Why you need a Raspberry Pi

The current king of the Raspberry Pi board offerings: the Model 4B (credit)

I wasn’t originally planning on getting an upgrade. My old Raspberry Pi Model 3B was a little old, sure, but it still had a reasonable amount of grunt. But it had seen better days. But since I’ve been rediscovering my creative side – I’m finding it a bit lacking.

I’d bent two of the pins which made getting accessories on and off it a pain. The power lead I had wouldn’t always stay in as I’d broken off one of the clips. And the micro SD card slot was what could charitable be called ‘loose’. I’ve been developing code straight on the device instead of porting it from my desktop to the Pi and back and it’s just a tad too slow at doing basic things like opening windows and copying files.

So I started reading up on what the latest offering from the Raspberry Pi Foundation was and what it could do.

Raspberry Pi who?

But let’s step back a minute. What is a Raspberry Pi and why do you need one?

The Raspberry Pi is a small credit card sized computer, designed and built by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It’s based mostly on the same processors and technology that you would find in a modern mobile phone but has some exciting additional hardware such as USB ports, HDMI outputs, built in wireless connectivity and perhaps most importantly GPIO (General Purpose Input / Output) pins that allows it to control a range of electronic devices from LEDs to radio transmitters to motors to cameras.

Along with this hardware, you can run a number of operating systems on their boards including the recommended Raspberry Pi OS, as well as Ubuntu, Android and even a very lightweight version of Windows! The recommended programming language for a Raspberry Pi is Python but all sorts of code and languages can be run on the thing.

If you (or perhaps a relative) have even the slightest interest in computers, programming, electronics or robotics and you don’t own one – I really think you need to try one out. The capacity to wire up your own hardware and program your own software in one little (cheap!) package is truly astounding and I only wish I’d had the option when I was 12 years old and messing around with the family’s bulky beige horrible Dell desktop computer.

But which one should you get? And how much is it?

My (current) Raspberry Pi board collection. That Model 1B is an original run one from 2012!

If you look at their current products page, I believe there are 9(!) models available to purchase. Every new generation has brought more powerful and efficient CPU cores and board features at roughly the same £35 price for the xB model so my general advice if you are brand new to the Raspberry Pi family is to buy the latest Model B variant which right now is the same Model 4B that I purchased a few days ago.

A Model 3B+ (the + is important and a distinct model from the Model 3B) would also be a reasonable choice as while it lacks some of the newer features on the Model 4B, it is a tried and tested design and is capable of great things at low power consumption.

The final recommendation is for a Zero W or Zero WH (the WH has the GPIO pins soldered on already, the W does not) where you need minimal processing power and low energy usage is a requirement. Something like a remote battery powered weather station could be a good idea for one of these. I would however avoid these until you’ve mastered building and programming on a Model 3B+ or Model 4B first as these things are slow in comparison.

If you’d like to use a Raspberry Pi roughly as a desktop replacement – such as browsing the web, writing code on the board itself or playing Minecraft on it (it comes included for free!) then I would recommend the cheapest 2GB RAM version. If your interests are more AI training, video transcoding or large databases with caching then I probably don’t need to tell you that the 4GB or 8GB RAM versions are probably more up your street. I personally went for the 4GB version for a little bit of future-proofing and because I don’t expect to upgrade for a while.

Comparing the specifications

I’ve compiled a nice little table below which summarises the major differences (with a Model 3B as I don’t own a Model 3B+).

Model 4BModel 3BZero W(H)
CPU Cores4x Cortex A-72
@ 1.5 Ghz
4x Cortex A-53
@ 1.2 Ghz
1x ARM1176JZF
@ 1 Ghz
RAM2 / 4 / 8 GB DDR4 (!)1 GB DDR2512 MB DDR2
GPUVideoCore VI
@ 500 Mhz
VideoCore IV
@ 250 Mhz
VideoCore IV
@ 250 Mhz
USB Ports2x USB 3.0 (!)
2x USB 2.0
4x USB 2.01x USB 2.0
(micro USB)
Video Output2x micro-HDMI
(up to 4K(!))
(up to 1080p)
1x mini-HDMI
(up to 1080p)
Wi-Fib/g/n/ac dual band
2.4/5.0 Ghz
b/g/n 2.4 Ghzb/g/n 2.4 Ghz
Bluetooth5.0(!)4.1 BLE4.1 BLE
Ethernet1 Gb/s (!)100 Mb/sN/A
Supported storagemicroSD card
Boot from SSD
microSD card
Boot from SSD
microSD card
Price~£35 (2GB)
~£55 (4GB)
~£75 (8GB)
~£32~£9.30 (w/o headers)
~£13.50 (/w headers)
The highlights of each member of the Raspberry Pi family I would recommend

You can see why I would recommend the Model 4B over the Model 3B and why I felt it was time for an upgrade. The CPU cores are much faster (more on this in a minute), the GPU is faster, there is support for USB 3.0 speeds (woohoo!) as well as better Wi-Fi speeds, better Bluetooth support, double the RAM and up to 10x the wired internet connection speeds and all for the same £35 price I paid back in 2016!

Ain’t technological process grand eh? I even took the liberty of bench-marking the above boards against each other to show just how much powerful each of them are. Bare in mind that the Zero W(H) has the same processor in it as the original Model 1B I purchased way back in 2012, which again cost £35 at the time.

I ran the below command on each Raspberry Pi, with a Pimoroni Fan Shim attached which helps cool the boards down and extract maximum performance from them. This is solely to test the single core performance of each board as the Zero W(H) does not have four cores like the other two models.

sysbench --test=cpu --cpu-max-prime=25000 --num-threads=1 run

This does a simple calculation on the CPU that works out all the prime numbers from 1 to 25,000 and records the time taken and the average numbers considered per second.

As you can see from my results above, the Raspberry Pi Model 4B absolutely creams its predecessor the Model 3B. The Zero W(H) with its very old CPU core architecture never stood a chance. In fact, on a normalised run where both run at 1 Ghz clock speed, the Model 4B is 66% faster than the Zero W(H)!

And finally comparing the full power of both the Model 3B and Model 4B, I put them in a head to head with all four cores blazing to see what the result would be, using the below command.

sysbench --test=cpu --cpu-max-prime=25000 --num-threads=4 run

Incredibly, the Model 4B is a whole 18 degrees cooler when running (with a fan) which goes to show just how more efficient its cores are. At full tilt it is also delivering 50% more performance than the Model 3B. If you can’t tell, I had a lot of fun comparing these boards to each other to validate them!

How much does all this cost to setup?

On top of the actual Raspberry Pi itself, you will need a few additional items to get up and running. Some are optional, like my SSD below. I’ve compiled a list of recommended parts to get you started and some optional extras at the bottom. I’m assuming you have a keyboard, mouse and monitor / TV you can use already.

My current setup for the new Raspberry Pi Model 4B with external SSD
  • Raspberry Pi Model 4B (£35 / £55 / £75)
  • USB-C Power Supply (£7.50) or any recent USB-C mobile phone charger
  • A micro-HDMI to HDMI dongle (£3.60) or direct micro-HDMI to HDMI cable (£5.10)
  • A case to protect your Pi is recommended (£6.00)
  • A microSD card, ideally 16 GB or greater (32 GB: £9.00)

Total: £53.60 to £82.60

If you are feeling adventurous and wish to push your Pi to its limits then the following would also be highly recommended:

  • An excellent quality 120 GB solid state drive (£20.39)
  • A SATA to USB 3.0 adapter for your SSD (£6.00)
  • A fan to keep your Pi cool and running fast (£9.90)

That’s very cool but what can I do with it?

My recent delivery containing what I needed to get my new Raspberry Pi up and running (clockwise from top-left: case, power supply, micro-HDMI dongle, Raspberry Pi Model 4B)

The short answer is, whatever you can think of! There’s a huge community out there sharing ideas, projects and the latest quirks they’ve found with their boards. I am personally looking into building my own home automation kit – smart lights, smart switches, a more intelligent charger for my car and my wife’s incoming electric moped. I’m even toying with designing and programming my own smart thermostat. Partially for the learning experience but also because I don’t want to have to sign up to another bloody account and have all my data sitting on someone else’s server – and them charging me a subscription fee for the privilege! But that rant is for another day.

You don’t have to be like me to enjoy tinkering with things – sometimes it’s just cool to own a unique piece of technology and let someone else sort out all that faff and just download and run cool things on your own custom little computer…!

Let me know in the comments if there’s any other tinkerers lurking out here and what sort of projects you’ve come up with!

2020 Q2 Update: Long days, short weeks

Throwing away time at such a rapid pace (credit)

Has it really been 3 months already since the last update?! I think I’m finally understanding the phrase “The weeks are long but the years are short”. We have been in lock down for about 15 weeks now (tracked by our exercise regime) and it is frankly worrying how fast it feels those weeks have gone by.

I’ve personally been heading up a new rapid delivery project in which we had 6 weeks to deliver a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and I have been doing some very long hours to ensure its success. Fortunately that came to a close last week and I have now taken a week off to try and recharge the batteries before I get chucked at a new one that starts next week.

In the meantime, a couple of my friends have been furloughed. They’re in different industries to mine, but it reminds me I am lucky to be in the position I am currently and I should make hay while the Sun shines. I’m not actually sure if there will be any redundancies or furloughs at my company anymore as there still seems to be an uptick in work which is great. On the other hand, having not had a proper break since Christmas – I’m running on fumes.

Much like weenie’s recent post on information overload, I got too stuck into tracking the Coronavirus and have since been trying to dramatically cut down my screen time and reading about world events. I have enough on my plate already!

Anyway, back to the post at hand, I promised myself I would write these updates quarterly to keep myself accountable with the plan (which I revisited recently) and to make myself reflect on my accomplishments over the year. So first of all, let’s bring back the list from Q1 of what I wanted to achieve:

  • Get fitter with Insanity and enjoy more time at home
  • Push as much money into my ISA as possible before being furloughed
  • Play more games with friends (online of course!) as I have more free time
  • Finish paying off the car loan (less than £3,000 to go)!

Update on the goals

Insanity and enjoying home time – PASS!

My wife and I are currently on Week #15 of our Insanity Workout, which is impressive considering it’s only a 9 week workout (we’re going through it again). I have trimmed down from a slightly worrying 84 KG to more svelte 80 KG, I can nearly see my abs again, and I’m finding the workouts a bit easier to get through. At some point I may move back into doing weight training – my garage home gym currently sits covered in cob-webs. However both my wife and I use our evening workouts as the hard cut-off time to stop working and do something together, so we may just keep going for the foreseeable future.

Fill up ISA – PASS!

Due to having a flexible ISA and not quite filling it up last tax year (car purchase *cough*), I have £24,000 to fill up this tax year and I have setup a Direct Debit to push £2,000 into it every month. So far I’ve hit every month, so I’m still on track for now. I may have a bit of a cash flow issue next month though. As it looks like I won’t be getting furloughed any time soon, I hope to hit the full amount by April next year.

Play games with friends – FAIL!

I have completely failed at this and they are (rightfully) giving me crap about it! My work hours, plus workout time plus getting some good home-cooked food in me has left me shattered. I really wish I could spare the time during the week but it’s just not happening right now. As the UK opens up a bit, I hope to be able to pop over and see them more in the coming months.

Pay off car loan – PASS!

As of last month, I am car loan free! My Tesla Model 3 is mine and mine alone haha!

Solar House Project

Unlimited power…!!! (credit)

We are well into the swing of a British summer and I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s been pretty hot the past few weeks! The solar panels have produced an additional 1,441 kW of electricity in the past 3 months(!) and July and August look set to be extremely sunny as well this year.

And as an interesting aside – since I’m not driving the car all that much, apart from the occasional long distance trip, I haven’t paid more than about £1 overall for the electricity to charge it in the past 3-4 months. Outstanding!

And a potential new addition to The Solar House Experiment

Ramping up the household electric transportation! (credit)

As we’re nearing (hopefully) the end of lock down, my wife has had a bit of a dilemma. She normally relies on the Tube and buses to get around to see her clients and visit her central London office space but she’s (rightfully I feel) concerned about using public transport. As a one car family, there’s no guarantee that my car will be available for her whenever she needs it and, frankly, she hates driving.

One potential solution we’re exploring is for both of us to get out CBT certificates and for her to try out an electric moped for herself. As a self-employed accountant / tax specialist she knows a few tricks to buy it as tax efficiently as possible (I don’t have a clue, don’t ask me) and will potentially be using that as her main mode of transport, at least while it’s not freezing cold outside.

We went shopping for all the gear last week and now have our own fitted helmets, armoured jackets and jeans and all that good stuff to help her be confident on the road. We will book our CBT courses, pass that and then start hunting for a suitable moped (or motorbike?) that she can comfortably ride. She would like an electric one (so would I) but we’ll have to see what’s available and how far she’s willing to stretch her budget – but exciting times!

Net Worth Updates

And finally, how has my net worth changed in the past 3 months?

For the most part, it has been business as usual, just topping up the contributions with monthly amounts. I’m trying to add £2,000 a month to my ISA to use up my limit (and a timely article over at Monevator about ISA amounts in the UK was a fun rabbit hole) as well as continuing to contribute the maximum amount my company will let me into their pension scheme. Obviously the gains look massive compared to last quarter but that’s because the stock market (not the economy) has bounced back with loads of government bailouts and stimulus to keep things going around the world. I am slightly fearful of a greater crash that is being delayed right now.

Since the beginning of April I have just been buying a Global Bonds ETF from Vanguard (VAGP) each month which is shoring up my position to buy if there is an oncoming crash. My bonds / equities split is near 33% and 66% respectively at the moment. I generally try and be more conservative with my ISA in case I would need some of it in the near (1-3 year) term. I am not holding a whole lot of cash right now due to having paid off my car loan and trying to max out the ISA each month.

The company pension is simply buying a 25 / 75 mix of Global Bonds and Global Equity trackers and I don’t intend to do much else but let it carry on as-is for now. I probably won’t be able to touch it for 30 years anyway! If a good buying opportunity comes along, I’ll switch some of the bonds to equities.

Here’s how the overall situation is looking right now:

March 2020 ended at around £220k, whereas June 2020 ended at around £261k
(Blue is non-pension stuff, Orange is pension stuff (SIPP / Company Pension))
Investment2020 Q1Contributions2020 Q2Difference
(minus Contributions)
A table showing the contributions made in the past 3 months (a nice recovery!)

Plans & Goals for Q3

I fear I’m going to have another quarter of long work hours, but hopefully a reduction in the lock down will allow me to get out and see people a bit more. So on that basis:

  • Continue with Insanity workout (for now)
  • Push another £6,000 into the ISA
  • See at least 1 friend a week in person!
  • Pass the CBT exam and see what happens afterwards
  • Have a proper holiday away from the house!

What are your own goals for the coming summer? Keep safe and have a good one!

Revisiting the race for FIRE

The never ending puzzle of forward planning, solved? (credit)

So some idiot started a blog and said in their first post that it was entirely possible for him to retire by 40 if he so wanted to. While he has detailed some of his story and financial history so far, he’s never really revisited that previous statement and tried to extrapolate out whether he’s actually likely or not to hit his targets. That original post was actually based on an old spreadsheet I’d devised a couple of years ago and have been adding monthly updates to – but I haven’t revisited the actual plan itself.

Having somewhat recently turned 31, I thought I should take a closer look of what my current position is, how things may continue (or not) and what obstacles or hurdles may stand in my way to the FIRE goal line.

The current situation

Having paid off my car loan now (woohoo!) my monthly essential expenses are down to around £1,200 a month or £14,400 a year. Essentials to me are defined as either “bad stuff will happen if I don’t pay them” (mortgage, council tax, utility bills, food) or “luxuries I am prepared to pay for in modern life” (broadband, mobile phone plan, Netflix, etc.). My wife and I split all household related bills 50/50 – so her monthly spend is actually less than mine as she’s not commuting right now, doesn’t own a car and doesn’t have expensive hobbies!

The first three levels of Maslow’s Pyramid should be covered by the above (credit)

At this level of spending (£28,000-ish for the two of us per year), my wife and myself could live quite happily day to day and not worry about the basics. I wouldn’t say it would be a life filled with with exotic adventures abroad and 5-star dining experiences – but we’d be okay if we never had to go to work again if we had a passive income equal to this amount. And we could still see our friends and family and have fun (tick for level three of the pyramid)!

I’ve actually decided to aim for around £12,000 a year as my half of the “essentials covered” passive income floor. There’s a couple of reasons for this:

  • Roughly £9,000 of that £14,400 is mortgage payments and that number will drop in 5 years (we’re on an aggressive repayment schedule)
  • We’ve invested money into bringing some of our costs down already and will do more in the future (petrol, electricity usage, gas usage)
  • My car insurance is very high at the moment (£1,000+) and this will drop as the car ages and electric cars become more mainstream (the cost of being on the cutting edge)

Based on much finger-in-the-air guessing and some reading at Monevator, I’ve settled (for now) on a 3.3% Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR), meaning that for a passive income of about £12,000 a year I would need about £360,000 of capital invested. I think I will need more than that personally, but it’s a good starting point to try and calculate from.

So let’s dig a little deeper into the problems I’m going to face in the next 9 years.

Problem #1: I have an outstanding mortgage of about £150,000 (my half)

This isn’t as bad as it seems as just by making my mortgage payment every month, the capital amount owed drops by about £7,000 every year. Having also read the tale of the Ermine struggling to manage his money between silos, I also see the benefit in holding off paying a small amount, say £12,500, of my half of the mortgage in case we have liquidity problems in the future.

That does still mean I need to find an extra ((£150,000 – £12,500) – (£7,000 x 9 years)) = £74,500 to overpay the mortgage in the next 9 years. This is equal to an extra £8,300 a year or about £690 a month of additional payments I’ll have to fund. I could divert my ISA contributions for a few years and do this easily, but then I’m giving up a hell of a tax break with the growth the ISAs could have. I’m not sure both is possible for me right now so it’s the age old question of investing verses paying off your mortgage.

Problem #2: Are we going to have children? How many? And when?

Needless to say, this is a very personal decision and I won’t be delving into any details here beyond saying we don’t really know, but our house has room to spare for them if/when we decide. Also, kids are expensive I’m told.

Problem #3: I probably won’t be able to access my pension till I’m 60

It’s extremely hard to plan 30 years out as all the rules with tax, pensions and anything related to finance will probably have changed by then. So at a rough guess, if I continue my pension contributions as-is until I am 40 and then let it continue to compound until I am 60 with no further contributions (a stab in the dark guess of when I can access my private pensions) then I should have in the region of £1 million. This assumes a 4% after inflation yearly compounding. This would provide roughly £33,000 a year of pre-tax income which sounds like a lot of fun money to me!

My problem is bridging the gap between 40 and 60. With a wild assumption that my yearly costs will be in the £12,000 region and if I’m running down the ISA in those 20 years then I would need about £240,000 saved in my ISA when I turn 40. If the current ISA allowance stays the same, at £20,000 a year, then I can potentially still make this. All it requires is putting the £1,666 a month into my S&S ISA for the next 9 years and I’ve made it! I’ve managed to max it out the past 3 years – can I do this for another 9/10…?!

Putting this all together

Putting aside the children question, here’s what my monthly outgoings would have to look like to stand a chance of hitting all of the above:

Money SiloAmount to Contribute (Monthly)
Outgoings (inc. mortgage)£1,200
Mortgage Overpayment£690
ISA Contribution£1,666
Pension Contribution£1,800*
Total:£3,556 (exc. pension)*
A rough guide on how much it would take to reach the above goals
*The pension contributions will stay the same, that 40% tax break is too good to give up

I earn good money – but it’s not that good. I could contribute less to the pension but I’d find it very hard to give up the 40% tax break just to chuck the money at my low interest rate mortgage. If I stick with keeping the pension the same, keep my outgoings about the same and keep maxing the ISA I would probably owe about £80,000 on my half of the mortgage when I’m 40. Looking up how much a 2% mortgage for 20 years would cost on that amount gives me a monthly figure of £405 compared to my current £750 a month, so there’s some wiggle room in there!

Based on all of the above I would estimate that it’s still doable for me to hit my “essentials FIRE” level by the time I’m 40, but I can make it easier on myself by overpaying the mortgage whenever possible if I have some spare cash sitting around. The gap from 40 to 60 would be the hardest, but once I hit 60 then it would be an easy ride through the remainder of my life. There’s a heck of a lot of assumptions in that sentence and I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, I know, but it’s better to have a rough plan than none at all!

The #1 reason most Daily Mail readers say they won’t bother saving for a rainy day (credit)

The happy unconsidered upsides

While those assumptions and figures up above are accurate for right now, there’s a few things that I haven’t taken into account that could swing things my way positively!

I’m still fairly young (so I tell myself) and am entering my prime earning years. If I’m still earning in 9 years time what I am right now, then something might have gone horribly wrong (or I cut my working days down to four or something, who knows). I have the technical certification to progress to the next level now and once I have some more experience I’ve already been told I’ll be put forward for promotion which is always nice to hear.

None of the above factors in any bonuses that I may (or may not) receive. The past few years I’ve been putting them straight into my pension but I may ease off and hit the mortgage more as it is by far my biggest monthly outgoing, dwarfing everything else. I never count on the bonuses though – they aren’t guaranteed.

And of course the big one is, I may not actually ever completely quit work. I like my job for the most part – the people are smart, funny and enjoyable to work with. The pay is pretty good and while there is a high amount of travel (less so at the moment), I do find it pretty nice to have a clear divide between “work time” and “home time”. Again though, the children question rears its head as I certainly wouldn’t want to miss them growing up by being away all the time. Then again, I could switch into a new job if I wanted to…!

So if I may give myself a small dose of optimism – I think I’ll be okay whatever happens when I hit the big 4-0. I hope that work becomes 100% optional, but I’m also okay if it’s merely 80% optional.

Any tips or suggestions from you, the reader?

The joy of creation

When’s the last time you made something? (credit)

I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m now officially in my ‘early 30s’. Yep, once again the spinning of the Earth around the Sun has crept up on me and I’ve been another year on this planet. And it’s the age where you start thinking “Holy crap I graduated from University a decade ago! Where’d the bloody time go in the middle?!”.

I knew this was coming of course, but in the past couple of months I’ve really been trying to reflect on my life and what it is I want to do with it. With the certain circumstances the world is in right now anyway, I wonder if more people are reflecting on exactly what they thought life would be like. A majority of us seem to have clawed back at least an hour or two in the day from the lack of a commute or more flexible working-from-home hours. Despite my expectation that I might be furloughed in the near-future it seems like the company I work for is busier than ever and needs more man power to chuck at the projects!

Remembering the future

Anyway, I got the idea to write this post when a few months ago I came across an old notebook I’d jotted notes and sketches in when I was about a third younger than I am today. It was fascinating to read and a whole bunch of memories came back about a bunch of ideas and plans I’d had.

For example, in these notes was a pretty well planned out and designed (if I do so say myself) side-scrolling hack and slash game with a bunch of different enemies, how I would program them and what cool special attacks they would have. Looking at it now, with some actual knowledge of game design and proper computer work under my belt, I can’t help but think “Aww bless, he thought it would be that easy to put in some animation and hit detection”.

There were also some notes about the “Ultimate Gaming PC” I would need to build to be able to properly design, develop, and test my amazing creations with such cutting edge features as:

  • Intel i5 2500K CPU (quad core obviously),
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 (~£400 in 2010 money),
  • 8 GB of RAM, and a
  • 1TB 7200 RPM hard disk

Though of course back then this was merely a pipe dream. I didn’t have that amount of money to spend on something that would of probably been a fanciful but likely unfeasible past time. I spent a rather worrying amount of my time in my college and university days playing the incredibly popular MMO World of Warcraft. Having a top spec gaming PC would no doubt have lead me down the path of more time playing WoW (at fancier resolutions and settings of course) and boy am I glad I purposely dodged that bullet!

Oh God, they’ve brought back the original version I played… and I still remember my login details…

You can see where I invested my time and energy instead by reading through my financial history post. Despite a bumpy start, once I got going I decided to hit my career hard and spent long hours improving my skills and becoming known as a reliable deliverer of solid work, while taking a few steps into adulthood along the way – namely buying my first car, my first property and meeting and marrying the love of my life along the way. Oh and saving hard.

Perhaps a little too hard?

Being a child with the funds

This wasn’t in the notebook but I distinctly remember thinking back then that I wanted what I had right then: time to think, time to create, time to tinker, time to see friends and not worry about the next day – but with a bigger budget. A perfect mix of time, energy and money and the limitless possibilities that could be done with that.

I’ve got the money now. I’m still young and fit. The time had been missing element. It took a bloody pandemic to hit for me to slow down and realise, but I actually have just that bit more time than I once did. What did I always want to do in those younger days when time was so abundant and I wasn’t working late into the night to deliver to someone else’s deadline?

Learn. And then apply this knowledge to create.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the world of electronics, computers, software and coding. I like my job as it allows me a degree of flexibility to solve problems with computer code and software – but I don’t love it. The study and examinations I have to do to progress and stay relevant at my job feel far too much like work for me to enjoy the learning process.

Whereas something I choose to do, such as experimenting with electronics, originally through the excellent Lego Mindstorms kits (by the way have you seen all the kit you can get with them these days, wow!), and by proxy robotics and sensors and all that good stuff still captures my childhood-like imagination. And I honestly think there is no better time to dive into that pool of knowledge than right now!

Old habits die hard

But I have a problem. Much like The Saving Ninja, I’m allergic to spending money on things for myself. I don’t second guess blowing money for a nice meal out with friends. I’m more than happy to buy a round of drinks even if I’m the driver. I like to get people nice birthday gifts. But for myself I go through endless agonising trying to justify to myself that I can spend £15 on a new T-shirt (the old one was a bit ropey) or do I really want to spend that £3 on a sandwich when I could just make one at home.

I’ve been getting better at the spending aspect. We’re not talking about upping my lifestyle inflation to gourmet lunches out every day, ordering a massive £3,000 top sec computer and getting an Uber to travel 50 metres up the road every time, but I have decided to cut myself some slack. I’m doing well in life. I have enough savings that if I was fired tomorrow, for some reason, I could still make all my monthly payments for the next 6 years. Hell, a small part of why I bought my electric car was to prove I could spend the money (after going through the spreadsheet triage of justifications of course).

But what really drove me writing this post and reflect on just how much I had missed out on learning and creating new things was this post by Ermine. Both the post itself and the following discussion in the comments where he shared some knowledge on analogue thermistors (um, turns out I have a digital one, sorry Ermine) sparked something in me. I had been dabbling very lightly in some Python coding and I had an old Raspberry Pi 3 B from a few years ago I found under my bed and started tinkering with it again.

The joy of creation

Next thing I knew, I’d written web service calls, a text parser and was messing with a graphing API to deliver this majestic image of my house’s daily electricity consumption:

A Raspberry Pi calculating and displaying our household’s energy consumption for the day

And I can honestly say it was the best 4 hours of alone time I have enjoyed in these past few months of quarantine. I was immediately trying to work out how to add sensors, or a display, or would I be able to run it all off a battery or can I add a solid state drive to this or…

So I think, inadvertently, I have re-discovered some of the great joys of life that had seeped away unbeknown to me: curiosity of the unknown, the love of knowledge, experimentation and that feeling of success when all the different splayed out strands come together and your bloody code works exactly as you knew it (eventually) would!

And so over the past few weeks, I’ve dusted off some of my old discarded toys and purchased a whole load of new ones to play with:

I may have hit ‘peak’ Raspberry Pi accessories… still might get the new one though…

I’d like to think my past self is smiling, nodding, and saying “About damn time! Let’s get down to business!”.

Sometimes you have to spend money to save money

Paying for something that improves your life in the future is okay! (credit)

I forgot to check my blog’s email until recently and was very surprised to see that a couple of people had contacted me – thank you readers! This post is dedicated to one of them asking a pretty good question regarding the electric moped article’s conclusion.

“Instead of reducing your friend’s outgoings by switching to the moped instead of his car, haven’t you actually massively increased his outgoings for the next 3 years?”

Anonymous reader

I should point out that a couple of assumptions have been made here by our anonymous reader. Presumably we are assuming that my friend did not outright buy the moped with cash and has financed it or otherwise gotten a loan to pay for it. Also in the original post I think we determined the payback was roughly 2 years as well, but in fairness I hadn’t factored in him taking the CBT, getting a helmet and adequate riding clothing so maybe that would be nearer the mark.

So I thought it would be interesting to explore how my friend could potentially buy said moped with a couple of different options and then we’ll get into the meat of what this blog post is about – yes, sometimes you do indeed need to spend money to save money – as paradoxical as that sounds!

Moped financing options

Scenario #1: Person has enough cash on hand to buy moped outright.

In this instance the person gets immediate benefit from the new shiny electric moped and their monthly running costs are immediately reduced. Here they are looking just at what amount of time it would take for the moped to pay for itself (fuel costs vs price of moped and electricity costs) which was covered in the original article.

Scenario #2: Person finances on a 0% spending credit card and pays minimum.

The person applies for a 0% spending credit card, slaps the moped on that and then just pays the minimum balance (assumed to be 2.25% a month of the outstanding balance).

Scenario #3: Person finances on a 0% spending credit card and pays off in equal chunks.

The person applies for a 0% spending credit card, slaps the moped on that and then pays the amount off in equal chunks spread over the 0% months offered. I will assume 24 months based on a similar credit card I own.

Scenario #4: Person has poor credit and finances at 9.9% APR from seller over 2 years.

Perhaps your credit score is not good enough for one of those 0% cards and you don’t have the money on hand to buy it outright. Then in the worst case, a loan from the seller of the moped may be available, usually at a fairly high rate. Based on one of the sites where you can actually buy this moped, they offer a 9.9% APR loan so we’ll use that.

Let’s chart out these options and compare in how my friend has several options that could leave him better off or worse in the near term but better in the long term.

Graphing out the scenarios

Scenario #1Bought outright with cash.
Scenario #2aBought on 0% card, paid minimum
Scenario #2bBought on 0% card, paid minimum + fuel savings
Scenario #3aBought on 0% card, paid 1/24th back
Scenario #3bBought on 0% card, paid 1/24th back + fuel savings
Scenario #4aBought on 9.9% APR loan over 2 years
Scenario #4bBought on 9.9% APR loan over 2 years + fuel savings
A table summarising the scenarios outlined in the graph below
Chart comparing the scenarios (click to enlarge)

Taking the same scenario from the original article, my friend would be doing roughly 660 miles a month commuting to his office and back. We worked out his monthly savings from not driving his car would be about £110.52. He could either keep those savings to himself every month or he could put it towards the debt he took out to buy the moped (assuming he didn’t just use cash to buy it). Below is how much extra money he would have each month with each option (or less) at the beginning.

Scenario #1+ £110.52 a month (but bought moped with existing savings)
Scenario #2a+ £54.48 a month on average (but still has £1,851 to pay off)
Scenario #2b– £34.64 a month on average (but owns moped at the end of ~2 years)
Scenario #3a– £22.65 a month (but owns moped at the end of 2 years)
Scenario #3b– £169.65 a month (but owns moped after ~1 year)
Scenario #4a– £36.77 a month (but owns moped at the end of 2 years)
Scenario #4b– £147.29 a month (but owns moped after ~14 months)
A table showing the savings per month for each scenario

The wonderful thing about money is there’s generally several options to how to buy something. If you happen to have the savings upfront, you are basically getting a £1,326 return on your money every year as you immediately get to enjoy the fuel savings, equal to roughly a 41% return on investment.

If you’re stuck for cash but have a good credit score, you could borrow the ‘free’ money and stretch the payments out and you could still enjoy savings of over £50 a month in Scenario #2a! You of course do need to find the additional £1851 to pay off your 0% loan after the 2 years are up but I’d hope that’s not a struggle if you’re being smart with your money (you should have at least £1,300 from your fuel savings over 2 years *ahem*).

Where the debt is 0% I would try to stretch out the repayments to the maximum length of that period and no more so that I’m maximising the loan, thus Scenario #3a makes the most sense to me personally. Paying £22.65 a month for 2 years seems pretty reasonable. That’s less than one restaurant meal a month! And at the end of the 2 year period the moped would be owned by me and immediately I can ratchet up to saving £110.52 a month.

Whereas if the loan had a high APR I would be killing it ASAP, putting all my fuel savings into killing the debt such as in Scenario #4b. Yes, the moped is actually costing you an extra £150 a month, but the short term pain would mean that the moped would be owned by you faster and you’re paying that horrible interest rate for the minimum period possible. From month 15 onwards you can start enjoying those sweet sweet fuel savings properly though.

Of course these options exist for many aspects of life

This kind of thinking can apply to multiple areas of life. I mean there’s a reason people buy season tickets for trains – they work out cheaper over the longer term. I know I was never particularly happy about having to buy a season ticket into London in my old job but financially it made sense and my work offered 0% loans specifically for this so I took advantage of the scheme.

Bulk buying in supermarkets is another common example. A 10 kg bag of rice when compared to 10x 1 kg bags of rice is likely to be substantially cheaper (if a pain to get home without a car). Of course a 1 kg bag is much cheaper than a 10 kg bag on it’s own, but if you get through enough rice in a year it can make obvious sense.

Trading in your low MPG car for a higher MPG one? Same thinking.

Moving closer to your work place so the commute is shorter and less costly? Same thinking.

Higher upfront cost but lower ongoing expenses. Just make sure what you’re buying will actually be used as much as you expect, else it could have been cheaper to keep paying the ‘non-discount’ price. A good example is my wife and the local swimming pool. She likes to go once a week and they offered her a year membership (paid monthly). However, it worked out cheaper for her to just pay as you go once a week than bother with the hassle of the yearly payment. If she moved up to twice a week I think it would be marginally cheaper to take the membership but I imagine she’d still avoid it as some gym memberships are just an absolute pain to cancel (speaking from personal experience).

Have you made any purchases or decisions with a higher upfront cost that leads to lower ongoing costs? Let me know in the comments below!

Just £20,000 to save the world

Fling a light into the future, your children and grand-children will thank you (credit)

The timing of this post is probably not the best, but I wanted to write it anyway just so I can link to it in the future. It also became more relevant to me after a couple of conversations I had with my my Dad and one of my Uncles. Get comfy, this is going to be a long one.

We were discussing things like the quarantine, how a couple of my cousins were on furlough, what do you think the future will look like afterwards and we also got on the topic of solar panels and how more cars in the future will probably be electric. As you may know if you read this blog, I am very keen to get as many people as possible to buy into these technologies and accelerate the UK’s reduction on oil, gas and coal. The window to make this change is short and the sooner we start the better.

“You could install solar panels and buy a used electric car you know? I’ve done it and it works really well!”, I said.

“Nah, nothing I do will really make a difference. Plus it costs a lot of money to do and I may not be alive long enough for it to be worth it.”, said my Uncle. My Dad also agreed. They’re both just entering their early 60s.

This is the same man who recently spent over £40,000 doing up his kitchen. Now let me be perfectly clear here: It’s their money and they can spend it absolutely any way they want. I have no problem with that. What I do want to do in this post though is show just how much of a difference they really could make for a (relatively) small amount of money. I’ve done the leg work to show you just how big an impact you can have.

So before we begin, this is an appeal to the following people. Even if you aren’t one of the below yet, you may well be in the future. I only ask you keep this in mind when the time comes.

You are:

  • A homeowner in a detached / semi-detached / bungalow property
  • Have off-street parking
  • Have no debts other than your mortgage
  • Have potentially up to £20,000 available / willing to invest in alternate strategies

I’m aware that’s a bit of a tall order, but anyone who’s interested in their finances will get there at some point. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30 (like me) or over 60. If you read this blog or any of the other excellent FIRE / investing ones I guarantee you’ll get there one day.

The CO2 impact of the UK

In 2018 the UK produced, as a whole, 451.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Here’s a breakdown of what that amount consisted of:

For this discussion I will be focusing on the three I think you can make the biggest impact on right now: Transport, Energy Generation and Residential. These make up 66% of that graph.

Your house

The average household in the UK uses 5,129 kWh of electricity a year (based on 2014 data). Each kWh used releases about 309g of CO2. So the average household is releasing 1,584 kg of CO2 every year. You can estimate your own true amount below.

CO2 (KG) produced per yearly household electricity usage

Your car

The average new car in the UK gets a (stated) mpg (miles per gallon) of around 50.5 for petrol and 57.9 for diesel. The CO2 produced per mile is roughly 194.4g for a petrol car and 197.4g for a diesel car. The average car in the UK does 7,600 miles a year, with petrol cars on average travelling 6,600 miles and diesel cars on average travelling 9,400 miles.

So the average new petrol car produces about 1,283 kg of CO2 a year and the average new diesel car produces 1,827 kg of CO2 a year. You can estimate your own true amount below.

CO2 (KG) produced depending on car MPG and yearly mileage

If you’re keeping track so far, your home and one of your petrol cars (I can safely assume you have at least two cars) is producing, on average, 2,867 kg or nearly 3 tonnes of CO2 a year. If you’re above average in driving mileage or energy usage you’ll be doing even worse.

You may be going “Holy crap, that seems like a lot!” or you may be thinking “And so what?“. Either way I’d like to make a point about how the UK is looking right now.

Coronavirus Impact

To steal a line from one of Ermine’s posts: “I live in a small town so air pollution is low here, but even so the drop in traffic makes one’s sense of smell more acute as Nature blooms.”

I live on the outskirts of London and the difference has been remarkable. My wife suffers from asthma and she’s definitely noticed a difference when we walk along the main roads. What has changed? There’s far less cars travelling about. That 28% of CO2 emissions from transport I mentioned above? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was down to 5% for the past couple of months as we’ve all been cooped up inside and (hopefully) able to work from home.

For the past 25 days and counting, the UK has not burnt any coal to generate power.

How much coal the UK has been burning every day over the last few years (credit)

This is while we’ve all been stuck inside and probably using more power than is usual, such as more cooking at home, using laptops and watching TV. This has predominately been due to the explosion in renewable energy being rolled out (mainly solar and wind) and also some expansion in gas power stations. The future is here now and the technology works.

Spending to save the world

What I list here is essentially a subset of The Solar House Experiment but focused purely on reduction in emissions to price. First we’ll go through the components and then just how much they can be expected to reduce your emissions in their lifetimes. You could purchase these in any order but let’s go from simplest to hardest to estimate as these all have synergies with each other.

The Car – About £9,000

First up is to replace one of your cars with an electric one. Here is a perfect example of a great small electric car you can use to pop to the shops and get around to see the family: the Renault Zoe with a 40 kWh battery.

Renault Zoe with 40 kWh battery on AutoTrader

Perfectly capable of 150 miles of range in the summer, and over 120 miles in the freezing winter. All yours for less than I paid for my 1 year old Ford Focus about a decade ago. If you ever need to go further than 150 miles in one go you could either use the expanding network of rapid chargers found at all good motorway services, else feel free to fire up your petrol / diesel car you still have if you’re too old to deal with the hassle.

The average length of a commuter trip by car / van is about 10 miles. In London the average is 8.6 miles and you don’t have to pay the congestion charge in this beauty. This is well within the capabilities of the car.

How much CO2 does an electric car produce per mile? While it has no tailpipe emissions, the electricity to charge it has to come from somewhere. As mentioned previously, a kWh of electricity is roughly 309g of CO2 on average so let’s use that number (it’s actually less at night when most cars are charged but let’s give the petrol and diesel cars a chance).

A rough guide for electric cars is that 1 kWh of battery power can move a car about 4 miles, therefore per mile an electric car produces about 77g of CO2. Let’s compare that against an average new petrol and diesel car.

Comparison of CO2 against a new petrol and diesel car with a typical electric car

Just in case you missed that – replacing one small efficient petrol car with a small electric car results in a reduction of 61% of CO2 emissions. For the average mileage of a new petrol car that is a reduction of 782 kg of CO2 per year. For the average mileage of a new diesel car that is a reduction of 1,114 kg or over a literal metric tonne!

The Solar Panels – About £6,000

Solar panel prices have been steadily dropping for the past decade or so. While it is very unfortunate that the Feed-In-Tariff scheme has ended, there are still major savings to be made if your usage is high. Again the average UK household uses about 5,129 kWh per year of electricity.

Again, I’ve done the leg work for you and gotten quotes for a 4 kWh system with inverter and installation costs. This was for a simple one roof install like the image above, which would include 16 panels. The quotes varied from around £6,000 up to £7,500 but with some haggling I’m sure you could get it slightly lower. Solar panels all come with a 25 year warranty these days and will probably last over 30 years comfortably.

A low-cost panel 4 kWh system in the UK will produce about 3,400 kWh a year. On average a household will use about 40% of that energy through normal usage but this can be boosted to over 60% if you’re smart with when you run your dishwasher, washing machine, oven, etc. Whether or not you use the generated power, you are either not drawing power from the grid and thus the grid is producing less energy or you are exporting your clean power generation to the grid for someone else to use, also offsetting the grid energy.

As detailed before, a kWh of grid energy generates roughly 309g of CO2. By reducing or exporting your energy usage by 3,400 kWh you are saving 1,050 kg or just over 1 tonne of CO2 from being released.

The Solar Battery – About £4,500

I thought about not including this because I decided that right now the financial numbers didn’t quite make sense for my usage. But we’re dealing with the average household here, not my super low usage one. Solar batteries help boost your returns on your solar investment and also allow you smooth out some of the variability of the British weather. While they don’t decrease your CO2 emissions as a whole, they do help lower your own personal usage which may be important to some people.

Moixa’s solar battery is currently the best price / ROI on the market

Moixa’s 4.8 kWh (3.84 kWh usable) battery is the leader in price to storage for us average mortals who don’t have £8,000 lying about for a Tesla Powerwall. With a battery of this size, you will likely be able to retain and use around 80% of your solar generation. You could also charge it up on the cheaper overnight rates and use it when electricity is more expensive and / or the sun is hidden behind the clouds.

At an 80% utilisation rate of your solar, your household will be using around 2,720 kWh of electricity less than before, or a reduction of over 50% on your yearly electricity bill!

With these three relatively small changes – solar panels and a solar battery can be installed in as little as a day and a car can be picked up in one day as well – you can reduce your CO2 emissions by an astounding 1,832 kg – 2,164 kg a year on average if you make no other changes in your life. That is two-thirds less of what the average UK household produces.

The financials of saving the world

I don’t expect you to do good things for the world and your family for no benefit. These purchases are expensive no doubt, but think of it this way – this is only one year of an ISA allowance. Every part will last well over 10 years, with some lasting 30 years or more.

Let’s do some sums based on the above calculations and you tell me if it’s worth keeping this serene less polluted environment we’ve unexpectedly found ourselves in.

First of all, how much cheaper is it to travel by electric car than the petrol or diesel equivalent?

Assumed prices: £1.20/litre for petrol, £1.25/litre for diesel, £0.07/kWh for Economy 7 overnight tariff

This is before any savings from less maintenance requirements, no car tax and any savings you may make such as driving in the congestion charge zone in London.

Second of all, how much are you likely to save from your solar panels a year?

Assumptions: 40% self-consumption and 60% export at 5.5p/kWh with a 4 kWh solar system

The above includes self-consumption and export. You can be paid for every kWh you export, such as Octopus Energy’s Outgoing tariff which pays 5.5p per kWh.

And thirdly, how would the above look if you installed a solar battery and consumed 80% of your solar generation?

Assumptions: 80% self-consumption and 20% export at 5.5p/kWh with a 4 kWh solar system

Are you a Zero or a Hero?

With this new found information will you choose to do nothing or realise you have the power to make a significant difference in the world? To put all those pretty charts together into a nice summary – here’s what the future could look like for you 10 years from now.

Do NothingCarCar + SolarCar + Solar + Battery
Savings (£)£0£6,046 (petrol)
£7,564 (diesel)
£10,118 (p)
£11,636 (d)
£13,965 (p)
£15,483 (d)
(CO2 tonnes)
07,735 kg (p)
11,289 kg (d)
18,241 kg (p)
21,795 kg (d)
18,241 kg (p)
21,795 kg (d)
CO2 Reduction (%)0%25% (p)
37% (d)
61% (p)
72% (d)
61% (p)
72% (d)
Cost (£)0~£9,000
(car trade-in not factored)
(car trade-in not factored)
(car trade-in not factored)
ROI (%)0~6.7% / year (p)
~8.4% / year (d)
~6.7% / year (p)
~7.7% / year (d)
~7.1% / year (p)
~7.9% / year (d)
An estimated return on investment, based on the average household

If nothing else from the above table, you can take away the fact that while putting the money down to purchase these technologies isn’t cheap, it can be rewarding both from an environmental and financial aspect. Hell if you have an older car to trade in, you may be able to get the electric car for near free and the ROI shoots up massively!

I would be interested to know where you can get a 7%+ return on investment with little risk over a 10 year period.

So don’t tell me you can’t do anything about it. Instead, work out how to get it done. I’ve done most of the hard work for you – now work out which future you want yourself, your kids and your grand kids to inhabit. Time is running out.

Sources for research:

TSHE: Time for a solar battery?

It’s definitely a pretty piece of kit, but is it worth the price tag? (credit)

This post is part of an ongoing series in The Solar House Experiment where I review and investigate different options available to drag my house into the 21st century and play with some cool technology along the way. Other posts in the series are included below:
The Solar House Experiment: An Overview
TSHE: Solar Panels + 1 year review

I finally did it. I broke down and started calculating out whether I could justify a solar battery or not for the house. I wish I could say it was due to boredom or having a long weekend of little to do, but it was actually because of this picture I took of the system output:

Yep, it’s early afternoon and both the electric car and hot water are maxed out. That’s 2.6 kWh of power leaving the house, every hour…

As we head into the summer months I have an increasing ‘problem’ that my solar panels are producing way more than I can consume during the day. And then at night we fire up the oven / TV / computers / lights and none of it was saved and I have to pay (more) to buy the electricity I sold to the grid (for way less). It just seems wasteful and inefficient to me!

Doing the maths

I usually work out how much something will cost and then work out the Return On Investment (ROI) in years but I’m going to do something a bit different today and work forwards instead. Currently we use about 1500 kWh per year in the house, excluding the hot water solar diverter (which only uses excess solar) and the electric car. Currently having the solar panels reduces our usage from the grid by about ~35% meaning we’re paying to use about 975 kWh of electricity for the house and (in non-Coronavirus times) I estimated the car would need about 2,500 kWh of electricity a year for my driving patterns. However the car is charged at a much cheaper rate due to the tariff I’m on (Octopus Go).

So in summary the maximum savings I could achieve in an ideal scenario where all solar energy is produced and consumed by myself (aka pay nothing for grid electricity) is:

Usage TypePower Usage (kWh)Cost Per kWhTotal
Table showing max potential savings with a solar battery (assumes all solar power generated is consumed instead of exported)

This solar battery would need to be able to store about 4 kWh a day on average (3000 kWh produced a year, minus 500 kWh consumed by the house already, minus 1000 kWh consumed by the hot water, and then divided by 365 days a year). Or to simplify:

(3000 kWh – 1500 kWh) / 365 days = 4 kWh/day

This would probably allow me to cover 90% of the house’s needs through the year… but would barely reduce my electric car charging usage. Hmm. We’ll come back to this.

I also decided that a 12 year ROI is not a bad thing for a solar battery. I think they will easily last up to 15 years and beyond but will of course degrade over time. As electricity bills have generally been increasing by 3% each year, the total I should be prepared to spend for a battery and receive a 12 year ROI that would cover only the house usage would be about £2,000 overall.

Checking out the options

After speaking with several companies and getting some quotes I narrowed my options down to three main choices (plus a wild card!). Spoiler alert: none of them meet my above requirements, but it’s an interesting investigation into the market right now.

Moixa BatteryTesla PowerwallEnphase BatterY
Product InfoLinkLinkLink
(2x 1.2)
Usable Capacity (kWh)3.8413.52.4
(2x 1.2)
Max Sustained Output (kWh)
Warranty (Years)10 / Lifetime1010
Notes12 months 0% payment plan available
Extra £50/year for signing up to GridShare program
Mountable inside or outsideModular design allows easy expansion at later date
(with installation)
Table highlighting the different options available I would consider

Straight out of the gate you can see that even the cheapest usable option, the 2x Enphase batteries, are too expensive and don’t have enough capacity for me to make a big enough saving to justify it. It also outputs a very paltry amount of power (500 Watts an hour).

At the other end, the Tesla Powerwall has more than enough capacity but is over 4x my 12 year ROI budget. It could power a kettle / oven / dishwasher too which is nice. The problem is that the ROI greatly exceeds the potential lifetime of the battery, even if I used it to charge the car as well as power the house. This is only for people who have money to burn.

The Moixa battery is actually the most interesting to me for two reasons. One, they offer a 12 month 0% finance option which would mean the maths on the ROI changes a little and I wouldn’t have to stump up all the cash straight away. Second, they offer an ‘unlimited’ warranty on the battery and £50 a year (for 3 years) if you sign up to their GridShare scheme which basically makes money for them by using a percentage of your battery to deal with high demand on the grid, when electricity costs the most. What annoys me is that 20% of the battery capacity is locked away to, I suspect, fulfil that lifetime warranty. If there was a 6 kWh usable capacity at that price point, I think I would take the dive.

The wildcard option

This is an 8 year old electric car with a 24 kWh battery available for around £5,300.

A 2012 Nissan Leaf on the AutoTrader website

This is a Vehicle to Grid (V2G) charger that works with the Leaf’s CHAdeMO connector that is currently being tested by OVO Energy in the wild.

The prototype V2G charger by OVO Energy

V2G is where you store power in your car which is connected to your house through a charging cable, like above. When the house needs energy, the car’s battery is used to supply that energy and no power is taken from the grid. In the future it is expected that more and more of the national grid in the UK will be managed in this way, helping reduce the need for coal / oil / gas power plants which are mainly used to deal with high load on the grid (such as when everyone gets home and starts cooking dinner).

Aside from space issues (I happen to have an empty garage I could utilise), there is nothing to stop me buying an old electric car like the one above, whose battery is likely to still have about 70-80% of it’s original capacity (let’s say ~17 kWh for that Leaf above), install a V2G charger when they become more wildly available and then plug it in and never touch the thing again. I could declare the car SORN (not legal to drive on UK roads) and it then literally becomes a battery on wheels with more capacity than a Tesla Powerwall at a cheaper price.

And I can easily sell the battery (car) on at a later date. A lot harder to sell a fixed installation battery on to someone else. I could even potentially take it with me to a new property if I decide to move!

But you have an electric car already? Use that?

I do, but alas Tesla have basically said they will not allow their cars to be used as V2G batteries. The fact they have a separate product (the Powerwall) to sell you is more likely to be the reason than the car is unable to do it, but I don’t know for sure.

Current V2G chargers only work with the CHAdeMO connector, whereas my Tesla Model 3 has a CSS connector and I don’t know of any in development right now. Maybe in the future…

In summary

I am optimistic that the costs for solar batteries will be coming down over the next 5 years or so. But right now I think they either offer too little capacity for the cost or they are simply way too expensive for your average user to ever really make their money back on them. I am still interested in the Moixa battery personally and will be keeping an eye on their future offerings, but right now? I’m going back to watching someone else make use of my excess solar power. Oh well.

2020 Q1 Update: Coronavirus Quarantine Edition

The hidden danger floating around the world

Well, it certainly has been the weirdest start to a year that I can ever remember. Lock downs, food shortages, eerily quiet streets and more video conference calls than you can shake a stick at. As always, I hope you have been spared the Covid-19 disease so far or are having the mildest symptoms possible while we all try and wait out the virus and not overwhelm the incredible people working at the NHS.

I am fully expecting to be furloughed in the not too distant future as the work at my employer has been steadily dropping due to postponements and cancellations of projects but so far so action has been taken by management in this vein so fingers crossed. Fortunately, being able to survive on a rather low amount of money a month, even dropping to the £2,500 maximum payment from the government (a not insignificant pay cut), would still let me have a positive savings rate. Further proof that the FIRE lifestyle works both in the good and bad times! While my FIRE pot has certainly taken a bit of a battering, I still hold enough in cash, bonds and shares to get me through a couple of years if the shit really does hit the fan harder than it already has.

And as a nice extra bonus, when I passed my ‘bloody difficult’ exam, it turns out I was eligible for an extra ~£2,000 (after tax) bonus which I never knew about! That money has been chucked at the car loan, as per Monevator’s excellent series on debt I read recently.

Matched Betting

Encouraged by TheSavingNinja’s and weenie’s posts on Matched Betting, I thought I would take a look into it and see if it was for me. I made £504 (after costs) in late January which was nice but I’ve decided it just takes up too much time for me to bother with on the whole and I don’t enjoy being spammed by bookmakers. Based on the fact most sporting events have been cancelled recently I’m not sure it would be worth doing right now anyway. But if you want to try it out I’ll provide weenie’s OddsMonkey referral link here – I have no wish to benefit from promoting Matched Betting, for reasons I may elaborate on in a future post.

Solar House Project

The days are getting longer and the solar power is rising! Having just submitted my Feed-in-Tariff figures for Q1 of 2020 I’m happy to report that the panels managed to produce around 497 kW of power! We have been getting pretty much free hot water during the sunniest days and on an especially sunny long weekend the car gained 180 miles (~45 kW) of ‘free’ sunlight powered range which is amazing!

Due to the extended lock down though, I am running into the issue of the car’s battery being near full all the time and unable to use the excess power being generated off the panels and it is instead being sent out to the grid. This isn’t a bad thing (I’m offsetting someone else burning gas / coal) but does lower my utilisation figures(!).

Health & Fitness

This game was destroying me at the beginning of the year

I mentioned way back in early January (remember that simpler time?) that I would be progressing from my light(-ish) workout of Ring Fit Adventure to a ‘proper’ workout, such as the Insanity Workout during the summer. Well that plan was brought forward massively and my wife and I now spend 6 days a week doing the Insanity routine religiously of an evening, just before a nice hot shower and a healthy dinner.

We’re currently near the end of Week 3 and having done ~16/17 workouts now, I can say that I was absolutely not ready for this again haha. But I am improving! It also adds a bit of structure to our days and we actually look forward to it, because afterwards we’re free to relax. And having a gym buddy does make it so much easier to keep going, even when you just want to put on Netflix and eat biscuits instead…

Net Worth Updates

And finally, how is the net worth situation looking on my end? Frankly, when I did the calculations for valuations on 31st March I was bit surprised the drops were as low as they are. Certainly they may drop a lot further as the quarantines around the world drag on, but there’s a surprising amount of ‘meh’ in the markets on the whole from what I can see (ignoring specific areas such as travel which have cratered like an asteroid hitting the moon).

All in all, I am roughly down about 12% from 31st December 2019, excluding new money added during 2020 Q1. That drop was made a lot less worse by the fact I had shifted nearly 35% of my portfolio to bonds in 2019 Q4 based on trying to estimate my risk tolerance and deciding being 100% equities was perhaps not the best idea. Pure luck on my part that I preempted the stock market crash, but I’ll take it!

For the latter part of 2019 I was buying £300 of VAGP (Global Bonds ETF) every month and not much else as I was still throwing money at my car loan as much as possible. Since the crash I have shifted to buying £500 a month of VHYL (High Yield Shares ETF) and have shifted 10% of my portfolio from VAGP to VHYL. I also have a large slug of VWRL (World Index Tracker ETF) but am not currently adding to it yet. The car loan is nearly gone and then I can go full on into pushing £2,000 a month into my ISA on both VWRL and VHYL, assuming my usual employment holds out(!).

Here’s how the overall situation is looking for now:

December 2019 ended at around £210k, whereas March 2020 ended at around £220k
(Blue is non-pension stuff, Orange is pension stuff (SIPP / Company Pension))
Investment2019 Q4Contributions2020 Q1Difference
(minus Contributions)
A table showing the contributions made in the past 3 months

If you’re wondering how my pension contributions are so high, it’s because I currently sacrifice 25% of my salary into my work pension, my employer tops it up by an additional 5% and they also give me most of their employer NI savings. I also had the option to receive my bonus entirely into my pension if I wanted, which I took them up on and which saved me a large chunk of income tax! Hopefully if/when the markets recover I will have been very happy to have bought in at lower share prices as the Pension currently sits in a 25/75 bond/equities split.

Plans & Goals for Q2

I only have a few goals going forward right now:

  • Get fitter with Insanity and enjoy more time at home
  • Push as much money into my ISA as possible before being furloughed
  • Play more games with friends (online of course!) as I have more free time
  • Finish paying off the car loan (less than £3,000 to go)!
  • Keep washing my hands!

What are your own goals for the coming summer? Keep safe and have a good one!

Reflections on a world turned upside down

Everything seems very uncertain right now (credit)

A mild fear seems to stalk the lands as of present. An undercurrent of uneasiness. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few months then you’re well aware the Coronavirus is upon us and is working it’s way through the world. I hope you are well prepared (and I don’t just mean the toilet paper stockpiling) and your friends and family are well and will remain that way.

I’m not going to comment on whether the UK is prepared enough, or the response so far or even on the idiots buying up all the toilet roll at your local supermarket. I’ll instead focus on the financial aspects and the time we will likely all have to pause and reflect while under self-imposed or forced quarantines.

Risk tolerance

It was only a few months ago I was 100% in equities following the general advice of The Savings Ninja and MMM that “I’m young and don’t need no damn bonds – I’ll easily have time to recover from any falls”. I can’t remember exactly when but I came across this very thoughtful post from Monevator and reassessed my thinking. Not long afterwards I made the decision to shift my separate pots of money into a more bond heavy portfolio, like below:

Bonds / Equities distribution around December 2019

To say this random article turned out to be very helpful is an understatement! Many thanks to the Monevator crew, but I can only attribute this shift to pure luck. I hope I am able to use it well in the future. However, I can also confirm that even with my portfolio down about 9% overall I’m not panicking and I’m sleeping pretty well, so I apparently found an okay level of risk tolerance for myself. I am of course aware it could go way further down too though!

If you’re wondering why the SIPP is so bond heavy, I was taking advantage of a transfer in offer to a provider and it was then sitting waiting for Vanguard to open their own SIPP, which was delayed… I’d half forgotten about it, oops. Luckily it’s only a small part of my portfolio.

When being irrational is rational

I think there gets a point where the irrational acting people reach such a critical mass that not joining in with them could, rationally, leave you worse off. While fortunately my wife and I have enough non-perishable food that we could last a few weeks by default (we buy rice and pasta by the 10kg bags as standard), it was eye opening to wander down the various aisles at our local supermarket and see all the bare shelves.

Pasta? Gone. Rice? Gone. Bottled water? Gone, except the Dasani brand stuff (nobody ever wants that!). Something at the back of your head does start to prickle and make you wonder if you’re not the rational one and should pick up an extra large box of Weetabix just in case…

Within the FIRE blogosphere, there has also been a wave of “my equities are higher than ever!” and “bonds are a drag on returns!” with only perhaps Ermine and Monevator sounding the gong of “steady on folks, this can’t last forever!”. But going against the grain is not easy and I felt much inner turmoil watching other bloggers post record 20% returns in the year when I took some risk off the table and settled for my meagre ~15%.

Exploring volatility

I picked up a copy of Antifragile by Nassim Taleb from my local library to read while work is likely to have some downtime and I’m only about a quarter through it. I want to do a full review on it in a later post but I have to say I’m gaining a new perspective on how I view the world. Though I do think he bashes lecturers a bit much. I may also read Black Swan at some point, one of his most famous books.

If I were a super active investor it would be intriguing to apply an estimate of volatility to the current Coronavirus crisis. Will the UK end up like Italy in two weeks? Is the FTSE 100 going down further, hitting the lows of the 2008 Financial Crisis? How does Brexit factor into all this? Should I invest in loo roll manufacturers? Will the drop in oil price have an effect on all the above and will it be positive or negative? That last one is probably negative for me, the electric car was sort of a hedge on higher petrol prices, heh.

Of course the correct passive answer is to carry on carrying on. I’ve upped my contributions a little to buy in while things are a little lower but I don’t have a large surplus of cash I can just throw into the market right now and I won’t be shifting my bonds into equities until there’s a 5% increase or decrease on one or the other which hasn’t happened yet (though we’re getting close).

GBP version of VWRL as of 13th March 2020

It is worth pointing out that even with the fairly big global drops in stock markets, we’re still nowhere near the prices available back when I first started investing in 2016. I had bugger all cash to spare then but those small amounts are still doing pretty well compared to now. Keep everything in perspective when it comes to your portfolio. If you’re under 50, then you’ll probably be fine – both in terms of time to recover and due to the virus. If you’re coming up on retirement age then you should be heavier in bonds to reduce your volatility before draw-down and take extra care out there in the world.

Nothing will happen and then everything will

The problem with diseases like the Coronavirus is that they spread exponentially and us humans are only really good at thinking linearly. Take this as an example:

A lily pond starts with a single lily leaf. Each day the number of leaves will double, so 2 leaves on the second day, 4 leaves on the third day, etc. If the pond is full on the 30th day, on which day is the pond half full?


Have a think before you click through to the answer. It’s obvious once you stop and think about it, but our brains are trained to do linear processes by default. Your retirement plan is somewhat based on this exponential growth as well as you go into the longer term with compound interest or returns. Each year extra you work and can build up your funds gains you far more than the previous year due to new money being added and also compounding. Even if you spent all your money in that extra year working, you would still (likely) have a higher retirement income, just from the extra returns!

Compound 5% return over 30 years, starting with a £100,000 portfolio

Here an extra year of waiting from 29 to 30 years would net you an additional £19,601 whereas waiting an extra year even at the half way mark of 15 to 16 years only nets you £9,900 more! For the same amount of time! Now let’s look what happens when we’re dealing with the Coronavirus which has seen infection rates of nearly 200% a day:

The rate of growth per day if 1 person infects 2 people every day

If humans are bad at dealing with small values of exponential growth, then we’re really really bad at understanding high numbers of exponential growth. And as such, nothing will happen for a while and then it will happen all at once. Thinking in this way is hard, but I’m glad that there are people much smarter than me who have the knowledge and experience to deal with this outbreak.

My own workplace has just informed us that we’re not to travel to client site anymore, which seems a wise move. It also make it feel just that little bit more real. Stay safe out there folks, and go wash your hands!

Thoughts on doing something difficult

Having survived a difficult challenge – I had to make some notes (credit)

Hello again and apologies for not writing much in the month of Feburary.

Contary to popular rumours, I have not won the lottery and retired in the Bahamas (alas), I have just been extremely busy preparing and undertaking a massive exam at work. The prize? The “You’ve made it in this company” certification, where you start getting taken seriously for lead technical roles and the pay grades start bumping up rapidly. Also the option of being taken seriously for contracting occurs, as if you have this certification, you have a known set of skills which are very “marketable” to a potential client. Wish to claim this grand prize for yourself? Well nobody said it was going to be easy…

To protect my anonymity and the company I work for I won’t be going into specifics of what was in the exam, just an overview, but what I really want to talk about is how to prepare yourself for doing something very difficult. It could be an exam, that new exercise routine you’re planning, that big presentation you have coming up, or anything really where you’re less than 100% confident you’re going to smash it.

My own challenge

So what was I up against in this challenge?

  • Two 3 hour exams, fortunately multi-choice, unfortunately bloody hard with trick questions and barely enough time to complete them all
  • An interview with a long-standing technical lead answering obscure questions to products you’ve probably never used before
  • And the biggie: a 7 day continuous system build. It’s basically a 168 hour exam question. You start with a blank slate and build everything defined in the scenario question.

Put off yet? Only 1 in 3 people pass this process on average.

Starting at the beginning

The exams are simply knowledge checks. You’re tested on the contents of certain courses provided by the company. You’re expected to know quite a bit of this stuff just by simply doing your day to day job and learning the idiosyncrasies of how the software does certain things. Some of these are well known, others are not.

So I rocked up feeling pretty confident with myself, with pages of hand written notes and diagrams and all that good stuff you learn at University. I’ve been working at this company for several years now in big projects and am regarded well technically for developing and fixing things big and small. It can’t be too hard right?

Oh, bollocks. Is that a 45% fail grade on my exam?!

Ahem. After eating some humble pie, an additional week of study (and doing all the test exercises, extra external readings, talking with someone who’s done the exam previously and asking the product team why the hell does it work that way), and not wasting an hour of set study time I go for the exams again.

How the hell is 65% not a passing grade?!

Turns out it’s 70% oops. Which leads me to my first point.

#1 – You will fail. Repeatedly.

Roughly what I looked like after the first exam (credit)

Unless you’re one of those top 0.1% of people who can take on any task and make it look effortless, you will fail. A lot. Perhaps you underestimated the size of the task. Perhaps your abilities really just aren’t good enough yet. There’s no shame in it. Eat the humble pie, thank yourself for the experience and accept you need to grow. We all start at ground zero; it’s up to you to start the climb up.

Fortunately, you can improve! One of the most amazing things about humans is our ability to share knowledge and experience. Once you’ve identified a weakness, you can take steps to minimise and correct it. I wasn’t being thorough enough in my studies and got a wake up call. My corrective actions, while not leading to a pass the second time bumped up my score significantly. I went from feeling “holy crap I don’t know if I’ll be able to beat this” to “argh I was just a few percent off a pass” in a week. You’ve only truly lost when you give up.

Oh, I passed the third time by the way!

#2 – Make a plan and stick to it

The interview was more of the same. The key part I want to talk about is the 1 week build from hell. I’m used to working to tight deadlines. I’m used to people asking for the world yesterday and demanding it be delivered to last week. I’m used to to-do lists running several miles long all marked “Critical”. And yet I knew this would be the hardest challenge to me.

Why you ask? This 1 week build is a time management test. And I’m not great at that.

The one advantage I have is that the build scenario has a defined number of questions and you’re told what each question is worth e.g. one may be worth 20% and the other 40%. Armed with this knowledge and the ability to do basic maths, I plotted out rough time slots for each part of each question based on roughly how many hours i would have based on this percentage. The key is to then stick to those times! Speaking of which…

#3 – Check your progress against your plan

Get a timer – use your phone if it won’t distract you and check it regularly. It is frankly astounding how fast time goes when you really don’t want it to. Setting aside 3 hours to do a design document and finding out you’re two-thirds through the time and you’re only half done definitely puts you in panic mode and has the wonderful side effect (for me) of focusing my mind very firmly on the task at hand! Which leads to…

#4 – You have no time for perfect

Tick tock, tick tock (credit)

That bit of code that you know you could do better but is a bit janky now? It won’t get fixed, don’t kid yourself. The goal is ‘good enough’ and if you have the time, improve that to ‘slightly refined’. Perfect takes an inordinate amount of time. I’ve started applying this logic to my exercise routines as well – I’m not going to do every single workout perfectly and some days I’m going to just be off my game. The fact I’m doing it to the best of my ability given the constraints is enough.

Of course, the examiners in my case aren’t expecting a full bells and whistles build. They are expecting a working functional build though. The fact I even made it through the whole exam without collapsing into a caffeine-fuelled coma is a testament in itself. I know of other people who threw in the towel on day 4-5 because they just couldn’t picture the end result or messed up their first couple of days spending too much time on ‘nice-to-have’ features which weren’t that important to the end result.

#5 – Get feedback so you can improve next time!

People are generally a really nice bunch and are willing to help you if you only ask. Where possible, ask them to review your work. That week-long build I did? I failed.

However, I qualified for a “re-build” which meant I was given an additional day to improve the build but the pass mark went up. As a bonus though, I received some valuable feedback on suggested areas of improvement which made planning out how to make the most of my 24 hour grace period a lot easier to determine what to focus on.

And having just submitted my updated build a couple of days ago… I now play the waiting game to find out if the above advice was any good to myself!

EDIT: A last-minute update!

Not one day after I drafted the first ‘ready to go’ version of this post, I am happy to report that I have passed my exam! Time to work on that promotion speech! Woohoo!