green renters | 22nd Feb, 2018

Top tips for making your rental home more comfortable, affordable and sustainable

Here are a whole heap of efficiency tips specifically for renters, including advice on what changes you can make yourself (if you can afford it) and what require your landlord's permission.

Here’s a short list of the main things that will help make your home more comfortable to live in and cheaper to run, while cutting energy and water waste. For more detailed information head to Sustainability Victoria or the federal government’s Your Home website.

We’ve also tried to explain where the line is between changes you can legally make to your home and those where you need to ask your landlord’s permission. For guidance on how to talk about efficiency with your landlord head here, and don’t forget to mention they could be eligible for subsidies or tax deductions.

Heating and cooling

Only heat or cool the space you’re in

Just heating or cooling the room you’re in, and not the whole house, will cut energy waste and climate pollution significantly, as well as the amount of money you spend on heating and cooling (if you have it).

Ask your landlord: Unbelievably, there are still rental homes in Victoria without any form of heating, and until we are successful in our campaign for minimum standards there’s no legal requirement to provide it. But, if you do feel safe asking your landlord to install heating, let them know that technology improvements mean that heat pump reverse cycle air-conditioning units now provide the most efficient and sustainable heating option – better than gas. Remind your landlord that maintaining equipment at their rental property such as heaters is tax deductible.

Do it yourself: Turn off heaters and shut doors to rooms which aren’t being used. You might be able to hang a blanket or heavy curtain across the hallway entrance to the living area if there’s no door or section off unused areas. If you’ve got relatively new gas central heating you’ll be able to ‘zone’ it from the control panel. On older systems just close a vent or two, but no more or the system won’t cope. If your heater has a thermostat, keeping it set between 18 and 21 degrees will save money and cut emissions.

Block up unused fireplaces

Your winter warmth also disappears up chimneys.

Ask your landlord: If the fireplace is being used as an open fire, talk to your landlord about installing a slow combustion wood stove instead – they’re much more efficient, will do a better job of heating the room and will increase the value of the property. Even better, asking for the installation of a high efficiency reverse cycle (heat pump) air-conditioner that can be used for both heating and cooling.

Do it yourself: If your fireplace isn’t being used, install a chimney balloon. Some providers offer free installation of these devices, which are designed to prevent warm air escaping up the chimney. Otherwise they can be purchased for around $50. Or you can temporarily block the draft using a block of foam rubber. BUT DO NOT CREATE A FIRE HAZARD. Always make sure that the chimney blocker is clearly evident to you or anyone else who might decide to light a fire, by making sure it is visible in the fireplace, or by leaving a clearly visible piece of cord hanging down, for example.

Remove any temporary blockers you’ve put in the chimney when you move out in case the next tenant lights a fire without looking up the chimney first.

Don’t let the summer heat pour through your windows

Shading your west and north facing windows in summer is one of the most effective ways of keeping your house cooler on very hot days.

Ask your landlord: To install awnings or external blinds.

Do it yourself: You could rig up your own temporary shade cloth structure, or you could grow plants to shade your window. Deciduous plants are perfect, because they’ll keep the heat out in summer and let the sun in in winter. Alternatively, big pots of fast-growing plants like bamboo can be placed against windows in summer and moved away again in winter. And you can take them with you when you move house.

Another option is sheets of silvery stuff that you can get from environmental shops which reflect the sun. You simply cut it to shape and attach it to your window with Velcro dots. You can then remove them when you want the winter sun, or when you want to move out, which means no problems for renters – as long as you’re careful not to damage the glass when you get the velcro dots off.

Legal alert: Technically you can’t alter your rental property’s garden without your landlord’s permission, but many landlords wouldn’t be bothered by you planting deciduous plants, depending on how big a change it is and how cared for the garden was beforehand.

Don’t let the warmth slip out your windows

To keep your home warm in winter you need lined curtains, and you also need pelmets. These are either boxes that sit over the top of the curtain rod so you can’t see it, or ‘invisible pelmets’ which are a strip of wood or similar which sit along the top of the curtain rod and butt up against the back of the curtain. Without them the cold air next to the glass sucks all the warm air down and out of the room – ripped off!

Ask your landlord: To install lined curtains and pelmets – at least in rooms where heating is installed like the living area.

Do it yourself: Plan B might be to hang fabric from the window frames using velcro dots or other mechanisms that can be removed without any lasting damage when you move. If you already have curtains, rest a scarf, a piece of corrugated plastic or something similar across the top of the curtain rod as a DIY pelmet and hey presto, your heat stays in.

Got a skylight?

Ask your landlord: If you’ve got a skylight, it’s worth having the glass on it double glazed, or having a “diffuser” at ceiling level – a sheet of glass or Perspex which diffuses the light and reduces the amount of heat escaping.

Do it yourself: The cheap and easy alternative is to stick bubble wrap on the glass.

Look after your air conditioner

Do it yourself: There are lots of things you can do to stay cool in summer, but if you do need to crank up the air conditioner, make sure you shade it from the sun, keep the filters clean and maintain it in good condition. Set the air con to 26 in summer. Every two degrees lower you set it will emit 1400 black balloons of greenhouse gas.

Ask your landlord: Remind your landlord that maintaining equipment at their rental property is tax deductible.

Saving water

Change your showerhead

Changing your shower-head to a low flow one is one of the biggest, and easiest, ways to cut your water use (they use up to half as much water). And because heating water is one of the biggest energy users in the average home, cutting water waste also saves energy and cuts climate pollution while still feeling like a satisfying shower.

Legal alert: The law on rental properties is ambiguous, so it’s unclear if you can change your showerhead yourself without your landlord’s permission. To be on the safe side, you should get permission.

Do it yourself: First, if you’re not sure if your current showerhead is a low flow one, hold a bucket under it for a minute (buckets usually hold about nine litres). If it only just overflows it’s a low flow showerhead, if it overflows by a lot it’s worth changing over. You don’t need a plumber to change over a showerhead. To do it yourself, make sure you wrap a cloth around the shower fittings before grabbing them with a shifting wrench, so you don’t scratch them and risk having to pay for the damage.

Get a freebie! Some local water corporations of councils have showerhead exchange programs, where you can bring your old one in and swap it for a low flow one for free. But be warned, if you have an instantaneous hot water system (a small box on the wall) or a low pressure one (e.g. gravity fed), things are a bit more complicated.

If your landlord won’t give you permission, or wants you to put the old showerhead back when you move out, go for a flow restrictor instead. These cost less than $10 from hardware stores, you can install them yourself, and they do the same thing as a low flow showerhead.

DIY dual flush

Haven’t got a dual flush toilet? These can save you over 20,000 litres of water a year!

Ask your landlord: To get a dual flush toilet installed.

Do it yourself: Stick a brick or a bottle full of water in the cistern to reduce its volume – on most old toilets you’ll still get plenty of water. Another option is to buy nifty little gadgets which sit inside your toilet cistern, and stop the flushing as soon as you lift your finger. Which means that you just put your finger down for a moment for a half flush, and longer for a full flush – voilà, your own dual flush toilet! Because it just sits inside the cistern, no real installation is needed and you can take it with you when you move out.

DIY tanks

Ask your landlord: Unfortunately government rebates are no longer available for the installation of rainwater tanks, but if you feel comfortable it never hurts to ask. Going the extra yards and connecting the tank to toilet and laundry will significantly increase its water-saving potential and help take pressure off our water storages and rivers.

Do it yourself: There are plenty of DIY alternatives you can rig up yourself, and then take with you when you leave. The simplest way to collect your own rainwater is to just stick a bucket wherever lots of water falls (e.g. under a rust hole in the drain pipe). Another option is to get your landlord’s permission to install a downpipe diverter – a joint you put in your downpipe which gives you the option of directing the water either down the downpipe or down a hose. You could leave the diverter there when you move out, with the hose detached and the water going back down the downpipe. Diverters cost about $35. 

You then need a container to collect your water in. You can sometimes get hold of second hand plastic barrels, but find out if they’ve been used for dangerous chemicals first. You can also buy rain barrels and wheelie bins at big hardware stores, for around $100 for 200-300 litres. You can get one with a tap in the bottom to save you having to bucket the water out the top. If you’re feeling up for a bit of handyperson work, there’s lots of information on the internet on how to install your own tap and over-flow, how to connect two barrels together and more. Finally, make sure your tank/barrel is sealed against mosquitoes! If the lid doesn’t seal tightly, rig up something with fly wire, or old synthetic lacy curtains and elastic.

DIY grey water

A grey water treatment system is a fine investment, but they can cost thousands of dollars. Luckily, there are alternatives.

Do it yourself: Collect your shower water in a bucket. Attach a hose to your washing machine outflow and direct it onto the garden. Don’t make the hose too long, or your machine will struggle. Use a pump to get kids’ bath water onto the garden. But make sure you use grey water friendly soaps and detergents, and that you use grey water safely.

Get your dripping taps fixed

A dripping tap can waste more than 20,000 litres of water a year.

Ask your landlord: To fix any drippers – it’s their responsibility. If they don’t respond, speak to the Tenants Union, for advice and assistance.

Do it yourself: The law’s unclear on if you’re allowed to fix a tap yourself, so to be on the safe side you should ask your landlord for permission.

Fix your leaking cistern

Even a slow, barely visible leak wastes thousands of litres a year, and a visible leak with a constant hissing sound will waste over 96,000 litres.

Do it yourself: If water is gushing into your toilet bowl, the problem is usually that the float arm needs to be adjusted so it sits lower in the cistern. On older cisterns with metal arms with a ball on the end, this can be done just by bending it. On newer cisterns (if they’re the type that has an arm and a float), there is a screw on the top of the arm which you can turn to adjust the height.

It’s also worth checking that water isn’t slowly trickling into your toilet bowl. Put a few drops of food dye into the cistern – if the dye appears in the bowl without flushing, you’ve got a leak.

Ask your landlord: The problem with a leaking toilet is usually a washer that needs replacing. This is easy enough to do yourself, but the law is unclear on if you’re allowed to, so it’s safer to ask your landlord to get it fixed. They’re legally obliged to repair things which were working before.

Mulch the garden

Mulch can dramatically reduce the amount of water you use on the garden.

Legal alert: Technically you’re not supposed to make any alterations to a rental property or garden without your landlord’s permission, but it’s pretty unlikely anyone would consider mulching to be much of an alteration. And just think how much more your plants will love you.

Food and garden

Get composting (even if you don’t have a garden)

A lot of household garbage is food and garden waste, and composting it instead is a great way of halving how much you send to landfill. It’s also a great way to cut your greenhouse gas emissions, and make useful garden products.

If you don’t have a garden but do have a small amount of outdoor space, like a balcony, try a worm farm. If you have no outdoor space at all, you can use a bokashi bucket. This won’t smell, but you will still need to dispose of the bucket’s contents when it’s full, preferably by finding someone who can use it in their garden. Maybe in a local community garden or school kitchen garden? Or you could see if there’s a veggie swap in your area, where you might be able to trade it with local veggie gardeners for their produce.

You can buy a worm farm or compost bins from gardening shops or you might pick them up from your local council , usually at a heavily discounted price. For more information check out our composting fact sheet

Grow your own

It’s satisfying, it cuts down the water and energy that goes into making your food and getting it to you, and it tastes good. All you need is a balcony for a veggie patch (here are some ideas), and if you haven’t got a balcony you can still grow herbs on a window sill.

Legal alert: As a renter you’re not supposed to make alterations to the property, and that includes the garden, but most landlords won’t mind a bit of gardening if you’re not ripping up lawn.


Ditch your downlights

Downlights are low voltage, but that doesn’t make them low energy. In fact they tend to be a big energy user, when you take into account that it can take 12 to light a room that might have used two ordinary globes. They also get really hot, which creates a fire hazard if insulation is put up against them. In lots of houses, a gap is left in the insulation around the downlights to reduce the fire risk, but this lets the heat in your room out through the gaps, and can still cause fires if the insulation is ever moved, for example by tradies shoving it out of the way while they do work in the ceiling.

Ask your landlord: To replace halogen downlights with alternatives which are low energy. If you have insulation, ask your landlord to invest in downlight covers, which reduce the fire risk without leaving a hole in the insulation.

Do it yourself: Leave your downlights off and use lamps instead. Or buy some 25 or 35 watt halogens from the supermarket, for a couple of dollars each. These aren’t as good as proper low energy ones and don’t solve the fire risk, but they’re affordable. You can even get them installed for free through Environment Victoria and Energy Makeovers!

Hot water system

Hot tips for keeping it hot and efficient

Hot water systems are a big chunk of our household energy use. To make sure yours is running efficiently, first check that the temperature’s not up too high. If you have a storage hot water system (one with a big tank), the tank temperature should be set at about 60 degrees. That’s hot enough to kill bacteria, but not so hot that it uses too much energy. For an instantaneous system (a small box on the wall), the temperature should be set at 50 degrees or less. When you go away for more than a weekend, turn your hot water system off, including the pilot light – there are usually instructions on the side on how to re-light it when you get back. If you’re not game to do this, turn the temperature way down instead. You can do all of this as a renter!