The men who did the impossible

Jan Watterson is grateful to the firm of cavity wall insulation installers who finally said ’Yes we can’

28 May 2015

Jan is a volunteer at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE). Here she recounts her experience of installing cavity wall insulation in her 1930s home.

I have been told four times that my home is not suitable for cavity wall insulation. It has cavity walls, and they are not excessively narrow. The problem is access. 

Built in the 1930s, the house sits on the the side of a hill. It is not a big house, mostly single storey with a small two-storey section on the downhill side. And there is no direct vehicle access. I walk about 30 metres from a busy road down a small footpath to reach my front door.

First attempt ...

If I had not been a volunteer at CSE I would probably have given up trying to insulate my walls after the first rebuttal. That was when an surveyor came to check the house under a scheme for grant-funded loft and cavity wall insulation. He approved the former but not the latter, merely saying that the house was not suitable because of the access difficulties.

As I learnt more about energy efficiency from CSE I fretted about what to do to insulate my house. The rooms are too small to insulate on the inside. External wall insulation was a possibility but the cost put it out of reach. Cavity wall insulation (CWI) seemed the obvious answer.

Second attempt ...

Then, when a friend had the cavity walls of his house insulated, I decided to try again using the surveyor and installers that had done the work for him. On this occasion, as the surveyor approached the front door, he stopped and said it could not be done. He explained that the insulation is pumped into the cavity through a pipe that could reach 30 metres at most, not enough to get around all sides of my house.

When I mentioned this to friends at CSE they told me that it might be possible to extend the length of the pipe.

Third attempt ...

I Googled for other companies that offer CWI in my area and rang one at random. They said that 30 meters is as they could reach, too, and they wouldn't even come and look at my house.

Fourth attempt ...

Several months later I heard from someone at CSE that grants were again available for CWI*, so I decided to have one last try. And this time, when I mentioned the distance from my house to the road the reply from the company administering the scheme was more encouraging: “We’ve done cavity wall insulation in homes where the distances were way more than that”.

Frustratingly, when this surveyor arrived I was told – yet again – that it would not be possible because of the distance from the road. This time I countered by quoting what I had been told over the phone. The surveyor was hesitant, saying that whenever he "put through" difficult jobs like this one, they were never completed. I said I was determined to have my walls insulated this time, and perhaps companies like his should start tackling some of the more difficult homes. He reluctantly agreed and set about checking the house and filling out forms. He left after giving me many warnings: I'd have to ensure there was somewhere for the van to park; I must cut back any plants that are in the way, and so on. If any of this wasn't done, the installers would move on – they couldn't waste time as they would have other jobs to go to. Stern stuff.

Before the installation date I approached three neighbours. Two of them agreed that the installers could park their van on their drives, both of which are nearer to my house than the road, while the third said he'd move his van if a kerbside parking space was required. So there were three access points for the installers to choose from. I emailed the installers (ThermaBead Ltd), reminding them 1) to bring an extension pipe to add to their normal 30 metre pipe, and 2) to come to the house and discuss the various access possibilities I had organised. That evening, a supervisor rang to say that their vans always carry a 45 metre extension pipe and that the rest of my message would be passed on to the team, Ben and Craig.

Installation day arrived. Ben and Craig had two jobs on that day, and I was second as they thought my house might take longer than average. From the moment they arrived, they were so positive about being able to do the job that I dubbed them ‘the men that do the impossible’. They looked at the access possibilities and worked out an approach that involved using both the neighbour’s drives. I was a bit nervous when I saw that their vehicle was the size of a removal van, but they drove in and out of the two drives without a hitch. Using this approach they were able to reach all the walls of the house without using the extension pipe. The plants were no problem.

The CWI process involves drilling small access holes in the walls and pumping the insulation through these holes into the cavities. I'd chosen Thermabead as the insulation material; this is made of tiny polystyrene beads [see picture] that are injected into the cavities together with some glue to help them clump. To finish, Ben and Craig refilled the holes and washed down the dust made from drilling. They would also have painted over the holes if I had wanted.

The cost? The work was grant funded but as I wanted the more expensive Thermabead I had to contribute £350. Plus the cost of two bottles of wine for the neighbours. I should get that back in reduced energy bills in two years. A bargain! And thanks again to 'the men that do the impossible'.

Jan Watterson, April 2015

* This grant scheme has now closed

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