Case Study: How One Small B&B Made Huge Improvements in Sustainability and Saved €8,000

Slieve Elva B&B, in the Burren, Co Clare, became the first B&B in Ireland to achieve Sustainable Travel Ireland’s prestigious gold standard of certification in May 2023. The business was bought by Ireen and Kris Claes when they moved to the Burren from Belgium in 2014. Here, we detail the work that this Wild Atlantic Way bed and breakfast did to achieve this sustainability award. In the process of achieving certification, the B&B reduced its energy use by 64.7% and saved approximately €5,000 into the bargain. They also radically reduced their carbon footprint. The award confirms that they run a green and eco-friendly B&B, but also a community-focused one.

 

Slieve Elva B&B, in Kilmoon near Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, is owned and run by husband-and-wife team Kris and Ireen Claes. This Wild Atlantic Way business prides itself on offering a home-from-home experience. According to Kris, they want their guests to be able to “get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, while exploring the beautiful Burren and the nearby Wild Atlantic Way”.

But Kris and Ireen have been actively pursuing another major mission too – to make the business as sustainable as possible too.

Highlights Since Starting the Certification journey

Since starting to work with Sustainable Travel Ireland in 2020, Slieve Elva has:

  • Reduced its energy use by 64.7% and saved €5000.
  • Reduced waste going to landfill by 71.4% and saved €1000.

Kris and Ireen Claes work in their new greenhouse.

Small Actions, Big Monetary Savings

But how did a tiny, cash-poor team make such improvements and savings in such a short amount of time? It’s incredibly encouraging to hear that they achieved a lot of the above by implementing cheap or even free solutions.

Ireen states that their focus started with small actions and monitoring. And that this led to significant and surprising monetary savings, which the pair then decided to reinvest in bigger projects, says Ireen.

But by implementing small changes first, we created savings that could be reinvested in other projects.

“As a very small business with limited budget, we thought bigger investments were out of reach. But by implementing small changes first, we created savings that could be reinvested in other projects. That’s how we were able to invest in solar PV, together with a battery and hot water unit,” states Ireen.

But she emphasises that measuring and managing is the first fundamental step of the whole process of becoming sustainable. “Everything started with proper, frequent monitoring and collecting all data of weekly usage in 2020. This gave us a very clear insight on all areas where changes and savings could be made from tackling low-hanging fruit.”

The small actions that the pair undertook included:

  • Installing thermostatic valves.
  • Running cold washes.
  • Changing all lighting to LEDs.
  • Creating awareness with all guests.

Reducing Energy Use

In 2020, before the above actions were taken, the B&B had an average energy use of 2.21kwh per guest per night. By 2022, this was reduced to 0.78 kWh per guest per night – a whopping saving of 64.7%.

Replacing all light bulbs with LEDs cost approximately €250. On a yearly basis, this led to savings of roughly €360. So that small investment was paid back in the first year.

Thermostatic valves cost us around €600. They save 25-30% on the heating costs which for Slieve Elva was somewhere around €550 annually. So again, that investment has almost paid for itself within one year.

Slieve Elva installed solar PV in November 2020 and it now provides 60-65% of their electricity needs. (Photo: pexels-kindel-media)

Surprising Monetary Savings Allow Investment in Energy-Saving Initiatives

Spurred by the above savings and a will to do better for the planet, Kris and Ireen then decided to invest in installing a solar PV system in combination with a battery system and hot water heating.

The solar PV and battery system and hot water unit was installed November 2020. The price then for a 6kw system with an 8kw battery and hot water unit was around €12,000. They received a €3,000 grant which reduced the overall investment to €9,000.

The initiative now provides somewhere around 60-65% of their electricity needs which would be around €1,100 a year calculated on 2020 electricity prices. The calculated payback for the whole system when installed was eight years but since the energy crisis this has been reduced to four years.

The pair also invested in:

  • Installing an EV charger (2021).
  • Putting a water harvesting system in place for the garden and greenhouse (2021) which cost €400 (pump included).
  • Building their greenhouse (2022) which cost €1600 (fully installed.
  • Switching from fossil fuel heating to biogas (2023).

Installing and EV charger and switching to an electric car reduced fuel costs. (Photo: pexels-kindel-media)

Costs and Savings

The EV charger cost €1,500 but they received a €600 grant from the SEAI home charger grant, reducing the cost to the business to €900. The installation of the EV charger didn’t lead to savings as they started to use more electricity with the switch to an electric car. The charger connected through the whole SVP system made it possible to charge the car with solar energy and use excess energy from the solar panels rather than having to put the excess back on to the grid. Switching to an electric vehicle and being able to charge it mostly with ‘free’ energy cut down fuel purchasing resulting in €500 of savings each year on business-related shopping trips and had a good impact on their carbon footprint, however.

The switch from oil heating to biogas heating cost €7,000. Unfortunately, there were no eligible grants available for this. The savings connected to the new efficient heating system compared to their old oil heating system is as much as 50% which results in yearly savings of €1500, so that should have paid for itself within five years. But the Claes couple has the immediate satisfaction of knowing that by the switch to biogas means that they have almost fully eliminated their carbon footprint.

As for the water harvesting system, it provides the needed (depending on the weather)150 litres per day. That saves about 20m³ of mains water per growing season.

 

Waste Reduction

As for waste, the monitoring that Kris and Ireen put in place revealed that, in 2020, the average waste per guest per night was 0.16kg recycling and 0.07kg to landfill. By 2022 this was down to 0.06kg recycling and 0.02kg to landfill – drops of 63.5% and 71.4% respectively. These drops represent a saving of €150.

Kris explains that again, the reductions and savings made around waste were achieved mostly by implementing very simple and cost-effective solutions like:

  • Using no single-use toiletries.
  • Installing a proper recycling station where guests are encouraged to do their part.
  • Elimination of individual small single use toiletries. Bottles are refilled from bulk packages.
  • Reusing: Upcycling old furniture rather than throwing it away. (For example, old mattresses are being repurposed in garden projects.)
  • Food is stored in reusable containers. Silicon covers are used rather than cling film. Bulk packaging/purchasing is used where suitable.
  • Food waste suitable for garden composting is used in the garden.
  • Coffee grind and egg shells are used in the greenhouse.
  • Grain from beer brewing is re-used to make bread and granola.
  • Apple cores and peelings are used to make apple sauce.
  • Whey from cheesemaking is used in pancakes, breads, …
  • Serving guests homegrown vegetables and home made products like jams and yoghurt. (More on this later!)

 

Ways to Save Water

As for water reduction, the below initiatives have been implemented:

  • A water harvesting system has been put in place for use in the garden and greenhouse. Cost: €400 (detailed above).
    Showers and sinks have been fitted with eco flow devices. Cost: €150.
  • All toilet cisterns have been adapted to use a minimum amount of water. (Cost: €0.)

 

Ireen explains that they don’t really have as good data on what their water saving measures led to as they had implemented most of them before they started to really monitor everything. “We also found that water usage (especially for showers) really varies according to the weather and the type of guest so it’s very difficult to connect certain outcomes to certain measurements,” she states.

But they do know that by using low flow shower devices, the reduced water flow from 12 litres per minute to 7-8 litres per minute.

Guests are encouraged to take ‘one-song showers’ via clear signage in their room. Bonus points if you can also towel off before the end, she laughs adding, No Bohemian Rhapsody please!

Ireen adds, “Guests are encouraged to take ‘one-song showers via clear signage in their room. Bonus points if you can also towel off before the end,” she laughs adding, “No Bohemian Rhapsody please!” The on-song shower initiative saves an average of 20 litres per shower, which amounts to roughly 1.4m³ of water savings each week (based on an average of 10 guests daily).

Ireen adds, “Toilets can be easily adapted by adjusting the ball cock system with no extra investments. Fillers like small water bottles (or hippo bags) can also be put in the cistern so it takes less water. And dual flush systems can be easily installed. All this resulted in a saving of 2-3 litres per toilet use. This resulted in a saving of about 800 litres a week (based on an average of 10 guests daily).”

This roughly translated into a yearly saving of €160 which more than covered the cost of installing the low-flow devices.

Guest Education & Involvement is Critical

You’ll notice above that it’s mentioned that guests are encouraged to do their part. Kris and Ireen have found that this is critical in achieving their success.

Ireen recounts, “Guests are encouraged to only ‘take what you eat’. By letting guests choose their breakfast upfront, food waste can be limited to the bare minimum as we only have to prepare what’s really needed. Over the years we’ve developed a good insight in the average amounts our guests eat and adapt portion sizes to this.”

But just how can you communicate these things to guests?

Kris recounts, “The biggest and most important thing here is communication with your guests. We take the time in welcoming our guests, showing them around and explaining all we do without giving them the feeling that we are ‘educating’ them. They are on holiday after all. When doing the guest tour, we always start with the breakfast room. Seeing the recycling station, choosing breakfast and explaining why we do this upfront is usually a very good starting point for guests.

“They automatically start asking questions about it which usually leads to very interesting and very informal conversations. Most of our guests actually show eagerness to learn more about how things can be done differently, especially when they see you can achieve results with some very small things.

“You always have people minimising things but showing them some harsh numbers in a subtle way might make them think about it more. Being aware of your own consumption data and being able to tell them what you were able to save usually is an eyeopener for some. We can only hope this all might be enough for guests to also make a difference when they go back home.”

“On the tour, we clearly explain our recycling station, breakfast, reusable toiletries, and most importantly why we choose to do it like this. Guests get a clear idea of our reasoning and often tell us they’ve never looked at it like that.

“A lot of our guests are really happy to stay at a place like ours that does all these efforts as most find that in their home town and country not enough people seem to care.”

Furthermore, all guests at Slieve Elva are made aware of their sustainability efforts during the booking process. “By staying with us guests agree to do their part and help support our sustainable way of living during their visit,” states Ireen. A QR code and link are also attached to bookings which brings people to the Slieve Elva website containing our environmental policy, goals and actions.

 

Challenges

But they do still face challenges from time to time. Getting people to recycle properly is an ongoing battle!

Kris recounts, “We actually decided to take away the garbage bins in the rooms. Even though we asked people to bring and empty their bins in the recycling station, they just didn’t do it when they had a bin in the room. Now we’ve removed the bin and explained to guests why, they all do a much better job.”

Kris Claes works in Slieve Elva’s orchard where they grow native heritage apples.

Big on Biodiversity

When it comes to protecting biodiversity and nature, this part of certification feels like an obvious part of sustainability for Kris and Ireen. And the same is true for cultural heritage and the community.

“Being located in the Burren & Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Global Geopark, it’s a no-brainer to actively do our part in improving the environment, supporting local community, biodiversity, cultural & heritage conservation projects and so much more to preserve the natural beauty and unique character of the area,” says Kris.

Some of the actions they have implemented include:

  • Creating an orchard with native heritage apple trees.
  • Becoming a business supporter of the All Ireland Pollinator plan and reporting yearly on actions taken to improve biodiversity.
  • Putting a water harvesting system in place for the garden and greenhouse.

 

The Slieve Elva duo are very active participants in local biodiversity and heritage projects via the Burrenbeo Trust and the Burren Ecotourism Network (BEN), a collective of over 65 local businesses. They are also mentors with BEN, helping other businesses on their sustainability transformation.

Next on their agenda is the creation of an organic pond with a regeneration zone and wetland filtration. The full project will probably be in the area of €5000-€6000. Ireen explains that there’s “not really a payback on this money wise. But this project will greatly benefit biodiversity and will become a new feature for the B&B and our guests as swimming in the pond will be possible too. And with the changing Irish weather, we might be able to use it often in the future”.

 

Why Certification Was the Right Choice for Slieve Elva

As for certification, do the Claes couple feel that the official piece of paper is important or is it not just enough to implement changes and reduce the impact of your business? And are there any rewards for becoming certified? Just why they chose to go above and beyond and get certified and what impact that had on the business?

A determined Kris says, “We wanted to prove to everyone that even a microbusiness with limited budget you can achieve a lot,” states Kris.

The certification process also gave Slieve Elva structure and reassurance that the business was going in the right direction. Kris says, “Working with Sustainable Travel Ireland provided a well-guided route to documented and provable improvement. It confirmed we were already doing a lot of things right. It gave us clear insight and structure on all things we were doing without even knowing.

He adds that an official certification also gives you the confidence to name your achievements and improves your reputation within your own industry and community.

“Getting certification will prove to everyone else you’re doing the right thing. It gives power and background to your claims and shows that it’s not all just words but that your process, actions, claims, and results are all legit and backed up with proof.

Kris also says that while certification is not easy, it’s a really useful process.

“The whole certification process might seem daunting at the beginning but once you’re getting more involved, it’s a massive help to create the structure, tools and support you need. We’re a very small, family run business and getting through the whole process was sometimes a struggle. But we managed to stay on top of things and gained very valuable knowledge, insights, community appreciation, … and most of all, now we know we’re doing the right thing.

 

Marketing Magic

And there are further rewards to be gained as more and more media – and customers – are interested in sustainability stories.

On the back of their certification, Slieve Elva has had several stories written about them. They featured in the Clare Herald, as well as on Hi Style and Ireland.com. Kris also took part in a lengthy interview about Slieve Elva’s sustainability journey on Clare FM. Listen here!

Kris and Ireen also say that the certification process expanded their vision of sustainability into something more meaningful than just saving energy, waste and water. It was all that and more and connected them more deeply to their community.

Ireen states, “As the tourism industry becomes more and more aware of the importance of sustainability, getting this certification will send us straight to the front line and make our destination and business a top choice for all those traveling with conscious minds. The certification process with Sustainable Travel Ireland and our involvement with the Burren Ecotourism Network has resulted in our business becoming a more established brand and an example for the industry. These are all strong marketing advantages we can use to reach more partners and potential guests.

She adds, “There’s so much more involved in sustainable tourism like cultural and heritage preservation, working with local communities, accessibility for all … things you didn’t even realise were part of it. And this journey brought us and our business much closer to the local communities and businesses.”

But all of the effort is worthwhile, she adds.

“We reckon that all of our investment will have been paid off within four years. And by getting involved with local communities we finally have the acknowledgement that we ‘belong’ and can make a difference for the area.”

Sustainable Travel Ireland is Ireland’s leading sustainable tourism training and certification organisation. The award to Slieve Elva is based on a detailed online submission and an in-depth in-person assessment by an independent auditor using criteria recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). The GSTC is an independent non-profit UN-mandated organisation that has developed criteria that serve as globally accepted standards for sustainable tourism.

Sustainable Travel Ireland’s mission is to transform the Irish tourism industry into a regenerative business sector that respects and protects the environment, but also supports local communities and makes better places for people to live and work in.

Globally, tourism accounted for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions from 2009 to 2013, making the sector a bigger polluter than the construction industry. However, as Ireland’s largest indigenous industry, tourism is vital to our economy, and particularly to the economy of rural Ireland. So it’s critical that this industry becomes a sustainable one.

Slieve Elva owners holding their Sustainable Travel Ireland Gold Certification award 2023
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