Tales from a well-wrapped historian: smart meters and the management of heating

by Anna Carlsson-Hyslop

Blog originally posted on Sustainable Consumption Institute website.

Are we “a nation of buffoons who can’t work thermostats” or do we actively manage our heating? ‘Smart’ heating controls are touted as the solution to us being apparently passive recipients of central heating systems, while the ‘smart meters’ we are all due by 2020 are supposed to put us in control of our energy use. But how passive are we really?

If I had been writing this in January, I would done so wrapped up in two blankets while wearing three layers and a hat, sitting at the table in my living room in the affluent suburb of West Didsbury, Manchester. The reason for the many layers would not have been a power cut but the combination of cold outdoor temperatures (1 to 3 degrees Celsius) and electric storage heaters in a poorly insulated privately rented flat. Today I am not quite so wrapped up, but only because the outside temperature is probably ten or even fifteen degrees higher.

The temperature in my bedroom regularly hits 12 degree Celsius as I creep under my three or four layers of duvets and quilts, together with a hot water bottle and wearing PJs, woollen hat and socks. The living room has been below 15 degrees many evenings this not particularly cold winter, even though we turn up the output of the storage heaters to max. We wrap up and occasionally turn on the fake-coal electric fire. The fire does not get used often, as I am worried about the bills that would result – though we could well afford this – and the thing seems to blow as much cold as warm air around…

My flat is in a converted late Victorian house, with a living room on the first floor and bedrooms in the attic. It has a small, unfilled, cavity in the walls – I have seen this with my own eyes when the neighbours were renovating and one can also tell this from the brick bond and the thickness of the wall – and only minimal insulation in the roof, with much of the slanting bedroom ceiling being the roof instead of facing the loft.

The point of this litany is not to complain – we are managing all-right, thank you very much, as we are relatively young, well-off and healthy – but rather to highlight that at least some of us manage heating systems at least some of the time, within the constraints of the physical setting of our dwellings and the socio-political constraints of tenure and income. I suspect most of us manage these systems to a smaller or larger extent most of the time. This management is part of our daily habits and practices: we adjust layers of clothing, draw curtains, have a cup of hot tea and perhaps turn heating systems up or down, on or off. Perhaps we hardly consider these actions but just do them, particularly if we have lived in the same house for a long time without changes to the heating system – they are ingrained habits that may not directly spring to mind when considering energy.

How we manage heating systems have also changed over time – the many layers of clothing needed in this flat is now fairly unusual, but would once have been common. In the past the multiplicity of heating systems and practices was perhaps nearer the surface to analysts. Public health and engineering experts in the 1940s in fact recommended such multiplicity, suggesting that ‘background’ domestic heating could best be achieved through efficient solid fuel appliances but that this heating should be ‘topped-up’ using electric or gas fires when needed. In other words, active management of multiple heating appliances was the word of the day.

Later in the post-war period a huge variety of heating practices formed: continued use of traditional solid fuel fires (burning coal or smoke-less fuels), electric, gas and kerosene fires, different kinds of central heating systems: central boiler in blocks of flats, underfloor heating, gas warm air systems, and most recently oil or gas boilers in individual dwellings heating water-filled radiators. Most of these involved more or less active direct management.

In addition, people in the past managed the provided systems to balance comfort, convenience and cost, often adding further appliances. The following table shows how tenants at three different estates run by the London County Council topped-up their solid fuel heating systems in 1956 and also whether they liked their open fire:

Camberwell (many used coke) Stepney (mainly used coal) Hampstead (more affluent tenant)
% using top-up appliances in the living room 71% 66% 98% (over 1/3 did not use the fireplace at all)
Heating in kitchen (tenant provided) 44% 65% 89%
Heating in bedrooms (tenant provided) 63% 40% 67%
Preference for open fires 71% 51% 29%
In London Metropolitan Archive, reference GLC_HG_HHM_10_L055 Part 2 Development & construction Heating & Hot water services 1945

And yes, sometimes people failed to do what they were ‘supposed to’: in 1936 some London County Council tenants used coal instead of the prescribed coke in the new fire places they were provided with by the local gas company. However, they also adjusted the size of the fireplace by introducing firebricks to decrease cost. Their behaviour can partly be explained by a lack of initial instructions but was also the result of them managing the system through experimenting and trying different things out to strike a comfortable and affordable balance.

How can we manage our comfort levels while decreasing our energy use in the future? Clearly we need to insulate British homes further, deal with fuel poverty and have more clever heating controls and meters. However, we may also need to change how we do things. As I finish writing this, the sun is setting and the temperature decreases: I am therefore also pulling a knitted top closer around me, drawing the curtain and adding a blanket to my legs. One thing history shows is that we can change the fuel and technology used for domestic heating, given time and investment. Our practices and how we live our life will no doubt also continue to change, perhaps to include more layers of clothing again.

Anna Carlsson-Hyslop
March 2015

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