The Greening of Casa Girasole – Part 2

The first time we went out for a meal with Giovanni was last October in a brief ‘yellow’ phase between lockdowns. He took us for lunch at his favourite fish restaurant towards the northern end of the seafront at Civitanova Marche after we had signed the contract with him for the supply of our solar energy installation following a lengthy period of to-ing and fro-ing that had begun back in summer. We’re going out for another meal with him next weekend, this time to celebrate a much bigger landmark: the completion – at last – of the project, the management of which has been Mr Blue-Shirt’s main pre-occupation for much of the last year.

Even though it was carried out in the depths of winter, the easy part was the mounting on our south-facing roof of the set of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic panels that form the heart of the system, together with the installation of the electronic brains of the system and the stack of batteries that hunch in the hall cupboard like a softly humming dalek. These were all wired in, connected up and actually producing solar energy by the end of January. But they were only the start of the all-singing-all-dancing system that the government’s programme of fifty to sixty percent discounts on domestic renewable energy installations had enabled us to include in the specification.

In order to minimise our use of gas as well as fossil-fuel-based electricity, this also consisted of an air-source heat pump (ASHP) to provide hot water and heating, along with a new, super-efficient boiler as a back-up-cum-top-up, a clever gizmo that allows the system to switch between the two, and three new combined heating/cooling (fan coil) units for our bedroom, the guest bedroom and the sitting room, as well as several hundred metres of tubing, ducting, cables and conduits to knit the whole lot together. Oh, and for good measure we also threw in a bit of future-proofing in the form of an electric car charging point in the carport, ‘just in case’.

The much more complicated and protracted part was getting this huge, hi-tech box of tricks up and running in a converted 19th century farmhouse; a task that tested the skills and patience of Giovanni’s team of tradesmen to the full. Giacly the cheery plumber, his shaven head and thick beard combo giving him the curious appearance (to me, at least) of someone with his head on upside down, Gianni the Rolling Stones-loving, drama queen electrician and Paul the totally unflappable, softly-spoken technology wizard spent much of the spring either crouched in the upstairs porch with the ASHP, or squidged in between the boiler and the switching system in the tiny, cramped boiler room, or with their heads buried in the hall cupboard making adjustments to the software that runs everything, or going from room to room to check whether this, that or the other bit of kit was working properly or not.  Needless to say, very often it was not – mostly thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the house, its 60cm-thick walls and the way it had been plumbed and wired by our predecessors, but also because in some instances Giovanni hadn’t got the spec. quite right (like ordering fan coil units that looked as if they belonged in a factory and which we insisted he replace with something more suitable for a domestic setting), and all-too frequently, just because, well that’s just how tech is, all of which slowed progress considerably.

Things were slowed down even further by ENEL, which as well as being the mains electricity supplier also manages the distribution infrastructure. It took Giovanni weeks of nudging and nagging to get their engineer to come and upgrade our meter so it could cope with the increase of our supply from 3kw to 6kw in line with the system requirements for a house the size of ours. It took even longer, however, and even more nudging and nagging, as well as a flurry of form-filling, actually to achieve that increase in supply – even though this, as far as I could see, surely amounted to little more than the equivalent of turning a knob or opening a tap. This delay caused a real bottleneck, though, as until someone bothered to flick the relevant switch, we only had half a system as it meant that the ASHP couldn’t be commissioned and so we had to continue to rely on gas for hot water and heating.

Mind you, it was while we were waiting for ENEL to get its act together that, after extensive research and several test-drives, we also took the plunge and used some more of Mr Blue-Shirt’s inheritance to replace our aged diesel Renault with a brand new fully electric Nissan Leaf. In the end, it wasn’t that difficult a decision, largely because of the government subsidies, the manufacturer’s discounts and the dealer’s special offers, which brought the price down by more than a third. But our purchase quickly revealed a glitch in the system set-up, which meant that Paul the gizmologist had to come and configure the car charging point (wallbox) so that it appeared on the system app, thus giving us the means to maximise the use of our own solar energy when charging the car depending on how much power we are actually generating, how full the house batteries are and how fast we need to charge the car; all very clever. And no sooner had we got this glitch resolved than another became apparent when ENEL were doing some maintenance work nearby and knocked the power out. This revealed that the back-up that is supposed to allow us to use energy stored in the battery to maintain certain key functions in the case of a power cut was not connected, so this time Gianni the drama queen had to come back to do some additional wiring work, cursing as long and loud as ever as he flounced back and forth between boiler room, battery cupboard and fuse box until he was satisfied he’d got it working correctly.

ENEL eventually got round to upgrading our mains supply in late May, which was fortuitous as it meant that the ASHP came on stream just in time for the sudden and early arrival of summer and so allowed us to take advantage of the fan coils’ cooling function; cooling that is as deliciously ironic as it is guilt-free, incidentally, as it effectively runs on pure sunshine. And with the upgraded supply, the final piece of the jigsaw dropped into place: the switching of our mains supplier from ENEL to SENEC, the company that supplied the batteries but that is also a power distributor, and one which uses exclusively renewable energy, meaning that even on the rare occasion that we require top-up from the mains, it will still be completely fossil-fuel-free. Better still, this switch also enables us to feed back into the grid any surplus power that we generate, which we have already found easily compensates for any we take out, thus meaning that the latter is almost free.

So after a year in which Giovanni has spent so much time with us explaining this, chasing up that and sorting out the other that we’ve become quite good pals, we’re finally there. Not only is the whole system now properly connected and configured and we are at last officially driving, heating, cooling, lighting and bathing on sunshine, we are also now saving several hundred kilos of CO2 emissions every week. All of which sounds like a pretty good cause for celebration to me.

Image shows:
Solar panels generating 5kw
House battery at 100% so not charging
House consuming 0.6kw
Wallbox not in use as car fully charged
4.4kw (ie 5kw-0.6kw) going to the grid

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