How to cut energy costs

I’ve just renewed our domestic energy contract for another year. While checking the bills I noted all the information that the government now requires energy companies to include in consumer bills in an effort to persuade the majority of UK consumers who are on expensive standard variable tariffs to switch to more competitive limited-term tariffs and/or smaller suppliers.  I’m guessing that many of those people are on a standard tariff because they switched to a fixed price, limited term tariff at some time in the past and didn’t take action when it came to an end.  I’ve diarised the need to investigate the market again in 11 months’ time, shortly before the current fixed term deal comes to an end.

My latest bill gives the typical annual domestic consumption figures in the UK: 3,100kWh electricity and 12,000kWh gas.  We buy about 1,550 kWh of electricity and 9,000 kWh of gas and consume additionally an unknown portion of the 3,400 kWh or so of electricity generated by the photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof.  We don’t have an export meter, so the actual amount of self-generated electricity that we use can’t be measured, but it’s estimated at 50% for feed-in tariff purposes.  I think we probably export a lot more than 50%, because our annual electricity consumption only fell by about 500 kWh when the PV panels were installed.  Adding that figure to our current mains consumption gives a total annual electricity consumption of 2,050 kWh.

There’s just the two of us in the house, but it’s a 100-year-old, 3 bedroom, detached property and we both work from home, meaning it’s occupied pretty much all day, every day.   So how is our energy consumption so much lower than the typical figures?  Put simply, we’re thrifty.  When buying any electrical appliance, whether it’s a lawnmower or a light bulb, its energy performance comes into the evaluation process.  We switch off everything that’s not in use at the wall switch and we don’t use an electrical appliance if there’s an alternative – clothes are only tumble dried when the weather is bad for several days in a row, for example, and we don’t even own a dishwasher.  We changed over to compact fluorescent bulbs when they first became available some 35 years ago, and now the fluorescents are being replaced with LEDs as they fail.

Ever since the PV panels were installed, we take care to use the larger electrical loads, as much as possible, during daylight hours and one at a time.  That helps because then the immersion heater, washing machine, vacuum cleaner or whatever is consuming (at least in part) the “free” self-generated electricity, saving 13.7p/kWh on our new tariff.  If we ever do get an export meter fitted then each self-generated unit we use will mean one fewer exported unit, for which we currently receive about 3.8p, but there’ll still be a worthwhile saving.  Of course, it’s only a saving if the “free” energy we consume during the day would otherwise come from the mains and have to be paid for, there’s no saving to be made by excessive, unnecessary consumption, even if it is when the sun is shining brightly.

Although the UK’s feed-in tariff for PV generation is no longer available for new installations, the cost of a domestic PV installation has also fallen dramatically.  It’s still an investment worth considering for anyone with a suitable roof who isn’t planning to move any time soon.

Our gas consumption fell markedly when we had solid wall insulation installed in 2013.  Now, our cottage is cosy in winter; it warms up quickly when the heating comes on, and if there’s any sun during the daytime, even in January, we don’t need the heating on until dusk.  The house stays warm enough for radiators in unused rooms to stay off without risk of condensation or freezing in all but the coldest weather.  Our previous boiler, replaced in summer 2018, was nearly 23 years old and, according to the official website that provides data for domestic energy assessors, its annual efficiency was only about 76%.  In fact, it was almost certainly less than that, because the reduction in the house’s heat demand meant that it was oversized.

The new condensing boiler has a thermal efficiency of over 90%, but changing it before the existing one died wasn’t worthwhile because our annual gas bill was only about £350, and that includes the oven, hob and a gas fire.  We’ve reduced our gas consumption by 14%, worth £50, in the 12 months since we got the new boiler, which is certainly welcome but not enough to justify replacing the old one had it still been working.

Gas cylinder woodburner

Gas cylinder woodburner

One of the other ways we’ve reduced our heating costs is by installing a simple wood-burning stove I made out of a gas cylinder.  We mostly use it on cold days at the weekend – having to keep getting up to put logs in is just too distracting when working – and our small garden produces just about enough fuel for that.  We’ve also got the attic very well insulated and have taken steps to stop draughts throughout the house.  Draught-proofing is probably the most cost-effective energy saving measure of all. Whenever it’s blowing a gale I feel around skirting boards, cornices, the holes where heating pipes come up through the floor, window frames and doors with the back of my hand, or use a lighted candle, to detect air ingress and then I seal the gaps straightaway, while I remember.

When I advise my commercial and industrial clients how to save energy, I always recommend starting with the no cost and low cost measures – the low hanging fruit. The savings realised by attention to such things as switching off unused equipment, insulation and draught-proofing can then be used to invest in the slightly more expensive measures, and so on. Often it’s not cost effective to go very far down this route, because the energy consumption will by then be so much lower than it was to start with.

Candle light bulbs

25W versus 7W

The same process works equally well at a domestic scale. Recently a friend asked me to have a look at his house because he was shocked to learn that our electricity consumption was less than half his, even allowing for our self-generation. I realised why as soon as I stepped through his front door; the hallway was lit by several wall-mounted and ceiling-mounted flush light fittings, each of which contained a pair of 60W candle bulbs. In total the hall lighting was consuming 600W, and my friend left the lights on all evening. The rest of the house was much the same. Replacing these power-hungry bulbs with LED ones was an easy win.

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Saint Rémy sweater revealed

This week I finished a jumper that I cast on nearly three years ago, a modified version of the Saint Rémy design that appeared in Knitty in 2015.

Saint Remy jumper finishedMy knitting projects don’t usually hang around that long, but I lost my enthusiasm for this project for a long time after making a mistake (which I haven’t corrected – if you want to know what it is, all is revealed in this post). I actually finished knitting the week before last but I held off darning in the ends around the bottom of the body. I was in two minds as to whether to pull out those last few inches and re-knit them without the stripes, but everyone I showed it to seemed to think the stripes should stay.

Yesterday morning I darned in the remaining ends, and then it occurred to me that this might be the perfect sweater to wear to a party we were invited to last night in a nearby village. The gathering was in a barn, and we’d been warned that we should dress accordingly. I reckoned that a lightweight-but-warm merino sweater ought to fit the bill, and was smart enough for a party without being too dressy for a barn.

I normally wet-block my knitwear, but there wasn’t going to be time if I wanted to wear a dry garment – which I did. So I pressed it with the iron under a damp cloth and was pleasantly surprised at how the stitches magically evened themselves up, all without the hassle of soaking, blotting and pinning out. All I had to do then was to leave it draped over a towel rail in front of a sunny window for an hour to ensure it was fully dry, then it was ready to put on. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders for good measure and was perfectly comfortable all evening without having to resort to the jacket I’d worn to cycle there. I’ll wet-block this jumper the first time I wash it, because I still think that gives the best result, but it will do for now.

A unseasonal dress

I have nothing else in mind to knit at the moment. I could make a start on decorations for this year’s Christmas tree festival, but September seems way too early for that. Instead, I’ve been working on a dress made from the very loud wax print fabric I bought in Amsterdam.

Drying wax print fabric

Drying on the line after a wash

I found a fit-and-flare pattern I liked, with cap sleeves – always useful to avoid sunburnt shoulders – and a skirt that has unpressed pleats around the waistline. I’ve introduced extra fabric into the skirt by adding two additional pleats in each of the front and back, so as to give more of a 1950s silhouette while making full use of the width of the fabric. All being well, I will finish it this week. Unfortunately, the weather has turned quite chilly and autumnal – I was very glad of the pair of gloves I found in my jacket pocket when I cycled home last night – and I’m probably not going to get chance to wear a cotton dress before next summer.

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Wax print fabric from Amsterdam

Dutch windmill

Windmill at Zaanse Schans

We spent a few days over the bank holiday weekend in North Holland and Amsterdam, where it was unusually hot – as you can see from the blue sky in the photo above.

Wooden clogsWe did a lot of touristy, cheesy (literally) things like visiting working windmills, clog makers, Gouda shops and diamond factories.

I spotted a fine example of yarn-bombing at the Eye film museum in northern Amsterdam.

Yarnbombing at the Eye museumAnd I dragged my dear husband round a few street markets elsewhere in the city.

At the multicultural Dappermarkt on the eastern side of the city centre I found a stall selling what looked like Dutch wax prints (aka Ankara, African/Holland/Java/Indonesian wax) but turned out on closer inspection to be Chinese made. At €15 for a 6 yard length of 46” wide fabric, I didn’t even bother to haggle.

Wax printed cotton fabricI had my doubts at first that this could be a genuine batik fabric at that price, despite the many labels and the selvedge, but I’m pretty sure that it is, because the colours are equally bright on both the “right” and the “wrong” sides – if it had just been printed in the conventional way rather than resist-printed and then dyed, less dye would have reached the back of the fabric. One of the nice things about wax prints is that you can create a symmetrically patterned garment even with a non-symmetrical print by cutting some pattern pieces face down to give a mirror image. But I do doubt whether the resist used for my fabric was wax, as there are no “crackles” where it has cracked in the classic batik fashion and allowed some dye to leak through. And can it really be block printed, as the labels suggest, at this price? My guess is that a semi-flexible resin resist of some type has been applied using a rotary screen, at an industrial scale.

So, this boldly patterned length of cotton has travelled home with me. Fortunately, KLM didn’t at any point attempt to weigh my carry-on suitcase.  I don’t feel any guilt about buying what some may see as a Chinese knock-off in a Dutch market, given that the whole Dutch wax print industry started as an attempt to undercut the Indonesian market by industrialising the batik process. The Indonesians rejected the “Java prints” imported from Holland, but the Dutch then found an appreciative market in west Africa instead. Nowadays African-printed fabrics compete with the Dutch ones in the African markets, and more recently the Chinese have got in on the game too.  One online article I’ve read since my return suggests that fabrics of the brand I bought, Hitarget, are more highly valued by some African consumers than the African and Dutch competition, because of their perceived quality (a reasonably high thread count and vibrant patterns).

Tapestry shoulder bagOn Monday we went to another market in central Amsterdam, the Noordermarkt. It’s billed as a flea market, and there certainly were a lot of second hand goods – including vintage textiles – but towards the western end there were also quite a few stalls selling new dress fabrics and furnishing fabrics. I was very tempted by some beautiful tapestry fabric, both on the roll and in panels, which would have made a gorgeous bag like this one (but prettier). As nobody really needs more than one tapestry handbag, I restrained myself.

Back home, I’ve removed the labels from the cotton fabric by ironing them to soften the glue. It’s had a wash this morning at 40°C to pre-shrink it and remove any residual wax. Unfortunately, it’s now 15°C outside and pouring with rain, not like the weather we had in Holland at all. How am I ever going to get 6 yards of cotton dry?

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Chunky hats

I’m still knitting hats in chunky acrylic. I’ve made four in all and, together with a dozen or so more knitted by others, they’ll be tombola prizes at a local beer festival. Similar woolly hats apparently proved popular last year – but then, none of them were made by me.

Brioche hatIt takes Two scarfI’m most pleased with the brioche hat. I haven’t knitted brioche since I made a little keyhole scarf, and it felt like time to refresh my knitting memory. I love the way brioche is reversible, with both sides equally interesting but different.

When it was time to decrease for the crown, I worked 3-round double decreases at five equally spaced positions around the hat, with five plain rounds (ie two and a half brioche rounds) between each set of decreases. This seemed to work, but it has made the hat a bit too long and pointy in the crown area. I just hope some of the beer festival contingent like their hats on the slouchy side. If I ever make another hat like this I’ll work an increase round every six rounds (ie three brioche rounds) instead of eight. And I’m not convinced that the added complication of decreasing over three rounds instead of one is worth the effort.

The final hat of the four used the same pair of yarns, but was a simpler knit with a bobble. The variegated yarn (Woolyhippo’s Baby Chunky) has pooled into camo-ish patterns that might appeal to the mostly male beer festival attendees.

Grey and white hat




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Black leading a fireplace

The weather has been quite wet this week. Thankfully, we avoided the flooding that cut off villages and washed away roads and at least one bridge in dales to the north of here, and we haven’t been evacuated like the poor people of Whaley Bridge a mere 50 or 60 miles to the south. But it has been too wet and thundery to do much outdoors. Instead, I cleaned the carpet in our spare bedroom. That meant clearing out all the furniture temporarily, which brought the fireplace into focus.

It looked a mess. The paintwork has seen better days and the cast iron parts that haven’t been painted, like the grate, front bars and ash pan cover, were rusty. While the carpet was drying, I decided to clean up the removeable ash pan cover for a start to see if it was worth doing any more.

After attacking it with a wire brush in the drill, and then lots of elbow grease and wire wool, it looked a lot better. I popped out to buy a tube of old-fashioned black grate polish – thanks to the popularity of cast iron wood-burning stoves and fancy barbecues the stuff is still available, albeit no longer called black lead. I polished up the ash pan cover with it and achieved a subtle, gunmetal gleam that reminded me of my grandmother’s range.

Polished ashpan cover

Shiny ashpan cover, rusty front bars

There was no doubt about it, I was going to have to tackle the front bars too.

Polished grate

All shiny now

The bars took longer because they’re fixed to the fireplace so had to be de-rusted carefully by hand, using wire wool only, to avoid dirt going all over the newly cleaned carpet. (Memo to self: next time, do the dirty jobs before washing the carpet.) I reckon the whole job, including the ash pan cover, took me five hours.

Now I need to decide whether to strip the gloss paint off the rest of the cast iron fire surround, de-rust and polish that too, or just repaint it. I worry that so much black will look out of place in a bedroom that’s decorated in pale colours. Also, I discovered that no matter how long I buffed the ash pan cover for, some black still comes off it if it’s rubbed with a clean cloth. I suspect that the polish contains powdered graphite.

Maybe it’s not a good idea to have a fireplace in our spare room that could deposit black on guests’ clothing. The fire surround is very plain with no surface detail, so nothing that a gunmetal gleam would enhance. It presumably once had tiles around it to provide some embellishment, but I’m not sure I want to go down that route as any colour I introduce will only limit future decorating options. For now, I’m going to leave it as it is. It looks a whole lot better without the rust anyway.

Tombola hats

I should have finished my St Rémy jumper by now but I’ve been distracted by hats. A friend asked if I’d help her knit some to give as prizes in a tombola at a local beer festival this autumn. She had chunky wool for them, and I jumped at the chance to knit something quick instead of plodding away at stocking stitch on 3.5mm needles.

There was yellow and blue acrylic yarn that looked, near enough, like Leeds United’s colours. I’ve made a couple of supporters’ hats with it.

LUFC hatsWith the remaining yarn, a plain black and a white/grey/black variegated yarn, I’m knitting two-colour brioche.

Brioche hat in the roundI’ve never done brioche in the round before and I’m finding it plain sailing.  Instead of having to remember where I am in a four row sequence – rows 1 and 2 in each of the main colour and the contrast – there are only two rounds, one in each colour. But you do have to remember whether to leave the yarn to the front or the back of the work at each changeover.

I haven’t worked out yet how to end this hat, but there’s plenty of time for that. Brioche, like the similar fisherman’s rib, is slow to grow.

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The finishing touch

After making the cushions for our new window seat earlier this year, I was left with a small amount of fabric left. There was a rectangle of the striped linen union and a couple of small triangles of green velvet remaining after cutting bias strips for piping. Since then, I’ve been looking for a rectangular cushion pad of the right size, to make a scatter cushion. I finally found one during a trip to see friends on the other side of the country last week.

From the two triangles of velvet I was able to cut four more bias strips to make enough piping to go all around the cushion cover. It fastens with Velcro in one of the short ends.

Window seat scatter cushionNow I can finally call the window seat complete. I wish I had enough fabric for another cushion or two though. Maybe I’ll find some more of the green velvet – which was a remnant – if I keep my eyes open when I next visit The Shuttle.

Bent wood update

Soaked strips after bendingWhen I took the clamps off the strips of oak I experimented with last week, the pair of laminated and glued strips that I’d formed around a dustbin lid stayed exactly the same, no discernible “springback” at all. That’s them on the right hand side of the photo. But the ones that I’d bowed in the jaws of sash cramps didn’t do nearly as well, and I suspect that they’re still gradually unbending. All of these strips were soaked in water overnight with no heat applied during the bending process.

So, I’ve learnt two things from these experiments. Firstly, it seems just as easy to bend these 6mm thick strips by soaking them as it is to steam them. Despite that, my view is that steaming is the way to go. It’s a bit more effort to mess about with a wallpaper steamer, but the coat stand I’m planning to make requires a bend in the mid part of a 1900mm long strip and I don’t have a vessel that long that could be used for soaking. Also, steaming is a lot quicker.

The second thing I’ve learnt is that laminating two strips makes the bent strips hold their new shape very effectively, as well as making the laminated component much stronger and more rigid. I aim to use three strips for each leg of the coat stand, which should make it heavy enough not to topple when a winter coat is hung on one side.

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