Making our homes future perfect

Kya deLongchamps on the confusing whirl of energy upgrades in the home.

As we stare down another New Year, I know many readers with properties untouched by the 2011 amendments to Part L of the Irish Building Regulations (the tweaks to what is now near Passivhaus energy efficiency standard in new builds), are feeling downright left out in the cold.

All the worthy chatter of external wraps, biomass augers, heat-pump tech’, geothermal fed UFH and smart zone heating, appear destined for some other gilded clique of homeowners.

Lump onto these worries the startling news that Norway is now aiming to outlaw the use of oil and even gas for home heating by 2020 and the prospect of keeping up with Brussels’ new designated norms is troubling.

How can a house say c1995, owned by the same hard-working, middling earners who have thrown most of their money at refreshing décor and raising kids rather than heaving solar arrays onto the Tegral tiles, ever catch up?

Is the market now dividing into tiers topped smugly by the A1 BER class winners and devolving down through the rest of us?

The reality is that even if you’re wearing that second jumper happily at home and proud of that reliable 20-year-old boiler, once that house goes up for sale, the obligatory BER will strip its superficial charms back to its running costs at a stroke.

I feel your pain, and this year I’m taking my own house on a modest journey into future-proofing. There are always things we can do to improve our situation, and the shuffle from a dubious D to a worthy C BER will make an immediate and potentially long-term return.

In my case, what’s not required is the ‘deep- retrofit’ or ‘deep energy renovation’ – a term you’re likely to hear much more of in 2018 as Ireland is faced with dragging its older, housing stock into a European 21st century level.

Finding out more about deep renovation (intended to transform our hungriest buildings in a single intensive overhaul into carbon friendly housing stock), read up the latest pilot investigations by The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (seai.ie) and The Irish Green Building Council (igbc.ie), who are eagerly exploring the issues with proposals such as low-interest ‘green mortgages’.

This is part of a national strategy for affordable, real progress. An SEAI managed grant of €3,500 has been proposed by Denis Naughten, Minister of the Environment, for the retrofit of heat pump technologies, starting in April. Dail Eireann is not prompted by purely ecological good graces. Ireland really has to get its act together to comply with Europe wide CO emission agreements or face crippling penalties.

I expect many people live in a version of my house in terms of the level of intervention necessary to lower the operational costs. It’s not outwardly atypical for its time – freakish actually. It’s timber framed and timber clad for starters. For eight months of the year it heats with a light-bulb - the c.2000 lean green, super-insulated ideal. How and ever, by 2011 standards, Casa-Kya comes up short – it’s eco-lite.

It’s time for the boiler encased in its faux Aga cast iron range to go (before it goes). The insulation in the attic needs plumping and we desperately need new heating controls teamed to a pellet boiler stove. The house is still comfortable, could do better bill wise it’s true, and might well be overlooked on paper if put up against a younger, tighter-built contender - especially when grabbing a buyer’s attention.

So where do we start? Naturally, the bulk of the investment will be yours. Banks are moving towards lower interest rates for larger loan amounts devoted to home improvement, and credit unions are getting in on the act. Bank of Ireland touts 7.5% for €10,000 to €19,999 and 6.7% for €20,000 or more over ten years.

Even with every government support available (with the exception of some financially and physically vulnerable groups who will quite rightly qualify for more state-funded help), you can still expect to divvy up about 2/3rds of the capital costs (plus interest on any loan), to moderately increase energy efficiency in a 20th-century home.

Knowledge is power. Have some understanding of what work is appropriate, why it’s recommended, and what operational savings you can realistically expect.

An independent energy consultant can chase down what changes will give the best real return for your money and can, if needed, apply for grants on your behalf. Two state schemes are then vital to handling clean energy financing, if your house is pre 2006.

Firstly, there’s the much-lauded SEAI grant system, which in terms of approval is fast and efficient, and backed up by a register of approved contractors.

Over 350,000 of us have already used the scheme. There have been recommendations made by the IGBC for composite deep-renovation grants to encompass all reasonable energy performance improvements being introduced in the coming couple of years.

However, right now, to get things rolling in attic and wall insulation (internal and external) and to change out the boiler and introduce digital, zoned heating controls and even solar thermal, separate grant systems are in place through the SEAI.

The SEAI Better Energy Home grants range from €50 towards a BER assessment to €6,000 towards external wall insulation, and they can be combined. If you complete three measures (the heating control grant jumps to €700 in April together with other important shifts), your grant value will be increased by €300.

If you complete four measures your grant value will be increased by an additional €100. A total of €400. For speed apply to the SEAI online rather than by letter. All you need is the MPRN number from your electricity bill and the name of your contractor or contractors from the SEAI register.

All being well, you will be approved within minutes, and then have six months to get on with it, seai.ie. An effective heat pump installation may require far-reaching and highly costly outlays if your house is not already a tightly built, pertly-plumbed, highly insulated, little green box. More of that later in the year.

As a compliment to these primary grants, there is the Home Renovation Incentive Scheme (see our HRI side-bar) managed through Revenue, a bi-annual tax break for repairs, renovations and improvements up to €30,000 (before VAT).

Perfect for energy saving investments such as window replacement and ancillary work like plumbing and plastering to ‘make-good’. The HRI won’t put money straight into your hand, but will over time rake back the valuable 13.5% VAT on qualifying home improvement expenditure.

Just a point of information – the Scheme was extended in Budget 2017 last year to December of 2018, but it is not something to take as a forever feature of our home improvement landscape.

If you’re depending on it to massage down the figures for the generous choice of HRI qualifying projects in the near future - don’t wait, now is the hour.

We will return to the subject of future-proofing in small and great ways throughout the coming months.

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