Green building

A loo that works. An electric shower with hot water that didn’t have to come from a kettle. What more could a girl ask? I’d even slapped a bit of paint on the wall and hung some curtains in my little bit of self-contained civilisation. Admittedly the floors were still bare concrete and the worksurface on the kitchen units was made up of a few random bits of MDF, but by comparison with the caravan it was heaven.

But right at the point I got one small part of the building looking vaguely habitable, work decided to send me off overseas again – this time to India.

On the plus side, home became a 5-bed villa with pool, tennis courts and gym, and came with a maid and a driver. Hard to compare with the cold stone shell of a building in remote Scotland – yet another ‘sublime to the ridiculous’ moment in my life.

On the downside however, commuting 5000 miles every weekend to work on the house wasn’t an option – neither my bank balance or my body clock could have coped. Which meant that the project was, if not quite mothballed, certainly considerably slowed down. And for any work I did want to get done, I was dependent on finding a contractor. It quickly became apparent that my bad builder experience was not a one-off – trustworthy contractors in the building trade seem to be a very rare breed.

From fairly early on, when my house-building dream consisted largely of an untidy heap of Homebuilding & Renovating, and Build-It magazines, I wanted to build ‘Green’. Super-efficient, super-insulated, passive-house style building was the plan. Buying a huge, draughty old barn in the wilds of Scotland kind of scuppered most of those plans – metre-thick stone walls constraining any thoughts of building with polystyrene Lego blocks.

But whilst I couldn’t do much about the green credentials of the existing fabric of the building, I could influence other elements. So a couple of things I did decide on, to do my bit for the environment:

Firstly, a rainwater collection system.
Yes I can hear you – anyone who knows Scotland is laughing themselves silly at this point… Rainwater harvesting in Scotland – where average annual rainfall is probably measured in feet not inches – why would you??
Well there is some reasoning behind the apparent insanity. When I was first looking at buying the place, my neighbours-to-be informed me that I would have difficulty in getting water to the site. While it was being used to house animals, the barn shared a water supply from a spring at the top of the hill on their land. Understandably they were reluctant to continue that arrangement with a domestic dwelling that was proposing to have several bathrooms and a couple of kitchens.

Mains water was not an option. The barn is too high above the local reservoir level to get a mains supply without a serious amount of expensive pumping. Which meant a borehole was really the only choice. No issues there. As per previous blog, all you need is a water diviner, a few magic crystals and a bloody great big drill. So why on earth did I feel the need to back that up with a 6000-litre rainwater tank? Well maybe it was just scaremongering; maybe they wanted to justify their position on the matter. Whatever the reason my neighbours told me that a few years previously during a prolonged spell of hot weather (in Scotland???) their spring had almost run dry. Call me gullible if you like, but I had this nightmare vision of buying in bottled water by the truckload and rationing the showers.

Better safe than sorry. In went the rainwater recycling system. Inevitably it hasn’t stopped raining ever since. I suspect that the overflow from the tank has, by now, drowned all the rabbits in the field below the soakaway, or at the very least given them an indoor swimming pool to play with.
Hey ho! I’ll consider it a long term investment – if the global warming experts are right and everything south of Hadrian’s Wall is going to turn into a desert, at least I’ll have the last laugh, eventually.

And my second inspirational eco friendly project? With over 2 acres of land to play with I decided to install a ground source heat pump to provide all my heating and hot water. A decision I would come to regret – massively.
For anyone who doesn’t know what a GSHP is, don’t ask me to explain. The best I can do is say you bury a load of pipe in your garden, about a metre underground. Whatever flows through the pipes draws heat out of the ground. It is passed through a heat exchanger and is turned into something hot enough to heat an entire house and provide all the hot water. If there are any experts reading this, forgive the numpty explanation – I’ve given up trying to understand it. For most people a boiler is an ugly white box on the other all that you hide in a cupboard somewhere. For me, it is an entire room full of scary stuff….

But I can confirm it works.

So if this miracle of technology works, why do I regret installing it? Because getting from the point of original installation to the point of actually having a fully functioning system has been a long, painful and very expensive process.

The outside pipe work and the heat pump were installed just as I departed for India. But the associated underfloor heating and first fix plumbing were sporadically completed whenever I was back in the country on annual leave. So although it had been switched on and tested to get the ‘commissioned’ certificate, it had effectively been mothballed thereafter, until I returned from India. With disastrous consequences. The mice had moved in, taken up squatters rights and chewed their way through everything they could actually get their teeth into (which appears to be just about anything). They had eaten all the wiring in the heat pump and were nesting in the water tank.

I called in a ‘Renewable Energy’ company to get it fixed – and that is where the problems really began. Enter the Cowboys!

I was quoted £3000 to get it sorted. Being desperate, and not knowing any different, I agreed and paid a 50% deposit. A very knowledgeable chap came up and spent a week on site repairing the system. When he left at the end of the week he told me that the only thing left to do was to fit a new pump, which he couldn’t do because he didn’t have the rights parts. Unfortunately it was his last day with that company, but he had left a set of handover notes and somebody else would be coming up the following week to finish the job. Fair enough.

A week came and went. I phoned the company. “Yeah, sorry. Been really busy. We’ll get someone up there in the next week or so.” A month came and went. I phoned again. “Yeah, sorry. Been a bit manic. We’ll be up next week.” Two guys went up for two days. The system wasn’t working when they left. I phoned again. “Yeah we’re on it, no problem.” Two months had now passed. I phoned, and gave them my best ‘rocket-up-the-backside’ speech.

I was at home the following week when a van turned up with three guys in it. One of them didn’t get out of the van all day. I suspected he’d was suffering the aftermath of a really heavy night out. They arrived at 11am. They left at 3pm. (Got to get a full day’s work in, right lads?) The system still wasn’t working.

But two days later I got a bill for a further £7000. On top of the £1500 deposit I’d already paid. It included a £300 day rate for the chap who’d spent 4 hours asleep in the van. I checked some of the materials prices too. I was being charged £700 for a part I could have bought at Plumb Centre for £50. Really? I’m not that stupid! And as an accountant, I’d studied a little bit of contract law; I knew that the original price they’d given me was a quote, not an estimate.

So I wrote them a lovely long letter that began “With reference to the Supply of Goods & Services Act 1985…” And I reported them to Trading Standards. Strangely I never heard from them again.

Fortunately I still had the contact details of the guy who’d been up the first week. Turns out he’d left the company because he didn’t like their overcharging practices. He might have warned me! Anyway, I arranged for him to come up and finish the job. Which he did. We got the system going at last.

Cause for celebration? Well not quite. Because although it was working, it was really struggling to generate enough heat. Further investigation soon revealed the issue. It appears that there was not enough pipe in the ground to cope with demand. There are various conspiracy theories as to why that’s happened. One suggestion is that the original design didn’t specify sufficient ground loops – but since the original design drawings have disappeared, and the original company is no longer trading, that theory’s difficult to prove. The other suspicion is that whoever dug the trenches found the ground difficult to dig (it is mostly rock) and decided that I didn’t really need that amount of pipe anyway, and I’d never miss it if it wasn’t put in…. Well given I have subsequently found a huge number of pipe lengths abandoned in my woods at the back of the house, there’s some evidence to support that theory. Based on the length of one of the original trenches we recently uncovered, and the amount of abandoned pipe, the estimate is that about 600m of pipe was installed – instead of the 1600m the system needs. No wonder it struggled!

So I had to pay all over again to get more ground loops put in. Armageddon in the garden…..

The difference has been incredible. My electricity consumption has reduced to a quarter of what it was before the extra pipe went in. The house is warm, and there’s as much scalding hot water as I want.

The conclusion? I’m all for renewable energy, and it clearly works when properly installed. But the industry is so unregulated it is a haven for cowboys, incompetents and rip-off merchants. My story isn’t unique. I’ve heard plenty of others just as bad. So while it’s all great in theory, who would really want to risk it?

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