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Rescuing council buildings with robots and wireless tech

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Gareth Harcombe, operational manager of energy and sustainability at City of Cardiff Council, explains how the authority used advanced technology to heat, insulate and even rescue its public buildings.

The City of Cardiff Council has been supporting the development of some innovative new technologies that could help to increase the uptake of energy efficiency measures in hard to treat and sensitive historic buildings. 

The city council’s ‘Heritage Retrofit’ project is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), funded jointly by the Welsh government and Innovate UK. The £525,000 project was run as a competition, where companies were invited to come forward with innovative new ideas to improve the energy efficiency of historic buildings whilst also preserving their special character. The project was inspired by the council’s joint responsibilities to encourage energy efficiency and to protect and enhance the historic built environment, and a frustration that these two ambitions sometimes appeared to be in conflict. 

The council launched the competition at the end of 2013, and over 30 innovative ideas from a wide range of organisations were received. The council then drew together a panel of experts from Innovate UK, Welsh government, Cardiff University and Cadw [the Welsh government’s historic environment service] to help assess the applications. 

The panel selected the six most promising ideas which each received funds to help them carry out detailed feasibility studies. Following this stage, the three schemes that showed the most potential were then offered a larger contract to enable a prototyping and demonstration stage. The products of these projects are now being installed and tested in a number of city council buildings. 

Avoiding energy misuse in schools 

The first is an innovative heating control system called heatboss developed by Okotech Ltd. Their smart wireless radiator control valves and room thermostat control system have been retrofitted to an existing wet central heating system at Kitchener Primary School in Cardiff, integrated with the underlying building management system (BMS). The system’s central control hub then allows operators to control temperatures and on/off times for each room individually, ensuring that the correct heat is used only when and where it’s needed. Its intuitive web application also means that the system can be controlled remotely if necessary. 

The heatboss system overcomes installation issues encountered by other smart energy management devices, with its non-invasive ‘plug and play’ installation process with minimal hard wiring requirements, and its innovative communication system where devices relay messages and commands to the next nearest valve and onwards to the main control hub, creating a mesh network. This has helped address some of the wi-fi limitations often encountered in very large or historic buildings with thick stone walls. Analysis since the system was installed in November 2015 is already indicating energy savings in the region of 25-33%. 

Business man with ipad tablet

Rescuing 18th century buildings 

The second project is testing a new fast-setting lime mortar developed by Vivus Solutions Ltd. Many old buildings were built using used lime-based products, but these have fallen out of favour in recent decades as they can take many weeks to set and are harder to work with than modern materials. Vivus has developed a non-hydraulic lime product that can set fast enough to allow same-day finishing of internal plasters and external finishes.

This is being tested in a renovation project at Mill Cottage, an 18th century city council-owned property. The lime has been used as a base material to repoint and wash exterior stone walls, and as a key component in a new internal wall insulation product. Like traditional lime, the Vivus Solution actively promotes “breathability”, which ensures that moisture can pass through the walls, reducing internal humidity and dampness. This has both energy efficiency and health benefits. The product is also fire retardant and insulating due to its very low thermal conductivity. Mill Cottage will soon be occupied again and monitoring will continue over the next few years to assess the long-term impacts. 

Insulating with robots 

The third project is testing the use of robotics to insulate older buildings. Moon-buggy style robots have been designed by Q-Bot Ltd to be placed in the void beneath floorboards in traditional buildings (pictured on p46). Using remote controls, they drive across the rough terrain, scan it and insulate the floorboards from beneath. 

The robots not only spray insulation material to adhere to the underside of the boards but also create a 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) model of the area. This helps guide the robot and provides quality assurance after the installation. The costly and disruptive process of removing furniture and floorboards before such work is undertaken is avoided. The project is currently undergoing an extensive testing and monitoring phase in a lab based environment, and a real-life insulation using Q-Bot robots will take place on the site of Roath Park Primary School later this year.

Reducing carbon footprint 

The Heritage Retrofit project has been an unusual and exciting one for Cardiff City Council, who hopes that it can highlight less invasive ways to retrofit older buildings, making them more energy efficient whilst at the same time preserving their special historic character. With 34% of buildings in Wales being over 100-years-old, the onward market for successful and cost-effective products could be significant. 

The council and its funding partners hope that the endeavours of the project will also help to support and create jobs as well as reduce our carbon footprint in the future. The project is part of Cardiff City Council’s wider Energy Innovation Programme which currently includes six live projects covering a range of research and development into renewable energy and energy efficiency. Collectively these have brought in over £2m of external funding to support and extend the council’s carbon reduction efforts.

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