How to heat ourselves and not the spaces we occupy

From the Scotsman, Dec 13, 2013. Attacking those who dare to suggest alternative ways of affording to heat homes limits the discourse, writes Jackie Kemp. A FAMOUS Punch cartoon shows a stately lady showing a guest to her room. “It’s a little chilly,” she is saying kindly. “So I’ve put another dog on your bed.”


Something of this spirit was invoked last week by Tory peer Lady Rawlings who suggested the government should campaign for the elderly to use electric blankets as a green way of staying warm at night instead of central heating.

She was instantly denounced by many on the left as an out-of–touch toff who lacks sympathy with the plight of the fuel poor.

But fuel prices are increasingly a problem not just for the poor but for the “squeezed middle”, and perhaps even a few of the upper classes in their windy Highland castles as well.

High prices may be here to stay and whacking on central heating to keep a whole house at a constant temperature may not be the best way to use energy. We may need to look at alternatives which warm the people rather than the space they occupy.

“Aaaaaagh! £6 of electricity used OVERNIGHT between 4pm yesterday and now! And that’s with no heating on upstairs at all… One very modest 1970s semi, living room being heated by an electric convection heater plus a water boiler on for a wee bit in the night. One storage heater on very low output. And I’m still sitting here wrapped in multiple wool layers. If I was on benefits or a lower wage than I’m fortunate to have, I’d be totally screwed and totally freezing. Jings, I’m angry,” singer songwriter Karine Polwart posted on Facebook recently.

The very rapid rise in energy bills can be hard to cope with and there are accusations of profiteering by the suppliers rows over green levies, but the underlying reality is that with the fall in supply from the North Sea, Britain now relies very heavily on imported gas and there is increasing competition for that from customers across Europe and the world. One of the issues between Russia and Ukraine at the moment is about the gas that flows through Ukraine and on to European customers. If that supply is interrupted, as it was in 2009, the situation may degrade further.

Lady Rawlings, 74, who lives with her 100-year-old mother on a £7 million Georgian estate in Norfolk with a 15-bedroom house does practice what she preaches, she revealed in a recent interview. Her house is “utterly freezing” and she rarely turns on the central heating. “Far too expensive.”

“Before she starts dinner each night, she turns on their electric blankets for two hours and she calculates that the electricity this uses over six months is about £2.

She is used to living in draughty places though and recalls shivering through the winter at boarding school as a child, the glass of water at her bedside occasionally freezing solid.

She is obviously what one might call a tough old bird and philosophical about the huge reaction to her remarks which included Doug Anthoney, of Age Scotland, calling them “crass” and “flippant”.

Lady Rawlings said: “If you don’t say anything, you don’t get criticised. I see this more as down to earth, sensible and practical.”

She often gives electric blankets to friends as Christmas gifts. Electric blankets are much safer than they used to be, she points out, and almost all of the 20 deaths a year that are related to them are due to using models that are more than a decade old.

I visited a lady in her 80s recently who has a small bar fire on in her living room and does not turn on her central heating because of the increasingly high cost of heating oil.

She was waxing lyrical about some fleece non-electric blankets she bought from a shopping channel and which she felt were as good as electric blankets.

Another tip comes from journalist and blogger Dylan Winter who has put up a video of how to “easily heat your home” using a tea light inside two ceramic flower pots. Apparently, one creates a core which becomes extremely hot and the second pot creates a convection current which moves air around it.

Last winter, hit by a shockingly high bill for heating our Victorian home, I looked into renewable solutions to reduce the cost. I got consultants over to advise me on air-source and ground-source heaters; solar power; wind power and geo-thermal. In the main the technology on offer to the individual householder seemed disappointing.

Most were very expensive to install and gave back relatively little in terms of providing cheap heating.

In the end, I concluded that a wood-burning stove was the most sustainable and cost-effective solution for us. Wood is a relatively sustainable method of heating and it is readily available in Scotland.

The wood-burning stove is much more effective than an open fire where almost 90 per cent of the energy goes up the chimney.

In contrast, our beautifully engineered Scandinavian stove uses a handful of logs over an evening. It uses convection as well as radiation and so spreads the heat around the room rather than just warming your front and not your back as an open fire does.

When using the stove, we tend to have one warm room at about 20 degrees in the evening while the rest of the house is a bracing 14 degrees.

Now, I want a second stove for the kitchen.

I am looking for one with an oven so that when it is on I have the option of using it to cook with. When that is installed, I might buy some paraffin lamps, and a shadow puppet kit for entertainment and turn off the power all together, except of course for a bit of hot water once a week.