Photo by Dan Visan on Unsplash

“If we knew then what we know now, obviously, we wouldn’t have bought this house.”

So said a young mother and new house owner, which is sad. Sure, many young Australian families accept they are in for some effort, upgrading older homes that close to the limit of what they could afford.

But to add to that mortgage stress are huge gas and electricity bills, but still freezing feet in winter and sweaty nights at the peak of summer. And then learning, as the home energy consultant pokes their nose under the floor or into the roofspace, that it’s even worse than they’d thought.

But you don’t have to hate the house you just bought.

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A home that seems terrible for energy bills and year-round comfort may instead be an opportunity. If your heating system is 30 years old, if no one ever bothered to install air conditioning, or if you still have those halogen lights in the ceiling, you may find you are so far behind – you’re actually ahead.

Accessing experienced home energy and comfort upgrade advice is key, but many homeowners can get their priorities sorted and see a comfortable, low energy bill future at the end of their tunnel.

Getting your house off gas … and onto economical air-source heat pumps

Here’s a game changer. Suddenly in Australia we find ourselves in a place where many households are still burning expensive and climate-damaging fossil gas, while not realising the amazing alternative that is air-source heat pumps, or otherwise known as a reverse-cycle airconditioner.

In the home mentioned above, the old ducted gas heating system was, to be charitable, 20 per cent efficient. After igniting the gas, most of the heat was going straight out the flue pipe at temperatures nearly hot enough to scorch children playing in the backyard.

The ducts beneath the floor were held together by duct tape patches. Some ducts were squashed though as previous generations of humans had explored this crawlspace.

Inside the home, the return air inlet had never been properly installed, causing the system to draw musty contaminated air straight from the wall cavity. At the other end, the outlet registers were also barely hanging on to the floorboards, allowing heated air to either escape under the floor, or cold damp air from beneath the house to be aspirated directly into the living space.

But joyfully, in homes suffering in this way, there’s sometimes an easy solution. An efficient reverse-cycle airconditioner (air-source heat pump) up on the wall that has never been used for heating.

Studies have found that newer or even new-ish reverse-cycle airconditioners can heat a house for one-third the cost of burning gas, or even less, if your ducted-gas heating is as bad as the one described.

Modern reverse-cycle airconditioners are amazing: heating air, cooling air, filtering air, decontaminating air, de-odourising air, circulating air, managing humidity in a cost-effective way, all with a single device.

So that is one potentially easy upgrade for a number of homes: finding the heat button on the airconditioner and giving it a push.

Leaky legacies

There’s two other quick fixes, amoung others, that apply to many homes: rectifying roof-space insulation and draught-sealing.

The majority of roofspaces indeed have insulation (so that’s good!) but it’s far from perfect. All plaster surfaces – horizontal, vertical, or in between – need to be insulated, and they need to stay insulated.

Often the last person in the roofspace – the plumber, the electrician, the NBN guy – tossed the insulation batts out of their way. Unfortunately, most don’t think it’s their job to put them back. But it’s an easy fix, some of the lowest hanging fruit.

But while you’re inspecting your roofspace, consider the past era of halogen downlights. That was a time when we thought it a good idea to further wreck roofspace insulation and to carve numerous air leakage paths through our ceilings. Happily, low-cost, air-sealing and IC (insulation contact) rated LED lights are readily available, and removing the halogen legacy from our homes can begin.

Other legacies go even further back, including the air vents in our walls. These date back to the time of gaslights when burnt gas fumes had to be vented from the home. So if you don’t see any gaslights in your home, you can consider the many ways you can seal up air leakage paths including dis-used chimneys, unsealed architraves, skirting boards and floorboards, and of course around doors and windows.

It might not happen overnight. It might be part of a long-term plan. But you don’t have to hate the house you just bought. You can seal, insulate, electrify, and in the end, be comfortable.

Tim Forcey is a home energy consultant and researcher.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief please email

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  1. I am a contractor and have entered many roof spaces and have found many times of wiring left twisted bare a
    without connectors installed on bare wires, when I have asked the owner or occupier about the risky work in the ceiling some people do not of the risk there, others are quick to dob in the local TV installer, builder, plumber, panel beater and handyman, I have never heard of the local electrician causing it, so before entering a ceiling space it should be mandatory to get an electrician to do a safety inspection. As far as using heat pump air conditioning Pioneer International is the only Australian manufacturer that is supplying all air conditioning units charged with hydrocarbon refrigerant which uses about half the energy of other ACs charged with chemical refrigerants which do long term damage to the atmosphere when there is a leak.

  2. Graeme, I recently purchased an older house and at first glance the wiring looked good but upon getting an electrician in to install a new ceiling fan we were amazed at what we found…including the previous owners handiwork that was outright dangerous! We rewired teh switchboard to include RCDs for starters. So I fully agree with your sentiments. It is imperative that homes remain safe for tradespeople to work in all spaces.

  3. I admire the enthusiasm of the writer to make older homes energy efficient, however no-one has taken on board the 2014 Royal Commission Home Insulation Program regarding electrical safety in roof spaces, the very space that has to be entered to install the correct insulation, which has been suppressed, which the author of this article is discussing.

    Now the Federal Government is attempting to “kick start” the economy, the issue of the correct use of different types of insulation is imperative.

    Radiant reflective foil barriers that immediately interact with the weather have been completely disregarded in Government energy efficiency policies. Why?

    To refresh everyone’s memories, under duress, the Master Electricians Association(MEA), CEO Malcolm Richards revealed on the last day, under oath, on the stand that electricians were not following the Wiring Rules, and Governments were not enforcing the Wiring Rules, which even though up dated again have failed to protect workers, that is why during the Home Insulation Program, three of those young workers died in roof spaces.

    Will this lack of concern for roof space safety, with potential deaths, again occur with the upcoming economic stimulus of the building industry.

    No government around Australia has attempted to make roof spaces old and new safe.

    Governments are only interested in making homes energy inefficient with the incorrect insulation systems to suit the varying climates of Australia.

    The workers entering roof spaces, should injury or death occur “just doing their job” take “one for the team” (Government) who do not care about them the worker.

    I would be interested in some interaction to my comments, but alas the truth will remain “buried” because no one will step up for change to save lives.

    I finish with this thought.

    What action would you take when a member of your family, father, son, or a tradesperson is killed by an electrical fault in your roof space?
    I have posed this question to public servants, bureaucrats, union leaders and politicians. Complete silence and distain.

    To phrase an Australian term “a bloody disgrace”.

    Why, because you are all paid to ensure the safety of the public that pay you!

  4. Tim,

    What about Solar Control or Insulation Window Films. If we look at only the cooling load residentially, windows account for a staggering amount of the cooling load for an average house. The Low E insulation window films also offer Heat Loss reduction in Winter.