29 Nov 2013, 5:17pm
frugality rant:
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  • Energy efficiency for the poor is a matter for taxation, not arbitrary levies

    Britain hasn’t really done very well for a cold-ish country in the Northern Hemisphere on the energy efficiency front, for residential property anyway. I’m not quite sure why this is so – there seem to be a mix of factors at work.

    • Old houses – We churn our housing stock very slowly. My first house was a mid-terrace built in 1840 to house the Industrial Revolution workers. It had solid walls but no central heating – the rooms were heated by gas fires when I lived in it.
    • Houses not designed for central heating – although it gets cold in winter in the UK it doesn’t get really cold in the same way as in parts of Continental Europe. Even before central heating they often took a whole-house heating approach, for instance using things like the German Kachelofen – apparently it’s called a Masonry Heater in English, which I never knew until now because I’ve never seen one in the UK. It was in the 1970s that central heating arrived in the UK, and combined with the slow turnover of the housing stock means everyone I know has a house where the central heating is a retro-fit.
    • General constructional lackadaisical approach. Things like double-glazing came to Britain late in the day – another 1970′s/80s innovation, though Nordic countries have had double and triple-glazing for years. I’ve never come across triple glazing in the UK.

    The trouble is the UK winter just isn’t such a big deal as it is in other Northern European countries – our climate is buffered by the close proximity to the sea, so as such we’ve never really sorted ourselves out regarding dealing with the cold. It’s why our roads, runways and railways freeze over (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) and come to a standstill if it’s a bit colder than we are used to. Unlike in places like Norway or even Germany, where if they didn’t have plans in place to tackle serious snow and ice they wouldn’t be able to move for three months we can get away with it, most years.

    Now before the 1970s we tended to heat just one room, and everybody congregated in that room, which had the open fire. Although it plays well to an atavistic human race-memory, an open fire is a ghastly way to keep warm in winter – it works by generating a massive uprush of air through the chimney, sucking in the cold air from outside through any crevices it can find, and old British homes have lots of gaps. They’re about 40% efficient at best, can can be as low as 15%. You could end up starting the fire up and finding out other rooms in the house would get colder at times 1 due to the stupendous inrush of cold air sucked in by the fire ;) With an open fire you also get a massive temperature gradient – the bit the cat curls up and lies down on is red hot, but by the time you get to the door it’s brass monkeys and cold and draughty.

    However, it is very convivial – Ivan Illich would have approved. It’s not a great match for today’s atomistic virtual living, but in the ’70s we came up with an answer. Rather than heat one or two rooms, we’d heat the whole house! I know this probably doesn’t sound so radical now, but it really was a step-change. Shame that the US peak oil crisis and the Arab Israeli war which generated the 1970s oil shock was to rain on the parade in a few years, and in the UK Arthur Scargill and his chums were going to educate us about energy security closer to home, but it sounded like a great idea at the time.

    So we took these leaky old houses, retrofitted a hot water distribution system and radiators into them, put hardboard over the previous fireplaces and hey presto – instant warmth. It wasn’t even that much dearer to run, because the shocking inefficiency of an open coal fire and all the attendant air leaks necessary to not have it kill you due to CO poisoning were eliminated. In the mid 1970s Britain converted from town gas created from coal to natural gas from the North Sea, and we were reasonably happy. Those that couldn’t use gas were pointed towards electric storage heaters in towns and oil-fired systems in the country.

    When you heat a room from a coal fire, insulation and draught-proofing doesn’t matter so much

    Everything was sorted – except that our houses were still draughty and leaky. When you are heating one room with a coal fire, the draughtiness isn’t such a bad thing, and because that room presents only one or two walls to the outside, you don’t need to mess around with insulation so much, because the radiating surface is small. If you’re lucky, the heated room is on the ground floor 2  so loft insulation is neither here nor there as some of the heat rising is a welcome move, particularly if the bedroom is above. The layout of the typical Victorian two-up two-down house is very conducive to that, and works well with an coal- or gas-fire in the living room with the bedroom above.

    So we never bothered insulating our houses, and draught-proofing wasn’t really approved of. That coal fire has got to breathe in from the house as well as breathe out through the chimney, else carbon monoxide will bind to the haemoglobin in your blood and you don’t get to wake up. Ever.

    central heating changed all that

    Then we installed central heating. All of a sudden those draughts weren’t so useful and because we were now heating the whole house, the whole house is turned into a radiating surface, so there were benefits to be had from insulating the walls and the loft. Our crappy sash windows with a great big space between the sliding panes were also leaky, opening up potential for double glazing salesmen…

    It’s easy to insulate the walls if they are cavity walls, and according to the DECC 3 a bit over half of the UK’s dwellings have or can support cavity wall insulation, which largely sorts out wall insulation. This sort of insulation is usually blown in from outside, and is relatively easy to do. Insulating the roofspace or loft with rockwool or fibreglass is also reasonably easy to do if you can get access.

    The poor ended up with less well insulated houses – because they lived in older houses with solid walls where you can’t do cavity wall insulation. The way to heat a house like that is to heat one room – I know because that’s what I used to do when I lived in a two-up-two-down, and indeed this is the solution advocated by one Guardianista who has thought about it.

    However, it appears that nowadays everyone has the right to heat their entire home; and indeed they do if they can afford it :) So the last Labour administration, in a remarkable piece of sleight of hand decided that we should all pay to insulate the homes of the poor. As a social goal there may well be something to be said for that, but I always find it’s nice if people ask first. The way they did it was sneaky and underhand. We have an existing method to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It’s called income tax, but politicians hate putting up income tax because people hate them for it and don’t vote them in again.

    So they made all our fuel bills larger, so that we could all pitch in to help insulate the homes of the poor. And this does piss me off, because it’s dishonest, and it’s regressive – after all, not only do I end up paying more/getting less, the poor also end up eating the costs in higher energy bills unless they can take advantage of the insulation efforts. The whole thing seems to be an exercise in doubleplusgood Newspeak

    The overwhelming reasons for power bills soaring are that fossil fuels are getting more expensive and that two decades of underinvestment by energy companies in the UK’s now creaking energy system has left customers with a steep bill to catch up. [...]

    SSE’s own figures, analysed by Reg Platt at the IPPR think tank, show the rise equates to £93 a year. Of that, £23 is due to rising wholesale energy costs and £28 for investment in the grid and meters. VAT adds £5 and another £23 is unaccounted for, but will include SSE’s own costs, profit and projected rises for the next year, during which SSE has pledged to freeze its tariffs. That all means that just one sixth of SSE’s rise – £15 – is due to the rise in government “green taxes”.

    Crafty, that – a part of the latest rise isn’t so bad? It’s not this particular rise, it is the total amount including all the stuff that has already been added. We have an evil combination of Soviet-style central planning and redistribution along with some free-market muppetry, it’s no wonder nobody can understand energy prices with everything pulling in different directions like that. The investment in the grid and meters is a ‘green’ requirement, because renewable energy increases the peak to mean ratio on specific sections of the network, which means you have to over-engineer it to handle the peak inflows as well,  where previously it was engineered to handled the peak demand (you’d dimension the generation to match expected demand, but patterns in that could be characterised and have daily, weekly, and yearly patterns) .

    You can see this if you take a look at this site

    part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 20, 2013

    part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 29, 2013

    If you look at the daily and weekly demand you see a characteristic pattern, and you see a fairly harsh, and random, peak to mean ratio on the wind subchart. It’s also clear that the heavy lifting in this snapshot is done by fossil fuels 4 at about 80% of the total. Wind is ~ 12%, increase that to say 50% target and the unmanaged volatility is going to skyrocket. I can’t get a really clear answer of the wind peak to mean ratio from the chart, but I’d estimate it at about 3:1. If it’s half the generation, then the total volatility will be about 3:2, and we then have the issue that wind isn’t necessarily close to the consumption centres of the country. You get to say where you are putting fossil fuel power stations – sort of, so you can shorten the transmission network a bit. So all that will add up to extra costs and it’s fair enough that power consumers get to eat the cost of engineering the network, that’s part of the cost of supply. However, insulating some people’s homes at everyone else’s cost is social policy, and our government seems to have stolen a march on the Greek method of loading crafty taxes on to hard to avoid consumables – years before the Greeks had the idea!

    The investment in meters is because there’s a theory that people manage their usage if they can see it. I personally would leave this up to the consumers – you don’t have to roll out smart meters to track consumption. I purchased a Efergy energy meter to manage this and may upgrade this to identify specific power hogs, and I have probably recovered the capital cost and more in reduced power usage. But not everybody is that interested the consumer needs to understand the difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours and which of those numbers they should try and minimise. If they don’t know they can’t use a smart meter properly. If you want to know, you’ll stump up – again, why everybody has to be provided with this just in case some are interested beats me.

    I’ve at least done my bit to pay as little as possible for other people’s insulation – by reducing my energy usage ;) However what I didn’t realise is how shocking these levies are. They aren’t listed explicitly anywhere, but can be seen in the background radiation of their effect on fuel prices. I brazenly pinched this chart from here

    Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh

    Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh

    Now you have to factor in efficiency into the equation – my wood stove is rated by the manufacturer to be > 70% efficient. Electricity is always 100% efficient 5 in being turned into heat, because you have no exhaust to vent the products of combustion. My gas boiler is over twenty years old and according to the energy saving trust it is about 70% efficient too.So you have to deflate the cost of electricity by 30% to compare it with wood, whereas gas and wood are pretty much of a muchness efficiency-wise for me. That economy7 is about 5.1 p/kWh because you get to use all of it, so it’s cheaper that heating oil or LPG for kWh of heating functionality delivered to your living space 6

    According to them I could save £310 p.a. if I bought the latest whizz-bang condensing boiler, which would be impressive it it were true – I pay £500 for gas in a year as it is ;) However, elementary arithmetic indicates they are wrong. Assume a new boiler is 100% efficient. I throw away 30% of my £500 due to the notional inefficiency of my boiler, £150 tops. So they are presuming a higher consumption. Not only that, but the payback period is thus very very long – if it costs £3000 parts and labour to install a boiler I am looking at 20 years to amortise the cost 7, and condensing boilers are notoriously unreliable – I’d be lucky to get ten years service life. So I’ll pass on that, thanks.

    Now the interesting part of this is if you look at the cost of wood, in terms of logs. It’s probably safe to say that nobody has yet thought of putting green levies on logs. Wood processing is shockingly manually intensive, and yet is cheaper than anything else other than coal in price per kWh.  It’s got to be dearer to harvest, store and dry out for a year or and supply than gas – there are few economies of scale to be had. I suspect gas would be cheaper if it weren’t distorted by social engineering, which guesstimates the social engineering at about 1p out of 3.5p, a heady 28%.

    You can take matters into your own hands, however. Burn coal in a multifuel log burner, or if you have children and issues with global warming then pay people to chop up wood and deliver it to you by the ton, which has the nice social engineering byproduct of improving manual employment opportunities in your local area, because wood is a low-density fuel and the economics go pear-shaped as soon as you shift it any significant distance ;)

    This is striking a blow  for freedom from social engineering

    This is striking a blow for freedom from social engineering

    Do your bit for the country. Declare independence from these chiseling ways. If politicians want us to pay for the poor to insulate their homes then let them man up at the ballot box, say so and do it above the line. Shysters…

    Having now discovered this I will be buying coal, if I can get it at the prices quoted. I don’t see why I should be chipping in just so that the Guardian can print this heart-warming tale of four working-age adults getting their house insulated for free on my power bill and now I know how to stop being rooked for this ;)

    Rogers believes the ECO scheme should be expanded, not slimmed down. “It’s a brilliant idea. I don’t know why we don’t do more of it.”

    Take a guess. Go on, try. Perhaps we don’t do more of it because you run out of other people’s money?

     

    Notes:

    1. according to these guys this effect was used in the 19th century to provide coal fired cooling at times!
    2. you get a double win by having the fire on the ground floor of a two storey house because having a longer chimney is beneficial to getting enough airflow – the pressure difference is proportional to the chimney length if it is adequately insulated.
    3. DECC  – review of the number of cavity walls in Britain
    4. I regard nuclear as a fossil fuel though not a CO2 generating one, because they ain’t making any more uranium in places we can get at easily, like on earth…
    5. obviously there are losses in generation and transmission, but these are taken into account in the price per kWh you pay when it crosses your meter
    6. I am making the assumption that confusedaboutenergy.co.uk haven’t already inflated the cost to compensate for efficiency, which they sort of confirm by saying For further clarity this is the amount of potential energy in the fuel, and not the energy delivered from an appliance
    7. I expect gas to rise in real terms, which would shorten the period of amortization by some uncertain amount. Even if it’s ten years, that seems to be the anticipated service life of a modern boiler, so I would have to add £300 p.a. to my gas bill just to save up for the cost of the new boiler in 2023, making the efficiency saving of £150/year look very bad value indeed
    27 Nov 2013, 11:00pm
    frugality living intentionally
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  • A Genius way of qualifying Needs and Wants

    Sadly it’s probably one of those rear-view mirror tools, something that seems to be a recurrent theme in investing, but Lam Thuy Vo – Quantified Breakup has a great way of summing up the continuum between the wants and needs axis and the associated costs.

    buying_shit_small

    Love the title – buying shit ;)

    Lam Thuy Vo did pretty well, really, in fact she did better than I did some years ago under similar circumstances. I bought a fine pair of Leica binoculars for about £700, a secondhand Naim CD player for £1500 and other baubles . I’m still a crap birdwatcher and should have spent the money on getting places to see odd birds with my existing gear, and I bought the CD player just as I was about to switch to streaming ;) But it helped get it out of my system a bit, so it was probably a good investment of the non-financial kind. What I like about her approach is the graduated scale of useless to useful – there is a continuum between Wants and Needs. When I first had to tackle excess spending to tackle saving massively into a pension, I went digital about this – the aim was to shoot all Wants and tighten up on the Needs, to get where I wanted to be – free of The Man.

    I use a copy of Quicken to track my spending and income, such as it is, and it would be great if it had a ‘how useful is this to me’ axis and could summarise spending in this sort of way. Quicken is a decade-old program and people now entrust this sort of thing to Mint but even on Mint I still don’t think there’s a feature to enter – ‘how well did this spending serve me’.

    It’s a funny old game really – as Martin Lewis said, time is a fossil resource, they ain’t making any more of it in your lifetime. Every day that passes your lifetime  shortens by exactly 24 hours, so a fleeting selling some of those hours for a cup of coffee should deliver some utility. Ideally more utility than you surrendered to earn the money to buy it…

    This is now a hard calculus for me – after all, I am now a rentier. The fires that burned to raise my career have how faded, I am running on the accumulated capital. How do I qualify this? I spend more than I earn, though the trajectory will not fall to earth before I draw my pension. When I was working I could qualify it easily – it would take me a year and a half to earn this car, 20 years of paying a mortgage to buy this house 1

    Nevertheless, everyone should have a chart like Lam Thuy Vo’s. I salute her – she will do well. She reined it in, acknowledged what’s up, and got on with life. If I look back over the last year or so, I don’t have too much in the Useless Shit category, but by no way is everything a Need. On the useless side is perhaps the Raspberry Pi, and a load of electronic components – but then I use them to turn over the brain a bit, learn about new things. Possibly break out into a different piece of engineering, though I must be careful not to call it work ;) I still maintain my C.Eng, though it is an ultimate piece of frivolity. I haven’t used it and probably won’t ever use it, unless Britain’s retiring engineers cause a surge in demand matched by a cull of management stupidity ;)

    A quick scull through her purchases show that Lam Thuy Vo was probably still more disciplined through her breakup and faced with the world’s #1 consumer society 2 than I was. I shares some of her excesses – I also have a fine Waterman fountain pen, though I would shift it well past the halfway mark on the usefulness scale, My writing is still revolting with it, but I can actually read it, and that was worth paying £50 a few years ago for the capability.

    I didn’t go into musical instruments, but I bought a Kindle, though I need to illuminate the bastard with the light of a thousand suns, whereas I can read a real book in the half-light perfectly well – the e-ink display has low contrast and poor sharpness, with a laggy fuzz to lines.However, I have probably recouped the capital cost in freebie books, and it is a great way to hold PDFs of datasheets, though the Kindle’s library management functions are disgracefully crap. Amortisation of the capital costs through utility drifts a purchase from the useless into the useful over time as you win utility from them, as long as you don’t churn your gadgets!

    Some useful things come for free – even if they aren’t practically useful.

    I bummed a lift ot get to see this - I got top utility out of it :)

    I bummed a lift to get to see this – I got top utility out of it for £0 :)

    Maybe this kind of charting is the ultimate nemesis of capitalism – the Avenging Angel that rocks up at the end of the month, taps on your shoulder regarding spending, and asks you, on a scale of 1-10, how much did that purchase enhance your quality of life? And then serves you a nice infographic that shows you are trending towards the Useless Shit axis.  It’s the ultimate neutron bomb to capitalism – it will destroy the activity while leaving the superstructure standing, when consumers start to live intentionally and ask themselves these questions about how much their spending actually delivers enhanced quality of life for them. Mint.com – your users need you. But how would you get paid – it would reduce your advertising revenue to dust in a month.

     

    Notes:

    1. it never looks that way at the start, always far worse. I thought I would still be paying off the mortgage on the first house for another 10 years. The power of inflation to save debtors’ asses should never be misunderstood – it’s why governments love it and why savers in cash assets are being ruined now. However, what you must never do while you have that mortgage is take on any other debt, particularly consumer debt! Paying interest on that kills you faster than inflation helps you.
    2. she’s a reporter with Al-Jazeera in the States
    10 Nov 2013, 6:08pm
    frugality savvy shopping:
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  • Poundland are cynical con-artists

    We make so many consumer purchases now, that we don’t think about them or educate ourselves about what we are buying. We often go for the easy metric, which for most of us is price. The modern consumer is thus often price-conscious and value blind, and places like Poundland play to this. They simplify the price bit, so as a result value is simple never mind the quality, count the quantity. After all, Martin Lewis shops at Poundland, so it’s gotta be good, right?

    everything's 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it's due to the <99p shop that's opened opposit to replace QD

    everything’s 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it’s due to the 99p store opened across the way :)

    Poundland had a discount offer when I was in town, so I thought I’d take advantage of it to uncover some subtle price-gouging

    Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er - crap? Zinc Chloride? Why'd they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?

    Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er – crap? Zinc Chloride? Why’d they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?

    Such good value. 10 batteries for less than £1. Bargain! Pile ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap. An ermine’s inquisitive snout was piqued, and I encountered battery technology that was already identified as seriously second-rate in the 1970s of my schooldays.

    1311_zncl_P1060127

    Yup. Before Sex And the City polluted our minds with a different sort of pink battery powered rabbit, there was the Duracell Bunny, that tireless campaigner for the alkaline battery made by the Mallory Corporation.

    In the 1960s and 1970s all common batteries were of the zinc-carbon or zinc chloride type. They were crap – they had sod all capacity, and started to fade as soon as you started using them. Mallory batteries were the non plus ultra of the battery world then – longer lasting and only fading in terminal voltage towards the end of their useful life.

    promoted heavily, these took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 variant. Poundland's bringing back 40-year old technology because people are price sensitive and quality-blind

    Promoted heavily in the 1970s, but still crap, these zinc chloride batteries took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 zinc carbon variant.

    However, service life wasn’t really the main problem – after all in those distant days the only battery powered devices in common use were torches and transistor radios, none of the widespread motorised and heavy loads of today. The reason we moved on from zinc chloride battery technology was this

    zinc chloride battery failure mode

    zinc chloride battery failure mode

    The suckers eat the zinc metal casing in the process of generating power, or even sitting on the shelf due to self-discharge. Eventually the gunk inside gets to break out and ruin your device. Charming, eh?

    In theory these are ideal for low power devices that are used rarely, such as clocks and remote controls. However, unless you religiously change all the batteries every year, the blighters will leak and gunk up your devices, and corrode the contacts. You need to wash out all the gunk 1, then dry the battery compartment out. Then remove the corrosion from the battery terminals because it is insulating and gives you ratty intermittent behaviour. A Dremel with the brass, not steel brush on slow works well, as does wet and dry used dry. Steel wool can work, but you easily get strands of steel left behind which is all very exciting when introduced to a battery.

    Let’s get some science into the subject. One of the great things that has happened in electronics over the last 10 years while I was sitting behind screens coding after The Firm got out of hardware has been the introduction of the microcontroller, a simple single-chip microprocessor and associated bits. In Europe we tend to favor the Atmel range with Arduino, but because of my interest in low-power sensor design I use the US-favoured PIC series, and constructed this panjandrum to measure the service life of these batteries.

    Poundland battery tester

    Poundland battery tester

    Every minute it reports the voltage and current from the batteries running through a 2.5V torch bulb, the third bulb is maintained at 2.5V to provide a reference. It transmits the signal using radio to a datalogger. I got a camera to take a picture every 15 minutes, as a video the results are reasonably clear.

    The left-hand bulb is powered by the ‘cheap’ battery that Poundland sell for 9p, the middle is powered by the ‘dearer’ alkalines they sell at about 17p.

    Alkalines - only six, not 10. I will sprt the £2 one day to test how much more capacity these have than the cheap ones

    Alkalines – only six, not 11. Obviously dearer then.

    It all happens a bit quickly in the video, but the results from the datalogger clearly show that you get more than twice as much power from the alkalines, and they have a much more stable terminal voltage too.

    Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland

    Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland

    If we take the service life as the time for the battery voltage to drop by a third to 2V (for two 1.5V batteries in series, which is the most common torch configuration) then you get 1.7 hours from the cheap ones and 5.8 hours from the alkalines. Therefore the twice as dear batteries last three-and-a-half times as long. You get 1690mAh from the alkalines and a lousy 481 mAh from the zinc chloride batteries if you run them to the 1V/cell point.

    special offer at Poundland - woohoo

    special offer at Poundland – woohoo

    Nowhere does Poundland or the original manufacturer  provide you with the information you need to make an informed choice here. It’s particularly crap that Kodak/Strand don’t provide this info on their website – WTF is the point of the website if they don’t give you details of the battery capacity? It’s full of waffle and garbage about Kodak’s trade dress. George Eastman must be turning uncomfortably in his grave at what the stupid tossers have done in turning a  pinnacle of research and innovation into a purveyor of ‘trade dress’ to tart up cheap Chinese batteries so that Western consumers can be fooled into paying more for less by pound/dollar stores. Instead of useful capacity info, there’s some meaningless waffle

    Is this suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what does low powered equipment mean?

    Are these ZnCl batteries suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what exactly does low powered equipment mean, Kodak?

    What does it all mean? Damned if I know, and I’m a chartered engineer and worked in the electronics industry for many years. What does low power mean? Is the 300mA of my torch bulb low power or high power, Kodak?  How do I check my device for suitability? Where do the words ‘Heavy Duty’ fit in with ‘low power’ you oxymoronic gits? Let’s take a hint from the old geezer Lord Kelvin, who quoth thusly 130 years ago

    When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.

    Lord Kelvin

    Lecture on Electrical Units of Measurement” (3 May 1883)

    Howsabout it? I’d say by the piss poor performance of the ‘cheap’ batteries that the low power line should be drawn at about 50mA, but I wouldn’t normally think of a torch as a high power device. 2 A shaver, yes, a kid’s RC toy, yes, digital camera, yes, Carrie’s SATC pink rabbit probably yes, but a torch?

    Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It's a high power device - doing a lot of work ;)

    Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It’s a high power device ;) As the man said in the ad, Duracell batteries can make fun times last a lot longer. ’nuff said.

    In terms of the energy you are buying 3, which is what you buy batteries for, the dear batteries are in fact the cheaper ones and the cheaper batteries are the expensive way of buying power. The cost of running a 2-cell torch with cheap ZnCl batteries is 10p/hr and the cost of running the same torch with dear batteries is 5p/hr. Plus you get to change them a third as often and a reduced risk of gunkage which has to be worth something in itself.

    It was plainly obvious that Poundland were shifting a lot more of the ZnCl batteries, cynically abusing their customers’ inability to make the right call with the information supplied, and marketing the ‘lots of batteries for a pound’ to make twice as much money out of their customers. While doing this they’re shipping twice as much weight from China and creating twice as much waste. No doubt they would say they are simply providing consumer choice, it’s out of our hands. There’s a lack of integrity in selling things like this. I can think of only one use for the ZnCl batteries, which is if you are going to give a child a toy for Christmas that makes an irritating noise then you may be prepared to pay double for your power so the pain only lasts a third as long ;) But you really should ask yourself some searching questions about what you are doing and the example you’re setting in that case…

    We discovered that in the 1970s that you get longer runtimes from alkalines, and you don’t get to chisel corrosion out of your kit, but it seems Poundland is taking advantage of generations who don’t remember that – I don’t recall seeing many ZnCl batteries for sale in the 1990s or early 2000s though they never totally disappeared. Poundland is promoting an obsolete 40-year old technology because people have become price sensitive and quality-blind, so they can make more money out of them. The value for money equation has two sides – the value you get and the money you pay for it. Focusing just on the money side leads you to rotten value at times. We seem to have become inured to that, and become trained like Pavlov’s dogs to always follow the lowest price in a race to the bottom. You’ve got the science here. Don’t buy trash, it’s better for your wallet and better for the environment ;)

    Poundland also sell a lot of gizmos to discharge those batteries so you come back for more. Take this battery discharger

     

    Can't use rechargeables

    Can’t use rechargeables

    It draws 15mA from two AA batteries. You will observe Poundland reminding you to go get yer batteries bottom left.

    AA alkalines - great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)

    AA alkalines – great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)

    These things are designed not to work right from rechargeable batteries 4, which is by far the cheapest way to run standalone Christmas lights. Remember I was paying 21p/kWh from the mains and £72/kWh to Poundland for their alkaline batteries. Even if I lose 5x the power in the inefficiency of the charger and battery cycle 5 I’m 70 times better off. As an added bonus I can get 1/3 more runtime from a 2400mAh rechargeable. However, if you try that you will find the LED string is dim as a Toc H lamp and no earthly use to anyone.

    Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables

    Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables

    I went to Poundland last year after Christmas to see if they were selling Christmas stock off cheap, but they weren’t – they’d cleared the shelves overnight for a new range of junk. I wanted about 20 of these things, because an Ermine can make these work with rechargeables – you order three-battery switched battery boxes on Ebay, wait three weeks to get them from China and then unsolder the wire from the old two cell battery box and swap the resistor to run the LED string at 20mA off three NiMH rechargeable cells. I get to reuse the original two cell box elsewhere. On taking this to pieces I discovered what Poundland did with their unsold Christmas stock from 2012.

    What Poundland do with the unsold stuff - store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess ;)

    What Poundland do with the unsold stuff – store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess ;)

    They store it somewhere damp and flog it to us next year ;) The 20Ω series resistor looks just ready to short against the battery terminals too. You can’t get the staff anymore in China it seems…

    So overall I think it’s game, set and match. Poundland are cynically selling an obsolete battery technology to extract more money from customers, along with devices that can’t use rechargeable batteries. But of course it’s a discount store and everything’s only £1 so it’s great value. Kodak can do with a mention is a supporting role, along with Strand Europe with a gong for most useless website of the year award.

    Welcome to the World of KODAK Batteries

    Strand Europe are delighted to present to you the world of KODAK Batteries. From the brand known as its excellence in photography over many decades, comes a range of quality batteries to compete with the very best in the market. Enjoy browsing our site to see how we can support you in your use of our products.

    Support us in any way other than telling us some basic facts like the capacity and the absent great big warning that using these batteries may knacker your gear.

     

    Notes:

    1. obviously without soaking your item in water or getting it into the works
    2. I was slightly unfair on Kodak when I wrote this, as I’ve since discovered this page which indicates that these are suitable “For common household appliances, our zinc-chloride heavy duty range is meant for everyday use such as toys, flashlights, clocks and remote controls”
    3. the energy available during the service life was 0.6Wh for ZnCl and 2.2Wh for alkalines. I paid £141/kWh for ZnCl and £72/kWh for the alkalines, as opposed to 21.4p/kWh from the wall socket from those nice Frenchmen at EDF
    4. rechargeables have a terminal voltage of 1.2V as opposed to 1.5V, and it is the 0.6V lower voltage that conveniently stops you using them with the Poundland lights
    5. this is an overestimate – you lose about 14% of the power over the battery charge/recharge cycle
    26 Sep 2013, 12:48pm
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  • When we are lender of last resort, we take your soul

    Paul Tucker, outgoing deputy Bank of England governor, summed up an essential truth about debt 1

    “When we are a lender of last resort to a bank … we take the institution’s soul. And we say we will give you back your soul when you’re healthy and I get my money back,”

    It’s not just banks. It’s any borrower – they swap a little bit of their financial soul for the use of the money now. It’s why I paid off my mortgage, despite knowing the most rational way to maximise my financial position would be to pay it all down bar £1000 and invest the residual amount. Wherever I hear someone who is financially aware and getting ready to pay that mortgage down, I’ll often try and highlight that alternative for consideration. The analytical case for keeping it is best made here, so I won’t bother trying to state it, but it is compelling, particularly for anyone under 45 IMO.

    For me, my soul was worth the opportunity cost. The dead hand of the lender of last resort is symbolically powerful. The lender plays the part of Mephistopheles to your Faust – they have access to resources you don’t have, and will lend them to you. On one condition – they take a charge over part of your soul ;) Where Faust screwed up was accepting a charge on his immortal soul, but if you borrow more money than you can realistically pay back from your future income streams, you’re surrendering yourself to a life of debt-slavery.

    Personal finance is not all about the numbers. It is about your values. Mine were honed over the past few years, as the scales fell from my eyes and I realised at work I was doing something I was ok with most days but in a way that really pissed me off, and I was doing it because I was fearful of the claim of that lender of last resort. It was time to give Mephistopheles the order of the boot.

    Buying a house is all about hope and belief in the future when you're young. You ignore the swish of the arrowed tail departing with a piece of your financial soul...

    Buying a house is all about hope and belief in the future when you’re young. You ignore the swish of the arrowed tail departing with a piece of your financial soul… The demon is forgotten for decades, but he’s still there, and He’ll Be Back when there are grey hairs on these two (photo: xaviernau/iStock)

     

    Because I’ve had it for well over a decade, my mortgage wasn’t that much towards the end. It was a nice tracker, and capped to boot, but it had to go, though I did take the time to mull over whether ownership of my soul was worth the opportunity cost. Had I ramped it back up to 100% 2 and bought the FTSE all-share in April 2009 I’d have been about £20,000 better off if I sold up now. I can live with that.

    2007 mortgage statement.

    2007 mortgage statement. BM didn’t get fat off my back that year :)

    So my soul is worth about 20k, It’s a good deal, that’s the price of peace of mind. I am a lot more risk-tolerant with money that I have made, but less so with money I have borrowed.  That’s because in the 1990s I saw what happens when you buy assets on leverage and they go down. You get to pay months worth of overpayments into a black hole called negative equity. Although an offset mortgage is designed to offset money you have borrowed against money on deposit, in the end it is still a mortgage – the company has a primary charge on your property.

    Mortgages are a young person’s game IMO

    Although a mortgage is nominally charged against the value of a house, what actually pays it off is the future value of your income stream. The future value of a burned out Ermine’s income stream is lower than of the 30-year old in the 1990s 3. It’s why for most people 4  you should have paid off your mortgage by the time you’re 60, because the value of your future income stream starts to tail off for the simple reason you have fewer earning years left. If I were investing in buying shares of people 5 give me an able 30 year old who is honing their craft over a talented 50-year old any time, because the income may be lower but the value of the human capital transforming into a future income stream is higher – because there’s more future!

    It’s why I have little sympathy for over 50s who are still running interest only and grouse that they will have to sell their homes to discharge the mortgage. Let’s take a look at how they got here -

    Underperforming endowments have left many people aged over 50 with interest-only mortgages facing an average shortfall of £49,000, according to [a special interest group pushing their equity release 'solution'].

    Er – no. Let’s try this again, shall we?

    An ostrich-like mentality of ignoring warnings of endowment shortfalls in numerous letters sent to them from the mid-1990s onwards, ie a wilful refusal to act for over twenty years has meant these people failed to address their financial situation despite numerous warnings over decades.

    That’s better. I was one of these people who got those letters in the 1990s. I fired off stinking letters to the endowment company. I opened a PEP (ISA in today’s speak). I pressed my claim and got reset to where I would have been with a repayment mortgage. Guess what I did with the settlement money?

    I paid it right away to the mortgage company as a capital repayment, because that’s what it was – compensation to set me back to where my mortgage should have been.

    Many people considered these a windfall and spent in on a nice new car or that holiday they’d always wanted. It was part of their mortgage, so effectively they were saying ‘let’s have a blowout, and hell, let’s add it to the mortgage’.

    When endowment firms tell you ‘we lied, and you won’t be able to pay your mortgage off’ then the first thing to do is DO SOMETHING, FFS… Hell, that average shortfall of £49,000 would probably only have been an extra annual payment of £1000 (because paying down the capital reduces the interest). The Daily Fail tells us that wisdom comes with age, particularly in temporal discounting which is important in personal finance 6 While at least with temporal discounting this probably does apply to me, it seems unevenly spread in the older population ;)

    The trouble with the demon Mephistopheles is that he plays a long game. It’s easy to forget the long shadow of the repo-man over the typical mortgage term of a quarter of a century. The starry-eyed young Ermine that casually signed way five years of annual income with a flourish of his pen is a different creature from the gimlet-eyed mustelid that signed the cheque discharging the final amount that transferred ownership. But Mephistopheles doesn’t forget, you gotta sign that cheque at some time, or deal with the consequences of the Devil owning your financial soul. I saw that shadow in the 1990s, and learned. My personal finance policy is simple

    Owe nobody any money for more than half a year

    I don’t take it all the way to Shakespeare’s advice to Laertes

    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    I do lend money, both as a Zopa-ist, and as a stock-market investor ;) The key is never lending money to any entity or grouping that you can’t afford to lose. I do think the Bard has a point when it comes to consumer debt, though, when he says

    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

    presumably meaning you don’t take as much care of something you bought on credit as if you saved up your hard-earned beforehand.
    Kate Moss. And no, she wasn't talking about personal finance in 'The Waif that roared"

    Kate Moss. And no, she wasn’t talking about personal finance in ‘The Waif that roared

    It is this casualisation of the value of Stuff that makes the consumer economy go round, fuelled by debt. Mindful of the value of my soul, however, I don’t have to take part in it, because, to paraphrase Kate Moss
    No rush of consumer baubles tastes as good as financial independence feels…
    It’s the low level of needless consumer spending that I found didn’t give me lasting value, and this is particularly injurious to financial independence because it’s unthinking and it adds up. I came to the conclusion that in many ways with decadence it’s better to ‘go large or go home’. If something’s really of value to me, I will, after suitable deliberation, go for it,  if I can imagine looking back and thinking ‘that was a good purchase, given what I knew at the time’ – or even that it was a qualified risk and I accepted the range of possible outcomes. It’s the unthinking drip, drip, drip a little bit here, a little bit there that I have no truck with. I am mindful of the fact that the lender of last resort takes my soul; I would not be financially independent if I owed anyone any money for any length of time.
    Nutty thing to do from a personal finance point of view, paying off your mortgage. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I know the value of my financial Soul, not just the price of it ;)

    Notes:

    1. It’s a shame I can’t second-source the original quote. If Philip Aldrick made it up, he’s wasted at the Telegraph
    2. I don’t think this would have been permissible, I could reclaim overpayments but it wasn’t an offset
    3. It’s probably not zero as I suppose a pension is a future income stream, and in some ways more secure than income from employment, you don’t get made redundant from a pension.
    4. I’m talking about wage-slaves working for The Man here, not people whose risk-tolerance is higher than normal, and or people who have unconventional assets like a business or BTL
    5. I know, it’s called slavery, this is a hypothetical thought experiment ;)
    6. Yeah, I know it’s the Daily Mail. It’s peculiarly tough, because young people actually have more future so the cost of getting temporal discounting wrong is higher for them. But it does follow my life experience.
    29 Mar 2013, 7:56pm
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  • So how did this early retirement lark work out in the end

    It’s coming up to about nine months since I retired about eight years early from work – that’s eight years than the normal retirement age for The Firm. Truth be told, I retired for negative reasons rather than positive, but I’m not going to go on about those particularly. Because people just don’t bang the drum for the positive things that happen when you are retired. Like everybody else, I assumed it was all about the money. That’s everybody’s greatest fear. What you don’t hear about is the multiplicity of little things that all add up to a far better experience of life.

    I caution that to make these work for you, you must eliminate debt, and that means all debt. Yes, your mortgage too 1, and that means doing without a lot of consumables while working, and probably having a reasonable amount of luck at times. You don’t borrow money from a bank, you borrow it from your future self, and if your future self will have less income than your current self, it makes no sense to be in debt.

    So what does life retired look like? It’s all about owning your own time. It was given you as your birthright but was taken away from you early in life. Somebody said to me that time is the ultimate consumer good. He has a point, though I had to live it to know it, and also to have enough time to crawl from the wreckage of my curtailed career.

    Owning your own time is delightful – you have the choice of what to do and when to do it. Before retiring it pays to prepare your human setting too, who will you know and spend time with, and that’s worth giving some thought to that before you retire. It’s particularly important for early retirees because a lot of their existing friends and acquaintances will still be working, some people I knew who retired even earlier than I did felt lonely, particularly those that retired in their mid forties, and I learned from their experiences – these were typically single guys, it took me longer than for them. Give thought to how you will maintain and develop your human connections, because as you get older it is Who is in your life that matters, not so much What is in your life.

    The upside – my skin looks better and younger, the bags under the eyes fade, I slowly lose some of the weight that accumulated over my years behind a desk and in the lab. I walk more and bike more. I hear the birdsong, if there’s a good blackbird I will sit and listen to him for a while. I sit down for meals at a table rather than scoffing overpriced sarnies at my desk, I have more time to spend with the people I care about, I can read books, I can build things, learn how do use woodworking tools better, enjoy the company of people more, listen to people better, learn more, play more.

    I watch less TV than I did while working. I tolerate no ads – I use ad-block plus on the Internet and less TV cans that at source, on the occasions I do watch TV I use a PVR and fast forward over the ads. If I have a requirement that may need buying something I use google – I buy things on my own terms, not because somebody is creating a desire in my head for shit I don’t need. I don’t buy anything on impulse, I wait at least a couple of days to see if the want is really a want. But if it is, and it fits my values, I buy it. If an offer has gone and I need to pay 10% more, so be it, that’s the price of living on my own terms and agenda. I don’t piss about with low-rent stuff like quidco and cashback, I have three credit cards but if I use them I pay them off in full. I’ll never get another credit card because I have no wage income, just investment income so I presumably look like a deadbeat living under railway arches on a credit check. Do I care? No – if the existing cards kick me off then I’ll pay by debit card or by cash, because I Don’t. Borrow. Money. ever since discharging my mortgage.

    I can’t recommend early retirement enough. But you do need to be prepared to make the ‘sacrifice’ of living on less. I surrendered eight years of income when I retired, if you add all that up it’s a lot of money. I was happy to pay the opportunity cost, because that’s also eight years of life I’ll never live again. For me that was the right call – indeed perhaps I should have looked ahead and done it earlier.

    Early retirement means I have less Stuff in my life. But I have more joy. Early retirees needs to speak up for it, because where are the ads on TV for Earn Less and Buy Less but Live More? We in Britain are so much richer now than we were thirty years ago, when I started my working life, I heard an estimation on the radio we have about twice as much disposable income as people had then. Stuff rather than Time seems to have got the thick end of our extra income. I am in my early fifties – the London I grew up in used coal fires and many houses had no central heating, some still had outside toilets. Cold and damp and the associated aches and pains were prevalent in the adults, so when I hear the Joseph Roundtree Foundation talk in terms of needing Sky TV to take an active part in society I wonder if perspective hasn’t been lost. We really have so much now. Ivan Illich called it out well in Tools for Conviviality in 1972. We are so much richer now than we were then, but are we any wealthier, I wonder? You are wealthy when more money wouldn’t massively change where you live, and how you live…

    For each of us the sands are running through the hourglass, one day at a time. Making the call on as to where you place the balance between More Stuff and More Life is one of those things that is Important but not Urgent, so it always goes to the back of the to-do list. It’s worth dusting that question off and taking the time out to work through the options. You can measure more Stuff, and you can measure More Money. You can’t measure More Life. And I’ll stick my neck out and say Tom Peters was absolutely full of shit when he said you get what you measure. It works a peach in business, maybe. But in Life, it causes you to prioritise the measurable, the ‘how big is my…’ insert KPI here. And yet, when people look back on their life at the end of it, it is often the immeasurables – seeing their children grow up, and who they spent time with – or didn’t’ spend enough time with. The days are long, but the years are short. Though it’s schmaltzy in a uniquely American way, Gretchen Rubin nailed it. Don’t forget to live in the moment, because those moments are precious and they are running out.

    My eventual projected annual expenditure is about a fifth of what I was being paid at The Firm, and I have a better quality of life – because I determine what a day looks like. There are other things that are odd about being retired. I have deliberately and intentionally avoided the whole work issue. I toyed with claiming JSA but figured a) I’m not looking for work and b) the stress of wanting to lamp some pipsqueak in the Jobcentre wasn’t worth the £1500 that six month’s contributions based JSA is worth, particularly as I’d have to pay tax on it.

    Managing personal finances after work is enormously different to when you are working. While working, my income was single valued and knowable. Now, it comes from multiple volatile and erratic streams. I have the ISA income, which I reinvest. A similar sized lump of non-ISA shareholdings, that I have to capital gains spring and shift to the ISA over the years. And then cash holdings. These are horrendously different from what they were when I was working. What you must not do, when you retire early is to look at these accounts, and go Wow, I am rich. It is the lottery winner’s curse – most people have been used to a regular income and virtually zero savings all their working lives. So suddenly when it’s all savings and no income they see Big Numbers in their bank accounts and think they are rich, and lose their heads.

    They’re not rich. Capital is worth about 5% as income, so divide all those numbers mentally by 20, high-roller. So unless you have half a million in the bank, then you aren’t even going to be living on the UK average wage. I don’t have anywhere near that much in the bank, BTW, though I don’t have the parasitic housing costs most people have because I paid down my mortgage. And if you do have half a million pounds in the bank then you need to remember what happened to the good people of Cyprus recently, and make sure you don’t have it all in one place, because you will probably be called upon to help with the national debt at some stage.

    When I left work, I started to see those big numbers, and it is hard to explain just how scary and unreal they seem. I froze, and tried to keep the headline networth figure from falling. I’ve never worried about networth before, indeed there is no figure for house networth in my accounts, whereas this evanescent figure seems to be all that my fellow-Brits seem to concern themselves with. Maintaining networth was not the design aim of the plan, but there is a visceral aspect to money. All of a sudden I see strange numbers, and the power is cut, there is not steady income. The analytical solution I had designed over the preceding years was correct, but I found it hard to live it at first, to surrender a little bit of networth each month, in a long glide path for about three years. Even at the planned rate of descent, I would have half the nominal value of the capital, though more would be in ISAs by then.

    I consider myself a reasonably hardened investor. I flew into the 2009 storm, in both AVCs and ISA savings. I’ve seen individual stocks plunge by over half, and recover, first on a total return basis and then on a nominal basis. But I quailed when faced with living a plan I had designed and was going slightly better than planned, because it was so alien to my experience of handling money. Don’t underestimate that effect of losing an income, even if you amass large amounts of capital compared to your mortgage-paying wage-slave life. Perhaps I was overly irrational etc, but I believe that it is not possible to be successful and totally rational about money. It is crystallised human work, a claim on other people’s effort. I must be involved to animate the plan and couple intention with action. And it still took me months to overcome the resistance to doing what I had planned myself ;)

    I recently discovered I have been working without knowing about it, fortunately in time to stop getting paid before the tax year ends ;) In times gone by I was interested in sound recording, and made a few field recordings which I added to a microstock agency. I’m not talented enough as a photographer or a recordist to make headway in that sort of this as Ermine photography. But microstock works for me – I don’t have to deal with people or rights and all that, the agency sorts that for me. The downside, of course, is you expect to make the price of a couple of pints of beer on it, or maybe a decent meal out.

    I haven’t bothered to track any of this for a while. It appears that these firms are making me significant money, and I also have a few website estates that bring in a fair amount of Adsense revenue (this isn’t one of them ;) ). I have told all these guys to hold payment till mid April to forestall creeping over the personal allowance this year. It is, however, very sobering to find that this stuff, which I had forgotten about, is actually making me about the same amount of income as my ISA, which has received by far the greatest part of my attention. My field recording equipment lies on a shelf covered in dust now, because the river of creativity dried for a few years as I focused all energy on getting out of The Firm.

    I had a strange experience a few  weeks ago, I travelled to London to listen to a concert by a singer whose records once kept the thin thread of the young ermine’s fire alive through a long night until the break of dawn during a difficult time at university. The past is a foreign country – thirty years ago there were no mobile phones, indeed without phones at all in the typical sort of crummy bedsits I rented them. If you passed midnight then you had to reach the break of day before assistance could be raised if you couldn’t haul your ass up the stairs and into the cold city night with no Tube service.

    As I heard the song once again it resonated across the years and changed something. In reminding me of that turning point it invoked another and the dead hand that jammed the creative centre unblocked, and the spark flickered into life once again.

    For several years I fell back and fell back, trying to save enough money to derisk the financial issues. I had saved enough money – I still have no pension income, and my run rate is a little bit lower than originally designed. But I also focused a lot of effort on trying to understand the financial conundrum of how to make money out of money. That was reasonable, because towards the end of working for the Firm, the flame of creativity flickered and failed. The accumulated financial capital was all the resources I could count on, because my human capital had fallen to zero – without the creative spark I could not drive things forward. I would look at code and it would all swim before my eyes and have no relation to other bits, my photographs were technically okay but pedestrian. I would hear things that once meant something to me and they did not lift my spirits. It was too easy for projects to end up as half a page of scribbled lines or half a circuit board and nothing else. I’m not going to sell my time to another employer – I am too old to be employed at a level that would meet what I would charge for my time. That means I would have to create value, and doing that without a creative spark just doesn’t happen.

    However, when I discover that two lots of legacy activities are now passively earning me more return than my multi-year and reasonably well performing ISA is then it begs the question on whether I have the focus right for the me now as opposed to the me 12 months ago. Money is not the only way to buy passive income, and the tragedy is you can only buy about £500 worth p.a. of tax-free income in an ISA every year. And obviously it costs you 10 grand a go, though this is ideally not a sunk cost. I can probably beat that income without breaking a sweat with a bit of improvement ot the website and some recordings. I could blow the dust of my Sound Devices 702 field recorder and Sennheiser microphones and get out in the field are record interesting sounds. I think people use the sounds in video games, I haven’t played video games since the 1980s but I got a book out of the library to see how people master audio for games when I discovered this.

    I don’t miss work. One little bit. I don’t miss the Calvinist sense of purpose or all that sort of garbage. I have no time for the ‘find the work you love’ brigade. I’m with the Mexican fisherman. That isn’t to say that I spend my days lying in bed – the world has plenty of wrinkles enough to keep an inquisitive Ermine’s mind entertained.

    There is the lovely story of the flight of the sparrow through the mead hall by the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

    the present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.

    The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.

    Work is somehow like an inverse of that – the young sparrow starts in childhood from the warmth of the mead hall, then enters the life of work, where he battles the wintry storms of other people having control of his time and purpose, until perhaps later on he re-enters the warmth of the mead hall, in control of his own resources and destiny, perhaps for the first time.

    I didn’t particularly dislike work for the vast majority of my working life. But work isn’t what life is about. It’s a means to an end. It’s far too easy to lose sight of that, on the long journey through the wintry tunnel of work, and it’s too easy to build must-haves into life to compensate for the long winter. But the tragedy is that these must-haves – the extra house square-footage, the chichi holidays and city breaks, they all add up. And so you can find that your winter holds no spring, and the sparrow must fly onwards till he falls out of the sky.

    Work. It’s overrated compared to Life IMO… Each to their own, but I hear a lot of grumbling about work. And for sure, I’ve done my fair share of grumbling too, but at least in the end I took the fight to the enemy. It’s not all all about the money. It’s also about the time. You can save money, sort of. You can spend less of it. But you can’t save time – try spending less than seven days over the next week. That’s why you need to think about living in the moment. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on…

     

    Notes:

    1. an exception can be made for this if you are saving tax-free in a pension with the aim of using the 25% pension commencement lump sum to pay off the mortgage in full on retirement. In my view this isn’t the clear-cut win for early retirees who will defer their pension for 5 years or more, but IFAs seem to recommend it for many people.
    20 Nov 2012, 10:31pm
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  • where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?

    The Grauniad’s had a series called Breadline Britain about how dreadful life is for our increasingly financially challenged nation. Now I just about experienced Britain in the 1960s, as it was pulling itself out of the post-war austerity, and one of the things that strikes me about the difference between the Britain I saw as a child and that of now is that adults have become far less self-reliant. We have lost many basic skills that soften the issues of having less money, and it appears that many adults just don’t seem interested in learning. The second thing that strikes me is the appalling incompetence at household financial management. Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation because borrowing money was much harder in the past, so people had to live within their means or just lump it. And the last thing that is obviously wrong is people don’t seem to be asking themselves whether they can afford to have children before doing so. This lady has four children – on a family income of £44k. It isn’t hard to see why she is struggling.

    People design in fixed costs into their lives without giving them enough thought. It first struck me when I reflected on a colleague who lived 25 miles away from work, where I was 6.5 miles from work. We were both higher rate taxpayers, and I calculated that he needed to earn ~£5k more than me, just to have the same disposable income. How’s that? Well, design in a 50 mile round trip instead of a 13 mile round trip. That’s an extra 37 miles he needs to drive, each and every day. That’s about £1300 a year in fuel alone. He’s putting 8100 extra miles a year on his car, with all the wear and tear that entails. I could keep my cars for 10 years and buy them well secondhand; he bought his cars new – in the service life of one of mine, he’d have put 80,000 miles on the clock, so that just wasn’t an option for him. I could bike to work when the weather was congenial. Taken in the round he was taking a hit that was probably equivalent to a salary cut of £5000 a year. And of course he was losing about an hour of his time each day.

    Every time you pay someone to do something you can do yourself, you have to earn enough to be able to pay tax on the money you are paying out. If that person is employed, you have to cover the overheads, sick pay, employer’s contributions, the lot, whereas if you are doing it yourself, you do not have to earn the money and pay the tax and NI on it.

    It is always much more expensive in cash terms to pay someone else to do something that you can do yourself.

    Now that isn’t a reason to insource everything, because there’s the opportunity cost to the money you could be earning at the same time ;) If you are hiring someone on minimum wage and you’re on minimum wage yourself, that is barmy – do your own cleaning. If you’re earning £50k then knock yourself out and hire the cleaner if it means you can earn £20 an hour net and paying them £6.19.

    The cleaner on minimum wage is the obvious example, but there are more subtle costs. For instance, it’s more expensive to get Tesco to prepare your meals for you rather than do it yourself, which is why ready meals are more expensive than the ingredients, and if the cost is the same then the ready meal will contain ropey ingredients ;)

    I was staggered at this bunch of Guardianistas who are struggling to feed two children and two adults on the meagre income of… £35,000 if you please, and they’re living with his parents! Let’s take a closer look. They were on a combined household income of £75,000. Now I have never lived in a household that had this much income – ever! I haven’t been in a household with two incomes for most of my life. The Ermine is not one of the 1%. So I ask myself how the hell these good people managed to get made bankrupt. She lost her job when they had twins. Now I appreciate that it’s not meant to happen that way but in general many mums leave the workforce for a few years after having kids, so the loss of that income was to be expected. Have they never heard of savings? Now they are complaining of not being able to afford decent food, and having to use ready meals. Mrs Ermine has examined that fallacy in this post and found it wanting – the problem there is food preparation skills, or the lack thereof, as well as a shocking lack of imagination and general get-off-your-backside-and-do-something smarts.

    Now eating is one of those fundamental things that everybody needs to do. If you’re rich enough to afford ready meals, then have at it, but if you’re not, or you have the temerity to want your food to taste of something other than sugar. vegetable fats and monosodium glutamate, or maybe you are rude enough to want vitamins, then you have to re-acquaint yourself with the food prep skills that humanity has preserved across generations – until now. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that food doesn’t only come from supermarkets – it’s actually possible to grow some things yourself ;) I particularly like the line

    I’m not stupid: I know this is going to have a detrimental effect on my children’s health.

    For God’s sake, woman, you’re running on £35,000 a year, and have more time, being unemployed. And yet you see fit to switch from cooking yourself to using ready meals? Where’s the rest of that £35k going, on the horses?

    It is the loss of skills that will hurt people in future. In the past people grew food on allotments and in gardens, which saves a lot of money – Mrs Ermine qualifies that at about £2000 a year saved; for a basic rate taxpayer that’s equivalent to needing to earn about £3000 less every year! As an added bonus, although your veg will look gnarlier that Tesco’s, it will actually taste of something and be good for you, as well as filling you up.

    Food does this – it just sprouts from the ground, despite what Tesco would have you believe, and here some citizens of Ipswich are taking advantage of that fact

    There are other skills that could save people money. When I bought my first house, I had a problem with a stuck main intake stopcock under the kitchen sink. Now I could have called in a plumber, but because I had seen my Dad do plumbing, I figured I’d change this myself. I had ambitions of using a blowtorch and Yorkshire fittings but couldn’t reduce the seepage from the Water board stopcock enough to get enough heat into this, so once I got within 5cm of the inlet with some abortive attempts I sucked it up and used a compression stopcock. Job done. I replaced the guttering myself on that house – for the cost of an aluminium ladder and the materials, which was a lot cheaper than when I had that job done on this house; I was time-poor and wanted the soffit and bargeboads changed to uPVC which wasn’t within my capability. I fixed my heating system when the timer/programmer died and again when one of the motorised diverter valves died. I changed my own cold water tank, taking the opportunity to relocate the bugger to the apex of the roof to give a decent head of water to the shower, rather than run a power shower. I changed the water pump on my car, and replaced brake pads in the past. I did this because I grew up with the expectation that any halfway competent person who wasn’t rich would be able to do those – people just couldn’t afford not to.

    More work, yes. More money, no – I can’t save any more money on heating ;)

    Mrs Ermine asked me recently if I was going to run the wood stove in the day. I don’t generally, because the heat is preserved in the house from the evening before. I said no, because I didn’t want to spend the money. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “How’s that going to cost us more then?”. She was right – we don’t pay for heating, because we are prepared to chop up wood and pallets. I did some of that today. Heating less doesn’t save us money. But we need to chop up more wood.

    In Britain we need to become more self-reliant. We need to learn how to cook decent food from ingredients that our grandmothers would recognise. We need to learn to fix some of the basics ourselves. We need to learn to go without if we haven’t got the money, rather than borrow money and have our future selves pay even more back. In the last decade or so we have outsourced a lot of these basics to outside agencies and to the welfare and benefits system, to try and buy our way out of needing to tackle the gritty basics of life. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, and get to work relearning some of the basic skills our grandparents used to take for granted.

    Where’d they print the instructions on this darn thing?

    Knowing how to feed yourself and your children from food not sourced from supermarkets and food that doesn’t come with instructions printed on the back is a skill we seem to have lost somewhere. My mother’s opinion of supermarket veg was unprintable – she got that from Lewisham market stallholders who would get it from Covent Garden market in the early morning. Even as a student supermarket veg was tired and low-grade. Fortunately students don’t need veg ;) The supermarkets have found how to make veg last longer by chicanery like de-oxygenated atmospheres in plastic packaging and the like, but they can’t get round the problem that the flavour of food fades with time, and most of it seems to fade in the first day or two. It’s why those stallholders got their produce from Covent Garden barrow-boys in the early morning – because they’d have got an earful from their customers if their produce tasted as poor as Tesco’s finest. But it was more faff, and somewhere between the 1970s and now we collectively decided that all the adults in a household should go to work, so we don’t have time to buy decent fruit and veg, or grow it, or cook our own food, or fix our own plumbing or any of those things that our grandparents took for granted.

    We could afford the luxury of losing those skills in the last couple of decades. From the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series it looks to me that these skills are now being very sorely missed. We need to stop borrowing so much money and start living within our means. We need to think about whether we can afford to have as many children because it looks like some of the freebies there are drying up. And all in all we need to man up and start to take responsibility for the choices we make in our lives and skill up to be able to do more with less. The Guardian’s we never had it so bad is absolute bullshit. I grew up in a London of coal fires where only a single room in a house was heated in general, where most people didn’t have cars, and where people grew their own food and cooked it themselves.

    Fridges had no freezer compartment – I recall the excitement when we got the first one with a two-star icebox – you could store frozen food in that but couldn’t freeze it I think. Respiratory ailments were widespread, because the damp and condensation were endless problems; I got bronchitis nearly every year until we moved to a house with central heating. That was not poverty in a Guardianista sense of the word – nearly everybody was like that. But what we did have was a broad base of basic skills, and good and reasonably stable communities. The move to paying for everything and having both adults working has atomised those communities and we have surrendered some basic skills for the blandishments of advertising. It would make the Guardianistas wring their hands in horror.

    And yet there was some satisfaction and camaraderie there. People had hobbies other than watching television, and often these were creative, in quite eccentric ways. There may not be so much money about in future, but we have enormous advantages over those times, communications are far cheaper, the relative level of wealth in much higher.

    The essential difference is that Britain in the 1960s, though it was far poorer than the Britain of 2012, was improving. It was better than Britain in the 1950s, and immeasurably better than the Britain that had endured its darkest hour standing alone against the Axis. The Britain of 2012 stands wanting compared to the Britain of 2006/7, and the Britain of 2015 will probably be wanting in material terms compared to today never mind 2007, for many people.

    We probably can’t dodge that, but we can soften the blow by taking our lives back from the endless messages of spend spend spend. There is a certain reward in taking control of some of the variables, and pulling back from the money economy to improve our quality of life, rather than our standard of living. In a previous life, I used my meagre skills to grow tomatoes in the back garden. The crop was variable because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for a lot of the time they were far better than Tesco’s Finest vine-ripened tomatoes-  because they had experienced th sun until the day they were eaten. Some simple pleasures can’t easily be bought, and perhaps we will find pursuing these more rewarding than chasing the admen’s plastic dreams. There’s something peculiarly short-lived about the enjoyment derived from satisfying a want that is created by marketing, because it is always a hostage to the next updated version. The stillness when the treadmill stops is a silence that is valuable in itself…

     

     

    22 Oct 2012, 10:57pm
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  • Saving money on heating – 2

    This is an expansion of the previous post, as it seems I have more luck with a wood stove than the general experience.

    Saving energy seems to be all the rage these days, it isn’t just me, both the Grauniad and the Daily Fail seem to be at it. Looking at the scepticism in the Grauniad article comments, it seems not everyone can make a wood-burning stove work for them from a financial viewpoint.

    My experience is most definitely that a wood burning stove can reduce heating bills. Indeed, if I could think of an intelligent way to go about hot water I could bring my gas bill down to just cooking; I managed to avoid running the central heating at all last year, but I didn’t particularly want for heat.

    I figured it would be interesting to revisit this, to bring out the parameters that enable me to heat the whole house, which seems key to transforming a wood burning stove from lifestyle accessory to money saving tool. I have to admit that I bought the stove as a lifestyle accessory in the easy party times before I realised I wanted to retire early, so I am sweating an existing asset ;)

    #1 Don’t own too much house

    I had a rough experience with negative equity early in my house owning career. This has made my vision of a house very different to that of most of my fellow Britons. I do not have a deep existential belief that property always goes up in value.

    Sarah Beeny and the rest of Britain may believe houses always go up, but I don’t, because I know otherwise from personal experience

    As a result I didn’t stretch myself to the maximum mortgage I could get after that first one, I bought as much house as my living requirements wanted. As a single man I bought a two-up-two down, because that was all I could afford. When I bought this house, with DxGF we went for a three bed semi, which suited us about right, and it suits my current living arrangements right for DW and I.

    It is small compared to the houses of many of my work ex-colleagues, many of whom subscribed to the mantra of buying lots of house because it made them feel good about themselves, and well, y’know, housing always goes up so it’s a great investment too. Good luck to them, and obviously with kids you need more than the one spare room we have. Somewhere between when I grew up and now, we also collectively decided that children each had to have their individual bedrooms, which obviously puts the pressure on families as we increasingly live separate lives.

    Nationwide house price index. House prices never go down, well, until they do.

    Over a thirty-year plus house owning career the price of a house probably does go up in real terms, but the change is not smooth or monotonic. There be switchbacks in the housing market, and woe betide you if you buy and take a switchback at the same time as some bad luck. If you can sweat it out that’s great, but lose your job or need to move at the wrong point in the cycle and you are exposed to negative equity. I cannot describe the soul destroying feeling of paying down a mortgage on a house you’ve sold for less than the mortgage…

    What’s that got to do with heating? It’s a damn sight easier to heat a small space than a big one ;) Heating a modest house is always going to be easier than heating a McMansion, all other things being equal. That is not the only extra cost of a larger house, you also have to clean, furnish and decorate the extra space too.

    FWIW some people claim you can get round having too much house by just heating part of it. Don’t do that for long periods. You may be able to get away with it in drier parts of America but not in the damp of a British winter. You need both ventilation and some heat in a house otherwise condensation will get you, and you’ll have to redecorate that room in Spring ;)

    #2 prize features in the house that help you save energy

    The trouble with these are you have to do this before you buy the house. I was lucky in getting a collection of features that worked well with a wood burner, but it may be of value to call them out.

    The principal disadvantage of a terraced house or semi is you get to hear your neighbours, so you want to avoid choosing a house next a young couple of child-bearing age ;) I should have jumped to that with my first house. On the upside, you get to use some of their heat on the party wall, which is a quarter of your wall area. Although it’s probably a significant effect it isn’t make or break. In an ideal world I’d like to live in a detached house, and would look to retain some of the following features:

    Cavity walls

    wall temp upstairs

    My house was already cavity wall insulated, which is something else to look for, but it had crappy single glazing which I put up with for far too long. The actual cost of changing this wasn’t too bad – I had a grossly inflated expectation of the cost which is why I stalled it for a long time. I’d buy a house with single glazing over one of a similar size that didn’t have cavity walls any time. I’d go as far as not having cavity walls would be a dealbreaker for me in any future house purchase unless power costs came down a lot. Retrofitting cavity insulation is cheap enough, and  you can do something about single glazing, but insulating solid walls is very, very dear it seems. Having lived with both, solid walls are comparatively cold in winter, and seem to increase the thermal delays of the house. That’s bad for the typical work pattern of non-occupation during the day, unless you can reduce draughts so the heat isn’t lost in the day. That doesn’t usually go with the sort of house that has solid walls, because of their age.

    Central chimney

    the chimney wall temperature is 22C, 2C higher even after the stove has not been running for more than 12 hours overnight

    If you are going to use a stove that is, obviously irrelevant if you use gas central heating. You want to use that precious heat all for yourself. You don’t want to share half of it with the neighbours, or even worse do your bit for global warming by sharing it with the great outdoors.

    The chimney in my house goes up the middle of the house. As such the flue runs past the bedroom wall and the wall of my den (the second bedroom) and the heat does warm the walls and the room perceptibly – though with a latency of several hours. As shown, the temperature of the chimney breast upstairs is 2C higher than the adjacent wall, so it is effectively a low-temperature radiator about 0.5m by 2m area. This is measured 12 hours after the stove has stopped running, outside temperature was about 14C.

    That’s good in practice, we tend to start the fire when the sun goes down and the first floor is perceptibly warmer the next day than the ground floor. Which is great, it works with the usage pattern of the space. I would also favour a house with a chimney running through the middle of the house in a future purchase, assuming it were a two-storey house.

    Of course you don’t get character with a house like mine. This sort of thing doesn’t particularly trouble us, but from TV shows it seems this matters to many people, not just Sarah Beeny ;) In general you need more energy to heat a house with character because they tend to be more draughty and have solid walls, this is all part of the complex tradeoff you have to make when choosing somewhere to live. Having a significant heat gradient from the room to the fire does make things feel more homely, as it draws people together, and probably panders to some atavistic memory of our forebears in front of the fire. Not for nothing does the cat curl up in front of the fire rather than the radiator. That is also part of the character of a place, I love it when we go away to somewhere in the winter with a massive open fire in a huge inglenook fireplace with a heat gradient that  made us feel cosy in the warm space. However, I wouldn’t like to pay for it every winter day.

    #3 Insulate and draught-proof first

    The great thing about insulation is that it’s cheap, and a reasonably easy DIY win. I only have three inches of loft insulation, and a reasonable amount of junk up there. Go for more than 3 inches and you can’t use the loft for storage since 3 inches is the typical depth of the rafters. In a modern house you can’t store much in the loft anyway, because of the cheap prefab woodwork cluttering up the loft. Although I only have three inches of rockwool and the current recommendation is for more than twice that, the loft boards and the junk probably help. It’s damn cold in the loft compared to the house in winter :)

    Draught-proofing is best done in double glazed windows using integral rubber seals, but you can DIY here, though none of the DIY solutions last more than a couple of years. They are at least cheap DIY. Doors are also a problem. For me the double glazing fixed draughts almost totally (there is a porch and old conservatory that keep draughts from the main front and back door). I believe nutting draughts is a major part of why I can avoid using the central heating, because the house can hold the heat from a fire in the evening almost through to the next afternoon.

    My previous Victorian two up two down had individual room gas fires. For a gas fire to work it has to be open to the outside to vent the flue and open to the inside for the heat to get out. No complaints about the efficacy of the gas fires, but the house would not hold heat from the evening to the morning, let alone the afternoon. It was always brass monkeys in the morning, and that’s a bastard for getting up to go to work.

    In the current house I didn’t notice the problem of the house not holding heat, because like most people I’d set the central heating to come on a bit before it was time to get up. So that solved the problem with the brass monkeys, but the leakage of heat meant the wood burning stove couldn’t work well for the whole house – it had the same problem as the previous house, it was freezing in the morning. So I used the central heating just for the morning. This combination reduced the gas bill, but what transformed things was fitting the double glazing. That allowed the wood stove to take over the heating of the whole house. The stove is a small one with a rated max output of 6.5kW. In all fairness to the installers, it was only specified to heat the front room, which it was easily able to do despite the initial draughts, and those draughts were hardly perceptible to me. It’s extremely necky to then pitch for using a single room heating appliance to heat the entire house, but it works for me.

    So the takeaway is that you can heat your house with a log-burner alone, as long as the house isn’t too big, as long as you have dealt with insulation, double glazing and draught-proofing properly first. Insulation and draughtproofing are relatively cheap to do compared to installing a log burner. I’ve probably spent £10k on windows and the log burner combined. It’s hard to say where the break-even point is. The windows have probably added something to the value of the house, if only because the previous ones were obviously ropey. If I say the total outlay is £8k allowing for that then the breakeven point is about 8 years or so, shorter if gas prices rise faster than inflation.

    various other related issues

    My gas boiler is over 20 years old, and a modern one would undoubtedly be more efficient. I have savings allocated to replacing that, but I am putting that off because there seem to be very serious reliability problems associated with condensing boilers which is the only type allowed to be fitted these days. The problem seems to be the extra complexity, and the condensate has to be discharged outside, and there is a problem with the discharge pipe freezing so the condensate backs up and the safety system shuts down the boiler. A heating system that doesn’t like freezing temperatures outside isn’t the greatest triumph of engineering smarts IMO. On the other hand, I would benefit from a modern pressurised on-demand hot water system without storage. Downsides of that are I have mixed feelings about the lack of resilience against interruptions to the mains water supply that I expect to be increasingly likely as we have interruptions to the mains power supply. The 25 gallon cold water tank in the loft gives some peace of mind there ;)

    Since I don’t use the boiler for heating I can eat the lack of efficiency, and I haven’t come to a conclusion about the hot water. Losing the storage tanks would KO any opportunity to use solar hot water, and I could probably halve the dwell time of the boiler by changing the primitive mechanical programmer for a modern electronic one to get just one heating period for hot water a day rather than the two the current programmer insists on. You probably need that for a four-person family but it’s overkill for the two of us most of the time.

    All round, saving money on energy/heating demands a whole systems approach and a reasonably methodical process before you do anything, and the opportunities may well be constrained by the design and size of your house.You have to start with what you have and work with it, and unfortunately the main issues are the size and design of your house, which you’re pretty much stuck with.

    Running a 25 year old boiler and a modern wood stove isn’t the obvious way to attack this, but it works well enough for me, my combined gas and electricity bill is ~£500 and I believe they are still significantly overcharging me on estimated consumption. This is less than half the typical UK power bill, and it is notable that about a third of it is the fixed standing charges.

    I was lucky with some of the features of my house, but only realised the benefits once the last link had been completed of the insulate and draughtproof chain, which was replacing the windows. Unfortunately, it looks like you have to get everything to work together before you can use a wood burning stove for the main or only heat source. Mine is only 6.5kW flat out. Using this calculator a replacement whole house boiler for my house would need to be 17kW with typical assumptions. The improved heat holding capacity I’ve ended up with probably explains why a wood burning stove works for me. I can leverage the investment by using it to replace my heating gas consumption, shortening the break-even period.

    Looking at all the grousing in the Guardian comments, many people buy wood stoves as a lifestyle acessory, and there’s nothing wrong at all in that. It is then a lifestyle cost, not a way to save money, even though some of the cost is defrayed by reduced gas usage. It’s reasonable to allow for that but it won’t pay for it.

    Bear in mind that in the UK people typically move house every seven years so the opportunity for cost recovery is limited. I’m unusual in that I stayed in my first house ten years and have only moved once, I’ve lived in this house for 14 years and don’t have any current plans to move, so  I can expect to reach breakeven and into the free lunch beyond.

     

    13 Oct 2012, 12:17pm
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  • Saving money on heating

    The Torygraph tells us, shock, horror, that fuel prices are going up by about 10% this winter, and the Grauniad is up in arms about ‘Millions of householders face record high heating bills this winter‘. Well there’s a surprise. Here’s news for you. Energy costs are always going to go up higher than the rate of inflation. The reason for that is that we keep on adding energy users to the world, and while we’re at it we haven’t been that hot at finding new oil deposits either. So we have an end of cheap oil. We’ve probably also passed peak oil too, and the price mechanism is there to ration demand in a capitalist system…

    The problem is apparent in this Guardian chart, gas is red line

    A quick glance at this chart from the Grauniad is enough to show the enemy. This is not going to a good place. It’s not quite as bad as it looks because the graph is linear, not logarithmic and you have to mentally compute the ratio of inflation to gas price. It confirms my recollection that energy prices used to be higher than they are now in the early 1980s. People have become used to the price suckout since the early 1990s to 2006 which is why there is such a massive keening noise about this at the moment, but it isn’t actually anything new.

    There are some that say that’s no bad thing what with global warming, and others that say it’s all a conspiracy to rack up our bills to pay for this that and the other. Ofgem even threatens us with blackouts, pity that Aggreko has such a crappy yield and a shockingly high P/E these days. Others jab a finger at the current great white hope for Business As Usual, fracking. This has reduced natural gas prices in the United States. Maybe it will make gas too cheap to meter, now where have we heard that before?

    Now we have hard nuts like Rob who lived in Edinburgh for three years without running the heating. You can do that, indeed I did it as a student and early householder, but Ermines get used to some creature comforts after a while. The aim is to stay warm, just not to pay British Gas or anyone else for it.

    Gas is convenient, but not the only way…

    The way to do this is to look back in time. Gas central heating is dandy and very convenient, it comes on in the morning without having to do anything. It came to Britain in the 1970s, with our draughty single-glazed housing stock, and very welcome it was too, no more freezing cold house when the alarm went off in the morning. However, modern houses, or rather houses insulated to modern specs, hold their heat reasonably well overnight, so that’s not a critical as it was in the 1970s.

    Before central heating, people used primarily coal on open fires to heat their houses, though they would also use free-standing paraffin heaters and the like. ‘Elf ‘n saftey has probably done for those these days, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. However, people also used wood, particularly in more rural areas. Wood runs with the zeitgeist because it is considered a renewable resource.

    Mrs Ermine was instrumental in getting the Ermine household to secede from Big Oil as far as domestic heating is concerned, and we got a log burner, looking for one that is reasonably efficient (~70% apparently) and also capable of running coal. So far it has only run wood. The old boy Karl Marx was right on the money when he said that you need to get control of the means of production, and when it comes to heating that means insourcing. Indeed, there is a more general case here – insourcing is a large part of the solution to not getting ripped off in a lot of areas of life :) Some of these fall into the class of non-financial investments, land, fruit trees, facilities and energy saving steps like insulation fall into this category, and good asset allocation requires a spread of investment classes.

    Wood is a low energy-density fuel

    Wood is a tremendously low-energy density fuel compared to coal. What that means is that it’s big and heavy for the amount of heat you get from it. You really want to get your wood locally, otherwise you are going to be paying a lot to shift it to your fireplace. We use wood from the locality, either from the hedgerows at the Oak Tree, where we plant ash replacements for the 1970s dead elms, but we also acquire some as cordwood from a local tree surgeon. The low density does have some advantages. In more rural areas of Suffolk, it has been known for people in the sticks who use diesel oil for heating to lose a thousand pounds worth of heating oil overnight. It is easy enough to steal if you can get a Transit van nearby, what people do is lower an electric pump into the tank and pump the oil into a tank in the Transit or disguised in a horsebox. It’s unlikely to be a horse occupying that horsebox if you spot one at night ;) The low energy density of wood means it’s harder to run off with a load of wood, particularly if it’s stored as cordwood lengths that need chainsawing to be usable. Those on mains gas don’t have this problem because gas is delivered on demand, and it’s kinda obvious if someone half-inches a Zeppelin full of it or runs an LPG plant next to your house.

    Wood is a fair amount of work if you don’t want to pay for it

    Processing wood always catches us a little bit on the hop around this time of year because it is time consuming and a fair amount of work. Of course the easy way to do this is to pick up the phone and order up a ton of logs delivered by tipper truck. However, basic economic theory says that as the price of something like gas goes up, people will drive the price of alternatives up, and this is visible in the price of logs. The demand also seems to have caught suppliers out, as people observe that ‘seasoned logs’ tend to need another season to dry out properly. This is why you should buy your logs in Spring and stash them in a covered log store that air can permeate, to get some chance to dry them out under your control.

    In the end saving £700 is always going to be some work – we didn’t use the central heating for heating, only for hot water last year, and the aim is to do the same this year. I also don’t know where Ofgem get their £700 figure from as most ex-colleagues paid a lot more than that. I used to pay £400 a couple of years ago but it is very hard to track this now because monthly direct debit with annual bills is the demon spawn for accountability. I am beginning to wonder if investing the money I have on depost with EDF would not save me more than the money saved for direct debit.

    Gas prices have increased since the last time I used gas 100% for heating. You can see the downtrend since 2008 as this started to knock out some of my usage, and it saves us at current prices about £500 a year. The payback time is about six years at current rates. This may be shortened however, because fuel costs are rising, and the independence of the fossil fuel price means this is something that concerns us less. A fire is more convivial too – it’s difficulat to place a monetary value on the differetn feeling of a glass or two of red wine shared with others around the flickering flames and direct heat.

    Reuse, recycle…

    Sweating the asset – this Ikea sofa will serve me well as fuel after 15 years as seating

    This year we are breaking out into two new firewoood sources. One is locally nonrenewable though globally renewable. It was hasta la vista to the trusty Ikea sofas that served me well since bachelor days as we bought nice replacements secondhand from a friend moving to Canada. There’s a reasonable amount of pine in there, and with a jigsaw mounted in a Workmate that was quickly rendered to firewood. Yeah, I know I should use a table saw but I don’t have one.

    The second more renewable resource is pallets, which we have been collecting over the summer. A little bit of me weeps when I see people burning pallets as waste on a site, because these can be used inside a wood burner to provide useful winter heating, and it’s generally a waste. Many people are glad to be shot of them.

    I got the power…

    There is no power at the Oak Tree but using a car battery and a Handy Mains inverter the jigsaw served me well again. We can fit a pallet whole into our van but for those who need to cut them up a bit that’s one way to do it on site. You can get battery powered jigsaws or reciprocating saws but I don’t really get on with cordless tools other than cordless drills. They’re either gutless, expensive or both, and the batteries never last as long as they should do. When they get knackered, due to a conspiracy by the manufacturers the battery packs have become obsolete and new ones won’t fit. As a result the cost of a new battery is the same as a replacement too.

    Mr Money Mustache seems to rave about battery tools but he is a real carpenter and I am probably cheap ;) Perhaps in America they have laws to stop the manufacturers changing the shape of the batteries every two years, which is about the time it takes to wreck one with heavy use.

    Using an inverter and a leisure battery has transformed wrangling pallets on site. You should  monitor the battery voltage and avoid letting it fall below 10.5V on full load, though modern inverters usually have a low-voltage cutout. I don’t know if mine does, you get a lot of jigsawing out of a leisure battery. Decent connections matter too – a 350W tool is looking for about 33A at 12V. That terminal block probably wants to be replaced with a soldered connection at some stage. The jigsaw should be a low-tech on-off unit with a universal motor (one where you see occasional sparks from the commutator at the back) for best results with a inverter… Having said that, the Scorpion reciprocating saw I also use has an electronic speed controller but works fine.

    taking on a pallet with a jigsaw

    There are two ways of tackling a pallet with a jigsaw – either slice through the runners at the bottom to make it easier to pry apart the planks, or do that, rest the pallet against a stack of logs and bash seven bells out of it with a sledgehammer, which if targeted right breaks the planks out from the middle purlins. You need to use eye and ear protection and be ready to duck until you have the hang of it. The trick is to aim into the plank along the line of the nails.

    Obviously the combination of power tools and a planks with nails and a sledgehammer is kinda dangerous and you should take due care and attention ;)

    Jar of annealed nails, of no earthly use whatsoever other than as a “what the heck is that?” talking point!

    Pallet wood goes a treat and works well with some logs, the fast-burning pallet yang works with the yin of a slower burning log. We don’t bother having the nails out. If you are going to use the ash for something, like Mrs Ermine does at The Oak Tree, you can either sieve the buggers out, pick ‘em out have them out with a loudpeaker magnet. They have their own rustic aesthetic charm. I presume that being annealed through the fire they are pretty useless for their original purpose.

    Kindling, ready made by Nature. Beats chopping it up IMO!

    Another recent discovery is that pine cones make excellent kindling if you dry them out for a short while. We do this in a mesh container in the south-facing porch – heating the cones up opens them out as well as drying them. I did wonder if there were issues with resin but it seems they are no worlse than burning pine wood. And they deliver. Chopping up wood for kindling with an axe is tedious compared to a stroll in the wood for cones, and a little bit goes a long way.

    As a result of this, there are no plans to allow icicles to form on the tips of the Ermine’s fur in the winter, and he need not be fleeced by the power companies either. Or harassed the Russkies having their occasional barney with the Ukraine. The latter would still get in my way because about half of the UK’s power is generated with gas. Although I do have a standalone 12V solar lighting system capale of running through the shortest day, I would need to use the 12V party audio amplifier for entertainment through the long dark nights promised by OfCom for the years ahead. Al least I’ve fixed my portable CD player, but to be honest the car audio amplifer sounds rough as guts for use indoors, so perhaps I should look out for a decent 50W secondhand car CD player. And buy those damn Aggreko shares with some of the savings on gas ;)

    added 22 Oct It seems not everyone has as much luck with a wood burning stove as I did – I’ve tried to bring out some of the things that help this for for me in a follow-up post.

    3 Oct 2012, 3:04pm
    frugality living intentionally:
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  • Don’t Just Sit There Moaning about TV, Do Something

    Daytime TV has no reason to exist in my view. It wasn’t just my opinion either – TV companies used to be of the same opinion, and helpfully transmitted testcard signals and the like, so that young Ermines could while away the slack time in the lab of my first company trying to fix a TV. And learning that a 26kV belt from the anode cap makes you end up lying on your back looking at the lab ceiling with stars  in front of your eyes. It confirmed the power supply and LOPT worked okay and the problem lay elsewhere, but I’ve been leery of TV since then ;)

    The testcard signals were at least something useful, if not interesting, on TV in the daytime up to the early 1980s. The testcards have quite a following, as indeed does the testcard music, I was surprised to see. I recall it as light entertainment with all strings and no vocals, like muzak, but clearly it has its aficionados. Whereas apparently what they use the time for now seems to be upsetting people, particularly some shift-workers and retired people who are getting incensed because the BBC is showing a load of antique and auction programmes in the daytime. This was news to me, because life is too short to watch TV most weeks. Even if it is the case, so far in my life I’ve never come across a TV without one essential function. You sometimes have to look hard for it, and in the olden days when you actually had to get up to change channels on the TV  manufacturers had a pesky habit of combining it with the volume control. I’ve located it on my TV and helpfully arrowed it :)

    Welcome to the Off button, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. It is your friend…

    It’s called an off switch. If you ever find some piece of consumer electronics that is meant to be entertaining you fails in this task, press that and the problem is instantly sorted. Nondestructively, too. There are other ways of solving the immediate problem should you find an antique show not to your liking.

    This switches off most things and some people, but it does have problematic side effects

     

    Let’s take a closer look at all this upset. Viewer #1, presumably of sound mind and hale of heart, gripes

    ‘I work in the evenings, so all I see all day on the BBC are constant shows like Homes Under The Hammer, Cash in the Attic [and] Bargain Hunt. I sit down to dinner and I see Flog It, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Antiques Road Trip [and] Antiques Roadshow. Do you really need so many of these types of shows?’

    to which the obvious riposte is “Don’t be such a frickin slob.” Your food died for you. At least do it the honour of sitting down and paying it full attention while you eat it. You might find it tastes better, because humans only have so much sensory bandwidth. And if it doesn’t taste better then you could use some of the time you’re not watching crap on TV to cook something more nourishing!

    While he’s at it, I have news for him. Starting somewhere about the mid Seventies, people invented something called the video recorder, explicitly to timeshift TV programmes. These have been refined over the years to a high art, as epitomised in my Humax Foxsat HDR. This was a massive upgrade to a Sky TV dish because it got rid of Rupert Murdoch’s blood funnel inserted into my wallet, and it means you can record TV shows and watch them later, like when Antiques Roadshow is on in the daytime! Ain’t technology wonderful? Go on, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, knock yourself out with one of those.

    Viewer #2 seems to have a more intractable problem

    Another said: ‘Being retired now, and because of the awful summer this year, I’ve spent more time at home than usual. These cheap and nasty [home and auction] programmes definitely aren’t aimed at me, or if they are, they are way off target.

    Day after day of the same pointless, boring, mind rotting junk is insulting to anyone’s intelligence.’

    Not sure there’s any intelligence to insult here, pal. We’ve sent a search party out for it and came to the conclusion that it’s MIA because you failed to make use of that on/off switch and go and do something more useful with your time.

    I’ve been retired for three months and watch less TV than I did when I was working, because without the pain of working breaking up your day guess what? You can really get a run at something, and y’know, focus on it, or learn how to do something. I have focused on mimimising my outgoings at the moment because at this early stage of retirement maximising my capital is important so that I don’t deplete my future income. I haven’t been bored though – it’s a big wide world and the magic of Google means you can find out about all sorts of stuff and creating things. I’ve been learning how to code in Ruby, saved £300 by fixing a broken camera lens. On an off I try and make this motley collection of parts do something for me, though I know I ought to get on and build it properly once it covers more than half a solderless breadboard.


    Now that the library has a decent search systemwhere you can order books online I’ve been reading Cheap. Heck, I’ve even discovered how to make the Amazon widget vaguely relevant/useful to this post. It’s really quite remarkable what you can do with the time that would otherwise be dedicated to watching Antiques Roadshow.Maybe these guys didn’t watch enough TV as kids. As the erstwhile TV show said, Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?