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How to stop expensive heat leaking out your walls, windows and roof

Higher energy costs, better grants and working from home may just tip the retrofit-curious into action

Staying at home has never been more expensive. The energy crisis means the average householder will pay about €2,000 more for energy over the next 12 months than they did last year. Heating the space will be over 60 per cent of the cost; hot water about 19 per cent. Spending crazy money on your heating bill is even crazier however if your house is poorly insulated.

Those with older, draughty houses and inefficient heating systems will pay more to heat their homes this winter whilst feeling the least comfort. Their heating systems are expensive to run, heat is needed on for longer for any effect and temperatures drop fast when it’s switched off. A big energy bill is one thing, but paying it and still feeling cold is totally dispiriting.

“The efficiency of Irish homes is weighted towards poor efficiency, and those homes are going to feel the biggest brunt in terms of cost this winter,” says David Flannery, head retrofit adviser at Electric Ireland Superhomes. Indeed, just 3 per cent of homes in the country have a Ber rating of A, with 9 per cent having a B rating, according to the Central Statistics Office. These homeowners will pay the lowest energy bills and have the warmest homes this winter. About 30 per cent of homes have a Ber rating of E and F. They can expect big bills but little comfort.

Some 35 per cent of Irish homes have a C rating and 25 per cent have a D rating. These two groups have potentially the most to gain from retrofit measures at the least cost. If you can’t afford a whole house retrofit in one swoop, and not many can, start with some low hanging fruit. The SEAI offers individual energy grants for homeowners looking to retrofit their home, step by step. Start by insulating the parts of your home you can access most easily and so most affordably.


Attack the attic

The war on energy bills begins in your attic. “Your attic is the lowest of low-hanging fruit,” says David Flannery. Heat rises and up to 30 per cent of your home’s heat can be lost through your roof, he says. So instead of paying top dollar to keep the spiders toasty up there, and heating the night sky beyond, insulate your attic and keep the heat in the rooms below.

The payback from attic insulation is pretty instantaneous, says Flannery. “Your heating probably won’t need to be on for as long and that’s going to bring down your heating bills.” When your heating switches off, your house will retain the heat for longer too.

Once, you might have insulated your attic yourself. Hefty Government grants and the fact that an SEAI registered installer will lay the insulation effectively whilst maintaining ventilation make this the advisable route. The SEAI grant will pay for a large proportion of the cost of the works, says Flannery.

“For the average size house, the cost of the attic insulation is €1,800 or €1,900 and the grant is €1,500,” he says. So what’s the actual payback? Meet Mary. She has a four-bedroom, detached 150sq m house. Last year, her heating bill was €1,600. Mary had 100mm of fibreglass insulation in her attic but decided to upgrade to 300mm. Having availed of the SEAI’s Home Energy attic insulation grant, Mary is predicted to save €250 each year on her home heating bill, according to SEAI estimates. Those savings will be even greater now that energy prices have rocketed.

Up the walls

Up to 30 per cent of your home’s heat can be lost through your external walls. Insulating them will reduce this heat loss, prevent drafts and lower your bills.

There are three ways to do it; cavity, external and internal insulation. Homes built from the mid-1980s and ‘90s are likely to have cavity walls that can be pumped with insulation. “Doing this is on par with attic insulation, it will make a dramatic difference,” says Flannery. “The savings on euro spend are very persuasive, there is a high return on investment,” he says.

Take John, he has a four-bedroom 150sq m detached house. He has cavity walls with no insulation. Last year, his annual heating bill was €1,600. Having availed of the Home Energy cavity wall insulation grant of €1,700, John’s house is warmer and he saves over €300 each year on his home heating bill, according to SEAI estimates.

Typical costs for this type of upgrade are approximately €700-€1,000, excluding grant. “Most of the grants were doubled last year so it’s a bit of a game changer,” says Flannery. “For eligible houses, the grant is a big proportion of the cost.”

If your walls aren’t suitable for cavity insulation, there are grants for external and internal insulation. External wall insulation is the most effective form of insulation, but it is pricey. For a semi-detached home with a floor area of 115sq m expect to pay €19,000-€27,000 with a grant of €6,000. In addition to a warmer home with lower annual energy bills, such insulation can also resolve issues such as rain penetration, poor airtightness and frost damage.

Heat pump

If your boiler is nearing end of life, it might be time to bite the bullet and switch to a heat pump. Older gas and oil-fired boilers waste energy and are costly to run. Indeed, the days of installing new boilers are numbered. Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has signalled moves to restrict fossil fuel use including gas boilers in homes, leading to a likely ban on their installation at a future date.

Replacing your old oil or gas boiler with a heat pump means no more oil and gas bills, ever. You’ll use less energy to heat your home, have a near boundless supply of cheap hot water and have a warmer home. Insulating your home to the B2 energy rating needed to support a pump is the biggest element of the cost, according to a report by the ESRI. If you’ve already done attic and wall insulation, you will be well on the road however.

Air to water heat pumps are the most popular choice. The first step is to engage an SEAI registered technical adviser who will tell you what you need to do to reduce heat loss in order for a pump to work efficiently. A house with poor insulation and single glazing will cost substantially more to upgrade to the necessary level than, say, a well-insulated dwelling with newer double glazing. To qualify for the technical assessment grant of €200 and the heat pump grant, you must carry out the recommended upgrades. For those in a semi-detached home with a floor area of 115m sq, expect to spend €14,000-€17,500 for an air to water heat pump and radiator replacement. A grant will cover €8,500 of the cost.

The cost may be high, but heat pumps yield great long-term savings with average annual running costs of €600-€1,000 for heating and hot water. “Most households will see savings of €600-€700 a year on heating bills,” says Flannery. “When you combine a heat pump with a full insulation package, those savings go up and the payback time decreases,” he says.

Many homeowners may be closer to taking advantage of these savings than they think. “A lot of houses built from 2002 or 2004 onwards are actually very close to heat pump-ready,” says Flannery. “There is somewhere in the region of half a million homes in this country that actually could, with a small few insulation measures like the attic, swap out their oil or gas boiler for a heat pump and possibly solar PV too because there are some really great grants when you combine those two things.”

One-stop shop

“If you’ve got savings, the SEAI’s One Stop Shop service brings bigger grants than if you were to complete upgrades one by one over time. Take the example of a semi-detached house built in 1981 with a Ber rating of E2. Using the SEAI’s One Stop Shop service, works including roof insulation, external wall insulation, cavity wall insulation, new double-glazed windows, high performing doors, a heat pump, new radiators, solar PV and mechanical ventilation will bring it up to a B2 energy rating. The approximate cost would be €50,000-€69,000 depending on the size of the house, according to SEAI estimates. The One Stop Shop grant will cover about €27,300. If the homeowner had gone the individual energy upgrade grant route, the total value of the grant would be much less at €15,600. Bringing a E2-rated home up to a B2 could cut annual energy usage by about a third.”

“For anyone looking for that generational change or transformational change, the One Stop Shop, whole-house approach is going to suit them best. It isn’t cheap. It’s an investment, but that payback will last decades,” says Flannery.

Retrofitters have never been busier, he says. Higher energy costs, better grants and working from home may just tip the retrofit-curious into action.

“At the forefront of people’s minds is not being able to predict the future, but if you insulate your home and have a highly efficient heating system, then you have done what you can,” says Flannery. “People who did the work last year have even more savings now because energy costs have risen.”

Bear in mind, that the cost of retrofitting seemingly similar houses can vary. And a word of caution too on SEAI estimates — while grant amounts remain stable, its installation and savings estimates have yet to be updated in line with inflation.