500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

Keeping out the cold


Travelling around the Czech countryside at night can be a voyeuristic experience. Between here and Tabor there is just one other house that has anything other than net curtains. I’m confused – why have net curtains for privacy in the day, but not proper curtains for privacy at night? Is this some communist legacy I’m yet to figure out? And in a country where night time temperatures frequently dip to double figures below freezing. People have so much faith in their new PVC double glazing. Curtains are clearly out of fashion.
When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn every room had net curtains on the windows – but as is the style in the Czech Republic, nothing more insulating than that. Coming from a country where fuel prices are so high that subsidies have been introduced to stop old people freezing to death in the winter – this seemed to miss a trick. Each window has two layers of glass separated by a large gap – however despite this insulating air the temperature of the glass is much lower than that of the walls – hence this is where any condensation forms if the room is damp. To address this, in 2009 I put up the most inexpensive quilts from Ikea as an insulating layer under decorative curtains in each room.
The evidence of effectiveness is only anecdotal – I’d need to build a house inside to test the method robustly – however several times ice formed on the inside of the window behind the curtains (yes – this means the air is damp – a job to be added to the list), despite the room temperature being a comfortable 18 degrees centigrade. They certainly hold warmth in the room.
One drawback of the Ikea quilts has been that they appear to be covered in a material that degrades in sunlight – literally turning to dust – a far from ideal property for curtains, so in 2010 I purchased 50 metres of calico cotton to recover them – it took time, but the result looks sooo much better than they did before. If we’d bought more expensive quilts to use in the windows, they would have looked like quilts in the windows – whereas the calico hangs properly as a curtain. I’ll take them down after the last frost anyway.
In the mean time, I need to make sure that we don’t leave any seedlings on the windowsills behind the curtains over night until there is no danger of the poor things freezing dead.

Nový Mlýn transforms


So – 2010 will soon be over. A year of miraculous transformations at Nový Mlýn – with thanks to a host of visitors who helped immensely and kept us entertained.
In a sudden rush before Christmas we’ve managed to move the kitchen over into the ‘real’ kitchen – which was, until very recently, a muddy hole of a room. It now has heating, a make-shift island, running water and drainage – something we’ve managed to live without for years. So what if the electrics are unfinished and there’s plaster missing all over the place – what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in functionality.
Last week heating engineers came to the house and made a huge old mess… installing a heating system! Can you even imagine… constant heat is such an amazing thing. We decided on an Atmos system – locally manufactured – this allows us to auto-feed wood pellets or use wood logs as fuel. Solid wood is a lot cheaper (1/10th) but the pellet system is incredibly convenient and will run for several days with minimum effort on our parts. Our plan is to use coppiced willow grown on site as our fuel source eventually. We need to investigate ways of harvesting the willow to make it a suitable fuel source for the pellet burner.
We have also managed to source old radiators from a local scrap yard. These come in 10 cm sections which screw together to any length you want, and fit neatly in the recess under the windows, allowing the insulating curtains to be tucked behind. They are also more in keeping with the style of Nový Mlýn – modern radiators would look weird, and new-old style radiators are out of our budget. I do have some work to do in the spring – with wire wool and spray paint – but they’ll come up grand, I’m sure.
So far we have radiators installed in the kitchen/dining room/utility (currently one large adjoining space) as well as the upstairs bathroom. We’ve decided not to heat the hallways as these are extensive and we don’t sit around in them in the winter. It would be like heating a space the size of our old flat just to walk through occasionally. The heating engineers will be back in a month or so to install radiators in the bedrooms upstairs – it’ll be strange not having to light a fire in our bedroom every evening! But (with belt and braces) we’ll still be able to heat with local fires if necessary.

a picture of the cellar

The Atmos heating system

I’m just going outside and may be some time.


At it’s deepest, the winter has given us the experience of twenty five degrees below zero.   I have fond memories of the days when I thought ten degrees c was cold… I noticed myself thinking when I saw this temperature on the thermometer on my bedroom wall –  “oh good, it’s not too cold then.”  Luckily, manual labour is very warming.

The week in which we experienced minus twenty five was rather catastrophic. Over the weekend we lost drainage, and then a chimney fire on Monday night meant that we had no heating at the house until we had a certificate to say that the chimneys had been swept.  A couple of weeks before the chimney fire we had texted a chimney sweep, but had not chased it up when there was no immediate reply. Next time we will know that when the fires start to burn less strongly, it’s time to get the sweep to visit.  I’d thought it was just because of damp wood. Anyway, the net result is that the core temperature of the house has fallen dramatically. We are down to zero. Read the rest of this entry »

How warm is warm?


This is our first winter at Nový Mlýn. We now have a water supply, and wood burning stoves in place to heat the property… and nowhere else to run to. My greatest personal fear (after global warming above 2 degrees!) is the cold. I recently bought a set of 10 thermometers from a seller on Ebay. The purpose – to give us an accurate idea of the temperature in various parts of the house. Sent from China, nine out of ten of them functioned – though the (included) hydrometers clearly don’t work as some are taking measurements of more than 100%. On Saturday I put these up around the house and the results have been… well… no surprise really. Rooms that we heat are warm… the north side of the property is colder than the south, the upstairs hallway warmer than the downstairs. What is more surprising is that comfortable temperatures can vary so much.

The weather turned cold early this year … with a good half foot of snow falling on the 13th October. We were lucky because by chance we’d bought two extra wood burning stoves two days before the snow, one for the bathroom and one for our bedroom. With the old range in the kitchen and barrel stove heating the guest bedrooms, this means that the rooms which needed to be warm have been so. The hallway is many cubic metres of air space, so I’m not yet entirely sure how much heat we’ll put into a place which is used only to walk through – it would seem a waste. We put a large curtain (well, bedspread) across the hall by the front door to prevent heat escaping until we manage to get the secondary door in there. The hallway stands at about 10 degrees – the same temperature as you’d find constantly under the ground. I wonder if this is a coincidence. If we can manage bedroom, kitchen & bathroom temperatures between 17-20 degrees c and other spaces within the house at about 10 degrees, the winter will not be unpleasant.

Wood Stoves: A Cautionary Tale (from Claire)


At the conclusion of my first week at Nový Mlýn, I’ve developed what you might call a frienemy. How is this possible, you ask, when only the nicest hosts, the coolest workers, and three adorable cats inhabit Nový Mlýn? Two words: wood stoves. When my toes are numb or when I’m snuggling into my bed for the night, they’re the best friends a girl could ever ask for. Or when I shower and there’s one right there, just waiting for me to finish so that it can continue to keep me warm through the drying-off process, I love them. But it was also in the bathroom last night that one of the stoves turned on me, rightly earning the enemy half of their title. As I took a quick shower, my beloved sweatpants, Vassar sweatshirt, and incredibly warm socks were nestled in a basket next to the stove. When I went to put them all on again after the shower, they were, gasp, MELTED! Who knew that cotton could melt? Not I. True, I must’ve knocked them closer to the heat while reaching for a bar of soap in the basket, but still I was heartbroken to know that the stove was capable of such destruction. And as I gaped at it in horror, it just stood there steadfastly as if to say, “Who me? No, of course not!” Not unlike George, the cat here who favors jumping on the counters to steal cheese, and then stares at you innocently when you scold him and then boot him out of the kitchen.

Alas, I should’ve known the treachery of the wood stoves, as just the night before I essentially fried two of my fingers after grabbing a hot pot off the top of one. And again, here, I should mention the human element of negligence involved, but still! I mean, I had to sleep with my fingers in a glass of ice water! We’re talking blisters and all. FYI: honey compresses, vinegar soaks, and lavender oil are all excellent home remedies for painful burns.

Luckily, no other object at Nový Mlýn has declared war on me. Last week Emily and I worked on drilling holes into the walls that surround the windows, and then we sawed IKEA curtain rods down to size in an effort to eventually cover each window with an insulating duvet. Even though it was my first time using both a handsaw and a drill, each provided nothing short of a stellar performance. We finished the job covered in red dust from the drilled brick walls and that, combined with my new tool usage, made me feel pretty badass and awesome.

I also had the pleasure of helping Emily finish a gorgeous mosaic on one of the front windowsills. She had already plastered down most of a very cool swirling star design and I simply helped her fill in the last spaces with some sea glass. It was a lot of fun picking out the most interesting pieces of broken porcelain and glass, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about doing a mosaic. The only downfall was the weather; three days of constant snow doesn’t exactly nurture the best environment for being outside working with bare fingers. Therefore we took frequent tea breaks while we defrosted our numb hands next to a wood stove (oh, wood stoves…). The mosaic still needs to be grouted since Emily and Grier have just left Nový Mlýn to continue their travels. Luckily, one of the new Australian workers, Katie, has experience with grouting and has volunteered to take on the final step of the mosaic.

The past couple of days have been pretty mellow and actually quite domestic. Henrik from Sweden and Richard from Australia have undertaken the everlasting task of chopping wood while Katie and I have been doing a few little sewing jobs. Aside from pricking myself about 100 times and cursing at the thread, which liked to slip out of the needle at only the most inconvenient moments, it was nice sitting by the fire and being domestic. Today, Henrik braved the melting snow by himself to tend to the wood, while Katie and Richard worked on a draft of the Nový Mlýn property. In the meantime, I’ve been taking pictures of everyone else working and then writing about it, calling that my own form of work for the day…

Domestic carbon sequestration


This morning I was thinking about chimneys. A strange thing to wake up wondering about but bear with me. We had our chimneys swept by Vaclav Havel on Thursday (namesake of the first president of the post-communist Czech Republic). It was all very high tech – surprisingly – we had been expecting Dick Van Dyke I suppose. The 21 century equivalent brings with him a camera and lights in order to film the chimney lining to check that it’s safe.
After our chimney fire two weeks ago, I cleaned the sand out of the chimney (filled to extinguish the blaze). With the sand came out big clumps of carbon, solid like soft charcoal. When I had looked into the burning chimney, the walls glowed like a furnace – it was this charcoal like lining which was burning.
Carbon sequestration has been happening in our chimneys for the last 20 years (Vaclav Havel said they had not been cleaned for a considerable length of time.) Currently the science exists to take the harmful carbon out of the pollution from coal burning power stations. The problem has been the cost of including such technology – and seeing as global warming has until recently been intangible – then there is no direct financial benefit to energy companies to include the technology.
Though there is a logical argument for us burning wood as a source of heat – it is a renewable source of energy as the wood is taken from a sustainable source – I wonder how far down the line is development of domestic sequestration.

Chynov fire brigade – first class service


So… we’re just sitting down after the fire crew have left.

To dry the plaster going on in the new kitchen/dining room we lit the old boiler fire.  A while later the chimney set light.

Ironically, sweeping the chimneys was something that I had asked our previous builder to arrange for us before we came out to visit Novy Mlyn before we lived over here. It didn’t happen. I didn’t think about it… one of those someday soon jobs.

So, when I went up to the attic to see what was going on there were flames coming out of the access hatch. Mike et al put out the old boiler fire & Zdenek called the fire service, then we used wet blankets to block up all the access points we could find for air to get into the chimney.

When the fire service arrived they carried sand up onto the roof and threw it down the chimney. It did cross my mind that we could walk away from the house at that point. Leave Novy Mlyn and the problems there contained and simply walk away into the forest – it was strangely calming. The fire is now out, but the fire inspector said that the chimneys hadn’t been cleaned for many, many years. We need to get them all swept and inspected before we can light the fires again.  There is a risk of reignition over the next two or three days because of the heat still in the chimney.

Solar collector to be…


Today we chose the windows which will go in the south slope of the roof.  I would have liked to use Genersys Solar panels – they are made in Slovakia (the former partner of the Czech Republic) however I had the following problems:

  1. The local supplier has not written back (to an email written in Czech by a fluent friend)
  2. The cost
  3. Time (we need an affordable solution now)
  4. Materials (reuse is best as far as I’m concerned)

Instead we will install standard roof windows on the south side of the property, and under these place old radiators, painted black. Water coming into the house is at a constant 10°c.  In summer this is far below the ambient temperature. In the six months that the temperature here is above 10°c we will send water up to the roof to travel through a set of old radiators placed under the windows. This will raise the water temperature to 25°+ for much of the summer, even without heat from the sun.

The windows will provide a massive amount of light  in the attic – and we had planned to put windows in the roof anyway, and having all the windows in a south facing row will make the job of the roofers much easier. We are planning to add insulation under the attic floor & will monitor summer temperatures. We can always add a reflective film to the windows to cut down the amount of heat entering, or annex & ventilate that part of the roof if it really is too warm… but any additional heat in the winter will be very welcome.

In the winter, we will drain the system as soon as the temperature in the attic falls below 10°c. The reduced hours of light in winter months also means that any type of collectors would be less effective during this time. Happily this coincides with when our wood burning heating system will kick in. We are planning a range cooker in the kitchen with a back boiler to heat water & this will be on the go once temperatures fall in the autumn & winter months.

As well as fitting with the mantra of ‘reuse, recycle’ instead of always buying shiny, new things, our radiator solar collectors have the advantage of being elegant – ie completely hidden from view, as well as very easily accessible for maintenance. The radiators are to be located under 8 Roto windows (wooden frames inside, WITHOUT any special E glass) with dimensions of 740×1400 mm – which will cost the same amount as a single solar water heating panel.

Heat pumps


Interesting developments abound!

We have been looking at different heating technology for Novy Mlyn. One option is a heat pump. This proven technology uses heat from a source such as underground, air or water and concentrates the heat, kind of like a fridge in reverse. For the energy you put into the system you should get about four times that out.

First of all I needed to calculate the amount of heat which would be needed for Novy Mlyn. After a bit of a trawl around the Interweb I found a formula from Georgia State University. Using a ‘back of envelope’ measurement of the number of very cold days I would expect at Novy Mlyn, my estimate was a requirement for a 31kwh system. Read the rest of this entry »

Heat from wood versus heat from a heatpump


If our heating need is on average 30 – 35 kw, what quantities of wood would we need to burn to achieve the same temperatures.

Now, this means delving into the territory of BTU’s and cords of wood… a little research is necessary: First off, BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 pound of water by 1 degree farenheit. Being EU, it’s all rather un-metric for me. But, 1 kWh of electricity = 3,413 BTU.

Quantities. 1 cubic metre of wood (a stere) is equal to 0.276 cords.

1.0 gigajoule (GJ) = 109 joules = 0.948 million Btu = 239 million calories = 278 kWh

If we have 10 square metres of wood, this will provide 81.65 gj of heat (if pine and 20% moisture), which is 22698.7 kWh. If we were heating at 30 kWh, the wood would last for 30 days.

Electricity from Eon is provided us at 4.36kc per kWh (cheeky seeing as suppliers sell it for less than 1kc per kwh!). If we have a heat pump we qualify for a special electricity rate, yet to be determined.

To be continued…

« Older Entries