My current energy management arrangements are designed to maximise use of the output of my solar panels for lowest energy cost by diverting any excess to PowerVault storage system, car charger or immersion heater. I can also manually configure the PowerVault and ImmerSUN to minimise costs of bought energy from the grid (I get 7 hours of cheaper night time electricity) by setting time periods for charging.
However as I move to a smart meter and smart tariff then I’m looking to start automating the selection of when to draw power from the grid based on costs that change half-hour-to-half-hour and day-to-day. The hardware to achieve this is illustrated here. To the right is a Raspberry Pi – a small computer with a wide range of connectivity – and to the left is a module that sets on top and has four relays able to switch mains loads, although at the moment I only anticipate needing 2 of them.
One of the relays will switch the boost input to the ImmerSUN to enable water heating, potentially when electricity is cheaper than gas, and a second relay will operate the transmitter that turns the car charger on alongside the ImmerSUN’s relay output during the cheapest available energy times.
The image to the right shows the timers that can be used to enable the ImmerSUN outputs to draw power from the grid. I never use this for water heating as currently gas is always cheaper than bought electricity, but do use it to more or less effect seasonally to charge the car from cheap night rate power when there isn’t enough daytime solar. For the new HEMS I plan a table of 7 days specifying the number of hours required for each output and let the HEMS find the cheapest half hours to deliver the total hours required and enable the charger or water heating as required.
This chart shows our gas consumption by month and year since we moved here in August 2015 (the first full month shown is September 2015), Along the way several changes are marked which might be thought to influence gas consumption, although with natural variation month-to-month and year-by-year the effect of those changes isn’t dramatically obvious.
What is of course obvious is the dramatic difference in gas consumption between summer and winter as gas is our main means of space heating, and there’s no need for space heating in summer. Most homes would exhibit such a pattern. Ours is probably a bit more marked than many because of our water heating. Many homes with gas will use the gas for both space and water heating, but for us the gas water heating is the back-up not the primary water heating system. Our home is set up to divert surplus solar electricity from the PV panels to water heating during the day. Only in the evening is gas water heating enabled and then it does no heating if the water is up to temperature. The gas water heating thermostat is also set a few degrees colder than the immersion heater, so gas is separated from electric water heating by both time and temperature to prioritise electricity.
Previously I had just disabled the boiler in summer, but occasional dull days would leave my wife complaining about lack of hot water. The new arrangement with the boiler operating later and with a lower temperature set-point has avoided that and is robust as long as your hot water cylinder is big enough for your daily needs so you only need to fill it once with hot water which is then stored available for use until the next day.
Over time 3 changes are called out which should reduce gas consumption further:
- In December 2015 we replaced the boiler, hot water cylinder and controls. The previous boiler had demonstrated that it was incapable of heating the whole home as we went into our first winter so a replacement was rapidly arranged. The new boiler is considerably more efficient which should reduce gas consumption for a given heat output, but it now heats the whole house, so that might counteract the improved efficiency.
- In late 2016 we upgraded the loft insulation from 100 to 270 mm which should be worth £73 in gas per year according to our EPC. February, March and April 2017 do seem to show some benefit compared to 2016, but then there also variation in the weather year-to-year.
- In May 2017 we started adding smart heating controls which has gradually expanded over the following months. The overall concept here is that most rooms now have smart radiator valves which are both thermostatic and contain their own schedule. The schedules allow rooms to be heated for fewer hours: for example lounge not heated on weekday mornings, playroom not heated after children’s bedtime etc.
In the last few days I’ve been assisting a reader of this blog who also has an ImmerSUN immersion heater controller plus PowerVault storage battery combination. Like me, he had the immerSUN first and later added a PowerVault, but had immediately disabled the ImmerSUN to get the PowerVault to work. Left to their own devices, the ImmerSUN will normally take the surplus power first before the PowerVault has chance to respond since it has a more dynamic control system, however economically it makes more sense to prioritise the PowerVault.
I previously posted on this topic in Prioritising smart loads for self-consumption but wanted to provide more clarity on the orientation of the clamps.
Both ImmerSUN and PowerVault rely on current clamps to get their control signal. Such clamps fit around an electrical cable and measure the flow of electricity through that cable. Normally clamps for both these devices alone would be around the live in the incoming mains cable, but do that with both and the ImmerSUN will always take the available power first which is undesireable.
The illustration shows my solution, as per the prior post, where the PowerVault clamp surrounds both the incoming live and the live output to the immersion heater. If the clamps are correctly orientated, this allows the PowerVault storage battery to be prioritised over the ImmerSUN immersion heater controller. When the PowerVault clamp surrounds the two cables, it is important that outgoing power to the grid and outgoing power to the immersion heater from the consumer unit pass through the clamp in the same direction. This solution should work for clamp-driven solutions too.
The PowerVault clamp is directional – it has an arrow which should point towards the consumer unit. That means, if you pair the two cables as I described, so outgoing power flows in the same direction in both cables through the clamp, then the arrow should point in the opposite direction i.e. towards the consumer unit.
Fundamentally it doesn’t matter which way the ImmerSUN clamp faces, as during commissioning the ImmerSUN will work it out by cycling the power several times, but you shouldn’t change it after commissioning.
The end of 2017 sees 2 full calendar years of output completed (plus a few months at the end of the prior year) so it seemed like a good time to assess performance and return. Return comprises two parts – firstly the payments received for electricity generation (and export) the so-called feed-in tariff or FiT and secondly the savings obtained from using that free energy myself instead of buying it from the grid. In my case I can use and store my solar electricity directly, or use it to heat water via the immersion heater thus replacing gas.
I’ve summarised the status in the following table:
|Electricity self-use||50%||41%||64%||of Generated
|Gas replacement||27%||23%||of Generated
|Return in calendar year||£830.46||£918.40||
|13.6%||15.1%||of PV cost
|13.6%||28.7%||of PV cost
- Output from the panels was slightly reduced in 2017 versus 2016, but still significantly above the performance projected in the quotation. I put the slight reduction down to year-to-year differences in the weather. Over time I would expect panel output to decline, but I think it’s too soon to attribute any decline to this.
- Income from FIT was slightly higher as inflation on the price / kWh has overcome the slight output reduction.
- Electricity self-use is up considerably from 41% to 64% due to my 4 kWh storage battery. The costs of that battery are not reflected in the table. Return would have been 8.8% in 2017 (rather than 15.1%) if the cost of the battery was included.
- Gas replacement is down from 27 to 23% versus 2016 as more of the electricity from the panels is used for high value activities like charging the storage battery or my electric car, and less is left over for water heating. The low price of gas per kWh makes gas replacement my lowest priority for self-use.
- Exported electricity (i.e. what’s left-over that I cannot use myself) is considerably reduced from 32 to 12% largely as a result of increased electricity self-use.
- Financial return in calendar year 2017 is improved from 13.6 to 15.1% neglecting the costs of the battery, or reduced from 15.1 to 8.8% taking into account capital costs of the battery.
- It will take approximately 7 years (i.e. 2 past + 5 future years) for the combination of the solar panels and battery storage to pay for the solar panels (neglecting the battery costs), and a further 2 years of system savings to pay for the storage battery.
The immerSUN provides a useful app showing electricity use which includes an annual option. The graph below shows the 2016 annual data:
Although some of the data was only collected from mid-March 2016, the graph still shows useful information. I think that the graph overstates bought / imported electricity in January to March but understates generated electricity proportionately in the same period.
The purple line shows monthly electricity consumption and is broadly consistent month-to-month.
The green line shows the generated electricity from the solar PV system. Its seasonality is clearly visible. Solar generation exceeds electricity use in four summer months, and is very close in a fifth.
The red line shows bought electricity. It’s generally a mirror image of the green line reflecting more purchased electricity in winter and less in summer, but is not zero even in months where generated electricity exceeds used electricity due to time of day issues – cooking and car charging often occur at times when solar output is low such as cooking in the evening and charging at night.
The blue line shows surplus day-time electricity being used to heat water, and thus saving gas.
The turquoise line shows surplus day-time electricity being exported once the water has reached its set point.
It will be interesting to see how this changes in 2017 as a result of a full year of solar car charging in its current mature condition and with the new battery storage that should help get more of the generated electricity used by saving it for evening use.
In order to illustrate how the combination of battery and immerSUN distributes generated electric power at different levels of generation I created this chart.
For different levels of power generation across the bottom, the chart shows how the power is divided between battery charging (and occasionally discharging), electric car charging, and water heating; which are generally prioritised in that order. My prior post explained the rationale for the 500 Watt switching threshold for the vehicle charger – based on 1.4 kW of mid-value car charging being better value than a mix of 800 Watts of high value battery charging and 600 Watts of low value water heating.
Alternatively you might like to consider that the horizontal axis represents passing time after daylight comes and that the chart shows how diversion changes as the sun reaches its zenith. You might then view the end of the day as a mirror image of this as the output of the panels ramps down in late afternoon, although at the end of the day there’s the greatest possibility that one or more of the storage devices is/are full and thus the greatest chance of electricity being exported.
Of course all of this assumes that the storage devices aren’t already full, and indeed that the electric car is present at all. As storage devices fill, or indeed if the car is absent, the system automatically switches to the next best value alternative:
- Battery full – more car charging and/or water heating.
- Car full or absent – more battery charging and/or water heating depending on power output.
- Hot water at maximum temperature – this is the lowest priority electricity use so when this is full we don’t currently have another use to divert power to. However there is an unused output on the immerSUN so it would be possible to drive another load. The underfloor heating in the kitchen would be a possibility, although there’s unlikely to be much overlap between days when there’s enough surplus to reach this point and days when kitchen heating is required so it may never repay the cost of fitting the cables.
Over the last few days I’ve been rethinking the best use of generated power.
The prioritisation of battery charging over water heating is clear due to the significant cost difference between day time electricity and any time gas, but the situation on car charging is more complex. It occurred to me that there could be times when prioritising battery charging and water might not always be the lowest cost solution since car charging avoiding mid-price nighttime electricity might be a bigger saving than a lesser amount of high value battery charging combined with low value gas-replacement.
For example, if we look at the lowest level of EV charging that amounts to about 1.4 kW. With our night-time rate of 7.87 p/kWh, 1.4kWh of solar power used for car charging saves 11.0 p of night time electricity. If the battery is maxed out at 800 VAh that saves 7.34 p of later day time electricity. The water heating using the balance of 0.6 kW saves a further 1.76 pence of any time gas. Thus the total save from 1.4 kWh used for a combination of battery charging plus water heating is 9.1 p, compared to 11.0 p from car charging – so it would appear to be better value to do 100% car charging when a 1.4 kW surplus exists.
A bit of further analysis aimed to establish the point at which it became better value to charge the car, rather than combine battery charging and water heating, even if that involved a small level of mains import. The answer is that, with my energy costs, it makes sense to enable 1.4 kW of charger when 1.3 kW of export would have existed thereby potentially importing 0.1 kW. In practice this 0.1 kW may be supplied by the battery.
Given that the battery has priority by the way it’s wired, and takes up to 800 VA, then I intend to try a 500 W export threshold to start the car charger since 800 VA + 500W ~ 1.3 kW.
Today as expected was well above average for December with 8.2 kWh generated so it was a good opportunity to confirm correct prioritisation of battery charging and water heating.
The graph above from the immerSUN clearly shows the green area of electricity being generated from the solar panels, the purple line of the ‘house’ electrical load (including battery charging) rising first (i.e. the priority load) within the green area, and then the blue line representing the water heating rising second. The purple line being at about 1kW is consistent with 200 Watts of house load with the 800 VAp battery charger on top.
Water heating starts to reduce first with battery charging around 14:00. Shortly after 14:00 the house switches to running from an increasing amount of stored energy which lasts until shortly before 20:00.
From the battery’s perspective you can see ‘device power in’ i.e. battery charging rising first, followed by ‘grid power out’ which is actually power available to the immerSUN and should correspond with the immerSUN’s blue line. As the sun goes down power diversion for water heating is reduced first, following by power for battery charging; until finally from about 14:30 the battery switches from charging to depletion ‘device power out’ running the house until shortly before 20:00 by which time it’s supplied around 3kWh.
Today (briefly!) I watched the battery storage and immerSUN operating alongside each other. As you may recall things are arranged such that the battery should charge first (at up to 800 VA) and then once the battery is drawing full power (in the absence of a car) the immerSUN makes hot water.
From the immerSUN’s perspective as PV output rises the load of the house (which is actually the battery charging) also rises. Once the battery is charging at its maximum 800 VA power then any remaking PV is diverted to making hot water by the immerSUN. Later as PV output drops the battery continues to match the zero PV output discharging the battery to make the house load zero according to the immerSUN until the battery is exhausted – 2 hours of house load in this illustration.
From the battery’s perspective between 10 and 12 it can be seeing hitting its maximum 800 VA, while a varying amount of excess power is seen to be exported. In reality this isn’t true export, its power available to the second priority device (the immerSUN) and corresponds to the immerSUN’s blue line for diversion.
Overall self-use was 96% although admittedly on a low base. Thursday should be interesting as that’s sunny all day on the forecast.
A year ago when we replaced our gas boiler we also replaced the hot water cylinder. There were various reasons for that:
- I wanted to use an immersion heater to maximise use of generated PV electricity
- The old cylinder didn’t have an immersion heater and we were advised against trying to open the portal on a 40 year old cylinder.
- Ideally a cylinder for such heating would have a low down entry portal for the immersion heater so that the whole cylinder volume is heated – whereas our portal was in the top.
- Our old cylinder was uninsulated, although it did have an insulating jacket.
- Given that we’re potentially heating day’s hot water up-front with solar PV rather than on demand by gas then we might reasonably want a larger stored volume.
We ended up with the 210 litre Gledhill tank illustrated for which we had to sacrifice an airing cupboard shelf as it’s that much taller than the old cylinder. Both immersion heater and thermostat for the gas are at similar height towards the bottom. The smaller cylinder at the side is to manage expansion of the water in the absence of an expansion tank in the loft.