Home and Shop Companion 0141
Home and Shop Companion 0141

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Last weekend I tidied the log store. It was long overdue, with a build-up of leaves and other debris at the bottom and the remains of the well-stacked log pile hidden behind a jumble of longer pieces that were too long to fit in the wood stove. To cap it all, there were a few sacks of twigs for lighting the fire dumped on top. With winter on its way, I wanted to sort it out before moving a fresh lot of logs from the far end of the garden where they are organised and stacked under cover, with two-year-old logs on the left and one-year-old logs on the right.

We are not totally reliant on wood for our heating, we also have an oil-fired central heating boiler, but at twenty-five years old, it is at the end of its life. Our little wood stove, by contrast, is the same age but is doing just fine. It needed a new baffle and two new firebricks last year, which were easily replaced and now it is as good as when it was new. When we got it, our new wood stove was one of the best available and it is extremely effective, only needing an armful of wood [around 1½ cubic feet] to keep it going from late morning until bedtime. The other reason I like it is because it was a present, a house-warming present both literally and metaphorically, from some dear friends from Germany who visited when we were working on the house. We had talked about getting a woodstove, though money was tight, and one day they simply went out and bought it: good friends, generous friends.

A quarter of a century on, we are having another think about the house, because it needs more work. The reason it has been somewhat neglected has mostly been financial, but a few months ago we finally paid off our mortgage – quite the relief. I don’t know what it is like where you live, but here the average house costs about ten times the average annual wage, and land prices are about a third of an average annual wage per acre. If you have the two together, if you want a house with land, just keep on adding. It is said that you pay twice when you borrow, once for repaying the capital and again for the interest, but I think you pay more, at least it feels like it. From experience, I know how those repayments keep you poor, and that keeps you inflexible, not having the spare cash to jump when you see a good deal or being able to invest in yourself, even when it will save you money later. Added to that is the mental burden of keeping going, working out how to get by through the tough times, your mind over-stretched so you lose mental agility, tending to settle for the easy or normal, acquiescing to the mundane. And that works out pretty well for the banks and corporations that want to sell you expensive money, cheap thrills and keep you in line. But I digress.

In the search for what we might do to improve the house, a few weeks ago we went to visit a neighbour to look at their house. Its construction is similar to ours, but they have upgraded the insulation in the floors, roof and walls, as well as incorporating new systems. Like us, they have photovoltaic panels on the roof, but they have many more, all connected to two big batteries, and if the power grid goes down, their batteries self-isolate from the grid so they can use their own PV or stored electricity. Not only that, the batteries are also connected to the internet so if storms are forecast, the batteries automatically charge up to full, rather than to the usual level set by the home owner, so they are at maximum capacity if the power goes off. They also have an electric car, so when the solar is producing, they can decide whether to dump any excess electricity into the batteries or into the car, rather than exporting electricity at a cheap price to the power company. Their other use for electricity is their ground source heat pump, which pumps fluid through pipes buried in the ground, and the low-level heat is harvested by the heat exchanger, which works like a refrigerator working backwards to heat the house, so in many respects they have decarbonised their living. With all this technology, including two arrays of PV panels, a solar hot water system, and multiple sensors and internet connectivity, it is an impressive system which gives them a degree of independence both from energy price fluctuations and supply.

A few days later I mentioned our visit to another neighbour, a mechanic by trade who mostly works on classic cars made up to about the 1980s. His view was a bit different, he likes stuff that is straightforward to understand, stuff he can fix himself, so was unsure about the wisdom of lithium batteries, being happier with lead acid batteries, and if he was thinking about doing something along these lines, and he is, he would be thinking about harvesting the heat out of the flue of a wood stove, of having a simpler system, being dubious about the expense of some of this equipment and its complexity, ‘just because it is new, doesn’t mean it is the way to go.’

In response, I pointed to the field where the horses were, and my archaic equipment, ‘you don’t need to tell me that!’ But perhaps he did; perhaps I had got a little carried away by the shiny tech!

Since then, I have been investigating different ways to make our house more efficient. The first priority is to increase the insulation in the original part of the house, which has solid brick walls. But when it comes to heating, the recommendation nowadays for ecological heating is usually some sort of heat pump, either air source, which have to work hard to extract heat out of the air when the outside temperature is low, or ground source, like our neighbour’s system. Although the physics of getting heat out of the ground makes better sense than getting it from cold air, I am uneasy about burying yards of plastic in the ground and I don’t want to excavate my vegetable garden and dig up the hedges either, even though a heat pump delivers three times as much energy as heat compared with the energy it uses to drive the pump. Larger radiators or under floor heating would also be required, so it would be a major operation. Added to that, the heating is needed exactly at the time of year when the solar panels are producing the smallest amount of electricity, so the power to drive the heat pump would have to be bought, and we would be totally dependent on one source of power.

Home and Shop Companion 0141

So then I come back to wood stoves. Although our present wood stove is small, it is in a small room which it easily heats, so we leave the doors open and the heat percolates through the house. We are also wondering about getting another for the other downstairs room or moving the existing one and putting a new one where the old one is, so we could link it with a hot water tank. It seems like a good idea, but things have moved on since we got the stove. Nowadays, many stoves are as efficient as ours, and this year the European Union, followed by the UK, introduced a new regulation limiting the amount of polluting gases emitted from any new wood stove. This is a problem if you want to heat water with the stove, because the water jacket, the boiler, sucks heat out of the firebox, keeping the stove below a temperature where the gases are effectively burned. So most companies have simply stopped producing stoves with boilers, except for two, who are using the heat from the flue gases in the top of the stove to heat the water, so keeping the fire below burning hot. Of course, they are not cheap, but the technology, the pipework, is all simple, hot water systems [here] required by law to work by the hot water naturally rising, rather than being pumped, to avoid the possibility of the water boiling and the system exploding if the pump packed up. So perhaps we have a low-tech solution to make our little room less hot and use the extra heat for heating water, which will continue to work even when the power goes out, whilst the solar will heat our water in summer.

Just now we haven’t made any decisions. In the end I expect we will have a combination of different solutions, some simple, some more complex. By nature, I like to keep things simple, but I do recognise that some technology that I don’t understand is useful. These words, for example, were a lot more muddled an hour ago than they are now, reshuffled on my computer, and just now, even though it is cloudy, it is the solar panels that are powering it, along with the fridge and freezer. But I wouldn’t want to be without pen and paper, without a bow saw if I couldn’t charge my electric chain saw, or be unable to harness a horse to bring the firewood home.

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0141

Home and Shop Companion 0141