Surviving the winter

How to beat rising household energy costs.

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

This is the first in a three-part series on staying warm this winter. 

It is 6am. Frost is glistening on the tarmac driveway of Fateh Singh’s* home in Birmingham, the second-largest city in the United Kingdom. The 65-year-old removes the cardboard from outside his car windshield. As the days have gotten colder, he has made a habit of protecting the vehicle from frost that forms during the night.

Inside the car, it is bitingly cold as Singh gets ready to drive to work. Usually, he opts for public transport to save on fuel, but recent railway strikes in the UK have forced him to use his car.

“It’s bad because your wages aren’t lined up to compensate for these ridiculous price hikes,” Singh, who is a security guard, tells Al Jazeera.

Average domestic energy costs have increased 74 percent compared with the same time in 2021, according to data (PDF) from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“A lot of stress has been put on us. You’re scared to put the heating on with the way prices have been hiked up, especially with this weather,” Singh says. “You’re having to keep an eye on your smart meter to see how much energy you’re using.”

The UK has recently faced a cold snap, with temperatures dropping below freezing and in some parts of the country falling to as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Singh’s predicament is similar to many others.

A recent report by the University College London's Institute of Health Inequality estimates that 18 million households — or two-thirds of the UK's population — may fall into energy poverty by January 2023. Low-income households, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and Black and minority ethnic groups are most at risk.

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

Singh suffers from fibromyalgia, an illness which causes body pain. The cold weather does not help his condition, and neither does the stress of mounting energy bills.

“My energy provider was telling me I was in debt when I was in nearly 400 pounds [$485] credit. And suddenly I went into 900 pounds [$1,095] of debt. Every time I questioned them, they said: ‘check your meter and send us the reading’, which I did. They said the reading was correct.”

After complaining to his provider and being met with silence and calls being abruptly cut, Singh came across a “Warmth Day” held at the local church - where elders in the area were offered warm drinks and an opportunity to discuss domestic issues such as rising energy costs.

The church took up Singh’s case, but they too were stonewalled by his energy provider. “They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to deal with the problem,” he says.

Volatility in energy and food markets - caused in part by the war in Ukraine - has forced many people in the UK to choose between heating their homes or eating a meal. Many are looking at ways to reduce their energy consumption.

Some are finding creative solutions or seeking expert advice to help lower their bills. “I had energy-saving people come to the house the other day,” says Singh. “They put draught excluders on the doors for me and told me to put heavy curtains in front of the windows to stop a draught coming in. They also gave me three energy-saving bulbs. More or less everything in the house is energy-saving."

However, many argue that the onus cannot be placed solely on the individual. “Nobody is immune from this capitalist system that we’re in,” Randeep Lall, the CEO of West London-based charity Nishkam SWAT tells Al Jazeera, saying people are dying from the cold or being made homeless just because they cannot afford their heating bill.

“A simple question for me is … why is it we’re paying so much for our gas and electricity when these electric companies in three months their profits are £7bn [$8.4bn]. How does that make sense? Who has got the answer to that question?” Lall asks.

According to some reports, Britain’s energy industry could make excess profits of up to 170bn pounds ($205bn) over the next two years.

[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

How to read your energy bill

Rising energy prices make it important for people to understand the fee structure of their electricity and gas bills.

Energy providers should include the following on your bill:

Energy use — Your home’s electrical meter measures the amount of electricity you use in kilowatts per hour (kWh) where 1kW is equal to 1,000 watts. This typically means that the longer you run an appliance, the more electricity you will consume.

Unit cost — It is the amount you pay per kWh. Some energy providers charge less for electricity usage during off-peak (night) hours, when demand for power tends to be lower.

• Tariff — Energy tariffs can either be fixed or variable. A fixed energy tariff means that your unit cost will stay the same for the duration of your contract. In contrast, a “variable rate” means that your energy price can vary during the plan.

• Standing charges — These are the fixed fees you have to pay to remain connected to the network. This fee covers distribution and metering services.

• Total cost — The amount of money you need to pay at the end of the billing period (this could be over a month or every quarter). It is calculated by multiplying energy use by unit cost and then adding standing charges and taxes.

Interactive_How to read your energy bill
(Al Jazeera)

How much electricity are you using?

Understanding how using different appliances affects your bill could turn out to be a useful cost-saving exercise.

Electricity is measured in units of power called watts. Every appliance in your home should have a wattage rating printed on the device.

Generally speaking, appliances that are used for heating, like electrical heaters, water heaters, ovens and electric stoves, have a higher wattage rating and therefore consume more electricity.

To work out the cost of running an appliance, you can use this simple equation: Multiply the appliance wattage (kWh) by the number of hours used per day and the electricity cost per kWh.

For example, a water heater typically uses about 4kWh. If left on for eight hours, you will be paying for 32kWh a day. If you used your water heater for one hour less per day you would use 28kWh, resulting in nearly 15 percent energy saving.

The graphic below compares the cost of running various appliances over the course of a day.

Interactive_How much electricity are you using

How much gas are you consuming?

In 2021, one-third of Europe’s energy — used for generating electricity, transport and heating — came from burning gas. In August, Russia announced that gas flows to Europe would not resume until sanctions on Moscow were lifted. This led to gas prices shooting up, raising fears of a difficult winter in Europe with gas shortages and possible blackouts.

In the UK, 95 percent of households rely on central heating, where gas accounts for 78 percent of the total energy used to heat buildings. An average household typically uses a 24kWh boiler. Running this boiler for eight hours will use about 192kWh.

Gas consumption is measured by volume (cubic metres or cubic feet). One cubic metre of natural gas is equivalent to 10.55kWh.

The graphic below shows how a boiler serves as the heart of heating a home.

Interactive_How much gas are you using

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

How cold is it this winter?

Nearly 90 percent of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere. For those 7 billion people, the winter season has just begun.

In recent weeks, those living in Europe have started feeling the extreme weather with an unexpected cold snap, which has seen temperatures dropping far below zero in many parts of the continent.

According to Europe’s Climate Change Service forecasts, northern and central parts of the continent are expected to see cold and dry conditions over December and into January. In the latter part of winter, above-average temperatures may prevail.

Interactive_How cold is it this winter

“I’m just hoping we have some good weather next year,” says Singh. “We had the heating on in the morning and a bit in the afternoon; in total, for two hours. We’re not going to put it on now. My wife is usually sitting in the cold.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re losing at least 10 pounds [$12] a day on gas and electricity and that’s being very conservative.”

In many parts of Europe and North America, average winter temperatures will remain below the freezing point (0C or 32F).

In the United States, a cold winter with powerful snow storms has been forecast by the National Weather Service in the central and eastern parts throughout the Christmas period.

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

Staying warm without heat

For those now in the midst of winter, the cold is taking a physical and financial toll.

Sharon Scott*, 37, is a working single mother of two renting a flat in southeast London. There is condensation building up on her sash windows as she sits in her bedroom with her coat on while her two-year-old daughter — wrapped in layers of clothing — runs around the room.

“I’m just trying to keep them warm,” Scott tells Al Jazeera. “I’ve had to tell my seven-year-old to be careful with the water. I’ve had to physically go into the shower to turn it off when he’s not coming out.”

More than a third of Britons are waiting until cold weather before putting the heating on, according to YouGov, a British market research and polling firm.

“The windows in my flat are single-glazed — it’s a nightmare. It’s cold and draughty,” says Scott. “The past week, when it has been extremely cold, it probably cost me 20 pounds [$24] a day to just keep the flat warm.”

While some have been forced to turn the heating on, 13 percent of Britons were still not using heating at all as of December 9 to 11, according to YouGov.

How cold affects the body

Staying in the cold can come at a greater cost than energy bills, with a higher risk of illness and death.

According to The Economist, current electricity prices could cause a significant number of deaths.

Predicting how energy prices would affect deaths in Europe, it found that even in a mild winter, deaths could increase to 32,000 above the historical average, while a harsh winter could lead to an extra 335,000 lives being lost.

Cold weather affects the body in a number of ways. Our bodies fight to maintain our core body temperature at about 37.5C (99.5F) to protect our organs from damage.

When it gets cold, our blood becomes thicker, which can lead to clotting. It is one of the reasons that more heart attacks and strokes occur in the days following colder weather.

The cold also affects our ability to fight infection, which is why there are more deaths related to pneumonia in colder weather.

Interactive_What the human body endures

Dr Amir Khan, a National Health Service (NHS) doctor and senior lecturer at The University of Leeds School of Medicine and The University of Bradford, says risk factors for certain health conditions increase when humans are exposed to the cold for long periods of time. These include:

• Muscle tightening around blood vessels, which can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of a heart attack.

• Muscle tightening around the airway tunnels in the lungs, as well as increased mucus production, raises the risk of lung infection.

• Increased risk of anxiety and depression due to social isolation and low exposure to sunlight.

• Worsening of pre-existing health conditions such as anaemia, anorexia, hypothyroidism and fibromyalgia.

“The sad truth is this cost of living crisis will affect the most vulnerable in our society disproportionately — whether that’s those with chronic underlying conditions or those who are already struggling financially — and global effort is needed to help mitigate the risk posed to these people,” Khan tells Al Jazeera.

Survival strategies for staying warm

Inside single mother Scott’s flat, the open kitchen-living area is scattered with scraggy synthetic rugs. There is an unused fireplace on one side, where a draught comes in and the sash windows shake in their frame at every blow of the wind.

The flat, while sufficiently roomy, circulates cold air and is not winter-friendly.

“The living room, where it is quite cold — we just don’t sit in that room. We sit in the bedroom where it’s a little bit warmer,” says Scott. About 20 percent of Britons are using fewer rooms in the house to conserve energy, according to YouGov.

Al Jazeera spoke to Derek Robertson, a survival expert at Backcountry Survival, to get some tips on how to stay warm in frigid temperatures.

Interactive_Maintaining body temperature in the cold

Some survival tips:

• Wear a layering system: Have a base layer that is direct to your skin, then layer more clothes on top. Make sure they stay dry; if damp, remove and put dry clothes on.

• Cover any draughts in the house: Put towels/blankets across windows and along door bottoms.

• Cover floors with towels, blankets or rugs to reduce heat loss if you do not have carpeting.

• If you have a fire, make sure to keep a good supply of tinder, kindling and firewood.

• To avoid having to leave the house as often in the cold, store foods with long shelf lives: sugar, flour, oats, dried beans, tinned food and boil-in-the-bag meals.

• If you have a fire, this can be used for cooking. Otherwise, camping gas cookers, barbecue grills, etc can be used.

Like many others, Scott has already implemented techniques to keep her family warm.

“Mainly I will heat up the bed with hot water bottles. I’ve bought these teddy bear fleece bed sets which are quite warm in the bed and I tend to use the hairdryer just to heat the bed up before we jump in,” she says.

“It’s been pretty difficult,” Scott says. “It’s trying to manage month by month and really budget. But, the cost of living in general — the rising cost of food — it’s been very hard. I’ve had to ration I guess and make food to make it last a couple of days. Trying not to cook every day, so I’m not using the gas every day.”

Even with heat-saving techniques, the cost of living keeps Scott in a constant state of worry.

“I can feel the cold, so for sure my kids can feel it too.”

*Not their real names

Source: Al Jazeera