Lived experience of fuel poverty: research

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

4. Heating systems and energy efficiency

4.1 Introduction

This chapter explores the factors that can contribute to feelings of warmth, or lack of, in the home. It first examines participants’ views on various types of heating systems, primarily in terms of how effective they were in heating their homes and how easy they were to control. It then goes on to explore energy efficiency of homes, one of the four drivers of fuel poverty recognised by the Scottish Government, as well as other household issues such as condensation or damp.

4.2 Heating systems

4.2.1 Gas central heating

Around two thirds of participants used gas central heating with radiators as their main source of heating. Most of those on gas central heating were quite positive about their heating system. They typically felt that they could control their heating as they wanted, including being able to switch radiators off in rooms not being used. A few, including Catherine, reported issues with thermostats, such as being broken or oversensitive and therefore difficult to find the right location for:

“It's on the wall halfway up the stairs where cold is coming off the door, so every time you open the door it knocks the thermostat out.”

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

Others mentioned not being able to work out how to programme the timer function for their central heating but managing by switching their heating on and off manually, either at the boiler or the thermostat.

When asked if they would like to change anything about their set up, common answers included the insufficient number and/or inadequate position of radiators. One private renter described having to stay upstairs in one room with her two children every evening, because the lack of radiators downstairs in her house made it too cold despite the heating being on. Their private landlord was generally unresponsive about repairs and the participant felt frustrated and had little hope of the landlord either improving their heating system or investing in better insulation. This is one example of an issue with the tenant and landlord relationship highlighted by Ambrose et al. (2016), who note that the relationship is often characterised by fear, with tenants reluctant to hold landlords to their obligations.

Figure 3. Typical heating systems used by those with gas central heating: a combi boiler and radiator with temperature valve
left: A photo of a participant’s combi-boiler, which had a digital display and control buttons. right: A photo of a participant’s wall-mounted radiator, with a temperature control valve at the bottom

4.2.2 Electric storage heaters

Of the participants that had electricity as their main source of heating, all had electric storage heaters installed (rather than electric radiators or panel heaters). The views expressed on electric storage heaters were mixed, ranging from those with no issues (including one owner occupier who had had them for over 20 years), to those who found them so expensive that they were drastically limiting their use. The most extreme example was one participant that was no longer turning his storage heaters on because his heating bills had become unaffordable.

The high costs of electric storage heaters echo findings in the Evidence Review, which found that the high cost of electric heating was one of the most pressing concerns of households that relied on it. Issues of cost were further illustrated by one participant who had since moved to gas central heating and noted how much lower his fuel bills were as a result. It should be noted that this participant may no longer be classed as being in fuel poverty as their primary fuel type had changed since they took part in the SHCS.

“The heating was electric, I was spending all my money, [I had] no money left for food, believe me… [It cost] around the £12, £15 every day…Otherwise it was very cold, it was freezing inside, but now it's okay… gas is good now. Costs me £50-£60 a month.”

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

Other issues mentioned by those that previously had electric storage heaters were that they were difficult to adjust and made the air uncomfortably dry.

The Evidence Review found further issues related to electric heating, including disengagement with the energy market due to complex and often confusing tariffs, misconception about the benefits of switching, difficulties making price comparisons and problems around dispute resolutions (Citizens Advice Scotland, 2018).

4.2.3 Oil central heating

Participants using oil central heating with radiators all lived in remote rural areas, including islands. They were generally content with their system and felt it was easy to control using thermostats. However, those on lower incomes commented on the rising price of oil and the need to budget carefully. These participants spoke about their heating system with a level of resignation and acceptance that, although it was expensive, it was part of living in a remote location. At times, oil central heating was supplemented with solid fuel to help keep the cost of central heating down:

“Yes, I do [limit use of the oil heating system] I don't have it on any time during the day. I would like to but it's too expensive… Well, I've got my [coal] stove on and I just stay in the living room.”

Pamela, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Remote rural, FP and EHR

Those with oil-fuelled heating also spoke of their limited options for oil suppliers to choose from within their area, limiting the extent to which they could shop around for a better price for their fuel:

“With oil, you pay the going price or you don't get it, as simple as that. You take what they are offering or you [go without], you have very little option. There are only two or three suppliers here. I have always stuck with the same one, because I feel it is better the devil you know.”

John, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Remote rural, EFP and EHR

4.2.4 Solid fuel fires and stoves

As with those using oil central heating, all those who used solid fuel as their main source of heating lived in remote rural locations. They were generally quite satisfied with it as a heating system, particularly if their main fire or stove could heat radiators elsewhere in their home. Positive aspects included the level of warmth it provided and the manageability of the cost compared with oil which was perceived to be more expensive. Smokeless fuel was mentioned by some as being a better option than normal coal or wood because, while more expensive, it burned for longer.

“It's warm in here tonight, and yet I haven't put any [smokeless] coal on there since four o’clock or something.”

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

One participant was keen not to move from solid fuel because it was their personal preference and the only type of heating they had ever had. Another described having a dispute with her local authority in order to get the solid fuel system that she wanted (one that heated radiators and hot water too). However, Louise reported wanting to change from a combination of solid fuel and electric heating to gas central heating but felt restricted from doing so because of the costs involved:

“We don't have central heating. We've got a coal fire and an electric heater that’s on the wall in the kitchen, a wood burning stove in the sitting room, and a couple of oil filled radiators that we shift about upstairs. But we limit how much we use the radiators because of the cost, the oil filled heaters are really quite expensive to run. It would be handier if we had proper central heating that was reasonable to run, so that you wouldn’t have to keep your eye on the meters all the time… It would be handy if you didn't have to get up in the morning and put the fire on. It would be nice if we had a switch that you could just switch on whenever you liked to make the room warm…We have looked into it but the installation would be too expensive.”

Louise, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Remote rural, EFP

4.2.5 Combining multiple systems

Participants that used a combination of heating systems and/or appliances tended not to be on the main gas network. One household used a combination of LPG gas, coal and wood because they felt it would work out cheaper than oil central heating. Another had a coal fire, a wood burning stove, an electric fire, and two oil-filled radiators that they would move around the house. The latter (see quote from Louise above) would have liked to install central heating but could not afford the installation costs.

Participants’ ability to change their system or make improvements varied and was influenced by whether they were renting or owned their home. Private and social renters both said that changes to their heating system were the responsibility of the landlord or local authority/housing association. Homeowners, on the other hand, could make such changes if they wanted and were able to. These differences will be covered in more detail in section 7.2 Taking action to improve home heating which explores actions taken to improve home heating.

4.3 Energy efficiency

To help explore participants’ perceptions of the energy efficiency of their homes, they were asked how well they felt their home retained heat. Views ranged from those who felt their homes retained heat well to those with issues relating to draughts or heat escaping from the home. Perceived issues with heat retention were not specific to certain types of property, as those concerned about poor heat retention were spread across different types of tenure, location, and age of property.

Almost half of the participants in this study (16 of the 40) lived in properties with an EPC banding of C or better[18] - this is the minimum target EPC banding identified by the Scottish Government as necessary to take households out of fuel poverty.

The participants in this study that lived in homes with the lowest EPC ratings (bands E, F and G) were all categorised as being in extreme fuel poverty - this is not surprising as the EPC is based on an energy cost index, so the higher the fuel cost per square metre of floor area, the lower the EPC SAP[19] rating, and therefore the lower the EPC banding.

Participants’ perceptions of how well their homes retained heat did not appear to be reflected in the EPC rating derived from the SHCS. While it might be expected that the homes of participants describing issues with poor insulation and poor heat retention would be amongst those with the lowest EPC ratings, they tended to be in EPC band D. Participants that lived in homes with the lowest EPC rating (i.e. bands E, F and G) tended to describe the heat retention of their homes as fair or good.

Properties (both owned and rented) commonly had double glazing and either loft or wall insulation. Those that had installed double glazing or insulation, either themselves or via their landlord/housing association, generally felt these had improved the warmth and heat retention in their home. There were a small number of exceptions to this, where participants had work done but did not feel the benefit:

“I must admit I didn't really [notice a difference in heat retention], our loft is not a very large loft, but there must be some difference… before...the roof used to clear quite quickly [of snow], but since the insulation it tends to stay there, that's the only difference I could see.”

Dean, 35+ no children, Owner occupier, Large urban, EFP and EHR

Owner occupiers who had benefitted from free or discounted energy efficiency measures (via schemes such as Warmer Homes Scotland) felt fortunate to have received financial support towards these improvements. Almost all of these participants had been contacted by their energy provider or by their local authority about these schemes, rather than seeking them out proactively, echoing findings by Ipsos MORI & Sheldrick (2017). Other owner occupiers felt aggrieved that they had missed out on the level of discount they knew others had received, which they believed to be because of the postcode area they lived in. Private tenants had low awareness of government schemes to support energy efficiency measures and queried whether they, or private landlords, would be eligible for this type of support.

Barriers to making energy efficiency improvements were noted, both by owner occupiers and renters. For owner occupiers, barriers included the costs involved and the nature of the property (for example, being unable to get cavity wall insulation in older properties).

For private and social tenants, barriers mainly related to the ability to make decisions about changes to their property, including energy efficiency measures. There was a tendency among some private renters to not want to bother their landlord with requests for insulation (this differed from those renting from councils or housing association, who felt more comfortable raising issues). One participant said a survey had indicated that her house was not well insulated, but she did not want to contact her landlord about it as she doubted any action would be taken:

“[The surveyor] said the house could have better insulation… But… I'm not going to my landlord for the time that I’ll be here complaining.”

Eilidh, 35+ no children, Private renter, Remote rural/small towns, EFP

Among social renters there were mixed views. On the one hand, they considered themselves fortunate as their council or housing association had covered the cost of improvements such as double glazing, insulation and boiler replacements. On the other hand, social renters felt like decisions around energy efficiency were out of their control and gave accounts of councils and housing associations not responding to requests for improvements or stating that work would take place but which did not happen. For example:

“The [housing association] kept on saying they are going to be putting new windows in last year… I just don't know if they are going to bother… that is actually wooden windows, they're not plastic. I think they have been there since the word dot, since they were built.”

Isabel, 35+ no children, Social renter, Other urban/non-remote rural,


This echoes the sense of frustration among social renters about their lack of autonomy with regards to these decisions, as noted in research by Darby (2017).

4.4 Condensation, damp, ventilation

In the Fuel Poverty Health Impact Assessment[20], the Scottish Government notes the potential for energy efficiency improvements to have negative impacts on homes. It notes that some energy efficiency improvements can lead to poor ventilation, which can have a negative impact on the air quality in the home. This, and associated issues of condensation and damp, can have adverse effects on health, particularly for those with existing respiratory health conditions.

Participants were asked about the air quality within their homes, the extent to which they considered their homes well ventilated, and whether they experienced problems with damp, condensation, or mould growth.

Around half of participants had experienced damp, condensation or mould in rooms that were not being heated as much as the main living space. Only a few participants that had damp, condensation or mould present in their homes felt that it may be related to underheating, and no issues with ventilation were raised. This could indicate a lack of understanding of relationships between heating, condensation, dampness, and ventilation. The 2013 study by De Haro & Koslowski (referenced in the Evidence Review) highlighted that, in relation to condensation specifically, the participants in their study had little knowledge of how to reduce condensation using their heating and ventilation.

Figure 4 – Example of mould and condensation on a participant’s window
A photo of condensation and black mould appearing at the bottom of a participants' window.

A few participants said their damp-related problems were caused by leaky gutters, or by damp within the walls and/or foundations of the building. In these cases, underheating and/or poor ventilation could be contributing factors. Others said they did not know what was causing their damp-related problems.

In one extreme case, the participant was experiencing damp on his walls and furniture but did not want the upheaval of moving:

“Behind that couch there will be damp spores. When I turn the mattress every week it's damp underneath, and I scrub it with Domestos, and if you put anything on the bed you guarantee once you take it out you have to throw it away, everything is covered in mould. Even the side of the wardrobe there is mould growing up the side of the wall, we can’t stop it.”

Darren, 35+ no children, Social renter, Other urban/non-remote rural,

FP and EHR

“The wall in my mother’s room used to be really, really, damp, like proper smelly, smelly, damp. I striped it right back and applied, damp liquid paint stuff, it's never come back. But upstairs in my room the wall is always wet, always, always, wet and it's got the same coating on it but it didn’t make a difference.”

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

Problems with damp, condensation or mould growth were more prevalent among social renters compared to private renters and homeowners, and among those on the lowest incomes compared with those on higher incomes. Participants spoke of complaining to their respective social landlords about their problems, but with no success in getting issues resolved.

Perceived problems with air quality were less commonly reported than problems with damp, condensation or mould. Amongst those participants with chronic health conditions that considered their homes suffered from poor air quality, the focus of their concern was on pollution and dust from outside. One participant with COPD described pollution from the road being worse in the summer and it adding to her breathing problems. Another had a problem with dust coming into her home and described her housing association as unresponsive:

“Oh, we have a big problem [with dust], we have complained to [housing association] for years now and they came out one time and put a new extractor fan in the bathroom… I'm always frightened for his asthma, you know, because it's like this every day. It shouldn't be coming in... They have never bothered to fix it.”

Isabel, 35+ no children, Social renter, Others urban/non-remote rural,


4.5 Summary of differences between groups

4.5.1 Fuel poverty vs extreme fuel poverty

There were two differences of note between households categorised as fuel poor and those categorised as extreme fuel poor in relation to their heating systems and energy efficiency. Firstly, those not using gas central heating tended to be categorised as extreme fuel poor, reflecting the higher costs of running oil, solid fuel or electric heating systems. Secondly, a high proportion of dwellings with the worst EPC ratings were households in extreme fuel poverty, again likely reflecting the higher fuel bills in these households. Otherwise, the findings do not point to a notably different experience of heating systems or warmth when comparing these two household types.

4.5.2 Households to which an Enhanced Heating Regime applied

Those with chronic health conditions stressed the importance of maintaining an acceptable level of heat in the home to avoid pain or discomfort associated with their health condition. These participants were therefore particularly susceptible to any negative impacts of inadequate heating systems or energy inefficiency that led to homes feeling underheated.

Those with chronic health conditions also experienced negative impacts if they felt the air quality was poor, for example breathing problems being exacerbated by dust or pollution coming in from outside.

Otherwise, the experiences of those to whom an EHR applied were similar to those of other participants.

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

Of the groups that had higher levels of fuel poverty under the new definition, the main difference that emerged was in relation to social renters.

On the one hand, some social renters considered themselves fortunate as their council or housing association had covered the cost of improvements to their heating systems or properties such as double glazing or insulation. On the other hand, and to echo the point made in section 3.6 Summary of differences between groups, social renters that were unhappy with the heating in their homes attributed this to issues with their heating systems or lack of adequate insulation in their properties. As with private renters, social renters feel restricted in the extent to which they could address these issues, as they were the responsibility of the local authority, housing association or landlord. Participants voiced frustration that the reported issues with their heating systems or insulation had not been addressed.

Problems with damp and lack of ventilation were more prevalent among social renters compared with private renters and homeowners (and among those on the lowest incomes compared with higher incomes). Again, participants spoke of complaining to social landlords but with little success in getting issues resolved.

Specific issues with electric heating were raised by those using this as their main source of heating. The main issue was the cost which was perceived as expensive, causing one participant to stop using his electric storage heaters completely because his heating bills had become unaffordable. Other issues mentioned by those that previously had electric storage heaters were that they were difficult to adjust and made the air uncomfortably dry.

4.5.4 Those living in remote rural areas

Those living in remote rural areas had some distinct experiences when it came to heating systems. All those that used oil or solid fuel as their main sources of heating lived in remote rural areas. This includes those in island communities in Orkney, Argyll and Bute and Na h-Eileanan Siar (Western Isles). This aligns with findings from the SHCS 2018 which shows that almost two thirds of properties in rural areas are not covered by the mains gas grid and therefore use an alternative form of heating[21] including oil or solid fuel.

As noted above, those using oil central heating or solid fuel were generally content with these forms of heating. However, oil users commented on the high price of oil and felt that, although it was expensive, it was something they had to accept as part of living in a remote location. Those with oil-fuelled heating said the high price of fuel was partly driven by their limited options in terms of choice of suppliers. While solid fuel users were generally happy, one did want to change to central heating, but felt restricted from doing so because of the costs involved.

These experiences, while among a small proportion of the sample of participants, show that those in remote rural locations had limited options available when it came to their source of fuel. This may in turn have resulted in higher prices than might be available for customers on mains gas with multiple supplier options (though detailed comparison of actual fuel spending has not been specifically tested as part of this study).

No further findings emerged to suggest other variations in participants’ experiences by location.



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