A leaflet drops through your letterbox offering you a free home energy survey. You take up the offer, but find yourself talking about solar panels. The surveyor turns out to be a solar panel salesman and his price for a new installation on your roof sounds good, given the discount he offers. He even says he will take £400 off the bill so that you don't have to bother applying for the government grant. You sign on the dotted line before he leaves, and a few weeks later there's a bright new panel on your roof making carbon-free hot water.
A happy ending? Only if you want to be thoroughly ripped off. Domestic renewable energy is a growth market, so inevitably it attracts a few rogues. If you are interested in solar energy but don't want to overpay, watch out for this reincarnation of the double-glazing cardsharp. Do your homework: call your local energy efficiency adviser (0800 512 012) and find out if there are local schemes that may help, such as Solar for London ( www.solarforlondon.org.uk). Check out the list of installers registered with the Low Carbon Buildings Programme ( www.lcbp.org.uk) or the Scottish Communities and Householders Renewables Initiative ( www.est.org.uk/schri). If you want the grant, you must use one of these installers.
If you can't meet the conditions of the grant, or feel the effort isn't worth the relatively small return (it's a better deal in Scotland), widen your search to Solar Trade Association ( www.solartradeassociation.org.uk) members. The Renewable Energy Association's new consumer code should also help to keep the cowboys out ( www.r-e-a.net).
But back to that energy survey you were promised. Perhaps a solar panel is not what you really want. Or perhaps you want to integrate renewable energy with improvements in the energy performance of your home. If so, there'll be lots of questions you need answered. How much insulation should you use, and what type? How can you improve air-tightness and ventilation? What kind of renewable energy systems would be most appropriate? And what are the costs and benefits of all these options?
Identifying the optimal approach to greening your home is not straightforward. Telephone advice is helpful, as are websites, especially the Energy Saving Trust's home energy check ( www.est.org.uk) and Powergen's online energy survey ( www.energyefficiency.powergen.co.uk). But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of your home in your climatic and financial context, general information has its limits. Tailored advice is harder to find, but ask your local energy efficiency adviser if there are any local services you can tap into, such as Energy for Good in Cambridgeshire ( www.cambridge-energy4good.org.uk).
If you are planning to spend serious money, it's worth paying for a thorough energy audit first. The National Home Energy Rating scheme is an established survey with registered assessors throughout the country (01908 672 787; www.nher.co.uk). Or invest £235 in a consultation with Encraft, one of a new breed of companies that will assess your home's carbon-saving potential and identify costed options appropriate to you. Encraft is not tied to particular products, so you are sure to get a genuinely independent assessment (08456 022 874; www.encrafthome.co.uk).
As for cowboys, it so happens that the hero of the 1972 film The Cowboys is called Wil Andersen (close enough), so I confess I am not completely antipathetic - as long as you are wearing a very big hat.
When you walk away from that dodgy deal, do it in Worn Again recycled trainers ( www.antiapathy.org/wornagain; don't skip the intro!). Yours for £65.
For a really low-cost solar panel, make one yourself. See the Low Impact Living Initiative for lots of low-tech do-it-yourself inspiration ( www.lili.org.uk).Reuse content