I was keen to make some changes to reduce the carbon footprint of my home. But I was faced with the same stumbling block as most people - where to start? There are a thousand things I know that would help, but which are the most important / cost-effective / achievable?
We all know the steps that reduce our carbon footprint. Adding solar, insulating our homes, heat pumps, electric cars. They are all great, but they all cost money. For most of us, myself included, doing them all on day one is not realistic. There's only so much time and money, so choices have to be made for where to start.
That was the key question I was faced with when taking on the project of reducing the carbon footprint of my own home here in Cork.
I hope by sharing my approach - what I did, what it cost, and most importantly why I did it in that order - it might help others in trying to work out where to spend precious time and money. I live in the three-bed, end-of-terrace house in Cork, and this is what I did to half its CO2 emissions.
Even though I work in solar, I would not recommend it as a starting point. In my experience insulation offers the best value for money in both reducing your bills and reducing the carbon footprint of your home.
My house was built in 1999, and so had some insulation in the wall cavity and in the attic, but there was lots of space for improvement. This is what we did.
This halved the amount of heat that escapes through the walls. For those of a technical disposition, they estimated this changed the U value of the walls from 0.59 W/m2K to 0.29 W/m2K.
This should reduce the heat escaping through the attic by almost 2/3rds. In numbers, it changed the U value of the walls from 0.40 W/m2K to 0.14 W/m2K. They also did a few other bits too (like putting down some flooring and an attic ladder) - amazing value I thought.
This meant a net cost to me of €2,100. Great value considering the difference in warmth to the house it has made (more about that later).
I used C & W Insulations based over in Midleton, County Cork. They are excellent. I know a few other people who've used them too, all with equally great experiences.
Installing solar panels isn't my number 2, either. Next, for me, was windows and doors.
My windows and doors were double-glazed and 20 years old. I replaced them all with the top-spec "passive house" standard triple glazing.
Munster Joinery did my windows and doors, and were excellent. Again I've heard many other people say the same. Despite the name, they do operate nationwide. So, if you are up in Galway or Dublin, or anywhere else for that matter, they would still be my recommendation.
If you have double glazing that's a good few years old, then by all accounts getting the windows and doors serviced is a great and very cost-effective way to improve the insulation of your house. With time, the windows & doors don't close as snuggly, seals start to leak etc. A good service can cheaply and effectively fix all those little drafts. That should cost you hundreds, not the thousands that replacement costs.
Getting photovoltaic solar panels installed came in at number three on the value-for-money list for me and my home. Once I had my attic and wall insulation sorted, and my windows and doors done, it was time to make my own electricity :)
The only suitable roof space I have faces east. That means my production is about 21% lower than the same system pointing due south (those numbers are for PV Solar in Cork, though should be very similar across the country).
East-facing solar panels are not all bad though. The reduction in production is partially offset by the panels generating power when we need it most.
Households tend to use the most electricity in the mornings and evenings, as the kettles, showers & cookers all go on. An east-facing array of PV solar panels generates electricity in the morning (and west-facing solar in the afternoon / evening) so matches a bit better when we need power. This can reduce the need for (and cost) of adding storage batteries.
The grant rules, and costs, were different when I had my panels installed 3 years ago. The numbers above are updated for solar installations in 2022 here in Ireland, hence being approximate though, that's the right ballpark for a house like mine in Cork.
I've been very happy with the performance of the solar panels. It generates almost half the amount of electricity we use as a family of 4. That's been great as, although we are eco-conscious, we use a high proportion of electricity for our energy needs. Our oven is electric, our showers are electric, and we even have an electric car. So, all that considered I've been very happy to get almost half our usage amounts generated by the panels.
Side benefit - it is kind of addictive looking at all the electricity generation figures live on my phone as the panels kick in each day :).
The combined result of the three changes above (insulations, triple-glazing and PV solar panels) has resulted in a 50% reduction in the CO2 footprint of our house.
Here are the before and after BER certificates:
This is the total cost of €19,400, less the SEAI grants we got back of €3,200
Next on our list was all the small bits. Going through everything in the house & garden to see what little changes we could make that all add up to a lower carbon footprint.
None of this appears on a BER certificate, but I hope they all add up both directly and through changing my own actions.
I had not bought a non-led light bulb in years. But, when I actively went around the house looking for any low-efficiency ones I was surprised by how many I found. Bedside lamps, bathroom cabinets, there were more than I would have guessed. We replaced them all.
More one to get the kids thinking about consumption, as well as a bit of fun.
A hot compost bin is effectively just a big polystyrene box. The heat that is released as the plant and food material breakdown inside the compost bin is trapped inside. The whole system gets hot and runs between 40°C and 60°C. This has a few main benefits:
For me, buying a hot compost bin was about reducing the weight of waste that has to be carted away by a big diesel-powered bin truck each week. The hot compost bin can take many things that the normal compost cannot, such as eggshells, meat waste, chicken bones, and even things like those compostable coffee cups, that don't really break down in a normal compost pile. The added heat allows it to take in much more.
The reduction in weight has to be driven away by the bin wagon is very noticeable. Do note though they do take a bit of maintenance to keep them running well.
Okay I know I am into the weeds with the detail of this one, but I love it as a great example of a simple small thing making a big difference. I've young kids, and unchecked on a summer's day they can be a little un-eco-conscious with the hosepipe water consumption shall we say! In terms of water-saving per Euro spent, the hosepipe spray gun's the best purchase I've ever made. As soon as they let go it turns off automatically :) Spray Gun from Co-op .
Push lawn mowers are back! I'd not seen one for about 35 years but with people becoming more eco-conscious, replacing the petrol engine with some leg power has returned. We got rid of the old petrol mower and replaced it with one of these bosch push mowers from Woodies .
It does not do as neat our job as a petrol mower, nor does it cope well with long grass. But for us, with a small back garden, it is more than capable.
The above are just examples, but I found a fascinating project to go through everything and see where I can make savings, in the hope that not only do they all add up in carbon reduction, but it also gets me and my family thinking about our actions and that can only be a good thing.
Side Note: I've also done some eco-science projects with the kids like our DIY Solar Panel paddling pool heater.
This was a big purchase, requiring equally big consideration. The cost kept it down the priority list.
We bought a Hyundai Kona, and have been super happy with it. It is a big investment though, so took some thought and planning.
It came this far down the list due to the price. This investment is more expensive than all our other eco-improvements put together. It also has a shorter lifespan. Although they say that electric cars should outlast their petrol counterparts (due to having roughly 10% of the moving parts), it still doesn't have the life span of the solar panels (20 + yrs) or the other changes we made.
I did some back of envelope calculations when researching this electric car. The carbon footprint of manufacturing the vehicle is larger than the equivalent petrol car. But the carbon footprint per kilometre driven is about 40% of the equivalent petrol car, and will only reduce further as Ireland's electricity supply adds more renewable electricity into the mix. According to my (admittedly approximate) calculations, when the vehicle hits 40,000 kms then the additional carbon footprint of manufacturing has been paid off and we are into net benefit territory.
I'm also conscious of flying the eco flag - I hope that visible symbols, such as solar panels on the roof and an electric car, help encourage others to make such decisions too. That was part of the rationale behind such a purchase. Someone has to be the first mover.
The savings in fuel costs are huge. We charge the vehicle at night and have a night rate meter. A full charge (450kms range) costs about €7. Petrol, to drive the same distance, would cost around €50.
This is as far as we have got in our project to reduce our household CO2 emissions. There are a few more bits on the list though for the future.
We currently have a condenser gas Combi boiler. Our next eco-investment will be replacing that with a heat pump.
After that, the last improvement we could make to our house is a full deep retrofit. This involves very serious amounts of work and expense. All the floors would be smashed up to add insulation underneath. The house would need to be made airtight and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery added.
Myself, I'm undecided as yet on this. I'm conscious of the carbon footprint of doing said work, and as we go further down my overall list the cost per unit of CO2 reduction increases. The next investment for us will be the heat pump, then after that, it will be time to do some homework on the costs and carbon footprint reduction benefits of any further work.
I'm a big fan of the bank-of-envelope numbers in CO2 reduction plans. It helps me know where to focus my efforts. Some things we've done because they help. Some things are just for fun, and some things don't really make much difference, but if they get us thinking about conservation more that helps elsewhere.
324 g CO2e / Unit (kWh). That's from the SEAI's 2020 report . The solar panels above generated 2935.2 units in 2021, so that's 951 kg of CO2e saved, which is very significant.
0.334 g CO2e per litre of drinking water. I couldn't find any figures for Ireland, so that's from the UK. So, using the whole water butt above once (200l) would mean a CO2 saving of 66.8g of CO2e. That's about the same CO2 footprint as boiling a full kettle once, or eating just 1.7% of a big mac! (based on ~4kg / CO2e per big mac). Such water saving things are fun, but don't really swing the level much on their own. But, if it makes me think about declining a big mac just once, then it's very worthwhile.
Thanks to Eamonn from KnowCarbon for pointing me in the right direction on numbers.
If you've made it this far, then firstly a huge thanks! I hope sharing my own eco journey helps you in making your own plans.
Take this all for what it is - just one person sharing their own approach. I'm no great expert. That said I really did my homework before embarking on this eco-improvement journey, including using my (admittedly rusty) engineering skills to crunch the numbers too. I hope sharing my own conclusions as to the best way to invest my time and money to reduce carbon footprint helps you in your own journey.
For the record - I've shared the companies I really used & would recommend. No one has paid to be here and they are my honest experiences. If you run a company doing similar please don't request to be added (unless you really have done eco-related work on my house!)
These calculated equivalents are designed to give an idea of energy savings in everyday real-world terms.
The NYC flight is based on a typical passenger jet flying from Dublin to New York. The trees are evergreens with a productive lifespan of ten years. The mobile phone is a Samsung s20 charging up to 1 hour at 0.045w.
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