Looking to cut down your energy bills? Period homes have a reputation of being draughty and expensive to run, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Old, uninsulated solid-wall homes do lose more heat than newly built houses, and outdated, inefficient appliances and fittings use more energy than necessary. However, it is possible to carry out some simple improvements to make your home warmer and reduce bills.
When it comes to more significant works, however, there is much conflicting information around what is the best course of action to take with an old home, especially if it is listed or located in a Conservation Area. The biggest issue is when inappropriate, non-reversible changes are made, or when breathable materials are not specified.
Consider carefully what advice you follow when tackling areas such as heating and insulation, and only work with companies that have experience of dealing with period properties. Where possible, repair rather than replace and check with your local authority before introducing any energy-saving measures that may have a physical or visual impact on your property.
1. Get a smart meter
Monitoring your energy use will help you to establish how well your house performs and where savings need to be made. British Gas can install a smart meter for free for customers.
2. Fill gaps between floorboards
Old floorboards add character to a room, yet it’s astounding how much heat can be lost through the gaps between them: added up together it can be the equivalent of a small window being permanently left open. Simply laying down a large rug in winter can provide extra insulation, but fixing draughty floorboards is a fairly simple job.
Sealant strips, such as StopGap or DraughtEx, that can be inserted into gaps, are inexpensive, reversible and not obvious once in place. Energy Saving Trust estimates that filling gaps can save up to £40 per room, per year.
3. Swap to LED lighting
Updating light fittings and swapping old-fashioned tungsten bulbs for LEDs, which on average last 25,000 hours, can instantly reduce electricity consumption. While LED lamps can be expensive to buy, savings in electricity bills will usually offset the cost. The lamps now come in all styles, from dimmable spotlights to filament.
4. Check the heating system
An annual service is important to ensure your boiler is working as well as it should, but if it’s more than 10 years old you should consider replacing it with a highly efficient condensing model, which can save you up to £305 per year.
If your radiators aren’t working effectively, check to see if they are colder at the top than at the bottom, as this means there could be trapped air in the system. Bleeding them to solve the problem is a straightforward task that can be done on a DIY basis.
If, however, the top of the radiator is hot and the bottom cold, or generally they aren’t that warm, then there is probably sludge in the system that needs flushing out – a process that usually costs around £500.
5. Draught-proof doors and windows
Narrow gaps around windows and doors can create uncomfortable draughts as well as rattling noises. Avoid using silicone sealants to fill gaps and instead use draught strips, which can be removed in the future if required. Also look at non-obtrusive solutions for letterboxes and keyholes, and draught excluders.
6. Insulate the loft
Around a quarter of a home’s heat is lost through an uninsulated roof space, but this is fairly easy to improve with adequate insulation. The most widely used material is mineral wool (around 27cm to 30cm deep) as, at around £20 per roll, it is very cost-effective.
Although unpleasant to fit, requiring the use of protective clothing, mineral wool has good fire resistance and sound-insulation qualities. Natural materials, such as sheep’s wool quilt or loose cellulose (made from recycled newspaper) are nicer to work with and well suited for use in older houses, but also consider a breathable spray foam insulation such as Icynene.
7. Invest in renewable energy
The most popular renewable energy sources for period properties are solar and wind, but drawing energy from the ground and air are also possibilities. However, while renewables can give considerable savings on your bills, they can also have a negative impact on your home’s appearance, so make sure you have all the facts before investing.
8. Install an energy-efficient stove
Unlike open fires, which lose most of their heat straight up the chimney, wood-burning stoves are sealed to the room, meaning they use less fuel and radiate the heat throughout the room.
9. Add secondary glazing
Not only can original window frames be the cause of draughts, but the glazing is often very thin, creating a cold internal surface. As a result, all too often these architectural antiques are replaced for modern double-glazed designs, but as long as the windows are repairable, then it’s best to look at fitting secondary glazing.
High-quality aluminium systems can be colour-matched to the windows, while magnetic systems can be lifted out in the summer. Secondary glazing also cuts down on road noise, and the panels are usually very discreet and can be opened when needed.
10. Add smart heating controls
Thermostatic radiator valves and smart thermostats offer control over individual heating zones, to prevent heat from being wasted.
11. Block the chimney
It is estimated that around four per cent of a home’s heat is lost straight up an open chimney, but this can be easily solved by inserting a device that blocks the draught, such as the Chimney Sheep. Made of a thick layer of felt, it can be inserted up the chimney when the fireplace isn’t in use and simply removed when you want to light a fire. If the fireplace is never used, you could opt for a chimney balloon instead.
12. Insulate the walls
Much of the heat in an old house is lost through the walls, so improving the insulation can make a big difference to overall heat loss. Condensation can build up on surfaces where there is little or no insulation, but be aware that if you add insulation materials that aren’t breathable and there isn’t adequate ventilation, then moisture can become trapped, leading to even more condensation, mould and possibly damp.
Newer homes with cavity walls can be insulated quite cost effectively, but solid-wall properties aren’t so easy. They can be insulated internally or externally, through lining the walls and then adding lime plaster or render over the top, but this can mean original period details are affected so the process needs to be handled with care. If your home is listed, you will need permission for such work so seek advice from a local conservation officer.
Insulating external walls can create issues with roof overhangs, windowsills and door openings, which will have to be modified to accommodate the thicker walls, as well as rerouting the likes of downpipes and boiler flues.
Lining the inside of the main walls is often preferable, although it can cause a lot of disruption as you’ll need to remove or work around skirting boards, cornicing, radiators, and switches and sockets. The increased thickness of the walls will also result in a marginal loss of room space.
Consider compromising by using internal lining to the main front and side elevations with external cladding to the less visible rear areas or to any previously rendered walls. The use of natural permeable insulation materials, such as wood-fibreboard with a lime render finish, will allow old solid walls to breathe.
13. Insulate suspended floors
In Victorian and Edwardian times it was common to design homes with suspended timber floors at ground level. These floors rested on timber joists above an earth void — sometimes creating a ‘crawl space’ several feet deep beneath the house. Air vents at the bottom of exterior walls helped prevent dampness.
Suspended timber floors can also be found over unheated passageways in Victorian buildings or within medieval structures, over a carriageway or jetty. These floors can be a source of heat loss and draughts, but insulation and draught-proofing can help cut energy bills; take care, though, not to harm your building’s character or impede sub-floor ventilation, which could encourage timber decay. Before beginning any work, consider conducting an airtightness test to pinpoint trouble spots.
Permeable insulation – such as a sheep’s wool, hemp fibre, cellulose or wood fibreboard – works well with pre-1919 buildings, where the design relies on moisture being able to pass through walls. But don’t discount non-breathable insulation when adequate ventilation can be achieved.
Keep a space of at least 150mm below any insulation installed within an externally ventilated floor void (the presence of air vents will point to this). Lag sub-floor cold or hot water pipes and route electrical cables outside the insulation.
Working on the floor
If access is available to a suspended floor from an area below, or via a crawl space beneath the floorboards, insulation batts or boards might be pushed up snugly between the joists from below. Battens, plastic netting or, for better draught-proofing, a breather membrane can be fixed to the joist undersides to hold the insulation. Alternatively, additional insulation, such as wood or hemp fibreboard, can be fixed underneath.
Floorboards are frequently lifted to add insulation between the joists in the form of batts, boards or loose fill cellulose. Damage is easily caused when removing old floorboards and their fixing – usually iron nails, so employ a skilled carpenter to do this job.
Battens, netting, a breather membrane or fibreboard may be used to support the insulation. Fibreboard is sometimes fixed on top of the joists to increase insulation.
The risk of almost inevitable damage may mean that lifting historically important boards to fit insulation is unviable. The space available within a sub-floor void can also limit the thickness of insulation possible. Special considerations exist for traditional buildings, regardless of whether they are listed. These allow lower insulation levels where full compliance would cause unreasonable harm to the property.
Where insulation cannot be installed from below the floor, consider putting it on top. Your options include laying thin, flexible aerogel blankets over floorboards, or wood fibre boards. The disadvantages of this approach are that the original floor will be covered up, and the raised floor level may interfere with doors and steps.
Sometimes only draught-proofing is possible. There are products on offer such as Stopgap (stopg-p.co.uk) and DraughtEx (draughtex.co.uk). Finally, of course, laying a thick carpet or a large rug will reduce air infiltration.
14. Deflect lost heat
Fit enhancers behind your radiators to reflect heat back into the room. This prevents heat loss through the walls and can save 7 per cent on heating bills. It should cost less than £10 per radiator.
15. Fit external wall insulation
External wall insulation (EWI) is ideal for rendered or slate-hung walls. It consists of insulation boards such as Celotex (synthetic) or Diffutherm (wood fibre board) glued to the external walls, covered with wire mesh and re-rendered. EWI has no risk of condensation being trapped behind it; protects the wall; and reduces its U-value from 2.0W/m2 to as low as 0.2W/m2, majorly improving warmth. The cost for an average three bedroom semi would be from £5,000 to £9,000.
16. Fit internal wall insulation
If you can’t fit external wall insulation because your home is listed, or has stone walls you don’t want to render, internal wall insulation can be highly effective. The technique is similar to EWI, and insulation boards are glued to internal walls and covered with plasterboard. If done incorrectly, condensation and dry rot can get behind it, so professional guidance is recommended. Cost would be around £40 to £50 per m2.
17. Add a curtain lining
Thermally lining your curtains can reduce heat loss by up to 14 per cent. Single glazing has a U-value of 5.5W/m2, but this can be brought down to 1.0W/m2 with thermally lined curtains. It will cost from around £20 per curtain.
18. Improve insulation to sloping ceilings
If your first floor (or second floor in a three-storey house) rooms have a sloping part, this is often because plasterboard has been fitted to allow cold air to circulate above and ventilate the rafters. This can lead to phenomenal heat loss if not insulated properly, so fit insulation boards and re-plaster. This can be expensive but makes a big difference to the warmth and thus comfort of a room. The cost would be from £12/m2 including labour.
Feature Melanie Griffiths and Pippa Blenkinsop; Additional photography Jody Stewart