Archive for the 'Home improvement' category

Solar PV installation

Solar what?

I’ve not got a history of being especially green, yet I’ve just done something (apparently) rather “eco”. I’ve sold the M5, and rather than replacing it I have invested those funds along with some savings into a fairly noticeable set of solar panels for the house roof. There are three good reasons to do this:

1) It is ecologically preferable. Just 3 years ago we were a 3 car family, totalling nearly 10 litres and 700hp of motoring genius. There were all sorts of excursions such as trips to the Nűrburgring etc, but since then we’ve moved to larger house and become more invested in our local jobs and making a nest for our imminent family. It makes sense to try and put something back in. That said though to be honest I’d be quick to buy another large V8 if I thought I’d have the time and money to drag it sideways around circuits all weekend. Hmm.

2) More convincingly, there are substantial financial incentives currently in place for solar PV installations. Install after March 2012 and these incentives start fading annually, but install before April 2012 and there’s a tasty government backed, indexed linked “Feed in Tariff” (FiT) that should provide ROI for 25 years.

3) Most interestingly, this is some geeky apparatus. I’ve got some rather cool kit and can produce lots of stats and graphs. Fruity!


So anyway, all this started at the beginning of the year when the cost of heating water here at home was starting to get to me. At that point I was interested in solar thermal (and I still am), but my research from that point forward suggested that it would make sense to get solar PV first (to get in before the April 2012 deadline), and worry about solar thermal once I’d recovered from that. I’m fortunate that my friend Henry’s (of three peaks fame) father is the project leader for Rushcliffe Solar, and was able to point me in the right direction on many of these matters.

Still it wasn’t until July, when amidst British Gas’s announcement that they were going to significantly increase energy costs from mid-August, that I took a slightly different route to work and noticed a couple of nearby homes had recently had some panels fitted.

The above photo neatly highlights both the different styles of panels available, and the restrictions that roof size can make on an installation. Personally, I don’t like those silver trimmed efforts on the right, and I really like those black panels on the left. Also, the house on the right was clearly restricted to 12 panels by the size of their roof. With a good panel yielding around 245W, that installation on the right can at best produce 2,940W, whereas the 16 panels on the left could produce 3,920W. Systems under 4kW are eligible for the most favourable FiT, so I wondered if the installation on the left was exactly what I was looking for.

That evening on the way home from work I decided to visit the house on the left and see if they wouldn’t mind giving me some details. I was lucky enough to find the owners extremely enthusiastic and more than happy to pass on as much information as I could digest. Those are 245W Solar World PV modules, and they were installed by a company called Eco Fusion. Later that week I called up and soon had a site survey booked in.

Installation size and pre-requisites

I also realised that I’d probably have to do something about my house’s original 1975 fuse box:

So I booked an electrician from Diane’s business group to come in and replace that. As it happens he arrived on the same day as the PV survey, which handily allowed him to confirm their requirements. Once he had finished the fuse cupboard looked rather more satisfactory:

Anyway, back to the PV survey, which is where things got interesting. I’d roughly measured the roof, and had feared that we would only be able to have a 2×7 panel array up there. The survey guy explained that in order to protect against wind and to ensure running water doesn’t surge over the gutter, it’s necessary to ensure that the panels are at least 200mm from any roof edge. Consequently, we could only fit a 2×6 panel array on the main roof. He therefore suggested that we put 4 panels on the extension roof. Let’s put this into context with a photograph:

Yeah, it’s an ugly house. At least there’s no beauty to lose by coating it in solar technology! The house faces a little east of south, so the extension roof would be okay in the morning but would be shaded by the main house roof later in the day – not ideal. Still, the surveyor left and I mulled things over while I waited to hear back from them. I went out for a run and, having memorized the roof and panel dimensions, pondered the situation.

Suddenly I had a Eureka moment – what if the panels could be mounted in landscape rather than portrait? I knew the panels were 1001mm wide and a 20mm gap is required between each panel. So for panels + gaps + run-off the roof would need to be (4×1001) + (3×20) + (2×200) = 4464mm from ridge to gutter. There was only one way to be sure, and that was to get up there and measure it with a tape measure, and I was pleased to note it could be managed with a few mm to spare! So I called the shop and put this suggestion to them, and after and hour or so they came back to me and said it would work out.

I should note here that since then I’ve done some reading around as to what the minimum recommended distance from the edge is, and I’ve seen a variety of responses from 200mm to 600mm. So it would seem that my supplier (perhaps predictably) was willing to (literally!) sail a little closer to the wind than most. Still, there’s plenty of room from the left and right, and the panels can’t be seen over the ridge at all from the rear of the house (the danger point for wind-loading). We’ve had heavy rain and haven’t suffered with water flowing off the panels over the guttering at the front either.

Final specification

I had been quoted for 16x245W Solar World SW245 Mono panels (3,920W), and a Fronius TL 3.6 inverter (max input 3,800W, max output 3,600W). Obviously I questioned this – there’s the potential for the panels to overdrive this inverter. I was assured this was standard practice and that the inverter could cope with it just fine. I’ve pondered this and concluded that peak output is extremely unlikely to be delivered by the panels for long, and these inverters are designed to sense overload and shut down. If that happens, or if it’s damaged, I’ll hold Eco-Fusion accountable, but it does seem like a sensible approach.

The panels do degrade with time. Their specification sheet (linked to above) states they carry warranty to produce at least 90% of rated power after 10 years and at least 80% of rated power after 25 years. After 8% degradation they will match the inverter.


So, before the installation we had some scaffold arrive:

Now, that evening I decided to make use of this. Note the yellow tinge on the roof – there was a huge amount of moss and general roof garden up there. So I decided to get up there and blast it all off – with some kind assistance from Robin the second and Ben the first. The roof was cleaned by nightfall.

The following morning the house roof looked rather different.

It was suggested as a result of this process being documented on Facebook that we had removed a protective layer on the tiles by pressure washing them. Certainly there was a fairly radical change in colour which suggested some kind of staining had been removed. I inspected them carefully and compared the way they handled water being poured over them with the tiles on the back of the house (that we didn’t clean). There was no difference. I consulted an experienced roofer and trusted friend on the matter, and he seemed to think there was no issue. Still, to be safe I gave the roof a couple of coats of transparent tile seal.

Installation day itself was miserable – overcast with pretty constant drizzle. Did this stop the installation? Hell no!

At about 10am a 3 man team arrived – two for the roof and an electrician. There was work to be done in the electrical cupboard, and the inverter was to be installed in the loft.

On the roof the rails went up first, and then the panels were fixed in place.

In the loft:

In the electrical cupboard:

By 3pm they were finished – very impressive given what they had to achieve and the weather. The panels are connected into two groups of eight and then feed into the black (DC) side of the inverter. From the inverter a cable runs to the roof edge and then subtly down the side of the house and into the electrical cupboard where the distribution board is driven.


The installation came with a Wattson energy meter. This is a fantastic piece of kit, especially if it is installed correctly, which it almost was. It comes with a couple of sensors which clip around live cables, and by measuring the EMF it knows how much current is flowing in those cables. Sadly though, it doesn’t know which way the current is flowing. It is bright enough to understand that one of the sensors may be for generated input power, which makes it ideal for the job.

It was installed with the generator clip in the right place, but the usage clip connected to our main feed from the grid. Under circumstances where we were generating less than we were using it worked a treat, but as it always assumed that the current sensed between the house and the grid was inbound (not export), when we generated more than we used it got things wrong. I fixed this by installing that clip within the distribution board on the feed to the RCDs (post-generator input), but that meant that it knew nothing about our night-time only circuit which powers things like our storage and immersion heaters. Fortunately the Wattson can have additional inputs, so I invested in another clip and now the system works perfectly.

The Wattson logs all data and I can access it via USB using my laptop and the inevitably named software “Holmes”.

I’ve also got an Environ Current Cost meter and internet bridge. I’ve connected this in such a way that it measures only our generated power and it logs this every 15 minutes on the internet. This means that from anywhere in the world, I can at any time see how much energy the house is generating. Which, as a geek, makes me very happy indeed. So for instance, here’s our generation stats so far today:

Isn’t that wonderful! The blue line and scale on the right are the temperature in the office here at home. Here are the two meters next to each other earlier today:

That’s 3.17kW of energy being harvested from the roof on the left, and an export (hence the minus symbol) of 2.7kW on the right. From that we can deduce that the house is using a little under 500W, which is about right (fridge, freezer, server, laptop, computer, 2 screens, modem, router, switches etc). I have even seen generation figures of just over 3.6kW which is nice and proves that everything is certainly working as it should. To drive all this the electrical cupboard has a couple of wireless transmitters and a total of 4 sensor clips:


So as you can see from the generation meter above, in the ten days since this system was brought online we’ve generated 146kWh. At the current FiT rate of 43.3ppkWh, that’s £63.22 I’m owed. Put into perspective against the massive capital outlay required to install this system that’s not much, but it’ll continue to grow with no additional effort. There are also other revenues. Firstly, my supplier pays 3.1ppkWh exported. As they can’t tell exactly what was exported they assume 50% (which probably suits them more than me), but that’s another £2.26 off my next bill so far. If that is averaged over the quarterly cycle that’s a more meaningful £20 saving. More importantly though, our daytime usage from the grid has more than halved since these panels were installed, so especially in the summer months those bills will be drastically reduced.

As I’d expect from such a big financial outlay, this is a fantastic toy. However, compared with say a car (and I spent more on the 330d when I bought it), it should prove to be rather more profitable! As it happened it was installed on my 32nd birthday, and it is my hope that the capital expenditure will have been recouped before I am 40. I will post again some time around late October when I’ve got statistics for the system being active either side of equinox – hopefully from there I’ll be able to extrapolate with enough meaningful data to make a more accurate prediction. Until then, here are some photos of the completed system:


More exterior lighting

16 months ago I sorted out the exterior lighting at the back of the house, and I intended on doing the same to the front soon after. This weekend, I finally got around to it. I started at 8am on Saturday, worked until dark, restarted at 10am today, and finished at around 3pm. It was cold, and it rained – a lot. Why didn’t I do this in the summer?!

This job was a little more complicated than the back, mainly because the house didn’t have any outside lights at the front when I started. Well, it had a 500W flood-lamp that some oik had mounted above the garage door in a rather ropey fashion.

I know: what a fugly house. Anyway. There’s a light in the porch, which was once upon a time outside, but has long ago been converted into dry space. It was a rubbish light, so I started by doing away with that and examining the wiring situation so I could evaluate my options.

I really wanted to achieve the following:

1) A better lamp in the porch (easy)

2) Outside lanterns like the back garden (moderate)

3) Separate switches for those two circuits (hard)

A root around in the porch ceiling space quickly revealed the ground floor lighting ring main and the to-switch loop cable. However, there was no chance of threading another control cable through the ceiling space to the back of those light switches. So I went across the ceiling, and through the wall instead.

It’s not pretty, but I’m sure we’ll find something to cover it all up at some stage. ;)

So that’s a spur coming from the lighting circuit down from the ceiling into the junction box. The control loop goes from the junction box through the wall to the back of those switches (good fun with a giant drill bit!), and then the switched power cable runs from the bottom of the junction box and through the porch wall to the outside wall.

The inside switches now look like this (note, we haven’t decorated the hall yet – there’s still a bare plaster ceiling etc – so the mismatch around the switch panel will get sorted at a later date).

Nice bright porch light – just 15W and considerably brighter than its predecessor.

That’s about as far as I got on Saturday. Today I set about getting the lanterns up and running those horrible cables, plus I removed that nasty flood lamp.

I managed to hide the cables on the garage lights under the roof flashing, but the ones on the porch are sadly far more obvious – as is that junction box under the left porch window. In the spring we will try to plant some shrubbery to hide them!

As night fell, cold, wet and shivering, I was able to admire the results of my toil.

So now night-time trips to the car and the bins are much easier! It’s not quite enough to work on cars though – I’ll have to get flood lamps on stands for that, but I’ve always wanted to own some of those anyway.

I appear to have come down with a cold – no doubt aggravated by today’s exposure to winter. Still, I’m especially pleased with the results. :)

12 months of home improvement

On the 16th July we marked a year since we moved house. I had meant to blog about that at the time, but as I like to say, better late than never. Upstairs, we’ve finally finished the main bedroom; here’s a before, during, and after.

I’m really pleased with the ceiling fan and downlighters – although they were horrific to install (the loft is extremely unpleasant). We bought that tiger picture on our first trip to India. We’ve also replaced the carpet in the other (rather lively yellow) front room, and I’ve turned one of the back bedrooms into a little office; the final bedroom is simply still repugnant.

Downstairs we’ve just had the dining room wall plastered – it was incredibly warped. This photo of the drying plaster nicely illustrates the previous shape: the dark patches are wet; the plaster here is a lot thicker, the result is now smooth. This photo was taken 48 hours after work was completed.

Now it’s still a bit of a mess, but the majority of the decorating is complete.

In the living room, remember this?

Mid way:

And today with carpet and sofas – it’s great to finally have this room finished!

Di’s office ready for carpets:

I spent much of a Saturday chiselling channels for the AV cables around that doorway:

And today:

All in all, my plan is finally coming together! :)

Update on home improvements

Prompted at least in part by Robin being asked to blog more, and also because I noticed that I completely failed to blog in January, and February is coming to a close, here’s a long overdue update from me on ‘stuff’.

I’ll start with Di’s office, a room that doubles as my gaming room. Here’s a shot of the gaming end of the room taken in August, shortly after we moved in and began decorating:

Here’s a shot of that end of the room today:

The blue screen reminds me I’m in the middle of a Fedora Core upgrade on the server, but that’s probably a topic for a more geeky post. Most relevant in the above photo is the sub and two satellite speakers. There are two more at the other end of the room, plus a centre speaker behind the TV. I’ve also run a signal cable from Di’s computer, so there’s a choice of inputs from the PS3, the server, or Di’s workstation. This can either be in 5.1 theatre mode – great for Modern Warfare on the PS3 or films, or in general audio mode – excellent for music while we work or are entertaining.

I’m really quite disproportionately enthusiastic about this audio situation. I’m a really big fan of having speakers high up in all corners of the room. Music from a tinny point source just isn’t something I’m interested in; I’d much rather have music fill the room without needing to be too loud. Additionally, the surround sound experience is amazing. When playing Modern Warfare in the dark, the sound of gunfire and explosions going off in relevant corners of the room definitely adds to the experience.

Moving on then (ahem!), the living room. Remember this?

We’ve made some progress here. I started by ripping up the minging carpet. This reveals slightly less minging underlay. Still, we’ve had the room decorated, fitted some curtains and stuck up a few pictures. Finishing touches (like a replacement carpet and a new sofa) will have to wait until the hound can be better trusted.

I also want to get a modern surround sound system for this room (the one in Di’s office is well over a decade old). There are also speakers in the kitchen and dining room, and I really want to be able to chain the three rooms together in such a way that any source in any room can be listened to in any or all rooms downstairs. This will be so good not only for parties, but also for some banging tunes to do chores to.

As a general note I want to replace all the interior doors. Unfortunately they’re all a very bizarre non-standard size, so I’ll have to appoint someone to make nice white doors with glass panels to just the right size. Moving through that doorway to the kitchen and dining room:

We still haven’t done anything about the funny green walls or that revolting door, but we have had Alexander Barden round to fit new flooring. There was lino flooring in the kitchen, and it is just about possible to see the old carpet below the cupboard door. I did have a picture of the man himself, hard at work displaying his generous bum-cleavage, but fortunately for you, dear reader, I can’t find that photo. Still, we’re really pleased with the results.

Upstairs there has been progress in the master bedroom, taking it from this:

To this:

New carpet required here too, and fortunately this is a no-dog zone, so we just need to get our act together there. As an aside, I’ve replaced the three single sockets in this room with double sockets. I really despise single sockets! Why go to all the effort of cabling up, cutting a hole and purchasing hardware to arrive at a single socket. A double could have been fitted for such little extra effort and cost!

The darker wall there is covered in a really nice textured paint – just a hint of 3D to it. I did try to photograph it but I appear to lack sufficient skills to produce a picture that suitably demonstrates the effect.

Finally, while Alex was working here he also fitted a shower screen which has modernised and tidied the bathroom nicely:

One day I’ll get around to putting the side of the bath back on!

In other matters Di is currently catching some rays in Tunisia, and Snoop is growing up nicely. Without going into too much detail, it has been a few weeks now since he has done anything, even overnight, that means I can’t call him house trained.

Alex is now self-employed. He specialises in network cable installations for business, but has significant experience as a builder and so is generally available for home improvement jobs such as new kitchens, bathrooms, wall relocation etc. If you’re interested in his services drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch!

A spot of decorating

Coincidentally, we’ve got a chap coming in to decorate the living room this week, the same week I’m largely off work to decorate one of the bedrooms. As work gets underway on both rooms, I thought I’d share a few ‘before’ photos.

So, the living room:

living room

living room 2

And the bedroom:


Clearly all carpets, power points, light fittings and interior doors have to go! Although the carpets and doors might have to wait until the dog is a little more under control.

On a geeky note, all images served on this blog’s pages are now hosted on Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3). It’s a great platform that ensures high availability and redundancy, so these pages should always be nice and quick. :)

Home – new ceilings and a more civilized garage

We had our downstairs ceilings replaced this week. We were supposed to be decorating Di’s office over this bank holiday weekend, but due to a unique blend of laziness, drying plaster, and the need for a  little more work from the plasterer (happening this coming week) we didn’t start that. I can say that I’m really pleased with the new, smooth ceilings. They definitely help me envisage how the house will look when everything is finished, and will certainly play a big part in making our living space more modern.

Here’s the kitchen/diner:


Urgh, those doors! The living room (urgh, that carpet!)

living room

And Di’s office:


A bit dull – hopefully I’ll be able to offer some photos of that office with some colour involved sometime soon! On other matters, you may recall that I cleared out the garage back in June. From that article, note the poor lighting – one strip lamp and a single bulb  at the other end.

Empty garage

This weekend I improved the lighting at the ‘car’ end (and, perhaps more importantly, sorted everything out so that there is now room for either car in there!


Looks pretty minging, but it’s now nice and bright. I’ll upgrade the other end from 1 to 3 strip lamps when I’ve got more cable, a distro box, two more lamp units, and more time. For now, the other end looks like this:


Busy, but navigable. Another improvement I’m really happy with is that I’ve mounted my old Pioneer speakers in the corners.


And rigged together a little hi-fi.


Tunes and bright lighting means a happy and productive Neil in the garage. :)

Oh and finally (for what I realize is quite a dull post, sorry about that), I’ve replaced the rusty 1978 light switches.


Di’s office – progress

So, the day we moved in, Di’s new office looked like this:


Very green and gold! We’ve finally moved all her clutter in, and more importantly, backed the walls off to bare plaster, and changed the light fittings.


On Friday night, the other end of that room looked like this:


It’s been a busy weekend!


We’re waiting on a quote to get the ceilings skimmed, and we’ll get my 30th birthday ‘do’ out of the way before we consider starting the painting process.

Also, Diane has finished varnishing the spice rack Robin has made us, so we’re chuffed to see that in place:


Various home updates

It’s been a while, and I’m sorry car fans but next to naff all has occurred with the vehicles. They’ve both been regularly driven, in the usual style, but nothing to report. Well, I had a good trip in the M5 last Saturday: to Brighton to drop off Di, then to Heathrow to collect Robin – all very civilised.

At home we’ve had a bit of progress. We’ve now got 3 of 5 bedrooms usable which is nice. We’re cracking on nicely with Diane’s office. Preparing the walls for decoration takes ages but we’re getting there. This is the final end that needs doing:


Note the lovely green walls and splendid gold light fittings. The other end of the room, bare, looks rather better!


Decorating is of course rather an undignified process!


Outside matters are a bit more pleasant. We had a breakfast of fresh English garden apples (from our tree), and fresh Californian oranges (from Robin’s garden). How often do you manage that! Completely organic, not a pesticide in sight. Here’s Diane munching some cereal under our apple tree:


Note the minging old BBQ in the background. That’s not a BBQ – THIS is a BBQ!


I’ll be off out to get some gas for that later. On other matters, Robin has constructed this rather fine spice rack for our kitchen. The final job is to varnish it, but exquisite work from the Willis as usual, finely crafting this Californian Red Oak for our English kitchen.


Finally, I got Diane a new lens for her camera for her birthday that makes her look like rather a pro!



Exterior lighting

In case there’s another summer’s evening this year, I would like to be able to use the garden after dark. The existing lighting arrangements weren’t acceptable.


£70 for 5 lanterns, bulbs and cabling at Wickes, and we were off.


Don’t worry. It’ll be FINE!


Really chuffed with the result – a nicely illuminated garden. :) Now, where’s that summer’s evening…



Now, what else can I do to avoid unpacking?

Goodbye Tregarth

I moved house today. Not a great deal has sunk in, except that Diane and I are now in a quite ridiculous amount of debt, and the government has received an obscene stamp duty payment that I have every confidence will be suitably wasted. In this post, I’d like to concentrate on the outgoing house.

Built around 1980, I moved in to 46 Tregarth Place 22 years later. It hadn’t had much love in that time. Original carpets and bathroom. The kitchen had one drawer and three cupboards. Woodchip on every wall. However, it had two bedrooms and a tidy garage, so I was chuffed.

I’m really disappointed I don’t have many photos from back then. Here’s one from Christmas day 2002 – Robin tending to dinner:

old kitchen

Note the nasty electric cooker, the complete lack of lower cupboards etc. Another shot of Tom and Robin from that night:

old kitchen 2

Yes, that’s yellow woodchip. Nice eh?

We left the kitchen in considerably better condition. Hardly showhome standard, but modern, no less than 6 drawers(!), properly tiled floor, under-cupboard lighting etc.

kitchen new1

Okay, so the cooker may not look that great, but it was gas and it got things hot quickly. I loved it!

Here’s a photo of the living room from Christmas 2004.


Lovely blue woodchip, crap carpet etc. This is how it was left today:



The bathroom that Alex installed over Easter 2006:


2nd bedroom (Diane’s office)



Main bedroom (a *lot* bigger than our new bedroom) :(


Finally, garden shots:



In our time there, the house had a new bathroom, new kitchen, double glazing and new doors, new carpets, a shed, and a general all-round tidy. Lucky new owners!

Really enjoyed my time there – some crazy parties! When living in a terrace the general experience relies on good neighbours, and I had some really good neighbours. Overall, a good 7 years!

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