The compelling case for insulation 10 November 2022

It’s a technology that’s been with us for generations. But it’s still one of the most unbeatable ways to make our homes healthy, comfortable, climate friendly and cheaper to run.

Australians spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, yet our homes have been likened to tents – that’s if tents were cold, mouldy, unhealthy and expensive to run. 

Worryingly, Australian homes are some of the least energy efficient in the developed world.

An estimated 3,000 Australians die during periods of hot and cold weather each year. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have cold-associated mortality rates higher than Stockholm.

Our under-insulated – and sometimes uninsulated – housing stock is making Australians sicker and more likely to have poor social outcomes. By and large, Australian houses cost us more to run, and are a lost opportunity for emissions reduction: it’s estimated that over eight million Australian homes require energy efficiency upgrades.

The good news? Simple, well-established technology can make huge differences to improve the comfort, health and efficiency of our homes. And what’s first among those technologies? Insulation.

What does insulation do?

Insulation stops heat escaping your home in winter, and helps keep heat outside your home in summer by acting as a barrier to heat flow.

Well-insulated homes limit the need for heating and cooling, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions and cuts energy bills.

There are a wide range of insulation products and the best option can vary based on your home, local climate, and whether the insulation is mainly to keep heat out, keep heat in, or both.

Insulation for health and comfort

Australia’s poor housing stock is a particular issue for vulnerable Australians and renters, who experience energy poverty disproportionately.

For the many Australians who live in uninsulated homes, wearing cold weather gear inside is a winter reality as indoor temperatures dip well below the minimum World Health Organisation safety standard during the colder months.

Lack of comfort aside, when homes are too cold, they get damp, which can make residents more susceptible to illnesses. This is because damp can cause mould growth, with mould spores known to cause breathing issues, higher risk of flu, pneumonia, chest infections, asthma and other illness.

Poor insulation can also have adverse outcomes in other areas of health such as our emotional and social wellbeing.  For example, studies of insulation retrofits in social housing in the UK found tenants reported improved mental health, social interaction, family relations and nutrition.

Here in Australia, a report on the Victorian Healthy Homes Program found that similar upgrades were associated with benefits in health and improved quality of life, particularly in mental health and social care aspects.

Insulation for cost savings

A study of insulation retrofits in New Zealand found homes with upgraded insulation lowered energy bills by 13.2 per cent.

The savings went beyond energy bills.

Just as the Victorian Healthy Homes Program demonstrated, the study’s authors found even bigger savings in health and productivity through other benefits, like reduced doctor’s visits, hospitalisations and days missed from work or school.

The Victorian Healthy Homes Program demonstrated household energy savings of about $85 on their winter energy bills, with the elderly participants also reporting massive healthcare savings of $887 per person. The study’s cost-benefit analysis indicated that the upgrade would be cost saving within three years , with those savings derived from both energy and health costs.

Insulation for jobs and skills

It’s (conservatively) estimated that completing retrofit insulation upgrades to the over eight million homes that need it will provide consistent, full-time skilled jobs for more than 10,000 Australians over the next decade.

In fact, industry estimates the value of the national retrofit market for insulation upgrades at more than $20 billion over the next 30 years – a huge opportunity to achieve economic benefits while doing something valuable for the environment and the health and wellbeing of millions of Australians.

And the good news is that we already have an upskilling pathway: the Certified Insulation Installer certification.

Insulation for building decarbonisation and net zero

Our homes are responsible for around 24 percent of overall electricity use and 12 percent of our nation’s total carbon emissions, but insulating new and existing buildings could reduce Australia’s annual emissions by 7.1 million tonnes of CO2e, which is similar to the amount of emissions generated by the entire domestic aviation industry in Australia.

Properly insulated homes lock in the benefits of the many energy efficient products like our reverse-cycle air conditioners that can support demand flexibility by pre-heating and -cooling our homes, which in turn supports grid reliability by better matching supply and demand in a renewably-powered energy system.

There is no side-stepping insulation in the transformation to net zero.  

Sounds great, what’s next?

Improving the efficiency of our housing stock is crucial to support our commitment to reach net zero by 2050, and give Australians the healthy, comfortable and affordable homes we deserve.   

 In 2021, the Energy Efficiency Council (EEC) and a coalition of industry and other groups, including the members of the Affiliated Insulation Industry Coalition (AIIC), released a Roadmap for quality control and safety in insulation installation. The AIIC and EEC have since commenced a program of work in support of its recommendations.

You can stay up to date with this work by subscribing to EEC communications here.