As the temperatures start to soar, the lawn begins to wither, we turn our ACs up to "incessant blasting" mode, and our electricity and water bills start to feel the heat, there's no better time to think about how we can make our homes more energy efficient. And even if you have no interest in protecting the planet and becoming a more responsible consumer of resources, it'll be good for your bank balance.
The UAE has been relatively slow on the uptake when it comes to sustainable housing – things such as solar panels, energy-efficient and water-saving fixtures, and sustainable, locally sourced materials are still something of a rarity, and the onus is on homeowners and residents, rather than developers, to introduce such features. As many of us who rent are reticent about investing too heavily in a property that doesn’t belong to us, homes in the UAE are, for the most part, energy-guzzling machines.
Nonetheless, projects such as Masdar City’s recently unveiled Eco Villas are offering a blueprint for future development. “With nearly eight million people expected to live in the UAE’s urban centres by 2020, this rising population increases the imperative to design high-quality sustainable homes that use fewer natural resources than existing homes,” said Ahmad Belhoul, chief executive of Masdar, at the unveiling.
While still in the early concept stage, the four-bedroom Eco Villas will be fitted with high-performance solar panels that will generate an estimated 40,000 kilowatt-hours of power per year. This will be combined with intelligent orientation, optimisation of natural light, and design features such as LED lighting, which will reduce each home’s annual energy demand to around 39,000 kilowatts each year. The homes are also expected to use 35 per cent less water than standard villas, thanks to water-saving features such as low-flow toilets, faucets and showers.
“Masdar City has pushed the boundaries of sustainable design since its launch, and now we are taking our knowledge to the next level with this vision of the 21st-century single-family home. The Eco Villas are central to the city’s goals to meet the lifestyle needs of a growing urban population, while reducing these buildings’ consumption of water, energy and waste,” Belhoul continued.
It’ll be some time before such considerations are a standard feature of UAE homes. But in the interim, there are a host of things you can do to make your property more efficient – in terms of the amount of energy it uses, the effect it has on the environment and, ultimately, the cost to your pocket.
Some of the solutions are obvious and require very little upfront investment. Most of us will know by now that we should be buying CFL or LED light bulbs, which use less energy and have longer lifespans than the incandescent variety. There is also a plethora of other technologies that can help ensure your light sources are less wasteful, from home automation and lighting-control systems to timers that will ensure that lighting is automatically switched off when a room is unoccupied. Daylight sensors, for example, will control lighting based on the amount of natural light available. What’s more, many of these devices can be linked to mobile devices for customisable control.
Managing the cooling – and, should you be so inclined, heating – in your home is another obvious step. As a rule, heating and cooling account for half of a household’s energy consumption, more than all other electrical devices combined. And, quite often, a lot of that energy is being used to cool empty spaces. Devices such as smart thermostats can help, says Tapiwa Chasi, a designer at Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading international design firm with offices in the UAE.
“Smart thermostats have a simple interface and can be retrofitted into an existing climate control system. These devices have the ability to learn the heating and cooling habits of the residents and automatically adjust the climate of the home to match their routine. Temperature can be adjusted via the thermostat or remotely with a mobile app. The Honeywell Lyric mobile app, available to download on your smartphones and tablets, has a feature called geofencing, which can detect when the owners are on their way home and prepare the climate control before their arrival.
Ensuring that your AC units are operating properly is also key. Air-conditioning systems in the UAE get a battering pretty much throughout the year, so make sure to give them the TLC they deserve and get them serviced regularly, so they are performing at optimum level.
Environmentally friendly window treatments and insulation techniques are another way to manage the hot and cold air exchange in your home. Sturdy blinds and drapery will help you keep more cool air in, and more heat out. Fabrics with Oeko-Tex certification, which require no harmful chemicals during the production of the materials, can be a good option. Natural textiles such as paper, reeds, bamboo, grass and wooden blinds are also great. Green home owners and tenants should ideally stay away from PVC or vinyl,” suggests Josh Mason, an associate designer at HBA.
Next stop: bathrooms and kitchens. Start thinking about water as a valuable resource that needs to be protected. This may require some investment on your behalf, but there are myriad new technologies that will help you conserve water. For a start, install toilets with a high-jet performance and low-flow flushing systems, and fit faucets with low-flow and special spray-jet technology that mixes water with air to keep consumption down.
Last but not least, have a think about all the other stuff you have in your home. Firstly, do you need any more of it? Probably not, so if you are looking to revamp, why not reconfigure and upcycle, instead of sending things to landfill? Secondly, think about where it is all coming from.
“Exotic finishes have been a rising trend during the past few decades,” notes David T’Kint, a partner at HBA. “But unless your home is on a remote island, there is always a way to source finishes locally – stains can be applied to most wood species to give them the feel of the desired product, while stones can be sourced locally or from neighbouring countries as opposed to the other end of the world. In addition to being eco-friendly, sourcing materials locally also supports the local community.”
Of course, if all of this sounds a little overwhelming, you can always call in some expert help. Home-maintenance company MPlus offers a handy package that will help you to improve the energy efficiency of your home. The package focuses on three key areas: water, AC and lighting.
“We introduce CFL and LED bulbs to reduce consumption there; for plumbing we install aerators into shower heads, taps and so on; and we are the only home-maintenance provider to use a product called Airco Saver, which is something that sits on the AC unit and optimises the use of the compressor, reducing the amount of time that the AC needs to run. We bundle all these together in a package called Eco Saver. We will come in and install all of these elements in one appointment,” says Ian Robinson, the general manager of MPlus.
For two- or three-bedroom villas, prices start from Dh3,250 and go up to about Dh6,950 for a six- or seven-bedroom property but, as Robinson explains, it can be customised according to the needs of each home. “We guarantee that this will help you save a minimum of 15 per cent on your Dewa bill, so the payback on it is a year. In some cases, it’ll save you 30 per cent.”
The package is worth considering even if you do not own your own property as, when you move, MPlus will come in and take out all the energy-saving devices and then reinstall them in your new home, for a fee of Dh495. If this seems like too big a commitment, it may be worth availing yourself of Mplus’s Energy Audit service. For Dh995, a specialist will come in and survey energy-consumption levels in your home before compiling a report with detailed, custom-collated energy-saving solutions.
Either way, energy efficiency will always be worth the effort and investment.
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