The Cottage Smallholder

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The secret challenge


Photo: October Harvest

Photo: October Harvest

We’ve had a secret challenge at the cottage this past year.

In the old days when oil was cheap we were wanton with our central heating. Our 900 litre tank was filled up four times a year. In October last year we worked out that four fill ups might cost as much as £1600. It was quite a shock when we did the maths.

For the first time ever I decided to shop around for the best price. In the end we saved £60 on filling the tank. Up until then I’d used the same supplier for 25 years – but he just couldn’t offer a similar discount.

Then we set ourselves a challenge. Could we survive on just 900 litres for a whole year?

It meant wearing outdoor jackets and hats in the house. Hotties and Min Pins in the beds. Foraging for fuel in the woods for the wood burning stove. Putting up homemade secondary double glazing. Keeping doors closed to conserve the heat. The heating and hot water were on just for the minimum time in the morning and evening. It was uncomfortable but not impossible to do.

Today the tank is going to be filled just over a year later. So we’ve completed the challenge. Hurray.

The summer was easy to do but I must admit I wasn’t looking forward to another chilly winter and was delighted when Danny suggested that we set the new challenge to two tanks this year. Sitting at his desk wearing an outdoor fleece and woolly hat he announced.
“The pain wasn’t worth the gain.”

We are lucky – we can afford to buy more oil. The challenge made me realise how tough it must be for the elderly and infirm who have to heat their houses on a very limited budget.

  Leave a reply


  1. Danny Carey

    Fiona has collapsed into bed, absolutely exhausted, so this evening I will comment on your comments 🙂
    Hi S.O.L ( some day you must explain what those initials mean!)
    The cottage is 400 years old, more or less wattle and daub with no real foundations, draughty and cold in winter. But is also beautifully cool in summer. Many years ago in the house where I was brought up (Irl, built in 1917 by my granddad) my dad applied Styrofoam sheets to the walls in some of the bedrooms. While it was warm to the touch behind the wallpaper, I don’t think that it did a great deal to insulate us from the cold exterior. I think that Mandi’s comment exemplifies the benefits of well built modern housing, and the resulting reduction in heating costs.

    Hi Paula – wow, stone floors! I know now that we would never knowingly install them, beautiful though they are, unless we could also afford to install under floor heating. That combo is absolutely wonderful, if expensive. I like the idea of micro-encapsulated paraffin panels. It seems to make sense. But I would like to read some significant benefits over the old and cheap Styrofoam stuff.

    Hi Sylvie – I think that a first step of reducing the temp is a simple and great idea. I am not proposing being a martyr to fuel costs and temps but I like wearing a simple woolly hat/cap when going to bed. As kids, we used to laugh at illustrations in old books that showed Scrooge going to bed in an old fashioned nightcap. It really does work! Simple.

    Hello, Ammi – great minds think alike! Keeping costs down is an admirable objective but there comes a point where some aspects are just not worthwhile, especially when young children are involved, It’s a question of balance.

    Hi Rachael – I think it is good to try everything once. Like I said to Ammi, the welfare of children comes first. When times are tough and it may be a few days before you can afford the next heating fuel bill, I bet that kids would adore snuggling up in a communal bed in front of the fire! The novelty value would take everybody‘s mind off the shortages.

    Oh crikey, Joanna, what a horrible responsibility when to decide heating on or heating remains off. I guess that you guys have taken the right decision and can remain neutral by installing your own heating gear. What a bummer, though.

    Kate – the simple solutions are the best, although this generation often overlooks them. I work with a blanket or rug draped over my legs. It makes a vast difference. Simple but effective.

    Hey Mandi – no need to feel guilty. It sounds as though your house is super-efficiently insulated. £1.50 per day would not keep us in firewood here, so relax and enjoy your comfort and let all of us feel envious!

  2. £45 a month that is incredible. The poor Latvians in our apartment block last year were reeling from the costs. The average Latvian earns around 250-400 Lats a month (if they have a job that is at the moment) and our bills last year were 120 Lats which is around £150 a month, it was really hard. Thank goodness the first bill with heating only came to about 9 lats but that was not a whole month, our first bill last year was 85 lats and got worse after that.

  3. I feel awful reading these posts, my central heating is on 15 during the day and 21 at night and early mornings! But my gas bill is only £45 a month, we have cavity wall and its brick and double glazed maybe that helps with the running of the boiler, and it seems to be one of those sorts of houses that once its warm it stays warm ( i.e from end oct to end of march usually!LOL) I don’t think £1.50 a day to keep the 2 of us warm enough to be in our pyjamas all day and 3 cats happily napping on backs of chairs next to the rads a dear price to pay but compared to how frugal all you seem to beable to be I feel really guilty now!

  4. kate (uk)

    Being too cold is no fun at all. I always try to keep the house just warm enough to prevent joints getting too stiff and painful,I hate to breathe warm air,so when sitting still I have a rug, which is really rather pleasant! The Thermals go on as soon as it gets chilly.I used to find 15 was fine for me, but now I’m a bit older, 17 suits better… the roof has just had an extra layer of insulation put in, which has made a big difference and the walls are being done next month, so perhaps living on top of a windy hill in a windy valley will be a bit warmer this winter!

  5. Be blessed very blessed you have the option. We found out how miserable a lack of heating was in the rather damp climate of a Latvian autumn. Here we have communal heating, great when it is on but a pain because we don’t have the decision of when to switch it on. Last year our wiring wouldn’t take too much pressure so had to make do with the blankets and hot water bottles but we both ended up with cold sores all winter. This year we had electric heaters until they decided to turn the heating on. The criteria is three days below 8C during the day or three nights below freezing. Apparently if 50% of the house ask they can turn the heating on earlier but if we who have money do that then those who don’t just end up deeper and deeper in debt. This year we have extra oil-filled radiators, about to install a wood stove for the cold spring after the switch the heating off and a recirculation pump on the main house supply which reduces the costs for everyone down to a more affordable level.

  6. We did the same last year, as on filling our tank for the second time at 500 euros a go we nearly died! Wouldn’t have been too bad but we only use it for the central heating and have gas bottles for water , which cost about 65 euros a month !(Very inneficient system and totally out of keeping with our green side, but its a rented house!) We spent more time in the sitting room, where there is a fire, and only went upstairs to bed, and came down very quiclkly in the mornings!!In fact there were times I thought about sleeping in front of the fire, but I remember the same when I was achild, and I think we have all gone a bit soft, my kids now understand that oil is not inexhaustible, if we put a green spin on it, perhaps they will not moan as much this year!!

  7. Amusingly we tried something similar at home last winter and reached the same conclusion. We were just trying to keep the gas bills as low as possible. We set the thermostat at 13C (though in reality some rooms were much colder than that) and spent most of the winter wearing hats, scarves and coats indoors.

    The unanimous decision this winter was to leave it up at 15C. Danny’s comment that “the pain wasn’t worth the gain” perfectly summarises how we felt by the end of last winter!

  8. Wow, that’s amazing and shows what can be done. I’ve decided to not have my heating on as much this winter either and have reduced the times on the timer and also making sure to adjust it if I know I’m not gonna be in straight from work on an evening. I’m glad you’re going to relax your rules a little bit this winter though.

  9. In the same vein as S.o.L.’s comment, DuPont has a fairly new product called Energain which is pretty wonderful stuff (in fact, now that I think about it, it might be cheaper for us to do that instead of pulling off the old siding and adding new insulation, but I’m not doing anything until we have an energy audit done). Energain is a wallboard product that is made up of micro-encapsulated paraffin. Evidently, for thermal mass, water is way better than stone or masonry for holding heat- and paraffin is way, way better than water.

    Maybe just an energy audit would help you see where most of your heat loss is. But I agree with you- being cold is just miserable. I’m so glad we could afford to have a wood-burning stove installed this last summer. It would be especially necessary during a power failure, because even though we have a gas furnace, it requires electricity to run- and we have stone floors. We found out last winter how incredibly fast this house cools down when there’s no power!!

  10. Hello. Got to love old houses and their drafts. Is there any way of adding insulation to the walls? PB’s Father has had great success with his special boards he has added to the walls, over the plaster. Although he had to have the walls reskimmed and has lost a few inches of room, he has said the difference is amazing. Although in Scotland they give out lots of grants.

    Is there anything similar to this you can do? We live in a 1970’s box house. We had cavity wall insulation pumped in. We didn’t have to fill out any forms just a signature. They do all the work and they were found on the councils website, when I thought about applying for a grant for it. We have also had huge success from having the loft insulated to the correct amount recommended now. We did this with space blankets as we didn’t qualify for the grant for this. They were on offer.

    In our next house though, THE FOREVER HOUSE, we will use fleece in the loft and depending on the walls wave newspaper piped in. And will defo be looking at solar panels for the roof. Expensive yes, but I feel obliged to do something for the next generation. Saving my bit of the planet one gadget at a time… And by playing my budget game of how little can I spend, and any appropriate grants that may be out there at the time we come to buy, I hope to make a saving at some point …

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