Monday 15 July 2019

How to save on your home bills? Invest in a deep retrofit

If your home is a draughty, damp spot, you might reap big financial - and health - benefits from a deep retrofit, writes John Hearne

Cold war: Poor weather lately has meant our bills have stayed high
Cold war: Poor weather lately has meant our bills have stayed high
Henk Van der Puil and his wife Barbara. Photo: Mark Condren

John Hearne

Last Monday, the Government announced that 500,000 homes were to be retrofitted in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and drag our housing stock into the fossil-free age. But what exactly does a retrofit involve?

Housing plays a big role in carbon emissions. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) says a quarter of Ireland's energy-related CO2 emissions are created by our inefficient housing stock. Over a million Irish homes come in at a building energy rating (BER) of C or lower, while 98pc of our home heating is sourced from fossil fuels. We're also bottom of the class compared to our European neighbours. Irish houses emit almost 60pc more CO2 than the average EU home.

The SEAI has been offering grant aid to spur the transformation of our cold, draughty, oil-fired homes for years. You can get subsidies for installing insulation and for a variety of sustainable technologies designed to reduce your carbon footprint and boost the energy profile of your home. Now, however, the authority is offering grant aid for making multiple energy upgrades all at once.

Read More: 'Our bungalow needed an update so applying for an energy upgrade was a no-brainer '

Deep retrofits, as they're known, customise measures to bring a house from a sub-C BER up to an A rating. Whether it's installing external insulation and mechanical heat recovery ventilation or pumping the walls and adding electricity generating photovoltaic (PV) panels to the roof, you're looking at an investment in the order of €40,000 to €50,000. The good news is that the SEAI will grant aid 50pc of the cost.

The authority says that service providers upgraded 195 homes last year, with 39 done so far in 2019. That mightn't sound like much, but we're still at the pilot stage. All works to be completed this year are already scheduled. Applications are still being taken however, and there are no plans to discontinue the scheme.

So who is it aimed at? Fergal Cantwell, of Three Counties Energy Agency (3CEA) in Kilkenny, says that any property can be brought up to an A3 rating, which is the minimum aim of all works. For a small minority of property types however, the costs may be prohibitive. Cantwell puts old stone cottages in this category, noting that external wall insulation - one of the more expensive measures - may be the only way to effectively insulate.

For the vast majority of Irish homes, however, deep retrofits will transform comfort, deliver substantial savings and go a long way towards reducing our emissions.

"We take a 'fabric first' approach," says Cantwell. "The first priority is getting your walls and attic insulated, and your windows and doors upgraded to improve your building envelope. Fossil fuels are not supported in the scheme, so in terms of heating systems, the most popular choice is a heat pump."

This technology extracts latent solar heat from the air or the ground and uses electricity to boost that heat to a usable temperature.

The SEAI says that the average deep retrofit household spends between €1,600 and €2,000 per year on heat before works are carried out. The cost to heat a home with an A3 rating is reduced to somewhere around €500 per year. Research from ESRI also notes that an A-rated home can have a very positive impact on the list price.

One more point that's frequently missed in this discussion is that taking measures like these can make a huge difference to the air quality in your home. Reducing air leakages in houses necessitates the installation of mechanical ventilation systems. Much of the Irish housing stock is both draughty and poorly ventilated, so installing one of these systems means you're not constantly opening windows to circulate fresh air and get rid of smells.

To apply for a deep retrofit grant, you have to contact one of the service providers on the SEAI's approved list. Check the SEAI website for the full list of partners.

Meanwhile, the authority continues to offer its suite of grants for individual energy upgrade measures. Insulation is the key one. On average, a house loses 20-30pc of its heat through the walls - more if they're not properly insulated. You can currently access a grant of €400 each for attic and cavity wall insulation. Grants for dry lining range up to €2,400 while external insulation grants run to €6,000.

Not all houses are suitable for a heating control upgrade, but if yours is, this measure can save you thousands over the years. You can heat water without having to turn on your heating, and by splitting upstairs and downstairs into separate control zones, you're also achieving greater efficiency. The grant available is €700.

A domestic solar PV system consists of a number of solar panels mounted to your roof or on special brackets in your garden, and connected into the electrical loads within your building. You can get €700 for each kW of solar PV installed, up to a maximum of 2kW.

Solar thermal panels are designed to meet between 50pc and 60pc of your overall hot water requirements over the year. The grant available for this measure is €1,200. Grants are also available for heat pump technology, and range from €600 for an air-to-air system, up to €3,500 for ground source, exhaust air and water-to-water systems.

Note, too, that if you complete three upgrades, your grant value will be increased by €300. If you complete four upgrades, grant value will go up by an additional €100, giving a total top-up of €400.

MONEY SAVER

A heatpump and solar PV array are a perfect match. The former heats your home; the latter generates electricity to power it. Excess power can be stored either in batteries or as hot water in your cylinder, while under a new government initiative, it's likely you will also be able to sell power back to the national grid.

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