My dog fell in the pond

It’s been an odd year, the first three months were mild, but April was colder and drier than usual and seeds sown directly into the soil not germinate and level in the pond dropped.  Despite an adequate supply of clean, fresh water, my dog  prefers dirty and stagnant stuff.  Whilst in search of this, he took a tumble into the pond, making a dog shaped hole in the lilies, fortunately, the only injury was to his pride and my son’s bed where he collapsed, still coated in black slime.

A dog shaped hole

Once the dog was dried out, I broke the hose pipe rule and topped up the pond with 500 litres to raised the level so he can drink safely and gave the vegetables a good soaking with another 100 litres at the same time.  Up to now, the only water I have used on the garden has been from the rain water butt.  A limitation on the consumption is my ability to carry the water up 50 steps to the vegetable patch which means 10 to 20 litres/day.

A couple of weeks back, I started thinking about a bit of the garden which is always dry, the soil is thin and it’s against a wall.    As every blog should have a graph, so the first step was to take sample of soil, weigh it and then use a large cast iron frying pan on the gas stove to dry it, this upset my wife and showed that the moisture content was 10%.  The next step was a cycle ride along a path where the council had recently cut down a tree and to scoop up a rubble bag full of wood chips which were then scattered over a bed which had previously been  watered.  After a week of sunshine, another sample was taken and a further upset to my wife, the moisture content had risen to 27%.

A cucumber and a broccoli seedling have been planted in the mulched bed.  Whilst the threat of draught has been reduced, that from slugs has increased.  I’m curious to see what happens.

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Summoning the servants

Having nothing better to do, I walked to the local stately home which is now owned by the council and open to the public.  It started life as a manor house at the heart of a working farm, but by the end of the 19th century more money could be made selling the land for housing than from corn and wool.  so land for housing took over from agriculture.  I guessing (I should have bought a guide book), but the transformation from farm house to pile started around 1860, at that time water would have been from a well, candles and lamps would have provided light, with open fires for warmth and one or more ranges for cooking.

As time went on, hot and cold running water became available from lead piping.  A big central heating system was installed with cast iron radiators and iron pipes.  This implied a “boiler room” somewhere in the basement, but not wanting to appear weird, I did not ask to see it.  I found a solitary gas mantle in the servant’s which suggests that they largely skipped over gas technology and went straight to electricity or someone had done a good job of disposing the piping.  The house was extensively lit with electricity which might have been installed before the Great War, there was no mention of where the supply came from, it is conceivable that there was a steam driven dynamo in the basement along the boilers, maybe this is the guide book.

In the centre of the “working” area comprising the scullery, kitchen, laundry, pantries and small rooms where one might hide for a fag or half hour with yesterday’s Times, is a row of bells mounted on coiled springs.  Originally, these appear to have been worked by an elaborate system of wires and cranks, the remains or which are visible all over the house.  These mechanisms were common in the slightly grand houses on the other side of the railway track by which we live.  A couple of dog walking acquaintances have found them in walls and lofts.  As every room in the house appeared to have a bell, maintaining them must have created employment for the local handyman.  Were these bells ever silenced by clipping a clothes peg the cable, a form of sabotage there would have been easy to conceal.  A variation on this theme exists in the main bedrooms, these may have been kept locked while the occupant slept (I choose my words carefully), however, unlocking them to allow the delivery of food, drink, shaving water and the removal of night soil in the chamber pot would have meant leaving the bed.  However, a system of ropes and pulleys allowed the door to be unlocked without leaving the covers.  This sort of explains socialism.

The wires and cranks must have been a source of frustration as they were at sometime replaced by actuators which I guess were powered by some lead acid accumulators and activated by push buttons in the family rooms.  This is where the story ends, but I have a lot sympathy for shop works who wander around with headsets so they can be directed as required, it is probably a good thing that these were not available in the Edwardian era.

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Learning to garden (21) – Hot beds, update

Last night I bubble wrapped the composter to prevent heat loss from the side walls:


At 07:00 this morning the air temperature at 7.5 deg. C which was similar to the previous day.  However, the temperature around the seed trays in the box was 15.5 deg. C.  The next milestone is to see what germinates, the trays contain approximately 10 seeds of cucumber, Cayenne chillies, California  Wonder peppers and broccoli.

There should be a comment on the errors associated with temperature measurement, suffice to say that I stood in such a way, that the thermistor was in shadow and far enough away for it to not sense the warmth in my body

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Learning to garden (21) Hot beds, an update


Monday: 25-Apr-2016

About 07:00 this morning, the air temperature around the composter was about 6.2 deg. C and about 9.0 deg. C within the box.  Not quite hot, but warmer than the surrounding air.  This evening, I will wrap the composter in bubble wrap to prevent heat loss from the sides.  I tried this last autumn and raised the temperature inside the composter to around 25 deg. C.

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Learning to garden (21) – Hot beds again

Early spring has been cold, not much has germinated, even seeds in pots which have been perched on the windowsill of my work room.  Must make a mental note to do something about the heating in here because the cucumbers are not the only thing that finds it cold, so do my fingers.

I recently learnt about hot beds, which might be described as a cold frame sitting on a compost heap.  Excited as I was by this discovery, my wife wanted the kitchen refurbishment finished, so I just did a quick and dirty experiment and sowed a few seeds in trays and put them in the composter, in just over a week 100% of the cucumbers had germinated, but the dark inside of a composter is no place for a young plant, so the seedlings did not thrive.

Now we have running water in the kitchen, just like the neighbours, I have made up a wooden frame with large holes in the base and some discarded acrylic sheet on top.  This assembly sits on top of the composter.  My hope is that hot air will pass upwards and provide a more-or-less constant temperature for the seed trays in the box.

Some mornings, I take an early morning cup of coffee up to the top of the garden as a way of delaying the start of real work, so tomorrow I will linger and poke a thermometer into the box and determine if the seeds are warmer than my fingers.

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Who needs power stations?

This post is not original nor is it a fully thought out scheme, similar commercial concepts are available and on a scale larger than a single household they becomes a district heating schemes.  For brevity and simplicity, there are some gross over simplifications.

The vast majority of households in the UK are on gas and electric grids.  A home which consumes 5,000 kwh/year of electricity and 10,000 kwh/year of gas for heating, hot water and cooking might indirectly use more than 20,000 kwh of gas (contributions from other fuels are conveniently ignored).   Assuming the gas fuelled plant supplying the electricity is 50% efficient, 50% of the energy input to that plant is lost.  The diagram summarises the energy flows:

The house which is consuming the electricity is also acquiring 10,000 kwh of gas for space and water heating.  The generating plant having  dumped 5,000 kwh which might have been used to offset the heating load.

Solar PV panels are now a mature technology and a kw array is capable of generating more than 20 kwh in the south of England from spring to autumn.  The downside of solar panels is that they do not work at night and output in December and January is low.  Without storage, PV panel require some form of backup, in the on-grid configuration this is effectively a gas fuelled power station.  Integrating storage into a household system goes some way to displacing fossil fuelled generation.

A further enhancement to the household energy system might be the addition a small gas fuelled generator, maybe a scaled down version of the system used in hybrid cars.  This could operate efficiently at a constant speed, the generator would maintain the battery bank and the waste heat from the engine could be used for space and water heating.

Electricity generation has developed around large plants, but other technologies are evolving which make it possible consider scenarios which are based on the investment of thousands of pounds at the household level, rather than billions at an industrial scale.

The graph below is an approximation of the demand for energy and the availability of solar generated electricity.  The generator set would have its greatest utilisation in winter when the availability of solar power is low and the demand for warmth greatest.  In summer the demand for heating is low and the demand for electricity could be met by the solar panels.

With the exception of the solar panels, variations on this theme have been around for a long time, I recently came across this advert in a publication from 1911:

This “electric light plant” has most of the elements described above, gas fuelled, energy storage.  As an engineering student, I was taught the basics of thermodynamics on a ancient gas engine, I have vague memories of custodian of this machine stating that it had been used as part of the heating system in a public building.

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The consumer’s relationship with coal and gas

I recently read “the world did not run out of coal, it just stopped using it”, with the implication that a similar process might take place with other fuels such as oil and gas.  A back-burner project has been to collect household energy costs from old utility bills and related sources (an unexpectedly fruitful source has been Hansard – the record of proceedings in the UK parliament).  This type of material shows how energy costs are perceived by the consumer.  Householders are generally rational in their decisions, seeking to minimize both cost and effort.

It is difficult to make prices comparable over time.  The purchasing power of money changes over time and there are different things to buy, so estimates of price change over a long period of time are an approximation.

This post is based on comparisons, but the data should be treated with caution because of the difficulty of making like-for-like samples.  In the days when coal was purchased by almost every household there were significant variations in price due to the quality of the fuel with nutty slack at the cheap end and anthracite at the other, the sources do not always quote the type.  Distance from the goods yard could be significant.  People on low incomes might purchase a stone (14 lb, roughly 6 kg) for cooking at a much higher unit cost than a household taking half a ton in a single delivery.

The price of coal in 2015 money remained more-or-less constant within broad limits for the period  1900 to 1970.

Gas is slightly simpler, but there were and are regional variations and in the post war period there was a transition from “town gas” made from coal and “natural gas” from the southern North Sea gas fields.  The nature of the gas industry is such that it is easier regulate, whilst there were a large number of coal merchants, there were relatively few gas companies, many of which where owned by town councils.  Most companies served a single area and there was limited competition.  Within the home, electricity displaced gas as the energy source for lighting by the 1930s.  The main uses for as were for cooking and until the advent of central heating in the post ware period, gas fires were a common way of heating a room.

The availability of gas from the North Sea started a 40 year period of low energy prices which lasted form approximately 1965 to 2005.

A cursory reading of Hansard suggested three things.  First that energy prices are a constant source of public, and therefore parliamentary concern and that this is accentuated in difficult economic times.  Secondly, that there is a general distrust of energy suppliers, coal merchants in the 1920s were attracting much the same criticisms as today’s gas and electricity suppliers.  What politicians of all persuasions seem to want is a regulated energy market which is isolated from global economic turbulence.  Sustainable technologies go some way to meeting this requirement.

The householder does not purchase a hundredweight of coal or a therm of gas, he/she buys warmth and the facility to cook.  Open fires accounted a for a large proportion of the coal burnt in England, whilst a coal fire is cheerful and comforting, it’s thermal efficiency is low, possibly less than 20%, stoves equipped with a back boiler were more efficient, but a large amount of heat still went up the chimney.  Modern stove designs seem to be a big improvement on those of the 1950s and 60s.  As a gross oversimplification, someone wanting 1 kwh of warmth might have to purchase enough coal to produce 4 kwh if the fireplace was 25% efficient.  Gas central heating boilers might offer 90% efficiency.  Making assumptions about thermal efficiency produces this graph which shows the effective energy cost of  coal and gas assuming thermal efficiencies of 25% and 90% respectively.

The crossover point is sometime in the 1960s, this is when our parent’s generation blocked up the fireplaces and installed gas central heating.  Gas was not only cheaper than coal, it was cleaner and easier to live with.  Another benefit of gas was improved air quality, well into the 1970s thick fogs were a frequent occurrence due to the high proportion of soot particles in the air.  This in turn provided a decrease in respiratory disease.

The sustainable energy technologies sit uncomfortably with economics, the transition from coal to gas was largely driven by the cost advantages, my source for this comment is my parents and their friends.  If a similar transition is to take place from gas to sustainable sources, the energy consumers, who are now our children, must perceive some economic benefits.

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