Tips to increase energy efficiency this winter

While new energy efficient homes are increasingly coming on the market, most people are still living in older style homes with low one to two star Energy Efficiency Ratings (EER). Home owners are increasingly looking to retailers for advice on simple ways they can make their homes more energy efficient.

The good news is, there are simple cost effective products retailers can recommend to make these existing homes more comfortable and to reduce energy bills. In addition, there are some great energy monitors on the market that enable home owners to see exactly how much energy their home is consuming.

Cheap and cheerful

The easiest place to start with advice is for homeowners to reduce the leakiness of their house by stopping drafts and escaping thermal energy. This does not require expensive EER audits: some simple hardware products and a bit of know-how will do the trick.

Doors and windows are the obvious first place to look. They should shut nice and tight with no air gaps. Windows should not rattle in their frames. Homeowners can work out where the air gaps are by walking around the house with a candle, preferably on a windy day, watching the flame to identify drafts and their origin.

Melbourne_interior

This Melbourne house was recently renovated with R4 ceiling insulation, R2.5 cavity insulation and a range of other energy saving features


This Melbourne house was recently renovated with R4 ceiling insulation, R2.5 cavity insulation and a range of other energy saving features

Retailers can recommend a self-adhesive draft sealing tape to install around door frames to ensure that they close tightly. Similarly, a weather strip can be placed across the bottom of a door to limit escaping heat.

If heat loss is coming from small gaps between the plaster and window or door trims, you can suggest any good flexible gap sealing product to fill the space. The same goes for any gaps between the skirting and the floors or the cornices. On larger gaps, you may want to recommend a low pressure expanding foam product instead of a general purpose sealant.

Another common source of heat escaping can be air conditioners installed in walls or windows or roof mounted evaporative coolers. As with windows, a general purpose sealant or expanding foam product can be used to make sure that there is no air leakage around. For older houses gaps in wooden flooring can also be an issue and may require a specialised sealant, or calling in handyman to replace some of the floorboards. Failing that, suggest covering up with an Afghan-style rug!

Open fireplaces function as thermal chimneys and suck warm air out of a house in the winter time. If they are not being used, you can recommend installing a damper across the top or the flue, or alternatively blocking off the chimney with a chimney balloon or some spare insulation product. Gas heaters should also checked regularly by a qualified plumber to ensure that they are working correctly and are venting outside of the house.

If a house doesn’t have self-sealing exhaust fans, there are covers that you can stock that go over the fans to close when the fans are not in use and open when they are. This prevents heat escaping through the exhaust system during the winter time.

The now ubiquitous downlights can also be a source of problems. Many of them are not sealed tightly and will allow warm air to escape into roof spaces. Similarly to exhaust fans, there are covers you can stock that will stop this from happening without causing lights to overheat.

Go a little further

For customers with a little more time and resources, the best thing is to suggest looking at the state of ceiling insulation. Both the quality of the insulation product and the standard of the installation are key factors in a house’s energy efficiency.

There are many stories of poor installation standards compromising a house’s heat retention and sometimes its safety as well. There should be no gaps in the insulation (except around halogen downlights) and no areas missed. Even gaps measuring 5 per cent of the total area can reduce the effectiveness of insulation by 40 per cent.

There are of course a wide range product options for ceiling insulation purposes, most commonly fiberglass batts and foil sheeting, both of which can be effective in reducing energy loss when properly installed. Where possible, ceiling installation should have at least an R4 rating. If using batt-style insulation, the batts should not be compressed, as this reduces the air gaps within them and their effectiveness.

There are also products to retrofit insulation to building cavities (e.g. the space between a brick veneer wall and internal plasterboard), commonly made from granulated rockwool or treated plant cellulose granules. Rockwool is manufactured from a mixture of molten rock and recycled glass furnace slag, which is extruded into fine fibres and granulated so that it can be pumped into the cavities of existing walls.

Cavity insulation is usually installed by professional insulation installers by removing roof tiles or drilling holes in masonry mortar and pumping in the insulating material with a special hose. Cavity insulation can achieve an R value of between 1 and 3 and can lead to an additional 35 per cent savings on heating costs on top of the benefit of ceiling insulation (but is not suitable for all types of home).

Heating appliances are another area to recommend upgrading, particularly for those with old-style inefficient electric or wood heaters. Modern gas heating, slow-combustion wood heating or reverse-cycle air conditioning can all be good options for homeowners to install, and while a significant investment, can quickly pay for themselves in energy savings compared with older equipment. For small spaces, there is still a good market for new oil column heaters as a heating option with low up-front costs and reasonable running costs when left on low.

Another area to suggest for people who have the resources to undertake a fuller renovation effort is glazing. Efficient double glazing or treated glass is a key means of improving a house’s EER. Double (or even triple) glazing is very effective at reducing heat loss and outside noise, but is still relatively expensive. However, there are a range of treated single glass panel products that can achieve good results at a lower cost. In some cases, installing skylights or additional windows can present the opportunity to improve the livability and EER of a home by adding natural light.

As always, it’s important to make clear to homeowners that any gas and electrical work can only be done by a licensed tradesperson. And for anything else your aspiring home handyman is not confident with, the best advice is to call in a professional for installation.

Master Builders accredits ‘Green Living Builders’ who have completed specialist training and maintain ongoing expertise in energy efficiency and other areas of building sustainability. It’s particularly important for homeowners not to disturb any area that may contain asbestos sheeting, insulation or other asbestos product. If asbestos has to be disturbed, a specialist asbestos removalist should be called.

As you can see, there is a great opportunity to build on the fast growing interest in sustainability and energy efficiency. Retailers who understand EER principles and stock the necessary products are well positioned to take advantage of this increasing consumer demand.

This winter, use the steps outlined in this article to start homeowners on the road to reducing the ‘leakiness’ of their houses and therefore reducing heating and cooling bills. As a further step, you could consider developing a specific product fact sheet of winter warming ideas and/or a merchandising display of some of the products discussed above.

Alex Maroya is the National Training Director at Master Builders Australia and a member of the Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council. Alex has 20 years’ experience in a range of senior roles in the public, private and educational sectors.

Philip Alviano is the Sustainable Building Advisor at the Master Builders Association of Victoria. He was one of the creators of the Master Builders Green Living program and has previously worked for the Environment Protection Authority of Victoria, Melbourne Water and local government.