Sustainable living: A homeowner's guide to maximising energy efficiency during COVID-19 and beyond

Cosy bright green font room with log burner

After spending more time at home than ever before, you may have noticed your bills go up. Now is as good a time as any to focus on how you can maximise your energy efficiency at home. We all know the way we live has an impact on the world around us – so if you can start making changes at home, you can reduce this impact.

Choosing to live more sustainably could mean reducing heat loss, upgrading old appliances to newer, more energy-efficient models, changing the way you buy furniture and homewares, or even exploring new energy sources. We explore lots of practical advice you can start actioning today, and look at how consumer energy usage behaviours could change after COVID-19.

An introduction to energy efficiency (01)

Electricity pylons

What is it?

Energy efficiency is how much energy it takes to perform an action. The less energy needed, the more efficient the action is. In this instance, we’re referring to gas and electrical energy in the home, so the actions could be using a device like a TV or laptop, switching on a lamp, or boiling the kettle.

There’s a difference between energy efficiency and energy conservation. While becoming more energy efficient involves using technology which needs less energy to perform a specific action, energy conservation involves changing your behaviour in order to save energy. For example, using LED bulbs would be considered energy efficient, while switching off lights when they’re not needed would be energy conservation.

Why is it important?

Energy efficiency has many benefits.

  • First and foremost, it helps to reduce our collective impact on the environment. Energy use releases carbon dioxide, which contributes towards climate change. The lower the demand for energy, the less will need to be produced. This reduces both the amount of resources needed and the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and therefore the amount of damage inflicted.
  • Lots of places rely on resources such as oil, coal and gas, but they aren’t going to last forever. As supplies become less plentiful, the price of these resources increases. Becoming more energy efficient reduces demand, waste, and the strain on the economy.
  • Actively working towards better energy efficiency can save money in the long run, lowering household bills.

Energy use in the UK

The good news is that energy consumption in the UK appears to be declining. Renewable sources are becoming more commonplace too.



Electricity consumption hit a peak of 357 terawatt hours in 2005, but has since dropped to 287.58 terawatt hours in 2020.



Reliance on fossil fuels has decreased. Nearly all (96.5%) of the UK’s energy consumption used fossil fuels in 1970, compared to 78.3% in 2019.


Renewable energy sources power 28% of the UK’s electricity.

(SINCE 2000)12%

Domestic energy consumption has fallen by 12% since 2000. The drop is even larger per household, with consumption falling by 23%, even though the number of households has increased by 14% and the population has risen by 13%.

Using resources more efficiently (02)

Wind turbines on the horizon

According to the Energy Saving Trust, 22% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from our homes. This is understandable when you consider all the things we do: we have the heating on when it’s cold, cool things down when it’s hot, use water for cooking and washing, and use electricity for household appliances and devices like laptops and phones.

Energy sources

Energy can come from a variety of sources. These can be split into two main categories: renewable and non-renewable.

Renewable energy

Produced from sources which replenish themselves. Examples include water, wind, and light from the sun (solar power). The amount of resources available can depend on the climate, but they’ll always exist in nature.

Non-renewable energy

Produced from sources which will run out. Examples include coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy. Over 70% of the energy used in industrial processes comes from non-renewable sources.

Renewable energy
  • Pros
  • Sources won’t run out
  • Reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced (compared to non-renewable sources)
  • Doesn’t exacerbate human health problems
  • Prices are unlikely to fluctuate
  • Needs less maintenance
  • Energy can be produced locally
  • Cons
  • Initial set-up can be expensive for homeowners
  • Amount of energy generated depends on the weather
  • Expensive to set up wind turbines, hydropower stations and solar panels
Non-renewable energy
  • Pros
  • Easy to find, set up, and transport
  • At the moment we have a ready supply
  • A small amount can produce a lot of energy
  • Cons
  • Releases carbon dioxide, contributing to both global warming and human health problems
  • Sources will run out, and prices will increase as supplies dwindle
  • It takes a lot of energy to keep power stations working
  • Collecting these energy sources can be dangerous (e.g. coal mining)

Although traditional energy providers use non-renewable energy, it’s now possible for households to be powered by renewable energy suppliers, such as Octopus Energy or OVO Energy. Both these suppliers offer 100% renewable electricity and invest in environmentally friendly schemes.

If you have the time, money and patience, you can also generate your own renewable energy.

An at-a-glance guide to types of renewable energy at home

(Air source heat pumps)
Aor source heat pump example

Renewable heat sources

  • Air source heat pumps
  • Absorb heat from outside to heat your home and water
  • Extract heat even when temperatures are low
  • Need space outside your home to fit the unit
  • Biomass
  • Generates energy from burning wood pellets, chips or logs
  • Cheap, low carbon
  • Initial installation is expensive
  • Ground source heat pumps
  • Pipes buried in the garden to extract heat from the ground
  • Can be used all year round
  • Initial installation is expensive, need enough outdoor space
  • Thermal energy stores
  • Stores renewable energy until it's needed
  • Prevents the wasting of energy
  • Must be used with a dource of renewable energy, such as solar
  • Solar water heating
  • Use heat from the sun to provide hot water
  • Saves you money every year
  • Need a sunny place to install solar panels
(Hydro power)
Hydro-power generating dam
Renewable electricity sources
  • Hydro
  • The potential energy of running water is converted into kinetic energy, which can generate electricity
  • Can produce enough electricity for all appliances and lighting
  • Most homes won’t have access to an appropriate water source
  • Micro combined heat and power
  • Electricity is generated as a by-product of heat
  • Low-carbon option, despite being powered by fossil fuels in some
  • Costs more than using a traditional boiler
  • Off grid
  • Renewable electricity generation system for homes with no mains electricity supply
  • Cheaper than traditional electricity sources, can be combined with renewable sources
  • Must budget for replacing the batteries
  • Solar panels
  • Converts the sun’s energy into electricity
  • Can still work when it’s cloudy
  • Need a sunny place to install solar panels
  • Wind turbines
  • Use the energy of the wind to generate electricity
  • Saves a lot of money on electricity
  • Initial installation is expensive

Source: Energy Saving Trust

Improving energy efficiency at home

So you’ve read about the benefits of energy efficiency and want to make a difference. What next? We’ll take you through some of the ways you can improve things at home.

A good place to start is assessing how energy efficient you are currently. This will help you see where you can make changes, and what you’re already doing well.

The easiest way to measure your household’s energy efficiency is to use a smart meter and the accompanying in-home display, which shows how much gas and electricity you’re using, as well as the cost. Tracking this can show you how any changes you make affect your energy consumption and the resulting bills.

You can also look at individual electrical appliances. They have a power rating, which tells you how much electricity is needed to power them (in watts, W, or kilowatts, kW). The amount of electricity used throughout the time an appliance is on is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Electricity is also sold by the kilowatt-hour.

To figure out how much an appliance costs to run, multiply its wattage by the amount of time it’s used, then multiply this by the cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour.

Generally, any device which has moving parts or produces heat uses more energy than a device which produces light or sound.

Close up of oven cooking Camembert


The easiest way to ensure your appliances are energy efficient is to look at the energy rating before you buy. The rating shows you how energy efficient an appliance is, based on the amount of energy it uses. The less energy it uses (measured in kilowatt-hours), the better the rating. Ratings range from A+++ (green, very efficient, worth buying) to G (red, not very efficient, not worth buying).

The Energy Saving Trust Register is a database of energy efficient household products, and it’s worth consulting if you need to replace anything in your home.

The rating system started changing from March 2021, with the plus signs being removed so the scale is simplified to A-G. The A ratings won’t be used at first, leaving space for future appliances which are even more efficient. At the moment, washing machines, washer-dryers, dishwashers, fridges, lighting and TVs will be rated using the new system, while everything else will be labelled with the old system (for now).

The Energy Saving Trust Register is a database of energy efficient household products, and it’s worth consulting if you need to replace anything in your home.

Let’s use the example of a fridge or freezer. They need to be plugged in and switched on all the time in order to keep food fresh. The less energy they use in the process, the better it is for the environment and your bills. It’s recommended you choose a new, efficient model once your existing fridge or freezer reaches the end of its life. As a rule, the smaller the fridge or freezer, the lower the running costs – which means a smaller unit with a slightly lower energy rating is still more efficient than a larger unit with a better energy rating. And a fridge-freezer unit is more efficient than two separate units.

Disposing of old appliances

Eventually, our devices will reach the ends of their lives. However, you can’t just chuck them straight in the bin, as some of them will contain hazardous materials. By disposing of them separately, you ensure these materials can be removed safely, and any other parts can be kept out of landfill.

By law, retailers which sell new electrical appliances must either take your old appliances free of charge and send them to be recycled, or tell you where you can recycle them yourself.

Running kitchen tap

Heating and hot water

Most residences in the UK have a central heating system that uses a boiler and radiators. The boiler heats up the water, which is then pumped around the house into the radiators. This hot water is also used in bathrooms and kitchens. Some boilers can heat water whenever you want to use it, while others are programmed to heat up at specific times.

Boilers are normally powered using mains gas, which produces the fewest carbon emissions (aside from wood).

Boilers are normally powered using mains gas, which produces the fewest carbon emissions (aside from wood).

You can make the heating and hot water in your home even more efficient by taking the following steps.

  1. Get your boiler serviced once a year to make sure it’s still working properly.
  2. Replace your boiler if it’s starting to break down frequently, or you notice your bills increasing even though your energy use hasn’t changed. Newer models are more energy efficient and cheaper to run.
  3. Replace your radiators if they’re around 15-20 years old, or have problems like rust or leaking.
  4. Bleed your radiators when you notice the top is much cooler than the bottom. This will release the trapped air and allow the water to flow freely.
  5. Fit thermostats on each radiator so you can control the heat in each room.
Clothes on a washing line

Other water use

One of the most frequent uses of water in a home is by a washing machine. It’s unavoidable – we all need clean clothes – but you can still take steps to ensure a more efficient laundry routine.

Use the 30℃ setting wherever possible - it uses 38% less energy than washing at 40℃.

Always wait until you have a full load before washing. It takes more energy to power two smaller loads than it does one full one. And use the 30℃ setting wherever possible. Detergents are just as effective at this lower temperature, especially in more modern machines, and most stains can be removed too. It also uses 38% less energy than washing at 40℃.

Lots of items don’t need to be washed every time you’ve worn them. As a rough guide, the following things should be washed:

  • After every wear: Tights, T-shirts, shirts, underwear, socks
  • After every three wears: Pyjamas, bras, dresses, skirts, trousers
  • After every five wears: Jeans, sweaters
  • Once a month: Dressing gown
  • Every three months: Coats and other outerwear
Collection of table lamps

20% of the average UK electricity bill is from lighting, so it makes sense to tackle this area.

A traditional light bulb wastes around 90% of its energy on heat, whereas an LED bulb uses 90% of its energy on light

Replacing the bulbs around your home with energy-saving LED light bulbs is one of the quickest and simplest ways you can improve household energy efficiency. A traditional light bulb wastes around 90% of its energy on heat, whereas an LED bulb uses 90% of its energy on light, without compromising on the brightness and quality of this light.

What to look for when choosing light bulbs:
  • Are shops selling old stock? Manufacturers can’t produce new inefficient bulbs, but they can still sell them. Avoid any products with halogen light bulbs.
  • Look at the lumen output. The higher the lumen value, the brighter the light.
  • Look at the colour. ‘Soft white’ or ‘warm white’ give off a cosy glow, while ‘cool white’ and ‘pure white’ are cooler in tone.
  • Look at the colour rating index (CRI). The higher the CRI value, the better the colour of the light will show.

Improving energy conservation at home

We’ve looked at what you can do to improve energy efficiency at home. But what about energy conservation? Changing lots of small behaviours can add up to a lot of energy savings over time, so it’s worth seeing what you can do.

An open dishwasher

Electricity and appliances

Electricity powers so much of our lives (including the appliances in our homes). Here’s how you can cut down on electricity use and conserve energy.

(Unplug whenever you can)
A British plug and socket
Unplug whenever you can

Some devices, like fridges, freezers and alarm systems, need to be left on all the time. But lots of things can be switched off completely in between uses. According to the Energy Saving Trust, leaving appliances on standby can cost the average household an extra £35 per year.

Think about placement

An appliance’s placement can have a surprising effect on its efficiency. If we take the example of a fridge again, you need to place it away from your oven and out of direct sunlight, so it can avoid the heat and doesn’t have to use more energy to stay cool.

Consider alternatives

Do you need to use that appliance? Or could you do without? A tumble dryer, for example, might dry things quicker, but an indoor airer or outdoor washing line doesn’t require any electricity at all. And while a microwave can defrost food quickly, it’s not necessary if you remember to take your food out of the freezer in time.

A cat asleep on a radiator


Heating and cooling your home

We need central heating for much of the year in the UK. However, you can still find ways to conserve energy whilst keeping warm.

Set the thermostat at the lowest comfortable temperature. Typically this is around 18-21℃.

Use the timer to control when your heating switches on and off. There’s no point having it on if you’re going to be out, but you’ll need it when you’re getting into bed on a cold winter night.

Consider setting up a smart thermostat. They connect your heating system to the internet, which allows you to adjust the temperature or switch your home heating on and off wherever you are. It’s most useful if your routine is different each day, because you don’t have to rely on a set heating schedule, or worry about wasting energy when you’re out.

Wall insulation


Insulation makes a significant difference to how much heat your home loses, keeping you warm and reducing your bills. A surprising amount of heat can be lost:


of heat can be lost through the roof


of heat can be lost through the walls, gaps, windows and doors


of heat can be lost through the floor

(Source: The Green Age)

These areas are sometimes collectively referred to as the thermal envelope.

The roof

If you have a loft, you can install insulation in the roof space. How much you use will depend on what you use your loft for. Is it just for storage? Or do you use it as a functional room?

You can use mineral wool, sheep’s wool, glass wool, or insulating board. If you live in a busy area, consider using acoustic wool to muffle noise from outside.

The walls

Your home will either have solid walls or cavity walls. Anything built before 1930 will probably have solid walls, whereas anything built after will have cavity walls.

Cavity walls

Are cheap and easy to insulate, but a professional needs to do it for you. They’ll inject the walls with expandable foam. This material will slow down the rate at which heat travels, keeping it in your home for longer.

Solid walls

Are more difficult to insulate. You can hire someone to do it externally using cladding, such as wood fibre. You can also hire someone to do it internally using insulation boards, dry lining, flexible thermal lining or insulated plaster, but you’ll lose floor space. You can use a grant called the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) to help with the cost.

The floor

There are two different types of floor insulation. They can both be used over your entire floor, or just to seal gaps that would otherwise cause draughts.

  • Solid floor insulation is laid on your existing flooring, then covered with a finish of your choice
  • Suspended floor insulation is placed in between joists
(Draught-proofing your home)
House front door and hallway

Draught-proofing your home

There are smaller, cheaper steps you can take to stop draughts from cooling down your home. Professional draught-proofers are available for fiddly jobs (like fitting caps over chimney pots), but there’s the option to DIY if you’re able to.

Some simple draught-proofing measures include:

  • Placing a draught excluder along the bottom of a door
  • Sticking draught-proofing strips around window frames where there’s a gap
  • Squirting flexible filler into gaps along skirting boards
  • Filling in cracks in the wall (speak to a surveyor first, in case there’s an underlying problem)

Make sure you don’t block off any ventilation points, like extractor fans or trickle vents.


Double glazing stops heat loss and draughts. It can also offer more soundproofing and security for your home – it’s much more difficult for noise and intruders to get past two panes of glass. But if you don’t already have it, adding double glazing can be a costly endeavour. Here’s a guide to pricing based on window size.

  • 650 x 1050 mm
  • 620 x 1200 mm
  • 915 x 1050 mm
  • 1200 x 1050 mm
  • 1200 x 1200 mm
  • 1780 x 1050 mm
  • 1780 x 1200 mm
  • £130
  • £140
  • £140
  • £175
  • £215
  • £275
  • £290

(Source: Windows Guide)

Farmhouse style dining table


The way your home operates can make a huge difference when it comes to energy conservation, and so can the items you use every day – especially furniture.

Furniture and homewares sales increased in 2020, with UK households buying around 14.4 billion pounds worth of furniture and furnishings – an increase of one-and-a-half billion pounds compared to 2019. It’s no surprise, really. We’ve all been spending more time at home, and are therefore more motivated to create a calm, comfortable, functional space. Furniture can help us do that, but recently a more worrying trend has emerged: fast homewares.

Furniture and homewares sales increased in 2020, with UK households buying around 14.4 billion pounds worth of furniture and furnishings

Fast homewares are the interior equivalent of fast fashion, in that pieces are released every season, inspired by trends and often bought on impulse. Many high street stores now stock their own homeware and furniture lines, targeting young renters who are looking for a quick fix for a low price, or homeowners who want a simple way to refresh their interiors.

However, this practice isn’t sustainable long-term. Not only will the cost of regularly buying new items soon add up, but it means more energy and resources are being used to build furniture that may only serve its purpose for a short period of time before being disposed of. These items are not built to last.

And while platforms like Facebook Marketplace and eBay offer opportunities to sell to those shopping secondhand, research by North London Waste Authority found that more than 22 million items of small furniture alone are thrown away each year when they become damaged. Less than 10% attempt to repair them. It’s an unsustainable cycle.

You can conserve more energy by investing in home furniture that’s designed to last a lifetime – items that will look good and stay sturdy through the wear-and-tear of everyday living, or the chaos of moving house.

What to look for

Can you buy the furniture online?

Online shopping has less of an impact on the environment compared to shopping in person, especially if you bundle orders and don’t use the fast delivery option at checkout.

Does the company do anything to conserve energy themselves?

Sustainability shouldn’t just be a consideration for the furniture items themselves, but for the way the company’s operations are run.

What materials have been used to make it?

Has it been accredited by a board like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)? Look back at the supply chain too. Is the material responsibly and legally sourced?

Does the company do anything to offset their carbon footprint?

Look for contributions like planting more trees or funding renewable energy projects.

How is it packaged?

Furniture needs to arrive in perfect condition, but without being wrapped in too much packaging or plastic. An eco-friendly supplier will be conscious of this and take steps to reduce the amount used.

You can also follow a repair-first system for any items that need a little extra care, instead of getting rid of it immediately. Repairing furniture can often be more straightforward than you think, especially in the case of some stains and shallow cracks. There are lots of instructions on how to best carry out furniture repairs if you search online – How Stuff Works has an in-depth guide on repairing wooden furniture surfaces, for example.

Collection of hanging lights


Remembering to turn lights off when you don’t need them is one of the quickest and easiest ways to conserve energy. Switch them off when you leave a room and be mindful of how many light sources you’re using at once. There’s no point in using a lamp if the main light is bright enough by itself.

Running interior tap


Obviously, reducing your water use will save water and lower your water bills. But did you know it can also lower gas and electricity bills? You’ll need less power to heat up the water you use, as there’s less of it. Using less water also reduces the carbon emissions produced from collecting, treating and supplying water to households.

Here are some easy ways to conserve water:

  • Wait until appliances like dishwashers and washing machines are full before using them.
  • Use a bowl in your kitchen sink while you wash produce or crockery, then use the waste water to water your plants. You can also use a water butt to collect rain for the same purpose.
  • Use a watering can when watering plants. They use less water than hoses and sprinklers.
  • Take showers instead of baths. Most showerheads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute, whereas filling a bath requires around 70 gallons of water.
  • Turn off the tap while you clean your teeth.
  • Using a device like a Hippo in the toilet cistern can reduce the amount of water flushed.

The COVID-19 pandemic (03)

Pair of hands using hand-sanitizer

No one can deny the impact COVID-19 has had on our daily lives. From being separated from family and friends, to getting used to social distancing and wearing masks, and working from home instead of in an office, things as we knew it were put on hold. Our energy use was also impacted, as you can see from the findings below.

Energy use during the COVID-19 pandemic

A TV on-top of a side unit

One of the many things affected by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns was our energy use.

The National Grid noted the following trends in the UK:

  • While streaming services continue to be popular, announcements from the government and Queen’s speech meant more people than usual were watching the same TV broadcasts at the same time. This led to something known as a TV pick-up when everyone boils the kettle after a programme has ended.
  • Electricity demand spiked on Thursdays after 8pm, after ‘Clap for Carers’ had finished and everyone went back inside.
  • With fewer people needing to leave early to commute or do the school run, there was an 18% drop in the morning demand for power.
  • The demand for power fell by 20% during lockdown, but is rising steadily now things are opening up again.

It found that global energy demand in 2020 was set to decrease by 5.3% from 2019, despite many people across the world spending more time at home due to national and regional lockdowns.

IEA’s Energy Efficiency 2020 report backs this last point up. It found that global energy demand in 2020 was set to decrease by 5.3% from 2019, despite many people across the world spending more time at home due to national and regional lockdowns.

There was good news closer to home, too: May 2020 became the first full month in Britain where no electricity was generated from coal. 10% of electricity during this time was generated by solar panels, with the reduction in transport pollution allowing more light to reach the panels.

Despite these drops in energy use, research by Ofgem found people became more worried about paying energy bills as lockdown continued, rising from 16% in April 2020 to 20% in May 2020. Many took steps to change their tariffs or switch suppliers as a result, with 65% reaching out for advice, 21% considering switching, and 10% in the process of doing so.

How consumer use and behaviours could change after COVID-19

Young boy having his hair cut by a barber

Many people are looking forward to getting out and about again. And while more people are working from home than ever, some will return to offices and other workplaces. So how will our energy use change as we emerge back into some sort of normality?

We’ve already seen from the National Grid’s findings that demand for energy is increasing now we’re out of lockdown. There are a number of possible reasons for this:

  • People are returning to work in offices
  • Businesses in the hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors are opening up again
  • Children are back in school
  • Universities are welcoming students back to campus

The demand for fuel and oil may also increase. We were all taking fewer (if any) trips throughout 2020, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reduced production. However, people are now gradually starting to explore further afield – and this could see consumers paying more for fuel if production remains at its COVID-19 levels.

As for renewable energy sources? Experts from Imperial College London point out that, ultimately, it’s in everyone’s best interests for consumers to keep using them. Not only is this better for the planet, but it encourages other energy providers to become more innovative – making it easier for customers to be more energy efficient.

Useful links (04)