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How can we become smarter at saving energy?

'Save' written out in plants

Will government plans to make new homes zero-carbon by 2016 help us reduce our carbon footprint? A new report says it’s what’s going on inside the homes that matters – and that means the people who live in them.

What’s most important when it comes to saving energy in the home – the design of the building, the appliances or how people behave?

Obviously, there’s no black and white answer to this question, but a recent paper published by the UK Energy Research Centre has had a good stab at providing one.

People, not buildings, use energy

According to Dr Kathryn Janda, the author of the report, smart buildings aren’t the solution – smart people are.

She explains that people don’t realise that energy bills in ‘zero-energy homes’ are not zero, and different residents will use high, average and low amounts of energy according to their habits. Essentially, the message is that buildings don’t use energy, people do.

‘The UK government has declared that new homes must be zero-carbon by 2016,’ explains Dr Janda. ‘Experience with β€œzero energy” homes shows us that designers cannot do this alone. They will need to work with users to deliver comprehensive energy reductions.’

Where do education and technology fit in?

But how can our habits be changed? Better education? More flashy technology? Dr Janda says both are necessary but won’t work in isolation:

“Technology is going to assist but it is not going to do everything. I think we have gone too far towards thinking that technology is going to solve all our problems for us.”

Ok, so what about education? Back in August our own Hazel Cottrell started a Conversation about just this, quoting research that suggested many of us are choosing the wrong ways to be green. The study looked at the small changes many of us make – like turning out lights – and concluded that they didn’t do a lot to help save the environment.

So surely we could benefit from knowing exactly what’s best? Other studies show that people reduce their energy use when given feedback, either by using real-time meters or by being given indirect information such as itemised bills, says UK Energy Research Centre.

And that’s exactly where measures like smart meters come in. A basic meter won’t do a lot to change our habits because it simply sends information to the energy provider. But team it up with an energy monitor and it starts to become useful, telling people how much energy they’re using – and on what.

I think I agree in principle with Dr Janda – her report seems to be concluding that nothing works in isolation. Anyone can buy an eco house, but it won’t automatically make you an eco warrior. Similarly, getting a smart meter won’t save you any energy unless you act upon what it’s telling you.

We’ve all got to do our bit – we might just need a bit of a steer in what that ‘bit’ should be.


The biggest factor in our heating bill is how much time do we spend away from the house ( ie work , days out) with the heating turned down or off !

I agree. What is needed is better control over central heating than the current programmers. At its simplest level, we should be able to lower the temperature setting about 30 minutes before we go out plus a preprogrammed “time up” setting that raises the temperature 30 minutes before we come home. We should be able to remotely override this setting using a mobile phone in case we are going to be earlier of later than expected.

But we seem too busy calling in to our TV boxes to record a program we had forgotten to set up.

Sophie Gilbert says:
16 February 2011

What do we do about changing the way people behave? One idea could be that meters, smart or otherwise, count pounds, shillings and pence instead of (or as well as) energy units, based on an automatically centrally updated average price per unit. People would see money going out the window and may just be spurred on to turn down the thermostat or switch off the light. Same in cars, when you hear some drivers revving the engine at traffic lights. If the rev counter also counted the pounds spent in petrol those drivers may just calm down. Over to engineers to make this workable.

“People, not buildings, use energy”
Yes very true but an inefficient building means higher energy use regardless of which catagory of occupant you are, be it high medium or low energy user.

“Technology is going to assist but it is not going to do everything. I think we have gone too far towards thinking that technology is going to solve all our problems for us.”
Not sound thinking. Yes technology must be supplimented by where possible improving peoples energy savings habits, but technological advancement is a reliable constant whereas people are not.
I would say you cannot rely on people so pursue technology first wherever and whenever possible.

Technology I think has the better chance of achieving the energy saving target than by relying on the habits of people, although both need to be vigourously pursued of course.

I agree with Chris Gloucester. Technology can do a lot if you pick the right ones, and Which has been a godsend in this area. but lifestyle has to be changed, and this does happen, as once on this money saving agenda starts. We try to do something every year.
Since the middle 70’s we have been adding to our list of money(never mind about energy saving) saving ideas, starting with, double glazing, insulation, and then adding a Scale Watcher, after seeing our old tank corroded in chalk when it was replaced. If you live in a hard water area it needs to be addressed. When we moved we had one fitted under the sink, our kettle is relatively chalk free.
When appliances needed replacing we chose ones which use less energy, water etc. Bosch, Fridge and dishwasher, Hotpoint washing machine, knowing in 5 years they would be paid back for in less energy used. The loft is covered in foil backed insulation, as heat does not go through silver apparently. Radflek foil behind the radiators, though we have modified it with holding it in place with dowel. a Steam cleaner works brilliantly.
We installed a Klimat K2007 an intelligent central heating control, in 2009 and saved 25% on our central heating cost 6 x Schott Solar panels saves around 30% but that varies.
We brought a halogen oven, so only use the big oven when cooking a big roast, always bake other things on that day. measure water for cups of tea.
What is there to do ? plenty, Triple Glazing!! as our north facing windows are soaking in the winter. I am looking for silver backed blinds like caravans have, I have just read about Magno balls for descaling the loo, washing machine and dishwasher. An Energyegg which switches off standby’s could have done with that when the family was home. The small things you do add up to a substantial reduction in CO 2 and cash in you pocket. You also get a feel good factor knowing you are doing your bit.

Letta Mego says:
9 April 2012

I can install a gizmo to monitor my electric usage if I want it. I don’t want an idiot “smart meter” forced into my home, ruining my heath and possibly burning my house down. It’s crazy to allow the utility company to bully people like this. I truly believe this is the all time most stupid move in history.
And if we put up with this, we deserve what we get.