Why fuel poverty is a major problem for UK households

Why fuel poverty is a major problem for UK households01/11/2012

EnviroVent’s social housing director, Richard Williams, takes a look at why fuel poverty is becoming a national problem and how choosing the right type of ventilation can make a difference when it comes to saving energy.

In 2011, 6.4 million UK households were classed as fuel poor, of which, according to the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), over 1 million were families with children under 16. The Government’s definition of fuel poverty is a household which needs to spend more than 10% of its annual income to keep the home in a warm, satisfactory condition.

It won’t have come as a bolt out of the blue, but just like in the previous year, the cost of fuel is set to rise by 9% just as homes across the nation get ready to switch on their heating. The big 6 energy companies have blamed the substantial price hike on an increase in the cost of wholesale gas and electricity, bad news for consumers and in particular, households on low incomes.

Fuel poverty is becoming a national problem and its foundation comprises of 3 significant factors: the cost of energy, household income and the energy efficiency of the home. In addition, single people and pensioners living alone are vulnerable to fuel poverty, more so than couples or families.

This is because although their energy consumption may be less, their income is a lot smaller than that of a larger household. Thanks to various initiatives such as the Decent Homes Programme, RHI and the new Green Deal, the energy efficiency of homes managed by registered providers has not only greatly improved but is set to continue well in to the future.

The statistics on fuel poverty vary, and in some cases contradict, however, what we do know is that the amount of people in fuel poverty is increasing. What’s more, as we commit ourselves to make the homes we build or manage as energy efficient as possible with improved building features such as cavity wall insulation, double glazing and draught proofing–the potential is there for another problem– condensation and mould.

By ‘sealing up’ our housing stock and making it super energy efficient the existing ventilation may not be adequate enough to deal with the changes. And if combined this results in two problems; residents who can’t afford to heat their homes that are also faced with the grim reality of condensation and mould on a daily basis. During the winter months, asset managers up and down the country become all too familiar with calls regarding condensation and mould, many of which are reoccurring problems. The amount of time, effort and money spent on continually solving the same problem can be equally frustrating for both parties. Part F states: “There shall be adequate means of ventilation provided for people in the building.” Even if the minimum requirement is met, we still need to look at the whole picture rather than simply completing a tick box exercise.

Meeting the minimum does not always solve the problem when there are other valid factors which need to be taken into account to determine the type of ventilation required. These include:

  • Occupancy levels
  • The fabric & design of the home
  • Air flow rates that meet individual requirements

It’s not that Part F is wrong, it is the assumption that the minimum requirement will suit every individual situation that is. The requirements of a household where both occupants are out at work each day will be different to those of a family with 2 infants and a mother who stays at home all day, with a husband who works night shifts.

A great example of tackling fuel poverty (whilst installing ventilation to fit the exact requirements of the building) is Engels House in Eccles. Managed by City West Housing Trust, Engels House is a 10 storey tower block consisting of 58 flats, built in the 1960s. Typical of the era, the property was a no-fines concrete construction, which offered little in retaining any warmth generated by electric storage heaters. What’s more, weather penetration along with the high proportion of voids found amongst each flat also contributed to heat loss. The high levels of voids also led to problems with damp and mould, making it difficult to re-let a vacant flat.

In April 2011, as part of a £14.3 million pound retrofit project, the regeneration of Engels began. Prior to this, City West had carried out an Energy Demand Assessment in partnership with Cambridge University, which had identified fuel poverty as an issue. The study discovered that tenants were not adequately heating their property - in some cases they were only heating one room simply because of the cost.

Since the work was completed in March 2012, the canal-side block has undergone a complete transformation, both internally and externally. Engels House has been revamped using the latest eco-technologies, from thermal cladding to an EcoPod heating system, which combines super efficient cascade boilers with solar panels to help eliminate fuel poverty.

Independent tests were carried out throughout the building to measure the ‘air tightness’ of the newly ‘sealed’ building in order to identify that the correct type of ventilation installed. The MEV Spider- a continuous mechanical extract ventilation system was chosen by City West for its eco - friendly characteristics, energy efficiency and long term savings. Designed with multiple extract points, the system works by drawing moisture laden air out of the ‘wet room’ areas of the homes, such as kitchens and bathrooms, which is ducted to a central system and then out to atmosphere. The unit also minimizes the movement of humidity to other rooms, controlling humidity levels and preventing the formation of condensation and mould problems.

Since moving back into their homes in April 2012, residents have seen a reduction in their energy costs by up to 60% and are enjoying a comfortable indoor environment free from condensation and mould. If you have not got millions to spend on major refurbishment projects our newly launched heatSava, a Single Room Heat Recovery Unit, offers forward thinkers an innovative new way to help combat fuel poverty and offer energy efficient ventilation.

Investing in a Single Room Heat Recovery Unit (SRHR) really makes sense and provides a way to eliminate condensation and mould from your housing stock whilst at the same time being able to recover energy. What’s more, look for a balanced SRHR as this offers optimum and true performance.

With today’s technology we should be able to banish fuel poverty along with condensation and mould, ending the misery that affects  many people each winter who live in fuel poverty and a damp, poorly ventilated home.