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Springtime in Wicklow (Part 2 - updated)

by Frank Schnittger Wed Apr 14th, 2010 at 08:42:15 AM EST

Much as it pains me to admit it, Colman got it right in predicting more snow as late as late March/early April. US and mainland European readers might treat this as a bit of a non news item, but in recent years we have had almost no snow in many winters - due, most probably, to Global warming. Often we get just a few days of snow which melts almost as fast as it falls.  This year, however, the Wicklow hills have had a snow covering since Christmas. [Update] I've just had the house insulation upgraded and am busy getting quotes to install solar panels on the roof - some of which are only 50% of the original quote. It certainly pays to shop around in Ireland. [Figures also updated below]

This time the snow lasted only a few days and we're back to our more usual rain. However the last few days have also given us some brilliant sunshine with temperatures up to 20 degrees. Since this global warming thing really got going it often seems as if Ireland has only two seasons: A very wet winter, and a monsoon summer season.  (I'm blaming the cold winter of the last two years on reduced sun spot activity or just random variation).

The lambs didn't much like the late snows either. Food and shelter were in short supply.

It was therefore past time for me to get some much needed insulation work done.

And while I was at it, a new window in the attic for my daughter's bedroom.  

A mixture of glue and silver polystyrene pellets is pumped through small holes drilled into the outer wall to improve the insulation of the cavity walls.  I hate the way those guys use ladders without any safety precautions.  

The literature claims that the heat loss or (PDF alert) U value of the walls will be improved from c. 1.55 w/m per degree to c. 0.4. (Watts per Meter Squared per Degree Kelvin or W/m2K). What this will mean in terms of actual heating bills and ambient temperatures I won't know until next winter, but early indications are that the ambient room temperature will be about 2 degrees higher for a given level of heating when the effects of the wall and attic insulation are combined.

A much larger tube was used to blow rock wool insulation into the attic to a depth of at least 300mm - here seen entering the house via a newly rebuilt porch. (The old porch had been bulging as if harbouring a slow growing volcano underneath.  It turns out the original builders had dumped some surplus lime into the foundation which expanded on contact with water...).

The improved attic insulation is probably the most cost effective in terms of its insulation efficiency, but the Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland grants for house insulation are only available if you get two jobs done so I included the cavity wall insulation in the plan as well.

The next stage in the renovation/insulation project is to decide whether to go ahead and install two thermal solar panels in the roof. My house is ideally situated in that I have a 30% sloped south facing roof and the panels wouldn't look dissimilar to the two Velux windows already installed in the roof on one side of the house (see photograph of house at the top of this story).  

Picture of solar thermal panels taken from promotional website

The best quotation I have received so far is for c. €3,000 to install two panels (totalling 5.4 square metres) and a new immersion tank with all the relevant pipework and controllers - with a claimed saving of 30% of household heating and hot water bills which in my case would achieve an annual saving of c. €600. However I don't believe by savings would be anything like that, and the principle benefit would be from higher ambient room temperatures within the house.

The claimed lifespan of the system is 20-25 years with a maintenance cost of c. €300 every 5 years to replace the glycol fluid.  However one of the companies, which claims to have installed 15,000 systems in Ireland and the UK over the past 5 years could give no hard figures of actual savings in energy bills achieved by householders with previous installations - choosing instead to include some woolly testimonials on their brochures and website.

Perhaps some readers here have experience of similar installations and can give some more hard figures, but I suspect my decision will end up being based more on a desire to reduce my carbon footprint and inflation proof my future heating bills.  The company in question doesn't do photo-voltaic panels claiming they are uneconomic in Ireland. I'll probably end up getting a couple more quotations in order to compare installation options and prices before I make a decision, so any advice you might have would be very welcome.

FRank: I've written before about a Finnish solution: an insulated cellar packed with roundish (ex-glacial moraine) boulders slowly heated up by Sth facing heat collector boxes on  the roof. The boxes are as large as possible, shallow, covered in glass and painted black inside. Several boxes are connected by insulated tubes of any kind. Air is drawn into the cellar down a tube, by a small solar-powered direct-drive fan that works according to amount of light.

The air is drawn from the cellar into the rooms when a thermostat triggers it. The fan needs to be powered. The heat storage lasts for many weeks, and even in winter Finland there is is enough sunlight to keep the heat storage topped up. The experimental house that an architect friend built used the same system, though he said the cellar volume was not quite enough for the room volume. But it still managed to keep a base temperature of 10 - 14 C. The top heat came from a miserly Norwegian wood stove during the day and evening - but in the mornings the bedrooms would be down to the base temperature.

That makes you shiver like my childhood. A warm breakfast fire downstairs was a definite incentive to get out of bed ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Apr 14th, 2010 at 12:29:57 PM EST
I don't have a large insulated cellar space that would be suitable for this solution, but the thermal solar panels follow a similar principle except that the heat is stored in a 200 Litre insulated water tank -  which has the dual function of providing a domestic hot water supply and pre-heating water circulating in the central heating system.  Ideally the heat sink would be even bigger than this to provide storage sufficient to provide heat overnight or for a rainy day.  It all boils down to cost and space utilisation efficiency.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 14th, 2010 at 07:19:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I take it you're upgrading the insulation in your roof, going triple glazed on windows.

don't forget you lose heat through the floor too.

any thoughts on ground source heating ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Apr 14th, 2010 at 05:14:11 PM EST
The attic insulation has been done to 300mm of rock wool.  The new windows will be just double glazed, but to a high U value.  I don't think ambient temperatures in Ireland justify triple glazed.  Have already installed insulated wooded laminate flooring (over concrete) in most rooms.  Have considered ground source heat pump but the cost is considerable and not really an option until the time comes to replace the Kerosene range.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 14th, 2010 at 07:08:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
after having the pipes in the collector burst on me a couple of times, i now empty the water out of them during then refill them in april.

you might want to do that and save your glycol costs.

if your roof is too dangerous, maybe you could install  taps at ground level.

solar heated water tingles more in the shower.


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 03:42:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
during winter, duh.

i hear their happy gurgling right now.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 03:44:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The sales guy recommended against the vacuum pipe solar collection system saying they have lifespan and maintenance issues. Presumably the pipes burst because water freezes and glycol shouldn't.  There is not much point in my having a solar heating system if it doesn't work in winter...

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 04:36:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i'm N. facing, with a hill to the S.W., so with the ambient temp going down to -5-10C in winters, it doesn't do diddly. i drain it and shut the taps filling it from late oct. to mid april. even now, with sporadic spring clouds passing, i'm lucky if it raises the temp from 15C to 40C after all day, which is OK for a quick shower without any cold added.

alternatively lighting a small fire tips it up to very hot.

on a full sunny day, such as we had a few days ago, it went to 60C on solar.


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 05:15:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking of floor heating, back in the 50's my father helped design and build the house we lived in. I remember it had concrete slab floors with radiant heating underneath. It was absolutely the best! It really makes me wonder why, here in Finland where it's really cold, they don't have this type of heating throughout. They have used this method under the tile floor in the bathroom, but that's it. Obviously, they know about the technology, so I wonder why it's not used throughout the house? Instead, we have these totally inefficient electric wall heaters. I'm sure it has to do with cost (to the builder), but for the homeowner, in the long run, wouldn't it make sense to pay the extra cost upfront and have lower electricity costs and a warmer home?
by sgr2 on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 06:37:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Both direct underfloor heating and using concrete for storage heating are well proven technologies.  If cost hadn't been such an over-riding concern when we designed and built this house thirty years ago it would have featured both.  We even had a small windmill planned and considered ground based heat pumps.  But the technology then was basic and expensive (in Ireland) and I suspect we would have had maintenance issues.  

Now if I were doing it all from scratch again... it would be a passive house with little need for heating in the first place. The idea that you need an active heat source to heat a house should be a thing of the past at this stage.  A small heat pump and a few solar panels should be sufficient for any well insulated house.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Apr 15th, 2010 at 07:37:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the reply, Frank. I very much enjoyed the story and pictures of your project and your efforts to go green. It's a joy to read that you were thinking 'green' way back thirty years ago!

There are so many new/sometimes reinvented old ways to go with building technology these days. Passive straw bale type construction looks like it would fit right in with the Irish countryside, although I'm not sure it would be suitable with the wet weather. I've thought a house with a living roof might be interesting. Especially if it could have a system where the household water could be recycled through a reed filtration system (maybe with a koi pond?) for use again. Solar, wind, geothermal, they're all good. Ah, it's a shame to know all these technologies exist . . . it's just a matter of money. But certainly I agree with you, in this day and age keeping a home comfortable shouldn't be an issue. But don't even get me started about insulation . . . it was apparently an unknown concept to the builder who built my place. Shameful!

Just want to let you know that I always enjoy your posts. Ireland is such a pretty place, with its (no less than) 40 shades of green. And the people are so friendly, and the pubs, and the brogue. There's nothing quite like Ireland! I had the good fortunate to have an Irish boyfriend in a former life and so I got not only a pack full of great Irish sayings, I also got a birds-eye tour of your lovely countryside from our base in Malahide.  Oh, and did I mention a lifelong love of Irish folk music, too!

by sgr2 on Fri Apr 16th, 2010 at 04:55:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My son considered building a passive house with a grass roof just next to mine a couple of years ago, but costs and the recession intervened!  He got as far as applying for planning permission and the planners didn't have a problem with it so maybe in the next few years...!  We do have a septic tank system for our sewage and I have seen and blogged a reed recycling system near Copenhagen.  If your ever back this way, feel free to visit!

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Apr 16th, 2010 at 05:36:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry to hear about your son's building plans having to be put on hold, hopefully it will get back on track soon.

Thanks for the link to an excellent diary. It's nice to know you are involved in doing such good work, and getting the word out. I'd be in hogs heaven if my village here in Finland were to decide to go the route of Dyssekilde Ecovillage. That is just way too cool!! Totally off the grid, using recycled materials, and sharing. I think it's a concept whose time has come. I just hope it can continue to get enough good press to become fashionable, creating a situation where people are willing to give it a go.  I'd sure be thrilled to be part of the process. Thinking globally, but acting locally.

And absolutely, positively, and of course, I would welcome any opportunity whatsoever to come back your way . . . and would definitely take you up on your kind offer to visit!

by sgr2 on Fri Apr 16th, 2010 at 08:56:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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