16 ways to make an old home more energy efficient

Make your house warmer and cut down on the cost of energy bills with these effective solutions, from quick and easy ideas to long-term investments

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Looking to cut down your energy bills? Period homes have a reputation of being draughty and expensive to run, but it doesn’t 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 Old, uninsulated solid-wall homes do lose more heat than newly built houses, and outdated, inefficient appliances and fittings use more energy than necessary.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.

(Image: © Bruce Hemming)

When it comes to making significant changes to an old home, there is much conflicting information around what is the best course of action to take, especially if the property 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.

Using a smart meter to cut down on energy use

(Image: © Getty Images)

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.

Fitting Draughtex between gaps in floorboards

(Image: © Roger Hunt)

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.

Jim Lawrence Deben pendant light with dimmable LED bulbs

(Image: © Jim Lawrence)

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.

Bisque Tetro aluminum radiator in Marron

Tetro aluminium radiator in Marron, from £954, Bisque

(Image: © Bisque)

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.

Sash windows can be an issue due to the necessary gap around the sliding mechanism, but specialist companies such as Ventrolla and The Sash Window Workshop can add discreet draught-proofing. 

Or, consider replacing period doors and windows with authentic designs.

Dora Designs Highland Cattle draught excluder

(Image: © Maison White)

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.

Thermafleece natural insulation is rolled out in the loft

Fitting Thermafleece natural wool insulation in the loft

(Image: © Thermafleece)

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.

(Image: © Jody Stewart)

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.

Contura 810L wood-burning stove

Contura’s 810L wood-burner is small enough to fit into an existing fireplace opening, yet can heat large spaces of up to 90m2.

(Image: © Contura)

9. Fit 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.

Fitting secondary glazing to period windows helps cut down draughts

Secondary glazing is an ideal solution to reduce energy loss in period homes, including those that are listed. This project is by Mitchell & Dickinson

(Image: © Mitchell & Dickinson)

10. Add smart heating controls

Thermostatic radiator valves and smart thermostats offer control over individual heating zones, to prevent heat from being wasted.

Drayton's highly responsive TRV4 valve smart controls

The Learning Thermostat (inset) from Nest, can be set wirelessly via a mobile phone to make life easier; Drayton Controls’ A-rated TRV4 valve is highly responsive

11. Block the chimney

It has been calculated that over 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.

listed townhouse sitting room

(Image: © Malcom Menzies)

12. Insulate the walls

It is estimated that 35 per cent of an uninsulated building’s heat can be lost through the walls, but this is disruptive to address. 

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Homes built before 1920 had solid walls, as opposed to including a cavity that can be filled with insulation. 

Solid walls can be insulated either internally or externally – but both solutions involve covering the existing wall finish, which can mean the loss of period features. 

For internal walls, rigid insulation boards can be applied, or a stud wall constructed and filled with soft insulation. Plaster is then applied over the top. This inevitably affects existing skirting and cornicing. 

The cost of internal wall insulation is around £40 to £50 per m2.

To insulate external walls, a layer of insulation is applied and covered with lime render or other cladding. This can totally change the look of a house and affect elements such as overhangs, windowsills and door openings, so is not suitable for the beautiful façades of many period homes. 

The cost for adding external wall insulation to an average three bedroom semi would be from £5,000 to £9,000.

Exposed brick wall painted in Farrow and Ball

(Image: © Farrow and Ball)

13. Insulate floors

Around 10 per cent of a property’s heat is lost through floors, so insulating them should make a big difference. There are two types of floor: solid or suspended timber. Solid floors are in direct contact with the ground, so without lifting them it is difficult to add insulation, but topping them with breathable, natural carpets, such as coir, will help. Avoid rubber-backed designs. 

If the original floor has previously been replaced with concrete and includes a damp-proof membrane, then laying a floating wood floor on top can improve thermal performance. 

If there are damp problems with a concrete floor, consider replacing it with limecrete, made of breathable lime and aggregate. 

Suspended floors are straightforward to insulate where there is access from below, such as a cellar. Quilt-type insulation can be fitted between the joists, supported with netting. Insulating from above involves lifting floorboards, so think twice if the floor is of historical value. 

If you do disturb the boards, lift a small number at a time. A variety of soft insulating materials can be used, supported by nets, or rigid materials can rest on timber battens.

Fitting floor insulation in old house

(Image: © Douglas Gibb)

14. Reflect heat from radiators

Fit enhancers behind your radiators to reflect heat back into the room. This prevents heat loss through the walls and can save seven per cent on heating bills. It should cost less than £10 per radiator.

Princess aged gold vintage radiator

(Image: © Castrads)

15. 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.

Door curtain at front door in hallway. Fabric by Vanessa Arbuthnott

(Image: © Vanessa Arbuthnott)

16. 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.

(Image: © Chris Snook)

Additional words Pippa Blenkinsop

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