Incentives to make your home more energy efficient have never seemed greater — and saving the planet is just one of them. A survey published this week showed higher energy ratings can raise a property’s value by as much as €60,000. And as gas and electricity prices soar, any measure that reduces bills is welcome. There is one big catch, though, and that’s the upfront cost of a deep retrofit.
usan Andrews, an expert at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), estimates the cost of a comprehensive home energy upgrade at between €50,000 and €70,000, with a grant reducing this by €27,000. This is based on an average semi-detached home built in the 1980s with about 100sqm of floor space and an E2 energy rating.
Under a government scheme, her organisation oversees ‘one-stop shops’ for deep retrofits. These are companies that manage every aspect of the project, so the householder does not have to hire individual contractors.
But some are finding that a huge outlay is required to reach the B2 energy rating required to receive substantial grants. The sums involved have grown in recent months.
“The costs depend on how many people live in the home, how they are using their energy, and what the existing BER [building energy rating] is and what fuel type they are on,” Andrews says. But she adds: “You are going to save between 30pc and 35pc on your average energy usage.”
The typical upgrade would include roof insulation, cavity and exterior wall insulation and the installation of double-glazed windows and new doors. Gas or oil boilers would be removed and new radiators and mechanical ventilation systems installed.
The first aim with this type of retrofit is to make the home suitable for the installation of a heat pump. This works by capturing heat from outside and moving it into your home. It uses electricity to do this. In theory, for every kilowatt of energy used, the heat pump gives three to four times as much energy back in heat. But estimates vary as to how efficient they are.
The upgrade would also include the installations of photovoltaic solar panels, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity.
Householders looking for retrofitting quotes may find the estimates far higher than the SEAI’s calculations.
When the Irish Independent’s environment correspondent Caroline O’Doherty sought a price for a deep retrofit on her semi-detached house, the net cost quoted doubled to just under €74,000 between spring and late summer of this year.
But householders with the capital to spend on retrofitting are already seeing enormous advantages, and it is not just down to a sense of green pride.
The latest Irish Independent/Real Estate Alliance (REA) Average House Price Index showed this week that energy ratings are increasingly influencing property values.
Homes with the highest A and B energy ratings are selling for 12pc more than equivalent lower-ranked properties and fetching 16pc extra in Dublin. For an average home, this amounts to a difference of about €36,000 around the country and almost €60,000 in the capital.
Homeowners also find that their bills fall drastically once they have carried out the work.
Data analyst Pat Ryan estimates that he will save €1,500 this year in energy bills after the retrofit of his family’s four-bedroom bungalow near Claregalway, Co Galway.
He and his wife moved in three years ago, and the couple have two young children. The bungalow was built in 2001.
“At the time we moved in, it was cold and hard to heat — and there was hardly any insulation,” he says. Heating came from an oil boiler and a stove. Ryan estimates that if he still had the oil boiler, he would be spending about €3,000 on oil every year.
“I saved about €750 last winter and I reckon it will be €1,500 this year,” he says.
As part of the retrofit project, which cost €52,000 (minus a grant of €12,000), the walls were pumped with insulation, insulation was placed in the roof, triple-glazed windows were installed and the oil boiler was replaced by a heat pump. Some radiators were replaced.
“It has made a huge difference. It never gets roasting and it would never be freezing. The house is always at a nice temperature,” he says. “We have it set to 19.5C and the heat pump kicks on if it gets below that.
“The house went from a C3 to A3 (BER energy rating). I had the house revalued and the value has gone up by 25pc. We can also get a better interest rate on the mortgage.”
Research by the MaREI centre at University College Cork recently showed that a typical household in Dublin with six solar panels could generate more than a third of its own electricity and save €380 a year in electricity bills.
According to the research, such a system can pay for itself in reduced bills within seven years.
Households with the panels receive credits from their supplier for any excess electricity that they generate and send back into the grid.
Under a system that is being phased in at different times depending on the energy company, the Clean Export Guarantee tariff will generally be paid as a discount on electricity bills. The rates vary between suppliers and payments will be backdated to February this year. The sums involved are relatively small when compared with the significant savings made when solar users generate electricity for their personal use.
Among them is Connor Barry, who is now used to neighbours knocking on his door asking about the retrofit of his century-old bungalow in Killester in north Dublin.
Three years ago, he and his wife Joanne spent €50,000 on their retrofit, which involved external wall insulation on the front, cavity wall insulation, internal insulation on one wall, the replacement of the plumbing, the installation of a heat pump and six solar photovoltaic panels. Deep insulation was put into the attic.
He received €10,000 back in grants, which were smaller than they are now.
“The house was in good nick from an aesthetic point of view, but behind the scenes it was less than ideal,” he says. “It looked fab, but there was lots of glass at the back, and in winter it was cold. The plumbing was like a rat’s nest.”
Barry works with companies that are trying to get to net zero when it comes to greenhouse gases. “I was motivated by getting my house more green, but also making it a more pleasant place to live,” he says.
He went to the one-stop shop that eventually became Electric Ireland Superhomes, and they organised the retrofit. The heat pump keeps the temperature at a consistent 20C and heats a constant supply of hot water.
A common question for anyone doing a retrofit is how long does it takes to receive payback on the initial outlay.
“People never ask when you get payback if you put in a new kitchen,” Barry says. “By having a heat pump, it is always warm and that takes away so much of the anxiety of living in the house.”
Together with the heat pump, the solar panels have made a huge difference to his monthly electricity bills. “My last one was €50,” he says.
“Where you really get the value from the solar panels is when they displace the electricity that you would otherwise be buying. When I have my computer going and my washing machine going in the middle of the day, I am not paying the ESB for the electricity they are using.”
Originally, Barry thought it would take 10 years to recoup his outlay. Now, with soaring energy prices, he says that will happen a lot quicker.
One of Barry’s biggest benefits from the energy upgrade of his home from C3 to A3 was the reduction of his mortgage bill by €400 per month after he switched to a “green mortgage”.
The Government aims to encourage householders to carry out similar deep retrofits of 500,000 homes by 2030 and has a target for the installation of 400,000 heat pumps in existing properties.
Experts agree that those targets will be extremely difficult to meet, partly because of the cost of the work and also because of the limited number of people available in the building trade with the necessary skills.
Pat Barry, chief executive of the Irish Green Building Council, says: “We are not anywhere near the numbers required to get to 500,000 — that would be a target of 50,000 per year. ”
There are concerns that subsidies for the most comprehensive energy upgrades are mostly going to those with considerable resources already. While there is a range of retrofits for welfare recipients, in many cases there are waiting lists of up to two years, and these logjams became worse during the pandemic.
For those who can’t afford a full-scale deep retrofit, a step-by-step approach is another option.
While the SEAI is heavily promoting deep retrofits through its ‘one-stop shops’, it also gives grants for individual energy upgrades.
One disadvantage of taking the incremental approach is that householders have to manage the project themselves and the range of grants is less comprehensive.
For example, if you go for an expensive all-in-one-go deep retrofit, you can get a grant for windows and doors, but this is not available as a standalone grant.
However, there are significant individual grants for heat pumps ranging from €3,500 to €6,500. Other grants include payments for different types of insulation.
Exterior wall insulation comes with one of the biggest grants at €6,000 for a semi-detached house to €8,000 for a detached home. Up to €2,400 is available in grants for solar panels.
Dr Oliver Kinnane, lecturer in architecture at University College Dublin, believes that householders do not have to shell out enormous sums to make a difference in their homes.
He told the Oireachtas environment committee this year that if he was in charge of the national retrofit plan, he would opt for large-scale ‘shallow retrofits’ first.
“I’d give everyone €500 to go down to their local hardware shop and buy draft excluders and basic insulation,” he said.
Kinnane told the Independent: “Any drive towards a one-size-fits-all extensive deep retrofit would be foolish, as buildings are all different and no one retrofit strategy is suitable for all.
“The first step in anyone’s retrofit strategy is to reduce energy by improving the fabric of the building — improving the air tightness and the insulation of the building. It’s certainly the most cost-effective way.”
Pat Barry of the Irish Green Building Council has called for the introduction of renovation passports, where householders could get help from independent renovation advisers.
The householder could then carry out the work in stages, according to a set plan, rather than shelling out a vast sum all at once.
“There should be a structured plan and all the information could be retained in a digital logbook that stays with the home,” he said.
The gradual approach was the one taken by David, a homeowner in Terenure who has carried out a deep retrofit on his three-bed home over a decade.
As well as making the home airtight and thoroughly insulating it, he has installed solar panels, which supply two thirds of his electricity.
He says his most recent two-monthly bill for electricity, including the standing charge and other levies, was just €59. The actual charge for electricity was €10.
Some householders who carry out retrofits and want to do much of the work themselves find the grant system too cumbersome and bureaucratic. They find that it may not be suitable for their individual needs and a diverse range of homes.
Con Ó Laoghaire, who managed to upgrade a small rundown 18th century Waterford home to a B2 energy rating, got a grant for only €4,500 for external wall insulation when he carried out his own complete retrofit and refurbishment.
“I know a lot of people who do this kind of work don’t go for many of the grants, because the process is too complicated,” he says.
A recent report on retrofitting in Ireland by Friends of the Earth said that among the barriers to carrying out the upgrades were high upfront costs, a lack of trust in the process and low awareness of the benefits.
It suggested that the current policy fails to cater to the needs of certain groups including low-income households, tenants, rural dwellers and the Traveller community.
Barry of the Irish Green Building Council says the grants should not just be targeted at those who can afford the big outlay for deep retrofits or those on social welfare.
“It should be targeted at anyone below a certain income level, and they could have a stepped level of grant, according to their income. It might be a bit more complex, but it could be based on your P60 [the certificate showing annual pay].”
Dr Kinnane is concerned at the plan to retrofit 25pc of the country’s housing stock in an eight-year period to meet the 2030 climate action targets.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen, because we don’t have the people in place to do it. My concern about doing it at that scale without proper controls is that it could result in bad retrofits that need to be redone in the future,” he says.
Use of heat pumps is being scaled up on a massive level without enough research into their operational performance, he adds.
He has studied the performance of heat pumps in research funded by the SEAI and has found that they are much less efficient than manufacturers claim.
According to Dr Kinnane, a lot of manufacturers would claim that for every 1 kilowatt of electricity that you put into it, you get four times the energy back out.
“What we would have found in the research that we have done is that the coefficient of performance is about 2.5 in an Irish scenario.”
Kinnane says there are two main reasons for these differences. The pump may have been tested in optimal circumstances by the manufacturers, but there may also have been installation errors that affected the performance.
Quotation for our retrofit was double original estimate
Our retrofitting one-stop shop experience became a one-stop shock.
It began within a few weeks of the announcement of the National Retrofit Plan last February. It took almost six months to have an assessor’s report in hand. It was another couple of weeks before the quotation arrived and the shock to set in.
To take our small (80m2), 26-year-old, three-bed semi-d from its not-too-shameful BER rating of C2 to an A2 was going to cost €101,000. Minus the grants, the cost fell to just under €74,000 but that was still more than double the original estimate last spring, although admittedly that was based on a paper exercise.
Because we were sceptical, we did our own sums but even the higher calculation we reached then was almost €30,000 lower than the current quotation.
There was another fright. The quotation, issued on August 24, would only hold for a fortnight so it has probably gone up since then.
The breakdown for the works recommended by the assessor, before grant deductions is included below:
Photovoltaic solar panels: €6,995
New windows and doors: €17,360
Attic insulation: €4,070
Heat pump and associated works: €24,350
Wall insulation: €13,250
Demolition and alterations: €5,527
VAT of 13.5pc: €11,993
Total after grants: €73,711
Along with general price rises in construction materials since the spring, the main items that made the estimates jump were the unlisted items that you don’t find in the paper-based calculations.
Demolition, preliminaries, electrics and VAT account for more than €30,000 of the quotation.
We were also told our existing radiators, currently heated by gas, would have to be replaced because they were not big enough to work with a heat pump.
An independent heat pump provider has a different view on that so a casting vote opinion might be needed.
The most discouraging part of the quotation though was the wall insulation.
Because the house is timber-framed, we were told we couldn’t have cavity insulation or an external wrap but instead would have to opt for internal dry-lining (it’s to do with having to let air circulate around timber). That would mean pulling out all the kitchen units as well as the en suite, main bathroom and under-stairs toilet, and losing 8cm of space on every dry-lined wall (that’s how thick the insulation boards are).
The walls would then have to be repainted and retiled and if units, fittings and pipework did not survive the removal process — or did not fit the smaller rooms afterwards — they would need replacing.
The cost in terms of time, disruption and additional finance was too much.
But without getting the walls insulated, you don’t qualify for the heat pump grant and the whole idea of an all-in-one retrofit starts to unravel. The one-stop-shop offer is probably the best deal anyone with a doer-upper, or a house undergoing major extension or redecoration will find.
But for not-too old, not-too cold homes, it’s probably going to be a case of doing one job at a time, one grant application at a time.
It means there won’t be a grant towards the windows and doors or heat pump, and the ascent of the BER rankings will end somewhere in the Bs, but that’s still pretty good.
I just wish we’d known last February.
https://www.independent.ie/news/environment/the-retrofit-dilemma-what-does-it-cost-to-make-your-home-energy-efficient-42046446.html The retrofit dilemma: what does it cost to make your home energy efficient?