Thursday, June 02, 2005

Colder in than out

The other morning as I was heading out the door the TV was on, and I happened to catch part of what seemed to be a "focus on energy & heating issues for the winter" segment on breakfast television .

There was a live feed to a flat of four (male) engineering students in Riccarton, Christchurch. Three of them were sitting on a couch huddled under a worn tartan blanket, while the fourth was lying by the couch under a winterweight sleeping bag, wearing an "EnSoc" woolly hat. The blond, fortyish woman presenting from the Auckland studio proceeded to interview them in an extraordinarily patronising manner.

One of the guys sitting on the couch explained that the house was 97 years old; it had been a student flat for 33 years. Sometimes, he noted, it was "colder inside than out" (in old ChCh flats, a true cliche).

"Sounds re-volting" grimaced the presenter. "Well, it's not really revolting" corrected one of the students. "It's just cold".
"Oh yes" said the presenter. "And I'm sure you're all just lovely to live with".

Now, I probably wouldn't ever have wanted to live in a flat with four engineering students either, but at this point I started to get offended on their behalf. The presenter (who is she, someone?) knew nothing about them, and was supposed to be interviewing them about the struggle to stay warm, not making snide digs with her supercilious Ponsonby-cafe-admiring-the-decor manner. Was she just an arrogant bitch, I wondered, or was she getting flustered talking to four strapping young chaps huddled under a blanket, a bit guache in her attempts to flirt?

The most talkative of the students went on to explain that they had an open fire, and things weren't too bad when they could get it going, but firewood was a bit expensive. "Though we did go out west the other night and, hee hee, liberate some firewood" he said.
"And of course, now in Christchurch" (which she pronounced rather like "Uzbekistan") "there are restrictions on burning in open fires, aren't there" said the presenter. One of the students explained that there were in fact restrictions on putting open fires in new houses.
"So why don't you just buy a heater?" she asked.
"Hmmm, can't really afford the electricity" said one student. "Probably can't afford the heater either" added another.

Before ending the interview, the presenter spotted the weathered fabric of the tartan blanket covering the three on the couch. "That blanket has holes in it" she clucked. "Don't your mothers take care of you?".

Touche. There you have, in a nutshell, much of what I detest about TVNZ and its lumbering, state-corporate, mother-of-the-nation arrogance. Insulated both from real public service requirements and genuine competition, it still seems trapped in an alternate universe where you don't have to respect people's intelligence. May CanWest continue to eat into the market share; in my view the success of TV3 and C4 - though it may have something to do with "targeting the youth market" - is definitely linked to a greater tendency to treat the viewer as an intelligent human being.

I could go on. But this post is not really about the severely irritating presenter or her ilk, so much as the content of the piece, and how it links back to NZ energy issues. How can it be, that in a supposed first-world country, people still can't afford to stay warm in winter?

I froze through ChCh winters as a student, and it seems this continues to be a rite of passage. Which is probably ok if you're young and can go to the university library to stay warm. When the presenter asked if the engineering students experienced any health problems as a result of their glacial environment, they replied (I quote) "Nah, not really". She was able to stay on topic long enough to note that it might be different if you're old or have young kids.

This is still considered par for the course. Government and electricity company websites offer tinkering-round-the-edges recommendations about putting in insulation (bit difficult if you're renting), stuffing draughty cracks, and not heating rooms you're not in. Huddling in front of a three-bar heater in the living room continues to be the norm.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a country of 60 million people and no major hydroelectric schemes, buildings are routinely centrally heated at low cost and are toasty warm during the winter. How do they manage this? Well, you might answer, they were lucky enough to discover a huge pool of gas sitting just off their coastline. Yes, but so did we...and it's only now, when it's running out, that we're seeing household use of gas promoted.

What have we been using it for in the meantime? BBQs, the odd LPG-converted vehicle, some gas heaters. But mostly, it's been burnt in power plants to create electricity. Am I missing the point, or wouldn't it have been smarter to use it directly?

Debates on energy supply continue to use as a measuring stick the possibility of the lights going out . If we can just avoid that, the assumption is, we'll be ok. I would suggest a more ambitious benchmark: People being able to afford to heat their houses.

Here's the comparison: in London Simon and Jill had a combined gas and electricity bill for the last quarter of about 100 pounds, which included as much heat as they needed to pump out during the cold northern winter to keep their whole apartment toasty warm (and dry all their laundry in the process). By contrast, in my flat we've just got a bill of $130 for a month (i.e. $390 a quarter) which - I swear - does not include *any* space heating. So even on straight exchange rates we're paying about 25% more, before you factor in the much higher incomes in the UK. And that's *without* trying to heat anything.

We all know that there are health impacts of sitting round shivering for months at a time. Warm people are healthier, more productive and need to eat less. So why don't we stop faffing around with stuffing towels into cracks and raise our expectations?


sophia said...

Stuff all this clean air business. This year we have decided to get our Juno stove fixed and will burn coal all winter. As they are designed specifically for coal they are spparently very clean burning. Soon of course, there will probably be a big tax whacked onto the price of coal... Anyway, after years of coughing my way through winter in cold flats, I am not about to inflict a poorly heated winter on Alex the baby. It's a false economy trying to cut your heating bill. Everyone gets sicker and you can't get anything done at home because it's too cold. So far we have been running 2 heaters 24/7 and we are ignoring the cost - I imagine our bill will be in the $300 range.

Kevin H said...

Quite agree Simon about the patronising TVNZ. You have to wonder if they are deliberately antagonising viewers by using an Auckland reporter to do a story like that.
New Zealand houses are notoriously poorly insulated, especially given our cold-ish winter climate. And the capital costs of installing either additional insulation and/or central heating are considerable. I can understand why people would prefer to plug in a couple of electric heaters and then suffer the $300 power bill rather than fork out $5 - $10 K for a flash heating system in a home that they may be intending to own for only a few years. Long term thinking is not the forte of most NZers.
Which leaves the poor Chch students. I don't have an easy answer, other than wearing more clothes and perhaps being more fussy with choice of flat, if possible. But as they sit there shivering they might like to conduct a thought experiment; project themselves 20 years into the future and assume they own a couple of rental properties in Chch. As landlords, are they going to pay to have decent insulation and a decent heating system installed in their rental properties?

Cecilia said...

Ah, a subject close to my heart...when people ask me why I came to America, I sometimes respond "Well, I was cold for 20 years and so I had to emigrate." I think part of the problem lies with the refusal to acknowledge that it gets really, really cold in the winter in Christchurch. It's treated as if it's just normal to be that cold and get sick and everyone should just suck it up -- presumably babies like Alex too. I was far less affected by spending a month in the Russian winter than any given winter day in Christchurch. It's not just substandard student housing in Christchurch either. When I was at Villa, the thermostats were set permanently at 13 degrees and no one was able to change them. Of course poor insulation meant it was really only about 10 or 11 degrees -- far below WHO recommendations. Maybe that doesn't sound so bad to some, except we weren't allowed to wear scarves or any non-uniform items inside, though strangely enough the teachers could wrap themselves in as many woolly layers as they wanted...

This refusal to acknowledge the cold has caused buildings and houses to be far less energy efficient than they could be. Double glazing and revolving doors would go a really long way towards enabling everyone to heat their homes and offices properly, but instead the revolving door is virtually unseen anywhere in favor of the door which lets huge gusts of cold in, and I have never seen a double glazed window in NZ in my life. Even with space heaters, an entire house could be effectively heated to a livable level if all the heat wasn't immediately being chilled by icy cold single glazed windows. The difference this makes is really astounding. I tested it in Moscow - with both panes closed the room is toasty warm, even when it's -22 outside, but open one pane and boy does it cool down fast.

Obviously, double glazing wouldn't help the Canterbury students now, since it's unlikely any landlord would spring for that, but I can't comprehend why newly constructed houses and buildings don't go this route. Since there are so many regulations and the government is so much in people's business, I don't know why they don't at least investigate and consider implementing insulation standards such as double glazing and revolving doors. I just refuse to believe that all other Western countries can afford to heat their homes properly and NZ can't.

sophia said...

I totally agree that there is no need to freeze in Christchurch. I spent a midwinter week in Sicily (not the coldest part of the world but it was below freezing every night while I was there) on a place with limited electricity. Our sleeping area which had NO heating apart from any sun during the day actually stayed relatively cosy at night because it was well insulated, with thick walls.
I also agree that it is worrisome that here being freezing in your house in the winter is accepted as normal. I have found the cold not too bad in the last few years as I have become a lot fitter and found a session at the gym (or these days, clocking up miles walking the baby) keeps me warm all day. But it must be hell for the elderley or unwell.
If only we could take the long view and build houses more appropriate to our climate, or try and patch up the ones we already have. ChCh City council is currently offering subsidies to low income households to help heat their houses more effeciently. Unfortunately, one person i know who qualified for this had her fire ripped out and replaced by a heat pump. Nice warm house, but she is now entirely dependent on the fickle and expensive elcetricity supply, so in many ways is no better off.
This is the same city council that has got their central library entrance so wrong (south-facing automatic doors) that the ground floor staff had to have a staff polar-fleece designed to keep them from being too cold at work.

Simon Bidwell said...

ChCh City Council appears to be making a reasonable effort. The situation there creates a conflict of best intentions. The heating source which has been most discouraged for its impact on the local atmosphere - the woodburning fire - is relatively benevolent under wider climate change considerations, since it only emits the carbon in the tree, which is then replaced by planting a new one.

Ironically, efforts to reduce ChCh-type air pollution in Europe have resulted in less sulphur in the air, which was actually countering the effect of carbon dioxide and slowing down global warming.

Coal gets a bad press from all quarters, since it is a fossil fuel which contributes to global warming, and is worse in terms of atmospheric pollutants than gas or oil.

But I'm right with you, Sophia - the infinitesimal impact on the environment of your coal fire is massively outweighed by the importance to Alex's wellbeing of having a warm house. So burn it up...

Carbon taxes shouldn't make a huge difference to the price of coal - it's 4%, meaning a $10 bag should cost $10.40 with the tax.

However, at least one supplier is planning to withdraw from supplying coal for home heating (within a year in Canterbury), citing respect for environmental concerns. I'm inclined to be cynical and guess they've decided it's no longer profitable, as the market will be shrinking, and they will be paying the carbon tax (the govt's intention is for it to be applied as close to production as possible).

Your friend with the heat pump may have done ok. I understand that they're very efficient, and cna be used for cooling as well as heating - though not quite sure how they work.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we could have central heating like in other countries with cold winters?

Combined with the kind of approach Cecilia talks about to building design, I'm sure it would pay off in health and productivity.

This is not an issue restricted to ChCh or the S.Island. It is *freezing* in Wtn at the moment, and my workplace, in a fit of energy efficiency responsibility, has decided that this winter the temperature will be kept at a lower level. When everyone is here during the day it is just tolerable with a sweater on. But that's me, with good circulation - other people are finding it too damn cold. One woman brought in a heater today to put by her feet. Great efficiencies, no?

Simon D said...

Last night, my flatmates, Cherie and John told me a story. Many years ago, Cherie had a pet rabbit named Boutros (after the former secretary general). One evening, she brought her pet to stay over at John's flat. In the morning they found little Boutros, huddled up under a dresser in John's bedroom, dead of exposure. According to Cherie, he was "hard, like a block of ice."