Mar 12, 2016: Reader Feedback and Lithium Issues

In last week’s newsletter I wrote about how Australian ‘standard practices’ for the insulation and air-sealing of buildings leave a lot to be desired. This clearly touched a chord with readers and I received a number of affirmative responses.

Architect Mary Bowe of Coolfield Pty Ltd made the following comments:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on ‘standard practices’.  It really is appalling what is continuing to happen in the building industry and how much vigilance it requires to get a job well done. 
I do not know the answers. 
In 2011 from Darwin I project managed  our Brisbane house rebuild after the floods.  The house was stripped down to the internal framework, and there were a number of occasions when I had to stand my ground to stop shoddy practises happening.  A couple of examples – the house ended up with far less insulation than previously, and incurred costs down the track to bring it back up to speed, there was no consideration in the electrical fitout that the house was solar powered, and we had to replace all of the fittings to return to the previous energy efficiencies, and there were a number of disagreements over whose responsibility it was to rectify work, eg, the builder, the plumber, the tiler….  Wasn’t too great to find one of the showers had not been connected back to the drainage system, and was pouring out under the house etc etc.  
In a later renovation trying to specify “green” products often ended in the “too hard basket”and a reversion to known products when time constraints did not allow for research of alternatives.  Frequently sub-contractors had no idea of how to work with ESD products, felt threatened by the requests, and certainly did not read the instructions let alone keep up to date with new products and processes on the market.
This year I have made the decision to study building certification through UniSA to meet the academic requirements of a building surveyor. (Grad Dip in Built Env – Building Surveying).   This ties my architectural degree and my compliance background together.  I think there is great scope to be a “green certifier”.  With a return to Queensland on the horizon, and the imminent need to work with NSW building surveyors to gain experience, straight away the different legislative requirements and building practises between states and territories becomes apparent.  With one foot in NSW and the other in Qld it is very apparent we need to continue pushing for national regulation.  It will be a challenging course for me, with many of the other uni participants having extensive experience in building certification, but it really is all part of the change we need to have.
I am a great believer in simplifying regulations. Coming back to Australia after a long stint in America I was stunned by how much red tape we have to wade through to get anything built around here. It doesn’t help that every state has different rules and different ways of measuring performance. As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, I firmly believe that we need higher standards for energy efficiency and I agree with Mary that we need consistency across state borders. An old boss of mine in the States once said that ‘a house that complies with all of the building codes and standards is the WORST house that you are legally allowed to build‘. This is completely true and is a very eye-opening way to look at building codes. In our own projects we always aim for much higher energy performance than the minimum allowed. Unfortunately the big builders are always aiming to get away with the minimum possible in order to maximise their profit. This is why Australia will have to raise the standards in order to see a significant reduction in carbon emissions from our buildings.

Another reader, Leon, wrote:We bought an existing house down the road from you in Braemar last year. One issue we’ve had is that every electrician and cabler we’ve had has moved ceiling insulation to fit new lights and wiring, and has NOT put the batts back. I found this out after winter when I had to go into the roof space and found about 10% not insulated and the batts just pushed aside.

This is not a case of they had to keep them away from downlights but rather just laziness. I am sure this practice is extremely widespread. Our last house was about 12 years old and had to have wall insulation when it was built. When we had the kitchen renovated the Gyprock had to come off and half was not insulated and huge gaps exisited. As you mentioned, there is no checking of this and how would anyone know what has been insulated or not?

Leon is spot on. I worked for a number of years doing energy audits on homes in Montana and I can honestly say that I can’t remember EVER going into an attic and finding all of the insulation in its proper place. Electricians, plumbers and heating contractors are all notorious for moving insulation out of the way in order to install or repair something and NOT putting it back. It is certainly laziness combined with a lack of awareness about the importance of proper insulation and air sealing. And these are just two of the ten factors that all have to work together to maximise energy efficiency. As Leon reiterates, the fact that Australian building codes do not require any sort of third-party verification of the insulation and air sealing means that builders can and do get away with a lot of shoddy work and home-owners end up paying the price over the long-term with higher-than-necessary energy bills.

Issues with Lithium Batteries

A Lithium battery that exploded recently

A Lithium battery that exploded recently

A friend of mine, Manuel Cilla of Ciletric Pty Ltd, specialises in off-grid solar power systems and sent me the above photo a few days ago with the warning, ‘Never, never install Lithium batteries inside‘. I had read about the danger of Lithium batteries catching fire or exploding but this is the first time I’ve seen first-hand evidence of the problem.

Another friend who is very knowledgeable about battery storage systems added that: ‘It is worth pointing out that the manufacturer is a company called Growatt. This is a Chinese manufacturer, who I suspect is at the very low end of manufacturing quality. I have certainly never heard of them before. I would definitely never consider buying a battery from a cheap Chinese supplier. 

They say that this model (SP2000 I think) has a lithium iron (LiFe) battery chemistry, i.e. not Lithium Phosphate. Tesla uses Nickel, Manganese Cobalt. Panasonic uses something else, I think. If I recall correctly LiFe is at the higher fire risk end.
It does seem to me that fires caused by Lithium batteries are a fairly rare occurrence but I learned something even more troubling about Lithium batteries at a talk I attended last night. The talk was about a new type of battery called the Ultrabattery which is a cross between a Lead-acid battery and a supercapacitor. This technology was developed by the CSIRO and then sold to an American company who are now marketing it through Ecoult. Some of the presentation was over my head but it does seem that the Ultrabattery has some definite advantages in certain situations. One of the many benefits that the presenter listed is that Lead-acid batteries are readily recyclable and that something like 95% of them are actually recycled. By contrast, according to him, Lithium batteries are extremely difficult and expensive to recycle so most of them are simply incinerated. I have not yet been able to find reliable information to confirm or deny this assertion so if any readers know more about it please let me know.
With Tesla on the verge of opening its Gigafactory to produce a massive amount of Lithium batteries and with the huge surge globally in interest in battery storage systems it would be very useful to understand the full list of pros and cons of Lithium battery technology.

3 comments to Mar 12, 2016: Reader Feedback and Lithium Issues

  • Mark

    It appears I’m going to have to look pretty carefully to find the right builders for any of our eco-renovation works to get the right results! We are hoping to do an efficiency retrofit over the next few years, and it would be a real shame to go to the effort and expense then find the insulation hadn’t been installed properly.

    In terms of lithium battery recycling I do believe this is just a matter of critical mass. Lead acid batteries have been around for a century and in this time the infrastructure has developed around them. Lithium is, as far as I know, highly recyclable in terms of recovery rates (even if the packs might be difficult to work with). It’s also reasonably scarce, and reasonably expensive (although prices are dropping). The fact it’s also often used in much larger systems (much bigger than a starter battery) means you tend to have a lot of it in one spot. It should be easier to get 16+kwh of batteries in one pack to a recycling plant, than to do so across hundreds of units in different locations.

    At this point I just think we aren’t seeing a lot of batteries reach end of life. I believe at this stage nearly every failed EV battery has been taken back by the manufacturer for analysis and testing – people are actually keen to get a hold of them and are often unable to. There is great possibility for secondary stationary reuse of these battery packs before they are recycled (I have heard the Nissan LEAF factory uses old LEAF packs for power storage).

    I understand large format Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries are now generally recovered for recycling – but it took about ten years.

  • Andrew

    I had been interested in this battery and was naturally concerned by the photo. Can you provide any more info about the circumstances? Was the incident reported to any authority? The battery looks to be a Growatt GBLI 5001 or 5002 battery which is normally paired with a Growatt SP2000 charge controller. The SP2000 is meant for indoor installation with a immersion protection (IP) rating of 20. I can’t find the IP rating for the battery but presumably the battery is meant for indoor installation as well.

  • The world of batteries is complex with most technologies suffering challenges. Lithium batteries are not recycled generally back into batteries as the cost is prohibitive and the storage capacity is compromised. In germany they grind them up and use them as road base. The tesla battery is panasonic technolgy made under license and his factory (paid for by the state of nevada) will service his cars. Lithium can and does burn due to the very exact nature of the manufacturing which is in microns of tolerances. The ecoult system is interesting. The best one for homes is probably the redflow system. Batteries are still relativlely expensive and not that cost effective yet. I’d like to know how your system works delivering power 24/7? Do you have a battery system and if so what size and cost?
    Gordon hinds

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