Monday, 28 May 2007


Rest assured, that when an energy inspector comes to your home, he’ll be thinking of little more than how quickly he can earn his £100 fee. A new army of ‘energy inspectors’ is being recruited to snoop around your home, checking everything from light bulbs to your boiler. Our writer signed up for training and found a hopeless shambles, mired in greed and cynicism.
My new classmate - Dave, the estate agent - has the kind of sharp, wheeler-dealer mind that might make you think twice about betting against him. And right now he scents an opportunity to make serious cash.
Which is how he comes to be in a classroom with me (and 33 other hopefuls) training to become energy inspectors, ready for the Government’s new Home Information Packs. Their crisis-ridden launch may, amid huge controversy and talk that they will not survive, have been put back to August. But even if HIPs are killed off, the one thing that is sure to remain is the Energy Performance Certificate (EPCs).
And when they come in, Dave is confident they’ll be very lucrative. “It’s all about revenue streams, isn’t it?” he says, with a knowing nod of his closely-shaved head. Labour’s council tax snoopers have snapped 1.3 millions pictures of homes I have met Dave on a crash course - supposedly this should take 200 hours of study, but we do it in six days - to become a “domestic energy assessor”, to give the job its full title. It begins on a drizzly, grey morning when I arrive at Birkbeck University in London to join a class of estate agents, builders, gas men, a surveyor, a pair of mortgage brokers and a handful of individuals who are changing careers (a former Army engineer, health club boss, casino employee and BA cabin crew member) ready to begin our City &Guilds course.
The Government says the purpose of the EPC is simply to educate the public on green issues. My own motive for doing the course - undercover - is simple: I want to find out how those close to the process think these energy ratings will really be used and precisely how they work. I also want to know whether the EPC, imposed as a result of a European directive, is a credible green initiative - or, as its critics claim, a flawed, intrusive and expensive piece of EU bureaucracy that will serve only to complicate the already stressful process of moving house. The first thing that becomes clear is that everyone here is hoping to join what, political chaos notwithstanding, is beginning to feel like a 21st century gold-rush. Or should that be gravy train?
“Build a real career with once-in-a-lifetime prospects,” trumpets the Energy Inspectors Direct website. “On the basis of two to three one-hour inspections a day, it’s possible to earn an income of £40,000 per annum. Now that’s a lot of money.” One thing’s certain - they’re making a lot of money out of us trainees. We have each paid £4,641.25 for six days of nine-to-five tuition; and by the end of the course, many of us will feel that we haven’t had value for money -particularly as, earlier this year, the company was offering courses at almost half the price (£2,585).
With so much to learn in such a short time, we’re surprised that one of his first lectures is simply on how to behave professionally - “because you may have to deal with difficult property owners, including Daily Mail readers who will probably accuse you of being a snooping busy body”. In fact, Jeremy himself is the first to admit that the job can seem intrusive. A DEA must take copious “site notes”, including information about what light bulbs you use, the thickness of your walls, the age of your house and any extensions and the type of glass in your windows; they will count how many rooms and how many open fireplaces you have, and even crawl through your loft to examine the insulation.
They must also take photographs - for example, of the inside and outside of your home, of the boiler and the hot water cylinder - to back up this data, which will then be fed into a computer to give your house a grade on a scale of A (the most efficient) to G (the worst). “Last week,” says Jeremy, “a bunch of my students missed a boiler because it was in a bedroom wardrobe and they felt uncomfortable opening the door. Well, I know it might be a bit difficult if the owner comes in just as you’re photographing it and wants to know ‘Why are you taking pictures of my wife’s knickers?’ But the boiler is important.” Apparently, the heating system has the biggest impact on your home’s energy rating. Depending on what type it is, the boiler can affect the numerical score given to the house (on a scale from one to 100 or more, which is then converted into lettered bands) by as much as 40 points.
The most efficient heat-generators are condensing boilers, because they recycle heat from the boiler’s exhaust gases. If you don’t have one, the EPC will recommend ripping out the old system and installing a new one to improve your efficiency rating. “But,” I ask, “does the computer software take into account the energy cost of throwing away your current boiler, which may be quite new and work perfectly well, and manufacturing a new one?” After all, we’re always being told we should try to be more thrifty, mending appliances rather than buying new ones. The answer comes back: no, it doesn’t. “We could have a discussion about that, couldn’t we?” says Jeremy.
Given that building regulations make it compulsory to install a condensing boiler if your gas or oil-fired version has given up the ghost, what is the point of having your heating system checked for an EPC? That’s a question my tutors can’t answer. We are also taught how to date a building. A 1930s semi can be identified by its curved bay window and hipped roof; a 1970s house by its lack of chimneys (a sign to the neighbours that you had central heating).
And we learn how to recognise the various patterns of brickwork that might indicate an old, solid wall or a more recent (and more insulating) cavity wall. This is important because, unless a lot of money has already been spent on insulation, older properties will always be less energy-efficient - and will therefore score low in the EPC. Some are surprised by how few brownie points some of the most heavily-promoted green measures seem to clock up. Even if every single one of your light bulbs is energy-saving, you’ll score only one point; double-glazing may earn you four; while (sorry, David Cameron) a wind turbine plonked on the roof won’t give you any at all.
On the second day of the course, as we’re waiting for classes to begin, Dave tells me how he plans to make money out of it. “We’ll charge probably £100 each for an EPC,” he says. “One person could easily do five a day - so that’ll be £500 they’re bringing in.” “Once people have an energy rating, they’ll want work doing to make it more efficient - insulation, doubleglazing, new boilers - so we can take a commission of 10 per cent from workmen they find through us. It’s going to be big business.” It’s not just those selling their homes who will have to buy an EPC, he points out. When the HIPs scheme comes fully into effect, landlords will also have to arrange one - which will then remain valid for ten years - the first time they have a change of tenant. “There’s big business there,” Dave says, deploying one of his favourite phrases yet again, “if you can get in with the councils. I’m trying to get close to them because there’s a lot of work to be had.”
Work that will, of course, be undertaken at the expense of you, the taxpayer. The idea of so many people needing EPCs raises the prospect of absolute chaos not only for the housing market, but also for the lettings industry and those waiting for council accommodation.Many of the key things an energy inspector is supposed to measure seem almost arbitrary. For example, we are taught to check for the presence of thermostats and thermostatic radiator valves, which could make a heating system waste less energy, but not to verify that they actually work.
So, in theory, you could nail an old thermostat to the wall, let the energy inspector photograph it and tick it off, and then take it down again. “It’s a visual inspection,” agrees the tutor. The same applies when it comes to energy-saving light bulbs, which could - theoretically - be borrowed-from a friend solely for the purposes of inspection. And then there’s the fact that an open flue loses you points if it’s in the living room, but not in a bedroom. As one of our teachers says, when we are taken on a trial inspection of a house: “There are a lot of stupid things, but they’re the rules - so that’s what we have to do.” Many of my fellow students are disgruntled.
We were promised that we could complete the entire course in six days, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be impossible to finish the coursework assignments - for which we have to do EPCs on five properties and hand in 85 separate written documents - by the end of the week. The quantity of paperwork inherent in the system is extraordinary. “Talk about bureaucracy! And then how long is it they’re telling us we have to store all this information for? Fifteen years? I’ll have to move house just to keep it all. It’s red-tape madness.”
We are told that homes account for 27 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, and that the purpose of the EPC is to encourage and educate householders to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes. To this end, an EPC gives “payback times” - the period over which you might recoup, in savings on your energy bills, any financial outlay in upgrading your home. “This exercise is all about data collection,” says Simon, another estate agent. “And making us pay for the data collection. In five years’ time, they’ll start taxing us on it. Why wouldn’t they? What would be the point otherwise?”
Clive, one of our tutors, raises another spectre that should worry anyone hoping to borrow money to buy an old Victorian conversion with a ropey boiler, solid walls and drafty windows. “I’ve heard some mortgage companies talking about ‘green mortgages’, which means they’d retain money until certain things had been mended - in the same way they might do now if you had, say, subsidence. Now that would be naughty, wouldn’t it? And if it happens, remember I said it.” By Friday, we are all getting nervous about the multiple-choice exam. The coursework may be time-consuming, but it’s been made clear that we will be babied through it - so that even if we have to submit our folders several times, we’ll eventually get through. The exam is another matter: a retake will cost £300.
It will create a mountain of bureaucracy as well as a whole new army of supposed experts who know very little about energy conservation but quite a lot about an invented system of regulations. And their glossy new careers will be subsidised by homeowners and taxpayers. Rest assured, that when an energy inspector comes to your home, he’ll be thinking of little more than how quickly he can earn his £100 fee.

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