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Make A Difference: Keep the heat in and cold out

Our environmental column with Bridget Ginnity explores ways you can heat your home more sustainably

THE nights are drawing in, and it won’t be long before we are switching on the heating and sitting by a blazing fire. As Ireland is a temperate climate, you’d imagine that we would have lower carbon emissions from heating than most of Europe.

In fact, it’s about 60% above the EU average. It’s because we use more energy than average and use mainly fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal and turf.

Any step we can take to eliminate or reduce the use of fossil fuels in home heating is a step in the right direction to reduce the damage we are doing to the earth. And it gives a warmer home and lower bills so it’s win-win-win, warmer-cheaper-greener.

If your house was built prior to 2010, it probably has a Building Energy Rating (BER) of C or worse. Definitely a “could do better” grade.

You probably spend about €1000 more per year compared to those in an energy efficient house – and it’s unlikely you are walking around in shorts and t-shirt.

Improvements you make obviously depend on your budget and on how much needs to be done.

If you are planning a Dermot Bannon style upgrade of your house, you’ll have an expert on hand to advise you. But for many, the aim is an improvement with minimal disruption and cost. If you are going to spend a good bit of money, it is worth getting a BER advisor.

Keeping the heat in and the cold out

A common weak spot is windows and doors, and you’ll know you have that problem if the wind is howling through on a stormy night. Sealing with draught excluders can be remarkably effective and cheap.

If you have single or old glazing, lower cost alternatives to new windows are interior glazing, reglazing or insulating window film.

If the doors and windows are poor but you don’t want to change them, heavy curtains can reduce the heat loss.

Hot air rises so a lot of our precious heat goes through the roof, as well as the heating bills. If you haven’t insulated the attic floor in recent years, chances are that it needs more insulation. The recommendation is for 300mm of mineral wool or equivalent, about a foot.

Laying insulation is no more difficult than making a bed, other than a certain amount of dexterity is required. This is where you talk nicely to any fit young people you know, and give them a face mask and gloves.

Part of the reason that Irish households use so much heat is because most are detached or semi-detached. This increases the amount of heat lost through the walls.

If you don’t have close neighbours who kindly heat your house as well as theirs, you probably need to look at wall insulation. There are three approaches, internal, external and cavity wall.

Internal insulation is the only one of these you may be able to do yourself. It has the advantage that you need only insulate the rooms you occupy most, perhaps only external walls, and accept that seldom used areas are not as well insulated. You lose a small amount of space and have to redecorate afterwards.

If you have cavity walls, pumping this with insulation can be effective with minimal disruption, it typically takes only a day or so for a contractor to do. External insulation – essentially a lagging jacket for the house – is very effective although it is the most expensive option.

If you seal and insulate very well, you will need mechanical ventilation. Adding on a heat recovery system gives 90% efficiency in getting your heat back.

Sources of heat

Sitting in front of an open fire brings a lovely glow of comfort and warmth. Modern stoves give the sensation of the direct heat but burn much less fuel, saving money and the environment.

You can turn them up and down like a heater and can heat water and radiators with a back boiler. A less obvious advantage is safety – nothing can fall out and no one can fall in.

Whether you have an open fire or stove, it’s good to move away from coal, turf and peat briquettes.

When we burn these fossil fuels, they release carbon that was stored umpteen years ago and cause global warming. Although wood also releases carbon, it was absorbed recently so it’s not additional carbon in the atmosphere.

Central heating

Small changes can improve the efficiency of your existing central heating system. Annual maintenance pays for itself in lots of ways – improved efficiency; reduced breakdown; reduced fuel use and improved safety (sadly a small number die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning).

Thermostats in every room avoid heating the entire house to the same temperature. Timers and zoning make sure we only have the heat on when we need it.

If your oil or gas boiler is more than 10 or 15 years old, it might be near retirement time – certainly if it’s an old style boiler.

Changing it out for a newer model will give immediate fuel efficiencies but stop and think before you do. A replacement oil or gas boiler will keep you using fossil fuels for another 10 years or so, giving high carbon emissions. And it’s likely the price of oil and gas will increase substantially in the coming years.

Biofuel-ready boilers are presented as a green alternative fuel but the credentials are questionable as most biofuel is imported from countries where they need it or the land for food themselves. At any rate, a spot check of Clare heating oil suppliers didn’t find any who supply it.

Going electric is a good alternative with lower carbon emissions.

For about one fifth the cost of installing a new boiler, you can buy electric radiators for every room, each with their own timer. There’s no noise, the boiler space is freed up, it’s fully zoned, and you can get rid of that ugly oil tank in the garden.

On the down side, your electricity bill will increase but if you have insulated your house well, the energy need will be a lot lower than at present. It can be cost effective, especially in a small house with night rate electricity. The proportion of renewables on the grid is currently 40%, and will increase in the coming years to about 70%.

A more efficient electric option for well insulated houses is heat pumps, although it’s also the most expensive option at about €10,000. These are essentially fridges in reverse. They take the heat out of the external air and use it to warm water that is then pumped through underfloor heating or radiators. Ripping up floors for underfloor heating is a major retrofit though.

For a less dramatic upgrade, you may be able to use your existing radiators, depending on how well your house retains heat and the area of the radiators. And if we do get a lot of global warming, heat pumps can also be used as air conditioners.

 

MAKE A CHANGE – MAKE A DIFFERENCE
• Insulate, insulate, insulate
• Seal doors and windows
• Replace any open fire with a stove
• Service your central heating system regularly
• Turn down the heat in less occupied spaces
• Install electric system rather than gas or oil boiler
• Consider solar panels on your roof
• Get a BER assessment and advice
• Encourage politicians to be more active

Plenty of sunshine

Who would have thought that Ireland had enough sunshine to make solar panels viable? It seems we do, because they have become really efficient.

One type, thermal, provides heated water. The other type, photovoltaic (PV), provides electricity.

The most suitable type depends on your situation but PV’s are gaining ground as they are simpler to install, good for electric heating and it will be possible to sell excess electricity to the grid.

Government support

The government has various schemes to promote improvements and the SEAI website is a good place to find that information.
For individual home grants, you are required to use a contractor and there are other criteria like age of dwelling so it won’t always be possible – or the cheapest option – to claim them.

Smaller upgrades can be done by anyone who is reasonably handy. If you are in receipt of certain welfare payments, the energy efficiency upgrades are free.
There are also schemes for local authorities, housing associations, communities and such like to do larger scale, coordinated projects.

What’s the payback?

Discussion about energy upgrades very often involves comparing payback time and running costs. Money is important but moving away from fossil fuels has the best possible payback, a climate that doesn’t spiral out of control.

If you use fossil fuels in your home at present, think how you can stop or curtail their use.

Individual measures we do, things we say and political engagements we make, all help to bring about the system change that must happen this decade to limit the climate upheaval. A small effort brings big returns, now and for the future.

 

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