Easier, better or both?


Running on Sunshine

Solar thermal and solar PV panels

Our solar technology has worked amazingly well throughout the sunny UK summer this year.
– The solar thermal panels have provided us with hot water  on all but ~two days since April. And that’s heating  a 250 litre water tank to between 55 to 70 degrees Celcius each day.
– The solar PV panels have done their job too. The electricity meter runs backwards when the sun shines. The current meter reading is only 300kWh higher than it was at the end of March.  At 12.4p/kWh, that works out at a cost of £37.20  for all our electricity/hot water for the 4 months from April to July (or £9.30 per month) (excluding service charge). We don’t have gas or oil, so this will be our total spend on energy this summer.

Our usage will go up once the days get cooler and we start to heat the house. Generation will decrease once the clouds re-appear. But the performance of the system has surpassed our expectations. It’s wonderful to be running on sunshine!

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Washing on the Line

Washing basketI grew up in a warm sunny climate where, on most days, it was possible to hang washing on the line to dry.

Then I moved to the United Kingdom and had to purchase my first tumble drier. This was essential, as I worked long hours during the week, and it always seemed to rain on precious weekend days when I had a chance to do the washing.  If it didn’t rain, the local pyromaniac would invariably decide to burn his garden waste just as I was taking the washing out of the machine. There’s nothing worse than smoky washing.

I have accepted the presence of a tumble drier in the house somewhat reluctantly, as it does get the washing dry when it’s wet outside. However:

  • It uses a lot of electricity
  • No matter how careful I am, and no matter what temperature I use, the tumble drier seems to accelerate the deterioration of fabrics.
  • It increases the risk of sock-pair-divorce.  (Where do socks go? And why do they always take off alone??)
  • Clothes that contain elastane shrivel.
  • Worst of all, duvet covers seem to get in a major, “soggy-in-the-middle”, twist, unless I baby-sit the process.Pegs

I’d far rather dry my washing in the fresh air on the line any day. It’s only a pity it’s such a rare treat here in the U.K. I spent a few weeks in California recently and was sad not to see many washing lines while I was there. Such a pity when the climate is so warm and dry. Laundry could be dried so easily there, without wasting all that electricity by tumble drying.

Fortunately, I get to use my washing line more often these days. I have a less hectic job and am no longer constrained to doing the laundry on weekends. So I can wait for those precious, dry, sunny days to get the washing out in the fresh air. After a dull, damp winter it’s such a joy when spring arrives and I can bypass the drier and head straight into the garden with a load of clean goodies.

It’s amazingly therapeutic spending a few minutes pegging the washing on the line, listening to the birds and watching the clouds scudding across the blue sky. For the next few hours I can look out the window and see the laundry gently floating up and down in the breeze. It is also satisfying knowing that I’m harnessing energy from the sun and the wind rather than using electricity. Drying washing on the line is also free!

On the line, bedding and clothes dry evenly and wrinkles seem to disappear. There’s something special about washing that has been dried in the sunshine. It’s warm, crisp, smooth and smells wonderful. We love jumping into bed and smelling the sunshine on our freshly laundered sheets – like for Dharma and Greg, “Clean sheets day” is one of the highlights of our week.

Washing on the line


Nirvana at the Clover Mill

The Clover MillWorcestershire has a wonderful new spa, which nestles in an idyllic setting between Cradley and Suckley.  The Clover Mill is a very special spa. Arrive stressed and tense and leave feeling relaxed and wanting to learn a whole lot more about Ayurveda.

I approached the Mill along a little track then rounded a bend to find a Tudor cottage and a stunning Cotswold stone mill.  The grounds are beautiful – wild flowers, fruit trees and a lake.  There are three eco-lodges for those lucky enough to be able stay for one of the Clover Mill’s speciality ayurvedic, yoga or meditation retreats. Alpacas, bunnies and birds completed the picture.

IMG_0081The treatment rooms are in the lovingly restored water mill. The millstone, water wheel and mill workings are displayed behind glass panels en route to the steam room.  A biomass boiler supplies under floor heating. Once I entered the serene treatment room, the eco credentials of the spa became apparent. I was surrounded by natural materials; wood, cotton and linen.

Before the treatment began, a questionnaire and chat allowed the therapist to assess my “Dosha”. The questions were interesting and I was amazed at how well the assessment characterised me. The choice of oil and nature of the massage was tailored to my Dosha. I placed my clothes in a grass basket and popped on a crisply ironed sarong.  There was even a little box in which I could store my jewellery – a lovely touch.

Cotswold Stone WallThe massage was blissful. The oil was gently warmed and had the most divine, subtle aroma. A warm pad on the couch ensured that I remained toasty throughout. It was one of the best massages I’ve ever had – the therapist has been doing massage for many years and it showed. She was technically superb, intuitive and passionate about ayurveda and it’s the focus on wellness.  Stress drifted away and muscles that had been stiff for months melted. At the end of the massage there was a warming cup of herbal tea.

After the massage I had a light, healthy lunch made by the spa owner, Julie, who is a passionate cook. Most of the ingredients for the meal were harvested from the garden. Julie had even gone to the trouble of whipping up some gluten-free courgette and pinenut muffins to accompany the delicious beetroot and elderberry soup. There was a divine lemon polenta cake to follow.

I left The Clover Mill in a warm glow, skin soft and lustrous, feeling relaxed, nurtured, happy and planning the next visit.


Our amazing solar thermal panels

We love our solar thermal panels and have been blown away by their performance. They were commissioned in late winter this year, so we have been able to monitor their output through the dull, cool spring and sunny, warm summer.

Solar thermal panelsWe use the solar thermal panels as the primary source of heat for our hot water.

(Technical details: Worcester Solar Lifestyle 2 Panel Retro-fit Solar System. Bosch Thermotechnology Ltd. Total capacity 2.2 kW. System filled with glycol.)

An air-to-water heat pump acts as the secondary heat source and also provides on-demand heating when necessary.

P1030309Our hot water is stored in a highly insulated Kingspan 250 litre unvented solar cylinder.

  • Cold water feeds into the bottom of the cylinder
  • During daylight hours heat is generated by the solar thermal panels and is used to warm the water via a coil in the lower part of the tank.
  • The heated water rises within the tank.
  • By the end of the day the thermal panels have heated the water throughout the tank.
    • On cold, grey winter days the water is generally heated to between 20-40°C (depending on the starting temperature and the number of hours of sunlight that day).
    • On clear sunny, summer days, the water is heated to 70°C, which is the maximum allowed by the system.
  • The heat pump is controlled by a timer, and comes on after sunset, if supplementary heating is required. The fluid in the heat pump circuit flows through a coil in the upper part of the cylinder, to raise the temperature to 55°C. This is a comfortable temperature for baths, showers, etc. Once a week a 65°C pasteurisation cycle is run to prevent legionella infection.

Since late winter we have barely needed the heat pump. The solar thermal panels have harvested energy from the sun to provide almost all of the heat for our hot water. Even on overcast days, the solar thermal panels have contributed some heat, so the pump has never had to heat the water from “cold”. Those two little panels have heated 250 litres of water to over 60°C almost every day for the last 3 months – amazing!!Energy from the sun


Our More Sustainable System for Heating our Home and Hot Water

Earlier this year we renovated our house and used the opportunity to revamp our heating and hot water systems.

We live in a rural village where there is no access to mains gas, so the house and the water were heated using an oil (kerosene)-fired boiler.

Our house is a modern (for the UK) detached property, with wall and roof insulation. Windows are double-glazed throughout. While undertaking the alterations, we discovered that there is no insulation under the floors – one explanation for the cold tootsies in winter.

As we both work from home, we needed a system that would keep the house warm during the day and in the evenings, but would cost less to run than the old oil-based system.

Solar PanelsOur new system was planned using the premise that we’d generate our own energy or use renewable energy sources where possible, and that we’d minimise our use of fossil fuels. It was also designed to make us independent of oil.

The wood-burning stove was the first item to be installed and significantly improved our quality of life during the recent long, chilly winter.

We have installed two solar thermal panels that heat our water during daylight hours. An air-to-water heat pump boosts the water temperature, when necessary, on cloudy days. Hot water is stored in a large (250 litre), highly insulated, dual coil cylinder. A bonus of the new system is that we now have mains pressure water for our showers and taps and have been able to remove the header tank in the loft.

Air-source heat pumpThe air-to-water heat pump also heats our home via radiators. As this system runs at a lower temperature than the traditional oil-based system, radiators with larger surface areas had to be installed. Photovoltaic  (PV) solar panels were fitted to generate some of the electricity required to run the heat pump. We import electricity from the grid to supplement what we generate from the PV panels.

We are now independent of oil and so will soon say goodbye to the ugly oil tank in the garden. We no longer have to juggle the timing of oil deliveries against the oil level in the tank and fluctuating (usually rising!) oil prices.

The installation is complete and I’ll keep you posted on our experience with the new system over the next few months.


Stove Top Fans

Stove Top FanOur cute little Sterling engine stove-top fan has arrived.

We decided to buy a stove top fan, to speed up the circulation of warm air around our living room, as it can take a while for the heat that radiates from the surface of our wood burning stove to reach other parts of the room.

We identified two types of stove top fans that are free to run, and don’t require batteries or mains power. Both use heat from the stove (or more precisely heat differentials) to drive the fan and are based on elegant, albeit different, scientific principles.

1. A Seebeck effect fan is driven by an electrical current, which is generated by a thermoelectric effect (i.e. a current is produced when the junctions between different metals are at different temperatures).

Sterling Engine Stove Top Fan2. A fan, which uses a Sterling engine to convert heat from the stove into mechanical energy. In this device, a column of air is heated, it expands, pushing a piston upward, the air is then rapidly cooled, it contracts, pulling the piston downward. The up and down movement of the piston, rotates an arm which turns the fan.

We chose a Sterling engine stove top fan, made by Kontax, a boutique engineering company based in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The fan is beautifully designed in stainless steel, glass and graphite.

This wonderful gadget works a treat. The living room now gets warm and cosy soon after we light the stove. Heat also circulates to the rest of the house. We have lots of fun and get an enormous amount of satisfaction watching the little engine bobbing elegantly up and down. It has been a great talking point with visitors too. We would highly recommend this ingenious device.