The Home Ecologist: Think before you take the plunge

Some pools leave the climate in deep trouble. But there are green ways to make a splash
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In the climate-crisis debate, we often hear about the discrepancy between the carbon emissions in the West and those of developing countries. It was only after I started eco-auditing private homes that I realised the enormous gap between the carbon emissions of the poor and the well-off in our own country. When I visited a client in Banbury, Oxfordshire, we found that the energy carbon footprint of the house was 45 tonnes (the UK average is six tonnes). The majority of this came from their oil bill, due to the size of the house, the ancient age of the boiler, their inefficient use of energy and, finally, their large swimming pool.

Boiling a kettle of water takes a huge dollop of electricity, and so heating a 50-square-metre swimming pool takes a hell of a lot of energy. The average outdoor pool uses about 14,000 Kwh of energy over a summer season. This represents about £1,400 worth of electricity. Even worse, this equates to about six tonnes of carbon dioxide or about two and a half tonnes if gas is used to heat the pool. However, the good news for those who are rich enough to have a swimming pool is that its carbon footprint can be slashed by using solar hot-water panels.

The panels have to be situated close to the pool. But do not despair if you do not have a large south-facing roof adjacent to it, as the panels can even be mounted at ground level on frames, which can make a nice screening feature for the pool, as long as it is not completely overshadowed by trees or other buildings. The standard guidance is that you need to have an area of panelling that is between a third and half the size of the pool. Kevin Knapp from Cel-f-Solar (yes, that is the company's name) in Kent says that the payback period for solar heating for swimming pools is very good: less than 10 years being easily achievable in most circumstances, unlike many other renewables. However, he argues that the environmental reasons are even more important than the payback.

An average-sized system costs about £10,000, with a paltry grant of £400 available through the Low Carbon Building Programme. It is now climatically irresponsible to be building non-solar-heated swimming pools. The government and local councils .need to require all new pools to be solar-heated immediately.

I do not have a solar-powered swimming pool, so I had to track down someone who does. Mrs Neville Harrison, who lives in Lewes, Sussex, had a system installed about three years ago, and she says that the initial heating up of the pool at the beginning of the season (the most expensive part of heating a pool) was done solely by the solar panels. She also felt that the way the panels were inset into her roof was pleasing to the eye and, echoing Kevin Knapp, added that "it just felt like the right thing to do".

So while it is certainly more difficult for the well-off to get into carbon-footprint heaven, there is no doubt that solar-heated swimming pools will enable them to slip through the eye of the needle a little more easily.

Donnachadh McCarthy works as an eco-auditor and is the author of 'Saving the Planet without Costing the Earth'.