Time to turn down the heat

Whether building from scratch or renovating an old property, it pays to think green. Rosalind Ryan investigates the options
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Thirty years ago, the idea of buying a house that was as good for the planet as it was for your family seemed ridiculous, but these days new homes are often fitted with living roofs, ground source heat pumps and other wonders that make your home more energy efficient. The trouble is many of us living in existing homes can find it hard to make our house a greener place to live. But rather than give up on the idea of making your house more energy efficient, there are plenty of ways you can save energy, money and the environment.

"One of the best things you can do to make your home more energy efficient is to fit proper insulation. Twenty-six per cent of heat lost from an un-insulated home is through the roof," says Tamara Mauro-Trujillo, an "energy doctor" from the Energy Saving Trust. "Fitting proper roof insulation means you can save £110 per year in heating bills and a ton of carbon dioxide emissions, while cavity wall insulation will save you about £90 per year and 750kg of C02."

Government guidelines state that roof insulation in new homes must be a minimum of 270mm thick, but many existing homes may not have the correct thickness. Mauro-Trujillo says, "Even if you have insulation fitted, it may have been put down a few years ago when the recommendations were lower. This means your home is still not properly insulated, costing you money and energy." Check your insulation and change it if you can. Whether you want to go for man-made insulation, or something natural is up to you. There are a number of eco-friendly options now available, such as sheep's wool or recycled paper fibres, so it's worth shopping around for something that fits within your budget and ethical ideas.

You will also get financial help when you decide to insulate your home, as there are many different grants available. Call the Energy Saving Trust advice line on 0800 512 012 to find out about different schemes in your area. "It is an extremely cost-effective measure," says Mauro-Trujillo. "The savings you make in the long run will pay back any initial outlay."

Another way to make your home more energy efficient is to produce your own energy. Solar panels are fast becoming one of the most popular ways to do so. Solar, or photovoltaic, panels (PVs) are exposed to daylight, which generates electrical charges. These are then converted into direct current for your home's electricity supply. Many PV systems work by using the energy for hot water, but some also supply power for the whole home. But don't worry that you need Mediterranean sunshine to make them effective.

"Our system will work in much colder temperatures than we experience in this country," says a spokesman for Solar Home Energy (www.solarhomeenergy.co. uk). "Plus, the collectors [panels] do not need direct sunlight as they work on natural daylight."

This is what makes fitting solar panels to your home more attractive than wind turbines - they don't need perfect conditions. You need high wind speeds to make turbines effective at producing energy - great if you live up on the Dales, but not so good if you're in the middle of Doncaster. You may need planning permission to fit them to your home and they could also put off potential buyers.

Fitting PVs will cost between £5,000 and £8,000, but again, grants are available to help you. See the Government's website www.lowcarbonbuildings. org.uk or the Energy Saving Trust on www.energysaving trust.org.uk.

Now the weather is heating up, it may seem unusual to worry about your boiler but this is actually the perfect time to check it. Research by the Energy Saving Trust has found that the older your boiler is, the more inefficient it is likely to be, and if it is 15 years old or more, you should definitely think about changing it.

High efficiency condensing boilers are the most efficient and will save around a third on your heating bills straight away. If everyone switched to a condensing boiler, the UK would save over £1.7bn a year. To compare old and new boilers, visit www.boilers.org.uk.

You can also make your home more efficient by investing in energy-saving equipment. Next time you are buying a washing machine, tumble dryer, dishwasher or any other type of white goods, check it has the distinctive blue logo from the Energy Saving Trust. "This will help you identify the most energy efficient product in that category, saving you money and carbon emissions," says Mauro-Trujillo. Getting rid of your old fridges or freezers is also less of a headache - for you and the planet - these days. Under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations, retailers have an obligation to recycle your old white goods on your behalf. So check the store you are buying from has signed up before you part with any cash.

Of course, you can always make your home more energy-efficient by wearing more jumpers and turning out the lights, but shopping for a new kitchen or fitting space-age solar panels to your roof is much more fun.

For more information, visit www.granddesignslive.com

Second life: Using reclaimed materials

Reclaiming materials and furniture is an increasingly popular alternative to buying new. Salvage pieces might be ragged around the edges, but they bring a bit of history with them. You may even manage to bag a bargain, too.

Shopping for second-hand items is more time-consuming than buying new, but far more fun. Reclamation yards and flea markets are treasure troves to be explored. For a touch of drama, visit an auction, or the 21st-century equivalent, eBay. Salvage website www.salvo.co.uk is a great place to start. It has a directory of suppliers, a schedule of auctions and even an online market place. Look out for...

Building materials and fittings: reclaimed bricks, wooden floorboards, stone flags, radiators and lighting.

Kitchens: dressers, butchers' blocks and solid kitchen tables, or entire fitted kitchens. Fifties styles like English Rose or Dainty Maid are currently very popular. Avoid old appliances.

Bathrooms: roll-top baths or art deco suites add a touch of glamour. Old taps can be pressure tested and rechromed. Check porcelain and enamel for cracks.

Furniture: you can look out for design classics, but they'll come at a price. Battered sofas and chairs look venerable as they are, or can be reupholstered - use vintage fabric to stay in keeping. Old office cabinets and industrial trolleys can be used in a domestic environment. Wood or metal can be left with the patina of age, or rendered smart once more by cleaning or painting.

Elemental solutions: Sourcing your own power and saving water

An increasing number of developers are installing these environmentally sound features:

Solar-heating: photovoltaic tiles or solar panels (left) can generate 25 per cent of a household's electricity in winter and 75 per cent in summer.

Mini-wind turbines: take a leaf out of David Cameron's book. Turbines vary in size and power from 300 watts to three megawatts, but they can cost up to £2,000.

Rain-water harvesting: rain captured from the roof, filtered and then pumped for bathroom, kitchen and garden use.

Humidity sensors: these can stop automatic watering systems in gardens when it is raining or expected to rain.

Ground source heat systems: these pump heat from the ground outside a home to provide central heating or hot water inside.

More details from the Energy Saving Trust (0845 120 7799, www.est.org.uk) and the Building Research Establishment (01923 664000, www.bre.co.uk).