Dredging the rain water tanks

The Smaller Tank
Climbing down into the smallest of the underground reservoirs
The small reservoir
The first tank is clean - three trailer loads of composted deposit later

There are some jobs for which there is never a good time to tackle them. Today we started a job we have been discussing for at least two years – and putting off.

Once upon a time all the rainwater from the house and outbuildings was collected in underwater reservoirs around the house. Over the years not all have been maintained but the largest are still collecting water from the majority of the roof and some large areas of run-off.

Over the years, and in this case probably decades, the tanks collect silt and debris despite grids and traps over their inlets.

We decided today was finally the day to climb down inside them and dredge out the silt.

We tackled the smallest but dirtiest first. Collecting rainwater directly off approximately 2/3 of the house roof this tank holds a significant amount of water but also acts as a trap. So when full the separated water from here drains to the large reservoir. This tank is located right next to the house foundations and must have been built at the same time. It also has a pipe appearing to run towards the kitchen which presumably allowed water to be drawn alongside water from the well. Although with at least one rotting rodent and a large bone we were unlikely to be drinking it today.

The larger reservoir 6.8m long with original brick roof
We're hoping the sea of silt is going to make good compost

Sadly only one of us had small enough hips to get into this tank and armed with bucket and shovel three trailer loads of silt (and other rotting debris) were lifted out.

This was completed by mid morning and now covered in black muck we decided to tackle the second larger reservoir. Measuring 6.8m long, by 2.3m wide and 2m high this reservoir holds over 31,000 ltrs (6,800 gallons) of rainwater which would have originally been drawn up by hand inside the walled garden.

We were able to get down inside this tank through a slightly larger opening and spent the rest of the day removing silt and sludge, still by bucket. We lost count of the number of trailer loads taken from here but we are looking forward to returning this to the garden in due course.

We have left ourselves the largest tank of the three still to do. This is holding our last rainwater supplies for the garden – probably enough to run the sprinkler for 3-4 hours. Once this ‘gold dust’ has gone there will be no more excuses I guess!

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The flagpole is restored

the snapped flagpole in March 2007
the snapped flagpole in March 2007

In Spring 2006 we redecorated the wooden flagpole and at the same time repaired the pole where damp had got in around the bolt holes. It was obviously too late because in March 2007, after a slightly windy night the flagpole snapped and was found lying on the drive.

For some reason I took it upon myself to make a new flagpole.

The aim was to make a wooden flagpole that would last forever. Impossible I know, but you have to start somewhere! However the first challenge was where to find a pole. Generally timber merchants don’t stock 9m trees so, with some help, I contacted Mike Cameron a Forester in the Plashett Park Wood, East Sussex which is run for charitable purposes. Mike very kindly agreed to select a suitable Larch and prepare it.

two pieces of oak were selected for the flagpole base
two pieces of oak were selected for the flagpole base

Things were going well and by Oct 2007 the flagpole was ready for collection. The only problem was how to transport it. Although not ideal, the only method at my disposal of creating a 9m long vehicle was to take a boat on its trailer over to the wood and to return with the flagpole strapped down (6m in the boat and 3 over the towing vehicle). This made for a nerve-racking journey so much so that it never occurred to me to take a photograph.

preparing the Larch pole required filling and hours of sanding
preparing the Larch pole required filling and hours of sanding

As I looked at the tree, now back home, I did get a sinking feeling when I realised just how much work was going to be required to get this rough wood down to a paintable surface, despite Mike’s preparation work.

We needed to let the Larch age and so the flagpole project was put on one side with the exception of sourcing two pieces of oak for the base.

The other dilemma which needed solving in the meantime was where to put a flagpole. By the time the old one broke it was sandwiched between two fully grown trees meaning the flag never really flew. Several places were explored but none appeared right : too far from the house, too close to the house etc. Thankfully the problem resolved itself when a tree died in 2009 in what was to become the obvious place.

bolt holes in the Larch pole had stainless steel pipe lining bonded in place with epoxy resin
bolt holes in the Larch pole had stainless steel pipe lining bonded in place with epoxy resin

With the dead tree needing to come out it was time to get the flag pole prepared and the base constructed. Sadly the pole had dried too quickly and there was a significant amount of filling required, not to mention several days of sanding. Wood glue was drizzled into the bottom of the cracks and then a two-pack filler was used to fill and build up the surface.

each part of the base was fully decorated before assembly
each part of the base was fully decorated before assembly

The rough sawn oak also required a lot of sanding and I had the words of my school woodwork teacher ringing in my head about the importance of sanding right down to a fine grit and needing to do it again and again to seal the wood. So that is what we did.

Then each section of the base was decorated fully with Dulux Weathershield 8-year protection system – except instead of one coat of each the base received two coats of each. The base was then assembled leaving the hardest bit to last – drilling the holes!

The old flagpole had rotted where the pole’s bolt holes had been drilled. Inevitably moisture had crept in here. In an attempt to prevent this happening on the new flagpole a system was devised to line the hole and therefore fully seal the wood.

finally the new flag pole was ready and enthusiastic flag flying could begin
finally the new flag pole was ready and enthusiastic flag flying could begin

To do this, a larger diameter stainless steel pipe was inserted into the holes which was then bonded in place with epoxy resin. This was repeated for holes in both the pole and the base and had the added benefit of giving enough free play for the bolts to allow for minor inaccuracies in the hole alignment.

the original flagpole top and rope was salvaged, prepared and fitted to the new pole
the original flagpole top and rope was salvaged, prepared and fitted to the new pole

Despite taking the full force of the fall it was possible to salvage the original flagpole top with rope and pulley wheel. This was added to the Larch pole using the original coach screw and the alignment with the base planned.

The base was then set in concrete in the ground on a bed of gravel. A drainage pipe was set in the bottom of the concrete to prevent water getting trapped against the wood. The base was then left to set.

Finally on 2 Dec the pole was installed in the base and the flag flown again. It stands 8.9m tall.

Having not exactly been a ‘flag man’ I was never very interested in flying a flag except on occasional special events. However I now find myself wanting to fly a flag all the time. This has led to a great deal of research into what flag protocol is. My research seems to suggest that on the whole the British have a somewhat indifferent approach to flags and ‘flag flying’ in particular. This seems a shame but then I wouldn’t be in a hurry to adopt the slightly obsessive approach of some countries.

What we need is a flag we can be proud of and get excited about flying – any suggestions?

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‘Future proofing’ the central heating

Over the years we have been blessed with a very reliable heating and hot water system at Sennicotts. However that has presented a problem: because it hasn’t broken it has never been upgraded. So of the two oil boilers the newer boiler was installed in the early 1960’s. The older boiler we’re not sure about but it is a coal fired unit which has had an oil burner added.

It would appear the last major system work was undertaken by White, Bays & White Ltd (52 Grafton Way, London W1) whose two framed, typed lists of valves and their function we still have and is still useful. This work was presumably done after the second world war.

I did undertake an analysis of oil consumption which in today’s thinking I am a little embarrassed to be sharing. However we were using somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 ltrs of kerosene annually just to heat the hot water and central heating. Of course there are plenty of much heaver users but the dissapointing bit was that neither the house nor the hot water were that warm!

The only controls we had on the system were power on and off to the boiler, a boiler thermostat and manual zoning via the valves for the heating. There were no room thermostats and no timer. The warmest rooms in the house were those adjascent to the chimney breast and a quarter of the house had no central heating.

On paper, the decision about whether to upgrade the system looked simple, especially when the oil price spiked in 2007/2008. Payback would have come in easily less than the useful life of the new equipment and was likely to be easily less than ten years.

In the end we decided to divide the decision into two seperate cases dealing with the two boilers independently. The first was the hot water system boiler which also heated two rooms with four outside walls. The second was the main heating boiler which needed to be tackled in conjunction with improving the kitchen area and adding central heating to that wing of the house.

For the heating system a heat loss calculation of over 100kW meant adding central heating to the unheated part of the house would add such demand to the heating boiler that we would need to replace the one boiler with two. This work is due in 2010.

Hot water system

New condensing boiler and hot water cylinder with three inputs and destratification circuit
New condensing boiler and hot water cylinder with three inputs and destratification circuit

Most of our effort so far has been concentrated on the ‘hot water’ system. Unchanged for decades, this was the perfect opportunity to install a system for the future. We looked at this long and hard and were keen on a number of options including gound source, air source, solar, and biomass. A woodchip boiler was ruled out because we don’t have enough woodland of our own with existing woodland maintenance costs to sink. Ground source, air source and solar all suffered from the same problem – not enough ummpph!

With cast iron plumbing throughout and no plans to replumb it was never an option to simply heat the water in a well insulated cylinder to be called off when needed. The plumbing runs are too long and the quantity of water in thick iron cold pipes would mean a long wait and a lot of wasted water each time the hot water was called on. The hot water needs to be circulated around the system and with the large surface area of the long 1″ plus pipe runs a significant amount of heat is lost. To put this in perspective 6Kw of immersion heater couldn’t get the tank to temperature with the hot water being circulated.

the satisfying sign of efficiency - the plume from the condensing boiler
the satisfying sign of efficiency - the plume from the condensing boiler

Our solution was to upgrade the system with the future in mind but to be initially heated with a condensing oil boiler and as with zoning, to give ourselves a scaleable system. The solution centred on the hot water cylinder.

Hot water cylinder.

This was designed with two key features: extra inputs and a destratification circuit.

Two extra input coils were added to the standard input giving three potential heat sources. The standard (top) coil would be heated by the condensing oil boiler. The middle coil would be spare for a future heat source (biomass, heat exchanger, or something not yet invented). The bottom coil would be for solar hot water. The cyclinder could therefore be fired by simply oil or a combination of the two main heat sources with solar topping up.

The destratification circuit was added so that in normal operation (with destratification off) the water would stratify, leaving the top of the cylinder hot and the bottom full of cold water. The advantage here is that in the morning when the cylinder calls for heat only half the tank is heated. In most circumstances the water in the top of the cylinder and the hot water pipe runs is enough to easily fill a bath. If the full tank capacity is required then a circulating pump can be manually activated which mixes (destratifies) the water in the cylinder forcing the full volume of water to be heated by the top coil.

Two immersion coils were added allowing the cylinder to run in half capacity (stratified) or full capacity.


The condensing oil boiler provided a significant efficiency saving and in itself would be the primary contributor to payback times. While the cylinder’s improved insulation and scaleabilty/flexibility would also contribute to the efficiency. The system has also been given a semi-intelligent timer and a hot water thermostat which allows control where there was none.

Asbestos lagging on the original heating system
Asbestos lagging on the original heating system

We have not arrived in the future – yet. We would have like to jump into a carbon neutral solution. However looking at the options and faced with what felt like cynical pricing when we approached companies about solutions such as ground source heat pumps (they refused to identify the costs of equipment and would only give an all in installed price) we have opted for maximum efficiency (given the design of the historic property and existing pipework) and the options to add carbon neutral heat sources without a system redesign.

We recieved an excellent service and methodical design skills from our plumber. He worked with us at all stages and I am loathed to mention his name for fear he will become too busy to ever help us with phase II but he does deserve recognition for his work and expertise! You can find Will O’Brien on yell.com under O’Brien Whittle Plumbing and Heating.


Before any work could be done the asbestos lagging needed to be removed. This was taken as a seperate decision on the basis that it had to be removed so that in the event of an emergency we would be able to find plumbers who would be prepared to work on a repair. So the asbestos was removed in Aug 2006.

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How do you lose your TV aerial?

Surely the time has come to dispense with the TV aerial stuck on the highest point of the roof?

TV aerials on Sennicotts house.
TV aerials on Sennicotts house.

This question has been raised because,

  1. We want the TV location to be flexible and at least in more rooms.
  2. We want to be able to watch the TV on the PC/Mac
  3. If we want to enhance the authenticty of a historic house the TV aerial doesn’t look right and let’s face it they are ugly.
  4. Reception for some of the multiple digital channels of Freeview are poor in our area.

In an ideal world I would like to send the TV signal down the Cat5 network cables because they are already routed through the house. So the signal would go over the network to the computers and down the spare Cat5 cable direct to the TV. Although I’m sure this must be possible because the Cat5 cable must have many of the same properties as coaxial aerial cable I also know only a small amount of Cat5 cable capacity is usually used and there is probably even spare capacity to send both network and TV signals down the same cable.

Anyway back to the aerial. What I really want to do is lose it from the top of the house. The answer seems to be to find a descreet place to hide a Satellite Dish BUT I have only recently invested in TV’s that accept Freeview and therefore not Freesat.

So what I really want to do is:

  1. Find a way of installing a Satellite Dish,
  2. Taking a cable from this to a box that can then send out a full spectrum of channels down a Cat5 (ideal) or coaxial cable to the TV.
  3. I would then like to take a similar feed from this ‘box’ to the computer to share the signal over the network.

So that is my solution working with the existing technology as I see it. The problem of course is that we have the Internet and now with BBC iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player and Demand 5 we can watch so much TV over this medium. The quality is good and we can even stream TV channels live. So if I were to investigate the whole Satellite Dish option would I find in 5 years time this is all obsolete?

Will we be able to watch all our TV over the internet and will it still be called ‘TV’ anymore?

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