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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Green Deal - too good to be true?


Green Deal - the Government's Flagship programme to improve our inefficient housing stock at no apparent cost to the owners. All approved, regulated, guaranteed, ....... What can go wrong???


The basic premise is to give people the opportunity to get long term loans for improvements on their homes against the estimated future fuel savings of the house. There is a 'Golden Rule' that means that you can only borrow the amount that your savings can pay back over a specific time period. However there will be a 6% interest charge on the loan, so this will mean that most of the measures will be cheap solutions like cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, replacement bulbs etc. Any really meaningful improvements like external wall insulation are so costly that the payback cannot realistically cover the initial capital costs and the interest associated with it. The pressure will therefore be on to make the insulation costs as low as possible and to utilise either the ECO (Energy Company Obligation) payments from the energy companies for those most in need, or contributions from the owners, to make it viable. So there will be your money on the line as well.

In order to make the major improvements, like wall insulation, more profitable the cost of the work will be driven to a minimum. Low cost will mean high volumes, low quality and a lack of proper advice (despite what the Green Deal says).

The Green Deal is designed to improve houses that are 'hard to treat' (mostly houses with solid walls, that are off the gas grid etc.) The 'low hanging fruit' of cavity walled houses are largely done, lofts have been filled and water tanks lagged. So the typical Green Deal house in Wales will be older stone and brick built terrace and hence a completely different beast from post 1920's homes. The industry as a whole struggles with these older properties and this is very evident with the new Green Deal. It will be applying conventional materials, products and skills to properties that actually require traditional materials and skills.

The focus of the Green Deal is also based around carbon / energy efficiency NOT sustainability.  The figures that decisions are made on are largely based on 'averages'. These averages in turn are based on lowest common denominators / worst case scenarios that are built into the SAP calculators, which in turn generate the Energy Performance Certificate and Green Deal reports. So it is likely that savings will be over-estimated. I had a new EPC done recently for my PV panel requirements. This had a green deal element to it and the estimated energy use was way out - much more than we actually use (by around 40%), so the savings that were estimated from this were in turn much more than we would actually get. This system defines the core of the Green Deal - the Golden Rule no less. So if this is wrong what chance do we stand?

The system and calculators also do not recognise damp as an issue. So the materials that would be specified will be driven by cost and their energy efficiency. So products like phenolic boards that are very good at insulating and relatively cheap will be specified. On paper they are the best (a long as you only think about carbon and energy efficiency). These boards will then be covered by cement render (generally) because this too is cheap, readily available and the 'skills' required are ubiquitous. However both of these products have MAJOR issues with them when used on older buildings. Both are designed to be water proof. Fine if there is no water in the walls, but rising damp? Cracked render? Leaking gutters? Water does have a knack of finding a way in. So once in, it won't be able to get out. What then?????

There are systems that are breathable (i.e. work with moisture and hence can provide a long term solution for damp). Wood fibre board with a lime render for example. But these types of systems are more costly and require more skills (that are presently very rare). They are also not as energy efficient (for same depth) as the phenolic boards. So the chances of getting them specified are remarkably low. The right solution for many properties will therefore not even get a look in at the Golden Rule / specification stage.

So we shall be installing the wrong boards for many properties. On properties where it is OK to specify phenolic boards, the issue of quality raises its head. Thermal bridging caused by poor installation has been shown to be one of the major problems affecting the Arbed scheme in Wales. This will be the same for Green Deal. Using airtight tapes, taking care over window reveals and sealing around pipes etc are all really important in ensuring a good result. Not doing them can cause water ingress, cold spots, condensation and mould. Housing Associations in Wales who utilised the Arbed scheme are now having to put their reactive maintenance teams to work on the improved properties to sort out these types of issues. It could be you!!

The issue of guarantees might be seen to solve the issues, but believe me it shall not. Ever had a damp proof course guarantee? Tried to claim on it and had success? I would pleased to find someone who has. An example of external render guarantees came to light a few years ago in Grangetown. An improvement scheme installed new render on the outside of a row of terraces. On a couple of them the paint then started to fall off of the walls internally. The owners complained and wanted to claim on the warranty, but were told that the work only guaranteed the external finish NOT the internal, so there was no claim possible. Marvellous. Expect to see the same with Green Deal.

I am sure that for some Green Deal will be a good solution, but I really urge people to think about what they are doing first. The Green Deal Assessors will have little to no idea about older homes. They will be Domestic Energy Assessors with an enhanced piece of training (one day I think). Green Deal does not consider damp and so they will have no training in it. No doubt at best it will be 'consult a damp proof specialist'. This is no sign of quality of knowledge either.

I could go on, ....

So Green Deal will soon bombard our high streets / builders merchants / phones / emails etc with great promises of improvements to your home with apparently no additional cost. Sound too good to be true? Well it might just be*.


*unless you are one of the financial institutions getting a 6% return on your money!! Not bad in an era of 0.5% interest rates.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Expanding foam - a natural alternative



Expanding foam is used extensively for window and door fitting. Terrible stuff. It is used to cover up poor workmanship and it also can fail quickly and leave you with poorly insulated and leaky window surrounds (note that some foam is now designed to flexible, but did you know that!?)

The trouble is, what to use as an alternative?

Well, there are alternatives out there. The choice depends on a number of factors:

The state of your reveals (the wall part next to the window)
The time that you have for the work
The finances available to you
Your sensibilities for having a job done correctly
The need for airtightness in the design of the building

The main alternatives are:
1. Expanding tapes. These are superb at creating a weathertight, airtight and insulating fit for doors and windows, especially in new builds where the reveals are relatively accurate and smooth. Companies like Iso Chemie produce excellent tapes that expand to fill the gap, whilst not attaching themselves directly to the reveal, thus the window can move and flex and not break the seals. Brilliant.

2. Cork filler. A new product from Auro combines natural latex with cork to give a paste similar to caulk that can be painted over etc. This is better for reveals that are jagged and would require a lot more remedial work before a tape could be fitted. The filler remains flexible and hence maintains a seal even when the windows flex and vibrate (as they all do).

Both systems will cost more than the cheap expanding foam, but then they do a proper job that will last. So if you don't want leaky and draughty windows think about how they are fitted and whether you want to live with windows that perform as expected, or whether you want to waste your money on a false economy.