Home-heating advice scheme 'flawed'

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

A Government-backed scheme for rating the energy-saving capabilities of homes is unreliable and can give bad advice, according to this month's issue of the Consumer Association magazine Which?

The home energy surveys, licensed by the Government, are intended to provide the equivalent of a miles per gallon measure for households. A surveyor takes measurements and details of insulation, construction materials and heating systems, and then awards a mark out of 100 to show how efficiently it can be heated. The householder is also given advice on possible improvements.

But Which? says ''the ratings may not always be reliable and the quality of advice given does not justify the cost of the survey".

The magazine's report is published just ahead of the Government's Energy Advice Week, which starts on Thursday. In another energy conservation controversy, ministers also face a sustained parliamentary campaign to get VAT on energy-saving equipment reduced to 8 per cent - the same level as for gas and electricity.

Posing as a householder, the magazine asked all four companies licensed by the Department of the Environment to perform the energy surveys to visit two homes. The costs of their surveys ranged between pounds 59 and pounds 123.

It also arranged for a ''benchmark'' survey to be carried out by the Government's Buildings Research Establishment (BRE), which played the leading role in developing the computer models on which the ratings are based.

Two of these companies, National Energy Services Ltd and MVM Starpoint Ltd, produced figures which were at least 5 percentage points different from the BRE rating.

Which? also says the surveyors failed to emphasise low-cost or free energy- saving methods and suggested some costly investments which would take many years to recoup in fuel savings. ''The companies need to make the advice much more relevant to the individual householders' needs, particularly when they are paying considerable sums for such information,'' the magazine concludes.

Only a tiny proportion of UK homes have been surveyed because the scheme is costly and has been little publicised. The Government set it up because it believed it could play a useful role in helping homeowners cut fuel bills, thereby curbing the acid rain and global warming pollution which flow from home heating and lighting.

Andrew Warren, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, says the Government should legislate to make an energy rating part of every household survey which takes place when a home is sold.

That way, the cost would be sharply reduced. A surveyor would be visiting the building in any case and could take the necessary measurements and details at the same time. It requires some training and a laptop computer with the right software to turn this information into an energy rating.

Mr Warren said that if far more surveys were done the overall accuracy and quality of advice should improve.

Next month sees the Second Reading of the Labour MP Alan Simpson's private member's Bill to cut VAT on insulation and other energy-saving products from 15 to 8 per cent, putting them on a level playing field with fuel.

More than half of all MPs, including many Conservatives, have signed an early day motion backing the cut.