The electricity bill shocker that made farm family think off-grid
The prohibitive cost of connecting a converted barn to the mains led to some creative thinking. Sharon Dale reports.
DEREK Cornforth and his daughter Amanda were thrilled when they got permission to convert a derelict barn in the heart of the North York Moors National Park.
But father and daughter got a nasty “electric shock” when they looked into powering the remote property.
The barn, near Sutton Bank, is completely off-grid but with Derek’s farmhouse home just a couple of fields away they assumed the cost of extending cables wouldn’t be too exorbitant.
“We were amazed when the electricity company came back and told us it would be £70,000 to connect to the grid using overhead power lines and £250,000 for underground cables. We couldn’t believe it. Economics dictated that we look for an alternative,” says Derek.
They could have installed a diesel generator and oil-fired boiler but were keen to find a greener and more cost-effective alternative. So with the help of their architect Shaun Bennett, of York-based WR Dunn and Co, they came up with a plan to install a combined heat and power unit.
The CHP unit from Powerguard is a relatively new system and can run on biofuel or diesel. Its generator charges batteries that store electricity but the heat produced in this process is also recovered, recycled and used to warm water.
So the unit provides all the electricity, heat and hot water needed for the barn.
The initial costs are high. The unit was £35,000 as opposed to a conventional generator and boiler that would’ve come in at around £13,000, but it is half as cheap to run and can also be connected to a wind turbine, which would slash costs further.
Derek says: “It was about three times more expensive but it will use a lot less fuel than a conventional system. If we’d have gone for a diesel generator that would’ve cost £200 a week alone then we’d have had to buy oil for a boiler.
“Long-term, the CHP should be a good investment because running costs will be much lower.”
The equipment is substantial and takes up a good chunk of the large garage, which has been fashioned out of crumbling outbuildings.
“It looks complicated but once set it runs itself. It is computerised and is very controllable, which will also help cut costs,” says Amanda, who moved into the property in July.
With the CHP unit, enormous amounts of insulation and a wood burning stove, she and her partner look set for a cosy winter in the newly-converted barn that was saved from ruin.
Situated in a remote spot on the Murton Grange estate, the 18th century building was in danger of collapse. It was originally attached to a farmhouse that was demolished in the late 1960s for tax reasons.
“The farmhouse was empty but rates still applied so it was pulled down to avoid paying them. It’s a shame but that happened to a lot of houses back then,” says Derek, a farmer and a director of the Murton Grange Ltd, who applied for permission to convert the barn into a home for staff with his daughter Amanda in mind.
The 29-year-old farm administrator, whose family has worked the land on the Murton Estate since 1914, couldn’t afford prices are high. Instead, she was forced to travel in from Thirsk each day.
“It was hard work. I’d go home to Thirsk and if I was needed after that it was a hassle coming back. Now I’m here on hand whenever I am needed and the barn is lovely to live in. It’s been brilliantly designed, ” says Amanda, who is also closer to her own herd of goats.
“I know I am lucky. Most young people up here live with their parents because they can’t afford to have their own home in the national park.”
WR Dunn and Co devised the building’s rescue plan.
Shaun, who drew plans to turn the wreck into a two bedroom home, says: “It was clear that the barn wouldn’t survive another winter. The roof would’ve caved in and that would’ve been that.”
Biker Contracts, of Leyburn, spent 12 months on the project and used reclaimed stone from the farmhouse along with new stone from a nearby quarry. Reclaimed pantiles were used on the roof along with special “bat tiles” after a survey revealed roosting bats. The hooded tiles allow the creatures to nest in a hessian sack between the tiles and the roofing felt.
The architects specified high levels of insulation to protect the property from the gusty winds on the exposed site and with no mains water or drainage on site, a bore hole was accessed and a septic tank installed.
“We’re thrilled with it. The architects and builders did a first class job,” says Derek.
“We’re also pleased the national park allowed us to convert it into staff accommodation. If they hadn’t it would’ve fallen down. Now it looks great and it is useful once again.”
AFFORDABLE HOME: The barn near Sutton Bank was in imminent danger of collapse, left, but Derek Cornforth and his daughter Amanda, top, have transformed it into a a home thanks to an alternative source of energy from to the combined heat and power unit.