Great as it would be to commission a new, eco-friendly house, most of us live in draughty pre-war homes built before we appreciated the implications of large-scale energy use. But with a bit of thought, some financial outlay and good advice, we can all make our current homes more energy efficient – and save money on bills, too.
The best approach is to take small steps and improve your knowledge as you go along. Don't set yourself huge tasks; start with lifestyle changes and work up to the bigger, costlier projects that will save money in the long run. For help on getting started, the Energy Saving Trust offers guidance on taking easy steps to make your home more efficient and also where to look for grants ( www.energysavingtrust.org.uk).
Light bulbs and domestics appliances are simple places to start – most of us now replace bulbs with energy efficient ones as they stop working. There's a great range of attractive models now, even dimmable ones, so you won't compromise on style and functionality.
Take a good look at appliances or gadgets you leave on standby and start turning them off at night. Nigel Berman, founder of Nigel's Eco Store, says: "The most effective way to lower your bills and energy use is by switching things off. Turn off lights, televisions, DVDs or games consoles when you're not using them. In the UK, 8 per cent of domestic energy use is due to items being left on standby. If they were all switched off, we'd save enough energy to decommission an entire power station. By using a standby saving device, it makes it easy to completely switch off devices and appliances."
Mobile phones and MP3 players only need a couple of hours to fully charge, so it's worth investigating wind-up or solar chargers for them.
Next, think about how well your home is protected from extreme heat and cold. If you fix rattling windows, insulate or double-glaze them, block gaps around ill-fitting doors and block up unused chimneys, you'll stop precious heat from escaping in winter and keep your home cool in summer, too. Lagging hot water tanks and pipes and insulating loft spaces also helps. Many councils offer financial help with this if you are elderly, have children or are on benefits.
Moving things up a notch, investing in an energy meter will really help you understand what you are using and where. More advanced models can show individual appliances' use or measure the whole house. You can also download the results to your computer and analyse usage per month or year. Another nifty gadget, Energy Wizard, will maximise appliances' electricity use and cut bills by 10 per cent – for an average household, that's around £60 per year.
After that, appliances come next. Work out which dinosaurs really need to go to the recycling plant. If you are still using an old boiler, washing machine or fridge freezer, chances are they won't be energy efficient. However, you also have to weigh up the implications of emissions created in manufacturing a new model. While appliances are working well, it's best to get them regularly maintained and use them as efficiently as possible (always run a dish washer with a full load and wash clothes on the lowest temperature). Once they are really past it, invest in an A-rated, energy efficient model that will save electricity and water – and money.
The new generation of condensing boilers can save the average household £210 per year. From this spring, households using the most inefficient boilers have qualified for a £400 incentive towards replacement costs. Once you have your spanking new boiler you can still make extra savings for you and the planet by turning the thermostat down a few degrees (put on a jumper!) and turning it off at night. Turning it down just 1 per cent can save you 10 per cent on fuel costs, according to Berman.
There are lots of small changes you can make to the way you clean to reduce your family's impact on the planet. Look for eco-friendly cleaning agents that use of natural ingredients, such as citrus oils and non-ionic surfactants. Make an even bigger impact by buying in bulk. Avoid using harsh bleaches and de-scalers by pre-empting limescale build-up with magnetic devices you pop into the cistern or clamp on the cold water in-pipe.
If you're ready for bigger projects, energy generation is the next step. Solar panels and wind turbines can generate enough energy for all your own needs and you can even sell any surplus to the National Grid. Photovoltaic (PV) cells convert sunlight directly into electricity, and even on a cloudy day you should get enough for baths and washing up. You'll need a strong roof that faces within 90 degrees of south. Wind turbines can produce sufficient electricity to power lights and electrical appliances in a typical home.
Ground-source heat pumps extract subterranean heat that can be used to warm water for radiators or underfloor heating, or to pre-heat water delivered to a conventional boiler but it's an ambitious project that requires digging up your garden. As Berman says: "Being green will help protect the planet and save you money year in year out. With the growth of stylish and practical green home goods, it's a win-win all round."
Sally J Hall is the author of 'Eco Baby, a Green Guide to Parenting'