Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hobs and Choice, something to get steamed up about?

We have been researching new kitchen appliances in preparation for replacing our kitchen.  Technology has really moved on since last time we designed a kitchen 20-ish years ago.   We did not really know the extent of this until we started looking.

The first innovation we had heard about is induction hobs.  The technology is actually quite straight forward and quite old being based on a medium frequency transformer where the base of the pan acts as a shorted turn.  The thermal inertia is very low which means it heats up quickly but the best part is that when the pan is removed, so is the load so the hob only draws power when actively in use which means its also very safe.  It does require special thick bottomed cast iron pans but our cookware is ready to be replaced in any case.

Our current hob is gas fired so I was interested in the relative carbon footprint compared with Induction cooking? From an efficiency point of view Induction hobs are claimed to be 84% efficient compared with around 40% for gas (Source Wikipedia).   The salesman also quoted the benefit of not requiring ventilation for induction hobs though I would think the excess heat from the gas would more than compensate for this.  Natural gas produces 0.29Kg of CO2 per kWh versus grid based electricity of 0.52Kg per kWh (UK average).  The maths points to induction hobs being the winner at 85% of the CO2 of the gas hob.  Cost wise its slightly behind as electricity is over twice the price of gas but overall its a thumbs up for induction hobs.

Last weekend we went to Batibouw 2012; the annual “ideal home” show of Belgium where everyone seemed to be showing off steam ovens.  Again steam cooking is not new;  I remember my mother using a pressure cooker when I was young.   It was a bit of a faff  though.  It seems steam is now back in vogue and we saw built in combi-steam ovens from Neff, AEG, Bosch and Siemens and others.  Again, interested in the potential carbon savings, once home I searched for information comparing steam oven efficiency versus conventional cooking.  After an hour all I could find was a mention of “around 50%” energy savings.  This seems reasonable as it’s a closed system not dissimilar to a kettle.   Indeed I’ve always been humbled by the simple lossless efficiency of an element directly heating water :o).   Steam ovens seem to require about 1.5Kw which supports the assertion of a 50% saving.

Both induction hobs and steam ovens seem to have excellent eco-credentials but you certainly pay for the privilege.  Typical prices were over €1000 for the hobs and up to €3000 for a combi-steam oven which is nearly 20x the price of the cheapest conventional oven. Hmm. … food for thought!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Smart Phones, Stupid Cars?

I recently found myself coveting a new Smartphone. Unfortunately manufacturers seem to be locked in an endless battle for MHz and the appearance of an after dinner mint. While I know I’ll be disappointed but my inner techno-junkie just keeps driving me to search for a replacement.

The EO440 - I did that
Don’t get me wrong, I get the smart-phone concept. I even helped to design one, the EO440 in 1991!  In 1992 I presented a concept to EO’s board for what I called "the Multimedia EO”, which had an ARM CPU, stereo audio, a [2D] graphics processor driving a [colour] VGA LCD and a Sony minidisk for storage but it was rejected as too radical ;o). EO closed their doors a year later because the market simply wasn’t ready.

My first personally owned mobile phone was a Nokia Communicator, followed by a Sony Ericsson P800 and a couple of Windows mobiles. While they weren’t particularly smart they did have one thing that my current "smartphone"; the Omnia HD doesn’t have – the ability to make calls. Its my fault really; I’m just not good at remembering to charge it and it’s battery life is hopeless. So whenever I actually NEED to make a call (like when I was hit by a truck on the Brussels Ring and needed to call the emergency services) the Samsung simply stares back at me with its one black eye!

I bought the Omnia three years ago after what I thought was considerable research. It had everything – 3g, WiFi, Bluetooth, FM radio, full web browser, 8 Mpixel camera, full HD video playback yada, yada. Two hours in I realised that the WiFi was out to kill my battery and had to go; that pretty much also put paid to web surfing.  About 3 months ago I also turned off Bluetooth as my now aging battery could no longer take the strain. It’s still a fair MP3 player if I’m honest and I take the odd photo. Otherwise its just a paperweight that I try to keep on charge in case anyone wants to call me, which takes me back to where I started this blog.

So I scour all the reviews for the figures on battery life.  Apparently 5 hours of use is now considered pretty good; In what universe did that happen? The Samsung Galaxy Note was my great white hope – surely in a brick that big they could fit a proper battery, but no, its only 2.5aH. So its 9.65 mm thick and 178 g – big deal, its still a £500 paperweight as far as I'm concerned.  I put a 3.9aH battery in my last Windows Phone, a Mio A701 and did not run a 5.3 inch display or a 1.4GHz dual core processor from it.  To be fair a double size battery is available for the Note but then it wont fit in its cradle :o(.

Rant over you might think? Well no, this is an ecoblog after all and I’m also in the market for an electric car :o)

Most people [perhaps those same people who think a 5 hours battery on a smartphone is ok and have them tethered to a wall socket most of the time] say that electric cars aren’t ready for primetime because their battery life is not good enough. However, like Smartphones I think I get the concept. I’m not one of your Top Gear troglodytes that won’t buy one because they have limited range. I know that 90% of my journeys are round trips of less than 50 miles and we have a second car for those longer journeys. Indeed if I did the fuel maths I could probably get rid of that too and just hire a normal car when I really needed to go a long way.

If only it looked as good as this!
So what’s the problem I hear you say? Well most electric cars are just stupidly expensive and I just don’t need one that badly. Then Renault came up with a Clio sized car that seemed to be perfect on paper and not badly priced. The catch? They rent you the battery. Ok, so people are concerned about battery longevity and this is one way of taking away the worry, but the rental cost is simply unreal. Its £60 per month, which is way more than the fuel cost of our current second car. We simply cannot do enough mileage to make it financially worthwhile.

So that’s two bits of tech-kit that my engineering brain is dying to have but my wallet is screaming no to. Is it me or are the business models of both Smartphones and Electric cars just out of touch with reality?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Game On!

I'm sorry to say that my blog has been somewhat neglected of late. You see, since April last year I have been embroiled in buying and moving into our first house in Belgium

Home Sweet Tervuren Home
The good news is that we are now installed in what started out as a 1960s 2 bedroomed bungalow with garage underneath but which was extended in the mid 1980s to almost double its floor area.  The house is a real mash up  from the 1963 open cavity wall and uninsulated floors of the original bungalow to the cavity wall and insulated block work of the extension and the circa 1985 gas fired heating system which replaced the original oil fired central heating boiler.  The house was double glazed about 7 years ago and so is reasonably thermally efficient. The loft was also converted into living space and seems to have been well insulated in the process. I estimate that the current heatloss is around 10kW @ 0oC.  The current oversized boiler is probably around 75% efficient.  This makes it an ideal candidate to be a test bed for the first Nextgen low carbon heating system installation.

When we moved in I immediately noticed that the the hot water system almost completely innefectual.  The 220 litre storage tank was heated to around 70oC twice a day by the adjacent gas boiler but lost almost all of its heat in two or three hours due to convection currents around a 20 metre long loop of unlagged pipe. A quick calculation shows the daily heat loss to be of the order 20kWh or ~ €2 per day - ouch!  Ironically the loop was designed to save water water by using a circulation pump to circulate hot water around the loop allowing hot water to be instantly available at a sink at the opposite end of the house.   This and the mass of unlagged pipes around the boiler led to the bizarre situation where the otherwise unheated garage was the warmest room in the house! 

Some loss from a hot water system based on a hot water tank is inevitable.  As a comparison Steven Harris of the Energy Savings Trust recently reported in his blog loosing around 7kWh per day from his solar powered hot water system.  In my case three hours of my time with adhesive tape, scissors, a knife and €25 of pipe insulation reduced the hot water heat loss by at least a factor of two with the happy side effect that we now normally have enough hot water for a shower at almost any time of the day!

Boiler post Insulation
Notwithstanding the “emergency” pipe insulation above my intention is to run the system "as is" for the first year to get a benchmark energy consumption for the dwelling.  This will then serve as a cross check against the Nextgen  energy usage simulation computer model which will be used to predict the payback period of the system.  It will also serve as a reference from which future energy reduction steps are measured.  My ambition is to reduce the carbon footprint of our house by at least 50% and perhaps as much as 70% compared to when we moved in.  This radical reduction cannot be achieved without a plan. Now that we are settled in I will have to get busy with simulations and costings.

Let the game begin! 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Stuff and Nonsense?

Looks nice in the brochure :o)

[Written in April 2011 - more on that later] We recently took delivery of a beautiful new solid oak bedroom suite.  It filled us both with joy and a little guilt.  Joy because we have been looking for new bedroom furniture for over five years and this is the first complete set that we have both liked;  Guilt because it was made in Vietnam and bought and shipped via the UK.

Let me say I’m not against Vietnam.  I’m very pleased to be able to put money into this relatively poor country and given the obvious quality of the workmanship they deserve every penny.  No, it’s the carbon cost of sourcing from the other side of the world that worries me.  Oak is a very heavy wood so surely the carbon cost of its transportation is very high?  Of course it was not shipped to us by air; it came by container by sea. The carbon cost of shipping a container is actually relatively low and our furniture no doubt shared a container with several other commisions by the same company.
Unfortunately that container ship went to Liverpool and our furniture went into temporary storage before being shipped to us by road on a regular removals van.  This removals van had a stop in Boulogne before coming to us but was going on to Italy before returning back to the UK.  The last part of the journey had, no doubt, a much higher carbon footprint than the journey from Vietnam to the UK.

This may be a good point to bring in two other [not so] topical news items, namely the earthquake in Japan and the trade deficit in the UK.  There are warnings that there may be goods shortages due the Japan earthquake and resulting lack of Japanese widgets being produced for all kinds of goods and equipment.  Japan is a very strong exporter and has cornered the market for several commodities, clearly to such an extent that they dominate in those markets.  Taking these suppliers out of the supply chain is obviously having a detrimental effect on the manufacture of many types of goods.  Is this good for the world economy? No.  At the same time the UK, which seems to be struggling to be effective in producing goods for export is instead importing (like me) goods from around the globe. Our appetite for Sony PlayStations and TVs, Samsung mobile phones etc, etc is never ending and we have very few competitive products that the Japanese and Koreans want in return.

I’m not calling for protectionism, that is a bad thing, or blind patriotism – I never bought a British Leyland car because I never considered them to be competitive in quality versus the Japanese or even the French offerings.  What we need to do is find our competitive spirit and (re)start to produce goods that people both locally and globally will want to buy.

Talking of “stuff”, I’m writing this blog on the train to Frankfurt.  Sitting opposite me is a mother and daughter with three huge cases of luggage.  I have to wonder why they need to travel with over 60kg of stuff in tow.  In my lifetime there has been an explosion of “stuff”.  At the same time we are all (current recession included) much better off than we were a generation ago and our appetite for stuff just keeps growing.

My wife, Kate, and I are starting to wonder just how much stuff we really need.  Perhaps it is time that we simplify our lives and live more sustainably, going back to sourcing things locally where possible. That means taking a long look at what it is that people actually need and making it here in Europe.  Buying fewer, more expensive but higher quality, longer lasting items might actually be good for us and also good for the planet