Saturday 16 August 2014

Nearly two years since the retrofit - what's it like?

We've now lived through 2 winters in this house since the thermal improvements were completed. And as you might expect, the difference is massive.

Going from a 1950's house with no insulation whatsoever, to a refurbishment at around the Passive House refurb end of the scale represents a radical transformation in terms of comfort. We now experience a level of thermal comfort that we didn't even know existed!

During the first summer, the house warmed up nicely, so that by the beginning of our second winter after the refurb, the bricks were fully warmed. This meant that we needed no heating at all during October to keep the house at a steady 21 degrees C.

Gas use in the second winter was therefore even lower than in the first winter. We used 4440 kWh of gas in the year to July 2014, of which at least 1800 kWh we estimate to be for hot water use and at most 2640 kWh for heating. And that's to keep the living areas at a very comfortable 20-21 degrees C through the winter (and the bedrooms slightly cooler, as we prefer it).

We used the EnerPHit standard as a guide. Houses that achieve this standard should use no more than 25 kWh / m2 / yr for heating. In the last 12 months, we used 21 kWh  / m2 / yr - so the house is performing as it was designed to do.

Saturday 21 December 2013

A very EnerPHit Christmas?

Now into our second heating season since the refurb, we are definitely reaping the benefits in terms of comfort. We have a house that is quick to heat up and slow to cool down (Hooray!)

Are we anywhere near our aspirational design target - EnerPHit?

The five little radiators (2 more than last winter) are easily enough to heat the house up quickly after a week away and the washing dries in no time. Dealing with children in the middle of the night is less of a rude awakening now the night-time temperature is over 18 degrees C rather than below 12 degrees C.

And it has been even more comfortable than November and December 2012, when we had just moved back in. Back then, the house had stood empty for a year and had just been replastered throughout - so a fair bit of of drying out and heating up was required. This year, the summer warmth held in the walls meant that no heating was needed in October, and we put the heating on in November more to keep the walls up to temperature rather than because anyone felt less than warm.

What about the energy use?

November 2010 gas use (heating plus hot water and cooking) was over 2600kWh for the month. November 2012 dropped to ~1000 kWh for the month (heating and hot water only - cooking now electric), and November 2013 came in at 475 kWh.

So in terms of space heating, we used 3 times more gas in the first November after the refurb compared with the second. Perhaps not surprising, but more significant than I had imagined.

And what about EnerPHit?

Taking total gas use for 2013 (well, 21st December 2012-13) and subtracting the hot water component gives us about 3400 kWh space heating for the year - or 27 kWh / m2 / yr for our 125m2 house.

(Using the typical method of measuring floor area, the house is 140m2, but for Passive House calculations a different method is used, hence the lower figure of 125m2).

So we are somewhere close to the EnerPHit target of 25 kWh / m2 / yr.

However, it must be said - we don't run at 21 degrees C day and night (we like the bedrooms at 18-19 degrees at night, and the downstairs at 20 degrees in the day). That said, the first few months of 2013 were colder than the average winter, and it was still our first heating season post-refurb.

And the building fabric? While the insulation and cold bridge detailing were built very much as per the spec, the air tightness is not below 1 ACH at 50 Pa at the moment. At the end of the build it stood at 1.08 ACH in spite of a very leaky door seal, subsequently resolved. However, 12 months of DIY have taken their toll and we now have some work to do fixing the leaks created by "him indoors"!

Even so, it's high on comfort and low on energy use. And it is very cozy at Christmas - having family and friends round is not only fun and sociable, but also keeps the house very toasty without any heating thanks to the increased occupancy!

Sunday 27 October 2013

Autumn - it's getting colder outside but what about inside?

As autumn progresses, we are watching the thermometer with interest to see how the house responds to the falling temperature outside.

During September (with no heating on) the thermometer fell gradually from 23 degrees C to 20.5 degrees C. And there it has remained without any fluctuation during the whole of October. I started to think there was something wrong with the thermometer so took the thermometer reading 22 degrees C in the attic and put it in the kitchen - where it continued to read 22 degrees C for some time (days / weeks).

As the house depends mainly on its occupants and our cooking / showers / use of electrical items etc. to keep it warm, we thought that going away for 6 days at the end of October would have a significant effect. But no, on opening the front door it was much as before. The second thermometer is reading 19 degrees C, and the first thermometer still says 20.5 degrees C. Either way, if the house needs no heating in October to stay at 20 degrees C give or take 1 degree, I'm happy with that!

The heat stored in the brickwork is acting like a storage heater and keeping the air temperature up at around 20 degrees C. At some point we will have to put the heating on to prevent the temperature from dropping below this - but when?

The other nice thing about coming home to this house is the air quality - we leave the ventilation system on a low setting so there is a constant trickle of fresh air coming in. When we get home after a holiday, it doesn't smell as if it has been shut up for a week. (Before the refurb, it was very noticeable on returning from holidays that the house had not been ventilated adequately while we were away.)

Saturday 17 August 2013

Are super-insulated homes too hot in summer?

It depends....

With various newspaper articles recently on the subject of well-insulated homes overheating in hot weather, I thought it was time to reflect on how my superinsulated home responds to high outside temperatures.

The short answer for my house is "no". We've had some very hot weather during July and August 2013 but inside the house I've not seen a thermometer show higher than 25 degrees C, and usually less than that.

This is not a big surprise. Passive House design means that overheating must be considered, and the temperature should generally remain below 25 degrees C.

The well-insulated roof and walls help to keep heat out of course, and we can add to this effect by closing curtains as the sun moves round the house if we wish. However, our secret weapon is the thermal mass - the solid brick walls, covered internally with a dense render before the plaster skim, soak up heat when the air temperature is high, and release it in the evening when the air cools.

We can maximise this effect in the evening by opening patio doors downstairs to bring cool air in, and opening the attic windows to allow warm air to rise and escape (drawing more cool air in). This leaves the house at a cooler temperature for the night and into the next day.

Even if we keep the windows shut to keep the hot air out, the ventilation system with heat recovery does bring warm air in from the outside. However, when outgoing air is cooler than the incoming air, the heat recovery unit will to help cool the air brought in from the outside until indoor and outside air reach the same temperature.

In contrast, many modern cavity wall insulated houses are not designed with overheating in mind. All sorts of elements can contribute to overheating. Large areas of glazing, particularly if in a sloping roof can allow excessive solar gain. Loft rooms are often not that well insulated, turning them into an oven on hot sunny days. Theoretically, the inner skin of brickwork could provide thermal mass to soak up the heat, but it is commonly of lightweight blockwork or is covered in plasterboard (which prevents heat from the air from being absorbed by the brickwork behind it).

So, as usual, the devil is in the detail. A lot can be done to reduce overheating even on a limited budget. Fancy automated external blinds may be the ideal, but careful use of curtains (e.g. leaving them shut before going out for the day) can make a significant difference. Likewise opening windows on the cooler side of the house / at cooler times of day is worth doing, with or without a ventilation system.

Climate scientists are predicting a greater frequency of heatwaves in future years, so it is worth keeping overheating in mind when buying or improving a home...

Sunday 19 May 2013

Warmest Winter in Years!

This winter has seemed never-ending, but I have to say that braving the cold outside has been much more pleasant when not also having to brave the cold inside.

And now that it finally feels like spring, it is very comfortable indeed indoors. The heating has not been on at all for weeks, and the temperature sits at a balmy 20 degrees (+/-1). The sun comes in through the windows and the warmth stays with us for the evening and through to the next morning. The chill blast that awaited on emerging from the duvet is a thing of the past. It is most civilised.

Without draughts and cold spots, 20 degrees (or even 19) feels a whole lot warmer than it used to before the house was refurbished. I can remember sitting huddled in the warmest room at about 22 degrees and feeling just about ok until I moved. Now the whole house just seems to find its own temperature and it never feels cold.

My conclusion is that the Passivhaus methodology (for new build and refurbishment) definitely works. The house is behaving as it was designed to do in terms of comfort. Energy readings and temperature measurements so far back this up (but a year or so of further measurements will give a clearer picture).

Saturday 12 January 2013

Thermal imaging gives the thumbs up!

For the last few weeks, I've been waiting impatiently for cold weather! Why? For the thermal imaging....

When the temperature is cold outside and the house is warm on the inside, any heat escaping through gaps in the building fabric can be seen by a thermal imaging camera. This shows up as hot spots (when viewed from the outside) or as cold spots (when viewed from the inside).

David Hill of Carbon Legacy visited with his thermal imaging camera and we went round the whole house looking for cold spots. We examined window reveals, door reveals and thresholds, wall-roof junctions, and every possible weak point we could think of.

To my huge relief, the results were very good.
- The insulation of walls, floor and roofs is clearly doing its job.
- Junctions between walls and roofs or walls and floors all looked pretty good.
- The window reveals and window sills were my main area of worry, but they were all very respectable too - the worst showed about a 2 degree difference between the cold spot at the corner of the window sill and the adjacent wall, the others were all below 1 degree difference.
- The windows themselves were very good (as you might expect of Green Building Store's triple glazed windows with insulation within the frames and Fakro's quadruple glazed roof-light).
- Where the air tightness work around the front door has not been completed yet, this showed a few cold patches - no surprises there.

Getting such a good result depends on a number of factors, for example: good detailing by the architect (thank you Gil!), the right products (e.g. pro-Clima tapes and membranes), a good builder (McCane Construction), quantity and quality of external wall insulation (Westville using the Permarock system) and the watchful eye of the insulation and air-tightness champion (me).

Of course, the ultimate measure of success for a low energy home is the low energy bill! But first the final bits and pieces have to be completed and then I'll want to see 12 monthly readings for gas and electricity (to compare with the pre-refurbishment readings). However, the signs so far are promising... gas use in December 2012 was a quarter of what it was in December 2010, in spite of the fact that the floor area has increased from 95 to 140 m2.

Friday 14 December 2012

It's cold outside...

... but fortunately seems to be ok on the inside even when the temperature drops to -5 on the outside.

Strange but true - at 19 degrees C, the house feels warm (whereas it felt much less comfortable at the same temperature before the insulation and draught-proofing).

The plaster is still drying out and the brickwork is still warming up after a year of exposure to the elements, so the gas boiler is working harder than it will need to next year, all other things being equal.

The 3 tiny radiators are not really enough to keep every room at 19 or 20 degrees C under these circumstances, but we are happy with bedrooms dropping to 17 or 18 degrees C at the coldest point in the night. (It beats the 8-12 degrees C that was the midwinter norm in 2010 and 2011).

The other striking difference for me is the complete absence of joint pain, which was a permanent feature for at least 4 months through previous winters. I had a hunch it was down to cold and damp in the house and I'm really delighted to experience such a spectacular difference this year. (Of course, for those who haven't got an extensive collection of injured joints, it won't make much difference).

The energy bills will also have a story to tell, but I don't have enough measurements yet (and there are further efficiency improvements to make anyway before the house reaches its "as designed" state).

One thing you do have to get used to is condensation or ice on the outside of the windows (because heat loss through the triple glazing is so low that the ice can still be found on the outside of the windows for hours - until the sun melts it off). I'm not complaining - so much nicer than having the ice on the inside as was the case for days on end in winter 2010 and 2011.