While most of us find something about autumn and winter that we love – golden leaves, silver frost – for some the colder months present terrible stress because they can’t afford to heat their homes properly.
Not being able to provide adequate heat is worrying because a cold home can lead to health problems or exacerbate existing ones and it’s also uncomfortable and tiring to be cold. If a household spends more than 10% of its annual income then it’s deemed to be in fuel poverty.
Around 400,000 households in Ireland are in fuel poverty and the Emo Oil company, which provides many Irish households with heating oil, recommends that people buy their fuel in the summer when it’s cheaper.
What are the causes of fuel poverty?
There are three main causes of fuel poverty.
The household is on a low income, which means that fuel eats up a bigger proportion of its annual income.
The price of oil suddenly rises, pushing households into fuel poverty temporarily. This prise rise could be in real terms or it could be because the euro has fallen in value. OPEC sometimes decides to limit the production of oil, or there’s unrest in oil-producing areas of the world. This pushes the price of crude oil up and if a household hasn’t stocked up during cheaper times, then it may be a struggle to fill up the heating oil tank.
When autumn and winter come around, prices also rise because the temperatures are dropping and there’s suddenly more demand.
The house is poorly-insulated and lets out too much heat. In a household that’s already struggling, the cost of adding extra insulation may be just too much to afford. If the home loses lots of expensive heat, however, it will be almost impossible to maintain the safe temperature range of 18-21C. Furthermore, poorer households tend to have minor issues like loose windows and uninsulated lofts.
How can households at risk of fuel poverty help themselves?
If draughts are a problem, then any form of extra insulation is better than none at all. It’s possible to buy adhesive foam strips quite cheaply and these can prevent draughts coming in through windows and loose doors. Using draught excluders under doors is a good idea, as well as thick curtains and closing off unused rooms so heating is concentrated just in occupied rooms.
If the family can afford loft insulation then this is one of the best solutions and it’s always worth asking the local authorities if there are any grants or subsidies to help to pay for it.
Get the boiler serviced annually
This might look like a big, unnecessary expense, but an annual service will keep the boiler in good shape and it’ll work more efficiently. On average, a service will cost around €100, but if it cuts the risk of a breakdown and helps the boiler to produce more heat, then it’s worth it.
Spread the cost
If families can use a pre-payment scheme that spreads the cost over 12 months, then winter needn’t be such a burden.
Ask for help
Some households may be eligible for a fuel allowance payment, so they should contact their council to find out more.
Buy when the prices are lowest
By making an order in summer, as large an order as possible, then the tank will hopefully be full enough to last over the winter. The price-per-litre will be lower and so if a smaller top-up is needed at a higher price in winter, it’s not such a disaster.