How To Save Energy In A First-Home Buyers’ Brunswick Cottage

Ever wondered how you can improve the sustainability of your home without a full renovation? In our new Energy Audit series in partnership with Momentum Energy, we’re exploring exactly that, with the help of chemical engineer turned energy advisor Tim Forcey!

Tim has more than a decade’s worth of experience assessing homes and providing expert advice that empowers people to make their property more energy efficient — with big savings on offer for their budget and the environment.

First up, Tim takes a look at a sweet weatherboard cottage belonging to first-home buyers Gemma Portelli and Luke Talbot. It’s an older, typical inner-city Melbourne house, which means it has lots of room for improvement.

Christina Karras
Supported By Momentum Energy

Homeowners Gemma Portelli, Luke Talbot (and their dog Honey) stand with energy advisor Tim Forcey outside their Brunswick house.

Tim assesses the entire property in a rigorous energy audit.

Tim shows a graph of how he reduced his own gas consumption over the years.

Tim’s audit takes around three hours, first assessing the home before talking the owner’s through his findings.

A cosy corner in the rear living room.

The main source of heating and cooling in the back of the house is this reverse-cycle air-conditioning unit.

Tim always recommends checking the unit’s filter, and cleaning it regularly!

Gemma looks at the ceiling’s insulation.

Tim uses his thermal imaging gun to see cool / warm spots on the walls and ceilings, indicating gaps in insulation.

The front of the property features ducted gas heating that will become expensive during the winter.

The current ducted heating is drawing air from the vent in the hallway vent and through the closet, which is less than ideal!

Tim sits down with Gemma and Luke who take notes on his reccomendations.

Tim’s humidity monitor! This small gadget costs just $20 and is a great indicator of the moisture levels in any space. 40-60% moisture levels inside a house is optimum.

Christina Karras
18th of April 2024

Gemma Portelli and Luke Talbot (and their pet Labrador, Honey) only moved into their Brunswick property in December last year.

As young first-home buyers, the Melbourne couple are interested in sustainability, but admit it wasn’t their first priority when deciding to purchase the old weatherboard. Instead, they saw plenty of potential in the character-filled cottage with a rear extension.

‘We have a list of small and big updates we’d like to make, but honestly our focus has been on getting the house set up with the right furniture and storage, so we haven’t made a single cosmetic or structural change,’ Gemma says.

It’s also the kind of home energy advisor Tim Forcey sees all the time: cute on the outside, with a handful of hidden quirks that can significantly impact a building’s energy consumption.

To get a better understanding of some of these issues, we joined Tim for an energy assessment of Gemma and Luke’s property. In his three-hour consult, he walked through the entire house, exploring it inside and out, before presenting the couple with a host of recommendations to improve their home’s energy efficiency.

We talk you through some of the biggest learnings below!

Heating and Cooling

The property currently features ducted gas heating in the original part of the house, with one reverse-cycle air-conditioning unit in the back living room. For Tim, this was a good start, as he’s a big champion of reverse-cycle units, noting ‘they are 400 per cent more efficient than ducted heating’.

His biggest recommendation was to introduce additional split-system units into the bedrooms, and stop using the ducted heating altogether. This would significantly reduce Gemma and Luke’s energy bills, avoiding a hefty gas bill in winter by using inefficient ducted heating. Reverse-cycle units operate using only electricity (so in the future could be powered by renewables like solar) and down the line, Gemma and Luke could even opt to go all-electric and disconnect the home from gas entirely.

Another tip from Tim is to check your split system’s filters regularly, and clean them to ensure the unit runs more efficiently (especially once you start using it for heating, as well as cooling). Most reverse-cycle units are easy to open and remove the filter by hand. Simply brushing off the dust and soaking the filter in soapy water will ensure your unit runs more effectively. Tim says brands like Panasonic, Mitsubishi, and Daikin all provide great reverse-cycle units.

Insulation and Windows

Old homes like this can be quite draughty, but Gemma says their house has been surprisingly ‘fairly pleasant’ so far. ‘The north-facing area and west-facing bedroom does get warm and stuffy on the hot summer days, but otherwise, the rest of the house has kept a pretty moderate temperature.’

Tim noted that all the windows and back doors are single-glazed, which means they won’t keep heat in very well come winter. Upgrading these to double-glazed windows is ideal, but this is a very expensive update that could come in whenever they decide to renovate.

On the positive side, the living room has a low ceiling and won’t take long to warm up with the split system, and even something like heavy curtains could help maintain the internal temperature.

Other positives included the ceiling’s good insulation, thanks to the aluminium lining and fluffy green polyester batts. There were however a few insulation gaps that should be fixed, and there doesn’t appear to be any insulation in the walls. ‘You don’t want to see any bare plaster, every section in walls and ceilings should be covered in insulation,’ Tim adds.

Hot Water System

The gas hot water system in Gemma’s home is a 1998 model. Tim says upgrading it to a more efficient heat pump — an electric hot water unit which uses a fan that extracts heat from the air and stores the hot water for use — should be a priority.

Doing this soon would mean they could take advantage of some of the current rebates available from the government. A middle-tier heat pump tank by makers like Quantum or Hydrotherm starts from around $1000, and because these use only around one-fifth of the energy of conventional (gas) hot water systems, the savings mean it could pay itself off within a year.


Tim suggests Gemma and Luke ditch their current gas cooktop for an electric induction model by brands like AEG or Fisher and Paykel, which cost about $1000 plus an installation fee. Induction is ‘safer, faster, cleaner and cheaper’ than relying on gas — which Tim says is already in limited supply in Victoria.

He also noticed that the kitchen’s current extraction fan doesn’t ‘really go anywhere’, leaving the gas likely lingering around inside the cupboards above. Getting a new range hood is the best way to help improve extraction and duct any fumes outside of the house.

Overall assessment

Upon request, Tim can also provide an official ‘residential scorecard’ rating of a home’s energy efficiency. It’s quite an involved process so he didn’t do this for Gemma and Luke’s house, but unofficially, he estimates the house would score 4 stars in its current state. However, he notes this could easily increase to about 8-9 stars if they apply his recommendations for electric heating and cooling, improve insulation, do some draught proofing, and install solar panels in the future!

Next steps

Gemma says the audit has empowered them to make some changes, and over time they’re keen to implement all Tim’s recommendations. ‘With winter coming up, we’re going to look into buying a split system for the front bedroom first, so we won’t need to reach for the ducted heating. We’ll also replace our almost 30-year-old gas hot water with a heat pump,’ she adds.

‘We see how by making one step each year we can move from being energy consumers to energy producers.’

Momentum Energy is 100% owned by Hydro Tasmania — Australia’s largest generator of renewable energy. Find out more about signing up to an energy retailer that supports the transition to renewables.

Find out more about engaging Tim Forcey for an energy audit for your own home here. Tim’s first book, My Efficient Electric Home Handbook is also coming out later this year – you can pre-order it online here!

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