Science vs the Weather – Salford’s Energy House

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This is a normal British terraced house. It was built around the turn of the 20th century out of bricks, mortar and a lot of manual labor. Kitchen, living room and a set of stairs in the middle that lead up to two bedrooms and a bathroom, and although the exact details might be different, about one in five houses in Britain look roughly like this, all built in a row. The trouble is houses like this weren’t built to save energy or to keep the heat in on a cold winter’s day. Energy efficiency wasn’t really a thing a century ago and while there are all sorts of plans to modernize and retrofit houses.

How do you know which plans will work? How do you do a controlled experiment when every house is different and the weather constantly changes? It would be great if you could just, you know tell the sun what to do. We are in the Salford Energy House which is the only whole building in a climate-controlled chamber.

The idea really was to take a Victorian house and look at different ways that we can make it more energy efficient. When you test something on its own, like a boiler, you set it in a lab and you test it and it will be X% efficient. When you actually put that in a whole house or a whole system it then interacts with all sorts of other things like the fabric, the radiators, the controls, so understanding how things fit together as a whole house is really, really important. This isn’t some close approximation of an old terraced house made with modern techniques. This was a genuine end of terrace house from out in Manchester. It was taken apart and then rebuilt piece by piece here in an environmental test chamber at the University of Salford.

We had to get a bricklayer. The bricklayer was like 70 years old, because actually the way that the bricks were laid in Victorian times, nobody does it like that anymore. He said he’d not laid bricks like that since he was a trainee. We’ve got, I would say, hundreds of sensors. Every single appliance is monitored individually. What we can do here is also simulate human activity. We have actuators, so robotic arms which will replicate the opening and closing of doors, fridges, windows. We can turn appliances on and off. Here we control the weather.

We have a space next door with a big water tank and there are layers of piping that run around that will push rain onto the side of the building because rain never falls down, it always comes sideways and then we also have a snow machine, and we also have wind machines, and we have a lighting system. So that’s just radiant heating lamps connected to a theatre lighting control system so the sun can pass round the building. All of those things can make a huge difference to the way a building performs.

The first really big test we did, which was a whole house retrofit, we attached wall insulation, we improved the doors and the windows and we improved the floor and we reduced the heating energy by more than 60%.

There’s always a trade-off with experiments like this. Yes, heating and cooling a large building that is inside another building is not massively energy efficient in itself, but compared to other industrial processes, it’s not that bad and if spending a little energy here saves a lot elsewhere, well that’s probably worth it.

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