BER certs are vital but don't tell the full energy story

 

When buying or renting it pays to look beyond the property’s Building Energy Rating

The BER (Building Energy Rating) serves as a useful indication for consumers of the likely running costs of a property they are thinking of buying or renting.

But consumers should be aware that a property’s rating is not the full story, it is the result of a visual test and is based on a number of assumptions. The rating tells you how well a property should perform if it is well constructed but it doesn’t actually examine the fabric of a building, look at the quality of the insulation or the level of air tightness .

Delve deeper into the fabric of the building, and the method of heating it, and you may find problems that a BER test will not have detected that will add to the running costs and not be reflected in the rating.

“In my experience a well constructed D-rated building can in some cases outperform a badly built A-rated one,” says Brian Sweeney of Evolved Energy Solutions. There is no requirement in a BER inspection to test air tightness or examine the quality of the insulation by drilling holes in the wall or using thermal imaging.

“Air tightness and well-installed insulation are as important as each other when it comes to energy efficiency so you can have a well insulated house with a good BER rating but if it’s draughty and poorly constructed, it can undo all the good work.

He says a BER is “ a great initial survey” but an inspector does not look at how well the property was built.

“If they go up to the attic and see the required amount of insulation, they may make assumptions that the attic is properly insulated and wont have examined whether there are gaps in it .”

His advice for anyone thinking of buying a property is to get a full energy assessment. This would look at the condition of the heating system, whether the pipework was professionally installed and if the electrics are in good condition. Also included would be a thermal imaging test of the insulation using cameras which can detect breaks, gaps or degradation. An air tightness test will measure any leakage of energy. Sweeney’s firm charges about €450 for such an assessment.

Build quality

Jeff Colley, editor of Passive House + magazine says it is important to remind people that the BER is a catch-all test.

“An energy rating is an important and useful shorthand tool as long as you know what to look for, it is not going to be indicative of building quality.”

He says the SEAI didn’t go for a more invasive test because “if BER inspectors were drilling holes in people’s walls and floors, every inspector would have to carry cans of paint in their cars that matches the paintwork in the house, so it’s not really practical.”

He says a high rating does not necessarily mean a comfortable house.

“If you put a big enough photovoltaic solar panel beside a beehive cell in the Skelligs it could probably get an A rating because it is generating so much energy but it doesn’t mean it would be comfortable to live in.”

Equally the leaky house on top of the hill will be less comfortable than the sheltered site in a leafy suburb, regardless of BER.

An A or B-rated house heated with oil might be more expensive to run than a lower rated one of a similar size heated by gas.

It is not always the case that older buildings are less efficient, according to Colley, who says a survey by Energy Action of a sample of inner- city housing stock found 1920s to 1940s-built homes to be suprisingly airtight because they were built using solid masonry with wet plaster. In contrast, a sample dating from the 1960s to 1980s built using hollow block and clear cavity walls were found to be quite leaky.

Boiler blues

Sweeney says well fitted insulation is crucial for low running costs. “I’ve seen insulation stuffed between the rafters using a plastic membrane, where they haven’t left a breathable air flow through the roof timbers and this causes rot, it’s very easy to do a bad job with insulation.”

Equally the presence of a new boiler might help a property score highly on a BER test but may not have an impact on running costs.

“There’s a grant for upgrading a boiler but you also really need to upgrade the controls too to see a difference. You really need the capacity to heat hot water separately, and control the heating upstairs and downstairs separately. Some people are great at going around the house turning off rads in rooms where it’s not needed but many people don’t do this, so having a way of controlling the heat in different areas can potentially make savings in the region of 30-40 per cent.

An apartment with a low energy rating rating that is heated by electric storage or convector heaters might be a turn-off for tenants or buyers but according to Sweeney, it may not necessarily cost a lot to heat if the system is used properly.

“Properties heated by electricity are often treated very negatively in their BER because the national grid is quite inefficient and there are huge losses of energy on it, but electricity is the fuel of the future and the energy rating mightn’t tell the full story.”

Air tight

He says while electricity is the second most expensive fuel, if an apartment block has a well-insulated hot water cylinder and the heating is only turned on at night or very early in the morning when it is cheaper, and is stored up for the following day, it could potentially be cheaper than other forms of fuel.

The energy savings that can be made on a home that’s properly built and airtight might make new homes more attractive to buyers .

“Houses built since since 2011 have an incredible level of air tightness and are 60 per cent more energy efficient than those built during the boom while those built since 2008 are 40 per cent more efficient,” says Colley.

While the BER may not tell the whole story it is currently the best method we have to estimate the running costs of a property, unless consumers are willing to fork out for a more comprehensive test .

Jeff Colley says it’s important that consumers look beyond the alphanumeric rating and take note of a property’s BER number so they can look the property up and get more detailed information about it on the SEAI website.

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