Lived experience of fuel poverty: research

Qualitative research into the lived experience of fuel poverty in Scotland.

2. Lived experienced of fuel poverty: participants’ stories

This section provides a summary of the findings from interviews with five participants involved in the research to help convey the lived experience of fuel poverty. They illustrate some, though not all, of the different circumstances that have a bearing on the lived experienced of fuel poverty. Names of participants have been changed for the purpose of protecting their anonymity.

These stories have been chosen because they illustrate some of the key findings that emerged from the research. These include:

  • issues with heating systems for those without central heating, and specifically related to electric storage heating
  • issues with heat retention and lack of insulation
  • coping strategies to stay warm in underheated homes
  • the physical and emotional impacts of living in underheated homes
  • the distinct experiences of households where someone has a chronic health condition, or where there is a child aged 5 and under
  • views on prepayment as a form of paying for fuel.

Stuart’s story

  • Stuart (48) lives alone in a first floor flat in Inverclyde which he rents from a private landlord. He is not working at the moment. Stuart describes his life right now as “okay - it’s bearable”.
  • Stuart’s flat has electric storage heaters, but after receiving a very high and unexpected bill when he first moved in, he now makes sure never to switch them on. This means he does not currently use any heating in his home. He thinks he can manage without heating, as the flat is well insulated and has few external walls, so it rarely gets very cold. He wears extra layers if it does feel colder, and if it is particularly cold he sits in a sleeping bag to stay comfortable. In the past he tried using a small plug-in heater, before he discovered that this was even more expensive than using the storage heaters, so he doesn’t use it anymore.
  • Stuart has never spoken to his landlord or his supplier about his heating, as he feels he is managing okay at the moment. While he would prefer to be connected to a mains gas supply, which he believes would be cheaper than electric heating, this is not within his control as he doesn’t own the property. He hasn’t sought any advice or support about heating his home, although he would welcome information on using electric storage heaters or using the heating efficiently, as there may be a cheaper way of using them that he is unaware of.
  • Stuart pays for his electricity with a prepayment card, as this is the method that he feels gives him the most control over his spending. Being able to top up the card whenever he wants to gives him flexibility and peace of mind. He imagines the timing of a direct debit would not always correspond with the timing of his benefits, which may mean he would be unable to cover the payment. He has considered switching to direct debit to save money, but it would have to be a large saving to convince him to change and he doubts this would be the case.
  • Stuart would welcome advice on switching to direct debit, as he finds it difficult to understand whether it would work for his circumstances and whether the advertised deals are good in the long term or not.
  • Stuart just about manages to cover his household bills with the benefits he receives. He therefore budgets very carefully. He gets very stressed by the prospect of receiving any large bill, although he imagines everyone probably feels this way. He thinks the cost of energy is too expensive already and that there should be more control of energy companies to stop them raising their prices further.
  • Stuart does not have a smart meter and does not want one, as he thinks checking the display all the time would only add to his stress about how much energy he uses and how much it costs.

Louise’s story

Louise (61) lives in a detached house with her husband in North Uist, in the Western Isles. They have lived together in this house for over 30 years.

Louise feels comfortable in their home. It is usually warm enough for them both when the heating is on, though sometimes they do still feel a bit cold when the heating is on. When that happens, Louise will put on another layer of clothing – which she feels is fairly normal, and something that most people do.

The house does not have central heating. They spend most of their time in the kitchen, where there is a coal fire and an electric heater which they turn on in the morning. They have a wood burning stove in their living room, which they light in the evening as they don’t usually use this room during the day. They also have portable electric heaters which they use in the bedroom and move around the house depending on which room they are using. There is no heat at all in the bathroom, so it is always cold.

Louise is fairly happy with this pattern of heating, but mainly because it is what she is used to. She would really like to have central heating installed, because she thinks it would be more convenient and could be cheaper than their current system, and she thinks it would heat the house better. But the cost of installing it is too expensive, more than they can afford.

Louise and her husband got external wall insulation last year, via a government grant. She says the insulation has made a big difference to the warmth of the home, meaning the house retains heating better and they don’t have to use their heating as much as they used to. They would not have been able to afford to get this done without the grant they received from the government (though she doesn’t remember the specific details of how they applied for the funding).

Louise and her husband pay for their electricity via monthly direct debit and buy their solid fuel as and when they need it. Louise likes the regular and predictable nature of a direct debit. They budget carefully each month and feel the amount they pay is manageable, though they have very little money left over each month. They prioritise their heating over other expenses as they feel it is an essential. If they were faced with a large unexpected bill, they would have no money to cover it so would need to take out a loan.

Catherine’s story

Catherine (53) lives alone in a semi-detached house in South Lanarkshire that she rents from the council. She has arthritis and back pains which limit her mobility and mean she is unable to work. She therefore spends most of her time at home.

Catherine is finding life quite difficult at the moment. Catherine describes her house as “cold” and her physical and mental health both suffer as a result of living in a cold house. Cold temperatures make her arthritis and back pains worse, meaning she is often in a lot of pain. This in turn makes it difficult for her to leave the house and she often feels lonely and depressed.

Catherine’s house has gas central heating with radiators. Catherine keeps her heating on all day and overnight, because the housing is “unbearably cold” when the heating is off. She keeps the temperature at 18°C, but this is still not warm enough, meaning Catherine wears several layers and places blankets and towels on her furniture to try and keep them warm. She does not increase the temperature above 18°C, because she would not be able to afford the cost of doing so. While she thinks portable plug-in heaters would help make the home warmer, she does not use these as she cannot afford the cost of electricity.

Catherine attributes the cold temperature of the house to draughts and a lack of insulation. There are gaps around the letter box, an open extractor fan in the kitchen, and poor sealing around the windows which all let in cold air. She thinks there is cavity wall insulation, but even if there is she feels the house loses a lot of heat. A lot of cold air also comes up from the floor, which Catherine thinks is because of a lack of or poor floor insulation.

The cold in the house is also affecting other aspects of Catherine’s routine. She only washes her laundry once a month, as there is not enough heat in the home to dry the clothes quickly, meaning they end up smelling of damp. Restricting her use of the washing machine also saves on her energy costs.

Catherine pays for her gas and electricity via monthly direct debit. She likes the regular and predictable nature of a direct debit, as she accounts for every penny of her income from benefits each month. She receives a discount on her bills through the Warm Home Discount. She also built up some credit from her energy supplier due to a mistake on her bills, and is currently using that credit to cover her energy bills. Once that money runs out, she is worried about how she will cover her bills, as she is at the maximum of her overdraft every month.

Catherine has contacted her council numerous times to ask them to fix the draughts in the house and improve the insulation. The council have been unresponsive to requests to resolve these issues. Catherine feels very frustrated at their lack of response and feels that pressure should be on councils and local authorities to make sure properties like hers are adequately heated and insulated.

Jenny’s story

Jenny (35) lives with her husband John and their 3-month old baby Ellie in a four-in -a-block in Clackmannanshire. They own the property, paying for it with a mortgage. John works full time while Jenny stays at home to look after Ellie. John often works overtime to help bring in more money.

Keeping the home warm is very important to Jenny, as she spends most of her day at home with Ellie and wants to make sure Ellie is comfortable. They have gas central heating, which they control with a thermostat. It is usually set on a timer at a temperature of 18°C between 6-8am and 4-6pm, but Jenny boosts the temperature higher than this on colder days or whenever she thinks Ellie might need extra warmth, for example when she gives her a bath. Before having Ellie, Jenny would just put on extra layers if she needed to feel warmer to avoid using more fuel. But since having Ellie, they have found that they are using the heating more than they used to.

Jenny is generally happy with the boiler and radiators in the home. However, she says the home is not good at retaining heat, and therefore cools down quickly. This is particularly bad in the bathroom, where there are draughts from the window because it is not properly sealed. She also feels the property is generally poorly insulated. Jenny has asked her energy supplier in the past about getting better insulation but was told they were unable to get insulation in the walls because they are stone and not cavity.

Jenny and John pay for their fuel via a monthly direct debit, which works well for them as they know exactly how much is coming out of their account each month. While they are managing financially, they need to budget very carefully and rarely have any money left over each month. Any week where they have to pick up washing powder or an extra expense would cut into their food budget, so they have to balance their spending carefully. If they were faced with a large, unexpected bill they would struggle to pay it.

Jenny and John check they are on the best energy deal once a year, and have switched suppliers in the past to get a better deal. They do not have a smart meter as John does not trust energy companies not to use the data to charge more.

While Jenny and John feel they manage okay financially, they would welcome a discount off their energy bill to take into account their income level and the fact that Jenny is unable to work while looking after Ellie. Jenny does not think she would be eligible for this type of support (for example, the Warm Home Discount Scheme) as they earn above the income thresholds. However, she feels that the eligibility for these schemes could be broadened to include people in their situation, as they are just about managing to cover their bills on their income.

Matt’s story

Matt (31) lives in a terraced house in Edinburgh with his mother Claire (59). They rent the house from the housing association. Claire suffers from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Matt describes the house as “cold” in the winter and says the cold has caused them both to feel “miserable”. The house has gas central heating, but they have to limit how much heating they use because of the cost. They turn on their heating from 6 to 9pm each day, but cannot afford to use it more than that.

Without the heating on Claire regularly feels cold, so will use an electric blanket when sitting in the living room to try and get warmer – but the electricity it uses is “extortionate”. Matt will also sometimes wear an outdoor jacket indoors to help keep warm. As well as making them both feel miserable, the cold temperature in the house has a particularly severe impact on Claire. It can make her joints seize up and leave her feeling in pain; something both she and Matt find upsetting.

Matt feels the cold in the house is made worse by a lack of insulation. The house has double glazing which the housing association installed in 2001, but to his knowledge it has not had any new insulation since it was first built. He has raised this with housing association numerous times but it “falls on deaf ears”, and they haven’t taken any action.

Matt also says the house lacks ventilation and gets a lot of condensation on the windows. The walls at the front of the house also suffer from damp, which Matt has tried to treat with damp proof paint but this hasn’t helped. The housing association came to investigate the issue, but as they could not find any obvious leaks they said they could not do anything to help.

Matt pays for his electricity with a prepayment card. He feels comfortable with this approach as it is “what we have always done”. He feels that direct debit would mean a lack of control over the amount they are spending on heat. Friends of Matt’s who pay by direct debit have told him they often get bills that are higher than the amount they expected, which they then struggle to pay. With prepayment, Matt knows exactly how much he can put on the meter and then control his heating use accordingly.



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