The Modern Home: Smart and Eco-Friendly Technology to Future-Proof Your Home

An eco-friendly home is a home that minimises its impact on the environment. Investing in eco-friendly design and features can have serious benefits in the long-run, for your budget and, most importantly, for the planet.

You don’t have to start from scratch and build a house yourself (although that’s certainly an option). There are lots of changes you can make in your current home, from big projects like changing the insulation in the walls and the window glazing, to easier things like switching your energy provider and reducing your consumption of heating, hot water and electricity.


Environment Impact

The impact of home life on the environment

We often hear the words “climate change” in news reports. Climate change refers to the increase in the Earth’s average temperature. Human activities produce carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists believe are retained within the atmosphere and re-emitted in all directions, causing temperatures to rise. This is sometimes known as the greenhouse effect.

It’s easy not to think about how you affect the planet when you’re caught up in busy day-to-day life. But home life can have a significant impact on these emissions and, by extension, the environment:

  • Households have been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2015
  • They accounted for 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2017 and nearly two-fifths of environmental tax revenue in 2016
  • 56% of all environmental tax revenue was from tax on petrol, diesel and other fuels for transport and heating

Source: Office for National Statistics

According to the most recent figures, energy consumption in the UK increased by 1.1% in 2018, with a significant amount of the increase driven by gas consumption in the domestic sector. While severe weather played a part in this, it shows that energy consumption at home should be taken seriously.

There are promising signs though. 33% of the UK’s total electricity generation came from renewable sources in 2018, a record 3.8% higher than in 2017. And in October 2019, new reports showed that the percentage of properties with F and G Energy Performance Certificate ratings (the least efficient) dropped to 3.5%.

Solar Panels

How to improve sustainability in the home

It might feel a bit daunting to think about sustainability in your home as a whole. However, it becomes a lot more manageable when you break it down into categories and focus on each one in turn.

Start by dividing your plans in two: smart technology and eco-friendly technology. They are both eco-friendly, but smart technology has specific features that set it apart, as you’ll see below.

Within these groups, you might include the following categories:

  • Insulation
  • Heating
  • Energy (electricity, gas, solar power or wind power)
  • Lighting
  • Water

Make your sustainability improvements step by step, as time and budget allows, and the process will be less overwhelming.

Smart Watch

Smart technology

What is smart technology?

There isn’t a single definition of smart technology. ‘Smart’ was originally an acronym: Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology. However, since the word ‘smart’ means clever, it’s also become a way to describe technology that can guide our behaviour.

Smart technology is automated in some way and can be programmed by the user to do something at a specific time or for a specific reason. For example, you might program a smart bulb to turn off if you forget to do it manually, or to turn on and off at set times while you’re away. Some devices can be controlled remotely through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Set up smart technology in your home and you can reduce your energy consumption with very little effort. It’s much more affordable these days, too.


App - Smart Meter

The smart technology to invest in

Smart lighting

Smart lighting is controlled using an app. You can turn the lights on and off, change the brightness of the bulbs and, if the bulbs have coloured LEDs, you can change the colour too. You can also programme the system to match your routine, with one setting for early mornings, another for during the day, for when you’re watching TV, for the evenings etc – it’s entirely dependent on your needs and preferences. Smart lighting can also turn off lights you’ve forgotten about, saving energy and money.

Smart lighting works by using a system called mesh networking. Each bulb has a wireless connection to the one closest to it, with the network controlled by a hub plugged into your router. You can connect your phone or tablet (any device with the app or a virtual assistant) to this network and use it to control the bulbs.


Smart Meter

Smart thermostats

Smart thermostats regulate the temperature in your home. They can change the temperature throughout the day according to your routine. For example, you could keep it low or turn it off while you’re at work, then schedule it to heat up again while you’re on the way home. You’ll come back to a warm house and you’ll save money and energy too. The Committee on Climate Change recommends keeping the thermostat set to 19˚C.

Smart thermostats connect your heating to the internet. Similar to smart lighting, you can use your phone or tablet to control the heating via an app or virtual assistant, programming when it turns on and off and how warm it is. The system will prompt you with reminders if you’ve left your heating on when it typically isn’t, too.

You set up the smart thermostat yourself, so you don’t need to change your energy supplier (unless you want to). They cost between £150 and £280, plus £50-£100 if you decide you’d rather get it installed by a professional.


Technology

Smart plugs

Smart plugs fit into your sockets as normal, then your non-smart devices can be plugged in. The smart plugs have a direct Wi-Fi connection, which integrates them to your smart network and gives you more options for customising your normal devices. They can also connect to a bridge or dongle that’s plugged into your router.

You can control your smart plugs and the devices linked to them via an app or a virtual assistant. Use timers to turn them on or off at specific times, track your energy use (and figure out how to reduce it), and set your plugs to prevent devices using too much energy when they’re turned off.

Some smart plugs offer the ability to show you your energy usage when devices are in use and on standby. You will be able to see if you have items plugged in that rarely get used, but use a lot of energy, then set those plugs to be switched off by default (unless they are required).

A note about home hubs

A home hub, such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple Home Kit, connects all your different smart devices so you can control them from one app.

Solar Panels

Eco-friendly technology

Something that’s eco-friendly reduces or completely cuts out any harm done to the environment. When we apply this to the home, it means using fewer resources and reducing energy use through the use of new technology.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy is energy produced by sources that replenish themselves naturally, such as wind, rain, tides, waves, sunlight, and geothermal heat. It’s possible to use renewable energy to power your home, whether that’s energy harnessed from wind turbines, solar panels, a biomass boiler, or a heat pump. Installing this kind of technology often has a large upfront cost, but you will save money over time.

Wind turbines

Wind turns the blades of a wind turbine around a rotor, which in turn spins a generator, which creates electricity. You can take advantage of this by switching to a renewable energy supplier (see this list of the best suppliers in the UK for more details).

Solar panels and solar thermal systems

Alternatively, you could install solar panels or a solar thermal system to generate your own renewable electricity or heat. These are expensive to install (£2,500-£4,500) but only cost around £10 per year to maintain, and they work even on cloudy days.

Biomass boilers

Biomass boilers are similar to gas boilers in that they use combustion to provide heating and hot water for your home. However, they use sustainably-sourced wood pellets to produce this heat and must be emptied of ash every month or so (this can be put on a compost heap). You can also use logs.

Often, the wood would have had to go to landfill otherwise. Turning it into pellets reduces waste, and since the wood will have already absorbed carbon dioxide while it was a tree, it’s also carbon neutral (which means there’s no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).

Heat pumps

There are two types of heat pumps. Ground source heat pumps circulate water and antifreeze using a series of pipes, with heat from the ground absorbed into the fluid. This mixture passes through a heat exchanger and heat pump, and can be used in radiators, underfloor heating or for hot water. The temperature below ground stays the same all year round, so you can rely on this method throughout every season.

Air source heat pumps extract heat from the outside air. This heat is absorbed into a fluid, which passes through a compressor that increases the temperature. You can use an air-to-air heat pump for heating, or air-to-water pump for hot water.

Using a heat pump could make you eligible for the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (Domestic RHI). If you join and adhere to the guidelines, you’ll receive quarterly payments for seven years, based on the amount of renewable heat your system produces.


Dining Room

Insulation

Insulation is the most effective way to prevent your home from losing heat unnecessarily, which cuts your carbon emissions and your energy bills.

Big changes
  • Insulation in the walls. The number of non-toxic, renewable and biodegradable alternatives to traditional insulation materials has increased, with cotton, cork, sheeps wool and recycled items like plastic, denim and newspaper all being used in conjunction with others as cavity wall insulation. Solid walls can be insulated from the inside or the outside, although this is often an expensive job.
  • Roofing. New sustainable roof designs incorporate technology that reflects heat and sunlight away, regulating the temperature of your home.
  • Windows glazing. Double or triple glazing (two or more panes of glass in a sealed unit) reduces heat loss through windows, reduces condensation, and has the added bonus of shutting out noise pollution, too. If you only have single glazing, you can have another pane of glass added to the existing one (known as secondary glazing). Installing energy-efficient windows could save you between £30 and £120, depending on where you live.
Smaller changes
  • Draught-proofing. A surprising amount of energy is lost through gaps in the home, especially in old houses. Finding and filling these gaps can have a significant impact on the warmth inside your house (even if you just buy some draught excluders for the bottom of the doors).
  • Thermal wallpaper. Up to 35% of the heat in your home can be lost through the walls. While homes built after 1935 can easily retain heat by having cavity wall insulation added, homes built before then have solid walls that are more difficult to insulate. If you can’t afford internal or external insulation, you can still make a difference by using thermal wallpaper, also known as thermal liner. It’s made from a woven mix of wood fibres and textile fabrics, and can be attached to your walls and painted the same way regular wallpaper can.
  • Thermal curtains. Thermal curtains create a pocket of air between the curtain and the window. This prevents warmth from escaping the room, which means you can set the thermostat on a lower temperature, saving energy and money.
  • Swap old light bulbs for LEDs. LED bulbs are more affordable than they used to be, with most available for under £10, and they require very little energy to work. Unlike traditional energy-saving bulbs, they’re bright as soon as you switch them on. According to Which?, LED bulbs use 90% less energy than traditional bulbs and last up to 30 years.

Water conservation

The average household wastes 6,300 gallons of water every year. But there are ways to reduce this consumption – both big projects and smaller ones you can install yourself.

Rainwater harvesting systems

We get plenty of rain in the UK. Installing a harvesting system is one way of putting this to good use. The rainwater is collected from the roof, filtered, and stored in a tank underground. You can use the water you collect to wash the car, water the garden, top up the toilet cistern, or even in your washing machine.

Using a rainwater harvesting system decreases your reliance on water from the mains, makes use of water that would otherwise be wasted, and can reduce your bills if you use a meter.

Water-saving devices

Changing to low-flow aerators in your taps or a low-flow showerhead can save a significant amount of water – think about how many times you use the taps every day, or how long you spend in the shower. You could even install automatic shut-off devices that stop the shower after a certain time or once you’ve used a specific amount of water.


Dishwasher

Energy-efficient appliances

Domestic appliances use a significant amount of energy – but you can reduce this not only by buying efficient models, but altering the way you use them.

Look for an Energy Star label. This means the Environmental Protection Agency has rated the appliance as energy efficient.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers can use less water than washing up in a sink, if you:

  1. Buy a model with good green credentials and running costs
  2. Only use it when it’s full
  3. Use a shorter, eco-friendly setting
  4. Scrape any food waste into a food bin first, instead of rinsing plates under the tap

Washing machines

We all need to get our laundry done. Luckily, you can do this and still reduce your energy and water use by:

  1. Buying a model with good green credentials and running costs
  2. Using a cooler setting. Most items can be washed on a 30℃ cycle (lower temperatures use less energy)
  3. nly using your machine when you have a full load to put on
  4. Only washing items once they need to be cleaned

It’s also worth buying a laundry bag to put clothing made from synthetic materials in while you wash them. This will catch any microplastics and microfibres, preventing them from getting into our water systems.

Fridges and freezers

Fridges and freezers have become a lot more efficient over the past twenty years or so. It may be worth upgrading to a newer model if yours is old, making sure you recycle your old one responsibly. Always keep them away from your oven and out of direct sunlight, and don’t forget to defrost fridges every six months if they don’t do it automatically.

Ovens and hobs

Induction hobs use the least energy out of all the different variations, so look out for one when you buy your next model. Avoid self-cleaning ovens, which use a lot of energy for a job that most people can easily do themselves.

Digital paper

One tree makes approximately 8000 sheets of paper, which is a scary statistic when you think of how much paper we all use on a weekly basis. Sony have created Digital Paper, which is like a combination of paper and a touchscreen device. You can read, write, annotate and share documents, and transfer files to your other devices.

Get further help making eco-friendly changes

The government has introduced the Green Deal, which helps you make energy-saving changes to your home and find the best way to pay for them. If you use or plan to use some of the eco-friendly methods listed above, you could be eligible. You can also search for localised energy grants using this tool by Simple Energy Advice.