Poorly insulated rental homes have a major impact in Australia in terms of energy usage, and on the health of tenants, prompting a new campaign for minimum energy efficiency standards on rental properties.
Every year 10,000 people die in Australia of causes attributable to the cold, according to the organisers of the Healthy Homes for Renters campaign.
Surprisingly, even in a country like Australia, this figure is far higher than deaths attributed to heat, with a Lancet study explaining that an increase in blood pressure caused by the cold increases mortality risk from existing conditions.
Even more surprising is that the rate of cold-related deaths in Sweden — which sits partially inside the Arctic Circle — is far lower than in Australia.
According to the campaign organisers, the reason is simple. In Australia our built environment is inadequately geared to keep us warm when the cold weather rolls in.
In 2012 less than 40 per cent of privately owned rental properties were properly insulated, compared with 80 per cent of owner-occupied homes.
On top of the health risks, this leads to unnecessarily high energy bills and discomfort for the growing number of people who rent their homes in Australia.
In March last year the NSW government updated its minimum standards for rental properties, however energy efficiency was not included in the changes.
Victoria introduced new rules that all rental homes must have at least a 2-Star rated heater by 2023. Landlords also cannot refuse a reasonable request by tenants to make minor changes to the property, which includes measures to improve insulation or reduce energy and water usage.
The new heating standard is expected to save Victorian renters over $30 million dollars a year and effective minimum standards in insulation can potentially save individual households an additional $1000 every year.
“There is a whole theme throughout the tenancy legislation now that energy efficiency is a priority. That’s really good news,” Tenants Victoria lead community education lawyer, Ben Cording said.
However, in reality, critics say that most landlords and tenants are unwilling or unable to pay the upfront cost of improving insulation, an investment which could take over a decade to financially pay off.
What does it cost to insulate?
Former owner and current business development manager at 4 Seasons Home Insulation, Ross Kestle told The Fifth Estate he estimated less than one per cent of the homes his company serviced were rentals.
Aside from the homes that were completely uninsulated, many others also either had gaps in their insulation or outdated materials which significantly compromised their thermal performance.
According to Mr Kestle the cost of retrofitting most existing homes with full insulation ranged from $9000-$15000, including ceiling, wall and floor insulation and draught elimination, which lasts roughly for the lifetime of the building.
Many rental properties are smaller in size which means the cost would be in the lower range, however, costs can still very quickly become financially unviable for renters.
Cheaper steps can be taken to immediately improve buildings insulation including sealing doors and windows and covering glass with curtains or blinds.
The Healthy Homes for Renters campaign advocates for all rental homes to at least include ceiling insulation, properly sealed doors and windows, decent heating and cooling and window coverings.
“First priority is always the roof, then the walls, then the draughts, then underfloor,” Kestle said.
While wall and floor insulation can be just as effective at improving thermal rating as ceiling, Kestle said roof insulation can generally be done in a smaller sized home for as little as $2000 and have major outcomes in terms of heat retention in the winter.
What can be done?
The problem was recognised by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council, which in late 2019, committed to establishing a framework for energy-efficiency standards for renters by the end of 2022, and specific laws by 2025.
In the COAG Energy Council’s Report for Achieving Low Energy Existing Homes, they recommended financial incentives such as grants, rebates and EEO schemes to make changes more economically feasible and avoid the costs being passed on to tenants.
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However, until the changes become formalised and widely understood, many renters may continue to suffer in silence.
“Many people feel scared or unable to report poor insulation for fear of being evicted by their landlord,” CHOICE senior policy and campaigns adviser, Patrick Veyret explained.
“We’ve heard from countless people who put up with terrible conditions rather than risk losing their home.