How to make an old home more energy efficient

Written by

Tim Greenhalgh

Posted on

August 4, 2020

Posted in

The old homes that so many people love to buy and live in are often full of character – but a bit of a nightmare for energy efficiency.

Those lovely old 18th and 19th century cottages, mill houses, rectories, and the millions of Victorian terraced houses all add character and embody the country’s history and culture. But they were not designed with being green in mind.

And while our classic old homes will never be as energy efficient as a passive house, or a zero carbon home, there are loads of ways to manage them well, so that those electricity, gas, oil and water charges stay as low as possible.

There are three areas to focus on if you have an old property:

  1. the appliances you use
  2. the structure
  3. the ways you consume energy and water.

LED quality

We consume around 17% of the total domestic electricity used annually through our lighting and the technology around that has developed rapidly over the past decade particularly. The old incandescent bulbs are no longer available to buy, and while the quality of light and cheapness is missed by some, there’s no argument that the filament bulbs were a big waste of energy. Around 90% of the electricity burned was actually heat, rather than light.

We can say much the same about the filament bulb’s “sibling”, the halogen bulb, which was just a small improvement in terms of energy efficiency and also gave off a pleasing light. That technology too is now no longer being manufactured, while still available as stocks run down.

Neither of these forms of light were that long-lasting, burning out fairly quickly but we generally didn’t notice, because the bulbs were cheap to buy, and they worked ok in our old homes.

Now, the policy of government here and around the globe is to encourage people to fit energy-saving lighting. Most of us don’t like the awful quality of light emitted by the curly-wurly compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) and we’re now buying quality LEDs in the millions. It’s become the go-to technology, not least because it continues to evolve and become “smart”.

There are so many benefits with LED from trusted brands, from the superior quality of light to the very long working life, and not least, the reduction in energy consumption of up to 80% compared with traditional bulbs.

The range is impressive and designed to cover every need in traditional old homes. It’s good to know that you are saving energy and helping to reduce carbon emissions every time you flick the light switch.

Smart support

And because an LED is not just a piece of wire heated in a glass bulb but a complex piece of tech, built around a chip, it can be designed to be responsive and “smart”. There’s a wide range of LED smart lights and control technology available, which gives you complete control over the lighting in your home, making it even more energy-efficient.

It’s not just LED lighting that’s getting smarter – you can buy smart plugs now that effectively make any of your appliances more energy-efficient, and you can control them from your smartphone or tablet.

Our homes are full of electrical appliances and up until recently, we have not given too much thought to how energy-efficient they are. But with our favourite things like TVs, games consoles, and laptops, it’s useful to have smart plugs that allow us to turn them off easily and not have them consuming energy needlessly on standby.

We also are choosing our domestic appliances like washing machines, tumble dryers and fridges/freezers with energy efficiency in mind. There are some great energy-efficient models available now with A+ to A+++ energy ratings, that ensure you use the minimum amount of electricity for your daily needs. An old home equipped with A+++ appliances is going to save a lot of money every year, as well as reducing the level of carbon emissions.

It’s also easy to make your old home more energy-efficient by fitting smart Thermostatic Radiator Valves (TRV). Two thirds of energy used in our homes is for space heating and this accounts for half our bills (1) so it makes sense to get control of those costs, which are going to continue rising in the coming decade.

Smart TRVs learn how and when a room is used and adjusts the temperature of a radiator to ensure that warmth when occupied but reduced when vacant. They are easy to install and need no maintenance – a brilliantly simple “install, set and forget” product.

Heating old homes

Along with technology like TRVs it’s important to maximise the energy efficiency of your old home making sure your boiler is working as well as it should with an annual service, that also guarantees safety. And if you have one that is more than a decade old, it is definitely worth thinking about replacing it with a more efficient condensing model, that can save up to £305 per year on gas bills.

While the TRVs are doing their smart work it’s important to remember simple things like regular bleeding of the radiators. If the system is quite old, you may find that the top of the radiator is hot while it’s cold at the base, which might indicate sludge blockages. That would need a flush-out, which is expensive but necessary to keep the central heating running at peak efficiency.

It’s also good to fit enhancers behind radiators that reflect heat back into the room while reducing heat loss through walls and this can save as much as 7% on heating bills.

Solar energy

While the vast majority of old homes are centrally heated with gas or oil, there is a growing awareness of the benefit of solar energy that takes the strain off the boiler by providing hot water, through solar thermal panels.

Some traditional homes, particularly those in conservation areas, may not be ideally suited for solar solutions, but for millions of old homes, the solar thermal panels, combined with solar photovoltaic panels that harvest the sun’s rays as electrical energy, are seen as an ideal way to reduce energy bills sustainably.

The cost of the panels has been falling fast and there are household batteries that enable you to store the electricity, while there is still the option to sell energy to the National Grid.

In old homes that do not have access to mains gas, and where oil supply/storage is not feasible, there are efficient heating options such as far infrared panels and heaters.

Heat source pumps

Heat source pumps are an option for owners of old homes that have been properly insulated and draught-free. An air source heat pump takes exterior heat and releases it inside as hot air, hot water-filled radiators, underfloor heating and/or domestic hot water supply.

Ground source heat pumps work by capturing underground heat through a network of water pipes. The heat pump then uses electricity to increase the temperature but the energy used is less than that harvested.

These options work best as a sustainable solution when combined with low-temperature heat emitters such as underfloor heating and powered by green/clean electricity.

Save with water efficiency

Every old home can benefit in terms of energy savings by replacing old taps and shower heads that guzzle water with highly effective eco models.

These low-flow taps and shower heads deliver top performance, with no loss of quality, and reduce water use by 60%. This means much less energy is used in heating and pumping the water.

Stop heat loss

Turning to the structure of old homes, they all need some TLC in the form of insulation and draught exclusion to be fully energy efficient.

Roughly 25 % of domestic heat is lost through the roof while we lose 35% through the walls, 15% through the floor and 25% from windows and draughts.(2)

The cheapest of those four energy losers to fix is the roof area, with very economical mineral wool insulation, although that is not pleasant to work with as it requires protective clothing but it gives good fire resistance and excellent sound insulation. Other greener options include sheep’s wool quilt or loose cellulose made from recycled newspaper. You also need to ensure the loft hatch is sealed.

For the walls, in many older homes with no double layer of brickwork, the options can narrow to internal solid wall insulation, which can be expensive to install, particularly if secondary wall surfaces are built.

Floors in old homes are often a major source of energy loss – around 10% of a property’s heat flows out through gaps in the timbers, which is like leaving a small window open all the time,  filling gaps can save up to £40 per room a year.

Your old home will benefit from moves to make it as draught-free as possible, with replacement and or effective sealing of doors and windows, creating a draught lobby if practicable and fitting double glazing or secondary glazing, if regulations allow. Thermal curtains and blinds add to the energy savings – thermally lining your curtains can reduce heat loss by up to 14%

A useful insulation energy-efficiency tip is to block the chimneys of old homes. Around 4% of a home’s heat can disappear up an chimney but you can use a simple device like the Chimney Sheep, which is thick layer of felt that you insert in the chimney when the fireplace isn’t in use, then remove it when to lighting a fire. Or, you can decommission the fireplace and install a chimney balloon.

The final part in the trio of focuses for making your old home more energy efficient is to look at the ways you use energy and water. Changing your behaviour, being more mindful, is a really effective way of maximising the energy efficiency of your old home.

Energy efficiency habits

Good habits that are easy to adopt include

  • turning off lights when a room/space is not in use,
  • turning off appliances on stand-by (using smart plugs)
  • turning the thermostat down by 1 degree
  • don’t leave the tap running when brushing teeth
  • fill a basin to wash up, don’t leave the tap running
  • take a shorter shower
  • avoid using baths.

Old homes need not be energy monsters that drain your wallet and purse. With the right combination of products and usage, energy bills and water costs can be kept to a minimum. Call our expert team to find out more about how to make your old home more energy efficient.

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