June 17, 2024


Their mother, Aradhita Nakarni, said: “There’s no way I’m going to let them be uncomfortable, but they know if they don’t have warm clothes on, they can’t sit around being shivery. They know Mummy will cut to the chase.”

Anshul Wadhwa and Aradhita Nadkarni with their children, Aanya, 10, and Asher, 7, keep warm in their Randwick flat with hot chocolates, blankets and warm clothes. Janie Barrett

The family rents a ground-floor flat in Randwick in Sydney’s eastern suburbs which has the benefit of a northerly aspect and good insulation. Nadkarni said the family keeps warm with clothing and fluffy slippers, eating spicy food and drinking masala chai, a hot shower before bed and hot water bottles in bed, and, occasionally, a small electric heater.

While many households across NSW and Victoria will need more serious heating options in winter, Nadkarni’s experience reminds us that good home design and the principle of heating the person, not the room, can go a long way.

Home heating tips

  • Long-term: Use reverse-cycle air conditioning to heat or cool a room, install home insulation, and install double- or triple-glazed windows. Subsidies and low-interest loans can reduce the cost.
  • Medium-term: Thermal curtains with pelmets or honeycomb blinds over windows. Portable electric heaters can be used occasionally. 
  • Short-term: Plug drafts such as using door snakes. Stick bubble wrap on windows. Electric blankets or heated throws are surprisingly efficient.
  • Personal: Heat the person, not the room! Warm clothes, fluffy slippers, hot water bottles, and warm drinks.

For energy efficiency experts, the gold standard is a reverse-cycle split-system air conditioning system that can be used for heating in winter and cooling in summer. They also advise home owners to make other long-term investments in good insulation and double or even triple-glazed windows.

For the one in three Australian households who rent or home owners struggling under the weight of a mortgage, budget-friendly, non-damaging tips include electric throw blankets, hanging thermal blinds or curtains, and even sticking bubble wrapping to the inside of windows.

Don’t be fooled by the Bureau of Meteorology – that’s relative to the long-term average. It will still be cold, and chances are, your home is not designed to cope.

Despite hefty hikes in the price of electricity and gas, investing in energy efficiency can lower your power bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How cold was winter 2023?

Victoria

  • Coolest average temperature: 0.8 degrees at Falls Creek
  • Warmest average temperature: 12.1 degrees at both Melbourne Olympic Park and Cape Nelson Lighthouse
  • Melbourne Olympic Park average maximum temperature: 15.5 degrees
  • Melbourne Olympic Park average minimum temperature: 8.7 degrees

NSW

  • Coolest average temperature: -0.2 degrees at Thredbo
  • Warmest average temperature: 17 degrees at Byron Bay
  • Sydney Observatory Hill average maximum temperature: 19.5 degrees
  • Sydney Observatory Hill average minimum temperature: 9.9 degrees

Reverse-cycle air conditioning

In the book My Efficient Electric Home Handbook, Tim Forcey writes: “A reverse-cycle air conditioner can heat a home at around one-third the cost of burning gas and as little as one-fifth of the cost of using an electric resistive heater, such as an oil column heater, fan heater or electric panel heater.”

Forcey explains that a reverse-cycle split-system air conditioner is actually a heat pump: it collects free heat from outside the home, and because it’s moving heat around rather than generating it, requires little electricity to do it. A system needed for both heating and cooling would be mounted near the ceiling, but when it’s only needed for heat, installing it at floor level is a good option to take advantage of the fact hot air rises.

On cheap electric fan heaters: “You may as well heat your home with a hair dryer.”

Merrily Hunter, Energy Efficiency Council

Energy Efficiency Council president Merrily Hunter said the upfront cost was high, but residents of Victoria, NSW, the ACT and South Australia could access state-based energy efficiency schemes entitling them to hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars off retrofitting or replacing appliances with smart environmentally friendly models. This might require shopping around because not every tradesperson is registered for the scheme.

Hunter said hot water and heating/cooling are 70 per cent of household energy consumption, so these upgrades were the best way “to make a significant and lasting dent in your energy consumption and stay warm this winter”.

“Those $20 fan heaters at Bunnings consume four times the energy of an efficient split system,” Hunter said. “You may as well heat your home with a hair dryer.”

The federal government also had a low-interest loan scheme for household electrification that Hunter said would cover the gap after any state subsidy.

Other electric heating options

Choice product category manager (household) Chris Barnes said installing a split-system air conditioner required a hole in the wall, so it was not always an option for renters or in homes without outside wall access, such as semi-detached or terrace houses.

A portable electric heater was cheaper to buy, though it was not as efficient or safe to run in the long run.

“But if you’re only using them here and there for a few hours occasionally throughout winter, they can still work out reasonably economical,” Barnes said. “A heated throw or an electric blanket can be pretty economical to run, so that can be a good option, as long as you’re prepared to go with that idea that you’re just going to heat yourself and let the rest of the room get cold.”

If a house has ceiling fans, Barnes said it is worth checking if there is a reverse mode that would push warm air downwards.

The costs – both financial and environmental – are significantly lower if the household owns solar panels and a battery to store electricity and use it at night.

What about gas?

Until 2015, Australia enjoyed the cheapest gas in the world, but that changed when export markets opened up. Energy market observers say .

Household gas appliances also need to be checked by a qualified technician every two years to ensure safety, which is an additional expense. Peer-reviewed research has found that the burden of asthma by 12 per cent.

On the environmental front, household gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and it is often mined in damaging ways.

Why you are more likely to get sick in winter

Dr Rebekah Hoffman, the NSW and ACT chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said airborne viruses that cause colds, influenza, and COVID have a seasonal peak in winter because they are more easily transmitted when people are socialising indoors.

Hoffman said it was a myth that getting cold makes you more likely to catch a cold, but there was good evidence keeping warm helped you recover sooner.

“If you did catch something and then you were unable to get warm, then you would get a more severe illness,” she said.

Insulation and the wrapping hack

Homeowners can consider insulation in the walls, floors, and ceilings, and upgrading to double or triple-glazed windows. But insulation also means sealing off any drafts and investing in quality window coverings.

In his book, energy efficiency expert Tim Forcey writes that the best-performing window covering to keep houses warm in winter and cool in summer is a set of thermally lined heavy curtains or drapes with pelmets (a horizontal piece of fabric at the top of a curtain). Next are honeycomb blinds (also called cellular or pleated blinds) followed by roman blinds, plantation shutters, roller blinds and venetian blinds.

Forcey also offers a budget hack: “Sticking Bubble Wrap to your window glass is another way to prevent heat from going out through a window.”

Just cut the bubble wrapping to match the size of the glass, lightly spray the window with water, and it “should stick, simple as that”.

Get to the heart of what’s happening with climate change and the environment.



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