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Review: Home Energy Handbook: A guide to saving and generating energy in your home and community

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 20 September 2012 at 9:38 am

I've read a lot about energy in the past four years: how to save it, and how to generate it. But I until now I haven't found any one source that explains how we use energy in our homes, and how to use it more effectively, as well as the Home Energy Handbook.

Published a couple of months ago by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), the Home Energy Handbook: A guide to saving and generating energy in your home and community is fascinating, practical and easy to read. The text is illustrated with clear illustrations, which summarise and explain the main points. I learned lots, and I wish it had been available back in 2005 when we were renovating our house. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand and take control of their energy use, and especially to anyone who is thinking of renovating or building a house.

It's not a DIY manual - although there are sections where it explains, for example, how to lay your own insulation. What it will do is give you the knowledge to plan well, make good decisions, and to know if someone is taking short cuts, or selling you a pup.

It will also clarify things where I suspect, for many of us, our understanding is a bit hazy. For example, do you understand the difference between thermal comfort and heat? Thermal comfort can be defined as "the physical sensation of wellbeing that is felt in well-designed and appropriately heated buildings". It's not the same as turning up the thermostat. You can have as little thermal comfort in an overheated house with poor ventilation, as in a draughty house with cold spots.

Another explanation I found particularly useful was the explanation of the difference between ventilation and infiltration (or draughts). "Ventilation is the controlled movement of air into a building (through windows, vents or mechanical air exchangers); infiltration is accidental seepage (through cracks in the masonry, gaps under doors, ill-fitting window frames). The crucial difference is we don't need infiltration, but we do need ventilation. Ventilation is controllable, infiltration is not." (Thats an ongoing disagreement between me and my husband sorted out then!)

The book divides the actions you can take into two distinct sections: energy conservation (power down), which it defines as using less energy to get the same amount of thermal comfort, and generating your own renewable energy (power up). It suggests the following order for action:

  • Control air flows: use ventilation not infiltration
  • Slow down the rate of heat loss using insulation and improving glazing
  • Retain as much heat from the sun as possible using passive solar techniques
  • Become energy efficient with modern heating systems and electrical appliances
  • Switch to renewable heat (where possible)
  • Become a renewable electricity generator
  • Scale up to community level energy generation.

and the chapters are formed around these main themes.

As this is a book from CAT, the focus is on reducing carbon emissions, and part one of the book is about climate change and how we all can take responsibility for reducing our personal carbon emissions. CAT is responsible for developing the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 energy strategy, so I understand why they start the book with this section (the 'secret non-negotiables of Guardian-reading greenies' made me laugh and wince). However, it may have the effect of narrowing its appeal, which would be a pity.

There are lots of reasons that makes a close examine of our energy use a sensible (and an urgent) thing to do. Reducing carbon emissions is one. Others include insuring against ever rising energy bills, concerns about where our energy comes from and its security and peak oil. Part two of this book is a brilliant guide for the lay person who wants to understand how their home energy works. It is well worth reading whatever your motivation, so start with part two, if you're just looking for the practical stuff.
The Home Energy Handbook costs £19.95 and is available direct from CAT or from Amazon* (this is an affiliate link, which means we will get a commission on the sale if you buy).

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