The Greening of Casa Girasole

To leave the house via our front door we currently have to pick our way through a jumble of large, odd-shaped cardboard boxes that almost fill our otherwise spacious hall. While Christmas might be barely a month away, they have nothing to do with the fast-approaching festive season, however.  No, these are the key building blocks in Mr Blue-Shirt’s most transformative and technically ambitious project to date: the installation of a comprehensive renewable energy system that will enable us to generate enough of our own solar power to make us almost completely independent of the mains electricity supply.

The project has, in effect, come about as a direct consequence of Covid-19. During the summer the government launched a wide-ranging programme of initiatives aimed at kick-starting Italy’s lockdown-weakened economy, and as part of this it started offering fifty to sixty percent discounts on domestic renewable energy installations. Mr Blue-Shirt had always hoped we might be able to install a few solar hot water panels on our south-facing roof to supplement our traditional energy sources, but these aggressive discounts have suddenly brought something a lot more comprehensive within our reach. And working on the principle that, faced with the challenges of a changing climate, whatever we can do, we surely should do, he also feels that the investment represents a responsible use of his inheritance from his parents.  

As soon as the scheme was announced, he set about contacting three or four local suppliers for information and prices, but soon settled on a small, well-established business down in Trodica run by the slightly chaotic yet extremely knowledgeable Giovanni with whom he immediately hit it off. During the summer, he and Mr Blue-Shirt exchanged countless emails and drawings and Giovanni made so many visits to the house to measure this, inspect that or check the other that he soon gave up announcing his arrival at the front door with the customary “permesso?” but, while Mr Blue-Shirt trotted upstairs to scoop up all his own paperwork from his desk, simply gave me a wave and made his way round to the terrace where he spread out his paperwork on the table.

And there he and Mr Blue-Shirt would sit beneath the shade of a large parasol, poring over drawings, tables and catalogues before heading off to poke about in the boiler room and plod up and down stairs, discussing fixing points, fuse boxes, cable conduits and central heating manifolds in a surprisingly effective mixture of Giovanni’s very rusty, secondary school English and Mr Blue-Shirt’s vastly improved, evening class Italian. Over the weeks a specification evolved that both Giovanni and Mr Blue-Shirt were happy with and a detailed quotation soon followed. But before we had had a chance to go through the twenty-page document in any detail, Giovanni asked if he could pop round again as he wanted to make some changes to his proposal.

It turned out that the government had added further options to their incentive programme and, better still, had made it possible to claim the available discounts at the point of purchase rather than having to pay in full in the first instance and then claim the discounts through the tax system – a huge plus, given its famously labyrinthine and sclerotic workings. Giovanni had also decided to propose a different battery system that was even more efficient, but that was also a different shape and size from the one he had originally proposed. So this time he and Mr Blue-Shirt also spent ages in the hall deciding which would be the most practical yet least conspicuous place to mount the batteries – which turned out to be hidden in the large cupboard next to the front door – and working out all the corresponding cabling and ducting requirements.

A week later, Giovanni returned to go through his revised quotation including the updated discounts, to make one last tour of the house in order to finalise the location of each of the elements – and to announce that we now needed a new boiler too. Since our existing boiler was barely two years old, we both winced at this unanticipated addition to the specification. But Giovanni hastily reassured us that this would not affect the price at all as it was covered by the funding scheme, and also pointed out that it would ensure the boiler’s compatibility with other elements of the new system.  The boiler aside, however, we were at last there; he’d even been to the planning office in the village to obtain the relevant piece of paper, all signed and stamped, that formally gave the project the green light.

So at the heart of our all-singing, all-dancing solar energy installation is, naturally, a set of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic panels that will be mounted on the south elevation of the roof. These will charge the stack of lithium batteries housed in the cupboard in the hall that will be connected the power supply via the main fuse box. An air source heat pump installed in the upstairs porch will take heat from the outside air and feed it into the heating system by means of a mono-block inverter heat pump (No, I don’t know either; in fact, neither does Mr Blue-Shirt). This mysterious box of tricks will be installed in the boiler room together with the new boiler that will act as a back-up-cum-top-up, and is what will actually provide our hot water, heating, and also cooling thanks to three new cooling units, one installed in the guest room, one in our bedroom and one in the sitting room. Finally, there will be a bit of future-proofing in the form a car charging point in the carport, and the whole lot will be stitched together with several hundred metres of tubing, ducting, cables and conduits.

All we need now is Giovanni’s team of assorted fitters to come and install everything. But as if we needed any reminder of the catalyst for this project, one or two of them are still working on jobs delayed by the virus, and another couple are waiting for their quarantine periods to end. So much like everything else this year, we find ourselves once again in the lap of the Covid-19 gods…

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