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Retrofitting of a detached bungalow in Essex

In July 2007 Chris, Rosie, and Rosie’s children; Merri (11) and Robin (20) moved to a 1930s detached bungalow on the outskirts of Clacton.  Our intention was to become as self sufficient as possible, to reduce our consumption and to live as green a lifestyle as was possible in an urban situation.
We chose this property as it was in the right part of the UK, within cycling distance of Merri’s school, the shops, the railway station and the sea. It also has a big enough garden to have hens, bees, grow all our own fruit and vegetables and was within our price range!
What we had found was a large bungalow with an attic extension which stood on a half acre plot, landlocked by an estate of bungalows (we have 10 neighbours!). Its other advantage was to be next to an industrial estate (a great resource for fuel and raw materials.)

Moving as we did in July, the first priority was the garden and we set to work making deep beds using some scrounged roofing tiles as edging and horse manure (from someone who had an inexhaustible supply) layered with cardboard (recycling the boxes from our move) and turf from the building site next door 
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Clacton is probably the driest place in Britain and so our next priority was water. We set up a 4000 litre rainwater recycling system with a reed bed and pond to purify and re-use our bath and washing water.

The house was heated by an old gas heating system which was in the living room fireplace.  In order to install a wood burner for the central heating we would have to remove the boiler and the chimney!  Demolishing the chimney ourselves proved to be a memorable experience and very dirty few days!

We installed our wood-fired system in mid-December. It is linked to the eight existing radiators and a new hot water cylinder with a coil for the solar panel. The wood stove has been a great success so far, it uses about half a wheelbarrow of wood a day and keeps the house nice and warm.
We put an advert in the local paper offering to collect tree trunks and branches and were inundated with offers. In 6 weeks we have collected enough logs for this year and next year too, as well as making some new friends.

At the end of February we received planning permission for our evacuated tube solar panel and lost no time in installing it (with the help of mark our friendly plumber.) At the moment it is working with the wood stove to heat our water, when the summer comes we will keep a log of its heat production

Solar Panel

We have had to notify Building control and Clacton District council  needed us to apply for planning permission (I believe many areas don't demand it!). See for more information. (using a vented hot water tank involves less regulation from the building control department, older hot water tanks have thinner insulation and probably don't have the right size heat exchanger coil inside for a wood burner so this will need to be replaced).

We got a new hot water cylinder as part or our solar panel kit with two coils (for the wood stove and solar panel).  The old cylinder I am keeping in the system to take hot water from the home made solar panel.  This will preheat the water going into the main cylinder.  We are thinking about having a heatstore in our lean-to greenhouse (yet to be erected!) to dump excess heat into.  We hope this will keep the greenhouse warm at night.  It is worth getting a solar controller with extra capacity for this kind of operation, ours is a Resol Deltasol BS/3. We got The largest hot water tank we could fit into the space available.

Installing tips

The tubes slide into the top manifold so that the copper heat transfer stubs fit into and make good contact with the copper manifold (inside the stainless box) which has the water circulating inside it.  Note - no water circulates inside the tubes only a refrigerant gas which transfers the heat to the copper rod leading up to the heat transfer lugs.  To make this assembly easier firstly make sure that the tubes stay screened from the sun so that the copper lugs are not hot when you are sliding them in (they will expand with heat and be more difficult to insert). I also wiped some soapy water onto the rubber to lubricate the glass entering.  The glass is very fragile and must be treated carefully (fit the lower rubber cups to the tubes before taking them up onto the roof).

For more information about structure and installation of a vacuum tube solar panel go here....

Growing things

New beds edged with recycled roof tiles set 50mm into the existing turf.  We have poor shallow soil so we have scrounged turf from a nearby building site, the plots are layered on top or the grass as follows;
layers from the bottom - cardboard, horse manure, one or two layers of inverted turfs, mixed topsoil and well rotted compost.
At the moment (February) we have growing outside - broad beans, cabbages, broccoli, sprouts, leeks, carrots, spinach onions and garlic.

Polytunnel - The beds are constructed in the same way as the outdoor deep beds and are watered by 'leaky' pipes fed from the reed bed or rainwater tanks depending on the resources available.  At the moment - February, we are growing:  winter salad, Chinese cabbage, Japanese leaves, rocket etc, carrot, beetroot. 

Compost bins are made from recycled pallets from the nearby industrial estate.  Garden waste is layered with straw/manure from the chicken house, grass mowing and newspaper.  We also collect our pee and add it to act as an activator and source of nitrogen.
Our house compost goes into small plastic compost bins and act as breeding places for worms which we add to the other bigger compost piles.

Reed bed in construction

The reed bed is really just a pond filled with gravel of different sizes with reeds growing on the surface.
We built our DIY reed bed from the broken concrete we had from our work on the property, bedded together with mud and with turfs on the outer walls.  Our reed bed is raised above ground to give enable to outflow to enter the pond at the right level.  The bed is lined with carpet and pond liner and filled with layers of gravel and pea gravel with a thin layer of sand at the surface. Reed beds are categorised as horizontal beds where the water enters at one end and flows horizontally to the outlet collector and vertical beds where the water flows down vertically through the bed.  The vertical beds fill and empty as they work oxygenating the bed as they do so.  The horizontal beds stay full most of the time and rely on the reeds pulling oxygen down into their roots to feed the aerobic microorganisms that keep the water smelling fresh. We have built a bed that combines both of these types and plan to empty it totally sometimes to boost the aerobic micro-organisms (I am trying a period of once a month at the moment.  It takes some time for the reeds to grow and become fully functional.  We planted ours from root fragments we dug up from existing reeds and these are sprouting already (after a couple of months in the autumn). We also planted rushes and bull rushes although these apparently don't have the same oxygenating power that reeds have.

Our reed bed is only dealing with bath and washing water (not sewage) and is about  4 square metres in area and 35cms deep

Water re-cycling

The rainwater can be used to water the polytunnel via 'leaky pipes' or to provide a flow of water through the pond (along with the cleaned grey water from the reed bed)
The tanks were bought from EBay for £20 each plus carriage costs (I hired a van to collect them, it cost me £140 to collect five)
I plan to clad the tanks in (recycled) shiplap to block out the ultra violet from the sun which will destroy the plastic otherwise.

Plans for the future

In the mean time, I have started glazing the large front veranda (it faces south) to act as a source of solar heat (known as solar gain) which we will distribute into the house as hot air.  We have plans for solar electricity (PV panels). We hope to have more figures on our electricity consumption as we have been here longer.

We have also found a large lean-to greenhouse on Freecycle (e-group where people give away their unwanted goods). The greenhouse will be used on the other sunny wall for growing plants and solar gain.

As I write, we are starting to sow seeds and looking forward to the spring and some full-on gardening.   Merri is helping by sowing her favourite vegetables – peas and sweetcorn. We will grow some beans to store as chicken feed to boost their protein in the winter. The chickens are laying well (about 8 a day from 11 hens) and the bees are flying on sunny days gathering pollen (to feed their young larvae) and water.

We are charting our progress on our website and hope to persuade some other green living enthusiasts to visit us here in sunny Clacton!  The website shows the detail of how we built our projects as well as lots of useful links

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