Around 58 percent of energy used in the average home heats the rooms, which can be dramatically cut by making the building more efficient. If you are building a house from scratch, there are various ways of maximising the energy from the sun so heating is almost unnecessary. Designs with south-facing conservatories and angled windows help to keep the house warm throughout the winter, and more compact buildings keep the heat in better.
For those who cannot build their own home, there are still ways of saving energy, which should pay for themselves in savings within a few years.
Wall insulation is a very important way of cutting your energy bills â€“ up to a third of the heat can be lost. If you have cavity walls, it is fairly easy and inexpensive to have insulation blown in. One way of finding out what kind of walls you have is to measure them at a door or window â€“ solid walls are usually around 23cm thick, while cavity walls usually have a width of 30cm or more. It is more difficult to insulate solid walls. This can either be done on the outside of the house, or inside, although this is not advisable unless you were thinking of redecorating anyway.
Heat rises, just like gas bills. But insulating the loft can slow the rise of both. It is fairly easy to do this yourself with some DIY experience. Legally, builders are required to put in insulation at least 250mm thick, although 350-450mm is optimum. If your loft space has been converted into a room, you will need to insulate the roof, which can be more complicated.
Floor insulation is also important, and is easy to do if you can get under the floorboards. It is more difficult if you have a solid floor, but can still be achieved by raising the floor level.
Water heating uses 24% of the energy in the average home, so don’t forget to insulate the boiler with a thick jacket, and hot water pipes. This is a particularly easy DIY job, and will pay for itself within a year or two. Thermostats and timers can ensure water is only heated when it is needed.
Double-glazing is also a worthwhile investment. And draught-proofing the house can cost very little, but can be a very effective way of cutting the energy bills. Check your local DIY store for different draught excluding materials.
Another area that can be quickly and cheaply converted. Traditional lamps and halogen lamps are incandescent – heating a filament produces the light. Up to 95% of the energy used can be lost as heat.
Fluorescent lights generate light directly from electricity, so are much more efficient. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) are now widely available. These energy saving bulbs will last longer and use a fraction of the electricity â€“ another easy saving.
Washing all those real nappies and kids’ muddy clothes can use a lot of electricity. Which is a lot of power, given that in 1998 the average household used 8.4% of its electricity on the washing machine. To cut the amount of electricity you use in your house, use the tumble dryer as little as possible, or even better, don’t buy one at all! There are plenty of other ways to dry clothes â€“ either inside or out on the washing line.
Fridges and freezers are also big offenders â€“ they eat up around a quarter of the average electricity bill, making them the most expensive appliance in the average home. Replacing an old inefficient fridge with a new model can save you up to Â£45 a year, and reduce your impact on the environment. Fridges need to use a refrigerant fluid to operate. They used to contain CFCs, but these were phased out after it was discovered that they were making a hole in the ozone layer. Manufacturers then started using hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) instead, but although these don’t damage the ozone layer, they are very powerful greenhouse gases (up to 1,200 times more damaging than CO2!). Nowadays, almost all European fridges use hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants, as these are both more energy efficient than CFCs or HFCs and non-toxic. However, some new fridges still contain HFCs and most companies don’t label their fridges as ‘HFC-Free’ so it is worth checking. They may be labelled as using ‘R600a refrigerant/coolant’.
When buying white goods, consider how many people will be using the appliance â€“ as you would expect, bigger ones use more energy, so a three-person family may not need that US-style chest freezer.
There are many smaller things that you can do around the home to make it more energy efficient. Appliances such as televisions and microwaves on standby use about half as much electricity as they do when turned on. Just by turning them off, you can save enough electricity to knock 6% off the average bill.
Save water. Clean drinking water uses a lot of energy to filter and bring to your taps, as well as being a precious resource. There are several simple ways you can cut your water consumption, such as putting a full 1litre bottle (with the lid on) or a proper displacement bag (often available free from water companies) in the cistern, to cut the amount of water used when flushing. Mending the washers on dripping taps can also save a lot of water (remember: dripping hot taps waste even more energy).
Many of these ideas seem obvious, but if we all did them we would cut our impact on the planet massively. Cutting the energy we use is important, but it is better if the energy we need comes from renewable sources. The easiest way to do this is to ensure that your electricity comes from a green supplier. This only takes a few minutes online. Some providers offer to match the price of any regional supplier. The electricity is the same, and comes out of the same sockets, but these suppliers ensure that they put an equal amount of renewable electricity back into the grid that is used by subscribers.
If you can take a little time and money to improve your home, it is unlikely you will regret it. Even if you move house, the improvements should improve the value of the building. So why not do something for yourself, and look after the environment?
Contributed by Arthur Girling of the Centre for Alternative Technology, which aims to inspire and inform people on how to live more sustainably. For more information about saving energy in the home, contact the free information service at CAT.