Lived experience of fuel poverty: research

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

3. Heating the home and staying warm

3.1 Introduction

This chapter explores how comfortable participants felt in their homes, including whether or not they felt adequately warm. It examines the practical steps they took to keep warm, through both their use of home heating and other coping strategies, before outlining some of the impacts experienced by those living in homes that were not felt to be warm enough. Findings on heating patterns and perceptions of warmth draw on both the in-depth interviews and the heating diaries prepared by participants.

3.2 Perceptions of comfort and warmth

To help provide context for the lived experience of fuel poverty, participants were asked to describe how comfortable they felt in their homes, both generally and specifically in terms of warmth.

Most participants said they felt generally comfortable in their homes. Feelings of comfort within the home were associated with a range of factors, such as having their belongings around them, feeling settled in their home, and being happy with the area and their neighbours. Other factors mentioned were aesthetic features such as feelings of lightness and brightness or enjoying the views from the windows. For the minority that did not feel comfortable, they attributed this to anti-social behaviour in their area, strained relations with neighbours or issues with the property itself such as repair work that needed to be carried out by private landlords or local authorities/housing associations.

Comfort was also closely associated with feelings of warmth. Before exploring satisfaction with warmth in the home it is first worth noting that personal warmth[16] was very subjective, with participants having different meanings for what being “warm enough” meant. For example, some described their ideal warmth as being a constant temperature of around 18°C, while others preferred higher temperatures such as 22°C or 24°C (Figure 2 shows one participant’s thermostat set at their preferred temperature of 22.5°C).

Figure 2. Particiant's thermostat display
A photo of a participant’s thermostat, displaying a temperature of 22.5 degrees Celsius.

Others did not specify an exact ideal temperature, but described warmth in terms of the clothing they wore indoors. For example, some felt that being warm enough meant being able to sit in the house in a t-shirt, while others felt comfortably warm while wearing jumpers or other layers. While these different ways of perceiving warmth were somewhat driven by participants’ health and life stage, they were also simply a symptom of how ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ an individual considered themselves to be:

“Different people have different requirements when it comes to heating, you know, feeling warm. I've got a friend who comes down and she feels this place is colder than I feel it…. well, look, I'm in shirt sleeves”.

Jim, 35+ no children, Private renter, Other urban/non remote rural, FP[17]

Reflecting the subjective nature of personal warmth, satisfaction with warmth in the home varied. On one end of the scale were those reporting no issues because they felt their heating systems worked well, their homes were well insulated, and they could afford to use the amount of heating they needed to feel comfortable.

On the other end of the scale were those who were struggling to keep most or any of their rooms as warm as they would like.

Even those that were initially positive about the warmth in their home went on to describe problems that impacted their ability to stay as warm as they would have liked. Examples of issues included draughts, ineffective thermostats, poor or no insulation, stone floors and too few or unevenly distributed radiators. (Issues with heating systems and heat retention are explored in detail in 4.2 Heating systems and 4.3 Energy efficiency). Matt and Jenny’s stories both highlight some of the issues with poorly-insulated homes:

“Sometimes we will put the heating up to 25°C and then bring it straight back down after maybe half an hour or something just to get the initial chill out of it. That's really all it is, is taking the chill out of the air, it's never about heating the house. You can’t afford to. As long as the chill is gone that’s fine. I have never known this house to be warm ever. I've got a friend who lives in the flats just there and she lives on the ground floor, her house is like an oven, and she has not got many outside walls, and what a difference it makes - full insulation everywhere. In this house, everything, everything falls down to the lack of insulation.”

Matt, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

“If it's cold outside, our insulation is not brilliant and we have got... particularly round the bathroom window isn’t very well sealed so cold air gets in there. We have a cat flap which doesn’t help with insulation. All bar one wall is an external wall. And our heat escapes upstairs, because it's like having a massive loft space because the insulation isn’t brilliant between us and them.”.

Jenny, Family with children 5 and under, Owner occupier,

Other urban, FP and EHR

Participants also experienced varying levels of warmth within the home. For example, those that were fairly satisfied with temperatures in their living room, often spoke of cooler temperatures elsewhere:

“Yes [it’s cold], especially in the evening and especially as soon as we wake up if it's been quite cold... the kitchen, the living room, you don't feel it as much, but my son’s bedroom and our bedroom are really quite cold.”

Lisa, family with children 5 and under, Owner occupier,

Other urban/non-remote rural, FP and EHR

Due to the subjective nature of personal warmth, satisfaction with heating was not always consistent among members of the same household. Reflecting the Evidence Review findings, there were a few examples of gendered differences in this respect, with women preferring to have the heating on higher or for longer than men. These differences had led to some disagreements between household members about heating use:

“[My husband] moans if I put on the heating too much, he is like ‘I'm getting sore head’… But I'm running about doing things, I'm worried about my wee one when I'm giving him a bath and stuff, because I want him to be cosy, I don't want him to be cold.”

Lisa, family with children 5 and under, Owner occupier,

Other urban/non-remote rural, FP and EHR

Keeping the home warm was seen as particularly important by participants in households where an EHR applied. In keeping with previous studies summarised in the Evidence Review, those with, or caring for people with, chronic health conditions or physical disabilities spoke of needing longer periods of heating or higher temperatures in order to stay warm. A few participants described how health conditions had worsened due to underheating of the home, resulting in physical discomfort and pain or negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Parents of children in underheated homes also described struggling to keep everyone warm and emphasised how stressful this was.

“It's just really uncomfortable… I quite often have to go and get a hot water bottle… because of my disability I can’t fully regulate my body temperature, so once I'm cold I'm freezing, and it takes me a long time to warm up.”

Maggie, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Large urban, FP and EHR

3.3 Use of heating

The way that energy is used in the home is one of the four key drivers of fuel poverty recognised by the Scottish Government. This section therefore examines patterns of heating use and the factors that shape them. It then looks in more detail at the ways in which participants were limiting their use of heating to keep costs down.

When discussing their patterns of heating use, participants largely focussed on their use during winter months. Different patterns of heating use were evident. In part these were influenced by personal preference on temperature, including how ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ a person typically was. Other factors had an impact on the way heating was used, including daily routines, health conditions, the presence of children and fuel costs.

3.3.1 Daily routines

For those who were in work and had a regular pattern of leaving the home each day, their heating regimes typically involved two set times of the day when the heating would be on.

Those who were at home during the day, meanwhile, chose to keep their heating on throughout the day if they could afford to do so. Those that were socially isolated (often because of health issues) spent most of their time at home and tended to keep the heating on for long periods throughout the day. Older participants (65+) that kept their heating on all day tended to do so at a temperature that they considered relatively low, such as 18°C, perceiving this to be the most energy and cost-efficient way of using fuel.

3.3.2 Health conditions

Most participants with chronic health conditions described needing high heating temperatures and/or keeping the heating on for long enough so that they remained comfortable and did not risk worsening their health. This often meant keeping the heating on all day and, for some, all night too (this was particularly important to people whose health conditions mean they are up during the night):

“Normally in the winter I keep it on 24 hours. Because it's continual, you're building up a continuous heat rather than switching it on and switching it off because the room cools down. I don't [limit heating use] because the thing is if you need the heat, you need the heat. If I need it I'm just going to use it.”

Lorraine, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, EFP and EHR

Examples of chronic health conditions that required warmer temperatures included respiratory diseases such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). One participant with multiple health problems started her day early because she needed to take medication at 6am and therefore put the heating and electric fire on at 6am and kept the heating on until she went to bed at 10pm. The prospect of being unable to stick to this routine was a source of anxiety for her, as it would have a serious effect on her respiratory health condition.

One participant with asthma avoided one of the rooms in his house that had a draught, as the cold temperature could lead him to have an attack. In contrast, another participant with asthma did not want the temperature to exceed 18°C, as he felt the warmer temperature might trigger an attack. He also needed to keep their flat well ventilated for the same reason.

Due to a heightened reliance on heating, limiting use was not seen as an option by those with certain chronic health conditions. These participants either felt that they could comfortably afford the cost of the heat they were using, or they prioritised heating bills over other expenses. Prioritisation of heating over other costs is explored in more detail in Chapter 5.

3.3.3 Needs of children

Parents with young children discussed making decisions about their heating pattern to fit the needs of their children. One mother described experimenting with the timer on her heating to try to keep costs down whilst attempting to keep the house warm enough for her family (including her disabled child). She concluded that a lower constant temperature was the best option, however the house was still not as warm as she would like:

“My oldest son has got disabilities so I need to keep it up to a certain temperature for him….on the Saturday it pretty much goes on all the whole day up until about eight o’clock and never really turned off… what I found is when you switch it off it cools down so quickly you will maybe spend the next hour trying to heat it up. But… I would say down the stairs was luke-bearable warm and up the stairs was comfortable.”

Kimberley, Family with children u16, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

3.3.4 Cost and limiting heating use

Participants were generally mindful of the costs of fuel and heated their homes accordingly. Fear of getting a large bill was described as a main reason to limit use, including by those who also said they were managing well financially. Those who used prepayment meters were also mindful of costs, with their use of heating being dictated by the amount they chose to put on their prepayment cards, which was typically restricted to only as much as they could afford:

“I would like to put the heating on more than I do, I probably could afford it, I could afford it to put it on, but I'm just frightened that sometimes I will get a huge horrendous bill. It's as comfortable as I want it to be.”

Sonia, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Large urban, FP

Older people in particular were more cautious in their use of heating. They tended to emphasise the importance of not being wasteful, saying this was shaped by their experience of growing up without central heating or as part of a generation that was generally cautious with their spending. One participant took this point further by criticising younger generations for using more heating rather than wearing extra layers of clothes:

"We were all brought up without central heating. It was normal that there was ice inside the windows… In my daughter’s house they go around in t-shirts in the winter."

Helen, 35+ no children, Social renter, Remote rural, EFP

While not especially prevalent, the desire to reduce one’s carbon footprint was also mentioned as a reason to be mindful of how much energy was used. However, this was usually secondary to financial considerations.

Limiting the amount of heat used was particularly prevalent among those with lower incomes and who were struggling financially. Those limiting their heating did so in a range of ways, including:

  • waiting until a set time before putting the heating on (despite cold weather and temperatures indoor)
  • not using the heating at all or once a month during winter
  • not heating certain rooms (often bedrooms, kitchens, hallways)
  • keeping the family in one room and not heating other rooms
  • keeping a careful eye on the balance on the prepayment meter and limiting use if it was running low.

Stuart’s story shows an example of the impact of the perceived high cost of electric heating. He had stopped using his electric storage heaters completely because of the cost involved and was not using alternative heating appliances. He felt that his flat was at a bearable temperature because of the warmth from the surrounding flats, meaning he did not need to use other forms of heating:

“I don't use it because… the bills went right through the roof literally, so from being £100 in credit to [a] £200 bill, which I think is outrageous, but the supplier keeps putting their prices up. They should be regulated … it’s a disgrace.”

Stuart, 35+ no children, Private renter, Other urban/non-remote rural,


Feelings around and attitudes towards limiting use of heating were mixed. As well as those that limited their use of heating because their homes felt warm enough, others ranged from those who downplayed or normalised measures such as going to bed early or not using the heating for weeks at a time, to participants who found describing their situations upsetting, and were clearly stressed and frustrated at being unable to afford to heat their homes to the temperature they would like.

“Some nights we don't have the heat on [upstairs] at all. It has to be really cold before we put it on and even then we don't have to have it on long …but that’s just what you do.”

Helen, 35+ no children, Social renter, Remote rural, EFP

“Heat, heat is always our number one priority during the winter. Obviously, the dark nights you want to feel comfortable you want to feel safe in your own home…but in winter, coming home to a freezing cold house and knowing that I can’t put the gas on, can’t put the heating on until a certain time because that's our quota of what we can afford, that makes me feel pretty rubbish.”

Matt, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

3.4 Coping strategies to keep warm

To combat feelings of cold, increasing the room temperature or using heating more frequently were often not viable options; around half of participants said they were unable to do so either because of the cost restrictions outlined above, issues with heating systems, or poor heat retention. Those living in poorly heated homes therefore used a number of other coping strategies to stay warm.

The most common strategies, such as wearing more layers of clothes, using blankets and hot water bottles, were seen as common sense and did not appear to cause a great deal of concern. Further measures participants took to stay warm included:

  • taping card over vents to keep out draughts
  • lining windows and doors with towels to keep out draughts
  • lining furniture with extra layers to provide additional warmth
  • using a sleeping bag during the day
  • wearing outdoor coats indoors
  • keeping the family in one room and heating just that room
  • spending evenings in warmer rooms upstairs or going to bed early
  • parents co-sleeping with children.

These coping strategies echo some of those found by De Haro & Koloski (2013) as referenced in the Evidence Review.

Use of secondary sources of heat, such as portable electric heaters, were rare. There was a view amongst participants, including those who had used them in the past, that they were expensive to run and therefore were only used as a last resort in particularly cold weather.

Many of these coping strategies were regarded as normal and they usually formed part of routines that participants had become used to. Stuart’s story illustrates this:

“I just put the sleeping bag here and then I can just sit inside it which is nice and toasty when you do that, so you don't need heating when you do that.”

Stuart, 35+ no children, Private renter, Other urban/non-remote rural,


A tendency of some participants to downplay the impact of having to take these measures echoes findings referenced in the Evidence Review from the Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick study (2017), which suggested this may be down to a sense of shame or embarrassment. In contrast to the findings in the Evidence Review however, no participants explicitly said they enjoyed having to take some of these measures. For example, a study by Butler and Sherriff in 2017 found some young adult householders enjoyed getting under their favourite blanket.

Those who described living in particularly cold homes felt that these coping strategies were not always enough for them to reach an adequate level of warmth. Catherine’s story is an example of this. She had multiple health conditions and found wearing extra layers did not suffice:

“Regardless of how many layers I wear [I’m not comfortable], I've got thermal tights on under these… but where the base of your back is… the cold comes up and hits me right there, so I get sciatica… my back can sometimes swell right up, and that's where the cold is hitting it… it gets to the point where you can’t walk or you can’t sit or I can’t get out the chair. It makes me feel horrendous.”

Catherine, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

3.5 Impact of living in underheated homes

While there was a general tendency to downplay or normalise behaviour associated with living in cold homes, negative impacts on health and wellbeing also emerged. In keeping with the Evidence Review, negative impacts of living in cold homes tended to be felt the most by families with young children and households to which an EHR would apply, specifically those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. The impacts of living in underheated homes for each of these groups are outlined below.

3.5.1 Families with children

Parents that could not adequately heat their homes felt additional pressure and stress, particularly those with children aged 5 and under and those whose children had disabilities that meant they needed to stay warm. This group had to think about heating their homes to ensure their children were warm enough for bath times, and nappy and clothing changes.

One parent of a child with cerebral palsy talked about finding it difficult to find a balance between keeping the home warm enough and managing the cost of heating. As well as being concerned about the needs of her children, she herself spoke of the negative effects that low temperature had on her own mental and physical health:

“I tend to sit with the boys up the stairs from six, seven o’clock most nights because it's too cold downstairs and it just annoys me. My oldest son has got disabilities so I need to keep it up to a certain temperature for him. But then you can’t have the heating on constantly because of the cost. So, it's hard to get the right balance. [When it is cold] it makes you feel quite miserable, because being cold personally makes me feel quite miserable… I also think it can make you feel quite unwell, quite shivery, and it gives you [a] lack of motivation because you just want to keep warm.”

Kimberley, Family with children u16, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

In keeping with the Evidence Review, parents that were renting had raised issues with landlords but doing so did not always get issues resolved.

3.5.2 Chronic health conditions and disabilities

As noted in section 3.3 Use of heating above, people with chronic health conditions showed the most sensitivity to temperature and therefore to poorly heated or insulated homes. Those in the worst situations were often extremely uncomfortable or even in pain because of the cold. Physical conditions that were mentioned as worsening due to cold temperatures (either by a participant, their partner or carer) were asthma, COPD, chronic fatigue syndrome, sciatica, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Matt described the cold in his home having a serious effect on his unwell mother:

“Sometimes she’s sitting on the chair unable to move because her joints will just… seize up. She’s got fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome [and] rheumatoid arthritis… those three things together with cold temperatures and the stress of the cold temperature, it really doesn’t help. It affects her eating as well because when she is feeling lethargic, she is feeling cold…she doesn’t want to eat it just spirals out of control.”

Matt, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

The impact on mental wellbeing was also apparent, with some participants reporting feeling stressed as a result of being unable to adequately heat their homes. In one case, the physical impacts of cold in the home had exacerbated issues with depression:

“But I spent… most of October in my bed until late, late on in the day, not wanting to get up, I didn't care. Usually I do get depression, but it's usually not until the dead of winter, but I thought this is the third winter of this again, and I sat the other day just crying, thought I can’t take this again, because it's just never ending.”

Catherine, 35+ no children, Social renter, Large urban, FP and EHR

These findings echo those of the Evidence Review which references several studies that find poor mental and physical health was both an outcome of fuel poverty and a contributing factor to it (SAMH 2004; Mould & Baker 2017; De Haro & Koslowski 2013).

3.6 Summary of differences between groups

3.6.1 Fuel poverty vs extreme fuel poverty

Looking at levels of warmth and comfort, heating regimes and impacts on health and wellbeing, there were no obvious patterns that showed the lived experience of households categorised as being in fuel poverty differed greatly from households categorised as being in extreme fuel poverty.

Income data from the SHCS showed that the average income of participants in this study who were categorised as being in extreme fuel poverty, was around £4,000 annually lower than those categorised as being in fuel poverty. Despite these financial differences between the groups, income and financial resilience appeared to shape the way both groups used their heating. In other words, participants in households categorised as both fuel poor and extreme fuel poor were mindful of the costs of fuel and heated their homes accordingly, including limiting their use of heating.

3.6.2 Households to which an Enhanced Heating Regime applied

Of the three criteria used to define EHRs for the purposes of this research (those with children aged 5 and under, those aged 75 and over, and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities), chronic health conditions had the most noticeable effect in shaping heating use and perceptions of warmth. Participants with chronic health conditions often lived in properties that they considered underheated due to lack of insulation or poor heat retention. They also generally required a higher level of warmth than other participants, causing them to experience negative physical and emotional impacts when cold.

Whether someone had serious health problems was found to be more of a driver of levels of comfort than old age. While those aged 75 and over consulted in this study tended to stay at home more and use their heating for longer, it was those in their 50s-60s with chronic health conditions that described adequate heating as either fundamental to their wellbeing, or (in underheated homes) as severely impacting their quality of life.

3.6.3 Those with high levels of fuel poverty under the new definition

One of the research aims was to explore the experiences of those groups that had higher levels of fuel poverty under the new definition. The groups that demonstrated differences are outlined in turn below.

Social renters

Perceptions of warmth and satisfaction with heating was similar for social renters as it was for other participants; their feelings of warmth were subjective, with some satisfied with their heating and others not. However, a distinct feature of the experience of social renters was the connection they made between the warmth of their home and the actions of their local authority or housing association.

Those that were satisfied described improvements to the property that had been made by the landlord, including new insulation or replacement of boilers, which had improved the warmth of their homes. However, all of the social renters that were unhappy with the heating in their homes attributed this, at least in part, to issues with the property. These issues included draughts, lack of insulation, or faulty boilers. As with private renters, the responsibility for addressing these issues lay with the property owner and participants voiced frustration that improvements had not been made by their local authority/housing association.

Households in the lowest income bands

Satisfaction with heating was generally lower among those in the lowest income band compared with those in the higher income band. Most participants that described struggling to keep their homes warm were in the lowest income bands. These participants tended to limit their heating due to cost and to turn to alternative coping strategies to stay warm.

Some of those on the lowest incomes also had long term health conditions that meant they needed to keep their homes heated to a certain temperature or for a certain length of time. As limiting heating was therefore not an option, these participants gave examples of prioritising their heating over expenses.

Those aged 65 and over

While those aged 65 and over are more likely than young age groups to be in fuel poverty (based on data from the SHCS), this age group did not in itself appear to indicate a different experience of levels of warmth, comfort or heating use, other than retired people spending more time at home and therefore needing to use their heating more. The experiences of this group overlap somewhat with those aged 75 and over, discussed above.

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)

Analysis of the SIMD quintile of participants’ homes showed that there was no clear connection between those living in the most deprived areas and lower levels of satisfaction with heating. Those in the bottom quintile were more likely than those in higher quintiles to be living in social rented homes, and therefore experiencing the issues described in relation to social renters above. Otherwise, levels of perceived warmth and satisfaction were mixed across all levels of deprivation represented in the sample of participants.



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