"Bad quality insulation can ruin lives; we have to get it right"

12 November 2018

Ian Preston, CSE's Head of Household Energy Services, reacts to last week's revelations about failures in solid-wall insulation schemes ...

If insulation is done properly, it will make your house easier to keep warm, more comfortable and cheaper to heat. Done badly and it can damage your home, lead to damp and mould and blight your life.

A recent piece on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme provided depressing detail on poor quality installations of cavity and solid wall insulation and the people who’ve suffered as a result. Alongside news of contractor bankruptcies and a significant need for remedial work for failed installations, we heard of some shockingly bad building practices. These include where the newly added external wall insulation stuck out beyond the roof, allowing rain water to run down the space between the insulation and the wall itself where it pooled and eventually, with nowhere else to go, leached through the wall into the home.

Talk about a bodged job.

And worryingly this isn’t a one-off. Bad workmanship is a common complaint about insulation schemes and is giving the sector – and wall insulation in general – a bad reputation.

This is why it’s absolutely essential  that insulation schemes – e.g. those undertaken under the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) – have decent quality assurance built into the process. They must be undertaken by reputable companies and someone needs to be ultimately accountable if they go wrong. In the case of ECO, surely that’s the energy suppliers who have been obligated to deliver. In the case of government-funded grant schemes, it’s the government. In both cases, those accountable can chase the errant installer, but in neither case should the householder be left to seek redress from a contractor who has long since been paid.

And it’s important to stress that this isn’t about insulation; it’s about the quality of the workmanship and the quality of the processes which oversee and assure that quality. What we’re seeing is poor quality installations by building companies who are either (being kind here) well-intentioned but inexperienced, or are (being less kind but probably more realistic) churning out low-grade work to make a quick buck.

At the root of this, in my view, is procurement which puts price ahead of quality. The cheapest bids win the work and what we see is inadequate attention to detail and weak project oversight.

What the Radio 4 programme highlighted was the need for robust quality control. We’d argue that the quality assessment process should be in place before contractors are appointed, relying on inspection of their previous work as much as on their ability to complete official forms evidencing internal procedures that can be cut-and-paste from the internet. Post-installation quality control needs to be much more rigorous and independent (and results for different contractors routinely made public). And we’d also like to see redress schemes – such as CIGA – properly regulated and held to account.

We cannot rely on householders spotting poor workmanship – too much of it isn’t visible and that which is requires an expert eye. If they sign up to an official insulation scheme they have a right to expect the work to be of a high standard and to have effective redress if it isn’t. Here at CSE we’ve turned down offers of partnership in insulation schemes that we felt haven’t had quality control at their heart or where customers complaints have been dismissed rather than addressed.

The Government’s response is a new Trust Mark, still in preparation, which will build on the existing PAS 2030 framework. But new quality marks need to move beyond form filling and tick boxes and focus on the quality of work actually being undertaken in their name. In our local area, Bristol council now has a Clerk of Works who carries out checks during and after the installation signs the work off at completion.

And while these moves are to be welcomed, it is incumbent on all of us involved to put quality at the core of insulation schemes. The customers – and their homes – need to come first. 

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