Just more than 10 years ago, we retrofitted our home, a 1960s detached four-bedroom house that we had moved into a year earlier. Living in the house for a year made us realise that for both comfort and aesthetics, we had lots of work to do. So as well as upgrading the heating system, we got new windows and doors and piled in as much insulation as possible in the attic, under the floors and on the internal walls (our budget didn’t allow us to consider external insulation and the internal walls benefited from being skimmed and repainted).
We moved out of our home for four months while the builders gutted the interior and rewired and replumbed the entire house. It was a stressful time – as any house renovation is – but, we returned to a home that required virtually no space-heating (10 to 15 minutes on a cold winter evening suffices and we don’t need heating on in the mornings) because it was so well sealed up. We added two solar thermal panels on the south-facing roof to heat our water. So impressed was my husband (who managed the SEAI grant process himself) that he briefly wanted to rename our home E2 to B2 in acknowledgment of the before and after BER rating. Our annual combined bills for gas-fired zoned heating system (installing a heat pump wasn’t on the table 10 years ago) and electricity are about €1,300 on a discounted rate from our energy provider.
Back then, we knew we were so-called “early adopters” in the retrofitting revolution but we weren’t the only ones. And now, as the Government announces its plans to retrofit 500,000 homes before 2030 to reduce energy consumption and make homes warmer and cosier, we can’t but wonder why it has taken so long.
But, deciding to retrofit the house you have been living in for years is no easy task – even with the increased Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) grants to cushion the cost. Firstly, you must decide whether you can afford both the financial outlay and the domestic upheaval of a deep retrofit (which includes everything from attic and wall insulation, new windows and doors, conversion of heating system from gas/oil to a heat pump, advanced ventilation and photovoltaic (PV) solar panels for electricity generation).
And if a deep retrofit seems too daunting, homeowners can instead take a step-by-step approach to retrofitting by doing attic and cavity wall insulation one year, putting in new windows and doors another year and later embarking on transforming their heating system from oil/gas to an air-to-water heat pump system. Solar PV panels are another option for those who want to generate their own electricity. And there are new SEAI grants available for many of these one-off measures too.
“The one-stop [retrofitting] shops offer homeowners guidance from start to finish, which includes the design stage, choosing and managing the contractors, applying for the SEAI grants and completing the BER at the end,” explains Brian O’Mahony, head of retrofit and communities at the SEAI.
The newly announced SEAI grants cover up to €25,000 of the costs for a deep retrofit which brings your home up to a B2 rating. An additional grant of €2,000 is available for those who install a heat pump as part of their retrofit. And, energy suppliers also offer their customers so-called carbon credits of about €2,000 when work is carried out by a partner company. The estimated cost of a deep retrofit for a three-bedroom home is between €60,000 and €70,000. The SEAI grants must be drawn down within a 12-month period from when work starts and if you work with a retrofitting company, the discounts will be deducted at the start of the job.
But for those who don’t have the funds (or don’t want to take out a loan) to embark on a deep retrofit, it’s also possible to take a step-by-step approach to retrofitting your home.
“Some people know exactly what they want to do and can manage the grants themselves so the step-by-step approach suits them,” says O’Mahony. The SEAI grants on single measures are paid when the work is completed.
Rory Clarke from House2Home Retrofits (which partners with Energia) and Peter Campbell from Energlaze (which partners with Bord Gáis) agree that when it comes to deciding which retrofitting jobs to begin with that it’s “fabric first”. In other words, you start by insulating your attic and walls before you move on to installing new windows and doors and then, upgrading your heating system from oil/gas to air-to-water heat pump is the final job.
Owners of period homes should seek advice from retrofitting specialists who have experience and knowledge of the breathable insulation required for homes built in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. “Period homeowners can put in attic insulation, new windows, improve their heating systems and generate electricity on site, but breathable insulation must be used for these homes. Most homes built after 1900 can take the modern insulation materials,” says O’Mahony.
How will one-stop shops help people retrofit their homes?
There will be about 20 so-called one-stop shops registered with, and audited by, SEAI this year to help householders embark on deep retrofits on their homes.
O’Mahony says that seven or eight of these companies will operate throughout the country, while others will work with homeowners in specific regions or counties. Many of these retrofitting businesses team up with energy suppliers who incentivise their customers to retrofit their homes by offering them so-called carbon credits worth about €2,000.
“Most of these companies will already have experience in retrofitting but it’s a good idea to shop around and talk to one or two companies, get references from homeowners who used them and talk to people who’ve already done it,” says O’Mahony, who estimates that most deep retrofits can be completed in five to six months.
The first step on your retrofit journey is to have an energy assessment on your home. This assessment, which costs between €400-€700 (€350 covered by an SEAI grant) is carried out by an independent assessor. It includes a full technical assessment of the fabric of the house as well as tests for air tightness and heat loss. An assessment of the current BER rating and what measures will be required to bring the home to a BER of B2 is also included. The homeowner can then decide whether to use the service of the retrofitting contractor who organised the home energy assessment or bring this assessment to another retrofitting contractor instead.
Campbell says if a homeowner does a home energy assessment in March, it will probably be May before the job starts and it might be early July before the windows arrive on site. “Cavity wall or internal insulation and attic insulation can be completed before new windows and doors go in and then the heat pump is installed next. The solar panels can be put in at any time,” says Campbell.
Clarke says that it’s important for people to understand that retrofitting jobs need to be planned in advance. “Some people wait until family events are over or their children are finished exams. It’s a huge consideration to have to move out of your home for four to eight weeks while a deep retrofit is being done but people living in a damp and cold house which is expensive to run are willing to do so.”
Due to the scarcity of finding short-term rental accommodation, some people also opt to stay with relatives while the job is being done. “We can be on site within six weeks of when the customer says they want to go ahead. We find that we are now retrofitting houses for people who have just bought their home and see retrofitting as a necessity before they settle in. They want to bring their home up to an energy efficient standard as well as having a comfortable home,” says Clarke.
O’Mahony says that choosing which type of insulation depends on the home owner. “Some people think that their rooms will feel much smaller if they do internal insulation but when it’s done, they say they don’t notice any difference in the size,” he says.
Opting to put in solar PV panels on the roof of your house and/or garage is a personal choice. “Some people will go with solar and some won’t. Getting a BER of B2 isn’t dependent on them but some people will want to generate electricity and particularly when the feed-in tariff comes in,” says Campbell.
New low-cost loans are expected to become available later this year through banks, credit unions and post offices for people retrofitting their homes. The retrofitting companies will have these details once the Government sets the low interest rates with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.
Homeowners who qualify for the SEAI Warmer Homes schemes can apply for fully funded deep retrofits on their homes. Eligibility requirements include those on job seeker’s allowance, disability allowance and working/one-parent family payments. The recently announced scheme will prioritise homes built before 1993 with a BER of E, F or G. The one-stop shops are available to people who own homes built before 2011 with a BER of B3 or lower.
Step-by-step retrofitting your home: what you need to know
Once you’ve committed to retrofitting your home, you’ll have to plan how everyone in the house will manage during the upheavals. For smaller measures, it’s possible to stay in the house but if you’re opting for a deep retrofit, you will have to move out of your home for between four to eight weeks, or longer.
“Deep retrofitting won’t suit everyone and some will prefer to take a piecemeal approach to energy upgrades. There is no room for pressure-selling in retrofitting work. It has to be a consultative process,” says Clarke.
Campbell says that about 80 per cent of his business over the last two years has been individual measures. “It’s not fair to put pressure on people to do deep retrofits on their homes when they can do one measure each year and keep tipping away to get to B2,” says Campbell.
What’s the time frame?
Here we offer a rough estimate of the time required for each retrofitting measure to be completed. For more details on materials and processes, check out the homeowners' guides to attic and rafter insulation, wall insulation, heating controls, heat pump systems and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on seai.ie.
Attic Insulation: Once you've emptied your attic (and that's no mean feat for most people), it will only take about a day for two to three people to put in the insulation.
Wall insulation: First, you've got to decide whether you are opting for external, internal or cavity wall insulation. External insulation costs about twice as much as internal insulation but it's much less disruptive as basically, it's like having an extra wrapping around your house. However, remember, it can only be done after new windows and doors have been installed. Putting up the insulation and rendering it afterwards generally takes two to three weeks to complete, depending on the size of your home. Planning permission may be required for homes on the protected structures register or in architectural conservation areas. Cavity-wall insulation – which is when insulation is pumped into the space between bricks and blocks takes one to two days to complete.
Dry-lining applied to internal walls is much more intrusive as everything will have to be removed from the walls before the job can be started. It will take two to three days to dry-line each room, depending on its size.
Windows and doors: The issue with putting in new windows and doors is not the time it takes to install them (the job is usually completed in one day), but the time it takes between ordering them and delivery. With current high demand, it can now take up to 12 weeks for windows and doors to arrive on site. This time frame has to be factored in as external insulation and heat pump installation can't be done until the new windows and doors are in. That said, putting in new windows and doors is probably the most satisfying job in the whole retrofit as it refreshes your home aesthetically as well as improving its air tightness.
Heat pump installation: It takes between two to three days to install air-to-water heat pumps. These units (which look like air conditioning units) have replaced the ground-source-to-water heat pumps, which take longer to install and are more disruptive because of the need for underground works.
Solar photovoltaic panels: It takes about a day to install solar PV panels. Most homeowners will opt to install six panels to contribute to their electricity needs.