This story was originally published January 2023
As the seasons change and energy prices remaining 'well above' the average before the 2021 energy crisis, a question is burning in households across the UK: when can we turn on the heating?
As bills rise and winter is yet to properly arrive, some shared households are already negotiating energy action plans ahead of the year’s coldest months.
"Normally, at this time of year, we would have set the heating on a schedule and it would be on in the mornings and evenings but this year it’s off and we are going to see how long we can last with it off," says Lauren, an east London renter.
Lauren is an interior architect who lives in a shared house with four other people. With financial savings in mind, they’ve collectively agreed to avoid reaching for the heaters for as long as they can.
"We’ve joked about trying to keep the heating off until the end of November but we’ll see if that’s possible," adds Lauren.
In August this year, Citizens Advice said that though "energy prices are now falling and it may be tempting to declare the energy affordability crisis over. But that would be a big mistake. Our data suggests that millions are facing a winter as bad, or even worse, than last winter." With rents, bills and even the cost of household goods still high, many fear they will not be able to make ends meet should these upward trends continue.
According to an annual survey conducted by Deloitte, cost of living is now the primary concern among Gen Z and millennials, with around half of the 23,000 they spoke to living paycheque to paycheque. Renting, which is the solution for the many of us who can’t afford to own property, is eating up large chunks of individual incomes. Research found that four in 10 young people spend more than 30% of their income on rent, exceeding the threshold that is considered 'affordable'. In London, where rents are highest and housing accounts for an even larger proportion of household spending, 40% of people fear they will struggle to make their payments in the next six months.
When it comes to bills and rent, shared housing is intended to provide an affordable option for expenses that are heftier when shouldered alone. The Office for National Statistics has found that people who live alone spend more on rent, food, bills and other household costs (including furnishings) than those who live with just one other adult. With sharers finding themselves in increasingly precarious financial positions, many are searching for savings in areas that are within their control, such as grocery choices and energy habits.
This control of energy expenditure appears to be causing tension in many households.
Anticipating the growing electricity costs this winter, 25-year-old Hannah, who shares a home in Putney in London with two other women, was nervous but eager to approach her housemates about cutting down their energy use.
"I was personally concerned about how I was going to bring up the conversation about what our plan was for winter and how we were going to conserve heating. One of my housemates works from home and she often has the heating on all day at home when it’s not what I would consider to be really cold," explains Hannah.
With the aim of keeping it light, she decided to broach the topic at the dinner table.
"I just casually said [to my housemates], 'What’s our plan for winter? Do we know when we’re going to start turning on the heating? Is everyone still at a comfortable level? Are we okay with the heating not being on?' From there I made it known that I thought we should wait as long as possible before we turn the heating on, and that we should also be conscious about turning things off at the power points [and] trying not to leave lights on."
Hannah’s housemates agreed to resist reaching for the heaters, instead considering extra layers and electric blankets that would keep them warm while being more energy-efficient.
Despite reaching a compromise, Hannah stressed that flexibility and ongoing communication were vital ingredients in a successful housemate discussion.
"A couple of days later it was quite cold during the day and before I left the house, I said to my housemate who works from home, 'Look, you can turn the heating on. It’s really cold and I don’t want you to feel like you can’t turn on the heating in your own home.'"
Work from home arrangements can be a pain point in shared houses where electricity bills are typically split equally.
Financial educator Ellie Austin-Williams, known on social media as This Girl Talks Money, suggests apportioning costs according to how much energy each housemate wants to consume.
"If you live in a house that has a bigger room, you’ll often review the [room] prices so they pay a little more in rent. If certain people are saying, 'I really want to have the heater on all the time and shower for 20 minutes a day,' that’s okay if they are willing to pay a larger portion of those costs," she suggests.
Despite agreeing that this approach could work in certain cases, neither Lauren nor Hannah thought it would be useful in their home.
"I personally would rather pay more than my fair share than make things awkward in the house," adds Hannah.
It’s not just working or studying from home that can affect individual energy usage in shared accommodation. Research has long concluded that women tend to feel the cold more than men, suggesting heating needs are likely to be different in households that contain occupants of multiple gender. Not to mention, a range of illnesses, disabilities and injuries could also affect an individual’s heating needs or their reliance on other energy-dependent technologies. Coming to a neat agreement is only going to become more complicated with more individuals in a household.
When discussing bills with your housemates, Hannah encourages keeping communication lines open and striving for a balance that meets everyone’s needs.
"Really listen to other people," she says. "Look for non-verbal communication, like if they look like they’re uncomfortable talking about it or their facial expressions don’t look like they agree with what you’ve said, so you can try and alleviate any tension in the conversation. Also, just be willing to compromise."
Jodie Cariss, founder of on-demand mental health service Self Space, agrees with Hannah. In addition, she recommends being proactive and addressing tensions before emotions become heightened.
"I think the more immediately you can tackle these things, the less emotion builds and feels like resentment, which is when we can stonewall or withdraw or get drunk and have fights," she warns.
"Sit down and name the fact [for example], 'This might be a really difficult conversation but I think it’s one we should have, or need to have.' Caveat it with validation of the fact that this is tricky.
"Rather than going in with an agenda and with the impetus to deliver on your agenda, go in with curiosity: 'How is everyone else feeling? Where is everyone else at? What can we do together to think about this in a fair way?' I think that respect and honesty and transparency is always the best way [to communicate] in a relationship, whatever those relationships are."
Austin-Williams adds that rising rents and energy concerns are something to be raised with landlords as well.
"People assume [landlords] are these horrible, evil people but there are a lot of landlords that are really kind and do understand," she notes.
"If you have a good relationship with your landlord then [rental costs] can be something to proactively have a conversation about. You know, drop them a message or an email and say, 'Can we have a conversation?'"
"Your landlord should be passing [the Energy Bills Support payments] on to you," Austin-Williams adds. "There still might be an increase in what you’re paying but it probably won’t be as big as it would have been without the help."
"If you aren’t sure, just communicate with your landlord. Ask the questions, make sure you know what you are paying for and what you’re not paying for, and avoid any unexpected bills you might get down the line."