Insulate Britain and many politicians seem to think that the solution to the UK’s energy crisis is simply to insulate old housing stock. And, no doubt, many old properties could benefit from insulation – done well, in properties suitable for the correct type of insulation, and the benefits should be obvious.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and where public schemes with abundant money are involved, the result is often highly unsatisfactory.

Today I read a very recent report on the BBC websitei about problems of this nature in Wales. Not surprisingly, given that there is a massive push, not least by the BBC, for insulation to be seen as the answer to our prayers, the report was buried in the Wales section of the website and, so far as I can see, has received no prominence at all (clearly it’s much less important than, for example, “China’s Tencent restores Fight Club ending after backlash”, which is prominent on the BBC website at the moment).

Anyway, headed “Insulation work left Caerau residents with freezing rooms”, the report supplies us with a sorry story of funding from a local authority and energy companies to assist with insulation work ,ending up with things going spectacularly wrong:

The public funding aimed to make homes warmer and cut heating bills in Caerau, near Maesteg but has instead worsened the situation for residents.

Rhiannon Goodall, 38, said the insulation had “absolutely devastated” the home she shares with her husband Wayne and daughter Lili-May.

“The plaster is just falling off,” she told the BBC’s Politics Wales programme.

“My house feels like it’s falling down around me because of the amount of damp that it’s caused.

“The insulation that they have put on the outside is now causing so much water on the walls that the water has nowhere to go but inside.”

Damp started coming through into bedrooms at Julie Goodridge’s house after it was insulated.

“It’s freezing in there,” she said. “The bedrooms – I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On and on it goes – ruined homes and distraught residents. It’s going to cost a lot of money to put right. All because of this:

Insulation was fitted to 25 homes in Caerau as part of a £315,000 contract awarded by Bridgend council to a company called Green Renewable Wales (GRW). Most of the money came from the Welsh Government’s Arbed scheme, designed to make homes more energy efficient in the poorest parts of Wales.

If this was a one-off report of an isolated problem, then those shouting for insulation, insulation, insulation might, perhaps, be worth listening to. Unfortunately, such is not the case.

Here’s another BBC online reportii, this time from 2017: “Cavity wall insulation ‘a scandal’, Arfon MP claims”. It’s the same sorry story, but this time on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, as yesterday’s news illustrates, lessons rarely seem to be learned:

Inappropriate cavity wall insulation in homes has become “a scandal”, a Welsh MP has said.

Arfon MP Hywel Williams claimed millions of homes had the insulation installed by successive government-backed schemes which has led to damp, mould and condensation.

He called on the UK government to take responsibility for the “dreadful mess”.

In just three short paragraphs, we read of a scandal affecting (allegedly) millions of homes – a dreadful mess.

Or how about this from 2018? “Disastrous Preston retrofit scheme remains unresolvediii. It is, it seems, the same old story:

A disastrous failed external insulation contract run under a government energy saving scheme has affected up to 390 homes in Preston with water penetration, mould and damp.

Four years on the problems, some of them severe, have only been rectified for some of the affected households. Occupants, many elderly and on low incomes, have in some cases reportedly been forced to pay for repairs themselves.

The installations in Preston took place under the Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP), which required energy companies to fund energy saving measures in disadvantaged communities. And although changes were made to subsequent government schemes, figures from Ofgem suggest that some installations carried out under the newer Energy Company Obligation (ECO) programme are continuing to fail.

Such is the scale of this shambles that there is even a websiteiv devoted to pursuing cavity wall insulation claims on behalf of those harmed by them. As usual, it will probably be the hard-pressed taxpayer picking up the tab.

Ventilation

Lack of ventilation, of course, is one of the problems associated with inappropriate insulation, leading to damp and related problems. For the past two years or so, however, ventilation has become increasingly important for another reason – coronavirus, covid-19, call it what you will.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the internet and media storm surrounding plans supposedly mooted by the Scottish SNP/Green government to cut the bottom off school doors to assist ventilation. Perhaps they’ve been massively exaggerated and seized upon unfairly by political opponents. Or perhaps another simplistic solution has been trotted out without sufficient thought and understanding of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Either way, this is how the Daily Record reported itv:

The Fire Brigades Union has demanded an urgent meeting with SNP ministers over concerns a controversial proposal to improve ventilation in schools could be unsafe.

It was revealed this week that councils would be handed extra cash from the Scottish Government in a bid to improve air flow in classrooms – a move considered vital to limit the spread of coronavirus among pupils.

Among the ideas was a plan to chop the bottoms off from doors in classrooms which have the highest CO2 readings – a proposal that has since been ridiculed.

In a letter to MSPs on Wednesday, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said about 2,000 classes needed improved ventilation across Scotland, at an estimated cost of £4.3 million.

Air filters and mechanical fans, at a cost of £1.6 million and £2.4 million respectively, would be employed – along with £300,000 spent to “undercut” doors, which was seized on by opposition politicians.

Conclusion

Apart from the fact that insulation and ventilation don’t seem to be comfortable bedfellows, there is another, very basic but very important, point arising from all this. That is, people who peddle simplistic solutions should rarely be given much credence. Little in life is simple. When politicians announce that they are opening the cheque book, there will be people there ready to take advantage, and not all of them will do a thorough, professional job. The Law of Unintended Consequences is the one law that politicians cannot – indeed, do not need to – legislate for. It just is, hanging over their every pronouncement, waiting to strike, to undermine the best of intentions and to ensure that things will go wrong. Sadly, despite the number of laws they put on the statute book, this is the one law they never seem to understand.

By the way, do Scottish classrooms not have windows that can be opened?

Endnotes

i https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-60243114

ii https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-39602540

iii https://passivehouseplus.ie/news/health/disastrous-preston-retrofit-scheme-remains-unresolved

iv https://www.cavitywallcompensationclaims.co.uk/

v https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/fire-brigade-union-demands-meeting-26142183

33 Comments

  1. I should add that being a sceptic means we challenge all forms of simplistic thinking. The discussion led by Alan Kendall on Jit’s article “Failing To Find An Obvious Answer” is a fine example of thinking about an issue instead of just providing a knee-jerk thumbs-up. Alarmists could learn a lot by inter-acting here.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Mark, if insulation is forced upon me, I’ll only end up opening the windows so that I can breathe. Our place is not that well insulated, but it’s warm enough (it’s mostly solid brick walls – someone up the road had exterior cladding fitted but it’s hideous). It has though never been too hot, even on the three days per year when Brits wish for a breeze.

    I look at the new identikit box houses that are springing up everywhere and wonder a) how they can be so expensive, b) who wants to live in them. The tiny windows that many of them have would drive me to distraction I fear. And all the roads lead in circles. Sure, they’re well insulated – but at what cost?

    A sorry tale of failed insulation works. I’ll keep the draught, if I may.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. By the way, no doubt there are similar tales of woe from those who have succumbed to the invasion of the infernal heat pumps and found them inadequate to the job.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Acoustic insulation is also a thing to be considered in schools. A number of years back, my wife’s school decided to jump on the open office bandwaggon and create an open environment within the school buildings. Consequently, all classroom doors were removed. It didn’t take too long, however, before the inter-classroom noise disturbance forced the refittment of all doors. As you say, the law of unintended consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beth. I do believe that common sense in schools is now vigorously rooted out and replaced by dogma. As for trial-and-error: haven’t got the time (or the staff). Anyway the kids think they know everything important. Think climate change, green-ness and all things woke.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jit: “if insulation is forced upon me, I’ll only end up opening the windows so that I can breathe.”

    I read somewhere a couple of years back, that the plan to conform to Net Zero meant windows that *can’t* open (and are triple-glazed). All air coming from the outside would be pulled in by fans, and heat-exchanged both in and out, to minimize losses (or gains, if it’s hot). I don’t think this really conforms to the kind of ‘healthy ventilation’ that is recommended for covid (or health generally!); uncomfortable bedfellows indeed, as Mark points out. Not to mention the energy to keep it all running must seriously erode the gains. And besides which, how appalling to live in a house where you couldn’t open the windows; I’m not a big fresh-air freak but I think I’d die of claustrophobia!

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  7. Jit, Andy, perhaps we should form a new protest group. I just can’t decide on the name – Ventilate Britain or Ventilation Rebellion?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Mark, I’m ashamed of you, a man of letters, not realising that “to ventilate” also has a meaning involving making small tubular holes in people using a firearm. The gun toters amongst us need no encouragement.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Haha Mark. To be consistent with the green movement in all its contradictions, I feel sure you need to found both – plus mafioso Kendall’s Provisional Wing of Ventilate Britain. And this links back for me to Beth:

    Whatever happened to commonsense and trial and error?

    I’d been thinking of trial and error in the last few days, both in the medical arena (not going there right now) and in the nuclear power one. One of the points I was most grateful to be made to think about last year in Matt Ridley’s excellent How Innovation Works was how, unlike so many of the key innovations of the past, like the steam train and powered flight a la Wright Brothers, which were a continous process of trial and error, often by some unlikely people (the Wrights ran a bicycle repair shop), Nuclear Power is just too big to be able to make the small mistakes that are vital to innovation. Yet no sooner had I been linking these off-topic thoughts to Beth’s comment in my mind I was reading this on the BBC web site: Major breakthrough on nuclear fusion energy.

    “These experiments we’ve just completed had to work,” said JET CEO Prof Ian Chapman. “If they hadn’t then we’d have real concerns about whether ITER could meet its goals.

    “This was high stakes and the fact that we achieved what we did was down to the brilliance of people and their trust in the scientific endeavour,” he told BBC News.

    ITER is Big Science is the fullest sense but this was a small(ish) pilot or prototype. Has Matt Ridley been proved wrong? Which I assume he’d be delighted to be. The jury’s no doubt out.

    Oh dear, off topic again. 🙂

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  10. Richard, I’m quite happy to wander off topic. If you hadn’t posted it here, I’d probably have said something about it at Open Mic. Potentially, it’s quite an exciting development.

    Like

  11. Richard/Marc. Seemed an awful lot of trouble to go to to be able to heat water in 60 kettles!! And then get to brag about it on BBC News. And then to hand over the expertise gained to the French!!!?

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  12. Not just the French but the Chinese and Russians. The BBC-led bragging is I agree a real turn-off, given our experience of the highly mediocre in the climate/energy fields generally getting the same treatment. But … potentially very exciting.

    Like

  13. Don’t know much about the topic of JET but I did visit the site with a host of students on a field trip led by a colleague who taught an undergraduate module about alternative energy. What is important is that it stands for Joint European Torus, in other words it’s not British, and secondly it’s a research tool, the design was never meant to be used as a source of energy. That will come from a much larger design currently being built in the south of France using information gained from JET (hence my wicked misleaderment). The news yesterday was scandalously overblown.

    Several years ago when I read up on the subject, Europe’s main competitor was the USA with its program based at MIT (but then we knew little about the Chinese)

    Like

  14. Meanwhile:

    “UK must move faster to insulate homes – climate chief”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60290876

    “The UK must do more to insulate the country’s draughty homes, warns Britain’s climate change chief.

    Chris Stark, head of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, told the BBC he rates government policy on insulation as “very poor”.

    Insulation, together with renewable power, is the way out of the current energy crisis, he says.

    Two-thirds of homes, or 19 million, need better insulation, according to government data.

    That raises an obvious question: if it is such a good idea, why aren’t we all doing it?

    The key issue is the cost.”

    Er, perhaps there is another issue, as highlighted in the article, which the likes of the BBC (despite their significant reporting of the issue in the past), Chris Stark and the rest of the CCC, and Insulate Britain simply ignore. Mind you, that’s not to say that cost isn’t an issue:

    “Lifting Rob’s home into the “B” category meant improving the lagging in the roof, installing more double glazing, insulating the floors as well as putting insulated cladding on some inside and outside walls. The makeover cost £36,000.

    Rob says they now use 40% less gas for heating, which is good news as energy prices soar. But, at current energy prices, it’ll take at least 20 years to cover the cost.

    Retrofitting homes is an even greater challenge for the providers of social housing.

    I visited Jean Davidson in her one-bed council flat in Blackpool. The council has spent £2.5m making the 75 flats on her estate more energy-efficient – £33,000 a piece.

    They insulated the entire block, took out her little porch and put in triple glazed windows. Her front door was changed to block drafts and some of the exterior walls of the blocks and the entrance area were insulated.

    Jean’s home is certainly very cosy now – “perfect”, as she describes it. But the council estimates it would cost £125m to bring its 5,000 homes up to this standard.”

    Nice that Justin Rowlatt visited Jean Davidson’s cosy, perfect flat. I wonder why he didn’t visit the ones that have been left running wet and covered in mould? Not a mention anywhere in the article of the issues with insulation. Beware of folk peddling simplistic solutions, especially those who only tell half the story.

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  15. Alan:

    secondly it’s a research tool, the design was never meant to be used as a source of energy

    This was clear from the BBC article so I called it a pilot or prototype. Was this the small step needed to make fusion great again? That I can’t judge.

    Like

  16. Richard, it gets worse. ITER, the next stage in the European nuclear fusion story, being built in France, is a collaboration between the EU, Switzerland and the Ukraine. The U.K. only has associate status because of Brexit.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Re fusion, I once visited a fusion facility in California, I think run by Lockheed Martin from recall. They seemed to have two or three different projects being worked, but one room held (so I was told, didn’t see inside as they were about to fire it) a large ring of lasers focussed on a single point, to generate the initial high temperature required. The thing that was memorable, was that when they did fire it, the ground shook!

    Like

  18. Alan

    ITER is indeed being built by that consortium, but ongoing experiments in other tokamak installations in the US, UK China, and possibly others, are feeding in data to ITER.

    Like

  19. The makeover cost £36,000.

    Rob says they now use 40% less gas for heating, which is good news as energy prices soar. But, at current energy prices, it’ll take at least 20 years to cover the cost.

    Let’s say that the present typical bill is, or will be shortly, £2000. Let’s further assume that half of this is for gas, half for leccy. That’s £1000 per year on gas.

    Ok, good. Now let’s earn ourselves a nice little 40% saving on our gas. Hooray! We’re geniuses, genii, whatever. Bang! That’s a saving of £400, in our pocket, every year, year in, year out, until, er, we die, or move.

    Well, let’s say we stay here with our £400 per year. We’ll soon have paid back the outlay… er, what was the outlay again? £36,000. Ok, so how many years will it take to…? 20 years ish, right?

    36,000 / 400 = 90 years

    Gosh, well that was money well spent. Whose idea was that? Well at least if we do move, our house will be worth £36,000 more than before… won’t it…?

    Insert the sound of crickets.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Mark,

    >”Two-thirds of homes, or 19 million, need better insulation, according to government data.”

    More to the point, two-thirds of homes are probably ill-suited for better insulation. For example, even loft insulation is far from straight-forward. Some years ago, I had my insulation upgraded in accordance with modern guidelines, but I only got away with it because the bloke who did it was prepared to flout the minimum height restriction rule (my roof is raked at a very shallow angle). Anyone else with a house similarly designed would, or should, be denied.

    My brother used to work as a surveyor who would assess houses for suitability for all forms of insulation. He tells me that the UK housing stock, both old and new, is in such a poor state that the government’s plans are doomed. I recently posted a comment on Cliscep providing more detail but, due to a combination of bit rot and brain rot, I can’t remember where. 😦

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Haha brain rot. And I was about to coin heart rot. But that is not intended to be so funny, given the context. Some time today. [Correction: tomorrow]

    Like

  22. From the Guardian letters page:

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/17/double-trouble-with-insulation-in-older-homes

    “I am a retired architect with some experience of dealing with historic buildings. Your article had no reference to the potential problems that retrofitting insulation can have, not only on the building itself, but also, with external insulation, on the character of the neighbourhood.

    It is essential that we tackle the climate crisis, but the solution of external wall insulation should be treated with caution. There are many papers which advise that retrofitting wall insulation can add problems rather than solve them, particularly with resulting damp. Loft insulation, double glazing and draughtproofing are preferable.
    Phil Ebbrell
    Mold, Flintshire”

    Like

  23. Talking of ventilation, here’s a timeline I don’t understand:

    H/t Dominic Cummings today, who comments:

    The WHO only told the truth — covid spreads through the air — in December 2021

    Read that again — December 2021. Two years after it started.

    This failure had a huge ripple effect on governments, including the UK government, failing to explain how covid was spreading and the importance of ventilation. In 2020 I sent many messages saying ‘please add VENTILATE to the public messaging, the PM should say it, our ads should say it’. This never really happened. Frustrated I actually wrote it into one PM statement and stopped him deleting it, but it didn’t stick.

    Public health ‘experts’ had a shocking record in the pandemic.

    Non-experts who know how to think consistently were better and faster.

    Emphasis in the original.

    He goes on to give other examples of the experts being wrong, as he sees it.

    https://dominiccummings.substack.com/p/snippets-3

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  24. “A chart produced by parliament’s climate change committee illustrates the eye-watering costs involved in implementing the most effective measures.

    Nearly 11m homes are suitable for loft insulation, it says, at a cost of between £440 and £740 each. That’s £8bn for a 4% reduction in heat demand for a semi-detached home. An 18% reduction could be achieved with external wall insulation but that would cost up to £8,590 per home, or nearly £65bn.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/apr/19/where-britains-journey-to-insulation-went-wrong

    And yet, despite that, and all the problems caused by insulation touched on in my piece, we still get this:

    “Labour says it will insulate 2m houses in first year to cut bills
    Ed Miliband says move will ease energy price crisis and reduce dependence on Russian gas”

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/apr/19/labour-says-it-will-insulate-2m-houses-in-first-year-to-cut-bills

    “The shadow energy secretary, Ed Miliband, said that, if elected, Labour would aim for 2m household upgrades in the first year of a decade-long £60bn scheme that could save households £400 on bills annually.”

    Insulation is fine, in principle, but it has to be done carefully, and not every home is going to be suitable for this simplistic solution – worse still, many of the “leakiest” homes are the ones that will encounter the biggest problems from insulation. I do worry that XR, Insulate Britain, and the bold Ed and others seem to be obsessed with childlike and naive “solutions” that might cause more problems than they solve.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Tis’ strange Beth, but us in your own antipodes have the strong belief that your turnip field dwellings demand insulation against the rays of the ever-broiling sun, and not against stray cool breezes. Your cork-dangle chapeaux are legendary and a necessity.

    Like

  26. Our daub and wattle turnip field dwellings have verandas ,Alan.
    Gosh, haven’t seen cork hat for ages They seem to have gone out of fashion of late.

    Like

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