INSULATE BRITAIN. What does that mean?

This has been the cry of activists who obstruct traffic by glueing themselves to roads and creating general havoc. Some may admire their motives in consideration for future generations, as we adapt to abolishing the usage of fossil fuels. However making a confounded nuisance of onself is not the way to make friends and influence people.

In any case the message is very broad and unclear. What exactly is the course of action that the government is being demanded to take?

When I moved in to my present house, it had cavity insulation, double glazing all round and loft insulation. I found that the loft insulation was thin and inadequate, so I augmented it to meet the recommended standards of the time (about 30 years ago). Ostensibly it ticks the most-important boxes. However I have no doubt that a surveyor could suggest further improvements. Have standards for loft insulation been raised further? (If so, a lot of upheaval.) How about fitting a draught-proof letterbox? Could we improve the sealing round some doors and windows? And so on.

Over the years I discovered a problem that creates a much bigger heat loss than any of these latter-day remedies would save. Upon lifting floor boards to run wires, I was appalled to find no insulation on any of the pipes carrying hot water. I surveyed to house to estimate the likely total length of central heating pipe. I calculated the surface area to be roughly equivalent to a largish radiator. That is well over a kilowatt of wasted heat. Little of this heat is likely to find its way through boards and carpets into the rooms above. Most of it will be blown away through air bricks. It would have been easy enough to install this insulation along with the pipework, but to add it retrospectively would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive.

In my opinion, any pipe carrying hot water for any purpose should be insulated. The only exception would be pipes above floor level leading directly into radiators. I hear little in the media about the importance of pipe insulation, but plenty about things like not leaving the TV on standby, saving about a watt.

We can also consider pipes carrying hot water to taps. We are familiar with the frequent need to run off cold water to reach the hot. This represents wastage of water, energy and time. I did some checks in a washroom handbasin. I measured seven litres of water run off before hot water emerged. I also checked how much hot water would pass if I cleaned my teeth with the tap running. One litre! Again the common energy saving advice focuses on the wrong targets. When our kitchen was refitted, hot pipes were temporarily exposed. I took the opportunity to insulate them. This made a notable difference in how often cold water needed to be run off from the kitchen hot tap.

I have little doubt that new houses are being built with standards of insulation far higher than can be achieved by my own. Older housing will continue to exist for very many years. We will need to accept that we need to strive to produce enough renewable energy to cover the unavoidable losses due to the poorer insulation of older houses.

  • As I recall the water supply bye-laws (or whatever they're called this week) have called for insulation on pipework for quite a while now (at least in certain circumstances) - and on cold as well as hot (to reduce bacteria growth in drinkable water). Central heating pipes under floors probably fall into two distinct cases - under ventilated suspended ground floors they should certainly be insulated (if only for frost protection) - in intermediate floors I see less of an issue - the heat will certainly contribute to space heating of the room above (that's how underfloor heating works after all) and intermediate floors shouldn't normally be ventilated to the outside (although there are sometimes gaps around joist ends into ventilated cavities, but even that path is usually blocked if blown cavity insulation has been installed. Where you have per-room heating controls and the pipes run  under rooms you might not require heat in, then certainly insulation would be beneficial - but I'd expect the saving to be smaller.

    Turning the tap off while brushing teeth has been common advise around here for a long time (perhaps my local water company is better at that sort of thing than some, after it nearly ran out of water completely one summer in the 1990s and had to bring in huge amounts by road at one point). Draw off times certainly can give some improvement too - in my renovation rather than having a single pipe serving all the water appliances - which has to be sized for the largest demand - usually 22mm for the bath - I went for a manifold approach so each appliance had its own minimally sized pipe from a main manifold (stop cock position for cold, airing cupboard for hot) - so hand basins had 10mm pipes rather than the usual 15mm branched off 22mm. It's surprising the difference it makes.

       - Andy.

  • Now I feel like lifting my floorboards and having a look.

    I was pretty nonchalant about insulation until the price of fuel trebled last year. Our hot water tank is insulated (i.e. covered in foam) but I bought an additional jacket. It is surprising how warm it is underneath. By the end of the summer, we should get an idea of the fuel saving.

    The hot and cold water pipes above our kitchen ceiling run together. There is not a long wait for hot water because the cylinder is in the same room, but the problem is that the cold water gets hot so water is "wasted" whilst waiting for it to get cold.

    I shall be fascinated to learn how much heating my step-daughter's self build will require. They have gone to town on the insulation so it may be 5 kW, which would be good for 2000 sq ft.

    Without doubt, the loft insulation needs to be improved so I have been busy de-cluttering. However, we have a substantial flat roof and it is difficult to see how that can be improved short of attaching insulation below the ceilings.

    We shouldn't forget PV arrays. I think that the time has come to get one, but as with improving the windows, what we can do is limited by the conservation wallahs.

  • we have a substantial flat roof and it is difficult to see how that can be improved short of attaching insulation below the ceilings.

    I gather that flat roof these days are often insulated above the existing deck when renewing the weather layer. Might be a bit fiddly with the edge details, but creates a 'warm roof' with all the structural timbers on the warm/dry side.

       - Andy.

  • I don't think Insulate Britain are too worried about relatively well-off engineers who can afford to update the insulation in their own homes.  The problem is:

    • People in rented accommodation who don't have any say in how their homes are maintained.
    • People who own their homes, but can't afford to improve them (e.g. pensioners).

    The government has set minimum EPC requirements for rented accommodation, but the bar has been set very low.

    For people who have low incomes, the government occasionally runs grant schemes.  These are usually very limited, and attract the cowboys who do the worst possible jobs for as much grant money as they can claim.  They are well aware that the people actually paying are very unlikely to ever inspect the work done.

    So every winter, we spend more money than we can afford, importing loads of fossil fuels to keep badly insulated houses barely warm.  The free market has no incentive to fix this.  Landlords don't want to pay out their own money so that their tenants can save on heating bills.  And as far as the markets are concerned, if you have no money to pay for home improvements than you cannot create a "demand".

    So Insulate Britain wants the government to stop faffing about with half-baked schemes that don't work, and embark on a major programme to upgrade the housing stock in the UK to something that's more like what they have in other countries at similar latitudes.

  • Plus the dwindling stock of social housing that the  government appears determined to make as poor quality as possible.

  • Don't overlook the consequences of UK's approach to freehold and leasehold, where folk who buy a leasehold flat, well the inside of it at least, have no control over anything outside the plaster, below the floor boards or above the ceiling, as that is the freeholders property. The freeholder has no incentive to insulate or even really to keep it dry, as the  ground rent keeps coming in anyway, so why spend any money.

    It is the leaseholders who freeze or pay more for fuel, but legally are not allowed to do much about it.

    Worse when the leaseholders let that flat out. The tenant suffers, the leaseholder as the landlord & flat owner gets the blame,, but has virtually no power to force activity if the freeholder decides to do very little.

    I imagine that a lot of rental properly will go off the market when the EPC levels are increased, as the leaseholder landlords will be unable to persuade the freeholders to do anything like loft insulation or cladding unless they are compelled.

    The solution is commonhold, but it is not common in the UK.


  • I don't think Insulate Britain are too worried about relatively well-off engineers who can afford to update the insulation in their own homes.

    Well, I am not an engineer, but mea culpa, maxima mea culpa. Cost v savings is entirely dependent upon the price of energy. The high price of energy has now made it beneficial for me to improve my insulation.

    I entirely take the point that less well off renters are, for want of a better phrase, in the poo. Perhaps in the real world, rent should reflect the cost of heating?

    If I had had an income last year which just matched my regular expenses, I do not know how I would have coped with the energy price rises.

    FWIW, I am a pensioner.

  • I'm glad to be out of leasehold now.  Scotland doesn't have leaseholds, but the English government is too timid to get rid of it - there are too many wealthy freeholders.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your replies.

    I agree with Andy Jewsbury that uninsulated heating pipes are less of an issue on upper floors. Nevertheless it is desirable to control heat rather than have it leak in to places where it may not be needed. In general, do not heat unoccupied rooms. Some heat will always drift into these from heated rooms anyway. It is desirable to have bedrooms somewhat cooler than living rooms, from the aspect of both overnight comfort and economy.

    Chris Pearson mentioned a problem of water from the cold tap becoming hot and needing to be run off. This represents wastage not only in the water itself but of the heat energy that has unwantedly leaked into it. I know of a large building where a cold tap needs to be run for about two minutes before it becomes properly cold. The building is only about ten years old. So much for recent local by-laws!

    Our house has a flat-roofed rear extension. It is insulated in the space above the ceilings. Recent replacement of two ceilings gave an opportunity to improve the insulation, which was "patchy" in places, causing damp patches.

    Simon Barker and Mike make some interesting sociological points. I have rented accommodation myself in the past and am well aware how restricting this can be in getting things done to the property. As for freehold owners, let us not stereotype too much. Many such owners are struggling, e.g. youngish couples with a hefty mortgage and kids to support. I am a pensioner myself, but, with a career in engineering behind me and "late" retirement, I am not so poor that I cannot afford a bit of insulation here and there. The overriding issue is disruption involved in adding extra insulation, especially piping. Loft insulation upgrade, if required, is best done soon after moving in, as I did. In time, lofts tend to become cluttered, making this process more difficult.

    So what ideas is the government going to come up with? At present I believe that top of its mind is how on earth to win the election in autumn next year.  Hence, back to my original point - we need to accept that we will not achieve perfect insulation and need to produce enough renewable energy to cover the losses.

  • Perhaps in the real world, rent should reflect the cost of heating?

    In an ideal market economy, with reasonably educated renters, that should happen, now that rental properties need to have an EPC - people can relatively easily factor in the cost of heating along with the rent over a period - so properties with higher efficiencies should be able to command higher rents and less efficient properties be limited to lower returns - which in theory should compensate renters in low efficiency properties and provide an incentive for landlords to invest in improvements.

    In practice though there seems to be a number of stumbling blocks - EPCs aren't that reliable (when I sold my last house, the surveyor couldn't take into account much of the insulation that was there on account of it wasn't obviously visible and weren't any certificates from anyone else to say it was there -  if I'd had plausible looking bits of paper from somewhere but not the insulation the situation could be reversed), some people at least are yet to be persuaded that crunching a few number might give them as much if not more information about their potential future home than just judging it on the freshness of the magnolia or the prettiness of the kitchen cabinets), and of course at the moment (due to other factors) the rental market is so over-subscribed that many will take whatever they can find whatever the price - which prevents the rest of price mechanisms from working properly. So I agree, it is something the government is in a position to improve, if we want to see improvements in a reasonable timescale.

      - Andy.