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The Government plans 500,000 greener homes. What does that mean for you?

Ireland is set to retrofit 500,000 homes and install 400,000 heat pumps by 2030

“Does anyone feel a draught?” If you grew up in the average Irish house you probably did. Flannel pyjamas and cold floors were as Irish as the immersion switch. Hot water was for hotels. But that’s all about to change. Under the new programme for government we won’t have to dance at the crossroads to keep warm. The retrofitters are coming – prepare to get cosy.

Retrofitting means updating your house from draughty and expensive to heat to one that’s warmer, and more energy and cost-efficient. Under Ireland’s Climate Action Plan the new Government wants to retrofit 500,000 homes to a B2 rating and install 400,000 heat pumps by 2030.

Financial packages for homeowners are the carrot. Increasing taxes on fossil fuels will be the stick. The ultimate goal is to save the planet by using less energy and reducing emissions. The outcome for homeowners prepared to invest will be a cosier house, lower energy bills and a more valuable property.

To be eligible for current grants you must own your own home

In a first step Budget 2020 allocated €20 million to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to make social housing stock in the midlands more energy efficient. "It will focus on upgrading larger batches of homes in distinct, compact geographical areas," the Department of Climate Action says. Nearby private homeowners will be invited to participate as well through Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland grants.

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Retrofitting is to get a further major boost under the forthcoming July stimulus plan, with Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan preparing proposals for an “ambitious and rapid scale-up”, according to his department. Things are about to heat up in the retrofitting space.

Back to the future

Right now most of Ireland’s housing stock is not energy efficient, with about 78 per cent having a BER energy rating of C2 or worse.

Ireland has consistently ranked in the first three in the world for energy efficiency in new homes built since 2011. The problem is the two million homes built when standards were much lower. That's the draughty old redbrick with chimneys, the single-glazed terrace or the exposed rural bungalow of your childhood.

If you live in a house that has not been renovated in years you might not realise how things are changing. There has been a dramatic shift in home heating over the past two decades. Oil boiler installation has fallen from 30 per cent of new homes in 2010 to only 2.4 per cent in 2018. Conversely, the percentage of heat pumps installed has increased from 7.5 per cent in 2010 to 38 per cent in 2018.

Under the Climate Action Plan the installation of oil boilers is banned in new homes from 2022, and of gas boilers from 2025.

New A3 standard homes typically have heat pumps, insulation to make them airtight, clever ventilation systems, heat recovery, triple-glazed windows and solar panels. An A2 home would have 70 per cent less carbon emissions than a similar home built in 2005.

Department of Housing figures put the average heating bill for energy efficient homes at about €400 a year. That’s about a third of the heating bill for an average C-rated, three-bed semi-detached house.

If you can afford the initial outlay to retrofit, the return in heating costs will come over time. The big win, however, is a more comfortable home.

Getting started

When it comes to retrofitting there are two camps – those who want to retrofit their home as it stands and those who were planning a kitchen extension or a whole house revamp who realise they have to retrofit.

Since last November homeowners carrying out major renovations or an extension equating to more than 25 per cent of the building must ensure the entire dwelling meets a B2 energy rating on completion. The new rules also require new homes to become “nearly zero-energy buildings”, rated A2. So before browsing swanky kitchens be sure your budget is not going to be swallowed up by insulation.

Whatever camp you are in, the first step is to get a Building Energy Rating (BER) for your home. The typical energy rating of an Irish home is around D2, says David Flannery of superhomes.ie, a retrofitter established by the social enterprise Tipperary Energy Agency.

“But the BER rating doesn’t tell you everything about the house; it won’t tell you how comfortable it is,” he says. “Houses from 2000 onwards will have a higher BER, but may still be very cold. It’s important to identify heat loss from the house.”

A good BER report will suggest specific works to improve heat loss and your rating. Insulating your attic and walls are likely to be the first priority. Your heating system is next.

“We recommend replacing old, inefficient boilers with a heat pump which uses renewable energy,” says Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) head of communications Tom Halpin.

A final option is to install rooftop solar panels to heat hot water or generate electricity.

“It’s up to you to decide how much to do depending on your budget and level of ambition,” says Halpin. “Many homeowners will achieve a B2 by doing wall and attic insulation and installing a heat pump.”

Show me the money

Is there a grant for all of that? Yes – but not for all of it. Typically the grant covers about a third of the cost of works, according to the SEAI. If your energy report recommends cavity wall insulation expect to pay an average of €1,000 to €2,000 for a semi-detached home, according to SEAI estimates, for which there is a grant of about €400. Internal wall insulation if required averages €6,000 to €8,000 with a grant of €2,200.

A heat pump will set you back €5,000 to €10,000, for which there is a grant of €3,500. Heating controls will be another €500 to €2, 000, with a €700 grant. Solar panels will be about €5,000, with a grant of €1,200 to €1,800. If the cost is lower than the grant amount, only the cost will be paid.

Some 400,000 homeowners have upgraded their homes with grant support since 2000, according to Department of Climate Action and Environment figures. Free upgrades have also been provided to lower income households, helping to alleviate energy poverty.

A fireplace is like a Hoover, sucking the heat out of the house

To be eligible for current grants you must own your own home. Your home must have been built and occupied before 2006 for all insulation and heating control upgrades, and before 2011 for heat pumps, solar water heating and solar electricity.

Talk to others who have retrofitted their homes and shop around for quotes. You can apply for grants at seai.ie and you must have grant approval in place before works start. Once approved you have eight months to complete the works and claim the grant.

Payback time

The length of time for an energy upgrade to pay for itself in cost savings depends on the size of your home and how efficient it was to start with. “Those with houses from 2000 to 2006 can retrofit at a much lower cost and so get a better return on their savings,” says superhomes.ie’s Flannery.

Attic and cavity wall insulation might typically pay for themselves in say, four or five years, says the SEAI. This clearly depends on the initial condition of the home, how much energy is ordinarily used, and the specific cost of works.

For more significant measures, like external wall insulation or heat pumps, payback could extend to eight or 10 or even more years. Discuss the likely payback with your BER assessor or contractor to get a more accurate estimate for your home.

The instant payback for you, however, is a more comfortable home, reduced energy bills and you’re reducing your carbon footprint and also doing your bit for climate action.

Air flow

Those used to more “leaky” houses with a chimney or ill-fitting windows and doors can find that highly energy efficient homes feel a bit airless by comparison. Yet a retrofit done right shouldn’t feel like that, says Flannery.

“What people in older houses can find is that when they change their windows and doors, suddenly all the ventilation from the poorly installed windows is gone. Then you get condensation. It acts very much like a house that is sealed without ventilation. Treat the house like a system. How all the parts work together will determine how successful the retrofit is going to be.”

Air tightness is important too. “You can upgrade your house in terms of insulation but still not feel the benefit because your windows and doors are leaky, or it’s coming down from your attic. A fireplace is like a Hoover, sucking the heat out of the house,” says Flannery. A holistic approach to the retrofit is key.

Done right a retrofit can even be good for your health. The International Energy Agency says the right insulation, heating and ventilation systems can have positive impacts on air quality, reducing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and allergies. For those experiencing fuel poverty, mental health improvements are also proven.

Cold comfort

The main reasons people want to retrofit are comfort and savings, according to the Tipperary Energy Agency. It surveyed attitudes among 761 householders who applied for its SuperHomes retrofit scheme.

Half of all applicants between 2015 and 2019 said the high up-front cost – typically between €30,000 and €80,000 – was the main barrier to proceeding.

In France’s Picardie region, third-party finance allows homeowners to repay the cost of the retrofit in monthly instalments equivalent in part or full to the energy savings made.

With a carrot like this Irish homeowners may well be persuaded out of their flannel pyjamas.