James Strawbridge, from TV's It’s Not Easy Being Green, describes how solar power is used on New House Farm
The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, and here at New House Farm we are making electricity and hot water. I find summer the best time of year for getting work done, especially if it involves working in the sun. This month we have been trying a new regime – I call it regime because my dad, the ex-Army colonel that he is, proceeds to sing Morning Has Broken at dawn like a badly played bugle.
It’s a real insight working summer hours, dawn ‘til dusk, and gives us a great opportunity to get every bit of sunshine possible and make the most of the most productive growing season in the year.
All the plants are growing at an incredible rate and, although it takes some effort to catch up with the weeding, it is a great time to reap the rewards of the hard work we put in over the spring. Harvesting fresh salads is a daily job and needs to be kept on top of so the lettuces don’t bolt and turn into giant pyramid garden sculptures (I insist on letting a few get away with it because I think they look cool! My dad disagrees …) Summer is also the time to enjoy the investment we put in over the last few years with our solar power.
There was a time when most people thought solar power was only a viable option in hot countries such as Spain, but it is pretty surprising just how much sun we do get in this country. Here at New House Farm we opted to try both solar thermal technology and PV (photovoltaic) solar panels. There is a big difference between the two systems, and there are variations within them for different energy options. Solar thermal works on the basic concept of heating water. There is a sort of hierarchy of technology here that gets increasingly efficient and more worthwhile. The most basic systems are black plastic that heat water and then feed into your boiler. Then, marginally better, is a copper system that can conduct heat more effectively and therefore supply more hot water. The pinnacle of available solar thermal heating is an evacuated tube system that heats a copper element within a sealed double glazing tube and then the water is heated over the top through a manifold. Insulated piping then takes the hot water inside to feed into our hot water tank.
This may sound complicated but, if you have any experience in plumbing or DIY, then it’s worth a go at installing it yourself – it works out a lot cheaper too! The company I recommend for value and energy efficiency is Navitron. So, solar thermal technology heats water and saves money. Admittedly, the initial investment is an issue but, if you calculate how much money you will save over the course of one summer, the payback makes a lot of sense.
To put it in perspective, by 11am on a sunny day, our 250l/6ft tank sits at about 66ºC, full of free hot water. Plus, how cool is it to have free hot showers!
Solar PV is quite a lot more expensive but equally useful. This month I helped put another solar panel next to the spring to help charge the batteries which feed our house with water for toilets, showers, washing machines, etc. This system was put in place to operate a 12V demand pump that goes up to the attic space into a header tank. Although the turbine and existing solar panel worked well, we decided to boost the batteries with some extra power. However, putting up a solar panel and pointing it towards the sun is not as simple as it sounds – as I was soon to discover. Physicist and eco-technician-friend Jim Milner, who worked with us on the previous It’s Not Easy Being Green projects, helped explain to me how to calculate the appropriate seasonal angle. Obviously the sun changes position over the year, so we needed to adjust them to a summer setting.
Which direction should they face?
South is a good start! Then, using our latitude, which is approximately 52º, you add 15º in summer and subtract 15º in winter. It is possible to buy systems that track the sun using mircochips and even more technology, but I would say it is not completely necessary for a small-scale domestic system.
Tips for a greener grill at the barbecue
The summer happily sees New House Farm becoming an incineration site for burgers, sausages, kebabs and the occassional shoulder of lamb. As with lots of lifetsyle choices, we think about the eco impact of our activity, and even the flames of the barbecue can’t escape.
Environmentally, barbecues are obviously not that significant compared to what we use in our everyday lives – lights, TVs, cars, etc. But, nonetheless, there are still ways to green up your burgers. Home grown salad is a great start, and being aware that serving meals on reusable plates, real utensils and washable napkins rather than plastic or paper products makes a big difference, as does planning a menu based on sustainable food choices. We try to use our own produce or buy local organic foods where possible, everything from vegetables to meats, fish and pudding. Buying local minimises the use of fossil fuels (because it’s transported over shorter distances) and supports the local farmers.
Having had a word with my dad, I now know that there are four basic options for a quality beer-infused barbecue: gas grills (natural gas or propane), electric grills, charcoal grills (using manufactured briquettes or ‘lump charcoal’), or grilling on a wood fire. We always go for local lump wood charcoal but are also looking at building an earth oven that runs on logs. Choosing charcoal carefully can make a big difference. We try to buy charcoal that comes from sustainably managed forests. Look for charcoal with a label proving it is made from sustainable wood. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) labels can both be found on sustainable charcoal in high street shops.
Finally, to have a greener grill try wrapping up warm when you get chilly as it’s far better than using an outdoor heater – even if it does cover up your newly-acquired tan! Heaters powered by gas or electricity use an awful lot of energy – it is estimated that in four hours the average patio heater emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as the average car emits in a day!
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