Sunday, 17 June 2012

Winter cold bites with chilling effect ~ and I get lack-of-insulation blues

This house is cold.  When we moved into it a year ago we expected it to be cooler than our last place because of where it is, but we didn't realise then just how much colder it would turn out to be.  We had no idea it was completely uninsulated.

The uninsulated hot water cylinder should have given me a clue.  My request that it be 'wrapped' went nowhere.  Since someone had to do something I bought a second-hand quilt and wrapped it up myself.  

It was an electrician, whose work took him up into the roof cavity, who gave us the bad news, and that only by way of conversation.  I've always found it helpful to be around when tradesmen are at work!  No wonder last winter had seemed so cold - it was!  

I mentioned the lack of insulation to our landlady, and rather surprisingly this was news to her.  It is to be hoped that the situation will be rectified and brought up to current standards, as indeed it should be.  Substantial subsidies are available to home owners, including landlords, so now is the time to do it.  Houses occupied by those on especially low incomes such as ourselves, qualify the owners, including landlords, for subsidies of 60%.    

Detailed information about subsidies can be found via the following links: 
Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA): 
It is now commonly recognised that cold buildings are unhealthy places to live for these reasons:
  • In cold temperatures the damp air which accrues with everyday living, from kitchens and bathrooms, as well as from our own breathing, often results in the dampness in which mould and mildew thrive.  These are a common source of respiratory problems.  
  • As the cold around us increases circulation tends to withdraw from our hands, feet and skin in order to prevent further heat loss and to maintain our core heat.  Over time this can result in the thickening of blood which is then more likely to clot, causing strokes and heart attacks.  These are more likely to affect the elderly as their blood vessels tend to be 'rougher' on the inside.
Predictably, the poorest quality housing is occupied by those least able to afford it.  Such housing is the cheapest.  These same financial constraints also contribute to poor people living in crowded conditions and being less able to afford heating.  In crowded and cold conditions contagious diseases such as colds and flu as well as a range of much more serious diseases such as rheumatic fever, meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis, measles and mental health problems, are more prevalent.
Addressing these conditions is therefore an important issue of public health and welfare. 

A few days ago the cold really got to me, and I decided to make some notes:  
I checked the Met Service website: they gave the temperature of 4.4 degrees Celcius but added the qualifying comment that it was likely to feel like 2 degrees.  It did!  I'm sure they meant out-of-doors, but it felt like that indoors too!  The forecast was for...
Showers.  Snow clearing.  Strong cold southwest [winds],
... and the same for the next day.  We didn't have snow here, but I could tell it was not far away.  As we don't have the money to pay for the heating needed to keep this house properly warm we keep the use of heaters to a minimum.  We dress warmly in an effort to make up the difference.

The quantity of clothes I wore that day is an indication of what it's been like: I had on polar fleece trousers, a long-sleeved thermal top, two merino knit pullovers, one possum fur knit pullover, all cosily encased in ski-pants, a microfibre jacket and a cashmere wool headscarf.  Did I say cosy?  The days that followed haven't been much different. 

Thermometers can be a big help in establishing what the temperature actually is:
Feeling desperate I borrowed a wall thermometer from neighbours and took readings in different parts of the house.  I wanted some hard data.  The results were unarguable: at 2pm the unheated front room was 9.8 degrees Celsius; the hall where I had had the heater on for some time was 11.6; and my workroom where I'd had the door shut for half an hour reached 14.5.  At that point I felt like stripping off!  

I was somewhat amused to see that the Met Service gave the water temperature as being all of 11 degrees!  Given that the indoor temperatures were so similar I toyed with the idea of going for a swim, but looking out at the grey, rain-drenched skies and foaming grey waves decided against it.  (Only joking!)

The next day I bought three thermometers and pegged them up in different parts of the house.  They cost $4.35 each and have already been a big help.  We've found that we can function relatively normally at 12 degrees and above as long as we wear lots of warm clothes; at lower temperatures I feel very pinched and seized up.  Having an accurate reading gives me a clear signal of when the heaters are needed so I am then fully justified in turning them on.  It's one way of coping and achieving a small measure of control.

This is still not adequate for healthy living.  The World Health Organisation recommends:
"World Health Organization's standard for warmth says 18C (64F) is suitable for healthy people who are appropriately dressed. For those with respiratory problems or allergies, they recommend a minimum of 16C (60.8C); and for the sick, disabled, very old or very young, a minimum of 20C (68F)."
Findings of the West Midlands Public Health Observatory go further:
24 degrees C - top range of comfort
21 degrees C - recommended living room temperature
Less than 20 degrees C - death risk begins
18 degrees C - recommended bedroom temperature
16 degrees C - resistance to respiratory diseases weakened
12 degrees C - more than two hours at this temperature raises blood pressure and increases heart attack and stroke risk
5 degrees C - Significant risk of hypothermia
It's Sunday today and I got up late at 9.45.  The temperature throughout the house was 3 degrees.  But the sun was shining which was nice.  

After a leisurely breakfast I took time to remove condensation from the windows, using the same wiper blade I use for slicking water off the shower walls.  There was a lot of it, and the big double-glazed (!)  windows in the living area were as watery as the others.  I cleaned a build-up of mildew from around the high spots in the bay window as well as the drip channels of these and others.  I checked the backs of the curtains for damp and found that they had become marked with mildew in places.  

These are examples of the sorts of problems that occur even in a normally fairly dry house which has become cold and therefore also somewhat damp with the onset of winter.  I air it each day but at this time of year it is not enough to prevent it - it's just too cold to dry anything much.  A range hood with an extractor fan over the stove would help reduce the level of moisture as would an extractor fan in the bathroom.  A dehumidifier would also be helpful, but as with heaters, they also take electricity to run, which is an additional cost.  

The association of dampness with disease brings home the good sense of the saying "It isn't clean until it's dry".

New Zealanders have a long history of living in cold houses, and I'm sure that many readers have had their own vivid experience of them.  Within my own family's history an uncle's boyhood bedroom was a tent.  It had a wooden floor to make it liveable!  My grandfather was a doctor, and this was quite acceptable.  On the other side of the family my father's bed is said to have been on a verandah.  No wonder he was inured to the cold!  His father was a school teacher, so those families were relatively well-off for the times.  ... In my previous flat I took the photograph at the right of ice on the inside of the bedroom window.  It was a sunny though, which provided a degree of compensation.

Be that as it may, what was considered good enough in the past has been medically proved to put our health at risk.  The government acknowledges this, hence the subsidies for the retro-fitting of insulation.  

For those who are wavering as to whether to take up the offer now or later, it may be wise to take it up as soon as possible as there is no certainty that subsidies will continue.  Like everything else they are 'subject to funding'.

One last suggestion: Landlords, listen to what your tenants are saying.  And if they are not saying anything ask them what their priorities are for the place that they live in.   
The retro-fitting of insulation is to everyone's advantage.
I send you all warm good wishes!

More useful links for further reading: 
    • Architecture Now article:

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