Monday, 6 July 2015

Keeping cool

It has been a hot week in the UK (at least by our standards) and for most of Europe it seems. I have been out doing energy surveys every day, and despite sweltering and having aching feet from all the walking, I love to see how buildings perform under peak conditions.

The UK has a relatively mild climate. Being surrounded by sea and benefiting from the warm Gulf Stream, means that our winters and summers are not as extreme as for mainland Europe. This is reflected in the design of our buildings. For instance French buildings traditionally have shutters. These aren't purely decorative, but have a functional purpose, to prevent solar gain. When the sun shines in through the window, it heats the building up like a greenhouse. The shutters on the outside of the house are more effective than blinds, because they stop the sun's rays before they get inside.

Typical French shuttered windows
Closing the shutters at night and then waking up to throw them open to the daylight is one of the delicious moments of staying in a French house. If you have tried this you will notice that just opening the shutters a slit will still bathe the room in daylight, and often keep most of the hot sun out. The strategy is to use the shutters in the daytime to prevent the suns ray from heating up the house. In addition the shutters can often be closed at night, but with the glass windows inside left open, so that the cooler night air can cool the building down and help to slow down the process of warming during the day.

Traditionally English townhouses were close together, providing a shady walkway
British buildings don't have shutters as a feature, because we don't get a lot of hot days and love it when we do. But it is not pleasant to work or live in a hot building, so here are some strategies that may help to keep buildings cooler and more comfortable.
Aptly named 'Thrift House' with the curtains drawn
1. Shut your blinds and curtains during the day to keep out the suns rays. This is especially important for South and West facing windows. If you are worried what your neighbours may think of your curtains being closed all day, then try using net curtains, as they are effective at blocking the sun too. By standing in front of a sunny window with the sun's rays on you, you can feel the difference when the curtains are shut. It won't stop the house warming up, but at least it will be less of a greenhouse. Canopies, overhanging roofs or trees can all be used externally to shade the building in summer too.

Glass greenhouses in central London ;-)
2. Keep windows closed if the air inside your home feels cooler than the air outside. It is an automatic reflex when you feel hot to open the windows, but if it is the hottest part of the day you could just be bringing in hot air from outside and making things more uncomfortable. Stand in the doorway and check first, because then you can feel whether the air outside is actually cooler or not.

3. Open your windows at night (if you can without inviting burglars) or early in the morning for an hour or two, to help flush out the warm air and allow the building fabric to cool down again. The bricks, concrete, tiles, fixtures and fittings all retain heat. so often you will find that when the air outside has cooled, the building still feels warm on the inside. You can use the cooler morning air to purge the heat, so that you start the day with a cool building. I throw open the windows at 6:30am, before everyone else is up, and once the stone tiles on my kitchen floor feel cold again, I shut my windows against the rising temperature outside. This helps the house to stay cooler for longer.

The majority of dwellings in the UK are constructed with brick, stone or concrete and these materials are all good for holding heat or coolth. Lightweight timber constructions tend to heat up a lot quicker and cool down faster too, so you may find that point 3 doesn't help much. You can try incorporating some more heavyweight materials in a lightweight house, by adding stone tiles to floors.

4. Every appliance that is switched on, from a light to a mobile phone charger, will be kicking out waste heat, into your lovely cool building, so make sure that everything possible is switched off. Fridges and freezers may be keeping the food cool, but in doing so they kick out a lot of heat from the coils at the back, which is adding to the heat in your house. The higher the air temperature the harder they have to work and the more heat is emitted, so try not to open them unnecessarily. You could also try using timers to run dishwashers or breadmakers in the early hours of the morning when it is cooler (unless you have PV panels and want to make use of the solar energy).

Landline phone that only works when it is plugged in
Incidentally, you are also kicking out waste heat energy that is created when you breath or move. Only an average 100W if you are resting but that increases to 250W if you are dancing around. Save the workout or physical housework for the mornings or late evening, when the temperature has dropped, to avoid overheating yourself and your house.

5. If you get to the point where it is too hot inside and you need to get a breeze going to help cool you down, then remember to get a crossflow of air. This means trying to open windows or rooflights on at least 2 faces of the building, with an open flow between them. Heat tends to rise, so it will gather at high points. Opening a rooflight or upstairs window will allow the hottest air to escape, whilst opening a window on a lower level will draw in cooler air to replace it. I have seen lots of hot offices this week where the office windows are open, but the office door is kept shut for privacy. This means that the air cannot flow across the building, so the occupants don't benefit from getting a breeze from their windows.

6. Putting a fan near your window can help to draw in fresh air from outside, but if the air outside is hot already then it makes more sense to aim the fan at you. A fan blows air across your body, encouraging the heat to transfer from your hot skin to the marginally cooler air. Hence it makes you feel cooler.

Trees for company
7. Have you ever noticed that the air around trees feels cooler? This is because they act like an evaporative cooler. Their roots suck moisture from the soil and when the sun shines on the leaves the water evaporates. This process uses heat energy from the surrounding air and works faster on a hotter day, leaving cooler air around the trees. Planting trees and shrubs near windows and in courtyards can help to keep the air around the building cooler (as well as providing some shading). A fountain works in a similar manner and was why they were popular in Roman courtyards.

Stone house surrounded by trees for shade and cooling
8. Insulation in lofts and walls helps to protect buildings from the heat, as they are another layer that the heat needs to pass through. Insulation helps to make the building feel more comfortable in the summer and winter, with the added benefit of leading to reduced energy bills.

9. Hot air rises, so if you are having trouble sleeping in your bedroom upstairs, then camp out on the ground floor or even in the basement if you have one. This will help you stay cool and get a good nights rest.

10. I heard on the radio today (for the first time) an advertisement for air-conditioning for homes and it made me groan. Air-conditioning is expensive and uses a lot of electricity to provide you with artificial cooling, so please try some of the cheap and easy methods to stay cool first. If you are a 'battery-farmed' office worker, in a large open plan office with only a couple of square metres of space, then the chances are that you will have cooling provided, and on a hot day it will be working flat out. If you can, take this opportunity to request to work from home. The less bodies in the office and computers in use, the less heat is being produced. This will save energy, reduce the load on the air-conditioning and help everyone to stay cooler.

Remember to always switch air-conditioning off in an empty room and to keep windows shut whilst it is in use, otherwise your expensive chilled air will be escaping. How many of you have walked past an open shop door and felt the rush of cooled air coming from within?

You may already do all of these things, but hopefully someone may find the odd tip helpful. Hope you have a lovely sunny summer where you are, with a nice cool house to retreat into when it gets too hot :-)

Monday, 22 June 2015

Allotment progress

This is how the allotment has developed this year.

The plan had been to carry on with Charles Dowding's No Dig method, where you add a layer of compost or manure on the soil and let the worms do the work of digging it in for you. In my usual fashion I didn't get round to ordering another delivery of cow manure in the Autumn, and given how long the last batch took to breakdown I decided not to get any this spring. This has worked out for the best, as many of the other plot-holders believe the manure is contaminated with pesticides. The hormonal weedkiller used on grassland apparently goes through the cows without causing harm, but contaminates the manure. It may be that the manure I had last year was contaminated, which could explain a lot, but I really hope not. I am trying to grow healthy organic produce, so a hidden dose of chemicals is the last thing I want.

Instead, I have collected some horse manure from my friend Suella, who cares too much about the environment and her horse, than to cover her grazing land with chemicals. It is a peaceful setting, with some friendly conversation, so filling sacks and trugs with manure isn't a job that I mind doing. When I get back to the allotment though, the manure never seems to be enough.

I have had plenty of lovely compost for my garden from the double compost bin I made last year. I want to construct a compost bin made from pallets at the allotment, but I only managed to scrounge 3 pallets before my big car broke down and I need to find some smaller ones to fit in my smaller car. meanwhile the weeds are taking over!

I also have a 'dalek' compost bin, but it is full of ants. At the Composting Workshop held at the Transition Community Allotment a fortnight ago, I found out that this means that my mix is too dry and can be remedied by adding more greens. It was a very useful workshop even though I couldn't stay for it all. My plot has lots of comfrey now, some a gift from Suella last year, and some I found on the new half when I was clearing all the weeds.

I followed Mrs Thrifts recipe and made my first Comfrey Tea to feed my tomato plants. It really stinks, and if you get it on your hands you will need to wash them repeatedly to get rid of the smell. Every time I turned my back the dog was drinking it! Maybe she knows it is full of nutirents.

We have been eating lettuces and spinach for weeks, and it is so nice not to need to buy any from the supermarket. The spring onions are ready too, but I need to find a way to stop them going limp in the fridge. Any ideas?

I bought lots of seed potatoes from the Transition Loughborough Potato Day earlier in the year, and they are looking healthy despite the dog charging through them.

The grapevine that I pruned very hard has survived. The blackcurrant bush also seems to have relished the hard prune and is covered in berries. Plus the little gooseberry bush hidden under all the weeds has a handful of fruit nearly ripe.

I have built a couple of frames for netting, which have now been transferred from protecting the garlic and onions to covering the young brassicas. The garlic, gifted by another plot-holder, has been the first casualty this year, as it has white rot. Most of the other plot-holders seem to have suffered the same fate, but luckily my onions still seem healthy......for now.

I have peas growing in my garden at home where I have never needed to net them from the pesky pigeons. Yet at the allotment I risked leaving them unprotected and of course they have been gobbled. Enough have survived for me to have eaten my first peas today.

My kind neighbour has given me some chickpeas to grow this year. To play things safe I sowed them in 2 separate locations at the allotment and in my garden. The garden ones are doing the best. I can't wait for the soft little pods to grow, though if this cool weather continues I ma not get any.

I am not sure whether I mentioned that I planted some fruit trees, which were a gift from my parents. After lots of reading I decided on a Nashi pear and a sweet eating apple, along with some blueberry bushes and new raspberry canes.

The fruit trees both seem to be doing well and had lots of blossom and baby fruit, most of which I have removed. I surrounded them with bark to try to keep the weeds back, but really there is no chance of keeping them down..

The weeds seem to grow at double the speed that my plants grow so it is a constant battle to keep each area under control once I have cleared it. Plus the areas that I haven't yet managed to clear are now going to seed. I have put out a request on freecycle for chippings as bark is too expensive to cover large areas, but had no response yet. Old carpet is my best weed control for now, until I get on top of things (Will that ever happen?)

Anyway, most of my seedlings, that covered every windowsill for weeks, are planted out now. Just waiting for some more netting to be delivered so the last of the brassicas can go out protected from pigeons and butterflys. Then I can just sit back and wait for them to grow :-) Well..........apart from the watering, weeding, pinching out shoots, feeding, hoeing, tying and harvesting!

Happy growing!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Frantic spring

So I haven't posted anything interesting for a while, because life has just been exhausting and full of breakdowns (but luckily I wasn't one of them!).

It started with my old faithful car breaking down. It was over 20 years old, with over 200,000 miles on the clock, but we had had it for 12 years and it was the most brilliant car. It didn't look much, but a car that can fit 5 people, dog, camping gear and 3 full size bikes inside it with room to spare is really worth its weight in gold........except when it is broken and will cost it's weight in gold to repair. So we bid it a sad farewell :-(

It was swiftly followed by my printer, computer, collapsing shelves in the garage and now the perpetually leaking fridge. In the midst of that the dog had fleas, my son completed his bronze Duke of Edinburgh training expedition and final expedition, my youngest daughter had guide camp and was away for a school trip, and my niece and nephew cashed in their Christmas vouchers for me to take them on a camping trip (an awfully tight squeeze without my old faithful car) and a day at Alton Towers (a week before the terrible crash).

I wasted spent 2 weeks second hand car shopping with darling husband, which really is no fun when you have a very constrained budget, and no car will live up to the one you have just lost, so I was no help at all. Then I had 3 days with no computer, followed by 2 weeks with an irritating temporary fix which meant that I couldn't bear to use it. No work, no blogging, no news. I did a lot of digging at the allotment to release my frustration instead. Now the computer is up and running again but there are a few I couldn't seem to add any pictures to my posts! Sigh!

Yet, thankfully, here I am on the other side of a frantic spring. Summer is here, the first strawberries are ripe and I have cleared all my windowsills of seedlings (I am not saying that they are all planted yet though). And despite being at the allotment until 10pm for 2 nights this week, and having 2 parents evenings to attend things seem just that little bit calmer..........for now :-)

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Pigeon Dilemma

I'm back! Well it seems like I haven't posted much in ages as there just hasn't been a spare minute. Bear's challenge has gone out of the window for another month, although there was some closure on the pigeon front.....

I had the opportunity to go for a walk in Bramcote Park in Nottingham, which is quite lovely despite the background hum of traffic. I chatted with friendly dog walkers, spotted a few familiar wild foods and was just generally enjoying the evening, when there was a 'plop'. I was walking through some trees and something small had fallen out of one of the trees. I turned round to investigate and found a dead pigeon on the ground with a bundle of soft fluffy feathers beside it. The bundle of fluff was a baby pigeon still clearly alive, but with a cracked beak and it must have literally dropped out of the tree just as I walked past.

Dilemma. The parent bird had clearly been killed by a cat or fox ( I am thinking cat, because it wasn't eaten whereas a fox would have had it for dinner). The young pigeon's feathers were not mature enough to fly and it would no doubt die without a parent bird, even if the damaged beak recovered. Why did it plop down next to me?

I could see the nest in the tree and it was too high up for me to reach, but with my heart thumping I grabbed the scared little bird and tried to balance it on a lower branch in the hope it would climb back. Plop!

Now I stood for several minutes thinking this through. There was absolutely no way I could save this bird or any hope it would survive. I have saved baby blue tits before, but they had fully fledged wings that had got wet in a shower, so lifting them into a hawthorn bush until their wings dried out meant they had a good chance of surviving. This pigeon had none. Plus they are classified as a pest (for good reason) so you are not supposed to rescue them.

Could I kill it? It was clearly going to die anyway, so a quick bash with a stick would save it from suffering. I still couldn't do it and just walked away. Let nature take its course and no doubt something will come and eat it.....just not me.

And so the great pigeon question has been answered - roadkill I can just about handle. Killing is something I am still not ready for. It does seem rather pathetic, but I am being honest with myself, which would be fine if I was a vegetarian, and wasn't expecting other people to kill animals for me to eat.

I have watched some of 'The Island with Bear Grylls' series 2, where a group of women and a group of men were left to survive on separate desert islands. It was interesting to see the women struggling with the dilemma of killing their adopted pet piglets (episode 6), which they aptly named Sage and Onion. In a situation where you are starving hungry your survival instinct clearly kicks in and they describe not thinking of them as animals anymore, just food. If you think you have the strength for this then you can apply for the next series here.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

I vote for change

Tomorrow is election day in the UK. It is funny how quickly it is here and my complete lack of anticipation this time. What is there to be excited about? Will May the 8th be any different from May 6th?

I started watching The Trews - the news if it were true. I admit that I used to find it extremely uncomfortable to watch Russell Brand, but on his own for 10 minutes he seems a lot calmer and he has been saying the kind of things that I want to hear. I even watched his new film with Michael Winterbottom The Emperors New Clothes that came out recently. It was really hard to track down a cinema to watch it in, so in the end we paid Amazon and watched it at home. (It is all about not supporting big corporations who don't pay tax like....Amazon!)

Honestly, it is brilliant and well worth watching. Like Russell says, there is nothing in the film that you don't already know, but he puts it across in a way that is powerful, easy to understand and with humour, especially when he drives around in his 'Shop a Banker' van. (In this meaning 'shop' a banker means to grass them up and turn them in to the police, and mimics the government's campaign after the London riots when they used 'Shop a Looter' vans to try to catch people who had stolen a pair of trainers, rather than bankers who cost the country millions.)

One of the vans showing pictures of suspects

Well I was coming round to Russell's idea, that "things can change" and his stance on voting was not to vote for anyone because they are all the same and none of them stand for real change. For instance the labour party didn't regulate the banks or prosecute any bankers before they lost the last election and the conservative and liberal democrat coalition hasn't acted to rectify this since. They all support the bankers, they all listen to big corporations and put their interests above working people and they are all for austerity measures.

I think Russell has lost sight of this recently and has been charmed by Ed Miliband into advocating voting for his party if you are not in Scotland or Brighton! The Ed Miliband interview looked like Russell was hypnotised, but for the rest of us it was just Ed Miliband saying the same non-committal political spiel that he used in the TV debates.

I haven't followed much of the politics, but I watched the TV debate with 7 candidates, and although we don't usually vote for the same parties, both hubby and I agreed that we would both vote SNP (Scottish National Party) if we could, which of course we can't.... unless we move to Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon had a clear strong message that was anti-austerity, abolishing tuition fees and the bedroom tax - the kind of policies I would really want and expect to see labour supporting. Plus she came across as a strong determined women. There would be no more childish name-calling and bullying in parliament if she was in charge, which I detest from our current prime minister.

I will NEVER vote for conservative, not because of David Cameron or any of their policies, but because I remember growing up during Margaret Thatcher's government. Neither will I ever vote for labour after Tony Blair took us to war with Iraq based on lies. People seem to have forgotten that the labour party didn't regulate the banks and continued privatisation with underhand PFI schemes. They didn't build more council houses, strengthen the unions, or re-nationalise anything. They are not the same party that Clement Attlee led after the war. They are just slightly more left than the conservatives. (As the Green party political broadcast points out)

I read the Liberal Democrats manifesto last time round and it sounded good, so they got my vote. However Nick Clegg completely sold out to the conservatives just to be in a coalition government. There is no point being part of a coalition government if you are not going to stand up for the policies that matter to you. The real joke is that Nick Clegg still thinks that they did. Yes - they have been added to my never-forget-not-to-vote-for-them list!

I am fairly certain that they will be part of a new government though, because they have shown how weak they are. If I was going to try to make a coalition with another party, I would choose one that will go along with everything I say, and the Liberal Democrats have proved they fit this role perfectly!

Thinking about coalitions made me wonder whether Russell was onto something in suggesting voting for labour. For English voters we can't vote for the SNP, but if we want to see them as part of a coalition then really the most likely scenario would be if labour won marginally more seats than the conservatives, though not a full majority. Is there any possibility of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party forming a coalition? Wouldn't that be amazing?

I think Russell was wrong to throw his weight behind labour. He apparently had 10 million followers and if he had supported the Green party or Left Unity that could have made a difference and that could have brought these parties onto the playing field, ready for a Syriza style victory at the following election. Even supporting the "don't vote because they are all a bunch of liars" stance is better than suggesting more of the same. So much for wanting a revolution.

I want a revolution. For the first time I have a local green candidate that I can vote for, called Mark Sissons, who has written a book that sounds rather interesting. I am voting for the green party, because they are anti-austerity, anti-trident and support environmental policies that may yet mean that the planet is still inhabitable for future generations. I am voting Green for what they stand for and my vote still counts even if the Green party don't win the seat, because my vote is about being true to my feelings and views. I vote for change.