“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.
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.
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