It is the sight of meters racing that prompts most of us to get to grips with the insulation of our homes. Before the next cold snap, we promise ourselves, everything will be checked, serviced and in order. Indeed, British Gas was inundated with calls a week ago, but as the weather warms, so the urgency diminishes. Anyone living in a new house should be enjoying state-of-the-state insulation, since all homes are built to high levels of energy efficiency under building regulations.
Even so, insulation is not a prime consideration among new-home buyers, any more than it is for those who fall in love with a period property that eats fuel. There is a still a certain resignation, pride even, among those who live in draughty old country homes that there is little to be done bar piling on the jumpers and putting another log on the fire. The heating system seems to do little more than take the chill off. Paying for the warm air to disappear under the doors is, as they see it, a fool's game. But you don't have to live in rural splendour to feel defeated by attempts to keep a house warm within a budget nor to discover that the simplest, and not necessarily the most expensive, methods can be the best.
The advice Tina Lewis is giving to British Gas customers who have seen their bills rocket is familiar but, she finds, needs repeating. Insulate roofs and, where necessary, cavity walls. Don't put radiators under windows or behind curtains and large pieces of furniture. Check settings on the boiler and thermostats and have the system serviced regularly. "Many people don't understand how their controls work and they are often set incorrectly. It is a false economy to turn off the heating at night when temperatures fall well below zero. It will take a very long to reach the correct temperature the next day."
However, discussing the finer points of sophisticated systems is lost on those still fighting the draught battle on the window and door fronts. Double or secondary glazing is likely to be in the first wave of attack, but here, double-glazing sales talk can be so much hot air. How much does it really save on fuel bills? According to English Heritage, only 20 per cent of heat is lost through windows, most of that through gaps in the frame not the single pane of glass. The other 80 per cent is lost through unlagged roofs and uninsulated floors and walls. Houses with ventilated timber floors and open chimneys lose far more heat and admit far stronger draughts than even the poorest fitting windows and doors.
English Heritage calculates that putting in double glazing in an old house is rarely economical and that the payback period on heating bills could take anything from 20 to 60 years. "Far better to renovate and draught- proof the lovely old windows," says John Fidler, head of architectural conservation. "There are very good systems for sash windows now. One even has a gadget for the inward opening of the window for easy cleaning."
It is not always easy to pinpoint exactly where a house needs extra insulation. Heating engineers will always advise on upgrading or installing a system and British Gas have an advisory service based on a questionnaire. For a wide-ranging survey, the National Energy Services send out assessors under their home energy rating scheme for a fee between pounds 50 and pounds 120.
The Buildings Research Establishment finds that plumbing problems are the biggest headache during cold weather. Last winter, there were well over 200,000 claims for burst pipes alone and the cost of repair is out of all proportion to the cost of protection. The main misperception is that insulation prevents pipes freezing, says Peter Trotman, head of advisory services. "No amount of insulation on pipes will prevent them freezing if the building is unheated. The insulation only slows down the escape of heat and during very cold weather, water from the mains is not going to be much above freezing."
He says that it is important to check that pipes are laid well within rather than against a cold outside wall. Also, during cold weather, anyone leaving an unheated building for more than 24 hours should drain the water system.
The annual flood of advice about how we can best cope with icy weather still surprises those more competent in freezing conditions. A German resident of London was not only amazed that an apology from Thames Water about the delay in dealing with frozen pipes was newsworthy, but that so many people were caught out. "I can tell people don't know how to handle ice and snow by the state of their garden paths. In Germany, if you don't clear the pavement in front of your home and someone slips and injures themselves, they can sue you." Perhaps it is just as well that we only have the plumber's bill to worry about.
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