The price of house coal

The starting point for this post was some old family accounts which extended, with gaps from the 1920s to the 1940s.  This was augmented by some figures found in the online version of Hansard.  Some local history material provided a human dimension to the numbers.

The graphs should be treated with caution as they are random in both time and location.  House coal can be priced in several ways, my family always discussed it in terms of cost per hundredweight (112 pounds or very roughly 50 kg).  In 1835 it became compulsory to sell coal by weight rather than volume, before that there are references to “chaldrons”, this was a volumetric measure which might account for 0.5 – to 1.5 tons.

The economics of coal consumption are complex, at £10/cwt, the energy cost is around 2p/kwh which is lower than for gas or electricity.  However, the “benefit” derived from a kg of coal depends on the efficiency of the device in which it is burnt.  When used in a cooking range, a lot of energy is used just warming up a large lump of iron before the thing is warm enough to boil a kettle for tea.  Early ranges were not insulated, which made them inefficient cooking devices, but a desirable source of warmth in the kitchen, modern solid fuel range cookers are well insulated which minimizes heat loss.  In England, houses were heated with open fires which have a very low efficiency (10 – 20%?) with most of the heat going up the chimney.  From limited research, it seems that the French prefer stoves which use coal more efficiently.

During the 20th century, the overall trend in the “real” price of coal was upwards.  At the end of the 1960s coal began to compete with “North Sea Gas” in the domestic fuel market.  Gas was both cheaper and more convenient than coal and coal’s share of the market started to decline.  By the end of the century, coal had become a “niche” product and costs rose as the economies of scale that had been possible faded away.

The retail price of coal has always been subject to wide variations and fluctuations.  In 1795 it was feared that France would invade England and for a time the price of coal was around 55 shillings per chaldron, this would be more than £50/cwt in today’s money.  Households purchase coal for the heat it produces when burnt, premium grade Welsh Steam Coal might have a calorific value of more than 30 MJ/kg whilst that of lower grade fuel might be half that. Some of the variation in the price shown on the graphs is due to variation in the grade of coal.

Apart from events in the wider economy, the price of coal was determined by who you were and where you were.  A well-off, well managed household would buy several tons for delivery in large loads during the summer when they would benefit from lower prices.  At the other end of the scale, those on low incomes might have had to buy coal by the stone (14 lb) or lesser quantity and paid a high unit price (there is an analogy here with today’s pre-payment meters).   Some coal merchants operated “coal clubs” which allowed fuel costs  to be evenly spread over the year.

Transport was a significant part of the cost of distributing coal from the mines to the consumer, by the late 19th century coal merchants were often clustered around railway goods yards.  The coal merchant was responsible for unloading the trucks, if this was not done within an agreed period, say, three days, the buyer was charged demurrage until the wagon was empty.  In the early part of the century it was not unknown for captains of collier brigs from the Tyne to run their vessels on to the beaches of seaside towns if they thought they could get a better price for their cargo than they would get at a port a few miles down the coast.  If the cargo was discharged at a port, then the buyer would have the cost of transport to the point of use.  There was always a risk that they could be stranded for several days until favourable weather and tide allowed them to re-float.

A wide variety of enterprises were active in the local coal markets, some companies operated across regions, some were local businesses, maybe just a father and son working together with a horse and cart and below them were the barrow boys.  Our family favoured the Co-Op, probably to get the “divi”.

A coalman’s job was hard and dirty, often it was delivered to the consumer in sacks containing one and a quarter hundredweight (roughly 60 kg).  Large houses would have purpose built coal stores and some town houses had coal cellars which extended under the pavement which could be filled through a hole normally covered by an iron cover.  The difficult ones were small terraces where the coal had to be carried through the house to the scullery, a task which had to completed without upsetting the housewife.

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The early days of electricity in Hove (3)

As with previous posts in this series, this one is work in progress and subject to corrections and revisions.

As I mess with this, I realise I am working backwards.  The story starts with an Act of Parliament of 1890 whose objective was to provide electric lighting in Hove, this was to implemented by the Hove Commissioners (what we now call the council), who formed an “electric light committee”.  This first met on Saturday, 26-Apr-1890.

At the meeting on Thursday, 11-Dec-1890 a plan was beginning to form.  It was resolved that the best course of action would be to negotiate with a responsible company to erect buildings and plant and to lay mains in order to supply electricity as required.  It seems that they had considered three options, a) the council would take on the construction and operation of the facility which would be financed by a mortgage on the rates, b) the council would provide the plant and get a contractor to operate it and c) get a private company to finance, build and operate, this being the preferred option.  It was felt that this project was not appropriate for a town council.  The first step was to find a suitably qualified electrical engineer to prepare specifications and advise on terms and conditions of a contract with a company as proposed.

Mr. R.E. Crompton was selected for the task at a meeting on 2-Jan-1891.  This was a logical choice, Mr. Crompton had a proven ability with both arc and incandescent lighting and his company Crompton and Co. was a major manufacturer and contractor.

These deliberations were going on against a backdrop of international and local evolutions in the electricity supply industry.  This was the time of the “battle of the currants”.  On one side was low voltage DC generation and distribution, in very crude terms there was direct connection between the consumer’s appliances and the dynamos at the power station.  These systems worked well for small communities clustered around the power station.  It was opposed by promoters of high voltage AC systems.  In these the AC generated at the power station is stepped up to a high voltage for transmission and stepped down again for distribution to the consumer, the key component is the transformer.  Ultimately, the high voltage AC systems were to triumph.  At the local level the neighbouring Brighton and Hove Electric Light company was seeking to expand.  At this time Brighton had established an electricity supply four years earlier and had experience with both AC and DC systems.

Mr. Crompton drew up his report and this was considered and this was considered on several occasions and on 8-Jun-1891 a decision was made to adopt the low voltage DC option.  It is clear from the minutes that they had discussed the AC alternative, but Mr. Compton recommended the DC route because Hove was a compact borough and there would be no problems with transmission.  It was pointed out that several London boroughs had adopted this solution as had parts of New York and Berlin.  Mr. Compton’s report  effectively became basis of the specification which against which bids would be invited and a prospectus for potential shareholders.

The suggested site was bounded on the west by Holland Road with 135 feet of frontage on what is now Davigdor Road.  To the north was a railway goods yard which was home to several coal merchants.  The plan was to have a siding laid so that coal could be delivered by rail.

The plant in the power station was intended to be implemented in phases.  When complete, the main elements were to be:

  • 5 Lancashire boilers rated at 160 p.s.i
  • 3 250 HP Willans dynamo sets
  • 3 100 HP Willans dynamo sets
  • 1 120 cell lead acid accumulator capable of supplying 600 amps for a short period.

Dividing the generating capacity between 100 and 250 HP units suggests that demand was expected to vary during the day.

The plant may have been arranged like this:

The site may have been long and thin making it necessary to use the space efficiently.

The costs for the initial phase with two boilers, three dynamo sets and an accumulator were estimated to be:

  • Plant: £8,297
  • Buildings: £3,000
  • Mains: £12.844
  • Total: £24,141

The cost of the complete scheme was around £50,000.

The public street lighting commitment was for 14 ornamental lampstands along the sea front, each with a 10 amp arc lamp mounted 26 feet above the street which was rated at 2,000 candlepower, the total running costs for 2186 hours were estimated to be £280/year.  Even in 1890, Hove was a sizeable town, so this was not a serious attempt to displace gas lighting.  It seems that the principal objective was to sell electricity to commercial and domestic consumers.  The electricity for these lights was to be supplied at half price, or 4d/unit, the retail price being 8d/unit (more than £1 in today’s money).

The report reads like it has been written to promote a scheme, it suggests that after seven years, 400 houses would be supplied with electricity and profits could be £5,000/year.  It is not unknown for prospectuses to over estimate demand, however, in this case, it was an underestimate, after two years of operation, 200 households were connected.

The minutes of the Electric Light committee meeting on 3-Sep-1891 stated that the text of an invitation to bid for the project had been drafted and an agreement to purchase the Holland Road site had been produced together with an application to borrow £1,400.

On 27-Oct-1891, proposals were received from:

  • The Electric Power and Storage Company
  • The Brush Electrical Engineering Company
  • Crompton and Company
  • The Brighton and Hove Electrical Lighting Company

A few days later, a bid from the Planet Electrical Engineering Company was received, as this had been submitted on time, but delivered late, it was considered.

Only the bid from Crompton and Company was considered to meet the requirements of the commissioners and on 11-Feb-1892, a deed of transfer of the undertaking to Compton and Company was approved.

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Energy Alternatives

The electricity industry took shape in the 1880s.  Initially, it was a “luxury” product consumed by high income households.  Large establishments might have had their own generating plant, but rapid growth in the demand for electricity started when companies were formed to supply consumers from a local power station.  Either by choice or circumstance, many of these companies became owned by local councils, with a little stretch of the imagination, they could be described as being owned and controlled by the community they served.  By the start of the 20th century demand for electricity had grown and the original small power stations with reciprocating steam engines located in residential areas were too small and inefficient to meet the demand, these were displaced by large steam turbine plants located close to a coal supply such as a port, railway depot or even the mine itself.  This became the model used by the industry for a century and it worked well, energy will never be cheap, but its rare to flick a light switch and have nothing happen.  Big nuclear power stations fit into this model.

There are big differences between the late 19th and early 21 centuries, for political and environmental reasons it is desirable to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and many people are uncomfortable with nuclear power.  However, the technologies available make it possible to consider alternatives to the big generator model, for the foreseeable future big power stations will have a role, but it may be possible to stem their growth and possibly even displace some of them.

These comments are based on personal observations, but they may have some wider relevance:

  • Energy consumption can be reduced without a drop in living standards.  In our case, we have steadily migrating to LED lighting, 20 watt compact fluorescent lights have are being replaced by 10 watt or smaller LEDs.  As appliances have died of old age, energy consumption has a factor in deciding on the replacement.  The old washing machine consumed 1.5 to 2.0 kwh/wash, the new one typically uses 0.25 to 0.70 kwh.  There maybe environmental benefits, but our electricity bill is £23/month and falling.
  • Storage is a potential game changer in the way the industry works.  Demand for electricity peaks in the early evening when families are home cooking, staring at a screen or doing homework, at present supply and distribution is set up to meet the peaks and troughs of daily life, if every house had even a small amount of storage, maybe as little as 2kwh, it could be possible to run the generators under constant load with each household having a time slot for charging its batteries.  Grocery deliveries have made us familiar with delivery time slots, doing the same thing for electricity is not such a big step.  Back to economics, there is the potential for buying electricity at off-peak rates (7p instead of 15p/kwh), so there is some potential upside for the consumer.  Storage also helps integrate energy from wind farms in to the energy economy.
  • Back in 1900, if you wanted to generate your own electricity the main options were steam or gas engines, water wheels were an option for those living near a river and wind generation was still being explored.  Even under an cloudy English sky, solar panels can make a contribution.  At present, the economics of home generation are geared towards getting a return-on-investment, however, in conjunction with storage, there is the potential to displace some gas fuelled generating capacity.  Peak demand is in the evening when the sun does not shine bright, if energy generated during the day can be stored for use in the evening, then the load on the grid can be smoothed.  This requires some creative economics.  Some rough calculations suggest that our house’s grid dependency would be decreased by two solar panel mounted somewhere other than on the roof.
  • Cars and vans contain reliable combined heat and power systems, a 2kw alternator provides electricity some of which is stored in the battery and waste heat from the cooling system is used to keep the cabin warm.  Extracting the appropriate components and packaging them as a consumer product might produce something costing less than £1,000, such an installation could produce heat and power during the winter months. These could be gas fuelled.  In the context of a car, this is established technology.  One of the incentives for the development of petrol and diesel engines was the limitation on consumption of town gas.  Any loss in efficiency in electrical generation could be compensated for by the use of waste heat.

Some of this stuff is fanciful and no doubt others could expand the list but the point is there are alternatives to big power station model.

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Energy, Shovels and Advertising

I would like to say that I have a research plan for theses posts on the history of domestic energy, but it is just random reading and looking for holes in the pavement.  One source material is advertising.  Until the end of the 1960s, domestic energy was about shovelling, either you did it yourself or you paid someone else to do it.  For some, the 1960’s might have been the Stones, the Beatles and the summer of love but for my mother it was gas central heating and the removal of the coal bunker.  As a family, we did our own shovelling but for some this was a problem to which this advert from the May 1931 edition of “The Sussex County Magazine” attempted to address.

The reference to “boilers” rather than “boiler” suggests that it was aimed at larger properties which probably included up-market blocks of flats with communal heating systems.  Often, these were not a source of happiness either being too cold or too hot or broken down and always too expensive.  Even in the depression, looking after one of these would not have been an attractive job.

The serious heavy lifting was done by the coal men, coal was delivered in bags weighing one and quarter hundredweight or 10 stones (roughly 60kg) which is the weight of a small adult.

Despite appliances being graded according to there energy efficiency, energy consumption in the kitchen is rarely the subject of today’s polite conversation around the marble worktops. However, some old “domestic science” textbooks take it seriously  and pre-war housekeepers were expected to be aware of the amount fuel they were using.  This is reflected in this advert from the June 1936 edition of “The Sussex Country Magazine”:

I’m guessing, but at the time this advert was published, coal fired stoves were competing with gas and electric cookers in the suburbs where a supply was available and coal/coke was cheaper per kwh than gas or electricity.  The claim that the fuel cost was £1.00/quarter suggests that consumption was around one and half tons per year (assuming coke to cost £2.50/ton at the time).  A ton of coal and it’s residual ash requires a lot of shovelling.  The advert also features deferred payments, the gas and electricity companies also offered appliance hire and credit facilities.

The theme of shovelling is continued in the small ads.  You imagine the look of surprise and delight on the face of someone receiving one of these:

However, a modest sized house with coal fires could get through several tons of coal in a year, if the task of shifting the stuff from the coal store to the kitchen, living room and  bedrooms was eased, the bearer of the gift might be rewarded with a smile, unless the recipient had hoped for silk lingerie.

In the 1930s the use of mains electricity in the home was expanding with the acquisition of irons and vacuum cleaners, but there were a lot of battery powered radios in use.  Typically these used lead acid accumulators to heat the cathodes in the valves whilst the high voltage they needed was supplied by multi-celled zinc-carbon batteries.  Few homes had the facility to charge the accumulators, so shops selling electric appliances offered a charging service, adverts for this can be found in the small ads of the magazines.

In general, the classified ads in the county magazines are not much different from those found online today, they offer “facial rejuvenation”, building services, garment alteration etc..  Private tutors still advertise in newsagent’s windows, but they don’t seek out “backward” children.

Having gone through my small collection of country magazines, for the sake of completeness I thumbed through a 1949 copy of “Men Only”.  The is some surprising overlap in the content, the same cars and lawn mowers are advertised, the men are dressed in similar style, some of the women are wearing slightly less, but both are part of the same world.

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The early days of electricity in Hove (2)

This post is really my notes from researching the early days of electricity in Hove, it is probable that there will be corrections and revisions.  As with the previous post, the source is the log books of the power station of the Hove Electric Light Company from 24-Nov-1892 to 27-Sep-1894.  I have yet to find a floor plan of this site or an inventory of the equipment, but the log books give an insight into the nature of operation and it’s economics.

One thing that stands out when the weekly generation data is plotted on a graph is the seasonal variation in the demand for electricity.  Whilst the log books make a couple references to small electric motors on customer’s sites, most of the output is used in incandescent lamps (typically 33 watts) and arc lights which might draw 10 amps (roughly 1 unit per hour with a 110 volt supply).  In the winter of 93/94 generation amounted to roughly 2,500 units/week and then dropped off as summer approached.  So in the summer of 1894, output was falling even though more customers were being signed up.

It is not clear if this seasonality was factored into the economics of operation, but it is possible that a stoker was laid off during the summer.  In Sep-1894, wages accounted for just less than one third of the operating expenses.  It is not clear in the remarks if the boilers had mechanical stoking or relied on a man with a shovel.

The largest expense was coal and coke.  There is an inference in the log books that the preferred type was Welsh  Coal (20 – 27 shillings/ton), this has a high calorific value (marine engineers also liked it), but at times, possibly as an economy measure, alternative fuel was used such Northern Steam Coal (19 shillings/ton).  In the first few months of operation some coke was used, maybe this came from the local gas works.

The logs don’t say much about the type of machinery, but there is a reference to Davey-Paxman sets.  I’m guessing but these steam engines were probably similar to those used in mills and factories, these were relatively slow speed.  Often power was distributed around the factory with a system of shafts and each machine was connected to this by a belt drive.  There is also a mention of Willans engine, this was probably a high speed engine specially developed for the growing electricity industry, typically the dynamo was directly coupled to the steam engine’s crank shaft.  Hopefully, I can find out more.

By modern standards, the boiler pressure was low, initially they operated at 140 p.s.i.  and later this was increased 160 p.s.i.. after inspection by the insurance company.  Steam locomotives in the 1950’s were often working in the range 200 – 250 p.s.i. and modern steam power stations run at very high temperatures and pressures to maximise efficiency.  The steam would have been saturated and there is no reference to condensers.  Thus the efficiency was very low, a crude sum suggests that it was in the range 2 – 3%, that of modern coal power stations might be around 40%.  The log book states coal consumption as 10 pounds/unit of electricity generated.  Leaving the town hall arc-lamps burning all night would create extra work for the stoker and a noticeable increase in operating costs.  Maybe, because of the lack of condensers, they were not able to recover water from the exhausted steam as water consumption was several thousand gallons per week.

The station was equipped with storage in the form of some large lead acid batteries, the capacity of these was about 30 units (110 amp hours).  These appear to require regular maintenance as sometimes their consumables (plates, soda etc.) show up as a spke in the expenses.  The function of these is not given, but it is probable that the storage acted as a buffer for fluctuations in load and also to meet some or all of the overnight demand, this would allow the boiler fires to be banked up to save fuel.  During the summer months the average daily demand might be 100 – 200 units which peaked in the evening, thus the 30 units of storage could simplify operations.

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The early days of electricity in Hove (1)

I learnt about the Hove Electric Lighting Co. Ltd. from a description of what seemed to be a small power station whilst reading Queenspark Book No. 36: “A Working Man”.  After looking up the buildings in Cromwell Road in Hove in a Kelly’s directory, I found the business name.  Not being able to find anything more, I decided to research it myself.  The East Sussex Records office has first three log books of the power station and it is these that this and the next post are based on.

Ideally, I should hunt down all the available material and the write it up in a single post, so these posts are really my notes which at sometime in the future may get consolidated.  If anyone has already done something similar and better, I apologise.

In the last decade of the 19th century, many small electricity companies were established by entrepreneurs or by town councils.  I find them interesting because with some stretch of the imagination the municipal ones might be described as micro-grids under local democratic control with all their assets located in the community they serve.  This is in contrast to the situation today where power stations are often located on remote headlands and are managed in distant boardrooms.  There are technical, commercial and political reasons why this transition took place, but something might be learnt from the early history of the industry.

It seems that the power station started operation in the week ending 24-Nov-1892.  During that week it produced just 95.79 units (kwh?) but by the end of the second week this had risen to 435.3 units, after which the demand was determined by the seasons and the number of houses connected, during the first two years the peak generation was about 2,500 units/week in the December 93/January 94 period, it is probable that it would be much higher in the next winter.

At the start of operations there were just four houses connected to the grid, this suggests the bulk of the load was coming from street lighting and council premises.  There are several references in the logbooks to arc lights at the town hall either being left on or going out.  There were two forms of lighting in use, arc lamps which were capable of illuminating a large area and incandescent lamps, typically rated at 33 watts.  The downside of arc lamps was their high current drain, maybe 10 amps and the need for constant maintenance, in 1894 this required a full time person.  The supply was 110 volts DC, thus a 10 amp arc lamp was consuming a unit of electricity each hour, the generating efficiency was low with 10 lb of coal being required to generate a unit of electricity, thus leaving several arc lamps burning when not needed could significantly increase coal consumption.  Arc lamps are sometimes described as “carbons”.

In just less than two years, the number of private houses connected to the grid rose from 4 to over 200.  Connecting a property to the electricity supply required investment both on the part of the electricity company who had to make cabling, distribution and metering points available and the householder who needed to install wiring and light fittings.  In the early 1920s, it cost about £30 to wire up a three bed room semi in the north of England for electric lighting.  Some of the first houses in Hove to be connected had more than 100 lamps, so the outlay would have been great, not only was there the cost of the electrical work but cost of redecorating after wires had been run through walls, floors and ceilings.  My own house was initially piped up for gas lighting, when electric cabling was installed, channels were cut into brickwork and wooden pads used to secure sockets and switches and there was a lot of “notching” of joists to run conduits under the floor.  The company inspected each property before connection, there is one reference to minor non-compliance that was accepted on the condition that remedial work was carried out “after the season”.

The graph below shows the increase in the number of connection over a two year period.

What is more interesting is the nature of the connections.  I walked around most of the streets mentioned in the log books and it appears that connections were split into two groups.  The first was retailers, I guess that installing electric lighting was seen as getting a competitive edge over one’s rivals, much the same as air conditioning is today.  Electric lighting would create a better retail environment than gas lights could which were dirty and could fill an unventilated space with foul air (e.g. increase the level of carbon monoxide).  the operation of electric lighting is just flicking a switch and occasionally changing a burnt out bulb.  Gas mantles have to be individually lit and regularly cleaned.  The second group might be described as posh residences.  Posh is probably the correct word, the people who owned these houses would most likely have been on the port side outward and on the starboard side homewards when travelling to and from India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia or New Zealand.  The houses are big and would have required several servants to function.  In modern marketing language, these people were “early adopters” who were prepared to pay a high price, the cost of electricity might have been around 5d/unit (more than £1.00 in today’s money).  None of the houses I walked past were the sort of place where craftsmen, teachers, clerks or shop assistants might have lived, it might be thirty or forty years before such people lived in homes with an electric light switch.

The map below shows the streets mentioned in the log books, those marked red are predominantly residential whilst the blue ones are mainly retail.  Except in the shopping area along Church Road and Western Road, there are only a few customers in each street, however, the mains for distribution would have been available for additional customers.

There appears to have been a ready market for electricity, as mains became available in a street, houses were soon connected to it.  There were a small number of disconnections for reasons not specified, but one reference suggested that electricity was becoming indispensable, a house was disconnected one day, but reconnected on the following one.

The data available does not show levels of household consumption, but it suggests that the average during the winter months was around 10 kwh/week and less than 5 kwh during the summer, this might put average household consumption in the range 200 – 500 kwh/year.  The current average in the UK is about 3,500 kwh/household/year.  The principal use of electricity was for lighting, but there are two references to electric motors, one is for a half horsepower one in a dairy

Electricity was creating new types of job.  The dynamos in the power station were driven by reciprocating steam engines which at that time was a mature technology, but establishing safe and reliable distribution systems was a new challenge.  by the middle of 1894, there were four distinct groups of works in the company, about half a dozen people worked in the power station, two were involved in connecting properties to the mains, two more maintaining those mains and two going round testing and reading meters.

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Laundry and Negawatts (one more time)

Technology has its role to play in sustainable energy systems but so too does behaviour.  I’ve learnt that conversations about consumption are difficult and that some of the things that facilitate the reduction of energy consumption are just not sexy.  I’ve made a couple of visits to “eco” fairs where there are blokes huddled up discussing panel orientation and the nature of inverters just like I and other teenagers once discussed motorbikes.  Try and bring LED lighting into the discussion and you might be like the kid with the rusty, back-firing and moped (those mopeds that have survived are now collectable and change hands for serious money).  I did mention to someone that I was measuring the energy consumption of our washing machine and from the reaction I sensed that the words “geek” and “nerd” were not far away.

Due to some dubious career advice, I left school at 15 and spent a couple of years as merchant seaman followed by some time in a factory.  The fact that I have spent much of my career writing computer software, suggests that I was not cut out for a life on the ocean wave.  Whilst I was close to incompetent, as this experience drifts further into the past, I am attempting to mine it for anything relevant.  Remuneration was not generous but included two bars of soap per week, both were brick like, one was a dark red carbolic variety which repelled both women and infestations, but as only one of which was present on the ship, this was not a problem.  The other was yellow “Port Sunlight” which was used for laundry.  Both types could be used as currency in some ports.

The laundry process (known as dhobying) consisted of placing soiled clothing in a bucket of water, rubbing it with a lump of soap and agitating it until one was either bored or the clothes were clean.  A couple of rinses in clean water and the process was almost complete.  Ships have lots of warm spaces, so getting stuff dry was not a problem.  As this was hand washing, I doubt if the temperature of the water was very high.  The standard of personal hygiene in a all male community frequently engaged in dirty work was reasonably high (with the odd exception), so who needs more than a bucket and a bar of yellow soap?

Fast forward some decades and home is a suburban semi populated by two adults and three would-be adults and a washing machine.  The latter consumed 1.0 to 2.0 kwh/wash, maybe 3 to 8 kwh per week.  Eventually, the children leave and the washing machine unable to cope with an empty nest, starts to leak, vibrate and die.  It is removed by two men who swear a lot. The replacement provided by the insurance company is in my opinion dynamically unstable and can’t be left unattended.  I have agreed to perform a certain number of washes to see if the machine “settles down”.  Rather than just staring at a vibrating cube, I weigh the washing before and after and measure the energy consumption.

Initially, my wife selected a programme with a 40 deg. C temperature and I duly filled and emptied the machine and drew a graph.  A typical wash requires about 0.7 kwh of electricity, which is a significant improvement on the old one.  The energy consumption is proportional to dry weight, so this maybe due to the amount of energy needed to warm the contents of the drum.  When I eventually got to study engineering at university, we were taught about experimental design, so when my wife was not looking, I dropped the temperature down to 20 deg. C, so far she has not noticed any difference but the energy consumption is now 0.3 kwh/wash.  It’s emulating me and a bucket or was I emulating the washing machine but that’s philosophy not engineering and I’m not qualified.  Low temperature washing will not work for greasy overalls or skid marked underpants, but not every wash contains those things.

Modern washing machines are highly energy efficient, but there is no obvious way to interact with their energy consumption.  Smart meters might help, or even a stupid meter mounted in the kitchen so that a home’s energy consumption is visible.  The energy meter I use cost less than £20 and has paid for itself, so it would not be significant cost increase to incorporate energy monitoring into a washing machine or similar device.   My opinion is that most homes could drop their energy consumption by 10 – 20% without any lowering of the standard of living, if only they knew what it is.  Once we were using 5kwh/week to keep clean, now it is less than 1 kwh.


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