NZ kids suffering in cold homes

By Amelia Wade

Energy audit on typical house finds poor heating and lack of insulation leave this Auckland family shivering through winter

Taleni Nouata with her partner Pio Lafo and son TJ Lafo (2) outside their state house in Papakura. Photo / Natalie Slade
Taleni Nouata with her partner Pio Lafo and son TJ Lafo (2) outside their state house in Papakura. Photo / Natalie Slade

Every winter, Taleni Lafo has to take her two young children to hospital because they become sick from the cold.

Her family live in a small wooden Housing New Zealand home in Papakura, built in 1989. And even with the four of them - Mrs Lafo, her husband Pio and her children Rachel, 3, and TJ, 2 - all in one room huddled under a blanket, they're still cold.

"In winter, it gets freezing. It's so cold and we try to do what we can," Mrs Lafo said.

Their home is not properly insulated and they don't have an economical heating source, according to an environmental consultant who visited their home.

They have only a wall mounted heater in the lounge which they can't use because it makes the children cough, due to dust trapped in the mechanics.

Alex Reiche, director of EnviroSpec, took the Lafo family through an online Homestar assessment to see how their house rated.

The national average is a score of three out of 10 - the Alofa family's house scored a two. New homes are built at around 4.5 out of 10.

Mr Reiche found there was only "house fluff" in the ceiling, which was a sparse covering of insulation, unevenly distributed with bare patches in some areas.

He suggested raking it evenly to prevent heat escaping through the gaps.

Mr Reiche, whose company carries out Homestar assessments and green design consultancy, also found the home had no insulation, just a plastic sheet which kept out moisture but not the cold.

The house has carpet only in the living room to cover the hard wood floors.

Mr and Mrs Lafo budgeted for months so they could afford to pay $60 for the scrap of second-hand carpet.

"I wanted somewhere for my children to play so they didn't have to play on the cold ground," Mrs Lafo said.

But her family are not alone - plenty of New Zealanders suffer through the colder months due to poorly insulated, ventilated and heated homes.

Justin Boyes, spokesman for home ventilation firm HRV, said New Zealand homes were on average 2-4C colder than World Health Organisation standards.

"The other issue is they're damp and mouldy which are triggers, especially for kids, for asthma and can exacerbate the problem," he said.

Asthma is the most common cause of hospital admission for children in New Zealand, and accounts for $825 million in health care annually, 50 hospitalisations a day and 550,000 lost school days per year.

Mr Boyes, who estimated HRV had been in hundreds of thousands of homes, said a classic problem was that New Zealanders only tended to heat one room in the house, such as the lounge.

"Kiwis have a 'she'll be right' attitude and tend to put up with things. We have older housing stock and a lot of people limp their way through winter just super-heating the lounge and the rest of the house is freezing cold ... including where the children sleep."

Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority spokesman Christian Hoerning said New Zealanders often forgot how cold it became in winter.

"New Zealand is pretty unique in comparison to other countries because our climate is pretty temperate but in other countries it gets so cold that you die if you don't insulate your house properly.

"Here you get cold, you get a bit sick, you get the flu more easily ... but most of us get through winter, then spring comes and you forget about it until next winter.

"It sounds funny, but that really is part of the problem."

Mr Hoerning said New Zealanders liked to think that they were a Pacific nation and that the sun was always shining. New Zealanders were in some ways in denial about just how chilly it could get.

"The country is also surrounded by sea and so has a much higher humidity than other countries, which means there's more moisture that can cause dangerous mould unless we ventilate our homes efficiently," Mr Hoerning said.

10 ways to warm up your home
We asked an energy efficiency expert to rate this Auckland house and suggest improvements. This is what we found.
Items that are generally easy to implement

1. Ensure your roof insulation is spread evenly to stop heat escaping. Add new insulation to bring it to 120mm thickness.

2. Replace any old recessed lights with ceiling mounted downlights, to prevent having holes in your ceilings where heat can escape through the light fitting.

3. Insulate under your house and have plastic sheeting to keep dampness out.

4. Put insulation around your hot water cylinder and its pipes to trap heat and save on power.

5. Install an energy efficient heating source.

6. Ensure all your windows have thick curtains to trap heat in at night.

7. Fix any windows which don't close properly and place weather stripping around windows and doors to seal draughts.

Items that are harder, more expensive
8. Retrofit extra insulation into the walls of the house.

9. Install thermally broken double glazing.

10. Control moisture through extractor fans in the bathroom and kitchen.

Other tips
* Have a covered space outdoor to dry clothes
* Installing energy efficient light bulbs and whiteware.
* Install low flow taps and showers to reduce hot water consumption.

Overall energy rating for Taleni Lafo and Pio Lafo: 2/10
NZ average: 3/10
New home average: 4-5/10

New Zealand's cold houses
1600 extra people die in winter - the highest excess winter mortality rate in the developed world. These deaths are mostly due to respiratory illness and cardiac arrest, attributed to cold temperatures.
(Otago School of Medicine)

46% of homes suffer from condensation.

35% of homes have visible mould.

400,000 New Zealanders live in "fuel poverty" meaning the cost of heating takes up more than 10% of their annual income
(figures from Otago University and BRANZ)

Warm up New Zealand
If your house was built before 2000 you are eligible for ENERGYWISE™ funding to install insulation and/or efficient heating.

* If your house was built before 2000 you can get $500 towards the cost of installing an efficient heater (e.g. heat pump, wood burner) in your main living area, or if you have a Community Services Card, you can get up to $1200.

* To qualify, you must have insulation that is at least 120mm thick in your ceiling and 50mm thick under floor.

* You can get up to $1300 (or 33%) towards the cost of ceiling and under floor insulation if you are on a general income or up to 60% if you have a Community Services Card.

* After receiving your ENERGYWISE™ insulation funding you may be able to pay off the balance through your rates or mortgage from $7 a week on a 10-year payment plan.

Average insulation cost through Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart
Ceiling and underfloor insulation $3100
Less the ENERGYWISE funding -$1023
Total to be paid by the householder (incl GST) $2077

More at: ENERGYWISE.

- NZ Herald

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