Getting to grips with thermal comfort

John Butler reports from the latest module of the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation courses at CAT. John is a student on the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment course. He normally blogs on his site and you can follow him on Twitter @the_woodlouse.

The March module of CATs Sustainability and Adaptation MSc was part B of Energy Flows in Buildings. Part A (in February) introduced us to ideas of thermal comfort and its relation to heat transfers from the human body to its surroundings. This was tied to the implications of maintaining that thermal comfort, and the impact on energy use. We learnt about calculating U-Values (used as a standard measure of the thermal efficiency of a building element), and daylighting: making best use of natural daylight in a building and calculating the resulting energy savings.

educational building
The view from a bedroom in the WISE building, home of the MSc and Part II Architecture students

Part B expanded on this getting into more detail about limiting the flows of energy through a building, whilst addressing issues around ventilation and movement of moisture. A sustainable building should maintain a comfortable environment – comfortably warm in winter, comfortably cool in summer, ideal humidity levels, good air quality – with minimal energy input, and without moisture ingress causing degradation of the building fabric. Throughout the week different elements of possible means to achieve this were discussed.

A recurring theme throughout the week was retrofit – upgrading the thermal efficiency of existing buildings to reduce their energy use and related CO2 emissions. The most commonly stated best-estimate is that around 80% of existing houses will still be in use by 2050; the potential contribution to reduced energy use and emissions from such a large number of buildings is huge, but presents a challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to various approaches, from aesthetic considerations (eg: changing the appearance of a building when externally insulating it), to practical (eg: loss of space when internally insulating), to technical (eg: the risk of condensation forming at the meeting of new insulation and existing structure if it is not carefully considered). Planning and conservation concerns can also influence or restrict choices for retrofit.

viewing insulation retrofit
MSc students examine mockups of internal and external insulation, for solid-wall retrofit

There are also issues and trade-offs surrounding choice of insulation materials – the most highly efficient materials may have a greater overall environmental impact than some less efficient materials. Some are more breathable (open to passage of moisture vapour) than others, which can have both positive and negative implications, depending on application.

Another recurring theme was the need to account for future changes to our climate in both retrofit and new build. In particular, too much emphasis on designing to conserve heat could lead to overheating further down the line when atmospheric temperatures increase. Careful attention to placement of glazing and shading to control solar gain can help address this, allowing direct sunlight in to provide warmth in winter when the sun’s path is lower, and sheltering the building from the most intense direct sunlight in summer when the sun is higher.

The role of thermal mass in regulating internal temperatures was discussed in a number of lectures. Depending on climate and design, thermal mass may hang on to winter day-time heat, releasing it within the building through the night – or assist cooling by absorbing excess heat in summer, if combined with effective ventilation to purge that heat at night. Used inappropriately thermal mass may add to overheating, so its use must be considered carefully.

thermal image
Thermal imaging shows hot heating pipes (bright) and cold area where air is coming in around cables (dark areas)

A practical in the second half of the week provided a demonstration of heat loss through unplanned ventilation (ie: draughts). This was linked to the need to provide controlled ventilation (whether through opening windows or via mechanical ventilation), and highlighted the difficulties of achieving airtightness (eliminating draughts) in some existing buildings. The practical involved carrying out an air-pressure test to establish the air-permeability of the timber-framed selfbuild house on the CAT site (ie: how much air moved through the fabric of the building at a certain pressure). In groups we surveyed the building with thermal imaging cameras, before and during the test. The resulting images clearly showed how the cold incoming air cooled surrounding surfaces, demonstrating the impact of air infiltration on energy use. A scheme to retrofit the selfbuild house at CAT would have to include a means to reduce this.

air pressure test
The door-fan, used to de-pressurise a building to identify air-ingress

The end of the week saw us discussing Passivhaus and visiting the Hyddgen Passivhaus office/community building in Machynlleth, with the building’s designer John Williamson. Some myths about Passivhaus were busted (for instance: you can open windows), and the physics-based fabric-first approach was explained. The standard is based around high comfort levels combined with incredibly low energy input. While on site we investigated the MVHR unit (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery), which removes stale air from the building, and uses it to heat fresh incoming air. These are a common feature of passivhaus, as they allow the removal of moist air and other airborne contaminants and it’s replacement with fresh air, whilst minimising heat loss. This system has been the subject of some heated debates with fellow students at CAT, due to questions about the amount of energy needed to run the system and how user-friendly it is or isn’t. We were shown that when installed correctly, the system recovers more energy than is needed to run it.

Hyddgen Passivhaus in Machynlleth

As ever, throughout this course connections were constantly drawn between all the different areas covered (the inescapable interconnectedness of all things!). Nothing stands in isolation; each decision in one area can have repercussions in another. The different elements of building physics and materials must be balanced with each other and with the effect of any action on the wider environment.

temperature recording
Measuring the air temperature in MVHR heating ducts at Hyddgen, prior to calculating the overall efficiency and heatloss/recovery of the the system

The immersive learning environment during module weeks at CAT is highly effective, and very intense. It’s a wonderfully stimulating and supportive place to be, but at the end of the week that intensity needs a release in order for us all to return to our normal lives without winding up our friends and family when we get there. That takes the form of the vitally essential Friday night social, which this month was themed around a Cyfarfod Bach, a laid back Welsh social. We had beautiful music and singing, comedy, artwork, silliness, a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem (not too shabby, considering only a handful of people were Welsh speakers or had any idea how the tune went in advance) and finally a leg-shattering amount of dancing, ensuring we could all go home in physical pain but happily and calmly buzzing.

See more blogs about the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Digging beneath the surface of buildings energy assessment

Toby Whiting is a student on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT. He is studying the course alongside working as a buildings energy consultant. Here he reports on the module from October, which focuses on energy use in buildings. 

Another great week at CAT has flown by. As a domestic SAP and Code for Sustainable Homes assessor, this week has covered a lot of the areas that I’m familiar with. So was it a waste of time? No certainly not! Believe it or not, as a SAP assessor, I have never taken the calculation apart and played with it in a spreadsheet – it was always one of the things that I wanted to try but never made the time for. I’m pleased to say that this course has ‘ticked’ another box and allowed me to look at where the ‘numbers’ are drawn from and made me look at the SAP process from a new perspective.

High and low points of the week: Delivering my powerpoint in a session where students give presentations based on their essay topic; and the trip to an office designed to Passivhaus standard -I’ll let you guess which was the ‘high’ and which was the ‘low’ for me (but it wasn’t the one where I had to stand up and talk).

People can confuse and transpose terms like ‘Passivhaus’ and ‘Zero Carbon’ so it really has been good to get out and visit a building designed to consume less energy, rather than offset the carbon produced. For me nothing beats the experience of walking around a building like this.

Canolfan Hyddgen: an office designed to Passivhaus energy standards

Working as a consultant can be difficult because I spend a lot of time researching and advising others on the most efficient or cost effective solution and the flow of information is often one way. This course reinvigorates me and allows me to mix with like-minded individuals (both students and lecturers) and exchange ideas.

I have been able to challenge my opinions over a wide range of building performance related areas and learned some fascinating things from other student presentations. I’m a part-time student and won’t be back now until January – and I’m pleased to say I’m looking forward to it!

thermal image
Using a thermal imaging camera on the module


The top 5 renewable energy questions from the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show

If you went to the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show a week ago, you might have been inspired by the live demonstrations of thatching, or felt the sudden urge to redecorate when you passed the stall full of sheepskin rugs. Or perhaps you realised you really did need a 2-metre 3D TV in your lounge, or maybe you simply wanted to browse whilst enjoying an ice cream from the Yorkshire Dales food cart (it’s a permanent installation).

Nestled between two full-size timber frame houses, one of which was the Eco Home Theatre, the CAT stall was a small hub of renewable energy debate in this varied crowd. Enthused by Tobi’s daily talks, a stream of visitors made their way to us to ask often highly specific or technical questions. Some of the same concerns kept coming up, so we’ve collated a list of the five most common questions and Tobi’s answers.

Lots of people also asked us questions about architecture and design, but we’re going to save those for a later feature. Stay tuned!

  1. What’s PVT, and is it a good idea?
  2. Is there a case for thermodynamic systems?
  3. Are heat pumps right for me?
  4. Micro hydro: yes or no?
  5. Should I heat my house with biomass?


1. What’s PVT, and is it a good idea?

PVT is the combination of solar photovoltaic systems (the “PV”), which produce electricity, and solar thermal systems (the “T”, also known as solar water heating, SWH), which produce hot water.

In principle, you can see the potential for synergy between these technologies. PV modules convert only 10%-20% of the solar energy that falls onto them into electricity, and a good proportion of the remaining solar energy is converted into heat – solar PV get hot in the sun. So why not use this heat to heat water for showers? This is what PVT modules do – basically, they are solar PV modules put onto a solar thermal absorber. In principle, this is a brilliant idea. In practice, it’s not so easy.

Solar PV modules actually operate more efficiently when they are colder (because their electric resistance is lower) whereas for your showers you want your water to be hot. Under some conditions that works out perfectly – as long as your hot water cylinder is cold, the solar thermal part will actually cool your solar PV module down. But on a sunny summer’s day you ultimately want your solar thermal system to produce very hot water, and in fact UK legislation actually requires water to be heated to temperatures of 60-70C to kill dangerous Legionella bacteria. Ideally you’d want your solar panel to be colder than that.

You can get around this by using a heat pump to produce very hot shower water while pumping lower temperature water through your solar PVT panels. But that of course means additional expense – and much higher electricity consumption than the circulation pump of a normal solar thermal system. Also, it is worth pointing out that most PVT systems on the market today actually cost more than the combined cost of a conventional PV system and some solar thermal panels.

The Upshot: If you have enough roof space you’re probably better off installing separate solar PV and solar thermal systems.

2. Is there a case for thermodynamic systems? So-called “thermodynamic” systems (a fancy term that doesn’t really mean much) are essentially simple (unglazed) solar thermal panels connected to a heat pump. They haven’t been on the market for long enough for us to have good data, but there’s reason to be very sceptical. In the UK there simply isn’t much solar energy available in winter because days are short and the sun is low down and very often hidden behind clouds altogether.

Under those conditions, a “thermodynamic” system is essentially an air-source heat pump (ASHP) that relies on heat transfer from the ambient air to the solar panel. Manufacturers claim that the system will provide hot water at every time of the year – and that is probably true, but during dark winter days this energy is not solar energy but rather energy produced by a heat pump, which consumes a lot of electricity.

Furthermore, because the “thermodynamic” panels usually use a type of solar panel that’s less efficient than a normal (glazed) solar thermal panel, they’re probably also not a good choice during the sunnier parts of the year when a normal solar thermal system can produce hot water at a much lower electricity cost.

The Upshot: A large dose of scepticism is currently warranted when it comes to these systems. This is also reflected by the fact that their accreditation under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) has been suspended, which means you won’t get Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) income.

3. Are heat pumps right for me? The answer is “it depends”. Heat pumps use electricity to extract ambient heat (heat in the air or ground) and supply that heat into your house. Today most electricity is produced very inefficiently – for instance, our coal and gas power stations consume two or three units of fossil fuel heat energy for every unit of electricity they produce. If electricity from these inefficient power stations is used to run heat pumps, then these heat pumps need to be very efficient. Basically, your heat pump would need to supply three units of heat for every unit of electricity it consumed, otherwise you might be better off heating directly with oil or gas!

To work efficiently, heat pumps need to run at a relatively constant rate supplying heat at low temperatures. This is a realistic option for a (usually new-built) house that is well insulated and has underfloor heating with densely spaced pipes. In this case even when it is very cold outside the water in the heating system need only be lukewarm (maybe 30-35C). On the other hand, if the heat pump needs to supply much hotter water, for a badly insulated building or a building heated by radiators, then the efficiency of the heat pump will likely be too low to make it a good choice.

4. Micro hydro: yes or no? Hydropower is great, and if it benefits a whole community rather than one individual then all the better! Unfortunately, only a minority of communities in the UK have the kind of site that’s suitable for hydropower: A stream with a large flow rate of water and a good height drop. If you have a site of this type then it’s definitely worth exploring the option of installing a micro-hydro scheme.

5. Should I heat my house with biomass? Biomass can be a good choice, especially where wood can be sourced locally and/or for buildings where heat pumps would not work at high efficiency. But it’s important to stress that wood fuel is a limited resource and that there are potentially negative side effects to burning it (e.g. local air pollution from smoke, time lag between when CO2 is emitted and when a new growing tree absorbs it again). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t burn wood, but it means we should try to use it as efficiently as possible. This means always reducing a building’s energy consumption first, and using the most efficient appliances available for burning wood. For example, modern log batch boilers (wood gasification boilers) get more heat out of the same amount of wood, and emit less smoke, than traditional wood stoves (or, even worse, open fires!).

Have a question about renewables and your home that we didn’t answer here? Check out our Home Energy Handbook, or give our Free Information Service a call!


5 essential resources for saving energy this winter

As the winter arrives and temperatures drop, here are 5 resources for you to keep warm and save energy.

1. We’re all familiar with basic energy efficiency measures. But if you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can, our energy conservation area of the website is a good place to start. You might want to think about doing an energy audit of your house or downloading the energy conservation fact sheet.

2. If you’re thinking seriously about making alterations to your house to save energy you might want some more in depth advice. The Energy Saving House book is a good place to start. It covers every aspect of energy saving in the home, from energy efficient design advice, heating and cooling your house and choosing appliances, and explains how energy saving steps can work together to make your home more comfortable and cheaper to run.

3. Got a wood burner? Need to spread the heat from it around your house? You probably need one of these. “Heat powered fans for use on freestanding wood stoves to circulate air directly into the living area rather than rising immediately to the ceiling, thereby increasing the heating effectiveness of the stove and reducing fuel consumption”

4. If you’re looking for more detail on creating a really low energy home, then the Zero Carbon House book is a good place to start. The book is full of inspiring examples of low energy living.

5. This gadget will help you identify which of you appliances are energy guzzlers. Identifying which appliances are wasting energy is a vital part of your energy efficiency plan, and this simple gadget will help you do that. Simply plug it into a socket, then plug the appliance into the Powermeter and it will log how much electricity the appliance uses.