Saturday, September 23, 2006

Autumn Almanac

Once again we return to the transitional time of year between summer and autumn. After a hot, dry summer, the rain returned in August and has brought renewed vigour to the garden.

The grass is green again, and putting on a final spurt of growth before the colder weather and shorter days.

In the garden, there are fruits abundant, with apples, rosehips and blackberries all at their best. Unusually, my two Elder trees have failed completely to produce a single bunch of berries.

This is the time of year when we really ought to be thinking about the forthcoming colder weather, but with morning indoor temperatures still in the low 20's, here's hoping that we can keep the heating off for at least another few weeks. When the temperature of the living room reaches 17 C, that will be my cue to start the heating.

The last 12 months has been a period of re-assessment. Whilst I must admit that I have not achieved half of the things I set out to do, I must admit that I have a clearer understanding of how I can move towards the sustainable lifestyle that I seek.

In the early summer, I re-read, George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier". This is a bleak description of life in the northern industrial towns during the mid-1930s. It is an examination of the poverty and deprivation that these areas faced in the years between the wars. Orwell visits the households of unemployed miners, and clearly accounts for the squalour and malnutrition that existed in Britain within living memory. Whilst modern life may not be perfect, without a shadow of a doubt, we've never had it so good.

Another formative read this summer, was Jim Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency", as reviewed in an earlier post. Again an apocalyptic narrative of what is likely to befall the western world as fossil fuels become scarce.

In preparation for the coming winter, Elaine and I are investing in a wood burning stove with back-boiler.

Whilst this is likely to cost the best part of £2000 when professionally installed, mainly because of the cost of having a twin-skin stainless steel liner fitted in the flue, we are confident that it is going to offset about £400 of natural gas per year, and with a family friend able to keep us supplied with logs, we believe that we are looking at a payback of around 5 years.

The key advantage of the woodstove is that is will provide a significant boost to the heating of the living room area, where Elaine likes to spent the winter evenings reading. The radiant glow from the stove and the higher room temperatures will make for cosy evenings. Fortunately this property was built with a substantial fireplace in every room, and it will be an easy job to recommission the cavernous hearth of the living room.

Woodstoves, although more efficient than open fireplaces, are not as efficient as gas boilers in transferring the heat from the burning wood into the water. As a consequence, a lot more wood has to be burned to get reasonable output from the back-boiler, and this might lead to excessive temperatures in the room containing the stove. However, Elaine likes a comfortably warm room, so I don't consider this a major problem - provided that I can keep sawing as fast as she's stoking!

The Ice Man Cometh?

The energy meter that I fitted to my fridge and freezer a year ago shows a consumption of 569 kWh in the last year - a little more than 1.55kWh per day, or 19.2% of my total consumption.

I reckonned that this was a little high, so I watched the energy meter a while and noticed that the freezer was taking a continuous 50W, instead of cycling on and off.

I suspected that it was time for a defrost, so that the cooling coils can work more efficiently. A couple of hours spent with some hot water in baking trays soon had the freezer completely ice free!

At the same time I turned down the freezer thermostat from 5 to 4, as clearly the freezer had been running very cold.

The strategy worked and the fridge/freezer daily consumption has halved, resulting in an overall 10% saving in my electricity consumption.

It's now a year since I started my "E-Plan" electricity diet, there have been some successes, some failures, and plenty of room left for improvement.

My Excel Spreadsheet, of meter readings tells me that I have used 2954 kWh of electricity in the last 365 days, which is an average of 8.1 units per day.

The main problem has been remembering to turn off devices at the end of the day, particularly those with clocks, such as the microwave, which over the course of a year will use about 27 kWh - keeping its clock running!

Also the TV in the bedroom is always on standby drawing 3.5W - another 30kWh per year.

One of my pastimes is listening to the radio whilst I work. There is always something intelligent to listen to on BBC Radio 4, and it helps pass the time, whilst working alone from home. This morning I discovered that my mini-HiFi had a standby current of 6W, and only 7W whilst playing the radio - perhaps its time to re-instate my solar/clockwork radio.

One other revelation was that the power supply for my solar panel circulation pump, that comes on for 8 hours per day on a timeswitch, was using 25W doing nothing and 28W when pumping. I have now replaced it with a plug-in supply that uses just 7W whilst pumping. This will save at least another 52kWh per year.

My workroom/Office is central to everything I do, and has it's own power budget. Some time ago I speculated on the "200W Office", and this is something that I have tried to adhere to. As the Office is powered for nearly 18 hours per day, it is essential to keep the parasitic loads to a minimum. Typically it runs at around 175W, during the day and 200W when I need extra lighting.

One shocking fact, is that when I do turn off the PC at the end of the day, the Office is still drawing 20W of power keeping things on standby. This situation must be remedied and I am going to fit a master switch to the office, allowing everything to be turned off overnight.

Having totalled up all of the parasitic loads, i.e. things that consume power yet do nothing useful, I found that they were consuming 206 kWh of electricity per year - exactly 7% of my annual electricity consumption. To put that into perspective, that's enough electricity to heat my hot water for 30 days.

Having completed a year of the diet, I am eager to make further improvements, and see if I can get my consumption down to just 7.5kWh per day, by remembering to habitually turn off the unwanted devices.

Watch this space.