Shop around, switch things off and seal the gaps: a renter’s guide to energy efficiency

Home energy assessor Adam Corrigan is knelt down by my rental property’s pool pump, and he’s not impressed.

Beside him, the pool and attached “spa” – a huge drawcard for Sydney’s trendy inner west – sits in all its share house glory, icy cold, with grime slowly multiplying.

To arrive here, Corrigan had to pass an ancient radiant bar heater that he shook his head at in disapproval, our halogen bulbs (costly, and very hot) and our two fridges, one of which was adorned with a handwritten note reading “the milk is off!”

I thought I was prepared for this.

A week earlier, I asked my housemates where the “boxy thing” sat, and was surprised to discover it was on the front porch wall, while the gas meter was “round the random side of the house”.

So when Corrigan marches into the hallway, making a beeline for the back yard in search of our hot water system, I have the goods. I walk him confidently past the bike racks to the side door.

“That’s weird …” I mutter, looking around as if I have a clue what a hot water system looks like.

Corrigan, wasting no time, swiftly navigates his way through a narrow, overgrown passage on the other side of the property to a large white gas appliance.

Adam Corrigan looks at the gas water heater at Caitlin Cassidy’s rented home. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

“Where does the water supply connect?” he calls out from the bushes, inspecting the box. Where indeed. Before today, I knew our digital power meter only as the “boxy thing”, and if you asked me what it did, I’d be stumped.

I would consider myself an environmentally conscious person. I compost. I avoid eating meat. I buy organic dishwashing soap and recycled toilet paper with pretty packaging.

I also bought my portable heater at Kmart (the second cheapest option) and run it like I’m living in the arctic, and I get a bit of a kick out of my heated towel rack.

Before the energy crisis, I thought fleetingly, if at all, about household costs.

I’m renting a property with five others, all of whom share a dual awareness of the climate crisis and of the fact we will never be homeowners, and who figured between us, our bills wouldn’t be too bad.

It can also feel like you have little agency as a renter to reduce environmental impact. You can’t install high-value energy efficient upgrades like solar panels, and renewable rebate schemes are broadly inaccessible to tenants.

This is why I’m allowing a man armed with a ladder and a suitcase full of energy tools into my home – to figure out where we’re going wrong and how we can fix it.

The most vulnerable to Australia’s rising energy prices are lower income families living in public housing in urban centres, in large part because they lack the agency of homeowners to reduce their home energy consumption.

Lower income homes are frequently more poorly insulated and have higher ownership rates of inefficient appliances that are cheap to buy but expensive to run – like our radiant heater.

In recent years, this disparity has increased.

Joint Oeko-Institut and University of Melbourne research found a decade-long trend in Australia of lower income groups spending a larger portion of their income on electricity and heat while consuming less.

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And despite more than 240,000 Australians experiencing energy poverty according to Australian Energy Foundation estimates, the National Electricity Objectives framework, which dictates market planning, makes no reference of equity or decarbonisation.

Green Energy Markets director, Tristan Edis, says to lower energy bills “quickly and permanently”, the poor quality of rental property energy efficiency must be addressed.

“Australian houses have the worst thermal efficiency in the developed world,” he says. “More people die of cold in their homes in Australia than they do in Sweden.

“Landlords have done well out of property price inflation but have proven utterly uninterested in taking advantage of incentive programs for things like solar, efficient heaters and water heaters and better insulation.”

Energy assessor Adam Corrigan takes thermal images of the ceiling to see if there are any gaps in the ceiling insulation
Energy assessor Adam Corrigan takes thermal images of the ceiling to see if there are any gaps in the ceiling insulation. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
On Corrigan’s computer he shows thermal images that highlight areas of heat and heat loss in the house
On Corrigan’s computer he shows thermal images that highlight areas of heat and heat loss in the house. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Which is where Corrigan comes in. The Your Energy Friend founder delivers assessments in partnership with the Australian Energy Foundation (AEF) to review household energy consumption and provide feedback on the best ways to save.

“With the current energy crisis, it’s a complex situation … but it’s also an opportunity for people to learn how they can reduce their carbon footprint,” AEF account manager Angus Taylor says.

Taylor says more than 60% of residents in the inner west are renters – a demographic that “can’t just put solar on their roofs”.

“You just want to be comfortable, but … the energy market is so complex, you don’t even know what to look for,” he says. “Bills are scary right now, but there’s so much [you] can do as a renter to reduce them.”

A good first step is knowing what energy provider you’re with, but I only moved in to my new home a fortnight ago.

After sheepishly messaging my group chat, I’m told it’s AGL – Australia’s largest electricity generator and biggest carbon emitter, which has spectacularly imploded in recent weeks.

“Keep shopping around,” Corrigan tells me, pointing me to Energy Made Easy, a federal government site which compares provider costs.

“I do it for sport. The last time I negotiated I also got thrown in an annual family pass to Taronga Zoo.

“They want your business, because generally once you’re signed up with someone, people don’t change.”

The next easiest way to save, Corrigan says, is energy efficiency in the home – up to 80% of which is drained by heating, cooling, and hot water.

Caitlin Cassidy warms her hands by an electric radiant bar heater in her home
Caitlin Cassidy warms her hands by an electric radiant bar heater in her home. Soaring wholesale energy prices in Australia are in turn hiking up household bills. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

“This,” Corrigan declares, pointing to our decrepit heater. “You could get a reverse cycle air conditioner that would run at about 500 watts, do a much more effective job, and this is 2,400 watts.

“The reason people use them is they’re cheap to buy. They’re not cheap to run.”

At this point, I feel like a student who failed an exam. Sure, I’m partial to the energy vampire heater, but what about my collection of bamboo toothbrushes?

As I contemplate my failures, Corrigan whips out his thermal camera, to tour our “standby power” which shows how appliances like microwaves, game consoles and coffee machines chew up sizeable amounts of power while idle.

It also measures gaps in insulation blankets, hugely common to Australian households as a result of having no mandated air tightness test, unlike Europe.

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“It only takes a 10% gap on your insulation blanket for it to be effectively useless,” Corrigan says.

“And the average Australian home has a one square metre hole in it … we effectively live in glorified tents.”

Finally, something that’s completely out of my hands.

The verdict? We’re not doing terribly, as long as we don’t heat our pool, ditch the heaters and install some easy insulation fixes like rubber foam, shade cloth, curtains and stripping.

Before he leaves, I need some practical advice. I’m cold, Corrigan. It’s winter, and I don’t have enough hoodies to keep me warm overnight.

“You’ve got a dog,” Corrigan says bluntly. “Cuddle up with the big fella.

“That’s what dad used to call it – if it was a cold night, he’d say: ‘this is a two dog night tonight. On the Hay Plains, that’s how they dealt with it.”

Sage advice, Grandpa Corrigan.

Caitlin Cassidy’s dog, Murphy, seen through a thermal camera during a home energy inspection.
Caitlin Cassidy’s dog, Murphy, seen through a thermal camera during a home energy inspection. Photograph: Adam Corrigan

Top tips for renters

  1. Understand your energy bills. If you have a digital meter, decide whether you want to run on a time of use rate or a flat tariff rate. Time of use rates can reduce costs if you run appliances at off peak times like overnight.

  2. Switch off appliances at the power point when you’ve finished using them to avoid burning standby power, and turn off lights when you leave a room.

  3. Take up government schemes to replace old lightbulbs with energy efficient ones.

  4. Buy appliances with high energy star ratings that won’t chew up your power bill rather than opting for the cheapest product.

  5. Wash your clothes in cold water and hang them outside to dry instead of using a dryer.

  6. Only run your dishwasher when it’s full.

  7. Fill your fridge with empty bottles to avoid wasting energy.

  8. Insulate your property cheaply with insulation tape, foam and door snakes to reduce airflow.

  9. Compare your gas and energy suppliers at Energy Made Easy to see if you can get a cheaper deal.

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