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Can the double glazing industry sell itself to government?

ImageAlthough a fifth of domestic heat loss is through single-glazed windows there is little acknowledgement of the benefits of double glazing in recent government strategy

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about saving energy in buildings. If they do, what they think about first remains: double glazing. Funny that. Because if you ask the policy makers, it scarcely registers on their priority list.

Why is this, when the average home can still be losing upwards of 20 per cent of fuel through any single-glazed windows? Why, when the majority of homes still don’t have any form of secondary glazing throughout? Why, when this is one of the very few energy-saving measures that property professionals agree puts up the perceived resale value?

The reason for this divergence is rather more complex than might appear at first sight. It has much to do with departmental responsibility divisions, prejudice regarding how markets work, and just ignorance.

The government‘s new “Household Energy Management” strategy sets out in detail its energy-saving policy for existing homes for the next decade. It has lots to say on microgeneration and photovoltaics. But the only acknowledgment that energy can escape as much through windows as it can via roof or walls is a grudging footnote.

At present, there is really only one policy trigger in existence, which encourages more energy-efficient windows. It is a sensible one. And because it is well policed by the glazing industry-funded FENSA organisation (in England & Wales at least, Scotland is a less happy tale), it is pretty well complied with.

Since 2002 Part L of the Building Regulations has mandated all replacement window standards. This has meant that whenever an existing window is replaced, through upgrading or breakage, then a high efficiency window is installed.

Great stuff. But there is no natural cycle of breakdown and replacement for windows. And levels of voluntary replacement work have been dropping like a stone. In 2004 FENSA registered over 1m improvements. That number was down 12 per cent by 2008. Last year it hovered around the 800,000 mark.

Victorian sash windows are still present in many older homes. Even the double glazing put in during the 1970s and 1980s has an extremely long life: framing material will still be going strong after 35 years. And that secondary glazing, while a bit better in energy terms than their Victorian predecessors, is a fraction as effective as the windows mandated under Part L.

Since 2002, thanks to the “stick” of the Building Regulations, it is reckoned that around 5m homes have had some energy-efficient windows installed – although when this happens, it is seldom that every window is improved. As this rate of progress slows, we will be heading for the second half of the century before every home will have had its windows improved.

But what about “carrots”? There has been one example of a glazing promotion under the general energy-saving programme, CERT (Carbon Emissions Reduction Target). That is good news. Perhaps surprisingly there don’t seem to be too many initiatives emerging yet under the inner city, multiple-measure renovation programme, CESP (Community Energy Saving Programme). As far as fuel poverty alleviation goes, it is a very rare Warm Front beneficiary who has their windows improved.

The homes least likely to have modern windows as the norm are in the private rented sector (at least, those built before 2002). Some owner occupiers have installed efficient glazing for quality of life reasons. Private landlords, largely motivated by profi t, are not required to install better glazing – and so have simply carried on as before, repairing rather than replacing single glazing. After all, tenants pay the fuel bills, not them. The Landlords Energy Saving Allowance was introduced to encourage energy-saving investment – but excludes any glazing investments.

Acknowledging this, the Scottish government has taken legal powers to require landlords to upgrade the least energy-efficient windows – albeit they have yet to use those powers. The new “Household Energy Management” document infers that similar steps may yet be taken in England.

Unlike many other professionally installed energy-saving products, all windows carry the full 17.5 per cent rate of VAT. The Treasury’s excuse for not lowering the rate is that they are not allowed to discriminate between products. But micro-CHP, which enjoys 5 per cent VAT, competes directly with conventional boilers, taxed at full rate. High-efficiency glass is every bit as different a product from bog standard secondary glazing. The real reason for Treasury obduracy is surely parsimony.

Inevitably those in the glazing industry cast envious eyes at the heating industry’s £400 boiler scrappage scheme – and wonder whether their depressed market doesn’t justify a similar scheme.

Windows have yet to make the transition from being perceived as a standard construction industry product (looked after by the Business Department), to their correct role as a key facet of energy efficiency and buildings policy. At present, it is blithely assumed that the renowned hard sell techniques of the double glazing industry will deliver all that is necessary. It is very clear that, in today’s world, a little acknowledgement, indeed help, from those in government is now needed.

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