Ship or Destination – why do you cruise? It’s a popular question for those that choose holidays at sea. For me it’s more about the ship then the destination where it’s heading but this voyage also had a 3rd element – a family gathering.
My brother, who had never cruised before, decided to celebrate his 40th Birthday with a cruise, and not being one for dressing up, chose Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas for it’s more relaxed approach to attire paired with some early summer sunshine in the form of a trip to the Canary Islands in May.
I should at this stage declare my history with Independence of the Seas. My first taster of the ship was a 2 night solo cruise to Le Harve in June 2010 whereby it was an early summer scorcher and the ship was full. You could not move on deck 12 for sunbeds and the Daily Mail – brits abroad?. My second trip was a couple of years back with my partner and our 9 and 13 year old and it rained for the 4 nights to Cork and back.
IOTS has no indoor pool and on this second trip, where the ship was also full, created a significant shortage of any seating or activities when all of the pools and sports deck are unusable. It was after that second trip I vowed never to come back on Independence of the Seas.
Now I could also write a number of paragraphs on cruise ship pricing but I could summarise as follows; if you HAVE to be in a certain part or deck on a ship; book early. If you need to book holiday with work, or make arrangements for kids or pets – book early. NEVER book in ‘Wave season’ January – March. The best bargains will be had in the 3 months leading up to the cruise sail date. You’ll probably book on a guaranteed basis meaning you will get at least a certain grade, or higher.
I booked this trip at the same time as my parents just under 3 months before it sailed. It was a guaranteed balcony deal which was subsequently got assigned 6 weeks before it left. Both my parents and I were upgraded to D1 grade which is one level beneath a Junior Suite and a 4 grade upgrade from the guarantee. We are both on Deck 9 with my cabin, no 9220, being the first ‘Bubble’ balcony at the front of this ship. This gave a curved window view to the front of the ship as well as the normal balcony view starboard side. My parents cabin was 9258 on the opposite side of the ship 4 cabins in from the front. My brother had a Promenande View inside that he booked a year in advance
Independence of the Seas has just been in for a quick dry dock refit in Hamburg prior to this cruise which saw a couple of ‘Oasis class’ modifications including the inclusion of a ‘cookie cupboard’ shop on the Royal Promenade (chargeable) and the renaming of Porta Fino to Giovannis ($35 cover charge supplement per head) along with more cabins being squeezed in the lower decks and some technical improvements to the propulsion system and ship-wid
e wifi access ($0.68 a minute). There were also new carpets in some of the public bars but no noticeable changes to the 3 staterooms that our family used.
So how is the ship on my third visit; well I would still rank her as a 6 out of 10 cruise ship. There are significant cut backs underway in the industry and these were noticeable; not major but really things that you question how much losing these nice touches really costs? Here’s the list of things that I noticed were ‘missing’ from other cruises I have been on :
- No Bathrobe
- No slippers (that you normally then get to take home)
- No chocolate on the pillows at turndown
- No toiletries or moisturizer in the staterooms (only a refillable shampoo dispenser affixed to the shower wall)
- No guest services directory, when I requested one was told to just the interactive TV
- No pen or paper in the room
- No extra pillow (4 tiny ones supplied)
- No Petit fours course after dinner
- No salad course at dinner
- No home breads with dipping sources on the dinner table (normal bread basket offered round)
Again, none of these are deal breakers, more items that just make this a firm 4 star cruise line rather than the likes of Cunard or Celebrity that include these gratis. I did manage to request a robe and toiletries but had it detailed that these are only reserved for guests on higher loyalty tiers, so don’t expect to see a bathrobe unless you have sailed 80 nights with Royal Caribbean.
Now one of the saving graces of this trip was the realization that the ship was not full. Talking to staff there are 3,200 passengers on this ship, of which 500 were children. At peak capacity this ship take 4,300 guests of which 1,500 can be kids. Never sail on this ship in August unless you have oodles of patience, love out of control kids running around at 11pm and adore queuing for just about everything. Having done 2 previous trips on this ship when it was full it’s not nice. And that was before they’ve squeezed some extra cabins in.
Dinner: Despite being assigned early dinner and having this confirmed we had no dinner table assigned. This meant we had to join a very long queue for the Maitre d’ and sat at one table one night then was assigned another table right in the entrance that, after 2 requests was moved to a much nicer table nearer the window. Then on the 2nd night another group turned up expecting to eat at the table we had been assigned, and to try and shorten the explanation, they had been moved to the 2nd sitting on their request not realizing that such a switch is permanent.
Ports of call: after sailing Saturday 4pm and a smooth Bay of Biscay Crossing on Sunday Vigo was our first port of call. It was overcast with occasional showers and whilst there were some nice architecture as I ascended the hill there were also many shops and business boarded up reflecting the difficult Spanish economy which was also highlighted by a significant local demonstration as we came off the ship with a number of groups pleading for help from Europe as Spanish banks plunder savings.
Next day was Lisbon and I managed to haul myself up the gym which is an enormous area directly above the bridge and ideal to see the ship navigate into the estuary and under the bridge as we approached the port. Now Royal Caribbean had laid on a shuttle but this was chargeable at $8 each. I bought the ticket and was quickly whisked into the historic heart of the city; really pretty. The bus then heads over to another area called Belham which I was less interested in, especially as we passed the 2 significant buildings as we sailed in/out of the port. So rather than go on that round trip walked back to the ship which took about an hour. Also the temperature was heading up and on a cloudy walk I still got a suitable sunny glow by the evening!
Day 5 was the second sea day and another chance to show the family the ship. I always enjoy watching folks on the Flowrider surf machine, never been man enough to try it myself but the instructor lead free sessions get folks out on laying down ‘Boogie Boards’ as well as Stand up Surfing. Next to this is a mini putting golf course, a basketball court and rockwall. There are also other tournaments like Short Tennis that my folks won and now have gold medals to treasure!
Lanzarote was our first Canary Island port of call and the temperature was around 32 degrees. There’s another chargeable shuttle to down; I chose to walk but in a breathless heat I stayed quite near to the ship and headed back after only an hour out and about and straight to the pools and hot tubs on deck 11.
Gran Canaria (Las Palmas) was next up and along with my brother and his partner we walked off the ship had a quick shop round (excellent for jewelry) then headed to the beach which is one of the longest city beaches in the world. We were also treated to a magnificent air display as jets, air sea rescue and the Spanish equivalent of the Red Arrows were all practicing for an air show that weekend. We found a restaurant and had some tapas whilst sipping cool Tropical Canary Island beer in temperatures that reached 32 degrees
Day 8 and after another short overnight hop it was Tenerife. The ship docks at Santa Cruz which is a city with palm lined boulevards and some interesting architecture. We headed on foot to the shops and again stopped off for some food and local beer in very pleasant temperatures before heading back to the ship for dinner, the ice show and main show
Day 9 La Palma – what a beautiful Island and probably one of my favourite ports of call. A short stroll off the ship, and just one street is O’Daly street and this cobbled lined, oldy worldy street has beautiful houses with ornate ironwork balconies nestled next to small shops and restaurant as well as markets where I watched cigars being hand rolled as well as local fruit and veg stalls. Ornate churches and public buildings and a thoroughly enjoyable visit which turned out to be the first time Independence of the Seas called at this Island.
Upon leaving La Palma there was another sea day before we reached Madeira, why I am not sure. We cruised at a mere 6 knots for the crossing and upon looking at other future itineraries this trip is an overnight hop. However the weather was hot hot hot and lots to do on board, or little if you just want to - sit by the many pools or sports deck. So a great sea day
Day 11 and through the clouds emerged the town of Funchal, Madeira as it sprawled up the mountain behind it. What a beautiful sight it was with white and terracotta houses dotted adjacent to lush green hillside with cable cars and the sound of church bells as we pulled up to the dock. And after a 20 minute walk I was in the middle of Funchal. Stunning. Purple blossomed trees lined the streets, parks with lush vegetation and banana trees, markets, street entertainers with parrots, falcons and owls and street cafes for the tourists or step back a couple of streets and find where the local Portuguese frequent. A delightful port of call.
We left Funchal and nearly as soon as we left the protection of the mountain we were hit with Gale force 8 winds. This continued all night and all through day 12. I have never taken any sea sick tablets on any of my previous 12 cruises but being the very first cabin, high up on deck 9 on a fat fronted cruise ship and come 3am I relented! I was not actually sick but felt less than grand. We were sailing 19.6 knots into a Gale Force 8 for 32 hours; this gave a combined wind across deck touching 55 – 60mph and whilst the ship was smooth the noise as it crashed down on the waves lifted me out the shower at one point
Boy was I pleased to see La Coruna on day 13. However there was a detectable nip in the air and once again in Northern Spain the rain was back. I hopped off the ship to the large shopping centre outside the ship. P&O’s Ventura was also keeping us company in port. Once again met by a Spanish demonstration, though smaller in number and once again a lot of businesses boarded up. However some last port shopping was done as well as a nice café located before our readiness for the Bay of Biscay.
The Bay of Biscay is well known for very rough weather but for the second time this trip behaved herself with hardly any movement comparative to day 12. And as I type this review from my cabin on day 14 of the trip the sun is out and we are just rounding the corner and heading up the English Channel heading for Southampton docking at 5am tomorrow.
Back to the ship review. Food: we dined in Romeo and Juliet for all but 3 nights and the food was enjoyable but not memorable. There was an attempt to theme each nights menu around 1 herb with a little write up on the menu then it would typically feature in one dish. Whilst this sounds interesting it was rarely engaging; I recall a ‘Sage’ night where it only featured in the sage and onion stuffing on a chicken dish. There were some really nice dishes with the ‘Jaffa cake’ deconstructed desert and the Manahattan Steak (which is on every night) very delicious. There is also a Shrimp Cocktail on every night and by the quantity by brother ate these were also highly commended. It missed the nice touches like the breadsticks and tapenade you get on Celebrity Eclipse or the salad course and petite fours (tiny cakes) you get at the end of the meal on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 but then you have to remember this is a 4 star family cruise ship and not sold as a luxury experience.
The entertainment is very good on board with a number of West End style shows, comedians and a very funny hypnotist in the Alhambra Theatre. There was also 2 excellent ice shows by professional skaters in Studio B as well as 2 street parades and a 70s disco and Rock Brittania street party all held in the Royale Promenade. There were elements of Butlins in the street parties (knees up mother brown singalong) but altogether fun events. There are 4 live bands playing in various bars each night one particularly good being the Carribean Extra Band. Our favourite bar on board is the Olive Or Twist which is the flying saucer shaped disc on deck 14 with stunning views over the front of the ship as well as out to sea each side. Drinks are pricey with a bottle of Budwesier costing $6 / £4.50 (up 50c in 2 years), and a BBC cocktail costing $8.50.
Independence of the Seas is a big, very busy family cruise ship. It weighs in at 158,000 tonnes and can squeeze on 4,300 passengers. That’s over 1,500 more than Queen Mary 2 which is only 5,000 tonnes smaller. On previous cruises it felt over crowded but as this still had a 100 or so unsold cabins it felt less crowded. For me this cruise was about holidaying with my parents and my brother and partner to celebrate his 40th. It also had some great early summer sun so was a great trip. BUT the small minded cost cutting, how crowded this ship has been on previous trips, even before the extra cabins were shoe-horned in, mean it is highly unlikely I would ever cruise on this ship again. It also emerged that this ship could be replaced by Anthem of the Seas on 2015 so RCI acknowledging that sailing from Southampton without an inside pool does not work.
One other experience that grates with me is holidaying with nearly 100% Brits. They do like a good moan about just about anything and this does tire after about day 5! Be it a condiment on the table, the weather, the Brits just don’t seem to be able to be positive or enjoy the cruise without finding fault with the most irrelevant minutia.
With no indoor pool and so any outdoor activities this ship struggles sailing from the UK with cold or inclement weather. On wet days you wont find a seat in ANY of the public venues and expect long queues for everything from coffee to Ice Show tickets. Royal Caribbean admit to greater efficiencies in scale; this equates to “cram ‘em in, cut the cost and make the money”. But if you are seeking a full on action packed family holiday with lots of similar minded folks in a Butlins come Disney crossover this maybe your thing. If you are looking for a quality, relaxing experience 5 star holiday move along to Celebrity Solistice class or Cunard Queen Mary 2 for a superior experience.
In recent days I have received letters and offers of FREE charging station installations quoting prices that would normally be £1,313 (Polar March 2013); And this is just for a 16A charging station, if I want the 32 amp version I have to cough up another £75. Plus these 'free' charging stations require 3G data signals and data logging my charging to be shared with who knows who.
So a few weeks ago a forum member advertised their used 32A Rolec Unit (Retails for just over £400 new) and I snapped it up. This is the story of my installation and internal pictures of why these charging stations should NEVER cost anything like £1,000. Mine was bought and installed for less than £300.
First up the Rolec unit itself with the lid off:
It's a fairly basic unit with a Siemens control module and the 32A contactor to the right of it. At the top of the case is the fuse and that's it - 3 components. In later vesions of this unit you will find the Zero Carbon World unit inside this Rolec Charging Station.
Off to the garage....
This had been our 'charging station' for the first 6 months of Nissan LEAF driving. A £17 Screwfix double socket. We plugged in each night and next day a full battery ready for the off. It NEVER failed, worked in all weathers and requires no contract with anyone. Just £40 for the sparky to connect each end (I ran the cable along the inside garage wall - it's just a cable, some clips and hammer). A standard outside socket is a perfectly safe and acceptable solution to charge your Nissan LEAF at 10 Amps, just make sure a sparky checks your wiring. This cost us £60 to buy, and install including the socket, 10 meters of cable, the breaker and the sparky.
Back to the charging station install: As all the connections and meter where the other side of the wall I decided to mount the Rolec 32A charger just beneath this double socket. First up was the decision on where to enter the cable into the charger. I decided on a entry point on the back plate of the unit so simply drilled a hold just beneath the metal cable support bracket. This was just a pilot hole then a hole saw from any standard drill set:
The hole to the right was my first attempt that then was covered when I re-attached the cable support bracket.
Next up drilling the hole through the garage wall. You either need a good hammer drill with a long masonary bit - I used my father-in-laws SDS drill with a huge long bit on the end; I then slid this through the entry point on the charging station:
I then also drilled 2 drain holes in the base of the charging station case to allow any moisture or condensation a route to drain out:
I then TEMPORARILY wired the unit in to test it before my sparky came and made the FINAL connection. Please re-read that - you need to get a qualified electrician to make the proper connection (I did not have the earth cable sheathed for instance):
The point is that this simple kit is out there and getting cheaper. You should be able to buy and install such a station for between £400 - £500. No contracts and it's all 100% yours. The fact that some companies are building in 3G data modules and asking you to sign contracts and claim the cost would be over £1,300 is, frankly, astounding.
KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Overall this unit works great and charging at 16 Amps versus 10 Amps does make a difference. The unit is plastic and does flex a little; especially with such a substantial cable and plug attached; but this is a small issue for the usability this offers versus taking the EVSe cable out the boot twice a day.
A second Government scheme that pays you for installing renewable energy on your home, plus providing you up to 70% of your hot water for free (after installation).
- You'll need a South or East/West facing roof
- Payback should cover the cost of the system
- Much smaller installation on the roof
- Ideal if you are upgrading your boiler or hot water system
- Even works in winter at zero degrees
- Costs between £3k to £5k to install
- BUT still go for Solar PV first as longer, better payback.
A few weeks back I promised the second part of this Solar blog focusing on Solar Thermal. If you missed the first part of the blog this detailed the Full Year 2012 results for my 4kWp Solar PV system that had performed at 117% of it's target values. This blog also discussed whether it was worth still investing in Solar PV. If you are considering investing in renewable energy let me be clear that solar PV Electric Panels still offer the best return on investment of about 10% a year, tax free for 20 years and as such Solar PV should be considered ahead of any other technology at this time. Solar PV 4kWp systems now costing about £8k, if you have a South or East/West facing roof - then go for it!
Solar Thermal Hot Water - RHPP & RHI
However if you are planning on installing a new boiler or upgrading your hot water system or maybe considering further solar Investment then this is your February 2013 call to action! Right now I'm about to have Solar Thermal installed on our roof adjacent to our Solar PV system. And thanks to two government schemes there is cash back both as soon as you install as well as starting this summer:
The Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) of £300 for Solar Thermal is paid as soon as your system is commissioned. To qualify for this you have to have the system installed by an MSC Certified company who issue you the MCS Certification for the system. Other renewable energy technology like ground or air source heat pumps also qualify for this payment at different rates.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) will pay an annual amount for a period of 7 years which is designed to payback the cost of installation. The amount payable is dependent on the rated size of the system and if you have claimed the RHPP £00 above this will be deducted off the total amount of the payback. This scheme is currently consultation with announcement expected in the next few weeks confirming exact amounts and going live from Summer 2013. However all MCS Accredited installed systems from July 2009 will qualify for this domestic Renewable Heat Incentive. RHI for commercial properties is already live now so if you run a business payments are already available.
Our Solar Thermal Installation story
So what's happened so far? When we moved in a couple of years back this 4/5 bed house had a Warm Air system for heating the house and an Andrews Water Heater for hot water supply. The Warm Air Boiler had just been replaced when we moved in and was located in ground floor boiler room adjacent to the kitchen. The Andrew Water heater, essentially a hot water tank with a gas burner under it, was in airing cupboard outside the kids bedrooms and had no service record and had to go. In January 2011 we had a Worcester Bosh 30kw System Boiler installed directly adjacent to a Range Tribune Twin Coil 250 Litre Solar Cylinder in the boiler room thus removing the old water heater and all the potential carbon monoxide dangers. This pressurised system has worked really well over the oast 2 years allowing 2 showers to be run at once and bags of hot water for a family of 5.
Why install a Twin Coil Solar Hot Water Cylinder with no solar installed? A traditional cylinder just has a coil connected to a gas boiler in the middle of the tank, a solar cylinder has a second coil at the base of the cylinder. As we did not have solar we had the solar lower coil plumbed in so the gas boiler pumped hot water through the lower and upper coils basically recharging the hot water twice as quick. To complete the historical story, The warm air heating survived only 1 winter when it simply could not deliver enough heat and cost a fortune to run. In Summer 2011 we added central heating to the Worcester boiler (it was always sized so that this could be added on) and 14 radiators now keep the house toasty.
Here's a video of the cylinder and boiler room with the old warm air boiler decommissioned but still in place:
So as I type this on 16 Feb 2013 I have removed the entire warm air heating boiler and been repairing / decorating the room where the Solar thermal pump station and pipework will be installed. One really helpfull remnant of the warm air heating is a flu that runs from the boiler room up to the roof. A couple of weeks ago we had a roofer out who removed the above roof flues from the old water heater and boiler leaving the old boiler flue terminating in the loft. This means I can run the DN16 Solar Pipe direct from the room where the cylinder is right up to the loft rather than any drilling or external pipe runs - result! The Solar pipe is basically a corrugated, insulated pipe that has a thin 2 core cable running along its length allowing easy connection to the solar collector.
On the electrical side I have mounted the Solar Controller in the kitchen and run some electrical trunking and switch gear ready for the install. This is easy to do, just a bit time consuming and anything I can do up front reduces the total install cost. Ive also run a couple of cables ready for the sparky to 'top n tail'
The Solar Thermal Hardware - my decisions
There's basically 3 parts to a solar thermal system and then a 4th bit that I added on to avoid 'stagnation' but we'll come onto this a little later
The Solar Colllector - 1 x 30 Tube Kingspan Thermomax HP400
There are 2 types of Solar collector available - a flat plate which is basically a radiator in a black flat box or evacuated tubes which are much more efficient. Evacuated tubes have an element running up the middle of glass tube with a reflector on the back of the tube. The heat transfers up the super heated element to the manifold at the top where the water runs through and gets heated up before heading off to the Solar Cylinder. I chose the Kingspan Thermomax HP400 system over others quite simply that it is supper efficient, made in the UK and guaranteed for 20 years, if installed by a Kingspan accredited installer. Up until recently the estimated lifespan was 10 years so maufacutring techniques have now greatly improved, plus if a tube does break you can replace it without draining the system, just unscrew and replace.
The Solar Pumping Station and Glycol - Part of the Kingspan Kit
This basically has a brass pump (for the high temperatures) and pumps the Solar Fluid round the Solar Collector then down through the Solar Coil in the Hot Water cylinder and round and round it goes. It's activate by the solar controller when the temperature on the Solar Collector is a few degrees warmer than the Solar Coil in the Hot Water cylinder. The fluid used in a Solar Thermal system is a specifically designed to work at high temperatures whilst having an antifreeze component protecting the system in winter. It's known as Glycol or the Kingspan brand is called Tyfocor.
The Solar Controller - Kingspan SC100
I've positioned this in the kitchen next to our central heating controller as I want to be able to monitor the temperature in the hot water cylinder. This has an LCD display that tells you the temperature on the Solar Collector as well as top and bottom of the Hot Water cylinder. There is also a graphic showing when the pump is running and lots of configurable options if you needed to change any of the presets
Thermostatic Valves and Heat Dumps and stagnation
As a rule of thumb you typically have one evacuated tube for every 10 litre capacity of your hot water cylinder so by installing a highly efficient 30 tube collector with a 250 litre cylinder we are oversized. However as a family of 5 we also use a lot of hot water; 5 showers and 1 bath a day. So the oversizing may meet our usage pattern. But I also wanted to add two extra bit of tech that maxmise and protect the solar hot water system:
Solar Thermostatic Mixing Valve - This is mounted on top of the Hot Water cylinder and allows control of the hot water temperature by mixing with cold before heading off to the showers and taps. This means I can set the hot water cylinder temperature to be 80 degrees in the cylinder which is then mixed so that it does not scold. This means on sunny days the solar thermal system can heat the hot water should last that bit longer as it will be mixed down with cold via this valve and hence maximising the return on the system. It also has the added bonus of negating the need buy expensive thermostatic showers as it's all mixed to warm already . NB Do not try and use a normal thermostatic mixing valve as they can not handle the Solar High temperatures. I selected an Inta valve: http://www.ozoneheatingsupplies.co.uk/ourshop/prod_1642363-Inta-Eco-High-Pressure-Solar-Thermostatic-Mixing-Valve-22mm.html
The Heat Dump - Now as I have oversized my system by fitting more tubes there is a risk that the system could overheat. Now there are safety valves and pressure relief valves that protect the system so that there no danger, but the Solar Fluid will stagnate and loose efficiency if it's not pumping round an exposed to high temperatures. Now the Solar Controller does have a Stagnation prevention or holiday mode that slowly pulses the solar fluid round but I wanted the added safety mechanism of a heat dump. Basically this is a radiator, sized to the system (1.5kw for me) that simply gets activated when the hot water cylinder reaches its temperature. So on a hot August day let's assume the tank has been heated to 80 Degrees C by 1pm the Solar Controller opens the Solar 3 Port Valve and heats up the radiator in my garage until the hot water cylinder drops in temperature or the solar collector drops in temperature. It's a safety loop that should prolong the life of the system. I got the radiator off eBay for £30 and the Solar 3 Port Valve for 䀎delivered, again has to be a Solar 3 port valve due to the high temperature operation.
If you need the Cylinder as well - about £5k installed. Don't forget you get £300 back straight away and 7 years worth of payments with the Renewable Heat Incentive, all tax free. For us, we already had the Solar Cylinder and I managed to source all of the hardware from a merchant in Northern Ireland. I had 4 companies quote me for the work and I selected Space Renewables of Farlington, Portsmouth and the total cost is a shade over £3,100, all of that cost will be recovered from the 2 Government schemes.
The current UK Energy Policy is reliant on imported gas, coal and oil - commodities that will increase greatly in price in the coming decades. By installing Renewable Energy at home provides flexibility in how we heat, cook and use hot water. We can switch between technologies and reduce our dependencies on expensive fuels. With Solar Thermal we should have 70% of our hot water needs met on top of about 50% of our electric need achieved with Solar PV Electric, which also charges our 100% Electric Nissan LEAF car.
What's next? There's more?
A twin coil hot water cylinder is great but with a thermal store you can also heat your radiators, you can also bolt on a number of boilers like BioMass, log burners. They heat up a mass of water that then converts mains pressure cold water into piping hot water. And because its fresh hot water you can even fill your kettle from the hot tap........ It's amazing when you speak to engineers in the trade how the folks with money are installing these systems; people who could easily pay for that gas, electric or oil bills yet the smart money is heading into Thermal Store systems powered by renewables sources..... if only to heat their homes, hot water and swimming pools!!
To me it's a kind of pension; whilst I'm working I'm investing in renewable technology that will reduce our bills for decades to come, and when the kids have fled the nest, provide all of the electricity and hot water we will need. It's a strategy that also decarbonises the environment for our kids.
2012 may well have been the second wettest year on record but for our first full year of Solar PV Electric generation not only did we meet the installed estimated output it over achieved this figure by a full 17%. This is the first of two blog posts this week; this covers Solar Electricity panels, the next blog will discuss Solar Hot Water panels.
To recap, we had a 4kWp Solar PV system installed in October 2011 by Solar Voltaics of Havant who I still thoroughly recommend. The system consists of 16 x Suntech 250w panels and a Fronius Inverter mounted on our roof which faces 5 degrees off direct south at an angle of 24 degrees. You can read my blog documenting the decisions, calculations and installation photos here.
So three sets of figures to review; first up the 'headlines'. When a Solar PV installer gives you a quote they give you a detailed system diagram and expected performance that is unique to the location of your house in the UK, the angle and direction of your roof coupled with actual met office data for the past 20 years. This is all done in a piece of software called PV*SOL. One of the outputs from this software is your estimated Kilowatt Hours (kWH) of generation per year. Our install was calculated to produce 3760 kWhs. I recorded the actual meter readings on a monthly basis into a spreadsheet and submitted the reading every 3 months to our Feed In Tariff (FIT) provide who is Eon (our Electricity supplier at the time of install though you can choose anyone).
The actual kWh recorded for the year was 4089 so a full 17% higher than the estimated production. The following chart shows that for 9 months of the year the green production line was higher than the estimated monthly generation and for 3 months it did not make the figure:
Generated kWh's get turned into Feed In Tariff payments every quarter. This amount is free of Income Tax, or any other tax, and is paid direct into a bank account within a week of me calling in my generation reading. In addition to this payment there is the second benefit of savings on our electricity bill. We are still waiting for our electricity supplier to change our electricity meter to a more modern digital type, but until they do we have an old 'wheel type' meter which goes one way when we use electricity and goes backwards when we generate more than we use. This means that there is no 'back stop' so I can accurately claim that for every kWh that was generated actually was a saving off our electricity bill. For this calculation I used our 'next rate' of 9.5p per kWh from our Electricity Bill. The results are displayed in the following table:
The installation cost for my system was £11,500 and for 2012 the Return on Investment (ROI) was 18% for the Feed in Tariff payments alone or 20% if you include the actual electricity savings as well.
Is it worth installing Solar PV now?
Our system was installed when the Feed In Tariff was 43.3 per kWh. This then increased with inflation in April 2012 to 45.4p per kWh. The rates have had a series of reductions and the current January 2013 FIT rate is 15.44p per kWh. However the installation cost has now fallen and a system like ours can be installed for about £7,000. This would generate £725 per year in Feed In Tariff Payments (15.44p + (50% export rate of 4.5p per kWh) x 4089kwh, plus you would save up to £400 off your electricity bill dependent on the type of electricity meter you have installed. You basically have a Return on Investment (ROI) of 10% if you install today, considerably better than any ISA Savings Account on the market today. There are also very clever products you can buy for £500 that divert all unused Solar PV electricity to your immersion heater so you can heat hot water for free as well as being paid Feed in Tariffs.
So yes, if your roof and position is right, it is still worth installing Solar PV as the income you receive is guaranteed by the Government for 20 years, rises each year with inflation and is tax free. Plus if you look at the current state of the UK Energy Policy then prices for both Gas and Electric are only going to go up for many years to come. Installing renewable energy is yours, and the UKs, only solution to rising energy prices. You may also be interested in Solar Hot Water and a scheme launching in summer 2013 whereby the government will pay you, similar to Solar PV Feed In Tariff, for everything you generate, but that's the topic of the next blog....
You can find out more about Feed In Tariffs on the Energy Saving Trust's web site.
On 20th December a significant milestone with our electric car ownership, 5,000 miles in under four months. "Well so what?!" I hear you ask. 5,000 miles in a modern has barely broken itself in but with some people only thinking that electric cars are for short ranges, or unusable in the real world; I wanted to continue how, as a family of five, we have used our 100% Electric Car for everything a normal family would use a vehicle for, except the considerable running cost saving.
Our daily use of the Nissan LEAF is about 40 to 50 miles this includes around commute of 36 miles plus various trips that after-school club shopping etc. There has also been an extended trip taking the vehicle on a 360 mile round trip from Chichester to Northampton and back again in one weekend.
After 4 months and 5,000 miles you really get to know how a car feels and whether you've made the right decision beyond the initial test drive. Not only am I utterly convinced with the electric car proposition I can't wait to get another electric car and relieve this family of expensive, inefficient, polluting oil based motoring.
So what's behind my EV conviction? First and foremost is the sheer driving experience. It is so smooth, so quiet, so refined and yet responsive - it's just a dream to drive. Monday to Friday we have the car programmed so it preheats (It's December) so that it is ready for departure at 8:10 at a perfect 21 degrees. The car measures the outside temperature is what time and energy it needs to bring the car up to 21°by the same time every working day. On cold frosty mornings this means the car is completely de-iced and heated up ready to go whilst still plugged in to the household mains negating any need to use the car battery for any heating for the first 10 to 15 minutes of our journeys. Once on the road the car behaves impeccably I typically get up to speed and set the cruise control to within the exact MPH; for motorways about 58MPH. The car can go 80+ MPH but, as with a petrol car, the amount of energy used to get a car from 60-70mph is considerable, so a steady 58MPH gets the best use of energy and hence the best range. With the integrated IT systems the car phone and audio are instantly connected through Bluetooth, and the car consistently gets real time traffic updates through it's embedded 3G data SIM. And my last comment on the drive; without any vibration, or shudder you just sit in silence when at a set of lights whilst all around you other cars are burning fuel, money and belching out carcinogenic diesel fumes.
Secondly the economics. How far can you drive your car on £28of fuel? About 300 miles more or less depending how efficient your car is. In the last month for that £48 of electric we have driven our electric car over 1,100 miles, over three times further than a modern efficient diesel. Multiply that up over the 5,000 miles and we have saved our family £800 by driving an electric car versus our old diesel car. And 99% of that from a 3 pin plug on the front of our house. It's actually less than that for us due to the floor KWP solar PV system on our roof that is also contributed to the charging of our electric car but nevertheless even without a solar PV system the savings are around 90% To drive an electric car versus an efficient diesel car.
Thirdly there is the environmental impact. Yes this was a new car and all cars use materials and Earth resources to construct and the Nissan Leaf also requires all the components of an ordinary car plus a battery pack but once it leaves the factory gate and is delivered to the customer at that point there are Zero emissions whilst driving the car. No carcinogenic diesel fumes pumping out of the car and no vehicle or engine noise Compounding our congested towns and cities. For those questioning where the electricity comes from there are two parts to this; Firstly there are dedicated renewable power companies, like Good Energy, where all Electricity comes from renewable sources. Secondly only this week the government has announced that we are well on our way to producing 20% of energy from Renewable Energy so even with a standard energy provider more of the power comes from zero emission renewable wind turbines.
Also pair that with the time of day when we charge our car in the middle of the night. Anyone in their utility industry would explain the 'bath-tub effect' or the low utilisation of the electricity network is the ideal time to charge electric vehicles as the emissions and CO2 emissions from the grid are low, and the environmental impact is low compared to plugging in at peak time. With the introduction of Smart Meters nationwide over the next 4 years you can expect to see attractive overnight rates to better manage the grid and the growth in Electric Cars
My final reason is really strategic; we have fixed our electricity price until October 2013 so we can now predict exactly what it will cost to run our car for the next year. Imagine if you could fix the price of diesel for a year.....
Now I believe in objective, transparent, journalism and there have been changes that we have made to how we use an electric car versus a combustion engine, but none of these were difficult. 99% of our charging is from a three pin plug on the front of the house but there are times when planning a longer journey that we do need to factoring where we can plug in and charge. Now this can be as simple as topping up the charge whilst shopping, or factoring in 30 minute charges on longer journeys. So when I made the 130 mile trip to Northampton I stopped at Nissan Southampton where I enjoyed a free coffee and free Rapid Charge to 100% of the battery, before stopping again at Waitrose Abingdon to top up charge for free again. The leg of the trip from Southampton to Northampton was 62 miles across the hilly A34 and I arrived with about 20 miles left in the battery pack. I parked the car, strectched my legs and bought a couple of items in Waitrose before returning to the car and using the heater to warm the car whilst it finished the Rapid Charge - again FREE rapid charging, I arrived as Northampton after some significant traffic congestion with about 25 miles of range left on the battery. And as the Hilton Northampton had a socket for plugging in garden machinery I plugged the car in there overnight where it fully charged and preheated the car ready for the Saturday Silverstone trip.
So the point here is that if you are planning a longer trip a car can easily make that trip you just need to build in those 30 minute stops. I covered 360 miles without having to spend anything on the Charging infrastructure saving around 㿞of diesel in the process. Just Brilliant.
Now after 5,000 miles you get the hang of how to drive an electric car dependent on your trip. I know Jo, who drives the car on the daily commute, has got into a mindset where she only has to worry about the car getting her to work and back with a little bit of running around after that. This means she tends to drive the car at 70MPH amd uses more heat in the car in the knowledge that with an overnight charge its ready the next day. When trying to get more range we drive the car at 58MPh on motorways and use ECO mode and sporadic demisting to get more miles.
The simple way to remember this is 70MPH = 70 miles of range; At 60mph = 80mph; 30mph = 150 miles and so on. Just like a combustion engine, the more smoothly you drive the car a better economy it returns. On my trip back from Northampton I made sure the car stayed between 55 and 60 miles an hour and that easily allowed me a 70 to 80 mile range even with occasional heat usage and a very hilly A34 road.
We are a two car family with our non-electric car being a Volkswagen EOS 2.0 Diesel Sport. This has been a magnificent car to drive especially in the summer and regularly returns 50 MPG; However the financial benefits of the electric car has now resigned this car to our garage with maybe once or twice a week it coming out for a short run and only when the LEAF is being driven at the same time. I now positively choose to drive the LEAF and wait until we do things like grocery shopping as the benefits are so great.
A lot of this article talks about the Nissan LEAF as this is the post usable family car out there right now and our lease car for 3 years, however there is a raft of new vehicles coming in the next few months and predictions of a doubling of sales of EVs in 2013. The Renault Zoe launches mid year with a 㾹k price tag and 㿲pm battery lease; along with the BMW i3 and the larger i8 in 2014. Expect another electric car from Nissan by 2015 as well as Volkswagen Audi group dipping their toe in the EV pond with the Golf eBlueMotion.
So to conclude would I recommend an electric car to somebody else? Without hesitation. The superior drive the substantial running and servicing cost savings paired with the fixed electricity price and environmental benefits make an electric car an obvious choice. And if you want something slightly more progressive than a five seater family car then check out the Tesla model S –that is heading to Europe in 2013; a luxury car with a 300 miles range. The real challenge is to get bums on seats that is to get people into electric cars and trying them because once someone has driven an electric car and realised the benefits there is no going back. For me I simply Cannot see me ever buying a non-electric car again.
The idea of a £13k smaller EV is a great idea. The faster AC 43kwh charging as really useful. There is also some reassurance in knowing the battery will get replaced if it falls below 75% of it's original capacity.... but this should not happen until 8-10 years down the road.
This link shows the UK Renault EV battery prices;
|Contract term*||6 000||9 000||12 000||15 000||18 000|
What frightens me with the Zoe is the financials. If you are buying this as a private driver doing 12,000 miles a year; you've just stumped up £13k for the car and are now paying £1,236 for the battery lease and £300 a year in electricity*.
Now that equates to £128 a month which buys 91.4 litres of diesel at today's prices*. 91.4 litres can get a frugal diesel* 975 miles, or 11,700 miles. So for making the switch to a ZOE only benefits you 300 miles. No clear advantage.
Then there is the depreciation...like a lead balloon. This Battery Lease is for the life of the car; fast forward 5 years; so you've spent £13k on the car and £6,180 in lease costs (12k miles a year); and you come to sell the car on. Yet the new buyer has to take on the £1,236 a year battery lease; that's going to seriously impact the resale value of this car; It may only be worth £2-5k due the life long battery lease. So as a private buyer the marginal savings of a ZOE over a frugal diesel are all but wiped out by the depreciation in the asset.
And if you lease the car this rapid depreciation is built into the monthly lease cost.
If Renault can limit the lifespan of the battery lease then the Zoe is a great proposition. Or offer an 'upfront cost' with no battery lease.
I really want the Zoe to succeed but with the 2013 UK built, cheaper Nissan LEAF on the way; expect to see low mileage, high spec Japan built LEAFs changing hands for the same money as a ZOE and the whole car is yours with no ongoing Battery Lease cost. Sold this week a 15 month LEAF with 3.5k miles for £16,500, expect that to be £13k-ish next year.
Another milestone passed in the Nissan LEAF today when 3,000 miles came up since taking delivery of the car on 22 August. So just over three months using the car time to put it in a number of real world situations to stretch it's capabilities as well as have the chance to look back at the decision that was made and consider if it was the right decision. To give you an idea how positive we still feel about this car; as a family we now use this car on a daily basis for over 95% of the driving we do. We have another car, a Volkswagen Eos diesel, which now comes out of the garage once maybe twice a week and only when we both need to use a car. I don't like driving traditional cars now as I completely prefer the smooth, silent and far more comfortable refined drive of an electric vehicle.
Really can't think of driving any other vehicle apart from an electric car and looking forward to net EVs with greater range coming out in the next 2 to 3 years. Lookout for the Renault Zoe coming next year you can preorder from this month - a car with 130 mile range, still 100% electric from the same Renault Nissan partnership but with a much lower pricetag of around £13,000 but you do lease the battery at a cost of £70 a month. So a more novel way of making electric vehicles affordable also providing some reassurance if the battery capacity does fall below 75% Renault replace the battery.
I've also been out presenting a number of times at department and location meetings with regards to why I chose electric vehicle there are some articles going in the local press and other publicity with regards to the electric vehicle choices I've made and why the Business Case for EVS is not just compelling but inevitable. The future is electric or hybrid electric.
So how's the car been for the last three months? As I've only covered we use it on a daily basis and I think out of the three months there was only one day when we got down to 18 miles of charge and had to let it charge. It was a very stormy day, monsoon condition rains whilst driving with demisters on picking up teenagers and clocking up about 60 miles and we got home with 18 left on it. I had to go to the Portsmouth straight away so did not have any time to top up the charge, even 1 hour on home charge would have been enough, so had to use the other car. And that's it; one 20 trip had to use the diesel the rest of the time its been happy with it's 40 mile a day commute and all the other run arounds.
Savings? Approximately £550 of Diesel cost wiped out so far, and some longer trips to Northampton and Bath planned in the next 6 weeks.
What's the greatest advice I can give? Just go and test drive an electric car doesn't have to be a Nissan LEAF you can take out a Vauchall Ampera, or the Renault Zoe when it comes out but once you drive an Electric Car; there's no going back to a normal car - it just seems unrefined and it's noisy and clunky. And when you've driven an EV let me know what you think always happy to discuss how people respond to electric vehicles.
Celebrity Cruises' fifth and final Solstice class ship has left the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany this week. Celebrity reflection continues the contemporary design and style of her for sister ships and will now undertake a series of sea trials before entering into a service. Here's a quick video of the float out and transit towards the North Sea
And here it is this afternoon:
If you want your shiny new iPhone 5 to connect to anything you already have in the way of docking stations or spare chargers, prepare to cough up £25 for each and every adapter. Less than slick Apple.
I'm a big fan of technology that works, is simple, and reliable. Since buying my first mobile phone over 20 years ago I've had a whole heap of makes new technologies and new features to play with.
I held off buying an iPhone for some time as I was not convinced with either the marketing or the 'sheep 'that would’ve appeared to be buying it as a fashion accessory. I was very keen on the HTC HD phone that I had with a far better screen and camera than the adjacent iPhone 3G at the time.
However after listening to some trusted technical advice and seeing the iPhone in action I migrated across to my first iPhone the 3GS. After a year the iPhone for came out with the brand-new retina display I duly upgraded. I skipped the 4S as the upgrade over the four was very incremental and not worthy of a £500 upgrade in my opinion.
On Wednesday we saw Apple announce the new iPhone 5. I finally sold my iPhone 4 after 26 months of faultless ownership and it looked as good as news when I sold it at the end of last month. So I was ready for the announcement and the ordering process on September 12. I’ll actually have to wait a couple of weeks as all of the security tests are performed so I can connect to work but I had pretty much made my mind up that I was ordering the phone.
The last 48 hours have been confused and disappointing period of time as it has transpired that for all but one of the UK networks (EE) the iPhone 5 will not work on the new faster 4G mobile networks. To be fair this is not Apple or the UK phone operators fault. Ofcom, the regulator responsible for auctioning off the 4G bandwidth, has delayed and delayed the releasing of 4G and the remaining bands are still up for auction next year. So once O2 Vodafone and T mobile have finished a bidding war in Januray it will still be a number of months or 44G is available in the UK in 2013 by which time we may well have another iPhone device. This also impacts other makes and models including Samsung.
Then there is the question of whether you even need for G mobile data on a mobile device. Today 3G is capable of 8 Mb speed which is more than enough to watch TV movies and video on the go. What typically has happened is that the 3G networks have become too busy and most people do not experience this kind of speed. So if eight meg is enough for mobile data today why would we be needing 100 meg speed on a mobile device next year? I accept that for USB dongle connected to a laptop in 4G will have significant improvements but would you really want to watch an hour and a half movie on your mobile phone? What would the costs be for this kind of network bandwidth anyway with restricted 500 MB or 1 GB caps on the majority of contracts today?
The price has also increased with each model now cost costing £30 more than the previous model. £529 for 16gb, £599 for a 32Gb and a whopping £699 for the 64GB variety. If you had jumped on and ordered at first chance today you may have been lucky in securing a delivery next week however ordering by mid morning were already quoting at least two weeks for delivery. The new phone does come with one of the 30 pin to Lightening adapter making sure that your iPhone 5 works with your existing docking station’s, music centres and chargers, however if you need to buy more than one the hefty cost is £27.60 for this small piece of plastic. They’re also appears to be evidence of clear profit-taking by the network operators with contract costs jumping by £5 or more pounds a month to take advantage of the new iPhone release
If I was technically minded and had no other Apple equipment I would be very tempted by the Samsung Galaxy S3. However in this house we have a MacBook Air, iPad, 3 iPhone, an iPod Touch and Apple TV, so the cost of moving away from all of that would make it not worth the migration.
In addition I have been kindly lent a Samsugn Europa Android phone for the past few days and frankly even though this is a year or two old the integrated user experience is nothing on the iOS operating system. Two days on I am still trying to work out how to switch off Facebook and email notifications overnight it is simply not intuitive and I feel after a few days with the Galaxy S3 I probably be longing for the integration that we have with our family at Apple devices. Not to mention it’s simply too big and the wrong form factor. However this is my personal opinion and I know of colleagues and friends that love the device.
So in summary the excited warm glow of previous Apple iPhone launches is feeling a little sour and confused right now. For the reasons stated above I will be getting an iPhone 5 White 32 GB but I wiill be keenly watching the 4G auctions next year to see how O2 and Vodafone can respond to the monopoly by EE of 4G, and the small bit EE had to give up to T-Mobile.