Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

Small changes to your surroundings can make a big impact on the environment
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Eliminate draughts

The arrival of autumn reminds us to prepare the house for winter. Just as we put on a thicker duvet to keep snug at night, so we need to tuck our homes in nice and tight to keep out cold winter draughts.

It is not only one of the simplest ways to make our homes more comfortable, but is far more cost-effective at cutting fuel and carbon bills than installing a fancy wind turbine.

Up to 15 per cent of the heat lost from homes is via draughts, but eliminating them is cheap and easy. Self-adhesive window and door insulation costs only about £10 per packet, and is readily available from DIY stores. If you can handle a pair of scissors, then you'll have no problem putting this insulation around your doors and windows.

As an eco-auditor, one of the most important tasks I carry out is keeping an eagle eye on the daylight seeping through cracks along the sides of windows and doors, for this means that these cracks will leak heat in winter.

It is not just badly fitting windows or doors, either, but other eco-nightmares such as missing fanlight glass over doorways, or old and broken ventilation extractors, which leave a gaping hole in the wall. It is extraordinary how often people don't realise that their freezing draught is caused by a broken extractor fan.

I was once called at a lovely Georgian house in Winchester, to try to find out why the kitchen was so cold. From my initial survey, I could see nothing significant in the freezing kitchen. When I looked into the bathroom beside it, however, I found the usual broken extractor fan on the wall – and in addition, found that the piping from under the kitchen sink, which passed into this bathroom, went out through an unsealed gap. There was therefore a cold draught from the fan, through the gap around the piping and into the kitchen. Problem solved.

Cracked glass is another common source of draughts, so if you have a cracked pane, fix it now before winter sets in.

There's another thing that never ceases to amaze me, which is how many ultra-modern homes with thousands of pounds worth of double-glazed windows have beautiful front doors that let heat pour out of the house.

Poorly fitted letter boxes and missing keyhole flaps are sources of draughts. I don't understand why it is legal to supply handle-locks for external doors that are not draught-proofed.

If you put your eye up to many modern external door-handle locks, you will be able to see through to the outside – and a blast of cold air will hit you in the face. The full winter tuck-in for your external doors should include strip insulation around the edges, a door-brush along the bottom, key-hole flaps over the keyholes and (to go for gold) a thermally lined door curtain. This will make your front door as warm as the highest tog duvet, so get draught-busting and be cosy this winter.

Buy solar lights

This summer, I decided it was finally time to get solar-powered security lights. I ordered a set from for £49.95.

Each light uses ultra-low-energy LED bulbs, and has a motion and daylight sensor that means they come on only when someone approaches the front door at night-time.

This slashes the energy required compared to mains-operated, tungsten or halogen security lighting, and the solar electric PV panel supplied to power them is tiny at 11 by 14cm. This panel charges the battery pack, so no mains wiring or electrician is needed to install it, making it a simple DIY task. It comes with five metres of wiring, making it easy to place the panel where it will get a decent amount of sunshine, even if this is some way away from where you need to put the security lights.

The light provided is not the equivalent of floodlighting, but is adequate to light up the dark space outside my front door. With a cut of more than 90 per cent in carbon-dioxide emissions needed as soon as possible, this approach exceeds this by having a reduction of 100 per cent over the running costs of mains-operated systems. There is hope.

Turn off electricity-powered gym equipment

There seems to be an unstoppable process whereby electronic products, initially introduced for the exclusive end of the market, become cheaper and cheaper and end up in all our homes, consuming more and more energy.

This is what appears to be happening with electricity-powered fitness machines. Originally the preserve of luxury hotels and leisure centres, they are now far more common in ordinary homes. Often, people use an electrically powered cycling machine to keep themselves fit after driving home from work.

Recently, when doing an eco-audit in a home in Barnet, I was surprised to find that fitness machines were also part of the stand-by energy-wastage scandal. The clients had one of these machines in a small gym beside their swimming pool, and I plugged it into the energy tracker that I had recently bought from B&Q for £25. The digital display said it was continuously using 35 watts, even when not in use. This adds up to a whopping 306 KwH a year, which costs about £33. Or, to put it another way, the standby system alone consumes nearly a third of the electricity that the 10 solar electric panels on my roof at home produce over a year.

So it's a case of "turn off your bike" at the wall plug when you've finished exercising. And if you work in a leisure centre, check whether your machines are leaking standby energy and if so, turn them off when not in use. Let us know if you are successful.

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