The PV Solar Panels are Fitted

On moving to live here to Wales we decided to try and make the house as inexpensive and as environmentally friendly to run as we reasonably could. Not because we are ideologically driven but because it seems to make sense and we would like the house to be as comfortable as possible.

The completed solar panels on the garage roof
The completed solar panels on the garage roof ready to provide us with electricity and an income for 25 years. A very tidy installation.

With the government scheme to pay a feed in tariff for home generated electricity it also seemed to make sense purely from a financial point of view if we had a bit of spare cash sitting in a low interest account. We originally looked at this in November 2010 and the installation costs for a 4kw domestic installation was then around £15,500. Since then the price of PV panels has dropped considerably. Unfortunately the government subsequently took a rather hasty decision to suddenly cut the tariff paid to householders. So we had ‘missed the boat’. However, this knee jerk reaction hit the industry hard and panel prices subsequently continued to fall in price.

So when we reviewed things at the end of January 2012 the installation costs had nearly halved; meaning that the return on investment would almost be the same. Furthermore the government’s decision is subject to ongoing legal challenge that could still possibly reverse the tariff decision. With this in mind we decided to go ahead with the installation on the south facing garage roof. There is a calculator for working out income and savings here.

The all important generation meter
The all important generation meter on the right.

Unfortunately the industry has become a bit of a ‘get rich quick’ scheme with plenty of ‘dubious’ solar panel installation companies springing up. At times it seems like the ‘Wild West’ out there! In some cases these firms are fitting installations in a pretty unsatisfactory manner; simply by drilling through slates or tiles and fitting rubber sealing grommets. Sometimes these are not even fixed into structural timbers but screwed into the battens. Even if they are watertight when fitted I can’t see how the wind loading will not put a flexing load on the slates and tiles causing some to break over time; nor can I see how the grommets will not perish over a period of time. I certainly wouldn’t want this type of installation on our garage roof let alone our house. How many of these ‘here today – make a quick buck’ operators will be around in 5 years or ten years time when these failures start to appear?

So having got a few quotes we decided to use a very local contractor Jones Electrical (who have been working in the area for over 50 years) reasoning that they were not likely to disappear next week and their reputation would be important to them. So last week their roofing subcontractor arrived and started on the roof whilst the electricians installed the wiring and inverter (which converts the D/C current from the panels into A/C for the mains).

The roof brakets and rails being installed
The roof brackets and rails being installed. Note how each bracket is secured to the structural roof timbers then flashed with a lead tile.

The roofer proved to be excellent taking great care to properly fix the roof hooks to the structural timbers and to flash them all correctly with lead. The brittle Spanish slates meant he couldn’t work as fast as he had hoped but there was no way that he was compromising on the job. So full marks to the roofer and his son for their conscientious approach to the job. Jim Jones who started the electrical business 54 years ago personally turned up to check on progress and ensure that all was going smoothly. It is really refreshing to find small local businesses going the extra mile rather than just jumping on the bandwagon.

The roofer working on the roof
The roofer working on the roof

So today it was finished and the electricians came to correct an earthing problem on our existing system and to turn on the system and we are now generating our own electricity (or rather will be in when the sun shines as it was too dull by the time it was all finished). I’ll try and remember to update the blog in a years time when we know how much we are actually producing. All I have to do now is work through the paperwork to sell our electricity to our electricity supplier!


Photographing Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

With the recent blast of cold weather we took the opportunity to get out to try to get a few winter shots.

Elan Valley Farm House in Winter
Elan Valley Farm House in Winter with a dusting of snow.

As this meant being out and about looking for wintry locations (as above) we ended up back at the Elan Valley and decided to go Gigrin Farm the Red Kite feeding centre near Rhayader, Powys. Gigrin is well known to many wildlife photographers and at feeding time you will see dozens, if not hundreds of Red Kites at close quarters.

Red kite at Gigrin
Red Kite at Gigrin Farm, Powys © John Burton

Feeding takes place at 2.00 p.m. in winter and 3.00 p.m. in summer; so get there at least 10 minutes before. There is a selection of wooden viewing hides and some taller specialist photography hides. They are all roughly the same distance from where the birds are fed and the photography hides are probably only necessary for those with very large lenses (particularly if they want to point them skywards) and tripods. For first timers here like us it’s probably just as good to use one of the ‘normal’ (and less expensive) hides. Particularly as the Kite behaviour at feeding time is frantic and it takes a while to observe and learn how the birds are behaving. When the initial action stops after 45 minute stick around because the younger birds who have waited their turn (there is a ‘pecking order’) will come in to feed. By now there is also less of a frenzy to the feeding and picking out shots becomes a tad easier (not easy!).

Unfortunately, despite a bright start to the day, the cloud built up so that by 2.00 p.m. the light was fairly grim making focusing difficult and exposing even harder. As I don’t have a very long lens I used a 300mm f4.0 on Liz’s Canon 40D (to take advantage of the crop sensor). This enabled me to quite usefully fill the frame. It was also necessary to use AI Servo mode to assist with focusing and whilst difficult the 40D did better than I expected in the poor light. However, exposing for the birds correctly against the dull bland sky meant an almost perfect white background and resulted in images that have a very ‘graphic’ quality; as if they are straight out of a bird illustration book. Whilst the shot above, for example, was not what I was hoping to achieve I think they have an interesting quality and would look good as greeting cards etc.

So we’ll definitely go back when we think the light is better one day.


High Salaries and the B(w)ankers

We’re both pretty laid back and don’t get usually get excited enough about things to get off our backside and blog about things political. Why do you think we retired to Wales? – partly so that we can live amongst decent, hard working, straightforward folk and don’t have to listen to the endless clap trap spouted by London-centric politicians and the media.

Says it all really.

However, the recent excitement in the media about bankers bonuses and executive pay deserve some straight talking so I’m going to give it both barrels (rant alert).

It really is time that someone stopped this greed and selfishness. The huge salaries and bonuses, we are told, are essential if we are to prevent this tiny percentage of selfish, money grabbing arseholes from moving overseas. Without their expertise how would Britain cope?

Well I’ve got news; the grave yards are full of people who thought they were indispensable. If these bankers (rhyming slang) who, in the main, don’t actually do anything productive other than skim money off hard working folk (usually in the third world ) lower down the food chain disappeared tomorrow there would be dozens of others who could easily do the same job with a few weeks training.

And if these twats are so fecking clever how come the fecked it all up in the first place and expect everyone else to pay for it?

It really is time to re-prioritise our whole set of values as a society. If someone is worth a million quid a year (they aren’t) because they are so indispensable then it must follow that the doctor who can cure them when they are sick must be worth even more (not to mention the nurse who nurses them or the teacher who taught them to add up).

Personally I’d argue that no one (other than a self employed person working entirely for them self) should be allowed to earn more than 20 times the lowest salary in any organisation. And if they don’t like it and they want to take their overrated talents elsewhere – well tell them to feck off with a cheery two fingered salute.


Making Marmalade in a Slow Cooker

John had a hankering for ‘real marmalade’ so as Seville oranges are in season we decided to have an attempt at making it. The first task, not having made it before,  was to track down a straightforward simple recipe and the second to adapt it for the slow cooker to cut out on the ‘faffing about’.

So as the weather forecast wasn’t great today – we made marmalade and damn fine it is to as you can see in the photo below!

Home Made marmalade

Here is our marmalade recipe. Makes 6-8 jars
1 kg Seville oranges
1.7 litres near-boiling water
Juice of 2 lemons
2 kg  sugar

Wash and scrub the oranges if you are obsessive; then cut them in half, squeeze the juice and keep it somewhere for later. Remove the membrane, pith and pips etc. with a spoon (you can slightly warm the cut oranges in a microwave if you want to make this easier) and tie all this up in a piece of muslin. Slice the orange peel into strips (removing as much pith as possible), chunks, or whatever you prefer.  The slices you cut at this point will determine the size of the shreds/chunks in the finished marmalade don’t feel you have to put it all in. We tend to put about two thirds of the rind in.

Put the peel and the muslin bag full of pips and orange flesh in to the cooking pot of the slow cooker. Pour over the water and lemon juice. Cover and switch to high, leave for 6 hours. Alternatively we reckon that you could put it on low and leave it overnight – but we haven’t tried this yet.  The peel must be really soft before adding the sugar.

Remove the muslin bag and leave it until cool.  Squeeze the liquid from it into a large pan.  Add the rind and cooking liquid from the slow cooker and then add the sugar.  Finally pour over the orange juice you squeezed from the oranges earlier.  Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. 

Put a plate in the freezer at this point to test the setting point later.

Bring to the boil and keep boiling rapidly for 15 minutes until the marmalade reaches 105°C on a sugar thermometer.  If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you can put a few drops of the liquid onto your frozen plate out of the freezer, and leave it for about a minute.  Push it along a bit with a finger.  If it leaves a ‘wrinkly track’ then it has reached the setting point – if not, keep boiling.

The setting point was a learning curve for us (and we don’t have a thermometer) but get it boiling gently. You don’t want a big ‘frothy’ boil – more of a point just beyond a simmer. For the first 15 minutes or so it will look a bit watery, as it gradually thickens it will become more viscous and you should have what other recipes describe as a ‘rolling boil’ (this is sort of how you imagine an Icelandic mud hole bubbling away). Keep stirring to ensure it doesn’t burn. Ours actually took about 30 minutes in total before the it left a ‘tacky track’ on the plate test.

Once the setting point has been reached, turn off the heat and skim off any scummy nastiness from the top.  Leave it all to cool for about 15 minutes.

Put your clean jars into the oven, at about 120°C so that they are sterilised and warm when the hot marmalade goes in later; alternatively get them hot (and dry) out of the dishwasher when it has finished.

Stir the marmalade to distribute the peel evenly, then ladle into the heated jars. Seal with waxed paper, clean and leave to cool with a cloth over the top.  When they have completely cooled, top with jam pot covers and lids and label. 

Store somewhere cool and dry and use within a year.

Actually it tastes pretty good. Next year we’ll experiment with some variations; perhaps adding some grapefruit juice to make it a tad sharper or even some whisky for a more adult flavour. Anyway, it certainly beats that crap in the supermarkets.