How to improve your home’s energy rating on the cheap without buying a heat pump or solar panels

The dog days of summer may be on the horizon, but they might be not enough to banish the blues of last winter’s energy crisis: the Commission for Energy Regulation earlier this month warned that consumers shouldn’t expect electricity and gas prices to fall back to 2021 levels any time soon.

High energy prices take an even greater toll on households living in older, poorly insulated homes because they are leaking expensive heating through their walls, windows, doors, and roofs. These homes are on the lower rungs of the Building Energy Rating (BER) system, which ranks a building’s energy performance from a top score of A1 to a chilly G. Almost all homes built since 2015 have an A rating, compared with just 2pc of the properties constructed between 2005 and 2009 that have had a BER audit, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Boosting your BER can slash your energy bills, make your house warmer, unlock cheaper mortgage deals, reduce your carbon footprint, and even boost your property’s resale value. But one in three homeowners cannot afford to make their properties more energy-efficient, a survey by property advisor Savills Ireland found earlier this month. The cost of retrofitting a home can cost €70,000 before grants, an expense that is beyond the reach of many households, especially during a period of high inflation.

While you might not be able to afford a deep retrofit, a heat pump, solar panels or new windows and doors, there are cheaper upgrades that can make your home more energy efficient. In addition, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) offers grants of up to 80pc for individual energy upgrades. Here are some quick, cheap measures that will make your home cheaper to run by next winter.

Find out your BER

About 60pc of homeowners do not know the BER rating of their property, according to the Savills study, but it is a good starting point for even small energy upgrades.

Since 2009, someone selling or renting a property must provide a BER certificate, though there are some limited exemptions, such as for protected structures. If you bought your home recently, you can use the BER advisory report that came with it as a guide for your improving your rating.

“Even if you’re only spending a couple of thousand on some works, it will give you guidance on what you need to be doing,” says Orla Coyle, head of energy and sustainability with Savills Ireland.

If your property has a valid BER certificate, you can find it on the SEAI’s National BER Register. To do so, you’ll need your 11-digit Meter Point Reference Number (MPRN), which is located at the top of your electricity bill. If the BER certificate was published before July 6, 2021, you must use your MPRN to search for the BER advisory report.

If you apply for an SEAI grant, you’ll need a BER assessment. The SEAI has a list of independent assessors who are registered with it and the assessor will give you a list of the energy upgrades likely to have the biggest impact on improving your home’s energy rating. Expect to pay between €200 and €350 for an assessor, depending on the size and type of your home.

Bear in mind that if you plan on selling your home, house-hunters are now scrutinising BER reports to glean an idea of how much their energy costs will be and what upgrades need to be done. Homes with A or B ratings are selling much quicker and often for more, Coyle says, because the high cost of building materials and labour is deterring them from carrying out extra works.

Insulate your attic

A home can lose as much as 30pc of its heat through the attic if it’s not properly insulated.

“In terms of bang for your buck, the best thing you can do is attic insulation,” says Cathal Tyther, who, as manager of Solution Centre, has developed financial packages for credit unions to fund homeowners’ retrofitting projects.

You are entitled to an SEAI grant of €1,300 for insulating the attic of a semi-d (as long as your home was built and occupied before 2011). The work can cost as little as €300 when the grant is included, says Paddy Sweeney, managing director of Retrofit Energy Ireland, which is one of 12 one-stop shops registered with the SEAI and has conducted 400 deep retrofits in the last year. You can negotiate an even cheaper deal if you have a neighbour interested in getting their attic insulated at the same time, Sweeney says.

“That grant was increased massively when one-stop shops were launched last year,” he says. “Some contractors can give you grant up front. But at the moment, there can be a waiting period of a couple of months for a contractor to do the work.”

It’s not just enough to get a local handyman to lay down a couple of sheets of fibreglass – you need to ensure the water tank, pipework and hatch are insulated, Coyle says. Even if your attic is insulated, uninsulated pipes can freeze during cold weather and burst. That’s because when an attic is insulated at ceiling level, its temperature falls, because most of the heat previously lost from the house through the attic is now being kept within the house. Coyle recommends getting an SEAI registered contractor to do the work so that you can avail of the grant and be certain that the work meets building control requirements.

“Guys who do not go down the route of the SEAI grant might not understand the necessity to insulate the pipework and that means you’re putting your home at risk,” she says.

Insulate cavity walls

External wall insulation is one of the best ways for your home to climb up the BER ladder. But it’s an expensive option that can cost as much as €30,000 for a large detached home before grants, Tyther says.

Cavity wall insulation, which involves pumping insulation into the walls, is more cost effective. A building contractor will be able to tell you if you have cavity walls – which consist of two rows of brick or concrete block with a space between them – or if they are solid or made of hollow blocks. Typical costs for this type of upgrade are about €3,000 and you can claim a grant of €1,200 for a semi-d.

Switch to LED bulbs

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to cut your electricity bills is to replace your old incandescent bulbs with energy efficient LED bulbs. Swapping 11 40-watt bulbs for A-rated energy-saving models will save you about €145 a year.

“LEDs that come with the energy star rating can use 75pc less energy in certain cases,” says Martin Desmond, managing director of Wizer Energy.

Boost your BER cut your mortgage

If you manage to bring your home up to at least a B3 energy rating, it won’t be just cosier and cheaper to run – you could also reduce your mortgage repayments by qualifying for a green mortgage.

Mortgage lenders nudge property owners into reducing their carbon emissions by offering a lower interest rate or other rewards if they make energy upgrades to their own home, buy or build an energy-efficient property, or top up their mortgage. Green mortgages now account for a third of all mortgage lending, according to the Central Bank, and are currently offered by Permanent TSB, AIB, EBS, Bank of Ireland, and Haven.

The interest rates on green mortgages are typically among the lowest on the market, so in an era of high interest rates, switching to a green mortgage after you’ve improved the energy efficiency of your home could yield significant savings on your monthly repayments – particularly if you’re fixing your mortgage. However, there can be some drawbacks to green mortgages, says Trevor Grant, chairperson of the Association of Irish Mortgage Advisors.

“You must usually fix your mortgage to get a discounted green rate and this may not suit you if you’d prefer the variable route or if you’re planning to sell your home within a few years,” he says. “We would encourage all lenders to offer green rate options on all mortgage products, irrespective of the mortgage being fixed or variable and regardless of the term of the fixed rate.”

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