Advice on warmer houses offered

HELPING HAND: Eco building design adviser Richard Popenhagen inspects the roof space of a Nelson home.
HELPING HAND: Eco building design adviser Richard Popenhagen inspects the roof space of a Nelson home.

Kate Davidson looks at a free Nelson City Council service to improve the warmth of our homes.

As winter comes knocking, so does Richard Popenhagen.

The former building inspector and designer is the Nelson City Council's eco-building design adviser, giving free inspections and advice to improve home heating.

Since he began the role in 2008 he estimates he has checked over 1000 properties, and is passionate about his job.

"It's so fulfilling when you go into people's homes. I see some truly abysmal situations, but some really basic little stuff they do can make a real difference," he says.

"It's a really cool job."

The energetic adviser visits my home in the Victory area on a brisk autumn morning, with the tools of his trade - ladder, torch, overalls and plenty of information.

Free assessments of Nelson homes by Popenhagen are provided by the Nelson City Council.

It's one of its most popular services offering independent advice on how people can prevent their homes losing heat and lower their electricity bills.

Popenhagen says there are a number of free or low costs fixes to boost heating efficiency.

At my place, condensation and insulation were on the agenda.

With my mattress on the floor of the bedroom, I had felt dampness seeping through. The culprit was a pipe outside my room allowing water to run straight into the ground.

Popenhagen shows me how the water sinks into the ground and releases moisture back up through the floor boards.

But, there is an easy fix, if you can get under the house. Polythene plastic from any hardware store, can be laid on the ground, preventing the moisture from creeping up into the house.

Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to get under my home - a bed base might be in order instead.

Glass in any modern or older homes is a main offender when it comes to heat loss and it is as much about the curtains as double glazing, Popenhagen says.

He compares curtains to going out in cold weather - the more you layer up the warmer you are. Three layered curtains with a backing, an insular middle, and decorative front piece are the best option.

Thermal curtains are a bit of a misnomer, as the backing on them protects them from sun damage, but does little to keep the heat in.

Getting the curtains hanging onto the floor and right in close to the wall at the top with no gap, or using pelmets is what people should be looking for, Popenhagen advises.

He knows pelmets might not be so fashionable, but they make a significant difference.

Roman blinds or honeycomb curtains work well for smaller windows, and a quick piece of velcro at the bottom can keep them attached to the window frame to stop warm air escaping.

Using heat pumps properly and regularly cleaning the filters keeps the house warm and the power bill under control.

To clean the filters, Popenhagen shows me how to open the pump and take them out - the dust build up can be removed with a quick vacuum.

Having the heat pump mode on automatic means it will adjust to the natural elements and fight against them, so as the afternoon sun picks up the heat pump can start producing cold air to bring the temperature down.

Keeping it on the warm mode is the best option with an optimal temperature range from 18 to 24 degrees, with the fan set to automatic mode, he says.

Heat pumps should be treated like any other heater, and should not be left on when you are not home as they burn energy and money.

Popenhagen is not against woodburners where they are allowed to be used - it is about what suits each home and its residents.

When it comes to rented homes more onus needs to be put on landlords to clean up their rental properties, he says.

Some landlords are great but others refuse to do anything or say they will have to up the rent to cover the costs of improving the homes. He has advised some tenants to move out of places before the next winter as power bills were reaching $900 per month and landlords were refusing to fix the problems.

At the other end of the scale, there were highly efficient houses in Nelson using very little heating over the winter.

Popenhagen says New Zealand building codes could also be improved, but it is a balancing act with affordability.

He works mainly with already built homes, but also offers a hand to those designing new homes.

He gets referrals through world of mouth, social services, the district health board, and people just coming into the council saying they are struggling to pay their power bills.

He also works with interpreters to help new migrants adjust to New Zealand's climate and homes showing them how they can make the best of their new country.

"It's very rewarding," he says.

If you are interested in Richard Popenhagen's free service contact him on 546 0251 during office hours Monday to Friday.


Keep the bathroom door closed after a shower until the air clears.

Always dry clothes outside in the sun or wind rather than indoors as the average load of clothes drying releases 5 litres of water into the air.

Open windows and vent the house for 20-30 minutes each day, but close them up before the evening and draw the curtains as the sun falls.

Turn off "sneaky power gobblers" – TVs, chargers, computers etc – at the wall to save power.

Buy appliances with the energy efficiency stars.

Use LED or energy efficient light bulbs.

Make sure you are on the right electricity plan – use to check.

Limit shower times.

Invest in some polar fleece sheets.

Set your hot-water cylinder to 60 degrees.

Move beds away from below or beside a window.

Insulate your house or fill in any insulation gaps. Install vents under your house.

Make sure drier vents and bathroom vents extract air to the outside.

The Nelson Mail