Energy-efficient homes a priority

Donal Hickey on why we need to make energy savings.

WITH soaring oil prices and electricity bills for the home, not to mention the dreaded ‘r” word, householders have rarely been in a more receptive mood when it comes to taking on ideas that ease the pressure on their pockets.

Already, the Government is offering incentives to build more energy-efficient houses, a trend that will certainly continue — even if oil prices come down again.

Improved insulation standards have brought energy savings in the past 10 to 15 years, but the average home still spends around €2,000 per year on energy, an increase of 4% on 2005 and 70% on 1990.

All the modern electrical appliances that are virtually taken for granted in homes today are driving up energy costs. For example, household electricity use per person increased by 62% from 1990 to 2006, while household fuel use decreased by 0.3% during the same period.

Households accounted for just under a quarter of all the energy used in Ireland in 2006 — the second largest energy using sector, after transport. There was a 15% improvement in energy efficiency in the sector between 1995 and 2006.

In summer and winter energy moves through the walls, roof and cracks of our homes: we’re losing heated air to the outside, while winter air is also finding its way in.

People in the building trade tell us heat is lost through ceilings, walls, floors, windows and doors and general air leakage. Heat is lost to infiltration and air loss by over three times (35%) the amount that is lost due to ceilings.

Whilst insulation is an obvious help, air leaks can also be reduced around plumbing vents, wall electrical outlets and switches, recessed lights exposed to the attic, attic stairs and other culprits that allow heated air to be drawn from the home and escape.

Though house design has improved enormously in relation to energy saving, a major forum of over 300 building industry professionals was told last week that significant upskilling is required across the industry if Government targets for the energy performance of buildings are to be achieved.

Energy, Communications and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan announced a new support scheme for housing projects that show ambitious low energy and low carbon strategies and technologies.

Also announced at the forum was a new competition inviting architects to design three building types with superior energy performance standards, involving the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and the Office of Public Works (OPW).

Members of the architecture, construction, engineering and surveying professions attending the forum, organised by Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI), were provided with practical guidance on detailed design approaches aimed at meeting, or surpassing, the Government’s energy efficiency and carbon reduction targets for the built environment.

These targets have been set as part of the National Energy Efficiency Plan for Ireland 2007 — 2020 which commits to a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. Over 50% will come from the residential sector.

The conference follows the introduction of new building regulations this month which should result in a 40% improvement in energy efficiency and a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions for new homes.

SEI chairman Brendan Halligan, said delivering on these targets and the longer-term ambition of low, or zero, carbon buildings would require an unprecedented response from the entire building industry.

“Today’s event is a significant step in equipping the design professions, in particular, to rise to this challenge,” he added.

According to RIAI president Seán Ó Laoire, sustainable design needs to be part of normal practice in the built environment, with architects at the forefront.

The average Irish household is responsible for emitting 8.1 tonnes of CO2 based on the latest year for which data is available. Almost five tonnes of those CO2 emissions are from direct fuel use, with the remainder related to electricity usage.

Brian Motherway, of SEI, said the improvement in energy efficiency over the past decade was largely the result of improving insulation standards brought about by changes in building regulations.

The report points to sharp increases in electricity and fuel prices from June 2000 to January 2008.

Household electricity prices doubled during the period, while the price of home heating oil rose by 78% and natural gas prices increased by 87%.

All good reasons for householders to take simple practical steps to save energy, such as switching off lights and TV sets, sealing doors and windows and having good insulation.

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