back to the economics of home heat and power generation.

Last year I paid my electricity and gas company £648 and used 20,000 kWh of gas and 3800 units of electricity.

Can I do better than this and run my house entirely off renewables, for the same money. I think it will be a close race - so I am prepared to accept the challenge.

Well now that I have started my new electricity diet, I will only need 2500 units of electricity during 2005/2006.

In order to generate this, I will need to spend £520 on vegetable oil, or 1250 litres. As well as all my electricity requirements, this would also provide up to 7500kWh of heat.

I then have £128 left from my budget to spend on seasoned hardwood firewood to supplement my heating.

Checking local suppliers, suggested that I would pay about 90 pounds for a Transit van load (apparently a standard measure?) This is estimated at 2 tonnes, but further research will be needed to confirm this.

So assume the local logging industry in Surrey is a bit overpriced, I can assume about a tonne.

The heating value of firewood is 4kWh/kg and so we would get through about 10kg per night.

My tonne of logs would last about 3 months, and help offset 4000kWh or about 70 pounds worth of gas.

So even if you are forced to buy your firewood fuel at top prices, and used NEW vegetable oil to run the generator, you can still give the thieving utilities a run for their money.

Let the renewable home heating challenge commence!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Life's a Gas

October has either been very mild, or my new gas boiler is fitted with a mega-efficient burner.

Either way my gas consumption has plummeted compared with the same period last year.

From my records:

October 2004 - gas consumption 71.0 kWh per day

October 2005 - gas consumption 34.4 kWh per day

This is a saving of 64 pence per day in gas, to be added to the 23 pence electricity savings. It must be programmed in my Scottish blood - small savings like these soon add up over the 180 day heating period.

In August, as part of the kitchen improvements, we had a new Worcester-Bosch condensing boiler fitted. The old gas back boiler, a Vulcan Verona made in about 1970, is now well on its way to a Chinese blast furnace.

The old boiler was using 6kWh of gas a day just to run the pilot light. This heat was just going straight up the flue and not contributing a jot to keeping the inside of my house warm. Totalled up over a year, this represents 2190kWh or about 10% of my total gas usage. About 36 quid -doing nothing.

In addition to the new boiler, we also installed the solar water heating panel, which meant that we could go for days at a time in the summer without having to use the gas boiler at all.

The underfloor heating in the bathroomand kitchen has made all the difference to these rooms. Previously they were cold, draughty and uninviting. Underfloor heating pipes costing just 225 quid and plumbed into the central heating make the bathroom a pleasure. I even like to walk around barefoot now - just to feel the warm tiles.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Scrap Man Cometh!

It's funny when things just happen by coincidence, and couldn't have been better organised by human intervention.

This weekend I tidied out my 1950s shed and had a general clearup of the garden. I turfed out 3 old central heating boilers and a load of other scrap metal into the skip, but was starting to have pangs of guilt because I knew that they would probably just be landfilled. I was just about to fish them out of the skip and take them in the back of the car down to the council operated recycling centre, when there was a knock at the door.

"I see you have some metal items in your skip - I was wondering if I could take them away for you?"

It was thus that I met Ernie, the local scrap enthusiast, a well spoken chap in his early thirties.

"Certainly", I said, "and I have a few more items around the back."

So Ernie and I got talking and I discovered that metal scrap has now reached 65 pounds per tonne for iron and steel, and it is being packed up and shipped to China by the boatload, where it is being recycled into new steel stock.

A few years ago, when they shut down the UK blast furnaces and steel mills, there was no longer a market for scrap steel and so it became very difficult to dispose of old cars. Frequently, you would see vehicles abandonned by the roadside, because no-one wanted to have to pay 50 quid to have the scrap yard take it from them.

Times, they are a changing, and with the insatiable market for scrap in China, and a few enterprising, globally aware scrap dealers, all that old junk is actually worth real cash.

This then begs the question of what about all the other stuff that needlessly ends up in landfill. Building work and home improvements generates a considerable amout of scrap timber, and every new kitchen installed produces a mountain of cardboard packaging.

There is probably enough scrap timber produced in Surrey to fuel all of its schools and hospitals, suitably chipped or pelletised, the wood could be burned in industrial heating boilers, and help to offset the use of oil and natural gas for heating these essential buildings.

That's why I am installing a new wood-fired stove with back boiler in my home, whilst my new shed/workshop will be effectively heated by the orange stove seen lurking in corner of the old-shed - above. It's an Austrian Windhager multifuel boiler that I picked up about 10 years ago. It's not suitable for the house because of its size and shape, but it is very efficient and can be stoked up so that it runs all night if needed.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Shed Power?

Monty Python's Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson. - only had one garden shed, ironically - I now have 3, and small greenhouse.

I am, however thinking of getting another shed as soon as I have cleared out all the rubbish from the oldest shed into the skip currently sitting on my drive.

My newest shed, is destined to become my sanctuary and office/workshop and measures about 16 x 10 feet. For most of the summer it was full of new kitchen units waiting to be installed into the new kitchen. This has now been done and at last I have got my shed back into some semblence of order that I can actually sit at my desk out there and get a wireless internet connection back to the router indoors.

This weekend I finally got the power laid on to the shed, where previously it had been a rather non-satisfactory extension cable. I spent yesterday afternoon wiring up the fluorescent lights and putting a few sockets in.

By dusk yesterday, I was in a position to have full lights and power, so I enjoyed a celebratory beer, in the comfort of my own shed.

The shed also acts as an outer sanctuary, with wireless and phone, sofa and all the mod-cons such as beer-cooler and bottle opener. Some have even suggested that I could live out there, should diplomatic relationships deteriorate indoors!

Sheds are a good way of getting additional storage space on the cheap. You pay between 10 and 14 pounds per square foot, depending if you want a concrete base and insulation to allow year-round use.

The next plan is to add anothe 16x 10 shed which will become the mechanical workshop and forge. It will have a screed concrete floor, suitable for taking my lathe and milling machine,and will feature a central brick builld fireplace and forge that it will share with the adjacent office shed. It will also house my waste veg oil fired Lister Diesel engine, which is currently in storage at a friend's house.

I have done a little blacksmithing in the past, and this is why I want to set up a home forge. I also want to get set up for pattern making and sand-casting, so that I can make up metal castings for experimental steam engines, and home produced wood and waste oil burning stoves.
By exploring these traditional metal working skills, I hope to become less dependent on modern (plastic) materials. A small wood fired steam engine that can power the workshop and heat the house is an ultimate goal.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Negawatts is a term first coined by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute describing how the saving of small, almost trivial, amounts of power can have large knock-on effects.

A power company in the USA found that it was cheaper to distribute free low energy light bulbs to all their customers, than go to the expense of of renewing an ageing and inefficient power plant.

The plant was closed, the land sold and as a result the area was turned from a run down industrial wasteland into a new community - all for the sake of a few light bulbs.

A friend asked me this week about my solar water heating panel, and how much gas it was saving me in the summer months. I said that about 9kWh a day was saved in not keeping the boiler turned on having to heat the water. A good saving I thought.

He then asked me what my winter gas consumption had been from October through to March and I looked at my records and said about 95kWh per day average.

Well, he said, is it not easier and more acceptable for the average family to save just as much gas as you, by turning down thermostats and lagging tanks, rather that going to the extent of solar water heating? If they made just a 10% saving made during the winter months it would have the same offset effect as installing solar heating for use during the summer.

For once I had to agree, which just goes to show how if we all seek out those negawatts, a little change in the way we use our heating can go a long way to reducing the countries greenhouse emissions.

Solar Powered Saturday

It's amazing what a little sunshine will do! Blazing sunshine in mid-October is just what the doctor ordered.

This week started well with exceptional good weather on Monday and Tuesday, but rapidly deteriorated into rainy murk and gloom by Friday.

However, I woke to bright sunshine on Saturday and armed with a cup of tea I went to survey my garden and take notes for my Autumn Almanac.

Dragon flies basking on the sun-soaked wooden fence at 9am in mid-October - what is the climate coming to?

My solar water heater panel is also propped up against that sunny fence, and as I watched the dragon flies, I heard the solar powered pump start up signifying that the water in the panel had already reached 50 centigrade.

The small solar pV panel that I use to recharge the pump battery is proving to be a success, with a maximum of 3/4 of an amp being returned into the battey on a sunny October day. It keeps the battery topped up, with no need to use a mains connected battery charger.

I am also having a major tidy up of some of my garden sheds, now that I have a new workshop, the two smaller sheds are being re-assigned, with the oldest one being ceremoniously cremated on Bonfire Night! Rather than landfill the combustible materials left over from the building work, I have stockpiled them and will treat my friends and family to a blaze on November 5th.

So far this morning I have hauled out and skipped 2 old central heating boilers, a lawnmower that was a non-runner 5 years ago and piles of other junk that was just taking up space. The boilers and lawnmower will be taken down to the metal recycling skip down at the refuse site. This way they will soon be in a shipping container and on their way to sunny China. Better that than buried in a UK landfill site.

We have endured six months of building work here, and with another skip on the drive it is time to clean up the back garden of all the builder's waste.

Building work is very much in evidence down our street with 5 or 6 skips present down a road of just 100 houses. It is criminal to see what is junked around here, and the amount of timber waste being landfilled from just this street could keep several woodburning stoves fired-up.

Most folks around here are adding on to existing houses, with extensionsand loft conversions. This is a sure sign that the housing market is slipping into recession again, with people preferring to stay put rather than face the costs and potential financial insecurity of moving.

I also started to get some feedback for this blog. Thanks to THM for her words of encouragement, and her excellent blogsite.

I was particularly interested in some of the blogs linked to hers, including "manchester is my planet" (Link to appear later on the right)

Here the site encourages citizens of Greater Manchester to pledge to a 20% overall reduction in greenhouse gases by 2010. Already nearly ten of thousand people in the Manchester area have taken this pledge.

Perhaps this site might encourage some of the other major towns and cities of the UK to take a similar approach. How about a Government incentive - like reduced council tax for those who sign to the scheme?

Reducing consumption and GHGs by 20% may seem a tall order, but if you concentrate on saving (not using) electricity, then the knock on effect to natural gas and coal is almost four-fold in true energy terms.

My electricity diet is continuing into its third week with my average consumption being a little under 7 kWh per day. However just by accidently leaving the desktop PC on overnight can seriously upset the average!

Enough of sitting indoors blogging - the sun is out, the sky is blue........., and time and shed wait for no man.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The diet seems to be working

Since starting my e-Plan diet last week, I have managed to cut my electricity consumption by 40%, and still continue to use the high wattage appliances such as the washing machine and the dishwasher occasionally through the week.

The fridge and freezer are permanently plugged into a Wattmeter (5 quid from Lidl's).

I have cut my daily consumption down from 10kWh to only 6kWh, saving over £2 per week in bills. To celebrate, I will go and have a pint of Guinness at Weatherspoons with my new found wealth!

The washing machine is used on sunny mornings, when I know I am going to be able to get clothes dried outside on the line. It uses about 0.42kWh for a typical wash. The dishwasher is rationed to once every 3 or 4 days when we can justify the 1kWh it consumes for a typical wash cycle.

I have found the correct power settings for my desktop PC so that it powers down after 20 minutes of inactivity and then the whole stack consumes just 23W. This is better than the 150W that it was previously using when left on.

I have purchased low energy lightbulbs from Asda, for £1.97 for an 18W bulb that provides the same light output as a 100W incandescent bulb. These bulbs generally have paid for themselves within 300 hours of usage.

I have encouraged Elaine to turn off the TV and set top box at night which saves about another 0.25kWh, and I am being conservative with the use of the desktop PC, and use the laptop whenever I can.

If every home in the UK saved 40% on their electricity consumption, think of the gas and coal that could be saved each year.

Remember that you need to burn about 3kWh of gas at the power station for every 1kWh consumed in the home.

So with this in mind, the 28kWh of electricity I save in one week, saves enough gas to heat my home for a typical winter's day. So my 40% electricity saving could be thought of as a 14% (1 day in 7) indirect saving in my gas consumption - before I even touch the thermostat.

And yet, I don't appear to be "shivering in the dark" - a phrase adopted by those who scorn the idea of domestic enegy saving!

I would be interested in hearing from others who have managed similar savings.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The e-Plan Diet

I have recently decided to put my house on a diet - its consuming too much energy and the bills are getting fat.

So I came up with the ultimate diet - the e-Plan diet! - slimming down your household electricity consumption

Working from home, the house is occupied most days and the home-office activities consume a fair percentage of the total power.

Here is a suggested daily consumption plan based on realistically achievable targets:

Fridge and Freezer 1.5kWh

Office 2.0kWh

TV and entertainment 0.5kWh

Lighting 1.0kWh

Miscellaneous 1.0kWh

Total 6.0kWh

The miscellaneous includes occasional use of high wattage appliances like dishwashers, washing machines, toaster, kettle, microwave and the like. As the larger appliances are only used two or three times per week it should be possible to get by on an average daily allowance of 1kWh.

I checked the washing machine consumption by doing a typical full load at 40 degrees C. After an hour and a half of churning the energy used for the wash was 0.42kWh. I then made use of the sunshine to dry the washing on the line. Tonight I will check the dishwasher for its consumption.

Our lighting in the living-room is a 100W incandescent lamp on a dimmer switch. It's a bit stark, so I am going to arrange for a couple of low energy bulb table-lamps to help give some ambience and reduce the consumption in the evenings.

Fortunately in our house the cooker and oven are gas, as is the central heating so we have very few high wattage appliances.

With minor improvements, it should be possible to get the consumption down to just 5kWh per day.

Whether I can stick to this diet is yet to be seen!

The "200 Watt Office"

Desktop PC (3 GHz) 100W - use a laptop - only 40W

17" TFT Monitor 40W - not needed with laptop

Wireless DSL Router 8W

20W Low energy lamp 20W - evenings only

HP 2500 Printer, copier, fax 19W - only turn on when needed

Telephone 2W - use a conventional phone that needs no mains

Coffee Allowance 20W (0.2kWh in 10 hrs)

Total 209W

These are worst case figures, which assume winter working with the printer always on. By using the laptop on a wireless link, a conventional phone and turning off the printer when not being used, this could easily become The 100W Office, consuming only 1kWh in a typical 10 hour working day.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Playstation Generation?

The day started early with a shower at 6:30am in order refresh me prior to the drive over to Swindon for mid-morning.

By 8am I was on the M25 near Reigate, and by 9:45, I was still on the M25, stuck in gridlocked traffic, not yet at Heathrow. I diverted through Windsor and followed the Thames to Junction 8/9 of the M4 where I joined a nice quiet motorway.

The reason for this early morning activity was to collect a Lister Diesel engine from a farm near Swindon.

This Lister is going to form part of my waste vegetable oil powered CHP system, but will first need a little cleaning up and a major overhaul to get it running again.

It occurred to me whilst driving that this Lister project was going to be quite a major undertaking, not only in dealing with the transportation logistics of an engine weighing a third of a tonne, but also a major effort required in getting the various components together so as to make a working system:

Engine - a Lister CS 6/1 a 6hp single cylinder diesel engine made in 1951.
exhaust system
cooling system
concrete base
engine shed
plumbing and electrical work
heating system
batteries, inverter

- in fact the list is almost endless.

But it then occurred to me that anyone who wants to succeed with alternative and renewable energy needs to remain unphased with this type of project. You need to acquire new skills, either self-taught or read up from books. You need to become self reliant and self sufficient. If a spare part, such as a gasket or pipe flange needs making for a 55 year old engine, then it is likely that you are going to have to do it yourself, select your own materials and just get on with it.

Sadly this self imposed, self reliance is no longer common place in today's society. Too many of us belong to the "Playstation Generation", expecting everything to work "right out of the box" and provide instant entertainment and instant gratification with minimum effort. Then when we tire of our electronic toys we discard them into a cupboard (or landfill ) and buy the latest model for half the price and twice the features of the previous model.

Fortunately we are all adaptable, and with a little effort can soon learn the skills to work on simple diesel engines - designed in 1929.

If we in the western world, are reluctant to get back to reliable simple technology, then those in developing countries such as China, India and Africa will be most happy to step into our shoes...

Pictures of the lastest Lister acquisation can be seen at

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The New Extension

Following 6 months of hard work, we very nearly have our new kitchen and bathroom extension completed. Although it's only about 12 square metres, it significantly improves the kitchen and bathroom areas and brings them up to the latest standard of insulation and efficient new gas central heating.

The photo shows the extension from the back, with the new French doors into the kitchen.

The shed on the left has been my workshop for the last 5 years but is shortly going to be moved to a new site further up the garden, and used to house the Lister generator set.

The area behind the house will then be turned into a patio with decking and garden furniture - ready for next summer!

On the left is one of the blue plastic drums that I use to store my waste vegetable oil for the Lister generator.

Why do I have a tumble dryer in my back-garden? Simple, I refuse to have high-wattage electrical appliances in the house!

I have spent a day or so updating my website and transferring it to a new Host. You can see the pictures of the construction work here

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Sustainable Suburbia?

Sustainable Suburbia

Here goes - the creation of a new blog focusing on a Sustainable Suburbia - or should that be Sustainia?

I live 20 miles south of London in a 1905 brick built semi-detached house. I am slowly renovating the house to make it more in keeping with sustainable energy practices.

Elaine and I have lived here since Summer 2000, but it is only this year that we have really started to make some improvements to the property. These can be found detailed from the link on the right.

Loft insulation has been much improved and since 2000 the heating bills have been cut by 30%.

I have kept a log of all electricity and gas consumption since August 2000, and the trend has been significantly downwards for the gas. However I am using more electricity than previously, because for the last two and a half years I have worked from home, and PCs use a suprisingly large amount of electricity when left on.

This summer, a small extension has been added to the north facing rear quarter of the house which significantly improves the size and layout of the kitchen and bathroom.

Underfloor heating using hot water now heats the kitchen and bathroom with higher efficiency than the old radiators. All outside walls, floors and ceilings have been insulated to exceed the current minimum requirements of building regulations.

Hot water pipes have been properly insulated and no longer run through the cold concrete floors.

A new condensing gas boiler has been fitted in order to achieve even greater fuel savings. This is important because we have experienced gas price increases of over 50% in the last 5 years. The old backboiler used 6kWh of gas just keeping the pilot light on - the new one will heat the hot water tank for half an hour in the morning and evening on the same amount!

A 20 tube evacuated solar water heating panel was added in June and a better insulated hot water tank. On Sunny days this has heated the hot water adequately for bathing or showering, but significantly reduces the need for firing the boiler to heat up the water.

This Autumn will see the installation of a wood fired boiler in the living room, as a cosy way of keeping the core of the house warm and helping to make the property less reliant on gas and shift the fuel focus towards renewables.

More ambitiously, a waste vegetable oil powered combined heat and power system is planned using a 50 year old Lister diesel engine, housed in the shed.

See for details.

I would be interested in corresponding with others who are working along similar lines.

Ken Boak
Redhill, Surrey, UK