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From simple actions to self-reliance: Josh Byrne’s sustainable home upgrades for every budget

Homes

Retrofitting your house or apartment to use less energy doesn’t have to be an expensive exercise

A home with large open sliding doors to encourage cross ventilation Large sliding doors encourage cross ventilation. Making your home more sustainable can range from no cost to more ambitious projects that are part of a bigger renovation. Photograph: Robert Frith/Acorn Photo

Improving the sustainability performance of your home can bring big benefits. Firstly, an energy-efficient home is more comfortable, requiring less heating and cooling. It is more cost-effective to run, saving you money through reduced bills. Then there’s the environmental benefits.

By reducing energy imported from the grid and replacing this with locally generated solar energy, you can dramatically reduce household carbon emissions. There are plenty of other things that can be done to improve the sustainability of your home too, from installing water-saving features and low-energy appliances through to choosing low-impact building materials when renovating.

In my new book The Sustainable House Handbook, I’ve outlined the key considerations when designing and building a sustainable home, but you don’t need to start from scratch to improve the comfort of your home and reduce your environmental footprint.

No cost: simple actions

  • Switch off underutilised appliances: If you have a second fridge that’s not always in use, turning it off can save hundreds of dollars a year, or even more if it is an older model.

  • Adjust your hot water system: If you have a storage system, set it to 60C or 50C if it is an instantaneous system. Additional heating beyond these set points is wasted energy.

  • Investigate free programs: Local councils and water utilities often have services such as showerhead swaps. This saves water, as well as energy through reduced hot water heating.

  • Adjust your air conditioner: If you’ve got an air conditioner, keep the temperature setting to 24C in summer and 20C in winter to reduce the workload of the system. When it’s running, close off areas that are not being heated or cooled.

  • Be water-wise: Make sure you are only watering your garden as needed and turn off automatic irrigation during cool or rainy weather.

$1,000 and under: easy DIY projects

  • Seal up gaps: Drafts around doors and windows are a major source of heat loss during cold weather. A range of low-cost products such as rubber strips for underneath doors and foam strips for windows are available from hardware stores and they are easy to install. They will also help to keep out dust and insects.

  • Hang curtains: Windows are the thermal weak point in a house, where most of the heat escapes in winter and enters in summer. Installing curtains acts as insulation for the windows. Thick, lined curtains are best as they trap air which improves the insulation value. Open the curtains on warm winter days to let sunshine in and close them on hot summer days to exclude unwanted heat gain.

  • Install ceiling fans: Fans in living areas and bedrooms provide a cooling effect on the body, equivalent to a drop in temperature of several degrees and use much less energy than air conditioning.

  • Plant a tree: Shade trees are like natural air conditioners. They provide shelter from extreme sun and transpire moisture to cool the air around them. Deciduous trees are great as they provide shade in summer and lose their leaves in winter to allow in warming sunshine. Garden centres are a good source of information for species best suited to your local area.

$10,000 and under: targeted upgrades

  • Upgrade the insulation in your ceiling: Ensure all areas of your ceiling are properly covered. If you are renovating and replacing wall sheeting, then insulate the walls too. Make sure you get advice regarding the correct insulation materials and safety tips if you are planning to do it yourself.

  • Upgrade your hot water system: Switch to an air-source electric heat pump. These are the most efficient systems and can be programmed to operate during off-peak periods for maximum cost saving.

  • Pick efficient appliances: When it’s time to upgrade, replace inefficient appliances with new efficient ones, including opting for a reverse cycle, split-system air conditioner to replace gas heating.

  • Install a rooftop solar PV system: Choose a reputable supplier who will size the system correctly for your household’s needs. The payback period for the investment in a solar system can be as low as three to four years, or even quicker if you time the operation of energy-hungry appliances for during the day, when solar energy is available.

$20,000: increasing self-reliance

  • Install a battery to compliment your solar PV system: This will enable you to store excess solar energy produced during the day for use at night. Battery costs are rapidly coming down, with rebates to support their installation now available in some areas. Just like solar, be sure to choose a reputable supplier who can advise on the most suitable size and configuration for your household.

  • Install a rainwater tank: Get the tank plumbed to your toilets, washing machine and garden tap. While the financial payback periods for alternate water supply systems aren’t great, the water savings can be significant and it improves your self-reliance.

  • Install a greywater system: This allows you to safely divert shower and laundry water to the garden. Consider this as a drought-proof way to irrigate your favourite plants, including fruit and shade trees.

$50,000: include with renovations

  • Upgrade windows: Double glazing with thermally broken frames that minimises heat loss are best for cool climates. High performance low-E glass which reduces heat transfer is usually adequate in mild climates. Change these in your living areas to improve the thermal comfort of these rooms.

  • Consider window placement: If you’re installing new windows, consider locating some on the northern side of the house to capture warming winter sun. This is particularly important in the living areas, which you want to be the most comfortable. Also look for opportunities to position windows to improve cross ventilation. This will provide natural cooling in summer and improves internal air quality.

  • Fix your fittings: Install good-quality, water-efficient fittings such as basin faucets and showerheads, as well as low-energy LED lighting. Consider using LED spotlights, rather than downlights, which can result in points of heat loss where they penetrate the ceiling.

  • Install an induction cooktop: Induction cooking is very energy efficient as there is no wasted heat. At this point, with a heat pump hot water system and reverse-cycle air conditioner there is no need for gas, so you can disconnect the service and make the most of your own solar energy.

Sustainable House Handbook cover

  • Josh Byrne is an environmental, horticultural and communications consultant, and host on ABC’s Gardening Australia.

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