Stay ahead of rising energy costs, retrofit your home

With the twin storms of the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing threat to the stability of our climate, the whole notion of what qualifies as home improvement has been re-invented.

Today, our commitment to our homes — from general upkeep to serious renovation — is as much about tackling the challenge of energy efficiency, as it is about realising square metres of glittering architecture and aesthetics.

With electricity and fuel costs escalating, the opportunity to take up these vital investments have never been more personal, or timely.

The Building Energy Rating (BER) is gaining real currency in the market, as buyers look for homes that have firmly certified performance credentials. With a little planning and the right professional advice, there’s a route forward in this brave new world for just about every property and every financial situation.

With many awards increased or holding steady, grant aid managed by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is a generous advantage when improving the energy performance and detailing of your home. 

What is individual grant aid, and what is meant by the more encompassing One-Stop-Shop grant awards of up to €35,000, for a once-off deep-retrofit of the entire building?

Independent SEAI grant aid can work very well for householders making incremental improvements with their trades and contractors, as savings or loans become available.

Often combining independent SEAI grant aid and non-qualifying work (for example insulating the attic with a grant of up to €1,500, and changing out windows to triple glazed units at your expense) — grant aid of up to 30% of qualifying works, can be rolled into serious improvements, as and when you can afford them. A family might develop a two- to five-year plan as the most economical and practical way to nudge up that BER.

These are grants you handle yourself — applying, receiving notice of your final grant acceptance, paying your SEAI registered contractor upfront, and then completing the process, together with any necessary BER, paperwork and professional commissioning. You will then be in-line for a set, retroactive payment towards qualifying services and materials. Using the independent grant application you could add photovoltaic panels to your roof, improve your heating controls, add an EV charger to your driveway — even combining grants to reduce the spend even further.

However, the government are keen to promote a more holistic approach towards properties with troubling, seasonally-dependent comfort levels, and unmanageable energy costs. Specifically these are properties built and occupied in or before 2011. Introduced in February as The National Home Energy Upgrade Scheme — this is the dynamic area of deep-retrofit.

Deep-retrofit brings the whole home to a high level of energy efficiency in one elastic bound. Various elements of SEAI grant aid are combined for full house insulation, air-tight-sealing, plus sustainable heating and renewable technologies trimmed out with exquisite, intelligent control. A BER of B2 (125 kWh/m2/yr) is the baseline on completion. Many determined homeowners manage to do far better.

Detailing the house entails specific upgrades, largely to the external envelope, before the installation of a new heat source — ideally an electrically powered, energy efficient heat pump (HP). Radical improvement to insulation levels, throughout walls, floors and the roof, retain generated warmth in a snug “box”. There’s a new standard of air-tightness to manage air-exchanges that can whip away the energy we put into heating our homes. This could combine traditional draught-proofing, the addition of new A-rated doors and windows, sealing the house against discreet heat-loss and cold-bridging.

Finally, with the building more tightly sealed, managed ventilation, mechanical and passive, ensures that the air we breathe is not only fresh and low in humidity, but returns embodied heat to the house before being expelled and exchanged (MVHR, €1,500 of grant aid available). Handled by one controlling SEAI registered contractor as a deep-retrofit, the process is described as the One-Stop-Shop in terms of the SEAI grant aid portion of the budget.

The SEAI grant aid for heating controls is now €700

The One-Stop-Shop offers additional grant amounts to individual awards. These include sums towards replacement windows (€1500 — €4000), 2 new exterior doors (€800 each), floor insulation (€3,500), an award towards the energy assessment (€350), the fees of your designated project manager (€800 — €2,000), and more. These amounts are subtracted from your costs, with the remaining balance for energy upgrades and additional builder’s costs falling on you.

Simply plumbing and wiring in a new heating source (adding a new gas or oil boiler or an air source heat pump/ASHP) is not something that should be handled in isolation. It should be preceded by a raft of improvements to optimise the entire building’s energy performance. Deep-retrofit is a radical, more costly, and deeper dive than incremental improvements. It delivers over months rather than years, a re-imagined home that’s a joy to live in and neatly, future-proofed as your biggest single investment.

The beauty of deep-retrofit, is that both the inevitable disruption and rewards are planned for, managed and delivered in one time period. The work is over-seen by a single SEAI registered contractor without any up-front outlay from the homeowner for the SEAI grant portion. Parallel energy efficiency improvements go hand-in-hand with general renovation and possible extension.

Part L of the building regulations actually demand that your home’s energy efficiency overall is raised to a B2 when altering more than 25% of the property’s envelope. So, there are multiple scenarios which may coax you towards energy upgrades, where cost optimal. Keep in mind that you should not proceed with works, including buying any service, materials or equipment before your SEAI grant has been approved, step-by-step, according to the grant type you have elected for.

Smart heating and insulation options 

Let’s take a closer look at some of what can be done to bring your home up to a higher, sustainable character and energy spec. 30% – 50% can be part-financed with individual grants, or fuller, holistic One-Stop-Shop grant awards from the SEAI.

Research if your property has previously received any grants for energy upgrades. The SEAI can check for you through your Meter Point Reference Number (MPRN), the 11-digit number found at the top right-hand corner of your bill from your electricity supplier.

Heating controls: Small investment, high return, SEAI grant-aided 

Finessing and controlling the temperature in our homes is an essential tool in getting the best from a renewable or fossil-fuel based heating system. Dedicated, digitally-calibrated controls will make the best of any heating zones, and put manners on your family’s daily timetable and hot water usage.

The speed of payback in a time of soaring energy costs is potentially excellent with committed, economical habits. SEAI grant aid for heating controls is now €700, but you will not be eligible if you are applying for, or have previously claimed, a Heat Pump System grant.

The SEAI suggest you ask yourself the following: “Can you heat your domestic hot water without switching on your radiators or an electric immersion heater? Can you turn on your heating without heating your domestic hot water? Can you easily adjust the heat output from radiators in the rooms you use most often? Do you have temperature control on your boiler? Have you time control on your boiler that you can set for different days of the week? Have you a separate temperature control for your hot water cylinder? Have you a separate time control on your hot water cylinder?” 

If you’re answering “no” to two or more of those questions, it’s worth investigating the installation of new controls. The components should include at least — thermostatic radiator valves (TRV), a boiler interlock, and time and temperature controls for any immersion.

You can even rap out a timetable for your radiators with a phone app.You can even rap out a timetable for your radiators with a phone app.

The SEAI continues, “It is a good idea to discuss the heating controls on offer with any friends, neighbours or workmates who may already have them installed, to give you a better insight of how they are operated, how often you might need to change settings and also the advantages, improvements and any problems people have experienced when they have had them installed”.

Whether or not you do have a zoned systems and can spring for full new controls now, TRVs are a cheap investment to every radiator to trim back centigrade in every space and circulation area. With smart TRVs you can even rap out a timetable from your phone using a clever little app.

Attic insulation: Moderate investment, high return, SEAI grant available and improved for 2022 

If your attic insulation is less than 300mm or generally failing due to gaps in the batting, and a poor installation, this is a fantastic SEAI grant-aided upgrade for a home built and occupied before 2011 (defined as the date your electricity meter was installed). Even with a newer home, don’t take the depth of that batting for granted. Attic insulation together with insulation of pipework, covering of hatches and additional fixes, will add instant comfort to the room below, reducing your greenhouse gas emissions.

The grant covers around 80% of the cost for a standard family home, and is offered both as an independent grant and through the One-Stop-Shop grant aid for a comprehensive retrofit. Graded on home type, and dependent on the size of your attic and the materials used, the SEAI figures are €800 — €1500 for attic insulation (the floor of the attic).

You must carry out an obligatory BER survey which will be published, becoming part of your home’s energy profile (once off BER grant of €50).

Ensure the firm are on the SEAI Registered Contractors List. With the One-Stop-Shop mechanism your project manager will assign a contractor. The installation must reach the SEAI required U-values of 0.16 W/m2 K for ceiling level insulation or 0.20 W/m2 K for rafter insulation. If your installer notices and mentions any superficial or structural problems while delving around the gloom of the attic and roof-spaces — pay attention.

Watch those differences between the independent and One-Stop-Shop grants. There is grant help for rafter insulation (for say pitched ceilings) offered as part of One-Stop-Shop installations only at €1,500 to €3,000. This upgrade is well worth addressing using your own savings or a green loan product if the home clearly needs additional work.

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