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Friday, 27 February 2015

Why choose an eco paint?

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Paint is often seen as the gateway into eco products so it is really important to understand and appreciate, but what makes a paint 'eco' and why should we choose them over the more conventional options?

There are a number of reasons and the relevance to your life will be dependent on your sensibilities.

1. The right product

I think that this is the most important reason. Most natural paints are breathable and this means that they allow moisture to pass through them. This is of course really important if you have breathable walls. No point having lovely natural walls and then plastering them with paints that seal them up. So paints like claypaint, lime paint, silicate paint are VITAL to use on breathable walls. Unfortunately many buildings with breathable walls have had conventional (non breathing) emulsions used and this is why the paint bubbles and peels off etc. So by using the right product means that it will last longer, create a healthy environment both for the occupants, but also for the actual building.

In a high traffic area you may also want to have a scrubbable paint. A living room might be demanding an ultra matt finish. A door may need to be shut at night and so a very quick drying paint is needed. Allergies might dictate that synthetic preservatives are not used, .......

2. Environment

Most paints are petro-chemical based and so fundamentally unsustainable. Yes this means that they are very consistent as they are manufactured to death, but it also means that they have synthetic VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that have been shown to cause a range of health issues. However, there is also the issue of carbon footprint. By using petro-chemical carbon based ingredients the environmental impact is increased, as is the waste consideration. Conventional paints are much more difficult for nature to degrade and so they become a legacy waste so we will have to live with their chemical compounds for much longer.

Many of the natural paint manufacturers wish to ensure that they minimise their environmental impacts (well they would won't they!) Auro, for example, are so committed to the environment that they utilise solar power in the manufacturing process, source ingredients organically wherever possible and also from as close to the factory as possible.

3. Health

The VOCs that are given off by conventional paints have resulted in Painting and Decorating being one of those trades that suffer high levels of respiratory illnesses and complaints. Although paints should off-gas all their VOCs within a month, you will still be sitting in a house that is essentially a bit of a toxic soup for that time. Natural paints are virtually all VOC free and so they do not have the same effects on the trades people or the home owners.

4. Quality

Natural paints are not sold in Germany as being 'eco-friendly' they are labelled for one of their other attributes and that is quality. Natural paints tend to be at the highest end of the quality spectrum. Natural paints have great coverage and high opacity / obliteration properties. This tends to mean that you use less paint as it covers so well.

5. Amazing properties

Some natural paint manufacturers have amazing products they may well tick your box. For example Auro have their Airfresh paint that actually cleans the air from pollutants. Earthborn ProAqua Varnish and Eggshell are incredibly quick drying and so allow you to get a finished eggshell finish in a day.

However, it is important to recognise that natural paints are products of their ingredients and so you need to choose the right paint for any particular job. So you may wish to have an earthborn paint in a bedroom so that you have no smell or VOC's at all (there are no oils in earthborn paints), an Auro in the dining room as you love the citrus oil smell and a Green Paint emulsion in the hallway as the soya oil base makes it scrubbable. 

We would recommend that you fundamentally base any decision on ensuring that the paint is right one for the location, but that after that you can let your personal concerns and interests guide you.

Natural paints might appear to be more expensive, but you need to compare them to high quality paints not your standard trade emulsions. You will probably find that paints from companies like Farrow and Ball are actually much more expensive and without all the sustainability benefits that you can gain from companies like earthborn and Auro.

Don't be fooled by much of the eco labelling out there either. Always look for companies who will give you a full ingredients list.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Be Positive on Ventilation

From http://www.housebuildersupdate.co.uk/ the illustration shows air being drawn into the house from the eaves and then pumped around the 'whole' house and the warm moist air being pushed out of the building envelope 
Positive Input Ventilation (PIV) systems are now starting to be much better known. This may well be due to the profits that the companies are making from the installation of these types of systems across the UK by the social housing sector.

Many problems have been encountered by this sector and the private sector by the installation of energy saving measures. Sealing up houses with draught proofing, insulation, double glazing, new doors, removal of chimneys etc has meant that the warm moist air that we generate in our homes gets stuck inside. This high humidity means that the excess water has to go somewhere and this tends to be onto cold spots in the fabric of the building. The levels of condensation have radically increased and this leads to mould issues as well as potential rot etc.

So, the industry have come up with a technological fix in the form of PIV.

Basically the simplest form of PIV is where fresh air is drawn into the building using a fan and then pushed out (generally from a single point) into the house. The fans are designed to run constantly and so are low energy consumers and quiet (but I would always check their wattage and db levels before making your final choice) The lower humidity (and cooler air) then effectively 'waters down' the higher humidity air constantly by forcing it out through any cracks / trickle vents etc that are in the building.

Having a lower humidity in the house means that walls can dry out slowly and condensation problems can be eradicated. Lower humidity area is also easier to heat and so perversely the house can become warmer by having fresh air pumped into it. However there are some potential issues. The cool air has to come in somewhere and this immediate area will be cooler due to this. So it is important to locate the input vent well. The higher pressure created by the fan will force air out from the easiest locations (out through extraction fans, trickle vents, ill fitting windows etc.) and so the benefits of installation might not be felt throughout the house. This is especially important when one thinks that most of these are installed through the first floor ceiling and many houses have most of the humidity in the ground floor kitchens, bathrooms etc. Having doors open creates better air flow but might not be practical where noise, smells, privacy etc require doors to be closed. So care is required when assessing the suitability of the product to your particular situation.

PIVs can be fitted as a DIY project, but there are a few horror stories where people have found that it is better to bite the bullet and get one of the manufacturers to install it for you. At least then you get piece of mind, a guarantee / warranty etc.

Whilst I see PIV as a potentially viable sticking plaster for homes, I would always aim to tackle the fundamental causes of damp / mould by using appropriate materials and ventilation strategies. However, in an imperfect world, the cost of installing a PIV system (around £700 - £900 fully installed price or £300 just for the machinery) may well be sticking plaster that you need.

There are, of course, variants within the PIV world, so you can have multiple output vents, integral heaters, automatic controllers, etc, etc. Of course, the more you pay then the better the controllability of the system, etc. So again you will need to assess which system suits you best. The specifiers / engineers from the various companies should be able to assist with this choice.

The best well known PIV systems come from Nuaire and Envirovent, but all the main ventilation companies produce their own versions.

Good luck.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Cement render on solid walls

Courtesy of http://stonecottagerenovation.blogspot.co.uk/
The majority of old solid stone and brick houses are covered in a liberal amount of cement render these days. I will assume that you know my opinion on cement render on solid walls, so I won't have my normal rant. Ranting about it does not solve the problem - just makes me feel a bit better. I had to live with cement render for many years before I had the opportunity to get it removed and a proper lime render re-instated. Many people who live in old houses do not have the resources needed to undertake this fairly major task. So what to do?

The theory behind using cement render was that by having a water proof finish on the wall it would keep the wall dry. Of course the issues of ground water, cracks, building movement and faults compromises this and so it does get wet and hence then retains the water in the structure. But if you cannot afford the time and expense of replacement you need to address the issue of maintenance.

Maintenance is the often overlooked factor of owning a house. We tend to think in terms of rent vs mortgage rather than the reality of rent vs mortgage AND maintenance (let alone improvement!). Maintenance is key to the success of any home. If you repair all cracks when they appear, ensure that gutters are clear at least once a year etc then you can avoid many of the potential pit falls of having an inappropriate finish on your home. Of course these are all temporary fixes, as it is like putting a plaster on a perpetual wound, but it is better than just leaving the wound to get infected.

So if you have got cement render on your walls try and make a habit of the following checks:

1. Guttering - ensure that there are no leaks and that all the water is draining away freely
2. Cracked render - ensure that all cracks are gauged out and repaired
3. 'Blown render' - tap the render to see if there are any areas where it 'rings hollow'. These areas should be removed and replaced with new render
4. Silicon seals around doors and windows - silicon fails over time and it is a common area where water gets behind the render. So check for failure and replace where needed
5. Compare the outside ground level with the internal floor level. Make sure that any work does not create a situation where the floor level is less than 150mm above the ground level

So all is not lost if you do have cement render on your old house, it is just that you will have greater costs associated with maintenance, so remember to factor this into any budgeting.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Let's reveal the importance of reveals

Barry Turner's picture shows how IWI is commonly fitted
There will be some research coming out soon that starts to explore the importance on the detailing aspect of insulation works.

The work has focused on the issues of thermal bridges around windows and doors. These thermal bridges (cold spots) that are created by the fact that many insulation systems do not insulate around doors and windows (the reveals). The norm for most insulation works is to stick on lots of insulation to the main walls, but the more complicated and difficult reveals are just left devoid of any insulation.

The effects of missing this insulation vary between properties because houses have different types of wall, different sized windows and doors, different orientations, ... However, it is possible to model the thermal performance of the house to see what effects are likely. Bearing in mind that 'all models are wrong, but some are useful' one cannot predict exactly how any one situation will play out in real life but there are some useful pointers that come out of the work.

One of the worked examples shows that by applying 100mm of insulation to the walls only is actually less energy efficient that applying 20mm of insulation to all the surfaces (i.e. including the reveals).

The trouble is that you generally need a thin insulation around windows so that the operation of the windows and doors are not impeded. The main insulation companies use cheap EPS insulation systems and these boards are too thick for use around reveals. So they don't. If you wanted to use a thin insulation material like aerogel then this would be deemed to be incompatible with the main system and hence would invalidate any warranty offered. So people are left with having the choice between a warrantied insulation system that won't work as well as predicted and might actually cause some 'unintended consequences' (resultant cold spots can attract condensation and mould) and a system that would probably be much more efficient, but would not be guaranteed. Unfortunately we tend to err on the side of caution when we have such major refurbishments undertaken. Of course only time will tell if the warranties that companies offer are actually worth their salt. One imagines that they will be toothless and won't be worth the paper that they are written on, but we shall see.

The issues of reveal insulation are applicable both for IWI and EWI (Internal and External Wall Insulation), but the timescales, knowledge and budgets associated with the most of this work will mean that an opportunity for better improvements will be lost. What makes it worse is that already companies are having to go back to the work that they did a couple of years ago and un-do much of it. This is a shocking waste of money, resources, carbon as well as a double dose of disruption for the householder. 

Work for groups like the Passive House Trust and others seems to be highlighting that actually doing thermal improvements properly would save more carbon than the mass roll-outs are actually producing. There is a cost issue associated with this as each property would be more expensive to insulate (due to more expensive materials being used and the time required for the detailing). The idea of doing fewer buildings properly is not as attractive to politicians as mass roll outs to the fuel poor, even if the carbon savings would be greater.

The trouble with the decision making system in the UK is that it is driven by the tools that are available to it. The use of things like Energy Performance Certificates and the spreadsheet assumptions that underpin it mean that reveal detailing is not taken into account. Moisture and condensation risks are also not part of the calculations. So the extrapolated predictions that are created by EPCs are fundamentally wrong and misleading, but it is all that councils, Government and Housing Associations have to go on. So no wonder we continue to store up problems in our housing stock. I feel a hobby horse coming along!!

Breathe....

The importance of reducing thermal bridging is really important in terms of energy efficiency and carbon reduction, so if you have any control over the process at all we would recommend ensuring that insulation in the reveals is specified and installed correctly. Easier said than done, but getting insulation right is possible, it's just that you need to be aware of the 'pinch points'.




Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Can I upcycle a toilet and make it more efficient?

Older toilets use all the water in the cistern when flushed
Upcycling is a great new fad. It is even better when you can make something even more efficient than it was before.  One of the biggest users of water in the home is the toilet and with summer just around the corner it is time to start thinking about saving water. This is especially the case when you have a older toilet combination that is not a dual flush.

Note: Dual flush technology comes in two main types, valve and siphon. Siphon technology is more expensive and so the majority sold are valve. Valves are less reliable due to their reliance on washers. If these fail then they actually use much more water than even the old toilets, due to their continuous leakage. Despite this fact many toilets end up being replaced with new dual flush when they could be upcycled into a more efficient and reliable system with just a simple change in their inner workings.

So how can you upgrade an old toilet into an efficient one?

Interflush have two products that actually make the toilet into a variable flush, so basically you hold down the handle until the pan has cleared and then release it. This means that you only use the minimum amount of water required each time. It doesn't get more efficient than that!!

The two versions have limitations. The replacement siphon type will only fit on a system that has a pipe between the cistern and the pan (i.e. not a close-fit toilet). This system requires the replacement of the whole siphon, but this is a relatively easy task, but it does involve draining down the system.

The replacement siphon system also has an 'everlasting' diaphragm that increases its lifespan
The other main product is a system that fits onto of the existing siphon. This again is an easy DIY task and doesn't involve draining the cistern. It can also be fitted onto close coupled systems. This version, though, does need to be linked to a handle rather than a push button.

The green additions on top of the siphon are the Interflush system.
More information can be found at http://www.interflush.co.uk/
Eco Home Centre sells the bagged kits and also the Replacement Siphon

So basically you can save a lot of hassle and cost by just 'upgrading' an old full flush toilet system with Interflush technology. All UK based as well.

The other issue to bear in mind is that when you replace a toilet you generally have to sort the floor out as well as the new pan will not have the same 'footprint' as the old one, so this will involve replacing / adjusting the floor finish. The old toilet will also be just be disposed as waste, so this is a lot of embodied energy being destroyed as well as the issue of disposal (landfill, recycled if you are lucky).

So why no upcycle your toilet into a highly efficient model at a fraction of the cost of new.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Eco Home Centre community work

Some of the more observant of you might have seen that we are a not for profit and that we aim to assist groups and people in Wales to make their buildings more sustainable. Well I thought that it might be time to shout about who we have been assisting.

Over the last couple of years we have been working with Renew Wales and with others to help reduce the issues associated with climate change. To this end we have been involved with 40 groups. Some of the more interesting ones have been:

Egni Community Energy Co-operative. Egni was the RenewablesUK Cymru Energy Startup Winner. RDE (in partnership with Greenfeet Energy Assessors) provided the group with the EPCs required for the community buildings where the PV arrays are housed.

Cathays Community Centre. Now proud possessors of a 5.25kW solar array and a new reception area, thanks in part to the support and overview of RDE.

Chapter Arts Centre also now have a 15kW solar array that is busy keeping their overheads down as well. This was organised through the proactive Chapter Community Garden Group with the assistance of RDE.

Cathays Liberal Club (soon to be re-branded as Cathays Sports and Social Club) has been assisted by RDE with applications for a new PV system. They have also run an International work camp in association with UNAExchange. A refit is also planned using re-used furniture from local charities.

Cardiff Community Energy is off of the ground and has received support from Sharenergy to kickstart a new wave of community energy projects in the city.

Rhiwbina community is now well on its way to creating a new Incredible Edible project to bring a new edge to the garden suburb.

We have also provided indepth reports for community groups on their buildings across Wales from Fishguard in the west to Harlech and Wrexham in the north and all around the SE Wales Valleys. We have helped community swimming pools, arts centres, community cinemas, as well as more run of the mill community centres. 

This work is partially made possible by people buying goods from us through the E shop at www.ecohomecentre.co.uk or by coming through our door in Cardiff to purchase our excellent and permentally reduced Eco paints and finishes. So please help us to continue helping others by using our shop.