Earth Notes: Milk Tanker Thermal Store with Heat Pump

Carbon-neutral London home heating with a buried milk tanker or three?

It seems that ground-source heap-pump (GSHP) might not have a high enough CoP (Coefficient of Performance) to make our London home carbon-neutral or net-zero-site-energy over a year for space heating and domestic hot water (DHW).

Following a fascinating discussion with Brian Mark of Fulcrum in late 2007, I decided to try to sketch the design of a system using an insulated year-round thermal store (also called an "(inter)seasonal thermal storage system") 'charged' with heat in the summer and 'emptied' in the winter, rather than continually pumping heat from the ground.

Brian's suggestion was that a second-hand milk tanker's stainless-steel tank might be about the right size. He is not responsible for the unverified handwaving below...

system sketch

Milk Tanker Going Down!

Bury a 20,000l-ish (ie 20m^3, 700cuft) second-hand stainless steel milk road tank (well insulated) and full of water (plus maybe corrosion inhibitors) in the garden. In the summer, energy from solar thermal panels is pumped in, and in the winter pumped out again for space heating and DHW, and much less energy is required to pump the energy this way. Indeed, any excess RE year round, such as the dump load for a wind-turbine or even solar PV, that would otherwise be discarded, could be captured in the thermal store. This is much more efficient then trying to generate and store energy as electricity, for example, when all that is needed is heat. I have to do the sums for the energy capacity vs our energy usage and so on, but this looks like an interesting alternative to GSHP. Milk is good for you!

Here's an initial sketch, not yet checked by any sane person...

Thermal Store Capacity of 20kl Tank

Assuming that the water in the thermal store neither freezes nor boils, and that a range of 10°C (mean ground temperature) to (say) 90°C (to avoid building up any vapour pressure) is possible, then our store can retain at most 80°C * 4.18J (heat capacity) per gram of water, ie ~334J/g. 20kl of water is approx 20Mg ie 20Mega-grams (and about 10% of our house's heated volume as it happens), and thus our store has a capacity of maybe 6.7GJ (Giga-Joules).

(This corresponds to a storage capacity of ~90kWh/t for a delta-T of 80K, or ~116kWh/t for a delta-T of 100K maybe with the help of antifreeze (etc) so practically ~10t/MWh at maximum with simple and safe technology, cf ~60kWh/t for a delta-T of 50K such as from 90°C down to 40°C, something like 6kWh/t for ultracapacitors, well under 30kWh/t for lead-acid batteries (16kWh/t for AGM @ typical 50% DoD), 100kWh--200kWh/t for Lithium-chemistry batteries of various types, and up to ~200kWh/t for Zinc-air batteries. So hot water has good energy density if all that is needed is heat. For comparison, the energy density of jet fuel is ~43MJ/kg, ie ~12MWh/t, or about 100x that of Li batteries by weight, thus no battery jumbo jets!)

Note that to maximise the efficiency of the heat-pump we should probably try to keep the thermal store's temperature range as close as possible to the temperature that we want to get our house and/DHW to, to minimise the thermal gradient that the pump is working against. That temperature would be somewhere between (say) 30°C+ for underfloor heating up to 70°C for DHW. Keeping the thermal store too warm (too far above the underground mean ~11°C) will increase heat loss into the surrounding ground, though that surrounding ground might then actually become part of the store. But my initial guess is that keeping the thermal store temperature between (say) 10°C and 30°C might be best, though that range reduces the capacity to 25% compared to an 80°C range.

Another way to increase overall efficiency might be to have the heat-pump heat water just enough that each day's new solar input (even mid-winter) is enough to bring water up to the (DHW) temperature required, minimising the thermal gradient that the heat-pump has to work against. Proper thermal stratification in the store(s) may help with this. When solar input has not been sufficient, which it won't be mid-winter, the heat-pump will have to overcome more of the temperature gradient itself, resulting in a lower CoP.

Our Energy Demand (Circa 2007)

We don't need any significant space heating for about half the year (we do use about 10kWh/day for DHW year-round though). We use a mean of maybe 20kWh/day for space heating for six months of the year, so, roughly, 180days * 20kWh/day = 3.6MWh = ~13GJ for winter space heating.

Our 2007 space-heating and DHW energy consumption was ~26GJ.

Even if our 20kl thermal store was 'full' at the start of the 'winter' period, at ~90°C, it would hold only ~50% of the energy needed for space heating, ignoring heat-pump costs and losses through imperfect insulation, etc. Suppose then that we buried two ex-tankers rather than one, and heat losses and heat-pump energy costs proved not to be huge, maybe that would cover our space-heating requirements. (And in summer we can reverse the pump to cool the house and add to the store.)

To cover DHW in the six months 'winter' period would require a third tanker!

(As of the fairly mild 2012, space heating gas demand was down to ~2MWh during the six winter and shoulder months, so just about do-able with one 20kl tank and extreme insulation! DHW for that six months would be another ~0.7MWh.)

Filling the Energy Store

This initial analysis ignores two issues entirely:

Assume the bulk of the energy is to be collected with solar thermal panels unshaded, south-facing, at a fixed angle of ~36° to the horizontal. In London, mean insolation per square metre year round would be ~3.1kWh/day (see PVGIS), maybe 4.8kW/day/m^2 in July down to 0.89kWh/day/m^2 in December. Insolation of about 2/3rds of that is available with panels at 90° (ie vertical, eg on a wall), but with more of the output in mid-winter, peaking at 2.8kWh/day/m^2 in August and down to 0.95kW/day/m^2 in December. At ~50%-efficient energy capture and the ~36° incline, (and assuming that we could use solar PV to drive any pumps, etc, needed) given that our year-round load averages 20kWh/day we'd need 13m^2 of panels. Probably not impossible since our (horizontal) roof area is ~40m^2, even though it is half east-facing and half west-facing and is not entirely unshaded.

With a much smaller energy store (to cover a few very cloudy days for example) then we'd have to meet heating/DHW demand (peaking at 30kWh/day in winter) at the seasonal level, say 0.95kWh/day/m^2 for vertical panels in December. That implies ~35m^2 of panels (at 90% overall efficiency allowing for much less storage loss) to cover winter demand (ie roughly 2.5 times the capture area of a system with year-round storage) which might still be physically possible, though competing for space with possible solar PV, and possibly too large a mass of water to get hot enough in poor weather, and with a huge and possibly dangerous excess of unused heat energy in summer. Overheating problems can probably be mitigated with:

Thus the tank/store is worthwhile if its capital and running costs are less than the extra capture area otherwise needed. And clearly, this need not be 'all or nothing': 3 months' storage rather than 6 months' might still reduce the necessary solar thermal panel capture area significantly, though I've not yet attempted to compute the trade-off numerically.

Compared With Solar PV

I have previously estimated that as of 2007 I could just about eliminate our net household electricity use over the year with 4kWp of grid-tie solar PV to cover our ~7kWh/day consumption. Very roughly solar PV requires 6m^2 per kWp, so the 4kWp would require ~24m^2, ie roughly double the solar thermal collector size. (Note that some of the 13m^2 thermal collector panel space budget might in fact be used for PV to drive circulation pumps so as to eliminate the external (grid) energy draw.)

One big advantage of solar PV over solar thermal is that 'excess' energy can simply and safely be ignored, ie not used, without any damage being done. Although PV is much less efficient than thermal at capturing energy, in theory coupling it with a heat-pump can recoup a lot of the difference (it might be just possible to have 20% efficient PVs and a heat-pump CoP of 5).

In principle any excess can be sold (or given!) back to the grid, which while not currently financially very rewarding, does displace some CO2 generation elsewhere.

Adding a House Thermal Store

It would be useful to have an energy store (an oversize hot-water tank) in the house to cover a day or more of DHW and heating demand. A (tall, stratifiable) tank such as the TORRENT 450 'RE' (450l) if allowed to vary between (say) 60°C and 95°C can store ~70MJ which is somewhat less than our peak 30kWh/100MJ peak daily winter demand so probably represents a minimum usable size and would mean little scope for my favoured morning hot bath! The Solus II 2200L (2200l) might store ~90kWh/320MJ which would maximise the chance of using a heat-pump efficiently to warm the water and solar thermal being able to top it up to (higher than) DHW temperature even mid-winter. The Solus documentation even describes paralleling two tanks if necessary. A TiSun PC5000 holds 4950l which might store a week's worth of heat.

Water should be stored at over 60°C to kill bacteria such as Legionella, but water this hot represents a scalding risk and should be distributed at or below 50°C: regulation of storage/outlet temperatures is important for health and safety.

Heat can be pumped into the house store from our seasonal store as needed, for example when we have available solar PV so as to minimise grid energy draw, and the house store will ensure that there is hot water available all day/night even though the solar PV is clearly only available for a small part of the day, especially in winter.

(Where available, solar PV could be replaced or supplemented with other RE such as wind; but PV is likely to be the best RE source in urban environments.)

A larger in-house thermal store would ensure that more hot water and heating would be available on a cold winter morning before the sun came up, and if expanded to cover several days, eg maybe to a 2kl/2m^3 store, would allow the system to ride out several cloudy days (ie where little solar PV is available to run the heat-pump) without needing to draw grid power to run the heat-pump.

If not enough solar PV is going to be available to cover heat-pump use (in addition to other electrical loads driven from the same PV panels) then off-peak or 'green'/renewable electricity could be purchased, and/or the heat-pump could be kept off during grid peak load where more carbon-intensive fuels are being burnt, ie ~4pm to ~8pm in the UK, to minimise the CO2 contribution from running it.

The toughest strain on the system is mid-winter when there is least insolation. In England on average in mid-winter 1kWp of solar PV should produce about 1kWh of energy. If the heat-pump from our thermal store has an overall CoP of ~5 which seems plausible given that our store should be well above the 11°C ground temperature, ie closer to our house-store/DHW temperature, then to support 30kWh/day heat demand mid-winter we'd need ~6kWh/day of PV, from ~6kWp of panels, on top of covering other loads.

In general it would probably be best to have the solar thermal panels heat the house store directly until it is at its maximum temperature (which is probably ~20% of total demand on a mid-winter day), and then divert it to heat the seasonal store (eg mainly in the summer). This pumping can be driven directly by solar PV if need be.

Keeping Warm in a Grid Power Cut

If heating circulation pumps can be kept running on battery power then the house can kept warm from the house store even when the grid fails, and DHW would also be available. Circulation pumps might likely consume much less than 100W, and DHW can be driven by water mains pressure with mechanical thermostatic mixer values (TMV) to limit DHW temperature so requiring no energy input while the tank remains hot. (Note that the TORRENT RE tanks are reported to be supplied with a TMV, and the Solus II can be supplied with one.)

If the heat-pump can be operated directly from solar PV when the grid is down then the house store can be kept topped up indefinitely, and thus the heating remains available indefinitely.

This is more robust than a typical gas combi boiler which will stop if either gas or grid electricity is unavailable.

Some Costs

An engineer from a UK solar-thermal systems supplier kindly humoured me with some outline component costs while pointing out that this is not the same as full install costs for a well engineered and reliable system that he'd be prepared to build or install! He suggested that 13m^2 of evacuated tube solar hot water might cost something under £9k (November 2007). For a small house the bulk of the replumbing (etc) might be in the region of £2k-£3k, excluding any of the complications of heat-pump interaction with a huge thermal store as proposed above.

(Normal practice is to size a domestic solar thermal system to avoid venting even in mid-summer to minimise maintenance, etc, which means that most of the year some or most (maybe 80% in winter) of the energy will need to come from another source such as gas. The thermal store that this supplier might add at maybe 2 to 3 times the volume/capacity of the central heating system itself, and not much over 300l, but getting up to 90°C, is to carry the system's use beyond sundown and through short cloudy intervals, etc.)

The TORRENT 450 'RE' (T450RE) house thermal store is listed at ~£2400 as of Nov 2007.

Perry Process also humoured me, and suggested £5k ex-VAT, ex-craneage, etc, for a 20,000l stainless-steel second-hand tank (316L) as at November 2007, so we might hope that, excluding works and insulation, for a total capacity of ~60kl (60m^3) and ~20GJ, the core thermal store might cost well under £20k, ie < £1/MJ. (Compare: ~£50+/MJ, ie ~£200/kWh and over 70kg to 50% discharge at 2007 prices, for lead-acid batteries, the RE electricity staple.)

Combining With an Existing System

For reference, our current CH/DHW is provided by a "Potterton Performa 24" 'instant' mains gas combi boiler rated at 24kW, corresponding to a DHW flow of 9.8l/min raised through 35°C. The manufacturer tells me that this cannot be used to heat DHW fully or partly 'pre-heated' in a house thermal store by solar/GSHP.

Some Important Unknowns

Various parts of this scheme are not clear to me yet:

Other Thoughts/Ideas

Correspondence

2007/11/26 Rex Butcher wrote to me with some thoughts on this issue:

My wife and I are going to be building a new, well insulated house next year and we are considering installing quite a number of 'eco' (I hate the term) devices. Certainly, rainwater collection will be one of them, and I am looking at ways of reusing the bathwater. But I can see with bathwater, particularly during the winter, that there will be more water available than we can use.

One idea I have is to adopt a 'Japanese' style of bathing. Shower and clean outside the bath and them get into the bath, full of hot water for a nice long soak. In Japan, the whole family will use this hot soaking tub of water and at the end of the bath time, it is virtually uncontaminated. In fact, in Japan, that water will be reheated and used for a few days before being discarded and refilled. Most Japanese bathrooms have a sort-of 'in-line' heater that takes the bath water, heats it up and returns it to the bath. The bath itself is usually filled with cold water. But trying to find such a heating device in England is proving very, very difficult.

However, that is not why I started this mail.

In one section, you mention about heat banks / thermal stores, such as the TORRENT 450 'RE' (450l). I have been looking into this as I would like to install a thermal store in our new house, It seems to me that there is a great difference between the UK manufacturers and European manufacturers. I don't know who is correct, but my feeling is that Europeans have greater experience in this field. UK seems to make small(ish) tanks with only 50mm of insulation as standard, then tell Joe Public how good they are and how quickly they recycle.

Europeans seem to go with much larger tanks (800ltr/1000ltr) and have 100mm of insulation. Obviously, more insulation equals less heat loss. Have a look at http://www.tisun.com/cms/en/vertriebspartner-haendler/england-wales/ or http://www.martin-sandler.de/index.html (it is a German site but if you Google Martin Sandler and hit the Translate button!) Construction Resources sell this tank.

Regarding GSHP, we have looked into them and decided not to install one, mainly on a cost/payback issue. We do not really have sufficient space for ground loops so the only alternative would be boreholes, which as you know, are horrendously expensive. However, I did find a lower price alternative to boreholes. This company (http://www.lankelma.co.uk/) are Dutch; they bang something like scaffold poles into the ground, drop the GSHP flow/return pipes into the tube, give the tube a twist to unscrew the pointed base, and extract the tube, leaving the ground to encase the flow/return pipes. They apparently usually go 25-30 metres deep, so 4 x 25m deep holes would give a total pipe length of 200m in a very compact space with minimal disruption to the garden. I believe they are not as expensive as normal boreholes but certainly much faster.

My reply:

Yes, the fact that a 450l tank is the biggest that I have yet been able to find being marketed in the UK is not great. My feeling is that In any case I'd want at least double that or more to carry several days' heat especially in winter when there are often several overcast days in a row.

Also, the appropriate British Standard still allows over 2kWh/day of heat to escape from a ~250l tank, which seems too high for modern designs. I could not find what the TORRENT 450 tank loss was specified as: did you run across a number from them?

Yes, the Japanese-style bath is interesting. I remember signs reminding foreigners like me to remember to wash before getting in the bath when I was in Tokyo, and for reasons of hygiene if nothing else I still do some washing before filling the bath. (Actually, I'm keen on greywater heat recovery too if it can be done well to help trim the heat loss.)

PS. I've just run across consolar.co.uk who have (a) a very sensible sizing guide amongst other things and (b) stores up to 2200l.

The Rex came back to me on the greywater/bathing issue:

Thanks for the Consolar link, I was looking for it. Every manufacturer has a different system and how to find (and buy the best/most efficient) is very difficult. I happen to like the Tisun solar heating system, but I have no logical reason; likewise, the Consolar seems to use a similar solar heating system, stratifying the water. One UK company that seems to be popular is DPS, but they don't make large or well insulated tanks. However, they do use an external plate heat exchanger to heat the DHW. What are the benefits over having a coil within the thermal store? Beats me. They state that the heat exchanger can be easily replaced but why should it need to be? Guess you pays your money and makes your choice!

You are obviously familiar with the Japanese bathing method. My parents-in-law now only fill their bath about twice a week, heating it every evening and topping up as necessary. Shower, soap and scrub outside the tub, climb in for a nice submersed soak. It's great. There are soaking tubs available but they are just a different shaped bath. The best I have found is actually Australian (http://www.japanesebath.com.au/) and not so outrageously priced. I did e-mail them about the Japanese style of bath water heating but their response was that it was unhygienic and therefore dangerous to the health. Yeah, 150 million Japanese find it unhealthy too!

I have even thought about getting a Japanese heating unit next time we are there but I can foresee all kinds of connection problems, let alone a CORGI man taking a deep intake of breath and deeming it dangerous. My parents-in-law have their heater on the outside wall, adjacent to the bathroom. No larger than a desktop computer; the controller is in the bathroom. Hit the on button to fire it up, set the timer and away you go. Water flow is by convection, no pumps involved. Just an inlet and outlet into the bath. If I could get something like this at a reasonable cost, I would also insulate the bath, which is something one never sees. Don't think Japanese baths are insulated but after the bath, one covers the water with a top (sometimes floating) and usually the next evening, the water still has a bit of residual warmth.

I have even investigated Jacuzzi in-line heaters but they don't seem to provide sufficient heat to get a bath up to soaking temp in 15/20 minutes, which is the time my parents'-in-law takes. But then, a Jacuzzi heater is designed to handle a lot more water and not to get to bathing temps.

Regarding reclaiming the heat from a bath, I have also looked into it a little and found this gadget; these links; http://www.gfxtechnology.com/index.html, http://www.lowheat.iphe.org.uk/ (but I don't think anything exists yet; also see http://www.eurekamagazine.co.uk/article/9915/Keeping-in-the-heat.aspx) but I'm not sure how this kind of heat recovery works. After all, the waste heat from the bath, although considerable, will be cooler than water in the thermal store, so I guess there would have to be another heat exchange unit, low on the store, similar to the solar exchanger. Probably not really worth it. Can't afford my next idea, but a very large buried collection tank in the garden to collect warm waste water could have collector coils for the heat pump to extract the warmth. But what happens when the heat has been removed?

For grey water, there is this toy (http://h2oplc.com/grey_water.htm) from Germany I think, but it is probably more complex and expensive than necessary. If we can use the Japanese system, have a diverter on the bath outflow, almost clean water could be sent to a holding tank for reuse or directed to the the sewerage system when the holding tank is full. But as I said previously, if that water is used for toilet flushing, there will almost certainly be more than we can use so would still have quite a lot of wastage.

And then my non-expert guess as to why the suggestion of 'unhealthiness' may have arisen:

I think that most thermal stores will benefit from stratification so you get hotter water than you really deserve for the energy put in!

As for the Japanese bathing system being 'dangerous' I think the danger may be Legionella (and other bugs) that can breed in water kept below 60°C and not heated above that before use. I seem to remember the very few Japanese baths that I took being excruciatingly hot, even by my 'asbestos' standards, so the water may conceivably have been at or just over 60°C. [probably ~40°C]

I saw the GFX thing, thanks, and one of us does take showers, so that might cover some of our usage. The bath is more problematical since the cold water for heating for the bath is not being drawn when the warm water goes down the drain, of course, and also, as you said, it's not obvious that it will be warmer than much or any of the store.

My current thought is either to use it to heat the seasonal thermal store if possible, or to use the heat pump to quickly pump its heat into the house store if possible, or to use it to take the chill off a holding tank of incoming mains water destined for the DHW system (but not getting it warm enough to allow bugs to breed in the chlorinated water). Dunno. I hope to have a chat with a Man Who Really Knows [who advises the UK government].

As to cleaning the greywater enough to use in WC cisterns and stuff: that does seem like quite hard work and think it is more suited to a place where water itself is scarce, which is not (yet, often) the UK. I have a friend in Malta who uses a well in his garden (which may or may not be potable) for WCs and for cooling/heating with a heat pump AFAIK. They really do have a horrible shortage of water, with much of it being desalinated seawater using expensive electricity from inefficient oil-burning generators. I think that the UK authorities don't want greywater to sit around untreated anywhere to breed bugs, so any reasonable solution will involve its quick exit to the sewer (with minimal obstructions to prevent gumming up with the detritus, soap, hair, etc) one way or another I suspect.

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