‘Insulation’s What You Need’

My living room thermal backed curtains.

On Saturday I got to enjoy the curious pleasure of nosing around other people’s homes.

Along with several other areas across the UK, the Forest of Dean held an Open Eco-Home weekend, organised by the Forest Transition Group. Several brave souls, who are ‘ahead of the curve’ when it comes to installing various energy efficiency and carbon reduction measures, agreed to open their homes up to a stream of strangers . . . very interesting for us, hopefully not too exhausting for the homeowners !

The idea is of course that we get to see first hand how we might reduce our own home’s carbon footprint, and can discuss the pros and cons of various technologies and techniques in detail with people who had already ‘been there, done that’. Over the course of a few hours I had several really interesting discussions about different PV cell arrangements and capacities, argon-filled K-glass windows, solar water tubes, liquid thermal mass, ground and air sourced heat-pumps and a variety of solid fuel burners.

Solar thermal tubes on the roof of an ‘open eco-home’.

It was all really encouraging, and most of what I saw seemed to be working well – but the fact remains that if you’re considering changing the way you heat your home, you need to have available space and available cash.

If you’re replacing an older heating system, refitting an old building, or perhaps even building your home from scratch, then there are an ever increasing range of options, but most of us will have to make do with something else for now.


Improving our home’s insulation is something we can all do – whether we own or rent, have plenty of space available or hardly any and regardless of the size of our bank balances. But we shouldn’t think of it as some kind of second best option, on the contrary it’s essential if we’re to stand a chance of achieving the rapid reductions in domestic carbon emissions we need: 34% by 2020 ! After all the overwhelming majority of homes we’ll be living in in 2020 have already been built – we’re living in them now, and no amount of changes to the Energy Standards, will make any difference.

Of course we need to design new energy efficient buildings, but if we really want to change anything, we’ll have to adapt what we’ve already got.¬†Retrofitting will be vital !

The good news is there’s plenty we can all do to make our homes more energy efficient:

RADIATORS – if you have radiators maximise their effectiveness – don’t block them with furniture. Consider placing a low shelf above them to direct warn air further into the room. For radiators on external walls use reflective foil coated insulation (you can buy these, or simply use silver foil taped to polystyrene panels) to minimise heat loss through the wall (but keep at least 2cm air gap), but those on internal walls benefit from having the wall behind painted a dark colour, to maximise the heat storage effect of the wall. Most importantly keep the radiators well-bled, and if possible fit thermostatically controlled valves (TRVs). Turn down radiators in unoccupied rooms, where 14 degrees might be appropriate.

THERMOSTATS – understand the controls and make sure you not wasting energy by heating your home when you’re not there. If you have a room thermostat make sure it’s located correctly – most advice recommends locating it in the room you occupy the most, usually the living room. Placing it near windows, in cold-spots or unused rooms might all lead to wasteful heating, also don’t waste energy trying to heat rooms with open windows. Don’t set your thermostat temperature too high – remember costs rise around 8% for every degree above 20 degrees C.

BUILDING INSULATION – a variety of products and techniques are available to better insulate the fabric of the building, regardless of construction type, and in the UK a variety of grants are often available: cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, floor insulation, solid wall insulation etc. Loft insulation in particular is cheap and quick to install, and can make a significant difference to the heat loss through the roof.

AIR CONDITIONING – if you live in hotter climes, and have a home air conditioning system make sure it is kept properly maintained and filled with moisture free refrigerant – a 15% loss of refrigerant can halve the efficiency of the system. Close blinds/curtains during the hotter parts of the day to minimise solar gain, and consider installing external shutters/overhangs or awnings, external reflective cladding may also be a possibility. Experiment using natural ventilation such as windows and chimneys to help cooling in the evening, As with heating, don’t waste energy trying to cool a room with open windows. Installing low energy cooling options such as chilled beams or ground source cooling may be a possibility.

WINDOWS & CURTAINS – normal loose fitting curtains make little difference to heat loss – if thin fabric stopped heat, then tents would be warming! But thick curtains with thermal-linings can make a difference in stopping heat loss through windows, so long as they fit snugly into the window alcove. Care should be taken with curtains on windows above radiators though, as these can easily trap rising warm air between the back of the curtain and the window, heating the glass and little else.

VENTILATION & DRAFT-PROOFING – remember drafts are simply unwanted ventilation and vice-versa. Close windows when running either heating or cooling systems, otherwise your trying to heat or cool the outside air! Switch off extraction fans when not needed. Seal gaps around doors and windows, service penetrations (water and sewer pipes etc), letterboxes, loft hatches etc – using draft strips, sealants etc. You should be careful in areas that require good ventilation, however, such as bathrooms and kitchens, rooms with fireplaces etc – all homes require some ventilation, and care should be taken to allow some, via trickle vents or other means.

PSYCHOLOGY – it’s strange but our mind’s have a subjective view of temperature, not an objective one. To test this stand with one hand in a bowl of cold water, and the other in hot water, then place both into a bowl of warm water at the same time – one will feel hot the other cold! We also tend to describe colours and being ‘warm’, or ‘cool’. There is a lot we can do to fool ourselves into thinking of a room or our home as being more warm and cosy, or cool, just by changing the colour scheme, lighting and furnishings.

CLOTHING – finally, and most obviously, we should consider our own insulation, as well as that of our homes. Having suitable casual ‘loungewear’ available to wear at home, either to keep warm, or keep cool, will help us save both energy and money. Modern fabrics mean there are a wide range of clothes, socks, blankets and even hats to choose from.

. . . though I must admit I haven’t gone as far as asking my kids to wear hats in the house yet :)


  1. Gareth Richards says:

    Are wood burning stoves environmentally friendly? Alright for people who live near a forest, but I suspect that if everybody decided to plunder the forests for fire wood they would not last very long. The last time everyone used firewood, around 1800, the forests were only saved from being wiped out by our switch to coal as a primary fuel source.

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