Clean up in power stakes
As the Belfast Telegraph launches a week long energy saving campaign, Linda McKee looks at the many ways we are cutting our energy saving us money - and the planet we depend on
Everything's hitting the wallet at once - or so it seems. We still aren't used to the notion of water bills and revised rates, yet along come more shocks in the form of a moribund housing market, a looming global food crisis and rocketing fuel prices.
Oil prices are constantly on the up and up. Drive to the petrol station and you'll no longer be perturbed by tariffs that seemed shockingly extortionate a couple of years ago.
Northern Ireland has some of the highest fuel poverty in Europe and despite our rich wind and wave energy resources we aren't doing at all well in the race to convert to green energy sources.
So as those bills keep pouring in, perhaps the writing's on the wall.
The Belfast Telegraph is devoting an entire week to an energy saving campaign, showing its readers how they can cut the costs of running their home and car, without having to fork out thousands on cutting-edge technology.
You will be following the example set by leading environmentalists the world over, as well as many celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Al Gore and Cameron Diaz.
Working with power company NIE Energy, we will tell you who's saving energy, how they're doing it and how you can slash hundreds of pounds off your heating and electricity bills.
And best of all, we've teamed up with NIE Energy to hand out thousands of free energy saving light bulbs this Wednesday — so you'll be off to a good start in the battle to save the planet and nurture your bank account.
In the coming months, NIE Energy will be offering more than 20 energy saving schemes to help people reduce their energy bills and power use.
There's everything from help to replace Economy 7 heating with a more efficient gas system to giving free insulation or cash-back to help with the cost of installing cavity wall and loft insulation.
By switching to a cleaner natural gas heating system you will be using less energy. You can even halve the carbon emissions sent by its central heating system into the atmosphere. From May, NIE Energy will be working with Phoenix Natural Gas to help householders upgrade their old less efficient heating system by offering a discount of up to £1,000 off the installation of natural gas and an insulation upgrade up to the value of £650.
The NIE schemes running with Phoenix are called 'Snug' and 'Snug Plus' and are available in the Phoenix Natural Gas licence area.
The offer is first come first served until funds are exhausted and is open to owner-occupied households with Economy 7, solid fuel, LPG, an oil boiler more than 15 years old, or no heating system.
If you think you may qualify, please register your interest by calling Phoenix on 08454 555 555.
NIE Energy can also help with the cost of insulation. Installing insulation is one of the simplest energy saving measures to help you save around £200 each year.
The 'Free Insulation' scheme offers free loft and wall insulation to people on lower incomes and the 'Insulation Cashback', open to all, up to £300 cashback when you have loft and cavity wall insulation installed.
Chris Bell from NIE Energy said: "The recommended depth of loft insulation to save you money off heating bills is 10.5 inches or 27 cms. The insulation acts as a blanket, trapping the heat from the house below."
'We aim to change our way of life'
We can't all be as flush as Leonardo di Caprio, who recently forked out for a groundbreaking eco-apartment in the heart of Manhattan. But one family in Fermanagh is living proof that it needn't cost a fortune to be green. Teresa O'Hare, Hugh McCann and their children Maeve (11) and Finbarr (8) have spent their warmest winter to date after topping up their loft insulation and installing cavity wall insulation in their home on a small-holding near Irvinestown. But they were already shaving their energy use to the minimum thanks to a catalogue of low-cost energy-saving measures.
Teresa says she gets her green ethos from her own family who lived on a farm in Co Down and had an ethos of caring for the countryside.
"They were very resourceful people. Economically everything was tight and as a result containers were used again and food was prepared from scratch because convenience food was considered a luxury," she says.
"Those were life lessons that we as a family have all carried through."
Teresa's energy-saving measures range from the solar water heating panels, whose installation was grant-aided, to the almost too obvious expedient of making her children don jumpers around the house in winter.
"Our house isn't illuminated round the outside. We have one light in the hall called a moonlight — it casts sufficient light in the hall in case any of the children need to get up," she says.
"It costs 57p a year to run and it's on all the time — it gives off the most beautiful blue-green light." The family also turn off all electrical appliances at night as part of their fire routine, including mobile phone chargers that aren't in use, TVs and DVDs.
"We only got double glazing last year and before that I lined the curtains with blankets which I picked up from charity shops — that's the most inexpensive way to put weight into the curtain. It saves 10-15% of your energy," Teresa adds.
"We used wallpaper in rooms which have more than one external wall, which results in a 10% energy saving. We fitted thermostats on all the radiators and turned them all down a notch. We also put radiator reflectors on them — these were all fairly small costs."
The family has also installed double glazing, fitting it into the original frames to cut down on cost. A solar water heating panel was put in with grant aid from Clear Skies through Action Renewables, saving the household between £350 and £500 a year depending on the weather. The Ulster Farmers Union provided grants to add roofspace and cavity wall insulation and the family were one of the first in Northern Ireland to take up NIE Energy's green tariff. In fact, the family even won an Action Renewables award in 2004 in a competition judged by NIE Energy after they opened up their house to plumbers and builders to show how they were using the solar panels.
They have since draught-proofed their doors and windows with a UFU grant and insulated hot water pipes.
"It means that your heating is working more efficiently — you are making the fuel that you do use go further," Teresa says.
Even keeping healthy and active can make a difference to the amount of warmth needed, she says.
"If you are active and you go out for a walk in the evening, you never feel that same need for heat," she says.
"Because we are not wealthy greenies, we set ourselves a target for introducing a different measure every year to change our lifestyle and our way of life, both for ourselves and for our children.
"Now we find the children are our watchdogs — they are the ones that are coming to us and telling us to turn off the tap.
"We care about the natural environment and all the living things within it, which includes humans. It seems grossly unfair that we can sit in our T-shirts in November with the heating going full blast and some poor person in a month's time will be flooded out of their home."