Monday, 26 June 2017

Jargon - A glossary for the low energy builder

​Here is a brief glossary of jargon related to low-energy building, including English, Japanese and an English ​definition. It will soon move to a permanent page, where I hope to update it.

A​r​gon​ アルゴン​​: An inert gas used in multi-pane windows. It insulates around 50% ​better than air.

Astroturf movements​ 人工芝運動: Groups paid for by large corporations to appear to be grass-roots organisations, often supporting their projects or fighting against regulation. A victory of capitalism over morality!

​Cellulose insulation セルロースファイバー: Fibre-based insulation made from wood fibres, sometimes loose and blowable, and sometimes pressed together and bonded with its own resins. (Not universally acclaimed.)

Eco​ エコ​​:​ see green

EPS​ 発泡スチロール​​: Expanded polystyrene. Low-cost foam-based insulation material.​ Being foam-based it does not allow much air or water vapour to pass through. When installed it is important to avoid gaps, which can halve the performance. If used within a wooden structure in earthquake prone areas, it's possible that gaps will appear after quakes. Don't confuse with XPS​, which is much stronger, although can retain more moisture.​

​Fibre​glass​ グラスウール​​: Low ​cost fibre-based insulation material. Being fibre-based the insulation perfomance comes from air trapped between the fibres, which can move allowing water vapour through. A vapour barrier is therefore necessary to keep the building airtight. Not particularly pleasant to handle, but once installed there are no health risks until the building is butchered or demolished.


Green​ グリーン​​:​ see eco

Green bling (derogatory and somewhat archaic)​: Devices, fittings and coverings that can be added to building to make them "green". According to an arbitrary calculation, 90% of the ​building's environmental performance depends on invisible elements integrated into the structure and integral to the conceptual design. The effect of green bling is often like ordering a salad with your steak in the interest of becoming vegetarian.

Green wash​ing グリーンウォッシング​​: Portraying ​products, processes and activities as environmentally friendly without making any fundamental exchanges except in the advertising copy. (See sinsofgreenwashing.com.)

Kazoo blow​er​​ カズーブローアー(告発を不正にする者): ​Person who creat​es​ a lot of noise that will support the status quo and drown out ​voices of concern or dissent. (cf whistle blowing; see also astroturf)

Krypton​ クリプトン​​: Another inert gas used in multi-pane windows. ​This is another 50% better at insulating than argon, and allows windows to be much thinner while reaching high performance. Since the frames will also be thinner, and frames and their thermal bridges lose the most heat in window installations, making window panes thinner may not be such a high priority.

Low-e​ ​低E: A coating applied to internal window faces which has low emissivity. This reflects low-frequency back into the building, and improves the performance of windows.

​Mineral wool​ ロックウール: Another fibre-based insulator like fibreglass, but made from ceramics. A little more expensive than fibreglass with the same performance, but not as nasty to handle

Natural materials​ 自然材料:​ ​A somewhat vague term usually ​referring to products with no synthetic chemicals, made from trees. Often these trees were planted in neat rows, cut with chainsaws, transported by diesel-powered vehicles to processing mills running on thermal power stations.

Polyurethane​ 発泡ウレタン: ​​Another foam-based insulator that performs better than polystyrene.

​Thermal bridge サーマルブリッジ・熱橋: ​An extra loss of heat caused by joins between insulating materials, geometry of external structures and additional non-insulating materials. Which heat losses are usually calculated over areas, thermal bridges are calculated over lengths. As insulation improves, thermal bridges become more significant since a larger proportion of heat is lost through them, and also more critical as they can result in cold spots that will attract condensation.

​Vacuum 真空: ​In theory the best insulation material available, since vacuums contain nothing which will conduct. This is sometimes used in multipane windows and insulation panels. I can't help being skeptical about the long-term performance since there is a big pressure difference between the atmosphere and the vacuum, leakage will not be zero, and eventually this will be filled with air. This may take one month, one year or ten years, but you should be planning a building to last for fifty or a hundred years.

Vapour barrier​ 蒸気障壁:​ A membrane usually applied on the inside of the external walls, or within 25% of the insulation from the inside. This stops moisture from the internal air from getting through the walls where it would cause condensation. Some wall finishes act as vapour barriers. Highly insulated buildings should also be air tight, to prevent heat being lost or gained through leaking air. Depending on the performance, vapour barriers may also act as air barriers.

Warm edge​ ウォームエッジスペーサー: ​A technology used around the edges of multipane windows which prevents heat leaking through that weak link in the window assembly.

XPS ​押出ポリスチレン​​: Extruded Polystyrene. The same chemical composition as EPS, but extruded rather than expanded, and stronger. Suitable for use under and around foundations.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Satisfaction questionnaire

Here is a satisfaction questionnaire for house builders to get feedback, inspired by one of the questions on the form we got when we moved in. 


Congratulations on moving into your new house!

Now that you've moved in, how does it feel to be in your new house?
Great
Wonderful
Fantastic

Were the extra building charges adequately explained?
Yes, the explanation was excellent and I was in no way shocked by the unreasonable and unexpected price hike
The explanation could have been better, but I got the general idea
Perhaps you need to tell us again

How many problems have there been since you moved in to your new house?
Only about half a dozen
Ten or so
Definitely less than a hundred

When there were problems, was it easy to get in touch with us?
Yes, the phone was always picked up quickly
Yes, the email I sent didn't bounce
Yes, I knew you were there when I came round to the office, although it did seem strange that you'd turned the lights off

How many times did you have to complain about the problems before we actually did something?
Twice
Three times
I gave up complaining after the fifth time

When we finally did get in touch with you, how good a job did we do at pretending we cared?
It genuinely seemed that you didn't have anything better to do than listen to us
I think I saw you nodding
Not sure, you were too busy looking at your phone

Did we tell you about our other satisfied customers?
Yes, I heard about them several times
You told us about one satisfied customer several times.
You have other satisfied customers?

(Note: Clicking these buttons will make no difference to anything, much like the satisfaction surveys you are often asked to fill out!)

Friday, 16 June 2017

Just planning ahead to make a battery charger for electric cars

"Are we nearly there yet?" the kids ask from the back seat.

"Yes we'll be there soon," I say, and I'm sure we will be. Soon is always too late for some but takes others by surprise.  

So we are half way through the ten-year contract with the Chubu Electric Power Company, and when it ends there is almost no chance that we will be paid as much as the 48 yen per kWh we are now getting. The tarriffs have been steadily falling each year, as was originally planned. Solar panel prices have also been falling, so the calculation of return on investment remains a little short of the ten-year contract that electricity companies are tied into for domestic installations of less than 10 kilowatts. Installations over 10kW are considered commercial, and they are tied into a lower price for twenty years. The prices of solar panels, as with all commodities, is somewhat arbitrary, and it is not completely clear whether the government is deciding the feed-in-tarriff rate based on the price of the panels, or wether the price of the panels is being set so that the feed-in-tarriff will pay the cost back. 
   
I think this graph shows that costs of solar installations over ten years met the residential electricity rates in the middle of 2014. At that point​, in theory at least,​ incentives become moot since it's cheaper for people to buy their electricity in the form or solar panels than it is to buy electricity company​. Of course not everyone has the capital to be able to do that, but the feed-in-tarriff was still above the price people were paying for electricity. According to solar partners.jp, the amount you get for selling electricity is dropping by 2 or 3 yen per kWh per year. You could sell 1kWh for up to 33 yen in 2016, and it will be 30, 28 ​in 2018​ and 26 ​in 2019. So if I'm lucky and still able to get a new contract with my old panels, I may get over 25 yen per kWh when my contract runs out.

At 25 yen per kWh it's still worth my while to connect to the grid. My income from the panels will halve, but it will still be three times more than I pay for electricity. 

A worse scenario is that I get paid some market value for power generation, which could be around 11 yen. ​It may be a fixed rate or a floating rate. The worst scenario is that they don't pay me anything, but just expect that power to flow into their grid. I think that is very unlikely.

There has apparently been a deregulation of the electricity market, which in theory means I can shop around for the highest bidder for my electricity. Japan For Sustainability has an interesting story here about Renewable Energy Hopes and Hurdles Amid Full Liberalization of Japan's Electricity Market. "In April 2016, Japan woke up to a fully liberalized electricity market" the article begins, although even by ​June 2017 I can't help feeling that most people are still oblivious to this new reality. ​

Increased competition tends to bring down prices, which may be bad news for people trying to sell​ electricity​. You can find out here whether changing your electric company will give you cheaper bills: https://enechange.jp/try. It's easy to find companies that will sell you electricity, but it's harder to find those that will buy it off you, unless you have larger sources. I searched around the website for https://ne-greena.jp, who offer 100% renewable energy, but ​they are not interested in buying renewable energy​ from my roof!

At some value less than 20 yen per kWh, it stops making sense for me to pay the electricity company the monthly flat rate to connect to them, since we​ make more electricity than ​we​ use. The big question going forward for anyone investing in renewable energy is how much electricity will cost. Jay Carlis claimed in 2013 that electricity prices are not going down and he​re's a Guardian article from 2011 about electric cars taking over.

More information:

Monday, 12 June 2017

10 tips to design Near Zero Energy Building

Allessandro Merigo, architect from Lumezzane, Italy, has written ten tips to design Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs). In Italy all public buildings will be near zero energy from 2018, and all other construction from 2020. 

Read about refurbishing buildings too

1. Start with the shell 
2. Use appropriate software
3. Input real climate data
4. Avoid thermal bridges
5. Ensure air tightness
6. Think about air exchange
7. Reduce HVAC
8. Use renewable energy
9. Check the budget
10. Collaboration is the key of success

Note that only one of these is about producing energy, and seven are about reducing energy losses. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Do solar panels have a dark side?

While browsing through the battlefield of prejudices and preconceptions that is the internet, I came across the graphic below, proudly showing how much better coal and oil are than solar power. This was a retort to Bernie Sanders boasting about the great contribution solar power was making to job creation. They cite the broken window fallacy, which is the mistaken belief that breaking a window is good for the economy, because of all the work it for glaziers, carpenters and painters. I can't help feeling that the broken window that this metaphor really applies to is the global environment, which the economy has been breaking for the past couple of hundred years, and has yet to seriously think about repairing. ​Anyway, the author's conclusion was ​that it takes 79 solar workers to produce the same amount of electric power as one coal worker produces.
Of course, he is missing the fact that almost all coal workers' 2016 efforts have now been burnt, while most of the solar jobs were installing production capacity. If all of these workers stopped for 2017, then coal and natural gas would produce zero kWh. Solar, on the other hand, would produce more or less the same amount. In fact those panels installed in 2016 will still be producing power for at least the next quarter century. In addition, many of the jobs in the solar industry are leading directly or indirectly to increasingly efficient solar panels and better ways of using them, so when those panels eventually need replacing, their replacements will be more efficient, cheaper, lighter, less energy intensive and with a lower environmental impact in their production and disposal.

This guy has a similar story, and once again it seems to be coming from the right, and firmly putting renewable energy on the left wing, and the left field. "Our lives are improved by finding ways to reduce the amount of labor in them, not increase it​," they both claim​.

​Of course, a lot of labour-reducing measures have not lead to a reduction in labour but an increase. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that ​his grandchildren would be working 15 hour weeks. He didn't actually have any grandchildren, so that part of his prediction was wrong to start with. But his sister's grandchildren, interviewed here and now retired, worked a lot more than fifteen hours a week. In fact one claims it was more like fifteen hours a day. Work has expanded to fill the available time. Computers have not yet liberated the masses from work, but have enslaved millions behind their keyboards. Cheap products have just allowed people to buy more. One of the​noble aims of the industrial ​revolution was to provide every man with his own shirt, but it has just led to many overflowing wardrobes. ​A kind of Jevons paradox exists here too, as we spend all our time using these labour saving devices. But I digress from the solar issue.

​The bottom line is, of course, that solar panels do require work, energy and resources in their production, and looking backwards it's difficult to argue that they are using less carbon. Looking forward there is a different picture, and solar power and other renewables make zero-carbon energy production possible. Burning fossil fuels does not. There is no reason to ever build another coal plant in the United States​, or anywhere else for that matter.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Troublesome Doors

In March 2014 we got our front door working better than it ever had, with the help of people from Wald in Nagano City. Our experience importing windows and external doors was not without problems, and if we were building today we would probably use the best available domestic windows. When we built there were no domestic windows with suitably specifications, and our passive house would have been a cave! Since we were importing windows from Europe, and since I was also using some savings from the UK to pay for the house, it seemed like a good idea to try to pay for the windows in Euros, so that there was only one currency exchange rather than two. This meant that the windows were not paid for through the builders, which I think added to their foreignness and made them "someone else's problem".

Most of our windows have been problem free, with the large exception of the triple paned door on the south. The doors have had several problems, and it's difficult to classify them into design, construction, installation and use. Five years later, wear and tear cannot be ignored, but the doors on my twenty-year-old Toyota still worked fine, and I paid more for the doors of this house than I did for that car. 

For much of the first couple of years the front door was not closing properly, and it never locked fully without a struggle. There was even a time when it didn't lock at all. When the door is open, the key could be given two full turns, but usually it would only go around 360 degrees.

For a while the door was scraping on bottom of the frame, and you can see the remains.

The genkan (the area immediately inside the front door, where you take your shoes off) seemed to be colder in the third year, but it's difficult to quantify as it's always been colder in there than in the house.  In the winter it always feels cold when you open the door from the living room, but then it always feels really warm when you come in from the cold outside.

I wasn't paying full attention when they were putting the door in, but I think it may be resting on a bit of concrete, which will act as a thermal bridge between the insulated slab and the tiled step outside the front door. Also the washer on the outside of the handle has partly worn away, which may be allowing cold air to leak in. We've been trying to fix this, but it needs parts from Europe.

The other external door needed trimming so that it would fit within the frame when it was open. A careless oversight that the architect was unnecessarily gleeful to blame on the drawings from the foreign supplier. More recently part of the latch plate broke, stopping it from shutting smoothly. Another part we need to get from Europe. In fact that door also needs some adjustments to align it properly with the frame.

And then at the end of March we had some workmen in to look at some internal doors. Even when the front door has closed properly, people often either push it too softly while turning the handle, which stops it from closing, or push it too hard, which slams and sends rattles around the house. So we asked about fitting a door closer, which would stop the door from slamming, but make sure that it closed. They noticed that the top hinge was broken.  Luckily there are two more hinges, but they will now each have significantly more weight on them, and a higher likelihood of following suit. This fracture may partly have been caused by the single stopper for the door as it opens, which is on the door frame at the bottom. When the door wings open and hits it, this will act as a pivot to translate the considerable momentum of the swinging door into a shearing force on the hinge at the top.

We are looking forward to getting this repaired, but it will be a major task.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The western sun is strong

There is common wisdom in Japan that the western sun is strong. Of course it is not—the sun delivers just as much radiation in the West as it did in the morning in the East. And it delivers the most when it is highest and due South. In fact, less radiation may get through in the West as the air may be more hazy and dusty in the afternoon than it was in the morning.

Panels on a west-facing roof titled to the South
Some people are retrofitting solar panels onto pyramid roofs that slope four ways, and are encouraged by the wily sellers of panels to add them to the East and West sides as well as the South side. Panels facing due south will generate the most, and you could generate 20% less if the panels point East or West. The installers will charge the same wherever the panels go, and when grants are available they often do not depend on where the panels go. Orienting panels in different directions will give peak generation at different times of day which may be more useful than maximum total generation. Given a choice, people recommend the East side for panels, rather than the West side. If the western sun were stronger, they would be recommending panels on the West side.

One of my favourite local solar installations.
I wish they all had servos and tracked the sun! 
What is happening in both cases is that the temperature in the afternoon is higher, and in the normal state of affairs, the western sun is going to feel a lot hotter as the ambient temperature is already hot. In the morning it is relatively cool.

For the panels, efficiency drops as temperature rises, so the eastern panels will produce more electricity in the cool morning than the geometrically identical ones on the west that have to wait until the hotter afternoon to produce their electricity.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Shelves for an airing cupboard

My telephone sometimes tries to be smart and puts together photos I've taken into cute albums of what I have been doing. Unfortunately, I use my phone more as a note-taking device than a scrap book of life-defining events, so a significant proportion of my photos are of the dimensions and prices of items in hardware shops, as you can see here.

Five years into living in this house we still haven't reached peak shelf. The new airing cupboard presents a particular challenge to storage.

I realise that the concept of an airing cupboard may be confined to the UK, or at least to northern Europe. It's a simple enough idea though. You have a cupboard next to the hot water tank, which stays warm and is a good place to dry clothes. Hot water tanks have been standard in UK houses for a while, and damp weather has been around even longer. These hot water tanks are always inside so that any heat lost from them goes into the house, in contrast to Japan where hot water tanks are become more common but are invariably outside the house, even in areas like mine where it drops ten degrees below freezing.

Airing cupboards are particularly useful in the UK where it is often raining or damp, especially in the winter, and drying outside is not an option. I remember my Australian friend talking about hanging out washing in the summer, and the first bits being dry by the time they finished hanging out the last bits, so airing cupboards are probably not so important there. Years of cheap electricity in the US mean that people dry laundry in machines, and it has been suggested that hanging it anywhere else is a confession of poverty.

Drying outside is possible in Japan for most of the year, although the rainy season can sometimes give you few opportunities. Another problem we have is with allergies and when it is pollination season for all the now mature cedar that were planted after the war, we don't want to hang washing outside.

We have an indoor hot water tank, and I'm not really sure why we didn't make it into an airing cupboard from the start, but I have recently converted the door into it, and there are nice spaces around 30 cm wide on two sides of the tank.The door is diagonal, so you can easily get into these two sides. The one on the right is about 50 cm deep, the other on the left almost a metre. 

I was trying to work out the best way of utilising the space. The shallower gap on the right is about one hanger-width deep, so the best plan is a couple of things sticking out of the wall to hang hangers, one high and one low. There were various options available in shops, but the best things I saw were the shop fittings that their products were hanging off, and I haven't seen them for sale anywhere. As usual Japan seems to have a massive range of products that are all tailored to a very standardised set of architectural constraints. So there are hangers designed to fit on the backs of doors, or on the frames for sliding aluminium windows. Not much is available for screwing into a wall. 
Not the hangers, the thing the hangers are hanging from

I imagined some kind of drawer system to pull out racks to hang socks and things on, that would then push back into the deeper space on the left. Several sketches of ropes and pulleys, levers and pivots, and rails on rails followed, but in the end, simplicity prevailed. I got a foldaway hanger that can be screwed into the wall, but it is a little too narrow. There are also extendable poles that fit on the wall on one side and the boiler on the other. Luckily the boiler is square.

The best solution was simple brackets sticking out of the wall, with some nuts and bolts at intervals along them. Then we can hang hangers off them.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Could Passivhaus be cheaper?

Passivhaus, Herefordshire, 2016 
I don't just mean cheaper than it is now, but could Passive House be cheaper than a regular building. And I don't mean cheaper in the long term, but cheaper to build.

Low energy buildings, Pennyland, 1979
When we were building, we found in most cases the extra demands of passive house provided extra opportunities for builders and contractors to charge us more money. I think this was partly our fault for not finding people who were interested in changing the way they work, so rather than seeing our house as an opportunity to learn how to build better houses in the future, they saw it as a diversion from their usual practice. Where we did work with people who were used to working to rigorous energy specifications, I got a strong sense that they were able to charge more because they thought nobody else could do what they were doing, or because they were aiming for rich customers who just judged value by the price tag.

The theory behind Passivhaus is that increasing insulation means massively reducing the heating system, so extra costs insulating are balanced by lower costs installing a heating system. Since Passivhaus also required a ventilation system, and rather than removing the heating system it just scales it down, this seems like a challenge. The cost of extra insulation, structural changes to accommodate and support the insulation, airtightness barriers, increased window specs and ventilation system all need to add up to less than a fraction of the heating system. 
State of the art building, Lavenham Wool Hall, UK, 1464 

According to this report from the Passive House Trust, sponsored be AECOM, passive houses cost 3-8% more in Germany, where many are built to the standard. In the UK they typically cost 15-20% extra, although the extra costs are less for large projects, terraces, north-south oriented buildings, and projects where the design can change after tender.

But some people are saying that Passivhaus can, and will cost no more, for example Passivehouse Plus in Ireland give the builder's view on why passive house doesn't cost extra.


Low cost, zero maintenance house, Japan
Twentieth century
And there is a best practices document developed in collaboration with EEBA, and Proud Green Building that asks this question: Can you build a high performance home without additional cost?

And they answer: YES!
Bird Table, Huddersfield,
Turn of millenium

You can Download your copy today! Which will tell you about putting a value on high performance, how to shift costs where they matter most, opportunities in green remodeling, builders' perspectives on achieving high performance, high performance home ratings and certifications, case studies and financial considerations.

Friday, 5 May 2017

What percentage of climate denial is driven by fossil fuels?

Although some people claim denial of climate change is not happening, there is a clear consensus among scientists that denial is real, and that it presents severe and long-lasting risks to humanity. There is also a clear consensus that a large proportion of this denial has come from fossil fuel industry emissions.

Actually just a drained rice field in late summer
Some claim that the observed climate change denial is due to other sources, for example scientific research. However, it is difficult to find evidence of understanding of the scientific process within these claims. This is an important markers that we would expect to see if climate change denial actually had anything to do with science.

"But how much of the climate change denial we see recently can be attributed the fossil fuel industry?"
This is a question than often confuses scientists, since it is obvious that if there were no fossil fuel industry, there would be negligible anthropogenic climate change, and no denial. However, it is helpful to look more closely at this question. 

Winter, in case you forgot how it looked
Climate change denial is a complex phenomenon, and it is often difficult to separate primary causes from secondary and tertiary feedback. For example fossil-fuel generated denial can have a knock-on effect on coverage in the scientifically illiterate media and in right-wing blog posts. These can act as amplifiers, so a single fossil-fuel source that leaks into the media can result in thousands of pages on the internet, each of which can generate hundreds of comments.  

Reduction in fossil fuel industry-generated denial is an essential step to stopping denial. However, many of these secondary and tertiary effects are likely to continue long after the fossil-fuel industry has stopped the emission of denial.

Denial has other drivers including extreme libertarianism, religious dogmatism, contrarianism, and people just being stupid. While fossil industry denial is the biggest driver, some of these other forms can be much more potent. For example, libertarian denial can activate a broad spectrum of people skeptical about the power of government. 

There is also a strong danger of irreversible denial tipping points. Once people have denied scientific method and the media, they may permanently lose a reasoned understanding of the world they live in. This will not only make them pose a greater risk to the environment, but may also put them at a greater risk from an environment that will change around them because of their actions and in spite of their words

Clearly the fossil fuel industry must put in place policies and procedures to reduce denial, with a timeline for reaching zero denial. However, this will not be sufficient on its own, and we must also be wary of other sources of denial. 

Monday, 1 May 2017

Things we didn't do but maybe should have - Solar Thermal

I wrote a bit about hybrid photo voltaic thermal panels in April 2011. We looked into this, and even found a manufacture, Solimpeks in Turkey, and an importer, but in the end we didn't use these panels, and did not use solar water heating. The basic reasons were the uncertainty of maintenance costs, impacting the return on investment, and increased complexity leading most seriously to an ugly roof. In the case of the PV/T panels, which deliver both electricity and hot water, we would not have been able to connect them to the grid and sell the electricity, since the panels were not licensed in Japan. 

Photovoltaics have been pretty much a no-brainer to install on new builds here, as in many cases they have no moving parts and will still be producing electricity when the house is knocked down. Photovoltaics can literally be plugged in. 

Solar thermal, on the other hand, needs to store heat when there is more than you need, supplement it when there is less than you need, and deliver the heat where you need it. 

The most obvious worry is what to do when there is not enough sun, but the three big threats for solar thermal are freezing, overheating and hygiene. Overheating seems the most serious problem. When it gets hot nothing magical happens; water turns to steam, volume expands and pressure goes up. Watt solved similar problems for the steam engine in the nineteenth century, so it should be fairly predictable in a solar collector.

Although Watt is usually credited with having invented the steam engine, like many great inventors, he did not create it out of thin air, but innovated existing ideas to make them practical. Before Watt, the steam was thrown away after pushing the piston around in the cylinder. This was fine for a static engine by a big pool of water, and in the case of mining there were often big pools of water to get rid of. In the case of textile mills, irrigation was already in place to get water there. These engines wouldn't go very far without running out of water. Watt great innovation was to turn the steam back into water, and keep it in the system. When you are collecting heat from the sun, if you cannot guarantee that the heat will be taken away from the water, then it will inevitably turn to steam, and it needs a system like the one Watt invented all those years ago. It's not rocket science—that was Stevenson—but steam in your system could be explosive, and if any air bubbles get in there after it condenses, water may stop flowing. 

Unless your system can handle overheating, you either need a much smaller system than your needs, or you need to be able to store the heat for a rainy day. Heat storage strategies are a rabbit hole you can get lost in. Adding a supplementary heater will increase the cost, but it shouldn't be so complicated to add an electrical immersion heater, fixed up to a thermostat to switch on when the tank is too cold, and a timer to check that it's night time. Electricity is an expensive way to heat, but if you are getting most of your heat from the sun, and you are rarely using this heater, then it's not a big issue. In Japan systems are typically undersized, so and electrical heater would become very expensive, and effectively the solar panels are supplementing a regular heater system, which you need to spend more on to increase the efficiency.

There are seven different ways of getting heat from the panels into your hot water tank (according to Rob Harlan interviewed on Back Woods Home). Drain back systems are perhaps the most simple. Water is sent up to the panels when the sun comes out. When the water gets hot enough, or at the end of the day, it is all sent into a tank in the house to be used. No water is left out in the cold, so there is no chance of freezing. An alternative is a continuous circuit, either open-loop heating water directly, or closed-loop using a refrigerant that will transfer heat into water in the tank. Running domestic water through a solar panel is probably bad news, since there are risks of freezing, and of water standing at a lukewarm temperature that is ideal for legionnaires disease. The continuous circuit should probably have a closed loop, which will be slightly less efficient. Since you are not using the water directly, you can use a coolant instead, and make sure it has a freezing point below your minimum temperature.

The solar collectors can either be flat panels or vacuum tubes. An interesting twist on the storage problem is to add phase change materials into vacuum tubes, so heat is stored by melting one or two materials with a high melting point. Water can be passed through the panels any time, and it will be heated up from the phase change materials. There used to be commercial models here on Made in China,com, but all Google will find me now are research papers and patents.


References

Papadimitratosa, A., Sobhansarbandib, S., Pozdina, V., Zakhidovc, A. & Hassanipour, F. (2016).
Evacuated tube solar collectors integrated with phase change materials. Solar Energy, 129, 10-19. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294111899_Evacuated_tube_solar_collectors_integrated_with_phase_change_materials [accessed Apr 21, 2017].

Friday, 28 April 2017

Efficiency of spending and the thermodynamics of happiness

When it comes to money I've mostly been looking at how to spend more when you build a house so that you will save money while you're living there. How do you balance capital expenditure and running costs?

Another consideration with money is how spending it makes you feel. The Guardian asks, is there a proven link between housing and happiness? People often say that money can't buy happiness, but are they just going to the wrong shops?

It depends what you spend money on. A lot of research seems to show that spending money on other people will make you happier, while spending money on yourself will not. There is also little evidence that more money will make people more happy, once people have got above the poverty line. So if you're in the lucky position of having shelter, warmth, food, fresh water, employment and access to education for your children, the best thing you can do to increase global happiness may be to send any spare cash you have to people who are not as fortunate as you.

People sometimes talk about the pursuit of happiness, which I find deeply problematic. Happiness is a journey and not a destination, so the happiness is in the actual pursuit. People may be happy when they receive something, or be happy thinking about getting it, or choosing exactly what to get, or going through other activities that will lead to getting it. They may be deeply unhappy if they don't have something, especially if everyone around them has one. But once they get it, and are used to having it, their level of happiness will quickly revert to the norm. In this context, there must be a steadily increasing flow of material things for them to make us happy, and they must be new, or faster, stronger, bigger or better in some way. I don't know about you, but for me that is a pretty miserable idea!

Last year we bought a new fridge, and a new washing machine. Within a couple of days the novelty
of the new white goods wore off and they just became doors in the wall.

Last year we also bought some plane tickets at a similar cost. I certainly didn't spend the whole flight enjoying the seat, and in fact long distance flights are not terrible comfortable. I do still remember what happened at the other end of the flight, and it's very easy to think about those memories without thinking about the money we spent on the tickets. Those memories of other times, visiting other places, and meeting other people will remain long after I've forgotten about the airlines and hotel bills.

So what does this have to do with thermodynamics? Not a lot. Happiness is just chemicals in the brain.

What does it have to do with house building? Just two things spring to mind: Think about other people when you are building a house, and think about what the building will let them do.   

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Candid advice for architects

One time when I was hitch hiking I asked the driver what he did, and he said he was a painter. I thought this was interesting, but wasn't sure whether he was an artist, or a workman. So I asked him what he painted. "Houses", he replied. This didn't help me very much. I was still not sure whether he sat with an easel producing two dimensional impressions of houses, or whether he covered their surfaces with paint. I make no value judgement on the two vocations, and whatever the man did I was grateful he was giving me a lift.

I think sometimes there is a similar confusion with architects. The clients usually just want someone who will make a building for them, but the architects often seem interested in creating a work of art. Here is some advice if you are an architect. If an architect is working for you, you may already know this.

1. Save the models for your mum.

You may be really pleased with the one-in-forty model that you've built of your client's house. But your clients are not three centimetres tall and don't want walls, roof and floors in white plastic. If we were your parents, and you had brought it back from elementary school, we would be really proud and impressed. But we're not your mum and you're not at elementary school. 

We can get 3D simulations on computer games, where we can not only walk through virtual realities, but shoot zombies on the way. CD Roms are given out free with interior decoration magazines that let us see what a room, a building or a space will look like. We'd like to see what the spaces are going to look like from inside, ideally walking around them, looking from different angles and even better with different light from different times of day. This is technically possible and clients deserve it. 

2. Leave your opinions at home. 

Clients are interested in your knowledge, your experience, your judgement and your creativity. We are not paying you for your opinions. 

3. Distinguish the process and the product.

Most people working on the house are entirely involved in the process. The clients are predominantly interested in the product. In other words the completed house. As long as they get the house they want, they may really not care who does it, what order it is done in, where they have to come from, what other jobs they are doing at the moment, or what they had for breakfast. 

Although it's not the primary concern, the client may be very interested in the process, and how the building is made. Most people only build a house once and it's a rare opportunity to see concrete being poured, or a wooden frame going up, or a freshly painted room. Some people don't want to miss a thing!

So don't forget that the finished house is the most important thing for your clients, but don't assume they are not interested in how it gets there.

4. Communicate.

Your job is not really to give the clients what they want. They won't get it! You have to make them want what they are going to get. At the beginning of a building project, everything is possible, the human imagination is boundless and sketches on paper are cheap and unlimited by many of the laws of physics. As the project goes on, this level of satisfaction begins to fall. If we imagine there is 100% satisfaction the moment you decide to build your dream house, then the client is lucky to be over 50% satisfied by the end. As dreams turn to reality, there is a steady erosion of satisfaction and things become impossible, scales are reduced, qualities are sacrificed to the bottom line. 

5. Costs are your problem.

The budget is what we can spend on the house. It's not some vague target that will work as a starting point. That is what we think we can afford to pay. You need to keep under it. We don't really care how much things cost. That's your problem.

6. Study marriage guidance counselling.

If you're dealing with a couple, the easiest thing is to work out who is the more powerful of the two, then to start ignoring the other partner. This makes sense as whoever is more powerful is going to be making the decisions anyway. However, it's cynical, disrespectful and may lead to a divorce. I'm not really sure of the best advice, but you need to know. 

7. Draw the pictures, then go and find another customer.

There are two ways that clients can work with architects. One is to draw the pictures and hand them over. The other is to see the whole project through. I found this out much too late, and it was never really an option given by our architect. I can understand that seeing the whole project through leads to more revenue, and also I imagine there are various opportunities to strengthen relationships with a variety of tradesmen, and maintain fingers in a variety of pies. This is probably especially true in Japan where architects are referred to respectfully as Sensei, and can command undeserved and unrequited respect from a whole industry. Also I can appreciate that holding on to a whole project means not having to worry about finding another client for longer. 

Unless you're really good at project management, you should probably concentrate on drawing and designing. If you are good at project management, then you should probably do that and get someone else to concentrate on drawing and designing.

8. If somebody notices how much time and effort went into your design, then you probably didn't put enough time and effort into it.


And I haven't even started on advice about low energy building, but you can read some here from Proud Green Home. I especially like the idea about not allowing incandescent bulbs onto the building site.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Review: The Big Short (2015)

This is the first film review I've done. I briefly dabbled in review writing in a magazine that I used to put together at school, until we got a rather caustic letter from one of the people in the play I had reviewed saying, "the only thing worse than amateur dramatics is amateur criticism." So read on at your peril!

Film reviews have even less connection with low energy building than the nonsense I usually write, but this movie was about mortgages, and they have everything to do with building houses. Without financing, low energy buildings will not get off the paper, and unless you have extensive savings, or you are going to spend ten years building your house with the remains of your pay, you will be going to the bank to borrow money. If you are in Japan it makes financial sense to get a loan from the bank even if you have the money since you get a tax rebate for having a mortgage, but I digress from the content of the film.

The Big Short (2015) is based on actual events leading up to the economic crash of 2007 and 2008. For anyone who missed it, mortgages were considered as safe as houses for the banks lending money, while in the real world brokers were getting paid bonuses for giving as many mortgages out as possible, even so-called Ninja loans to people with no income and no assets.  

As I was getting my loan in Japan I had heard of people going to the bank and being handed actual cash from the bank manager, which they passed across the table to the landowners or the people building the house. In more "developed" economies, this money is just numbers on a computer somewhere. The bank is not lending you money that they have taken out of their safe and can count in front of you, but they are adding numbers onto a balance sheet somewhere. 

This makes sense so far, but the money needs to be balanced with assets. In a deregulated financial market, these debts are bundled and sold as mortgage bonds, then traded and tranched, tranched and traded. The movie has a nice scene with Jenga blocks representing the debts, and does a very good job at explaining financial concept in a clear and engaging way.

The Big Short follows four people who realised that a lot of the mortgages were not being paid back, and the bonds were being given more credit than they deserved. So they started investing money into the loans having too high a credit rating. This is the part I don't really understand. 

Financial institutions have a whole range of jargon that makes things very difficult to understand. There are two reasons something sounds difficult to understand. One is that it is a complicated system that inherently is difficult to understand. The other is that someone is bullshitting, to separate you from your money, or to keep them out of prison, or both.

I understand investing in a house or in land, since that has intrinsic value. I understand investing in stocks and shares because those businesses generate wealth. I understand investing in commodities. I understand that governments sometimes want to generate money and they will issue bonds, and I guess the countries they represent have value. I also understand that these things can be bundled together into funds. But when I hear of "financial instruments" like "structured investment vehicles" alarm bells start ringing. I know those terms are designed to make our eyes glaze over. 

The people who saw the impending collapse of the mortgage world put money into something called a Credit Default Swap, which is a regular payment that may lead to a payout if a loan defaults. I think I pay something like this for my own house loan. 

So I suppose I do understand what is happening here, I just don't understand why it is allowed to happen, especially with people's life savings. Putting money into something being valued too highly is gambling. This should be in Las Vegas, not Wall Street.

There is a precedent in insurance. Shipping was a dangerous business, and people could pay premiums to insurance brokers in return for large payouts if the ships sank and the cargo was lost.The idea goes back to the ancient world, and for example the Code of Hammurabi made provision for an extra payment on a loan so it would be cancelled if a cargo was lost. The first insurance policy independent of the loan goes back Genoa in 1347. The modern insurance industry grew out of London and you may have heard of a Mr Lloyd, who had a coffee shop there in the late 1680s frequented by ship owners. For a while anyone could take out an insurance policy on a ship being lost, but during the 19th century, there were problems with people gaming the system, leading to the Marine Insurance Act of 1906 and the concept of "insurable interest". This means that you can only insure against losing something if you have an interest in keeping it. The Life Assurances act of 1774 is an earlier example of this concept.

Nothing about insurance is in the movie, but it seems a hundred years later this idea had been forgotten, and so a group of investors were able to walk into Wall Street banks and effectively place these bets, which were later turned into financial instruments and sold to other investors.

The movie tells this story well, focusing mostly on four investors who saw the crisis coming. I like the way this film is billed as a comedy. Perhaps they wanted Jim Carrey for the Christian Bale character, Jack Black for Brad Pitt, and Ben Stiller for Ryan Gosling. 

I rolled off the couch laughing when the Brad told us that 40,000 people die every time unemployment goes up 1%. 

The few people who made millions out of banks failing may be quite amused. The people involved at every level with the irresponsible lending habits leading up to this crisis, who still have their salaries and bonuses, must be laughing all the way to the bank. Where they still work. 

One counterfactual idea strikes me though. What if, instead of trying to make money out of it, those clairvoyants had pushed the credit raters to look a bit more closely at the assets and start downgrading them? In fact, could their investment into the mortgage failures have helped the collapse? 

A house of cards will only fall down if you knock it, and to be honest since we came off the gold standard in the 1930s our whole economy has just been based on bits of paper. More recently it has been bits in a computer somewhere. 

The real story here is not about mortgages, but about shadow banking: financial institutions beyond the regulations of traditional banking. This steadily increased through the 1980s, speeding up in the middle of the 1990s, and by 2000 there was more money in shadow banking than in traditional banking. To take a extremely pessimistic view, this is like betting that you have a dozen broken eggs when you only have a box of ten eggs. And you are betting with the eggs. 

So is that the joke at the heart of this "comedy"? I'm still not really laughing yet. 

It's tempting to look at the four heroes of the story as important players in a financial system that is trying to buffer against risk, who helped expose problems in ratings of the mortgage industry. But it's more likely that they were out to make money from insurance payouts that in a moral system would have gone to people who had lost their savings or their homes, and that they were very much a part of the shadow banking system that still seems way too big. Rather than addressing the problem, they gave banks the opportunity to sell trillions of dollars worth of bets that the mortgage bonds would not fail.  

So what does this have to do with building a house then? Well, perhaps not very much, but when you are borrowing money, you might want to know where it comes from. Remember the Adam Smith line: if you owe the bank a hundred pounds then you have a problem. If you owe the bank a million pounds, then the bank has a problem.

Anyway, on a scale of one to three, this movie definitely gets a three.

Let me leave you with some words Woody Guthrie sang in the 1930s: 
"The gambling man is rich and the working man is poor
And I ain't got no home in this world any more"



Notes and References

The relationship between unemployment and death was not a joke, and data can be found on page 300 of Thomas, W. L. and Carson, R. B. (2014) The American Economy: How it Works and How it Doesn't, Routledge. 
See also: TUC (2010) The Costs of Unemployment, a TUC Briefing to Mark the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.

Monday, 17 April 2017

A washing line stretching between cultures

I don't imagine houses built in the UK come with fitted washing lines, even though creels may have been standard issue in the past.

A washing line came fitted onto our house, and I'm sure this was one of the things we spent a few hours talking over with the architect. Like many of the decisions it was wrapped up in invisible cultural assumptions.

For a start, washing lines in Japan are actually washing poles, traditionally bamboo hanging down from the eaves of a house. Ours is held up by two brackets bolted onto the pillars holding up our balcony. In our original plan, a terrace ran the whole width of our house along the south. At some point, partially to increase the amount of garden and partially to reduce the cost of construction, this was shortened to two thirds of the width. The terrace remained in front of the kitchen at the East, but was removed at the West. The washing pole remained at the west, so that area remained dedicated to washing, making it difficult to plant much there.

The reason the washing pole stayed there is probably that the pillars on the terrace don't line up. In three places along its width, there are two pillars holding the balcony up, but in the middle of the terrace there is only one. This means that the brackets would stick out at different lengths. Actually this is not such a problem. Whoever designed the washing pole brackets had obviously thought about this possibility, and made oval holes for the poles so they are perfectly equipped to protrude adjacently from bits of building that are not parallel. More recently I moved the washing pole so it is above the terrace, which turned out to be very straightforward, although it interfered with an awning we were using before.

There was a more simple solution: A washing line.

Specifically a retractable washing line, that can be pulled from one end of the terrace to the other, and possibly back again. It could even be pulled to a post elsewhere in the garden. If I could find one. UK online sites have several models to offer, but most of the retractable washing lines in Japan are less than two metres long and designed for hotel bathrooms.
We did find one though, and it seems to work.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Sweeping generalisations about cultural differences in lighting


A lot of western developments in light fitting design have been going on in Halogens. Compact, low voltage LEDs can now slip neatly into some Halogen fittings. Halogen bulbs are smaller and of lower voltage, but not much more efficient than incandescents. They have never really taken off in Japan, and especially not in domestic application, where more efficient fluorescents have been standard since the 1970s. Many foreigners have been taken aback when they first visit a Japanese house and see the kind of lights that would only appear in shops and offices in the west.

There is an interesting article here on i news about new lighting technology.

I've been keenly watching the development of LEDs for domestic lighting over the last few years, but most of what I have seen is the production of LEDs in conventional light bulb packages. 

Early in the development of incandescent lighting, a conscious decision was made to limit the lifetime of the light bulbs, in order that new bulbs could be sold. Hence the invention of lightbulb fittings, and replaceable lightbulbs. In many cases for LED lights, the life expectancy is as long as the building, or at least as long as the furnishings, so there is no need for a replaceable LED. 

To have a replaceable LED light bulb would be like using a typewriter keyboard for a computer. This would be ridiculous because the QWERTY typewriter keyboard layout was designed to slow down the typist and stop mechanical keys jamming. Wait a minute, we do use typewriter keyboards for computers!

Moral of the story: packaging is of much higher priority than performance. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

I want a heat camera!

More technically it's called a thermograph, but I thought the Greek may put half the readers off. It probably has done now! I borrowed one before, and here are some examples of the photos.

Some sushi. Getting warm, Eat up!
There are two problems with these cameras. First they are really expensive. Thousands of dollars in fact. This has been somewhat remedied now that we're all walking around with cameras built into the phones in our pockets, but even the FLIR for android costs over 300 dollars. There has been a kickstarter project for a while to deliver cheaper thermographs, but I'm not sure if anything came of it. 

The other problem is working out exactly what they are showing you. Unlike a regular camera, which seeks to show different colours at brightnesses in rough proportion to how your eye would see them in the real world, thermographs seek to show the temperature of objects. The camera doesn't actually know the temperature of the objects, it just knows how much heat they are radiating in the infrared spectrum, and will show this value using a different colour. Bodies radiate heat depending partly on their temperature, but also on their emissivity. I find it very difficult to fully understand the idea of emissivity and will need to write more about it later.

A neighbour's house: hotter downstairs
Heat radiates in proportion to the fourth power of the absolute temperature of an object, and something called the Stephan-Boltzmann constant. It also depends on the emissivity, which is 0 for a shiny mirror and 1 for a black body. Mirrors confuse me, because when you look at them it seems like they are radiating your image back to you. I have trouble making the mental leap that this means they are not radiating anything themselves. But that is the situation. I also wonder, when a thermograph looks at a window how much if is seeing the temperature of the glass rather than the temperature of what is beyond, or a reflection of the temperature around you. I guess on a very cold clear night, the amount of radiation reflected from the outside sky will be negligible.

 I also have trouble remembering how many m's and s's there are in emissivity.

Black body?
Everything else has an emissivity between 0 and 1, and most organic, oxidised or painted surfaces have an emissivity of around 0.95. A further complication is that the emissivity is different depending on the wavelength of the radiation, so some materials may reflect more radiation at lower frequencies. Thermographs must work this out, ideally allowing you to choose what frequency radiation you are looking at.

Thermographs don't know the emissivity of an object, so they must be told. Here is a thermograph of our cat. She has a black body, but in the picture it comes out yellow, and her face is white hot. If she had been male we could have called him Stephan Blotzmann. 

In fact I don't really want a heat camera, I want a temperature camera, but a thermograph would be a nice toy.  

Raytekjapan has more data on emissivity of several materials.

Friday, 7 April 2017

A German composter, and other useful ideas

I wanted to write about a German Composter. If you didn't read carefully, you might be expecting Brahms or Beethoven, but they are composers. Actually they were composers. Now they are de-composers. You probably wouldn't want them in your compost anyway.

Here are the results from some more weeding of my email drafts box.

Materials for making raised beds...
http://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/16676705/list/8-Materials-for-Raised-Garden-Beds

...how to make them...
http://www.wikihow.com/Construct-a-Raised-Planting-Bed

...and please avoid treated wood
http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/how-to-plans/lawn-garden/4308264#slide-1

But you need to make a lawn first
http://uktv.co.uk/home/stepbystep/aid/65

Then you'll need to mow the lawn
http://item.rakuten.co.jp/tuzukiya/ryobi-pab-1610?scid=rm_198680

This ain't gardening, this is herbicide
http://www.permacultureorchard.com/the-farm/

Here is the German Composter. Available on Amazon. We ended up getting a Japanese one that is black. 

And by the way, the picture at the top was James Watt, a Scottish inventor.

Harvesting Rainwater

Here is a list of municipalities in Nagano prefecture that offer financial incentives to have rainwater tanks (in Japanese; no guarantee that it's up to date and I can't remember where I found it):



市町村
指定タンク
助成金額
担当部署連絡先
長野市
100リットル以上500リットル未満
費用の半額 25000円
長野市河川課 026-224-5046

500リットル以上
費用の半額 50000円
安曇野市
100リットル以上500リットル未満
費用の半額 25000円
市民環境部環境課 0263-82-3131

500リットル以上
費用の半額 50000円
飯田市
100リットル以上500リットル未満
費用の半額 25000円
地球温暖化対策課 地球温暖化対策係 0265-22-4511

500リットル以上
費用の半額 50000円
上田市
100リットル以上500リットル未満
費用の半額 30000円
市民生活部生活環境課 0268-23-5120

500リットル以上
費用の半額 50000円





Monday, 3 April 2017

Odds and ends

In 1962 Bob Dylan was worried that the world would be engulfed in nuclear holocaust and he would not have time to write all the songs he had ideas for. So he put them together into one song: A hard rain's gonna fall. Fifty four years later he won the Nobel prize for literature, and Patti Smith sang that song in Stockholm. 

I'm not too worried about nuclear holocaust, and would be even more speechless than Dylan to receive a Nobel Prize, but I do have over 700 emails in my drafts box, of which over 100 are nascent blog posts. So here are some of the bits, all thrown into one mass of mildly interesting information.

Design

Interesting piece here from January 2008 by Dr Andrew J Marsh saying the biggest energy savings can be made in the first couple of weeks of the design process. If you read nothing else about low energy building, read this!
http://naturalfrequency.com/articles/efficientbuildings

Should cups be made out of plastic or paper, or neither? That old chestnut!
http://carbon-clear.com/files/Reuseable_vs_Disposable_Cups_2012.pdf

Buildings

A Passive House building in Sweden using thermal mass
A passive house retrofit of a block of flats in the UK
http://europhit.eu/cs14-wilmcote-multifamily-house-portsmouth

A passive house in Ireland
http://passivebuild.blogspot.jp/2012/05/getting-passive-house-passivhaus.html

A Japanese company providing dome houses
https://www.bess.jp/products/

A guy who built a house in about six weeks.
http://themetapicture.com/this-guy-started-with-nothing-after-6-weeks-he-built-something-awesome/

A very cool-looking shed
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/remodeling-design/blogs/tetra-shed-for-all-of-your-home-office-and-adult-time-out-needs

Increasingly random but not necessarily any more interesting

Solar powered airships
http://www.solarship.com/

How to market green building features to home buyers
A nice design for a desk light
http://www.earthtechling.com/2011/05/led-desk-lamp-made-from-recycled-e-waste/
A recipe for white concrete
http://www.concreteconstruction.net/concrete-articles/some-notes-on-white-concrete-mix-design.aspx 
Primary energy factors - how much energy was used to get the energy to your house
http://www.slideshare.net/sustenergy/webinar-primary-energy-factors-for-electricity-in-buildings

Pros and cons of induction heating
http://theinductionsite.com/proandcon.shtml

A paper on Phase Change materials for thermal energy storage by Alvaro de Graciaa, Luisa F. Cabezab (Energy and Buildings, 103, 15 September, 2015)
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378778815004338

And if you're still thinking about building an igloo, but wondering what the U value will be, here is a forumla for the thermal conductivity of snow depending on its density ρ (in g/cm3):

keff = 0.138 - 1.01ρ + 3.233ρ2 {0.156 ≤ ρ ≤ 0.6}

This puts compressed snow at around 0.2 W/mK, which is slightly worse than wood. 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252860601_The_thermal_conductivity_of_snow