MY husband and I have spent the last year turning a cold and poorly insulated bungalow into a warm energy-efficient home. Tough work.
We replaced ancient wooden-framed single-glazed windows with pvc-framed double- and triple-glazed windows. We brought the insulation in the attic up to scratch and pumped the bungalow's walls with insulation. We tore out the old single-panel radiators and replaced them with modern double-panel, double-convector ones. We replaced the old leaky hot water cylinder with one of the best stainless steel solar cylinders around. We put in super efficient solar panels and a powerful oil boiler. We spent a hell of a lot of money doing all that – but we've saved ourselves at least €1,000 a year in heating bills by doing so.
Making your home more energy efficient should be worth the investment. If you own a three-bed semi-detached house, you could save yourself up to €2,800 a year in heating bills, depending on how poorly insulated and environmentally unfriendly your home is before you do the work, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).
It's important however that you don't get ripped off and that you grab any of the grants and tax reliefs out there for doing up your home.
GET A GRANT
You can get grants for solar heating, insulating your attic and walls, and for installing a highly efficient gas or oil-fired boiler with modern heating controls. You can also get a grant for upgrading the heating controls on an existing boiler. (Heating controls help you control the heating for different rooms and zones in your home so you're not heating up rooms or areas that aren't being used.)
All of these grants are available under SEAI's Better Energy Homes scheme. The grants you get from the SEAI should ease the pain of any hefty bill you face for energy-proofing your home – but don't plough ahead with any upgrades until you know you'll qualify for the grant. It's also important that you know exactly how much of a grant you'll get – it might work out cheaper for you to do some of the work yourself than to go the SEAI route.
The biggest grants you'll get are for external wall insulation. If you own a semi-detached or end-of-terrace house, you can get a €2,700 grant for wall insulation. If you own a detached home, the grant for wall insulation is worth €3,600. Wall insulation is expensive however – if you own a three-bed detached bungalow for example, the bill could easily be about €14,000, assuming you've 138 square metres of wall. If you own a two-storey detached home, the bill will probably be higher. A company will typically charge about €100 a square metre to put wall insulation into your home, according to the SEAI.
Internal wall insulation – also known as dry lining – isn't as expensive as external insulation. It could still set you back several grand for dry lining however. The maximum grant for dry lining is €1,800 – and the grant will be lower if you don't own a detached house.
The most affordable type of wall insulation is cavity wall insulation – but you must have a cavity wall to do this. Don't get confused between a cavity wall and cavity blocks – if you have cavity blocks, you won't be able to get cavity wall insulation. It could cost about €1,200 to get cavity wall insulation for a three-bed detached bungalow. The size and width of your cavity wall will determine how much the insulation will cost. You can get an SEAI grant of €250 towards cavity wall insulation. However, as one of the conditions of the Better Energy Homes scheme grant is that your first application must be for at least €400 worth of grants, if cavity wall insulation is the only upgrade work you're planning for your home, you won't qualify for a grant. If you get another job done at the same time, such as attic insulation, you'll qualify for the grants. However, make sure it makes financial sense to do so – you could be spending money unnecessarily.
You can get a €200 grant towards attic insulation. However, you'll only get this grant if you hire an SEAI registered contractor to do the job and it could work out cheaper to do this job yourself – even allowing for the grant. My husband and I were quoted €1,320 before tax to insulate our attic. That quote included insulation of the water tank and pipes, insulation of the trap door, and upgrading the insulation in our attic to a depth of 300mm – the thickness that the SEAI will insist on if you are to get a grant. Do the job yourself and pick up insulation when it's on offer in your local DIY store and you could keep the cost of the job to €500 or less.
You can get an €800 grant towards the cost of solar heating, a €560 grant towards the cost of a new oil or gas boiler with modern heating controls, and a €400 grant towards the cost of upgrading the heating controls on an existing boiler. Depending on the size of your home, you could spend almost €9,000 on a good solar heating system and a new boiler and water cylinder – so the SEAI grants could save you about a seventh of that bill.
One of the conditions of the Better Energy Homes scheme is that you get a Building Energy Rating (BER) cert after you've upgraded your home. A BER cert shows how energy efficient your home is. It will usually set you back about €150 to get a one – but you can get a €50 grant towards the cost of that cert.
Ten tips to help smoothpath to warmth
1. Do your homework. If getting insulation pumped into the walls, it could take a couple of weeks before you notice any difference – and by that stage, you will have paid for the job. Unless you're an insulation expert – or you stand over the back of the contractor while he is doing the job, you have no real way of knowing what he's pumping into your walls. It's important therefore to choose a contractor who is registered with the SEAI. If you have a trusted local builder who is not registered, ask him to become registered as it is free to do so. Before giving a contractor the go ahead, ask him what materials are used. Ensure the materials have been approved and tested by a national authority, such as the National Standards Authority of Ireland.
2. If considering solar panels, check where they are made – even if the company which fits them is Irish. For example, solar panels manufactured in China can work out cheaper than the Thermomax panels made in Ireland. However, some Chinese solar panels are not that reliable. It's worthwhile getting the opinion of a BER assessor (who is also registered with the SEAI) about the quality of the systems you are considering for your home.
3. Avoid companies that offer a warranty of less than five years with solar heating – the SEAI's guidelines state that contractors must provide a warranty of at least five years for parts and labour.
4. Get a least three quotes before you decide who to use.
5. You must get SEAI grant approval before beginning any work – or buying any materials for the job.
6. Once you get grant approval, you must get all the work done – and send all relevant paperwork to the SEAI within six months.
7. The work carried out must meet SEAI's standards to qualify for a grant. You may therefore have to spend more than you intended. For example, the size of your home and the number of people living in it will determine the number of solar panels you must get. Usually, the more panels, the more expensive the job. Your choice of manufacturer could also have a bearing on the cost. If the manufacturer's solar panels are less efficient than another manufacturer's, you may have to get more panels than had you gone with the efficient manufacturer.
8. Don't ignore the SEAI's requirements. Otherwise you run the risk of getting your grant turned down. You must be the owner of the property to qualify for a grant. So if you're doing up your parent's home or a property you're renting, you won't be eligible for a grant. Your home must have been built before 2006.
9. Make sure you have enough money to cover the grant until it comes through. You won't get your grant until the work is done and paid for – and after the SEAI has received all necessary documents.
10. Contact your local tax office to see if the work qualifies for tax relief under the government's new home renovation scheme. If it does, you could get 13.5 per cent back in tax relief.
EU set to beef up food fraud laws after horsemeat scandal
If you're still avoiding beef burgers after last year's horsemeat scandal, you might be relieved to hear that the European Parliament plans to introduce tougher penalties for food-chain fraud.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament put forward a range of measures to crack down on food fraud, including higher penalties for fraudsters, obligatory origin labelling, and more unannounced inspections to ensure that food is safe and what it says it is.
"Strong EU counter-measures are vital as another fraud was uncovered last month in France where horsemeat unfit for human consumption entered the food chain," said Camille Perrin of the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC. "Lessons from last year's horsemeat scandals were not learnt as some fraudsters are still willing to take risks for easy money."
Start Your Own Business Scheme
If you have been out of work for some time and are considering setting up your own business, it is worth checking out the Revenue Commissioner's new guide to the Start Your Own Business scheme. Under this scheme, you can earn up to €40,000 a year for two years without getting hit for income tax.
To qualify for the tax break, you must have been out of work for at least a year before you set up your own business. You must also have been receiving certain payments, such as the dole or the one-parent family payment, while you were out of work.
The relief is available for businesses set up between 25 Oct 25, 2013, and Dec 31, 2016.
Money talks could save you €1,000
Managing your loan repayments better, switching childcare provider or opening a regular savings account could save you €1,000 within three months, according to a recent survey by the consumer watchdog, the National Consumer Agency (NCA).
The NCA surveyed workers who attended its free 'Money Skills for Life' talks, which help people to manage their money better. About one-10th of those surveyed said they saved over €1,000 or more within three months of attending a 'Money Skills for Life' talk, about one-10th saved between €500 and €1,000, almost half said they saved between €100 and €500, and more than one-third saved less than €100.
Those who saved €1,000 or more did so by switching their childcare provider, opening a savings account, or managing their loan repayments so they would save on interest on mortgages, loans and credit cards.
Shopping around more when renewing health and car insurance was another way those surveyed saved money.