How to make your house more energy efficient (and reduce those bills)

We all know that our household energy bills are skyrocketing, along with the cost of living.

In this blog, 24housing looks at how to make savings on rising energy prices, examining:

  • the first steps to take to reduce your energy costs
  • insulation and draught-proofing
  • what to think about if you are building a house or an extension
  • energy options to consider to save money
  • how to increase energy efficiency in an older house
  • a look at the future of innovation

Dive in to learn all about it!

The first steps to save money on energy bills

An efficient heating system

Over half of the fuel bills in most households are for heating and hot water, so installing an efficient heating system that’s controllable is a good way to reduce high energy bills and carbon emissions. To meet the government’s net zero target, we must cut emissions from heating our homes by 95% over the next 30 years. Green energy is becoming more viable as we search for the best energy deals in the face of rising energy prices. According to the Energy Saving Trust, these are the key points to consider if we want to use less energy, yet keep our homes at a comfortable temperature:

Heat pumps

Heat pumps capture heat from the outside and move it into the home; while they use electricity, the heat energy created exceeds the electricity used to power the system. As more renewable sources are connected to the electricity grid, replacing gas and coal power, electricity is becoming more low carbon. Heat pumps are suitable for most houses and may reduce energy bills by making the home more energy efficient.

An air source heat pump being installed.

Condensing boilers

Modern boilers burn fuel efficiently, but some heat is lost as hot gases escape via the flue. A condensing boiler removes more heat from the flue gas and uses it to heat the central heating water, making them more energy efficient than older boilers. If you need to change your boiler, consider a low carbon heating system such as a heat pump: bear in mind that gas and oil boilers are banned from new homes from 2025.

Improve your central heating system:

  • Use heating controls such as timers and smart thermostats to manage temperature control and energy usage. Technology such as TVRs and cylinder thermostats can be fitted without replacing your boiler. Smart meters can also help save money.
  • Install a Heat Recovery System: passive flue gas heat recovery systems capture lost energy and reuse it; they are ideal if you are fitting a new boiler.
  • Insulate your hot water cylinder.
  • Tackle corrosion: this is a problem in older central heating systems, leading to a build-up of sludge which can reduce efficiency – use a chemical inhibitor to reduce the corrosion.
  • Improve filtration:  if you are replacing a boiler, your plumber can fit a magnetic filter to remove rust from the heating water.
  • Boiler replacement: replacing a gas boiler and installing thermostatic radiator valves (TVRs) will cost approximately £2,500. Replacing an oil boiler and installing TVRs will typically cost £3,200.

Upgrading options:

Install electric heating

This is a low carbon solution, simple to install and can be controlled room by room; it includes storage heating, electric boilers and underfloor heating.

Installing an electric boiler can reduce your carbon footprint.

Biomass

This is a renewable green energy heating system that burns wood pellets, chips or logs to power central heating and hot water boilers. It is sustainable as the carbon dioxide emitted in the burning is the same amount that was absorbed during the plant’s growth.

Solar water heating

This gives year-round heated water, reduced energy bills and a lower carbon footprint. The sun’s energy is used to warm water which is stored in a hot water cylinder or thermal store. To allow for cold weather, a conventional boiler or immersion heater is needed. Most systems provide water for hot taps.

Thermal Energy Stores

These are containers for storing excess heat generated from a domestic renewable heating system, providing a way to manage and store the heat till needed. For example, heated water may be stored in an insulated cylinder which may contain one or more heat exchangers and perhaps an immersion heater. Such stores can provide space heating and/or heated water.

Micro-combined heat and power (micro-CHP).

This efficient, low carbon technology generates heat and electricity simultaneously from the same green energy source.

Light bulbs

Small changes such as using energy efficient LED light bulbs can save you money in the long run.

Substantial loft insulation can reduce high energy bills.

Insulation and draught-proofing

Poor insulation is a major problem in much of the UK’s older housing stock and it leads to cold, draughty houses which are expensive to keep warm in cold weather. Draught proofing is a cheap and effective way of saving energy. Gaps in windows, doors, skirting boards, loft hatches and around pipework all let warm air out; to seal the gaps, use self-adhesive foam, metal or rubber strips and airtight silicone can be used between skirting boards and floors. If your windows are draughty or not double glazed, consider installing more energy efficient windows. Head of housing and planning policy for the National Federation of Builders Rico Wojtulewicz said:

Insulating your home and making it more airtight are solid first steps. This can be cheap, for instance installing loft insulation or caulking air gaps, but quickly gets pricey if you are not doing the work yourself or don’t get it done correctly – for example, ineffective wall insulation or poorly filled cavity wall insulation. It’s also worth considering your future energy needs, so if you are insulating your floors, can you put in an airtight membrane to stop draughts, or even underfloor heating which is a solid choice and is cheaper to install in new builds.

Good insulation is a key component and will bring about great results, but depending on what insulation you use, you may need to vary construction methods, such as building bigger cavities. If you have solid walls, external wall insulation is a great, though expensive solution and your council may reject your attempts. If your rooms are large enough, interior insulation is a good solution too. Be cautious with filling cavity walls or roofs because damp and mould are much more expensive to rectify than paying a bit more for your heating.

He recommends a regular boiler service to maximise its efficiency; many boilers are using too much energy and producing excess emissions. Combisave or Combismart valves can be fitted to the heated water outlet of combi boilers to speed up the delivery of hot water, and when the hot tap is turned on, the flow is lessened until it reaches the set temperature which saves wasting water.

Smart radiator valves and thermostatic radiator values (TRVs) can be programmed to turn off when a set temperature is reached. A smart radiator valve (SRV) allows the radiator to be controlled through a phone app. A zoned heating system is more efficient, allowing you to just heat the rooms you need.

Energy efficient wall insulation.

What to think about if you are building an extension

Rico Wojtulewicz said:

Insulation is just one component: airtightness and even orientation of the build – so you can catch as much sun as possible in cold weather – are worth consideration. Passivhaus is a design standard which considers these elements, but the certification and build process can get expensive and complex, so understanding whether its principles can be adopted into your build could work well. If you do go down the passive building route, pay attention to window installations and tape up air gaps, plus if your air exchange – the amount of times air is refreshed in your home – goes below three an hour, you will need mechanical ventilation.

If you are extending, make sure that you don’t negatively impact the existing house. For example, if you have suspended timber floors, ensure they still have cross ventilation. You can also consider whether that extension can play a part in future retrofitting, for example, having a roof space which can accommodate a solar panel. Extensions should aim high when it comes to insulation and air tightness, so think about whether they can also be your living spaces and so reduce your heating demands. Also, if you’re having work done, perhaps get the company to throw in a thermal heat loss survey.

A thermal heat loss survey can help assess a home’s energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency options for making savings

The government expects to remove the levies that make electricity prices more expensive, so electric boilers and heat pumps may be worth consideration, especially if they are air and ground source as they take existing heat to reduce how much energy you need to `get to temperature’, thus offering great savings on energy costs. However, air and ground source heat pumps are not cheap to buy and may require alterations such as bigger radiators and will need space for a hot water cylinder or thermal store.

Solar PV panels and solar thermal panels can give you great savings in electricity or hot water, as can the new thermal batteries for heated water. Some designers are even combining all three for home solutions.

How can I make an older house more energy efficient?

There is a lot we can do to older houses, said Mr Wojtulewicz, but we must understand what type of home we live in.

Heritage and traditionally built homes need to breathe the most and despite the 1919 traditional `tag,’ they were built until around 1940. As long as they can breathe – for example, cross ventilation in suspended timber floors, vents in the loft and cavities, or changing the roof membrane to be breathable – you can do a lot.

As an example, I live in a 1917 home and bought it last year, it’s my first place. I immediately reduced heat loss by sealing the gaps around window frames, both inside and out, repointed cracked and missing mortar around bricks, blocked my chimney and replaced window and door gaskets. I insulated my loft floor and bathroom, as it had a leak. It made a real difference to holding heat. This spring, I will be insulating the floor and making it airtight, and if I can afford it, laying down underfloor heating boards and pipes for an air source heat pump future. Getting access to the floor will be vital, as I can clean out the debris and make sure it has great cross ventilation in the subfloor. I did all the above myself and followed comprehensive industry guides which you can find on the NFB Retrofit Heritage webpage.

Underfloor home heating being laid.

Install solar panels

I also put solar thermal on the roof, in part thanks to taxpayers and the Green Homes Grant. I got 50-degree hot water in March and all of last summer, so I am delighted. I now have a choice between saving for solar panels or moving away from gas cooking and going for induction, but in my case, this will require rewiring the house, so adds to the cost. It’s worth noting that if you want an EV charger, grid connection with your solar, induction hob and air source heat pump, you may need some extensive electrical work in your home and even to connect to a local substation.

Installing solar panels can improve your home’s energy efficiency.

Future technology and innovation

House building is changing: thanks to modern building techniques, our housing stock will eventually become better insulated and increasingly energy efficient. Barratt Developments, the UK’s largest housebuilder, announced in October 2021 that it is building a flagship zero carbon home called the Z House, the first new UK home built by a major housebuilder to exceed the government’s Future Homes Standard for increasing the energy efficiency of new homes, by delivering a carbon reduction of 125%.

The initiative is involving 40 industry partners and will feature overhead infrared panels that provide instant carbon zero heat, new air powered showers that can save hundreds of pounds a year in water and heating bills, plaster which eliminates pollutants to give cleaner air, a fridge which retains the correct humidity resulting in 60% less food waste and heated skirting boards that deliver 10% more heat than traditional radiators and also save space.

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)

The Z House will be built using latest building methods incorporating MMC, including closed panel timber frames with highly insulated cladding, factory fitted windows and offsite panelised masonry ground floor wall panels, reducing the need for bricklayers and the build time by half. Other technology includes an air source heat pump, EV charging points, PV solar panels and battery storage. Carbon cutting technology being used to reduce embodied carbon levels include electronic taps that can reduce water use by 80%, kitchen cabinets made using 100% recycled chipboard, reused coconut husk material for the handles and a smart electricity tariff which automatically shifts energy usage to access the cheapest rates.

David Thomas, chief executive of Barratt Developments said:

We want to showcase what can be done to deliver zero carbon living using the latest technologies and working with the best industry partners. Ultimately, the aim is to find solutions to enable the industry to build high quality, zero carbon homes that customers love, at scale. We can then share this knowledge to help the industry deliver the future of sustainable housing.

The way ahead

Zero carbon living is the government’s goal, and it is achievable using the latest technologies; however, for many people living in dated housing, it seems a distant concept. While housebuilders are making advances with technology in new houses, options for the majority of people in older housing appear to be prioritising improvements to insulation and double glazing. Some who are eligible will take up grants from the National Home Energy Upgrade Scheme Find Energy Grants to install low carbon heating systems, while those with sufficient budgets will install the new technology, use smart electricity tariffs and look forward to reduced energy bills.

Do you agree, or has this blog missed any good tips?

Which tips will you be using first?

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