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Home retrofits: The how, the why and the hidden costs

One-stop shops will simplify a complex process, tailored to individual needs

With energy prices on the rise and government grants covering about half of the cost of retrofitting your home, there has arguably never been a better time to do the job. The introduction of so-called one-stop shops to bring homeowners through the entire process – from initial assessment on their homes and processing grant applications to organising contractors to work on site – is a great incentive to householders to embrace the opportunity.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) says that, in 2022, about 20 one-stop shops are expected to be registered with it to help householders embark on deep retrofits of their homes.

Brian O’Mahony, head of retrofitting and communities at SEAI, 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.

The first step on your retrofit journey is to have an energy assessment on your home. This assessment, which costs €400-€700 (€350 covered by an SEAI grant) is carried out by an independent assessor organised by the one-stop shop. It includes a full technical assessment of the fabric of the house as well as tests for airtightness and heat loss. The current BER of your home and what measures will be required to bring it up to a BER of B2 is also included in the assessment. 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.

Then, you must decide whether you can afford both the financial outlay and the domestic upheaval of a deep retrofit (which includes 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 is another option for those who want to generate their own electricity. And there are SEAI grants available for many of these one-off measures too.

The right order

Rory Clarke from House2Home Retrofits (which partners with Energia) says that when it comes to deciding which retrofitting jobs to begin with, 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. Upgrading your heating system from oil/gas to air-to-water heat pumps is the final job.

Clarke adds 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 or go on holidays 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.

Stuart Hobbs of SSE Airtricity says that homeowners are increasingly able to stay in their houses while retrofitting works are carried out if they are prepared to withstand a certain amount of disruption to their daily lives.

“We send a surveyor to their home whose job it is to understand how they live, what their budget and time frame is and what they want to get out of the job. Then we assign a project manager who is there for the customers before, during and after the works are done.”

Hobbs says attic and cavity wall insulation are the most popular jobs people are having done in their homes since the SEAI enhanced grants were introduced early in 2022. “It’s a good place to start as it is not massively invasive. Once you’ve cleared out your attic, the job can be done in a day.” External insulation, which is more costly, can also be carried out in seven to 10 days without the homeowners having to vacate their house.”

New windows

If new windows are being installed, they need to be done before the external insulation is applied. However, it’s important to realise that there are no SEAI grants for window replacements unless they are part of a deep retrofit. Similarly, there are no SEAI grants for replacing radiators unless this is part of a deep retrofit with a heat pump that requires more efficient radiators.

Hobbs has a word of caution for people who believe that installing solar PV panels will result in them exporting energy to the grid. “It’s wrong to think that you’ll export energy to the grid given the roof space of most urban homes,” he says. In his own four-bedroom detached home, an eight panel PV meets about 55 per cent of his home’s electricity demands in the summer months.

Overall Hobbs says homeowners are often more interested in aesthetics, design and comfort than the technical details of energy efficiency. “We thought the technical stuff would trip us up, but when people are thinking of retrofitting, they are more concerned with warmth, comfort and the colour of their new windows. The solar panels are also a kind of virtue signal. They add a bit of bling to the roof and are a way of demonstrating that the house is energy efficient as most of the other measures are largely unseen,” he adds.

SSE Airtricity partners with An Post, which offers low-cost loans for homeowners embarking on retrofitting jobs. "We support postmasters with basic information on retrofitting, and that way we can reach areas where customers are less exposed to retrofitting information. We feel that a lot of customers are disenfranchised and fearful about retrofitting by the lack of information on its affordability. It's about democratising retrofitting to every part of Ireland," says Hobbs.

Homeowners who qualify for the SEAI Warmer Homes schemes can apply for fully funded deep retrofits on their homes. Eligibility requirements include those on jobseeker’s allowance, disability allowance and working/one-parent family payments. The 2022 scheme – which is facing long delays – 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 (when new building regulations came in) with a BER of B3 or lower.

Hidden costs

Stephen Prendiville, head of sustainability at EY, says the one-stop shop model for retrofitting is a great idea but that these one-stop shops have to understand their individual customers’ needs.

“There are a lot of hidden costs in retrofitting your home that are not covered by the SEAI grants, and how customers are treated in these schemes will make all the difference,” says Prendiville.

He believes that for Ireland to reach its target of retrofitting 1.5 million homes in the next 30 years, the first 50,000 customers need to be the best advocates of the scheme.

“The one-stop shops will explain how retrofitting is done and manage the process from initial assessment to grant applications to carrying out the work, but we need the process to be more customer focused,” says Prendiville.

By way of example, he says that a retired couple having their house retrofitted will often have easier options to move out of their home during a deep retrofit but a self-employed person working from home would face disruption to their business; or a single mother with two children might struggle to find alternative accommodation while the job is being done.

Prendiville suggests that different approaches will be needed for different customers. “We need a changed mindset. The lived experience of customers will be crucial. We need to consider childcare, alternative accommodation and other supports. A lot of people whose homes most need deep retrofitting don’t go on holidays every year. The work has to be time-bound because people’s perception of jobs going on for longer and being more expensive is a barrier to retrofitting.”

Speaking about EY’s own target to be net zero by 2025, Prendiville says the company aims to model sustainability throughout its employees. “With our hybrid workforce of 4,000 people in Ireland in all sorts of different accommodation, the [energy efficiency] of their homes is part of their carbon footprint. I am currently looking into getting solar panels and an electric pump in a rented property. And I just had an electric charger installed for my car.”

“We need an all-of-us attitude to solve this, and there are business and career opportunities within companies in this too,” he adds.