Espying Energy Efficiency

Our top tips for increasing energy efficeincy and reducing your outgoings as well as your footprint

Another day, yet another phone call from a family member bemoaning the increasing energy bills and asking for off-grid advice in order to reduce their payments. Through an increasing and alarming number of these conversation it struck me that some of the adaptations we’ve made to our lives which enable us to live off-grid have now become useful in a wider context.

Off-grid energy is no longer a novel idea reserved only for forest-bound dreamers. Over the last couple of years we have received calls from many friends and family members asking us about solar energy and, particularly in winter, heating efficiency.

A completely off-grid system may be a stretch too far for some but that does not mean that the knowledge acquired from living in this way and the thought processes behind its realisation are not relevant in our current paradigm. We are constantly striving to do things in a more efficient manner, namely through constant reduction of consumption. Three years ago we hosted an open day for a local environmental group called ‘Agir Ensemble’. One section of this was a presentation to the group about the house and its systems. Afterwards we welcomed questions, which were readily taken up, the first being the most poignant. A lovely older chappy asked in his elegant French, “Where is the start point? I have never been in house that has managed to be truly off-grid, how do you begin?”. My answer, in far less elegant French, was that it all starts with reducing consumption. Reduce, reduce, reduce. Look again and reduce again. Through continuously repeating this cycle, examining every single daily activity repeatedly, it is possible to streamline, reducing bills yet not reducing health and wellbeing. This is the crucial start point. Not “how can I do everything I’m doing now but cheaper”, this sentiment will not go well if your aim is to reduce energy bills.

A shift in our thought processes to ‘how can I achieve this with minimum consumption’, also known in the biz as LEAN thinking, is what has really enabled us to move to an off-grid lifestyle, where each element has taken time to marinade and manifest. I hope this post will provide a little of that knowledge to you and perhaps a couple of the points will be relevant for your own home.

Clearly, there is a difference between starting a house from scratch and an exisiting building. But there are some easy wins, or as Dan likes to call them ‘the low hanging fruit’, where you can get a bigger return for your effort without large outlays of cash. The list encompasses a wide variety of life matters in winter, some are building and design specific, others are focussed on behaviour.

Herein follow a few tips from our house. To some they may seem very obvious, to others, revolutionary.

  • Have a thorough check and install or increase insulation everywhere. In the roof space, in the floor, in the walls. This is the number one element which will make heating your house more efficient. We used strawbales in the walls, cellulose (old pulped newspapers) in the roof, and a mixture of cellulose and wool in the floor. It is an investment but one that will have the highest yield.
  • Check all windows and doors and fix/stuff any bad seals with cylindrical foam strips/tape/insulating strip/old socks.
  • Ensure glazing is fully exposed when the sun is on it, do not allow curtains to get in the way, make sure they are pulled back allowing as much sunlight through the glass as possible. This is a very effective way to passively heat your home in winter: the sun is lower (if it does actually make an appearance at all!) at this time of year and its trajectory is better placed to hit windows and continue into the house to heat surfaces and walls.
  • Fix/mend existing heating options before jumping into huge outlays and debt. Examine what you currently have and see if you can fix it. One of our family members has had no integrated heating system for two winters now and was considering going into debt in order to install a brand new air source heat pump, but upon further investigation it transpired that they already have an installed wood-burning central heating system which has been broken. From our perspective, we suggested hiring a technician out to fix this before jumping into debt for the new system, use it for a winter and monitor how much this costs. Then a mathematical comparison can be made between this existing system and the potential new system.
  • Placing draught excluders at the bottom of doors and along window ledges where you can feel a change of temperature when you place your face close to it, no matter how marginal, will help prevent the heat exchange, especially if you have radiators directly below your windows. Check them regularly to make sure no mould has formed.
  • Investing in thick, thermal curtains – in front of windows and the front door as well as any other glazing, double doors, sliding doors, etc. This is a Scandinavian trick, in the more northern parts of Norway, is it common to have a summer set of curtains and a winter set, the winter set being thick, heavy weave, designed to keep out draughts. Very thick curtains can often be found at charity shops. We also double up our curtains to create layers, which involves a different curtain rail with two lines, but it is very effective and was my way of emulating the windows I saw in Siberia, which are double, but with a large space between them.
  • Placing thick woollen rugs on the floor can help with further floor insulation and just feels yummy.
  • Ensure one room is the ‘snug room‘, preferably a smaller, south-facing room with low ceilings, which is easy to heat through any method and allows for you to place chairs, sofas and/or dining tables in the sunshine. Close off large draughty rooms whenever they are unnecessary and decamp into the one room more during the winter months.
  • Appliances: Take time to truly reevaluate. Fewer appliances means fewer replacements and much less electricity usage. Machines that produce heat and movement use the most energy, start with those. The big hitters are washing machines and ovens. With washing machines, turning it to a short cold cycle is not only more energy efficient it is kinder to your clothes and linens, they will last longer. In parts of the world this is very normal, in China the washing machine in my apartment only had a cold water option as warm water is considered very bad for clothes. I now have a small washing machine, identical to the one I had in China, which is 350W and runs off my solar panels. Because it is usually the heating element not the motor which breaks first on a washing machine, this choice helped to mitigate that. We also have a small 350W ‘Panda’ rice cooker, which has allowed us to bake during the summer (you may remember we had a GoSun which baked entirely passively in the sun, it was so great in its conception, but after the third time of the glass shattering we lost faith in it). It not only cooks rice, but also bakes cakes and porridge, slow cooks, steams and all with incredibly small energy usage. Again, this was a top learning point from our time in Asia, where they are much more prevalent. Big conventional ovens use between 2000 and 5000 watts and are often turned on for long periods of time to heat small meals, this is very inefficient and costs a lot. If you truly ask yourself how often is my oven full, it is often only at Christmas.
  • In the winter we place an insulated marine fishing cool-box outside and turn off the fridge. It is already chocking cold outside, why pay for an appliance to cool when nature is doing it for you? This only works if you have outside space, preferably out of direct sunlight. If it is possible to place your freezer outside (if you have one), this also helps, the freezer must work harder the higher the ambient temperature outside it is, therefore putting it in a colder environment will use less energy.
  • If you have a wood-burner, use it for more than heating; ensure the heat is being used in a multitude of ways, e.g. heating water water for tea and washing up, cooking and reheating, and perhaps devising a way of connecting your hot water system to it. Also, check the efficiency of the wood burner, is it heating a large thermally-gaining wall behind it? Can rocks be placed in it or nearby which can then be used to radiate heat elsewhere? There are many tricks for getting more of the heat/wood being burned.
  • This may harken back to your grandparents (actually most of this list does!), when wearing thermal woollen underwear was very normal, but it works. Investing in some full wool under layers is far easier and much less scratchy than it used to be, companies producing responsibly sourced wool (like Isobaa), are both affordable and highly effective. Better yet, take a look on Vinted or keep your eyes peeled in charity shops. Buying second hand can be much cheaper, it is a good trick to look at the material first. Wool is a magical material, it keeps you warmer than anything else, through regulation rather than overheating, and it is much more resistant to odours, meaning less washing.
  • Best to not open windows and doors on the north/cold side of the house, obviously!
  • Cooking efficiently; using a thermal bag or a giant thermos to continue the cooking process once a soup or stew is up to temperature really reduces energy usage, and making bigger batches of food also helps to further reduce energy needs.
  • At night time (and actually during the day too if you work from home) a good ole trusty hot water bottle can work wonders, it would be my ‘in an apocalypse’ choice! A more high-tech solution could be the incredibly low wattage electric blankets, which can be used both in bed and also to wrap around you in other parts of the house.
  • Investing in high quality bedding can also help. Using a fleece under sheet, wool duvets (like the ones from Baavet), alongside an extra thick blanket, can go a long way to being comfortable in bed, heating yourself, not the entire space. Similarly, using a blanket when you are watching something, reading or working is equally helpful. Alongside that, you could entice a local snugglepuff to come and set up camp on your lap 🐱
  • Create more inner fire. When you are feeling the cold it is so so hard to motivate yourself to get up from under the blanket, but I know from much experience, that getting up, going outside for a walk, having a dance about the house, doing a workout, a vinyasa practice, cleaning, anything I can to get the inner fire going, will result in a much happier (and warmer) me.

Here is a list of the ‘higher hanging fruit’. Not such quick fixes but elements you may wish to consider if you are looking to install new systems or build a new house:

  • Straw bale walls! 😁 Please see a multitude of our other blogs for further info on this…
  • One of the best elements of our house system is the passive solar water heater. It just works and is truly awesome. They are used all over Asia to heat water and also in Spain to heat swimming pools.
  • Off-grid solar panels. Please see other blog posts for more info.
  • Using adobe walls within the interior of the house to hold thermal mass.
  • Install simple under floor heating, ideally connected to your wood burner or existing heating system.

Hopefully one or two of these suggestions and learning points from our house is useful for you in reducing your consumption, if nothing else, I hope it will get you thinking about it in and considering each stage of your daily life in a more energy-efficient manner. I have many learning points for keeping a house cool in the increasingly hot summers, I will endeavour to write that up in time for the next big heatwave. For now, stay snuggly!

One Comment on “Espying Energy Efficiency

  1. Super! you guys have done so well. Oh! Flee what is the elegant French translation for “yummy”


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