Save the planet from the comfort of your energy efficient home
Pricewatch: Whether Ireland can reach its emissions targets by 2020, we can do our bit
Making your home more energy efficient may not save the planet, but it will save you money and improve your life. Photograph: iStockphoto
When Donald Trump cast doubt on the reality of climate change earlier this summer and announced that the United States was pulling out of the Paris Accord, the world responded with a combination of ridicule and dismay.
But while Trump stands rightly accused of betraying this and future generations by failing to honour what is – ultimately – our best last chance of reversing global warming before it is too late, environmental questions could most likely be asked of most of us.
Could we as a nation and as its citizens be doing more? The answer is almost certainly yes and, as the more enlightened states and corporations in the US have been repeatedly saying in recent weeks, to do more makes both moral and financial sense.
Ireland remains entirely committed to the Paris Accord – at least on paper – but few if any of the environmental goals which the State committed to reaching by 2020 will be reached. And unless things change dramatically in the years ahead, it is hard to see the Republic meeting many of the goals set for 2030 either.
Ireland has committed to a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but for that to happen we must cut emissions by 5 per cent a year every year between now and then. And there is no absolutely no sign of that on the horizon.
By 2020 Irish emissions will be around 5 per cent less than they were in 2005 and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, emissions will then start rising in many areas as the economy grows (no chickens being counted here) and more cars take to the roads, and more intensive farming is required to feed a growing population.
The Government is not giving up the ghost, mind you. It published a report this summer containing more than 100 substantive actions multiple ministers will have to deliver on in the years ahead to get us to where we have to be.
Death of diesel
Under those plans, all new cars and vans sold from 2030 will have to be either zero emission or zero-emission capable – which surely spells the death of diesel and petrol cars – and there will have to a move to carbon-neutral farming. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) will also become more central to all our lives as the need for every person and every home to become more energy-efficient becomes ever more pressing.
While what happens on the international and the national stage is obviously critical if the planet as we know it has any chance of surviving, the responsibility of us as individuals is not to be understated. If we were all to adopt a more responsible approach to the energy we used, maybe we could all make the world a better place. We’d certainly be better off.
In fact Irish homeowners could save themselves hundreds of euro over the next decade simply by plugging out or completely turning off their televisions and phone chargers when they are not being used, and by reducing the temperatures in their living spaces by just a smidgen.
By properly insulating our homes, using more renewable energy sources, buying smarter white goods and cars and generally getting more from the energy we need, we could save ourselves thousands while dramatically improving the quality of our lives – and all the while doing our bit to save the planet.
It is a win, win, win situation, says Jim Gannon, the plain-talking chief executive of the SEAI, a man who believes both his authority and other State agencies must do more to sell the message of responsible and sustainable domestic energy usage.
“Consumers can only make the right decision when they are properly informed and that is what we have to do better,” he says. “I think maybe we focus too much on high-level policy stuff at the expense of communicating directly with consumers to tell them there are all sorts of small but important decisions they can make.”
He says it starts with baby steps. “Making the right decision when it comes to getting a new fridge might lead into making the right decision when it comes to replacing your windows or buying a new car. During the recession too many consumers simply did not have the money to make those kinds of decisions. They weren’t buying cars or they were not buying new fridges. And the Government didn’t have the wherewithal to financially incentivise people to make those right decisions. But we are coming out of recession, albeit slowly and certainly not at the same pace for everyone. But now it is a better time for us to make those better decisions.”
And he says when people are making decisions there are more than short or medium-term financial gains at stake. “There is a lot of focus on the financial payback over three years or five years, but another story we in the SEAI need to get out there is about the improvements people will see in the quality of their lives when they start making better decisions about their homes.”
He says one of the key pieces of feedback the authority gets from people who have used its home improvement grant system to better insulate or heat their homes is how the right decisions make not just the bank balance but everything else seem better, particularly if you’re not staring at damp patches in your livingroom or waking up in near Baltic conditions because all the heat is leaking out the windows.
Outside of the home, Gannon is also optimistic when it comes to transport, but again, he believes the State has a responsibility to do more to help us make the right decisions. He accepts that we are still some way off electric cars becoming mainstream but are moving in the right direction. “In 2011 there were only two cars on the market which qualified for SEAI grants and now there are over 20. People still suffer from range anxiety, and electric cars still come on premium, but as competition increases and as batteries improve both of those things will be addressed,” Gannon says.
“We should definitely be looking at changes to benefit-in-kind or tolls or parking for electric cars. Carrot incentives have a far greater staying power than stick incentives and that is an absolute truth,” he says.
The big question is whether we have left it too late. Can anything consumers do today make any real difference? Gannon pauses before he repeats the question. “Do we have time? That’s a very tough question, but if we started saying it was too late then I think we would all just raise the white flag and give up. And that would be a terrible mistake. Yes there are challenges and yes, maybe other countries are not as committed to curbing emissions as we might be, but we can’t just give up. That is not an option.”
Doing the old switcheroo
How would you like to cut your annual energy bill by around €400? It is not hard. The first thing you need to do is shop around for the best-value gas and electricity. According to the people at price comparison website bonkers.ie there is an annual price difference of more than €200 between the dearest electricity providers and the cheapest, while someone switching from the dearest to the cheapest gas provider could easily knock well in excess of €100 off their annual bill. If you haven’t switched in the last two years, the chances are you are paying more than you need to. Switching won’t save the planet but it will save you money.
Even after switching, a clued-in homeowner could knock at least 10 per cent off their annual energy bill by making a few simple changes to how they light and heat their home. With the average energy cost for an Irish household coming to about €2,000, some simple adjustments could easily save you €200 a year.
The SEAI has its own tips (see below) but Pricewatch has some ideas of its own when it comes to energy management.
There is no point in heating the upstairs of the house if you are sitting downstairs, so zone control is important, and getting a thermostat that allows you to do that will ultimately save you money. If you have an older house, the chances are you will not have upgraded your heating controls for quite some time. By doing so you could knock more than 10 per cent off the cost of heating your home.
Getting a handle of where your electricity is going will also save money. Energy monitors detail exactly which appliance is using what amount of power at any given moment.
Better still are the Home Energy Saving Kits, which were developed by the Dublin energy agency Codema, and available for anyone to borrow across Dublin’s library network. They are made up of six tools which address three key areas of energy use in the home: space heating, hot water and electricity consumption.
The kits come in a foam-padded suitcase and include a thermometer for measuring the temperature of fridges and freezers, a humidity meter, a radiator key, a thermal leak detector and a plug-in energy monitor.
As smartphones continue to take over almost every part of our lives, managing our energy usage using apps is becoming increasingly evolved. The Nest Learning Thermostat is at the cutting edge of home heating; it promises to cut heating bills by giving you more control of temperatures and creating a personalised heating schedule. It also sends you emails every month letting you know how you did. It comes with built-in sensors so it knows when no one is home and you can control your heating from a smartphone.
Stoves might not be so cutting-edge, but if you want to invest to cut the cost of your energy, these are very good indeed and will save money without costing the earth. Stoves are up to three times more energy-efficient than open fires and keep houses warmer, even when not in operation, due to the reduction in ventilation heat losses.
More than 70 per cent of the heat from an open fire goes up the chimney, while a stove retains as much as 76 per cent of heat in the room. Replacing an open fire with an efficient stove can reduce the household energy consumption by 8-10 per cent. Given that we spend about €2,000 on heat, light and hot water, that could see a person’s fuel bill fall by €200 a year.
Other elemental steps to cut your energy costs include cooking more than one item at a time to make your oven more efficient, and avoiding opening the oven door while cooking – 20 per cent of the heat escapes every time you do. Put lids on pots boiling on your stove and always turn down the heat when water starts to boil.
Don’t let frost build up inside your fridge or freezer, as this increases energy consumption. Try to defrost every six months, and keep your fridge and freezer in the coolest part of the kitchen.
When using your dishwasher, wash at lower temperatures, clean off food and wait until you have a full load before putting on a wash.
Get your boiler serviced regularly: it could save you up to €150 a year in energy costs. Lagging jackets will reduce the cost of hot water, while chimney balloons will block draughty fireplaces when they are not being used.
Top 10 energy saving tips
SEAI’s top 10 tips to stay cosy this winter and help lower your home energy bills:
1. 20 degrees is an ideal temperature for the living areas in a home. If you lower your thermostat by just 1 degree it could knock as much as 10 per cent off your heating bill, saving around €150 in a typical family home.
2. Adopt the 30-minute rule. In the morning, set your heating to come on 30 minutes before you wake up and go off 30 minutes before you leave for work. In the evening set it to come on for 30 minutes before you are due home and off 30 minutes before you go to bed.
3. Have your boiler serviced annually to ensure safe, trouble-free and efficient operation. It could save you a further €150.
4. They may look beautiful and add to the festive feeling, but open fires are wasteful of energy, with more than 75 per cent of the heat going up the chimney.
5. If only one room needs heating, such as a home office, use a space or portable heater instead of the central heating. For free-standing heaters, preferably choose ones with thermostat controls and timers.
6. Don’t overheat unused rooms. If they are going to be unoccupied for longer periods, then even a small level of trickle heating will reduce the risk of condensation in those rooms.
7. If you are leaving the house unoccupied for an extended period (say over Christmas) then set the timer and thermostat to allow for a low level of heating each day to help reduce the risk of frost damage.
8. Much of the heat loss from a house occurs through the windows, particularly if they are single-glazed. Keep curtains closed at night and ensure that the curtains don’t hang over the tops of the radiators.
9. Insulating your attic and walls could save you 30-40 per cent on your home heating bill. Grants for wall and roof insulation, as well as home heating upgrades, are available from SEAI with quick online approval. Visit seai.ie/betterenergyhomes
10 . Consider installing remote heating controls which allow you to turn on and off your heating from your phone, tablet or computer. These are really useful if you work irregular hours.