If you are a renter, chances are your house is cold. With electricity prices soaring, here’s what you can do to stay warm
If you are cold this winter, you are not alone. About a quarter of all Australians struggle to keep their homes warm enough in winter. This figure is expected to skyrocket this year, due to poor housing quality and a rapidly worsening energy crisis.
Renters are particularly at risk, but our research has shown that many landlords are also in the same boat. We’ve collected data over the past few years on how many Australians have cold homes, struggle to keep warm and can’t pay their heating bills.
What counts as cold? The World Health Organization recommends a minimum household temperature of 18℃ for health and well-being. About a fifth of Australian renters, for example, have cold houses. Our current research has shown that this also applies to homeowners, with 26% of people in all housing types unable to stay warm at least half the time in winter.
Australia’s energy crisis will likely lead to skyrocketing energy poverty rates, meaning you won’t be able to keep your home warm or cool enough. Here’s why it’s such a problem – and what you can do about it.
Cold houses affect our health
If you are cold at home, you have a higher risk of developing respiratory problems and high blood pressure. People living in the coldest houses are at a higher risk of dying in winter. The cold can have an impact on our health system, which is already in trouble.
Read more: Energy poverty in the climate crisis: what Australia and the European Union can learn from each other
Southeastern Australia has experienced the coldest start to winter in decades. Melbourne hasn’t been this cold this early since 1949, while Sydney hasn’t seen such temperatures in early June since 1989.
Double concern: the cold and the energy crisis
If you’ve been hit by the recent cold snap, chances are you’ve been reminded of just how cold your home can be. This is not a surprise given the poor performance of existing homes and new dwellings in maintaining an even temperature.
The cold has made many people doubly worried, as the energy needed to heat our leaky and poorly insulated homes is about to become very expensive.
Early results from our survey of over 350 Australians revealed that 25% of people were experiencing money shortages to the point that they would not be able to heat their homes properly. A third of our respondents said energy was unaffordable. Some said they made compromises, such as skimping on food or health care to pay energy bills.
These people are in a situation of energy poverty, that is to say that a household is unable to heat or air-condition its house properly or faces significant financial difficulties in doing so.
Although data on energy poverty in Australia is patchy, we know that around 180,000 households in Victoria had persistent problems paying bills in 2018, and 45,000 households were constantly unable to heat their homes.
Energy price hikes hit low-income households hardest
Low-income households are more exposed to the cold. This is because they are more likely to live in homes that are in poor condition and difficult to heat. A quarter of low-income households told us they struggled to stay warm. Insulation can be a key factor, with 25% of our respondents saying their rental properties were not insulated.
Insulation is important because heat escapes from homes through single-glazed windows or poorly insulated walls and ceilings. As a result, poorly insulated homes cost more to heat.
This makes life more difficult for low-income renters, since they have little control over insulation or other home modifications. Worse still, heaters that are cheap to buy are often the most expensive to run.
While an efficient reverse cycle air conditioner would save money and heat the space better in the long run, it is often difficult for renters to negotiate installation with property managers or landlords – especially given the intense competition for rentals currently in many cities. It can mean that tenants will suffer in silence, not wanting to ask for something that will improve their lives.
What can tenants do?
Low-income renters face real threats of energy poverty this year. While we need systemic change to improve the outlook for Australian renters, there are low-cost, DIY ways to improve the way your home retains heat this winter.
The first step: check that your current heaters are working efficiently. Many people don’t clean the filters in their reverse cycle air conditioners. This makes them less efficient and can drive up energy bills.
Poorly sealed windows and doors make it difficult to keep warm.
Using thermal curtains and keeping them closed makes a big difference. Putting a piece of plywood or even a scarf between the curtain rod and the wall to make a DIY pelmet also helps keep the heat in. If you have single-glazed windows, consider window films as a way to improve performance for a fraction of the cost of double-glazed windows.
It is also important to seal cracks around windows, under doors and around the house at large. Silicone or expanding foam can be used to fill gaps and cracks. Drafts under doors can be stopped with door seals or door snakes.
Read more: 10 ways to keep your home warm (and save money) this winter
Close the doors to your bathroom, laundry room, and other unused rooms to keep heat where you need it most. Hanging a blanket over a door can also be an inexpensive way to seal off a room and concentrate heat.
It’s also worth checking for discounts and concessions offered by your government or state board. These can include energy efficiency improvements or additional help with heating costs. If you’re a tenant, your home must meet minimum standards, so be sure to check what you’re entitled to, as these vary by state.
Everyone deserves a warm home. Our health and well-being depend on it. Building new, energy-efficient homes is only part of the answer. We also need to heat our 10.8 million existing homes.