I keep nearly writing posts, and it seems there is so much to put in that it never gets done, so its time for a good update and then we’ll keep up to date. There is certainly plenty going on, so here goes.
It’s getting on for a decade since I began this journey, and it seems to have gone by in an instant. Suddenly the trees we planted are tall, our daughter is nearly as tall, and given that we are living a supposedly ‘slow’ lifestyle, time is passing at what sometimes feels like an impossibly fast rate. Not only can we see an incredible difference in our surroundings since landing here at Lackan, I certainly do feel a difference in myself, and am conscious that the hard work of recent years has taken its toll to a certain extent. The loss of my dad last year, and and coming up fifty years old have certainly focused my mind. Our priorities when we first came here were simple – we needed secure shelter, warmth and food. This year we decided to think about what would make our lives easier, reduce our woodfuel consumption, and the work involved in gathering and preparing the fuel. Until now we’ve relied on lighting our range all year round, which wasn’t always great in warmer weather if we wanted to cook, or needed additional hot water for washing. Plus our solar thermal has always had a bit of a life of its own and a tendency to overheat. Not ideal if we wanted to go away and have someone mind the place.
We’ve had the opportunity to test out all sorts of things on Birch cottage that we’d learned doing up this place, and decided that it was time to use some of those improvements here in our own house. Our first job was the kitchen, which was made in two days using leftovers from the building work, and the old ceiling from the demolished extension.It served its purpose well but didn’t have a lot of actual storage, and no backs on the cupboards which meant dirt and dust got in everywhere. We also had a lot of odd places that weren’t being made good use of.
The solution was to pull the lot out, and as in the other cottage, use regular kitchen carcasses and drawers, and source all the worktops and timber ourselves. We’ve also put in a gas oven and hob, ahead of our biogas unit being built in August. The result is a far more usable space that makes day to day life simpler and reduces wood consumption in the summer.
Our next project (week 3) was to replace our basic 2 coil hot water cylinder with a proper thermal store like the one in Birch cottage. This gives us several things. Firstly, we get hot water at the same pressure as our cold water (from mains or pump), which means a proper shower, so less baths and less water consumption. Secondly, because our heating now runs off the cylinder directly, we don’t have to have the fire lit to use the heating, so it gives us warmth when we need it not when the fire is lit. Thirdly, we now have an immersion element, which has become the dump load for surplus solar. Oh and fourthly, we updated the solar thermal so that the central heating acts as a heat dump, preventing the solar from overheating.
Doing all that meant ripping out a whole bathroom wall to get the old cylinder out and the new one in. The new wall has far more sensible access doors in it, and the new bathroom wall is decorated with a mosaic made from recycled tiles, designed by Lyra and Claire. The new thermal store is a Gledhill Torrent, which looks a bit of a monster but which was really straightforward to plumb in. I only got wet once.
This took another fortnight, and then we got a call – did we want some firewood? We never say no to that question, so tools were downed, and the trailer hitched up. A week, and some 20 or more tonnes later, we had what I think will be at least two year’s worth of firewood once it is processed. It was an epic task, but very satisfying.
A day off, and then back to the improvements. Solar panels have come way down in price, and I can’t see them getting much cheaper now. We put another 4kw in, using 300 watt panels, which are this time mounted in plastic buckets, weighted down with hardcore. These are connected to our system as though it were the grid, in much the same way as our wind turbine, and it allows us to use a load diverter called a Solar IBoost, to take unused power and send it to the immersion heaters in the cottages. It heats up Birch cottage first, and then Lackan. In winter it will drastically reduce our reliance on the batteries, and further reduce the need to light the fires. The bigger panels take up very little space compared with our old 80 watt ones. 13 new panels doing the work of 50 old ones. It brings our total solar generation to 8.2kw for the 2 houses.
The last part of the work was possibly the most daunting, and involved completely removing all the control equipment from the battery room, and re-wiring it from scratch. This was because we’d gradually added bits over the years and some of it really was a bit ad hoc, even if it did work well enough. It gave me the chance to simplify a lot of cabling and combine a variety of fuses, breakers and the like. it was great to be able to plan it all out properly, and we shouldn’t have to do anything significant now for a good few years, beyond possibly adding to the batteries.
At the same time, the gardens have really taken off, and in truth we haven’t really kept up, but there is plenty of food growing, and it is a haven for wildlife. We’ll turn our attention to it now, and begin to adopt the same practice of making improvements that make life easier for us. That will probably look like more, narrower beds to grow in, with permanent woodchip paths to keep weeds at bay.
Somewhere in the gaps we’ve also run a load of courses, held an open day, and done two or three sessions of filming for various TV programmes, but more of that later. Expect more frequent posts from now on,