Safe, quality insulation for Australian buildings: it can happen 17 February 2021
By Julianne Tice
It’s no secret that many Australian buildings have inadequate insulation. If you’ve ever been to a cold-climate country, you’ve probably noticed that their buildings feel much warmer during winter than Australian homes, despite much colder temperatures.
Australian building codes require new buildings to have certain levels of insulation, but a lack of attention to detail in construction often results in buildings that perform much worse than intended. Even worse, building codes aren’t retrospective - many older buildings were constructed before introduction of energy efficiency requirements and completely lack insulation. As a result, a huge number of Australian buildings have inadequate levels of insulation, leading to high energy bills, discomfort, negative health impacts and even higher rates of mortality.
In a previous article, I lamented the impact of inadequate insulation on vulnerable groups, such as renters, who lack the power (and often funds) to make substantial upgrades to their homes. Renters are not the only ones suffering from these issues, and in reality, no one should be dealing with an excessively cold home.
Why is insulation so important?
For anyone unfamiliar with what insulation actually does, its job is to slow the movement of heat. That is, it helps keep heat inside in winter and out in summer. This allows the following to happen:
- It improves health, comfort and wellbeing: Adequate insulation in buildings helps keep occupants comfortable and healthy;
- It helps reduce energy bills: Insulation helps keep air inside a building at a comfortable temperature – this leads to lower energy bills because less energy is needed to heat or cool inside air. Constantly running your air conditioner to cool down hot summer air in a poorly insulated home is like leaving your refrigerator open 24/7;
- It reduces greenhouse gas emissions: When less energy is used for heating and cooling, fewer emissions are released. This is becoming ever more critical as an increasing number of countries make net zero emissions commitments; and
- It improves productivity, job creation and economic growth: Insulation upgrades are a great job-creator at a time when economic stimulus is sorely needed. The International Monetary Fund and International Energy Agency estimate that energy efficiency upgrades to buildings is jobs-rich, creating up to 15 jobs per million USD of expenditure.[i]
Insulation is just part of the puzzle
It’s true that insulation is just one part of the complex puzzle of fixing Australia’s poor quality existing building stock. To maximise the benefits of insulation, it should be coupled with draught sealing, proper ventilation, high-quality fenestrations, and correctly sized HVAC and water heating. We need an integrated approach to the construction and retrofit of building envelopes.
However, Australia’s controversial history with insulation programs means that any approach to sustainable retrofits needs to tackle the insulation elephant first. It’s actually relatively straightforward to ensure that insulation is installed safely and delivers quality control – we just need to put adequate systems in place. There is indisputable proof that this is possible: countries like New Zealand have been installing insulation through their home retrofit programs for years, saving money and improving comfort for thousands of residents.
How do we improve insulation installations?
In 2020 four forward-thinking organisations, the Government of NSW, the Government of Victoria, the Insulation Council of Australia and New Zealand and Insulation Australasia, commissioned the Energy Efficiency Council and ASBEC to research local and global best practice approaches to ensuring that insulation is installed safely and with adequate quality control.
The results of this research are set out in our newly-released joint report, Ensuring quality control and safety in insulation installation. The recommendations are split into four broad sections:
- Improve training and accreditation systems: There are currently very few installers who hold accreditation showing they have been trained to install insulation. Our first four recommendations suggest reviewing and expanding existing training and accreditation systems to ensure existing systems are fit for purpose; developing certification to recognise the skills of people that oversee insulation installation; and developing a range of additional training units for key trades;
- Improve insulation practices and protocols for retrofits: Most of Australia’s 9 million existing homes were built before insulation standards came into play, and so will need to be retrofitted at some stage to reduce their energy consumption and improve their comfort. Because of this, the next six recommendations speak specifically to insulation used in retrofits of existing buildings. Putting guidelines in place to standardise how installations occur and what materials are used can reduce the variables that may otherwise lead to issues. Meanwhile, requiring installations that take place under public programs to meet certain criteria will help jump-start demand for things such as basic training for all installers and certification of experienced installers that oversee installations;
- Improve installation quality and compliance in new buildings: Standards exist for insulation in new builds, but there’s clear evidence that a lack of skills or care are resulting in some new builds falling short of these standards. Recommendations 11 through 15 set out options for improved quality control for new buildings, including: checks of insulation after it’s installed, independent audits of installations, and expanded training for both installers and building surveyors; and
- Undertake further analysis on an integrated approach to building envelopes: Insulation is just one component of a healthy, comfortable building. It’s essential that industry and governments undertake further work to ensure construction, retrofits and renovations of buildings properly integrate all elements of a thermal shell and heating, cooling and ventilation systems to reduce energy consumption and maximise comfort.
Last week, the EEC and ASBEC released their research report to support an industry-led roadmap for safe, quality insulation installations last week through a public webinar. Find the report here and the webinar recording here to hear more detail on our recommendations.
Over the next month, the project team will be working with the insulation and building industries to develop a roadmap outlining actions industry is committed to take, combined with recommended actions to governments, on making insulation installations safe. If you are an organisation working in the insulation industry, get in touch with Rob Murray-Leach at email@example.com or myself at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can be involved in the development of the roadmap.
Otherwise, watch this space for a release of the roadmap in the coming months – and join the movement advocating for more healthy, comfortable buildings.
Julianne Tice is a Project Officer with the Energy Efficiency Council