Something a bit different for this article. I’m often asked what I do when I’m not Beekeeping. Well April through the October I’m always Beekeeping but outside of those times Beekeeping is less of an intense activity, and I do get some spare time and personally I like to have some sort of project away from Beekeeping. This is what I’ve been up to for the last 6 months.
The planning for this project started in March 2022 when my energy provider decided to put my direct debit up to nearly £400/month. I decided I needed to start looking at how energy efficient my house was. I live in a 1930s semi and according to the EPC report I was a band C. So, I had room for improvement.
First things First
The first thing I did wasn’t a physical change to my property but mathematical. To be able to get some sort of empirical comparison to determine if the changes I was planning where having an effect I need to know what my energy usage was. I’m lucky in the fact that I had all my Energy Bills for the last 20 years and I could collate them into a spreadsheet and then analyse the data. Ofgem have a grading system for domestic energy usage and comparing my yearly energy usage revealed that I was well over the value for high usage.
Table 1 - Data obtained from OFGEM
From this I realised I needed to tackle both our Gas and Electricity usage. I’m going to detail what I have done to try and improve our usage in this article. Starting with the easy option then moving onto the more advanced options.
My biggest single use of Gas is for heating my property. Now this old place is as drafty as hell. If the wind is in the right direction the carpet in the front bedroom floats. I therefore need to improve the insulation and reduce the drafts in my home.
We’d had the cavity walls insulated through a grant just after we moved in and about 15 years ago, we put a modern extension on the side of the house which reduced heat loss on the side wall. From the usage data I collated earlier you could see when the extension went on the house as the gas usage went down even though the house had got bigger.
When my house was built in the 1930s, they didn’t install loft insulation. A previous owner had installed some before we moved in 20 years ago, but it was dirty and compressed and wasn’t really doing its job so 20 years ago I put in 150mm of loft insulation which I think was the building regs at the time. These days the building regulations say you need at least 300mm. This was really my first job, and this is a job that any competent homeowner should be able to do themselves. I installed an additional 200mm of insulation in both of my lofts. Doing this you feel an almost instant improvement. Our kitchen used to feel cold on a morning but the following day when I had completed the insulation in the Kitchen loft the cold sensation had gone.
There are things you do need to be wary of when installing insulation:
· Don’t install loft insulation over electrical cables. The additional insulation derates the current carrying capacity of the cable, which in lay man’s terms means it can cause the cables to overheat and start a fire. Try and put the insulation under the cables by carefully lifting the cables up. If not sure consult a qualified electrician. Also be careful of cables that may have been gnawed by mice and rats exposing the conductors in the cable. I found a gnawed cable the hard way while doing my kitchen loft. Again, a job for a qualified electrician to fix.
· Many of us have boarded out our lofts to provide extra storage and it’s a choice between more insulation and less storage or less insulation and more storage. I found a third option in what are called loft legs which allowed me to raise the boarded area by 200mm, so I could still have the insulation and storage space. A word of caution in that loft legs are not a structural support and cannot be used for rooms that are habitable.
TOP TIP: If you have any trades working on your property make sure they have put back any insulation they may have moved to get access. A good tradesman will but there aren’t many of them around.
Bay Window Insulation
As I mentioned earlier the carpet in the front room floats when the wind is in the right direction. This was due to the construction of the bay window on the front of the house. Again, in the 1930s builders didn’t know about insulation. Behind the tiles on the bay between the ground floor and first floor windows it is just stud work. With no felt under the tiles and no insulation so the wind was coming through the tiles and straight under the floor lifting the carpet.
I would have liked to of removed the tiles on the outside and installed insulation and roofing felt but due to time cost and not being able to get a roofer interested in doing it I had to take an alternative approach.
So, in the front bedroom I took off the lathe and plaster on the inside of the bay to reveal the stud work and installed 50mm Solid insulation between studs, then sealed any gaps with expanding foam. I then over boarded with 50mm insulated plasterboard and had the bay replastered. At the same time, I took up the floorboards in the bay itself and installed 300mm of loft insulation between the joists.
Sadly, we now no longer have a magic carpet in the front bedroom and again it feels warmer and quieter.
I do still want to get the tiles under felted at some point but that can wait for another year.
We’ve got the top of the house warm, but people often forget about the bottom of the house. The ground floor of the old part my house has a wooden floor and underneath there is a large void. The void is there to provide ventilation to stop the wooden floors getting damp and rotting. Unfortunately, with the wind in the right direction it also keeps the downstairs rooms ventilated and you can feel the draft.
I could have just removed the floors and filled the void with concrete but there is a cost involved, it must be done correctly, and it would mean rerouting cables and heating pipework.
I decided therefore to insulate under the floorboards. Doing a room at a time I removed the floorboards and the insulated between the joists. I used roofing membrane suspended between the joists to support loft insulation. Making sure that the insulation was a tight fit against the walls. Using the membrane allowed the floor to still breath and allow any moisture to escape. I could have used solid insulation but however tight I could have installed it; you must understand that old houses move, and gaps would have appeared. Loft Insulation will move with the house as it is springy by nature and will stop gaps forming.
Additionally, while I had the floor up, I insulated any heating pipes I could reach. At the end of the day, I don’t want to heat a void I don’t use.
Boiler Trying to be Clever.
Do you ever lay in bed at night and hear the boiler come on for a few minutes? If you do you may find that your Boiler has a Warm Start Facility or what some manufactures, for some daft reason, call eco mode. So that you can have near instant hot water the Boiler keeps the heat exchanger warm. This is really a waste of Gas and disabling. This is done from the controls on the front of the Boiler and can be easily done by the Homeowner. If you’re not sure how there is a gentleman call Mark Ballard who has a YouTube Channel with videos that detail how to disable Warm Start/Eco Mode on various Boilers.
My next task now that any heat the boiler was producing was being kept in the house was to look at how and when that heat was produced. Initially we had a separate time clock and electro-mechanical thermostat.
Now electro-mechanical thermostats are inherently inefficient. They consist of 2 dissimilar metals welded together into a strip and when the temperature changes, because of the different rates of expansion of the 2 metals, the strip bends which opens and closes a contact turning the boiler on and off. You set a temperature of 20°C and because of how they work the boiler may not turn on until the temperature drops to 18°C and not turn back on until the temperature rises to 22°C. Therefore, the heating could be fluctuating 2°C either side of the set temperature. So, the boiler is on under higher load trying to heat up the house.
I opted to change the control system initially for a combined time clock and electronic thermostat.
With this thermostat the temperature only fluctuates by 0.5°C. This means that the boiler will be on for the same amount of time, but it is not under as much load and I estimate that installing this saved about 20% on our usage and for the £40 I paid for it, it paid for itself in a couple of months, but I wasn’t happy.
The thermostat is in the hall so it only measures the hall temperature, what I really wanted was more of a zonal control system where I could control the temperature in each room.
We already had Thermostatic Valves (TRVs) on all the radiators in the house which in themselves are a good investment. I was quoted £45 a radiator to have them fitted but did most of them myself.
Thermostatic valves are, like the electromechanical thermostat, still inefficient and if they all close the time clock will still be telling the boiler to run and burn gas.
I wanted therefore something a bit more intelligent. I did my research and there are various manufacturers domestic heating control systems out there but the system that caught my eye was the Drayton Wiser System. Mainly because it was British made, it was the cheapest, and from reading reviews it seemed to be the best available.
It consists of a central control unit that replaces the time clock and electronic TRVs and a room thermostat. Its so simple to setup a plumber could do it.
It has the advantage that it monitors each individual room and learns how they respond to changes in temperature and instead of the on/off fluctuation it tunes the control, so the room sits at temperature. Additionally, the central control talks, via a communications link, to the boiler and adjusts the boiler depending on the heating demand. So, you use less gas to heat the house. Overall, it’s been a great investment.
One thing it did identify as well was that some of the TRVs in the house where not actually opening and closing. This was found to be caused by dirt in the heating system stopping the valves moving. In total I had to change nearly half of my radiator valves. The heating system has now been flushed and a magnetic filter installed to remove the dirt from the system.
A Balancing Act
We found that even though we’d done the insulation the Kitchen was still cold in the depths of winter. When I checked the radiators, they were barely warm. Conversely radiators in the other parts of the house where too hot to touch.
This was due to the radiators not being balanced properly and I had to much flow through some radiators and not enough flow through others.
Water will always take the path of least resistance. The radiators that where hot were the radiators closest to the boiler whereas the radiators furthest (Kitchen) from the boiler were coldest.
Balancing a radiator is easy it just needs a bit of trial, error, and time. On a radiator you have two valves, one being the control valve (TRV) and one being the lock valve. You adjust the flow through the radiator using the lock valve. To Balance open the TRV fully and then close the lock valve. Wait for the radiator to cool down. Then open the lock valve a small amount and measure the temperature between the inlet and outlet side of the radiators. There should be a difference of about 12°C. If there isn’t adjust the lock valve until there is. Then set the TRV to the temperature you want for that room. Then repeat for all the radiators in the house. You may have to do this multiple times because every time you adjust a lock valve the water tries to find a different route. This is an iterative process and can take multiple attempts. Ultimately though if you take the inlet and outlet temperature at the boiler there should be a minimum temperature of 12°C.
This is something I’m still working on, but I now have a warm kitchen.
Time for a Bath
This was something that I hadn’t planned on doing but at the end of 2021 my upstairs bathroom nearly became the downstairs bathroom due to a leak rotting the joist beneath the bath. Ultimately, we had to get the bathroom renovated and the joist repair. As part of the renovation, we had a thermostatic mixer tap put on the bath why you may ask? If you think about how most people run a bath. They fill the bath with hot water and then when it is at the depth, they want they add cold water to cool the bath down. I you think about it by cooling with cold water you’re losing the heat in the water that you’ve just paid to heat. Installing a thermostatic tap means that the water going into the bath is at the temperature you want and ensures that you are only heating the water you need for the bath.
At the end of the though have a shower instead of a bath. Looking at my half hourly gas usage, during the summer when the heating is not on you can see when people in my house are having baths and showers, you can see that at most a shower will only use half the amount of gas that a bath will and often a lot less.
So having done all the above on the 1st of April this year I looked at my Gas usage and comparing to the average usage for the previous five years between the 1st of April 2022 and 1st April 2023 I’ve used nearly 40% less Gas. Unfortunately, when I look at the price, I’m paying for my gas I’m 30% over the maximum price I paid for the previous 5 years. I dread to think what my bill would have been if I hadn’t made that 40% saving in usage.
Again, we will start with the simple stuff.
Turn things off.
At periodic times through the day or just before you go to bed go round the house and turn off anything that’s not being used. We’re humans and we like things to be convenient and come on at the touch of a button, but a lot of devices even though we’ve turned them with the remote are still using power. If they are not being used turn them off at the wall.
Use electrical equipment efficiently.
One of the biggest drains on electricity in our house is the tumble dryer at 3kw. Yes, we could use the washing line, but we are out at work during the day or it’s raining so using the dryer is a convenience. The dryer runs at 3kw and has a 2-hour cycle which at current prices is 60p. At roughly 7 cycles a week that works out at £218. I found though that if you clean the lint trap out between every load then it doesn’t run consistently at 3kw it backs off to 0.8kw for part of the cycle. I’ve not run the figures yet for this but envisioning a saving of £100.
Fridge and Freezers
We all have fridges and freezers but how often do you look at their settings you often find they have been set to a far colder temperature than they need to be. I found in our fridge bottles of water where freezing. I had a look and found that both our fridge and freezer had been set to the lowest temperature they could go. This means that the compressor is working harder than it should be and running all the time. The lowest temperature you need to set them to keep the food safe and fresh is 5°C for a fridge and -18°C for a freezer. My fridge was easy to adjust as it had push buttons on the front. The freezer was more difficult and had a dial on the front without any numbers on, but I just used a temperature to give me some idea of the temperature in the freezer as I adjusted the dial. Its just a case of adjust the dial slightly leave the probe in for a while and see how much it has changed.
Before I started tuning the fridge and freezer the compressors were running most of the time now, I hear them turn on and off.
We’ve had low energy bulbs years but what a lot of people don’t know is that what you think is a low energy bulb is no longer a low energy bulb. Technology has moved on and, in this day, and age all bulbs should be LED bulbs. Even that changes all bulbs have an Energy Efficiency Rating (A-G) and a bulb that was A+ rated last year may only be a D rated this year as the standard has changed as newer more efficient bulbs have come on the market. I’ve been round my house and all my bulbs are now LED bulbs.
If you have halogen downlights installed, they can be incredibly expensive to run and just changing one to an LED bulb will pay for itself in a year.
You can buy fluorescent tube type light fitting these days but very shortly you won’t be able to buy the replacement tubes either. You can have the fittings retrofitted to run on LED bulbs, but you will need an electrician to do the conversion.
Produce your own Energy.
Now for the clever stuff.
We’ve had 4kw of Solar Panel for the last 9 years and you get paid on the old FiT scheme. 4Kw being the maximum we could install at the time, fortunately that has now changed. FiT is where you get paid to Generate and paid Export. Export being 50% of what you generate. The solar has nearly paid for itself now.
The problem with the solar is we generate during the day with the peak being around lunchtime, but much of our usage is around teatime and into the evening. Consequently, we are exporting at say 15p/KW but then in the evening we are re-importing at 32p/KW. Ideally, we need some way of storing the surplus electricity.
Battery Storage wasn’t around when we had the panels installed and I wish it was. I’ve opted to have Battery Storage installed. We had 9.5KW of Battery Storage installed back in January and it has made a difference. We now store most of our Solar Energy in the battery and then release it during the evening and overnight.
I will say living in the Northeast we do get the odd few cloudy days and although we do still generate a bit of electricity it may not be enough to fill the battery. I’m with Octopus Energy as a for my gas and electric and they do some interesting tariffs.
· Octopus GO which offers electricity at 4p/KW for 4 hours overnight and then it goes up to 40p/kw the rest of the day.
· Octopus Agile which is a variable rate tariff that changes every half hour throughout the day. It can go as high as 32p/kw, but it can also drop below 0p/kw. i.e., goes negative recently it dropped to -6p/kw for 3 hours. Agile changes through out the year based on the wholesale energy costs. Electricity prices for the following day are normally published a 4pm every day.
Took me a while to decide which tariff to go onto and I had to do some modelling with my spreadsheet looking at passed usage and solar data but, in the end, I opted for Agile. GO didn’t quite match our usage profile.
I can charge the Battery from both the Solar and the Grid when the price is low. It will always charge from spare solar, but I wanted to link to Agile to charge at cheap rates. The Battery System I purchased did have a prebuilt automation that linked to Octopus and charged the battery from the grid and solar, but it wasn’t always that reliable and didn’t always pick the cheapest rate.
In the end I found a system call Home Assistant (HA) which is a control system for the home. HA has a series of plugins that interface with the battery, with octopus and with the solar forecast. I then found an Automation script that runs once a day and picks the 10 cheapest time slots for next 24 hours and schedules the battery to charge from the grid, but it does 2 other clever things. When the schedule is about to run it looks at the solar forecast for the rest of the day and if it looks like there is going to be enough solar to charge the battery then the scheduled charge doesn’t run and waits for the next time slot. The other clever thing the plugin does is it looks at the upcoming Agile price for the next half hour and if the price is going negative it just charges. Doesn’t bother with the solar forecast just charges.
The real villains of this story or are they, yes, no, maybe so I’ll let you the reader decide. At the end of the day the Energy Companies are there to make a profit. As I said earlier, I’m with Octopus. I would recommend though that a homeowner should always keep an eye on how much they want to charge you per month and how much in credit you are.
1st of April this year we lost the £67 we were getting from the government and Octopus wanted to put my Direct Debit up to nearly £400 per month which includes £12 towards my target balance. So far, they haven’t given me a value for my target balance.
I looked at my account and I was in credit by a four-figure number. Energy Companies like people to be in credit because they get the interest. I sat down with my spreadsheet and looked at my usage for the last year and bearing in mind all the energy saving measures I’d put in place I looked at my usage between the 1st of April 2022 and 1st April 2023 and then calculated, using the current price for gas and the average Agile Electric price for the last 6 months, how much my Direct Debit should be. Which ended up below £300.
Obviously during the year with the changing seasons, you use different amounts of energy. You use less in the summer when you should be building up credit and then in the winter you use that credit up but at the end of the year everything should balance.
I wrote to Octopus saying essentially please refund me the money I’m in credit by and asked them to change my direct debit to the value I had calculated. I also asked them to confirm that I had calculated the direct debit correctly and that was just in case they decided to argue. I also told them that as far as I am concerned my definition for Target Balance is that on the 1st of April my account balance should be £0.
To their credit Octopus agreed with my calculations, refunded me the value I was in Credit by and changed my Direct Debit.
The refunded money will be used to fund more solar panels.
My recommendation to Homeowners is to keep an eye on how much you are paying and keep on top of your direct debit. Pick a date in the year and then reassess how much you are paying, don’t build up too much credit can keep on top of the DD. Do the reassessment when the prices change as will and get you DD adjusted accordingly.
Yes, I will not deny that all this has cost. Doing the sums, I’m into 5 figures on the costs but when you look at how much I was spending on energy and the predicted savings I’ve made it should all pay off eventually. People look at pay back in terms of 10 years. I’m thinking more in terms of 20 years.
I keep an eye on my usage and even now I think there is another £50 I can drop off the DD, but I’m going to leave that for a while until next April or until the price changes. I’ve two algorithms running predicting my DD one looks daily at my usage for the last year, the other tries to predict my usage based on the average daily use for the past 5 years. The second algorithm is showing the lowest price now by about £17, but until I’m confident in the algorithm I’m going to stick to the predicted price base on the last years usage.
There are other ways of reducing the costs of the energy improvement.
If you get a Solar and Battery storage system installed together then at the time of writing, you don’t have to pay VAT. I tried to get additional Solar added when we had the Battery installed but it wasn’t financially viable to do it with the cost of scaffolding etc.
There are also various grants available, based on the Energy Efficiency Rating of the property. You can find out you’re rating on the government website. We were a grade C with a score of 69, if we’d been 68, we would be Grade D and eligible for various Grants. When I looked at my neighbour’s house, they were a Grade D and as they are essential the same house, I thought it would be worth the £40 to get it redone. They expire after 10 years and ours was due to be redone next year anyway.
We had it done and unfortunately it came back as a B (just) with a score of 81. It went the wrong way. There are still some grants available but only £5000 towards a heat pump and at present our house isn’t suitable for a heat pump and the cost is about 3 times what you get for the Grant.
On a beekeepers blog you’d expect a bit of beekeeping somewhere.
I had a meter put on the feed to the Honey shed in April last year as I wanted to keep track of what the Beekeeping was costing me in terms of energy. I was shocked to find that Beekeeping was nearly a quarter of my electricity usage.
Beekeeping can be very intensive when it comes to energy with things like:
· Honey Extractor
· How water for washing
· Radiator for heat
· Hot Air Gun for uncapping
· Warming Cabinet for de-crystalising honey
· Steam Wax Extractor
· Burco Boiler
o Boiling frames
o Making Sugar Syrup
· Wax Melter for Candle Making
The warming cabinet runs at 400W an hour and to melt a bucket of honey can take up to 48 hrs.
The steam wax extractor runs at 3kw and can be running all day for multiple days.
I’ve had to scale back wax production by reducing the amount of refining I was doing. Unfortunately, the wax I’m left with isn’t good enough for sale, but it is good enough for exchange at the beekeeping suppliers for foundation.
What have I done then to help?
The first thing I looked at was the Warming Cabinet this is something I use throughout the year for de-crystalising honey.
I mentioned Home Assistant earlier. I managed to find a smart plug that I could control from Home Assistant. I attached the smart plug to the Warming Cabinet. I then wrote a program that whenever I was exporting energy to the grid i.e., the Battery was full then I would turn on the Warming Cabinet and make use of the spare solar. This has been working extremely well.
The next thing I looked at was the hot water situation. I’m always using hot water to clean, wash hands etc and because there is no hot water direct to the honey shed, I had an electric water heater installed.
I found a device called a solar diverter this monitors for excess solar and when there is spare available it turns on the water heater. I then had a bit of a brain wave. The solar diverter will also run a second device such as the radiator. I’m always loath to putting the heating on in the shed because of the cost but with the diverter I can have free heat. Then I thought I don’t need the heating on in the summer so I had a change over switch installed and instead of heating the radiator I can now use the diverter to power the Candle making wax melter. Not for making candles but for just melting and refining small amount of wax.
I now need to come up with a way of refining large amount of wax.
I’ve come this far in the journey of becoming more energy efficient but there is still work to do. I have a few ideas about what to do next these include:
- More solar. I’ve 4kw now, but I’ve plans for more we’ve space on the garage and kitchen roofs and even space on the Honey Shed roof.
- Finish insulating the floors which at present is planned for this Autumn.
- More loft insulation. Building Regulations say 300mm but building regulations are a minimum requirement.
- I need to improve the Hot Water System in the Honey Shed. Yes, the solar diverter is working very well but there isn’t enough capacity in the system at present to supply enough hot water for my needs.
- I can’t get the gas usage down any lower, but there is a device called a solar battery which works like a storage heater in that is takes cheap electricity or in my case spare solar and stores it by heating bricks. This in turn heats water passing through the bricks and thus the boiler isn’t required to heat water. It won’t work all year round but will cut the gas usage.
I hope you all enjoyed this journey into Energy Efficiency. I don't claim to be any sort of expert, I'm just an amateur who's keen on reducing his bills.