Although much information exists in relation to the costs and benefits of capital works to property to improve energy efficiency, little has been done to date on the cost-effectiveness of energy advice as an energy-saving 'tool'. This project, undertaken by BRECSU (The Building Research Institute Energy Conservation Unit), aimed to determine the costs and benefits of providing energy advice alone to social housing tenants. The research surveyed 100 households, before and after energy advice was delivered, and found that:
- The provision of energy advice alone did not lead directly to savings for the majority of tenants in the group studied. Most were already using their heating systems correctly and, due to financial constraints, used energy very efficiently.
- One-to-one advice did, however, uncover 'missed' opportunities for capital works to properties. Despite previous publicity for the schemes the advisors found that 28 per cent of the group were eligible for a Home Energy Efficiency Scheme Grant (for which they subsequently successfully applied).
- The control group (who had previously received energy efficiency improvements to their housing) were using 20 per cent less energy on average despite achieving 2 degrees centigrade higher internal temperatures. Despite knowing how to operate their heating systems they were not motivated to make further energy savings through modifying their behaviour and average temperatures were higher than recommended.
- The researchers conclude that:
- For low-income households in inefficient homes, energy advice aimed at changing behaviour is no substitute for improvements to the building fabric, for example, cavity wall insulation.
- For residents of social housing, using trained maintenance or housing management staff is more cost-effective than employing a specific individual to deliver advice, as the former are already in regular contact with residents.
It is widely accepted that increasing energy efficiency can benefit householders by reducing the amount of energy required to provide various day-to-day services, such as heating, hot water, lighting and power for household appliances. Improving energy efficiency usually results in lower bills, unless energy use is already restricted by low income, in which case it often leads to warmer homes for the same energy use. In such cases, higher temperatures can be beneficial to health and reduce condensation.
Energy advice aims to give householders a better understanding of how they use energy and the implications of energy-related purchases. It can lead to more efficient use of existing heating systems and appliances, including no-cost measures such as switching off lights when not needed, and setting heating controls to suit individual lifestyles.
Although providing energy advice is becoming widespread there has been little work to establish its costs and benefits, particularly in the social housing sector. Housing authorities, dealing with decisions of investment on cost-effective capital and revenue expenditure, have to date had little information on the effectiveness of advice only as an energy-efficiency measure. The New Earswick Energy Advice Demonstration project set out to quantify the costs and benefits of providing energy advice to tenants of social housing so as to allow better comparison with those of capital works to the building fabric.
The types of advice provided
Previous research shows that effective energy advice should be specific to the particular circumstances of the householder; for example, advice on using a central controller should be specific to the type used in the household. Ideally, advice should also be given in person, allowing better communication, and enabling the advisor to identify particular, energy-related problems in individual homes, such as condensation.
In New Earswick, an energy advice officer was employed to provide advice through home visits, with a telephone service as back-up. She was qualified in NEA City and Guilds Energy Awareness, and had previous experience of providing energy advice to low-income households. Each household was contacted by letter and invited to make an appointment. The advisor was able to show individual tenants in some detail how to save energy and provided each with an information pack and a contact number for further advice.
Generally tenants are not responsible for carrying out major improvements on their homes and have little disposable income to invest in energy-efficiency measures. For these reasons the advice concentrated on measures with little or no cost and on applying for available grants.
The main topics included:
- Programming heating controls and use of heating and hot water systems.
- Home insulation and draught proofing.
- Causes and control of condensation and dampness.
- No-cost energy saving measures, such as switching off lights etc. * Health risks from under-heating.
- Costs of over-heating.
- Understanding tariffs, meters and budgeting
- Costs of running household appliances.
- Payment methods for fuel.
- Grants and financial help available for energy efficiency.
Assessing the costs and benefits of energy advice
To establish cost-effectiveness, a sample group of 100 households volunteered to be monitored before and after receiving energy advice. To assess the energy efficiency of each home, meter readings and internal temperatures were taken during January to May 1996, and during the same period in the following year.
Variations in energy use occur between households and within individual households from year to year due to other factors such as changes in numbers of occupants, purchases of new appliances etc. Larger changes in energy use will result from variation in the weather from year to year. To eliminate all variables apart from the effect of energy advice the monitoring included an experimental group of 100 homes and two similar control groups who did not receive advice. The advice group and the first control group were in New Earswick, and the other in a nearby estate owned by the City of York Council. A social survey was also carried out to ensure that changes in energy use were not due to any major lifestyle changes and to assess the householders' perceptions of the advice given and their living conditions.
Any changes in energy efficiency due to energy advice are indicated by differences between the experimental and control groups rather than absolute changes.
The activities of the energy advice service were also monitored by recording the time spent giving advice and gaining access to properties.
The total time dedicated to providing the advice service was 101.48 hours (approximately 14 working days). Of the 100 selected sample, 91 households actually took up the offer of advice.
Changes in energy efficiency
The meter readings indicated that although energy use was reduced across all three groups there was no significant difference between the experimental and control group in New Earswick.
There was a smaller reduction in energy use in the City of York control groups but this was because a simple but effective energy-efficiency improvement package meant that they were using considerably less energy overall. Despite the large reduction in energy used, monitoring showed that heating patterns and average internal temperatures remained very similar between the two years. This indicates that the reduction in energy use was due to the second winter being warmer than the first rather than due to any change in behaviour resulting from energy advice.
An exception to this pattern is that 11.5 per cent of householders had their heating or hot water on 24 hours a day in the first year; this was reduced to none in the advice group in the second year and 7.3 per cent in the other groups. However, this difference was not enough to make a significant overall reduction in energy use in the advice group.
The monitoring indicated that there had been a significant reduction in condensation in the homes of the group receiving advice. This would benefit the landlord by reducing maintenance costs, complaints, and the risk of legal action under the Environmental Protection Act.
A second indirect benefit was that, even though Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES) Grants had already been heavily promoted through newsletters and leaflets prior to the project, the advice sessions led to 28 per cent of households in the advice group successfully applying for grants. The total sum of these grants amounted to double the cost of providing the advice and had significant benefits for the tenants. This backs up current thinking that leaflets alone are not always sufficient to bring about changes in behaviour.
The direct result of the kind of energy advice offered inthis project was increased energy efficiency in only a small minority of homes, although 28 per cent of the households were able to access grants that will result in significant energy savings. Reduced condensation problems were also observed in the households receiving advice.
The researchers conclude that there are several reasons why the advice did not lead directly to overall increased energy efficiency. The main reason was that approximately 80 per cent of the residents who participated in the study had no serious problems (such as draughts, over-heating etc.) to begin with and, due to financial constraints, were already using their energy very wisely with minimum 'wastage'. Internal temperatures and heating patterns also indicated that the tenants were already very good at maintaining consistent temperatures.
There was also an apparent lack of motivation to save energy; no households took up the offer of follow-up advice sessions; as the survey showed, they were generally content with their conditions and did not have specific energy-related problems. This corresponds to the findings of the English House Condition Survey that some 97 per cent of tenants with central heating systems were using them and not more expensive alternative fuels, such as individual heaters. The survey also showed that the City of York tenants had already received advice from maintenance staff carrying out boiler servicing. Despite this, average temperatures were higher than necessary, indicating that although they knew how to use their heating systems, and despite a basic level of advice, they were not motivated to save more energy.
Employees of the Direct Labour Organisation in New Earswick already had good relations with the tenants and usually helped them set up their controls when required. This would suggest that front-line housing staff can have an effective and important role to play in the provision of energy advice. The properties in the study also contained easily understood analogue heating controllers.
Implications for good practice
The researchers suggest that the information gathered has important implications for those drawing up energy advice strategies:
- For low-income households in inefficient homes energy advice aimed at changing behaviour is no substitute for cost-effective improvements to the building fabric.
- Unsolicited energy advice is unlikely to lead to greater energy efficiency unless the recipients are motivated to save energy or the advice leads to the take-up of available grants that would not have happened otherwise. Tenants may be more motivated if they are experiencing energy-related problems, such as condensation, inadequate or expensive heating systems.
- The benefits of employing a specific individual to deliver energy advice are unlikely to outweigh the costs. Energy advice, particularly on heating, is more cost-effectively delivered by trained staff who are already in regular contact with tenants, such as existing housing management or maintenance staff.
- Face-to-face visits can help to identify potential recipients of HEES grants where leaflets and advertising have failed.
- Where physical energy efficiency improvement programmes significantly reduce the amount of energy required to achieve comfort levels, there is still increased potential for energy being wasted and hence more potential for energy advice leading to energy savings.
About the study
The study was undertaken in New Earswick, the garden village on the outskirts of York which is administered by the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust.
How to get further information
The full report, 'Energy advice to tenants: Does it work?' by John Walker and Nigel Oseland, is published by the Chartered Institute of Housing in association with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (ISBN 1 900396 56 4, Price£13.95).