The Real Cost of Heating our Homes

And how we can make a difference to the planet and our pockets!


It's almost February and Spring is in sight. We don’t know about you, but we are looking forward to feeling some heat from the sun on our face again and turning off our central heating.


As we come out of a long (for many reasons!), cold winter, now might be a good time to discuss the true cost of heating our homes.


Let’s be honest, it’s not the sexiest topic is it? I mean, who sits down to discuss the size of our carbon footprints in relation to heating our homes? Not many of us I’m sure, but if we are serious about living a more sustainable life, then we need to get serious for a moment and talk about the true cost of staying warm!


According to Wired.co.uk, heating accounts for around 40% of the UK’s energy consumption with 85% of UK households being heated by fossil-fuel based natural gas. Around 14% of UK greenhouse gases come from heating our homes which is a similar emissions level to cars



Joanna Furtado, lead author of a report by the think tank Policy Connect believes that in order to meet Government targets of an 80% reduction in emissions, more than 20,000 homes a week must switch to low-carbon heating between 2025 ad 2050. They state that “Switching to lower carbon fuels would reduce the environmental impact of heating – just as the switch to renewables has shifted the UK’s electricity mix towards cleaner energy.” The report also states that better insulating our homes and reducing the need for energy in the first place is an important part of the process to reducing our carbon footprint.


Essentially, the point of this 72-page document is that UK reliance on fossil-fuel based heating is a significant contributor to climate change and we need to take action.



So, first things first. Can we actually stop consuming fossil-fuels (gas) for our heating?


The short answer is – it’s unlikely. At least until Government policy catches up with its eco and carbon reduction claims anyway. But we do have options that can make a difference to both the planet and our pockets!


While there are numerous ‘green’ energy suppliers for our electricity supply, finding a ‘green’ supplier of gas for our household heating is another issue entirely. We have so far only found one supplier of ‘green’ gas as a direct replacement to (fossil-fuel) gas. They claim to use anaerobic digestion (biomethane) using waste products from farms, food and landfill waste. It is not for us decide if their credentials match their claims (and this is in no way an endorsement) but we certainly find it an interesting concept. If anyone wants to take a look, you can find out more at Green Energy UK. It would be interesting to know if you have come across any others.


Alternative heat sources


Alternatively, you could consider longer term options such as installing a Biomass boiler for example, but let’s keep it real. For most of us, this type of change is too costly and we simply don’t have the space. That said, we think it’s important to outline some options here for those who might be able to explore this route.


Biomass is seen as a carbon neutral fuel source as it uses chips or pellets from quick growing, short rotation coppice which is replaced immediately. Government grants are sometimes available for their installation too. But this comes at a cost and is not practical for many homes due to the space required to install the boiler and store the wood pellets.


Another way to heat a home could be through the use of Infrared panels. They work off electricity and are a direct replacement for the traditional gas-run radiators. This would be a particularly great option for those on green electric tariffs for instance. Their use of infrared waves of energy rather than a more traditional convection method are great for asthma and allergy sufferers too. However, one obvious drawback to these panels is, they don’t heat your hot water so you would still need other fuel types.


It is perhaps worth mentioning that Ground Source Heat Pumps and Air Source Heat Pumps are also available too.

Underfloor heating could also be an option too and it can be run off green energy but again, they can be costly to retrofit, not to mention the disruptive installation required.


So, for most of us at least, getting away from fossil-fuel heating is unlikely to be an option for a while or, as we have previously mentioned, at least until Government Policy catches up with their carbon reduction claims and they force a significant change in the industry – so for now then, what can we do to reduce our homes carbon footprint whilst still staying warm?


One potential option is to upgrade your heating system and install an energy-efficient boiler. This will help reduce your overall consumption and potentially lower your fuel bills. There can often be grants or incentives from fuel suppliers for this work too so it is worth shopping around to see what deals might be available to you.



Installing more efficient thermostatic controls may also be useful too.


Making your home more energy efficient is also a crucial factor in reducing your fossil-fuel consumption and lowering your heating bills.


For instance, did you know that an uninsulated home will lose around 35% of heat through your walls, 25% through your roof with the remaining 40% being lost through doors, windows and floors?


So, what can we do?


Well, now we know you the why and how, now we can look at much more practical and accessible ways in reducing our fossil-fuel consumption that don’t mean we sit with the heating turned off!


Check for obvious drafts around the home and make a plan to plug them!


Between 10% - 20% of heat can escape this way. For drafts around doors and windows, you can re-seal frames, add inexpensive draft proofing from local DIY or hardware shops or even hang heavy curtains or fit secondary double glazing which can all make a difference.


Check around skirting boards too and seal any obvious drafts coming from the underfloor.

If you have colder rooms in the home, you can also use draft excluders on internal doors to keep heat in the rooms you use. In unused rooms, you can also turn down the radiator thermostats too – but do not turn them off. Homes need a mixture of heating and ventilation to keep away dampness and condensation.


Check insulation levels around the home.


Do you have a pitched roof? Have you been in the loft lately? If not, now is a good time to go check if you have any or enough insulation. It’s also a great time to check if your roof is wind and watertight while you’re there too! Current advice for mineral wool insulation is that 270mm is the maximum depth required for full heat retention benefits (Don’t be tempted to fit more than this though as and studies have shown that anymore over 270mm makes no difference) Other insulation types will have maximum levels of efficiency so be sure you check what they are.



If you have any flat roofs, these can also be insulated but I would advise against DIY efforts. Call in a local flat roofing contractor to see what they specifically recommend.


Do you have a hard-to-treat roof space such as combed ceilings? In this case, insulating is trickier but not impossible. In these situations, your best bet is to call in knowledgeable local trades to give relevant advice on your specific property type. Never be tempted to DIY a retrofit insulation that interferes with rafters or other structural elements.


Wall Insulation


If you have an older home, it’s best to check if you have wall insulation. This can either be cavity fill, external or internal insulation. The best type (if at all) would depend on your property construction type and it is best to call round a local reputable contractor to advise you. Modern homes are built to current specification and already contain wall insulation.


Water Tanks


Many UK homes now have combi boilers fitted but if you still rely on a water tank in the loft, make sure it is covered in a properly sized insulating jacket. This reduces the amount of energy required to heat the water and keep it warm.


Floor insulation


Floors can be insulated too and as with all works of this nature, we would advise you get a reputable local contractor to give you advice. We found a good article from the Centre for Sustainable Energy which provides a more detailed overview.



Windows and Doors


If you think your windows need replaced, think carefully about your options. UPVC Windows have a typical lifespan of around 20 years. Longer if they are well built and well maintained. Timber windows, if properly maintained can last a lifetime. We found a great article here looking at the pros and cons of timber and why PVC frames are perhaps not the window of choice for those looking to make more sustainable choices. But you do need to maintain them and as always, cost can be a major factor.


Perhaps your windows can be repaired. If your glass looks ‘cloudy’ on the inside, then the panes of glass can be replaced for a lot less cost than installing completely new windows. UPVC isn’t always the easiest to fix, but for some, seals, closures and fittings can be replaced or repaired to keep the drafts out and the heat in.


Another key factor in the efficient heating of your home is dampness, condensation and mould.


Dampness


Dampness can be caused by a plethora of reasons but fundamentally water is the culprit. Now I’m not talking a leaky washing machine here (although this can sometimes be an issue!) I’m solely referring to the ability of your house to keep you wind and watertight. If a property is letting in water, then you will also be losing a lot of heat the same way.


Water penetration into homes can stump even seasoned experts. Where it appears as a problem, is not necessarily where it is entering the property so it can be hard to locate its source. Every few months or so, or particularly after storms, you should check the exterior of your home for signs of damage. Common issues stem from broken gutters and downpipes which can force water in your wall head or through cracked harling or damaged brick. Roof damage such as slipped slates or tiles, missing ridge tiles or chimney damage are all common points of water entry too. But water can gain entry in any number of ways.


Water penetration should never be ignored, it will only get worse and become more costly to repair. In worst case scenarios, prolonged water ingress can cause rot which in turn can cause structural instability. In these cases, keeping your home warm and reducing your reliance on fossil-fuels would be the least of your worries!


Condensation is typically caused by lack of heating and ventilation. Lifestyle choices can be major factors in those little black speckled marks of mould that you typically see in bathroom or other cold and humid spots such as kitchens or around windows. The consumer magazine Which has some tips for dealing with condensation.





In short, staying warm without burning fossil-fuels is an unlikely option for most of us in the short term, but there are things that we can do to reduce our consumption. As with all things, if we can only make small changes, they should not be discounted as being ineffective. Small changes collectively add up to a big difference. We also believe that an industry based on an over reliance of fossil-fuels won’t change itself and we need Government Policy to force meaningful change. Together, we can make a difference.



But what if I am a tenant?


Well, this is trickier yes but, many landlords would be more than happy for you to carry out smaller improvements to their property such as draft proofing or perhaps installing more efficient heating panels – but you absolutely must get their permission in writing first! Ultimately though, if your home is cold, damp and hard to heat, it is your landlord’s responsibility to make sure the property meets current Housing Regulations. If you think your landlord is falling short, try discussing it with them first. If you think they are still falling short in keeping the property in a good state of repair, you could discuss this with your Local Authority. In Scotland, we also have the First Tier Tribunal which is part of the Court system specifically set up to deal with disputes between tenants and landlord. You can also reach out to Shelter or Shelter Scotland for further advice.


Funding


I mentioned earlier that many of these works attract Government grants – at least sometimes! It is worth keeping your eye on places like Home Energy Scotland, SCARF Energy Saving Trust etc for hints, tips, advice and details of any financial support to make your home more energy efficient.


If you are struggling to cover the cost of heating your home, you may be able to claim financial support. Charitable organisations like Turn2us or Energy Savings Trust may be able to tell you what your options are.


Be advised that this is an enormous topic upon which countless books are produced and numerous further education courses are run. This is just a brief blog post to get us thinking about our reliance on fossil-fuels and if you want to explore any of the ideas here, you must carry out your own detailed research.

Important disclaimers. We have included a few links here for your convenience. We do not endorse, promote or otherwise vouch for the safety of the link/site or the accuracy/suitability of the content. Links here are not definitive sources of information and many others exist. All information here is for awareness purposes only and should not be taken as advice. We urge you all to conduct your own research and carry out your own due diligence before proceeding with any ideas, engaging in any DIY or entering into a contract with any tradesperson. If you do intend to carry out any work to your home, particularly if it is structural work, we strongly encourage you to seek advice and guidance from reputable local or national firms who are experts in the relevant field. For larger works, you may need to apply for Building Warrant or Planning Permission – if in doubt, you should discuss this with your Local Authority and/or Architect. Be advised, that as homeowner, it is your responsibility to ensure that any work undertaken must meet Building Regulations/Building Standards etc in your region.

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