How to avoid heating your house
Spring usually heralds accelerating heat, but for Britons this year the season coincides with a scary marker: a 54% rise in the energy price cap, taking the average annual bill to almost 2,000 £. By the next increase this fall, that average will climb to £3,000. So what was, until recently, my annoying eccentricity could soon become common practice: refusing to turn on the heating.
Our gas combi boiler operates much like a water heater only. Above our thermometer at the bottom I recorded a snippet evening standard title, ‘Couple dies in freezing house’. The joke has long since passed. My husband is a moderate and civilized person. This perverse policy of not turning the thermostat down but turning it off is entirely my fault.
My premonitory culture of a way of life that many Europeans will soon have to adopt, whether they like it or not, is not driven by environmental fervor. I am cheap. I worship toughness. A Protestant upbringing gave the confused impression that suffering ennobles. I am seduced by the rational efficiency of grouping individual occupants rather than warming up all the spaces they pass through.
Above all, I never recovered from my disappointment because, in defiance of the great promises of the installers in 2011, our wood stove 1) heats barely more than the living room, and even there only a little; and 2) makes no economic sense (wood costs a fortune). Rather than resign myself to simply buying a bourgeois luxury good with exorbitant running costs, I claim that a small wood-burning stove only lit in the middle of the evening suffices for the winter needs of the whole house all day long. To serve my denial, I subject countless other people – visitors, shopkeepers, and especially my husband – to what doctors euphemistically call “discomfort”.
For me, the recommendation that we all turn our thermostats down one degree – maybe as low as 19°C? – is hilarious. Throughout the relatively mild winter this year, the temperature in our house has consistently stayed at 11°C; 13°C qualified as grilled. During that cold spell in January, when the indoor temperature dropped to 7°C, I was greatly relieved that my husband was abroad. (Even if he were tolerant, he would have gotten angry.) This winter, we turned on the central heating three times, each time for guests. I turned off the system the moment they left.
Because I have lived as many of you will soon live, allow the Ghost of Christmas yet to come to give you a glimpse of your future.
Usual attire: thermal top and bottoms, double socks, stained Ugg boots. Heavy jeans, cashmere sweater. Silk scarf, casual woolen hat. I have a generous selection of housecoats, lined, some below the knee, although my current favorite is a thick faux shearling bomber jacket with a high shearling collar. Assuming I’m bats, the delivery men hastily retreated, though at least the cracked look spooked the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unfortunately, in this outfit, I also look crazy in Zoom interviews.
I learned to type with gloves. Alas, I wore a pair of bright stripes so constantly that I developed a severe wool allergy specific to my hands, causing me to prefer less comfortable synthetics – preferably thin enough that the little finger wouldn’t not inadvertently enable caps lock. If I had spent the time I wasted shopping online for the perfect writing touchscreen gloves for the Daily mail instead, I would have financed our central heating for a year, even with this 54% price increase.
As many of you will soon discover, the body rattles at first, but eventually gets so used to being cold that it stops complaining. I am convinced that a cool temperature in winter is good for your health. However, I only rallied to this theory after having imposed my barbaric frugality, and any opinion that is too convenient is suspect.
Benefits outside of knee-high energy bills: Freezing burns calories (actively shivering burns calories like no one else does) and keeps weight down. Cut flowers remain supernaturally cheerful. Unrefrigerated food lasts for weeks. A stew left on the counter overnight will not spoil. Although difficult to spread at first, the dough never falls apart. Once you’ve finally warmed up (give it a good 15 minutes), sleeping in a freezing room is exquisite, less like mundane sleep than hallucinogenic hibernation. As for the emotional effect of this monastic abstinence, you might opt for lavish self-pity, although personally I prefer smugness. Freedom from the tyranny of British Gas fosters a satisfying grudge.
Of course, there are drawbacks. A freezing house is damp and invites mold. The shower swells and the condensation ruins your paint. Frozen foods take days to thaw; yeast doughs will not prove themselves; meals get cold the moment you pull out your chair. Sleep can be intoxicating, but the odious question of getting out of bed can feel overwhelming.
Oh, and unless they also moved to Siberia-upon-Thames, prepare to have fewer friends. The temperature in our house is so infamous that some companions will only meet at the restaurant (so much to save). The few who brave our hospitality arrive in thick coats which they wear throughout dinner, because even if I gave in, the boiler will not have raised the temperature above 15°C by the time they departure. As one of the spouses is bound to be more enthusiastic than the other about this incessant camping trip, the marital atmosphere can also become frosty. (Our biggest recent battles have been over central heating.) While it would be a good idea to resort to space heaters at least during severe cold spells, it’s easy to get trapped into a mindset where turning on the heating like a normal person looks like a defeat.
A little postscript. Frail, elderly and infirm people, anyone with high blood pressure or circulatory problems, and families with frail infants or children may have a bit of a problem following the Arctic program. So they’d all better go and earn thousands more pounds a year, or consider themselves collateral damage from far dumber policies than my boiler boycott: Covid lockdowns, decades of short-sighted UK energy planning – or lack of planning – and the vain posturing of net zero.