Planting to cut winter fuel bills

Posted: Monday 4 February 2013
by Adam Pasco

Research now shows that in addition to its aesthetic and wildlife value, ivy and plants trained against buildings help screen and insulate them from the cooling effect of cold wind.

Ivy foliage

Could garden plants reduce your winter heating bills? Some interesting research has been conducted at the University of Sheffield and by other organisations around the world that highlights the value of trees and plants surrounding buildings in reducing air temperatures during summer and insulating them during winter.

I've always been cautious about recommending planting climbers like ivy against buildings, although I enjoy the sight when others do it. Provided walls are sound and ivy is kept clear of gutters, windows, and so on, it's a valuable evergreen plant. Research now shows that in addition to its aesthetic and wildlife value, ivy and plants trained against buildings help screen and insulate them from the cooling effect of cold wind.

Shrubs and evergreens in the surrounding garden do the same thing, reducing wind speed, cutting down on draughts, and by doing so keeping buildings warmer through winter. Some researchers claim energy consumption could be reduced by up to 25per cent, but more research is needed to really quantify the value of plants in different situations.

During summer we all appreciate trees and green spaces that provide shade and shelter from strong sun, and research confirms that green environments are cooler than concrete and tarmac city and urban landscapes. Plants help keep walls cooler in different ways, preventing sunlight reaching and warming brickwork, and reflecting heat away. They reduce both surface and air temperatures, so planting round air conditioning units significantly cools the air they draw in, reducing energy consumption.

Green walls and green roofs have received much attention in recent years, particularly in cities where plants cannot be put straight in the ground. Calculating the effect of these on air temperatures is complex, but indicate that increasing the amount of vegetation planted in either traditional or new ways will reduce air temperature. I won't get into a discussion about global warming here, but suffice it to say that rather than simply concentrating on carbon taxes perhaps greater emphasis should be put on plants.

Well, gardeners know the value of plants, and in addition to their numerous benefits to local wildlife and me I'm now inspired to consider how I can use them to keep my home warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Now that really will be a benefit, and put pounds back in my pocket too.

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Talkback: Planting to cut winter fuel bills
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oldchippy 04/02/2013 at 20:16

Hi Adam when I take my dogs for a walk up the golf course I always walk next to the bushes as it cut down the wind speed and always feels warm than walking down the fairways,There must be savings to be made by over insulating the out side of a property with the right plant,may be some one will develop a new plant for this purpose. Oldchippy.

Adam Pasco 04/02/2013 at 20:41

Yes, I agree, oldchippy. It makes sense, doesn't it. We know that hedges, fences and walls protect us from high wind, although this affect only works for a certain distance from the fence (the distance depends on its height). Turbulence is created the further away you move.

Plants surrounding a property must help reduce the strength of cooling winds in winter, and also produce shade that helps cool warm air in summer.

It would be interesting to find out by how much we could all cut down on heat loss, and calculate the saving on fuel bills. Now that would provide a very good incentive for people to plant more. Perhaps the Government would then promote this, or even subsidise people who create gardens. Well that's a thought!

Gardening Grandma 05/02/2013 at 09:07

This is very interesting. The opposite issue would be that plants can hold damp into walls. Not sure I know what I am talking about here, but i believe that older houses were built with very thick walls and small windows to provide maximum insulation in winter. Modern houses are more vulnerable to changes in temperature and need modern heating. They are also less well suited to having climbing plants grow on them, I should think. Between this and problems with roots undermining  the foundations, any insulation using plants would have to be done very carefully, presumably. Are we just talking about windbreaks?

Adam Pasco 07/02/2013 at 10:05

Interesting thoughts Gardening Grandma. There are several different ideas and issues wrapped up together here, so in addition to understanding the physics involved in insulation/wind chill/draft proofing/heat transfer/summer cooling/shading/etc there are many practical considerations to take on board.

In many situations our properties benefit from the warmth direct sunshine provides, warming brick walls, or solar panels on the roof to warm water or produce electricity.

We know building construction also plays a part in controlling warming/cooling, from building a entry porch before getting to the front door to having a conservatory or lean-to against the property, double glazing, cavity wall insulation, and so on.

So, moving beyond the construction of the house, and the costs involved improving their insulation/heat loss and so on, it would be interesting to see more research on the influence of the outside environment, including our gardens, on our homes.

happymarion 07/02/2013 at 18:30

I have been doing this for the last 49years, My front garden faces north so it is packed with trees and shrubs. I habe built a conservatory on the back of the south facing lounge which heats the lounge when i open the patio dividing door on sunny days. the west facing long wall of the house with two bedrooms and the lounge on it has ivy covering it. The east wall has the drive right uo to it so shelter comes from a Lonicera nitida hedge on the other side of the drive which is in next door's garden. My huge back garden is full of large trees and shrubs and provides lots of shelter and shade. Both humans and wildlife love it. My motto is "Bare soil is a no-no". Perhaps we shoud add "Bare walls are a no-no". No matter how small your garden is you can always go upwards.

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