Net Zero, Insulation, Boilers, and English Dampness, or Symbol Manipulators Versus Existing Conditions

Richard North, of EU Referendum note, is still posting daily, albeit now on matters well beyond Brexit. North has turned his attention to Boris Johnson’s grand-sounding net zero commitments, versus conditions on the ground, particularly English housing stock. As you’ll see soon, North has a boiler fixation.

I will confess I know just about nothing about home heating systems and fully intend to keep it that way, so forgive me if I lose something in the translation in discussing UK heating devices. The reason we’re looking at what might seem to be an awfully narrow topic is that it sheds light on why we are seeing widespread incompetence at the top of the food chain.

Even if you don’t buy all of North’s analysis, or his strong-form conclusion that UK homeowners will not go along with the Government’s plan that by 2035, “all new heating appliances installed in homes and workplaces will be low-carbon technologies, like electric heat pumps or hydrogen boilers,” you might still agree that the officialdom has not thought its green home plan through and will have to find a way to gracefully roll back some of its goals.

And if North’s analysis is broadly correct, it highlights why our elites are failing. We’ve had a shift over time to more and more, and now pretty much all, having spent all of their adult lives as symbol manipulators: lawyers, MBA-spreadsheet and PowerPoint generating managers, financiers, consultants, politicians, flacks. As I’ve said, in the stone ages of my youth, the Harvard MBA program had at least 40% of its students with engineering degrees, and at least that many having worked in manufacturing. Now the point of being well paid and well educated is to have a buffer of people and reports between you and blue collar workers and physical operations.

Lambert yesterday talked about the stupidity and corruption of the late Romanov era, but there’s also echoes of Versailles, of those who are or aspire to be modern-day aristocrats wanting to be in the circles where the top-tier hang: DC. New York. Boston. San Francisco. Silicon Valley. The right parts of Los Angeles and Seattle, and the prime vacation spots like Aspen, Vail, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, and Jackson Hole. It’s more important for them to find a way to fly private class than understand how anything works. They have minions to do that.

If anything, the rot is further advanced in the UK, perhaps because its industrial base was getting hollowed out before Thatcher declared war on it, and because the US is richer and more of an autarky, and thus can better afford mismanagement.

So let’s now turn to North’s argument. My expectation is that even if he’s overstated some of his claims, he’s still directionally correct. And if that is the case, it illustrates a fundamental problem with “green energy/green revolution” schemes: they fail to consider existing conditions and what it will take to get from here to there. A huge impediment to lowering carbon footprints in the US is dispersed, energy-inefficient single family housing, both in their heating and cooling and the transit costs of provisioning them. The US would have to be substantially rebuilt to achieve smaller, more dense residences, hopefully with richer public spaces and ample public transportation. The energy cost of that is huge and upfront, even assuming public appetite to go there. But I don’t see a lot of realistic thinking about how to radically change current habits to make the current spread out housing less destructive either.

In the UK, North contends that the big UK push to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 and zero by 2050 has been vastly oversold, with costs and conversion times greatly understated. His overview is in Politics: grandstand now, pay later. North is cheesed off about what he sees as a wildly unrealistic program to get rid of gas boilers by 2035. No new ones are to be sold after then. Homeowners are supposed to convert to electric boilers or heat pump. The Government will subsidize conversions, so that homeowners supposedly will wind up no worse off, cost wise. North pooh-poohs that claim:

….all the government has to offer.. is a £450 million three-year “Boiler Upgrade Scheme”, giving households grants of up to £5,000 …“so they cost the same as a gas boiler now”.

That alone is highly refined BS, as purchase and installation may cost up to £15,000 for each household. It is estimated, therefore, that this delivers only 30,000 boiler conversions a year – some 90,000 in all – reaching only the well-heeled…

With that, we then creep into fantasy land, as the government is to spend £60 million on a “Heat Pump Ready programme”…it hopes that costs will be driven down and the public will thus be induced into making unsupported purchases so as to meet the government’s target of 600,000 installations a year by 2028.

This seems to be relying on Wright’s Law of technology…that the cost of each unit produced decreases as a function of the cumulative number of units produced.

However… Heat pump technology is mature….while a significant part of the cost is in installation, where Wright’s law will have little effect.

It is most unlikely, therefore, that heat pump “package” costs – purchase and installation – will get close to boiler package cost…And then there are insulation costs to factor in, for a very substantial proportion of the housing stock.

On that basis, there will be very little incentive for the average householder voluntarily to give up their boilers…At the current rate of installation for heat pumps – without the cliff-edge of gas supply termination – it would take over 800 years to complete the programme.

Then, given that there are an estimated 25 million gas boilers in the UK, even if the government’s target of 600,000 installations a year by 2028 was met, it would take over 40 years to complete the replacement programme – assuming there had been no increase in boiler numbers in the interim….

As to overall costing, assuming that there are very little gains to be made from Wright’s Law, we are talking silly money to complete the programme – anything from £250-400 billion, if insulation is included.

North argues these costs pale in relationship to upgrading the electrical grid and making gas distribution hydrogen-ready. He asserts that the estimate of £1.4 trillion looks light, particularly since no one has put a price tag on the hydrogen-ready conversion.

However, it’s North’s post today, on UK housing stock, which if he’s right, shows the degree to which the UK establishment can’t even acknowledge known and obvious constraints. I was exposed to British heating habits when I was cat-sitting right after I came to Oz, for a news producer/commentator, Ticky Fullerton, who was back in her native London filming a segment. She’d come back to her sandstone house (no insulation!) in July (Sydney winter!) and throw the windows open when it was 55 degrees outside. Since I was acclimated to NYC steam overheated apartments, this was a shock to the system.

Similarly, if you’ve seen movies that attempt to do justice to Victorian England, like the Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, they make clear that indoors are cold unless there is a rousing fire, and more typical is an underheated room, using coal in a fireplace, with everyone in near-outdoor levels of layering.

North argues that houses in the UK are un/underinsulated on a pervasive basis, and that actually made sense, given that the Brits in winter are at least as concerned with dispelling dampness as cold (as in this opening up the house to the cold air in the winter is perfectly normal):

Traditionally – and we go back centuries here – the need for ventilation as well as heat was perfectly served by the provision of open fires, with their high, point-heat output, and high draught chimneys. Central heating in domestic premises – even in large houses – was a rarity. The well-to-do would simply have the unattainable luxury of a coal fire in every room.

This meant that, in structural terms, there was no great advantage in building in high levels of insulation – any advantage is lost by the high air movement. This, in turns, dictated a certain lifestyle. People didn’t rely on warm rooms, but warm clothing/bedding, and point-source heat – hence, the fire would be the focal point of the room, around which people would congregate.

As a result, in our older stock housing, there was never any provision for high levels of insulation. Retrofitting is often expensive and, beyond a certain level, impractical. It will often conflict with the need to maintain ventilation – we still have cold, damp winters.

I can’t judge if this is exaggerated special pleading, like the Japanese claiming in the 1980s they couldn’t eat American beef because Japanese had different intestines (I am not making this up, it was a trade negotiation contention). And the one house (where the first floor was built in the 1400s) and the apartment carved out of a house in London didn’t hew to this fireplace/winter ventilation fixation.

But even if North is overegging the pudding, I suspect he is directionally correct, that the UK has a lot of houses which are badly or not at all insulated where it would take a lot to stop them from leaking heat. And if they are in poor areas of the country, the cost of upgrading will be disproportionate to what could ever be recovered in sale cost or use value.

Mind you, I’m not pretending to have an answer. The point here is much simpler: the people in the world who are tasked to tackle major, pressing problems don’t seem willing to do even minimal real world investigation of what they are up against. At best, they actually know they aren’t capable of delivering solutions and are engaged in the “IBG/YBG” (“I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”) con of merely holding appearances together until they can dump the steaming mess in a successor’s lap.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I don’t have time to go through Richard Norths article, but I would point out that good and all as his Brexit contributions have been, his environmental writings are generally terrible – he is a climate change denier and has collaborated with Christopher Brooking, a particularly brain dead writer when it comes to anything vaguely scientific (he is one of those right wing writers who likes to think that being contrarian on science matters makes him look smart).

    And to clarify, there is often a lot of confusion between the two Richard Norths – the ‘other’ Richard North wrote one of the worst books I’ve ever read on environmental matters. While obviously they are different writers, they frequently quote each other approvingly all the time.

    But it is certainly true that UK housing policy is a mess. Building standards in the UK have been hopelessly compromised since the 1990’s, mostly due to Blairs idiotic decision to privatise the BRE. Up to then, BRE had been an admirably independent source of very good quality advice on structural standards and did very good work on how to address energy use in the Atlantic climate, which has particular challenges, in particular the build up of damp within well insulated houses. Plus, the problem that unlike other countries where rain tends to fall from the sky, it usually comes from every possible direction. IMO the build up of condensation and dampness in houses is the number one reason why culturally here people don’t like overheated homes in winter. We are conditioned to think that airflow in a house is healthy (and yes, it is).

    Its outside my area of expertise to know how exactly home conversions should be addressed in the UK, but in general these really work if they are part of a comprehensive overhaul of a house, to include control systems, insulation, and ventilation. Incremental changes to a house to make it more efficient rarely works as intended. But most houses will go through a cycle of replacement/upgrading every 20-25 years.

    Ireland is actually ahead of the UK on these matters as our climate is even more ‘Atlantic’, plus more houses here are electric and the number of single rural houses means there has always been a bigger market for heat exchangers matched with boilers. Irish building regulations are also more advanced when it comes to insulation, even if local builders are often hopelessly inept (my brother had to have his entire roof of his new house reconstructed in 2010 because his builders didn’t understand how to implement the then new regulations – fortunately, it was at their expense). In general, conversions including the most advanced condensing boilers with external heat exchangers (often with water or PV solar) can work extremely well, although in almost all the cases I know, the conversions were done by people with a very good technical grasp of what needed to be done and how to measure/assess if it had been done correctly. This obviously does not apply to the typical home owner.

    So IMO there is no technical reason why the UK could not meet its targets. However, instutionally the UK building industry has become so rotten, with such inadequate regulation, that it would need a huge overhaul for this to happen.

    1. JohnA

      I agree that the damp problem in British homes is more attributable to poor quality construction and corner cutting by private developers than the inclement weather. And as these private developers are among the biggest tory donors, nothing is going to fundamentally change.

    2. paul

      At least the latest BRE report gives a decent picture of UK housing and the problems it presents.

      75% over 40 years old and 83% on conventional gas supplies.

      That 75%, which will be the most demanding to remediate, will not be going anywhere

      Figure 5.1 shows that the UK housing stock is not being
      ‘renewed’ but rather being added to at a slow rate. A
      simple mathematic extrapolation suggests that a home
      built today would have to last 1,000 years at current
      replacement rates.

      Looking at the state of 10 year old ‘luxury’ flats round here makes that suggestion a little optimistic.
      One of the conclusions:

      Build sub-standard housing and you are stuck with it and
      it will be very difficult to repair, improve or replace.

      rings rather true, especially in the light of the approach to the comparatively simple problems posed by the cladding scandal.

      Even the newer housing stock will present challenges, not least of which is the space required for the likes of heat pumps and their tanks.

      That 83% on gas is going to have to find electricity from somewhere, and North’s article points out that is hard to see on the horizon.

      1. vlade

        When in the UK, I lived in new houses, old houses, renovated houses, old apartments and renovated apartments. By far, the new houses were the worst of the lot. Incredibly shoddy builds, sub-par materials, no thought put into the house (except “sell, sell, sell!”)

            1. juno mas

              Yes, ugly as ugly. But what surprises me is the staining of the stucco from the wood stain/paint above. Architectural building plans in the US require specifications that detail the quality of construction; and replace and repair clauses to cover this sort of inadequate stain/paint application.

    3. Ignacio

      I think he is flatly wrong when he asserts that Wright’s law does not apply for reversible heat exchangers. It works and pretty well for sure. The installation cost is a fixture and not that much when you are installing air-water heat exchangers that produce hot water for both, heating and hot toilet water. You only need, compared to a traditional boiler a second unit: the outside heat exchanger and the outside + inside heat exchangers can be combined in a compact installation. Well there is another thing you need: a deposit for hot-water storage (not required with boilers producing hot water on demand without storage). Connections are only to water supply and electricity. The cost of all this can go down steeply with mass production and installation. No need to connect to gas supplies and to comply with gas safety standards.

      As a matter of fact I applaud the decision taken by BJ’s executive which is probably the first thing I applaud from them! Erasing Natl gas boilers should be objective number 1 before car electrification.

      1. Ignacio

        — you can use exactly the same radiators that you had installed to work with the boiler, nobody is using 90ºC water for radiators any more and you can go with 50-55ºC water which is achievable with heat exchangers —

        1. vlade

          That depends. If you have a two decade old radiators, they are intended for high temperaturs (in the range of 70-80C IIRC). If you have even older, cast iron radiators, their working temperatures are all the way to 90C. Their advantage and dis-advantage is high inertia, meaning they take a long time to heat, but then also radiate heat for a long time.

          Those will almost certainly not work with a heat pump.

          1. Ignacio

            In that case, good to change them anyway and good riddance.
            Those result in lots of energy losses.

      2. Ignacio

        By the way, the cost of a heat pump unit for a 150-200m2 house here in Spain is about 9.000€ only for heating and hot tap water (VAT not included but come on, good reasons to reduce VAT to a minimum in this case). More expensive if you add A/C units.

      3. 2nd law of thermodynamics

        everyone is entitled to their opinions but not your own facts, the facts here come from physics.

        Using electricity to directly to produce low grade heat directly thru resistive generation is impractical. a normal home uses a >10 kw thermal source, the grid is designed to supply no more than 1kw-2kw average to each user. it cannot even supply 5kw average in UK installations. single phase feeds are nominally 25kva but they are supplied based on a contention ratio, if everyone pulls 25kva even momentarily the grid will black out.

        Fundamentally electricity is a high grade energy source therefore you need to use the high grade energy electricity to move heat (heat pump) from a colder source to a warmer sink use the high grade to move low grade energy. where the heat comes from is not important but there needs to be enough to move and too much climbing of a thermal gradient.

        heat pumps are efficient when the hot side is not too hot, an electrically driven heat pump running at hot side 55oC is less CO2 efficient than than just burning natural gas (depending on the electrical generation mix). the COP of heat pumps is a measure of how much electricity is needed to move a certain amount of heat and it rapidly declines as the difference between input and output temperature increases. all current heat pumps are inefficient at 55oC output, the condenser is just too hot to do much work. A small amount of heat can be pulled from the de-superheat and give hot washing water at 60oC but the bulk needs to be dumped into a cooler system otherwise most of the heat is coming from the compressor rather than the evaporator.
        There is not a solution to the problem, because the problem is intrinsic, a heat pump is a reverse carnot cycle heat engine which obeys the 2nd law of thermodynamics

        heat pumps should have 3 phase motors or supply and soft start, on a single phase supply with single phase motors the starting current is huge.

        I have installed 2 heat pumps and am well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. I like them but they need to have the building designed around them not retrofit to achieve anything like the stated performance. (FWIW a 20 KW thermal system has run a measured system wide COP inc pumps etc of 3.9 over the last 5 years but that is UFH with 35oC max flow temp). if it ran at 55oC then the COP would be down below 2

        retrofit is where the problem is, they simply do not work without major rework

        a radiator designed to emit a certain amount of power at 60oC circulation will considerably less than half the output at 40oC heat pumps are efficient with underfloor heating with large thermal mass or with hugely oversize radiators where the hot side fluid is at 40oC or less neither is practical on retrofit.

        Add to the mix that most heat pumps still use HFCs as working fluids (F gas), and they do leak, a standard unit with less than 3kg of fluid is equivalent to 10-20 tonnes of CO2 and the HFC is very persistent in the atmosphere so it just keeps on absorbing infrared for centuries unlike methane which lasts only a few years at most.

        The whole net zero greenwash BS will collide with physics based reality, unless your plan is to get Johnsons idiot government to repeal the 2nd law of thermodynamics, in which case you will be disappointed by the limitations of legislative fiat.

  2. Harry

    Good post and I think your general thrust is correct.

    I would counter argue that most insulation benefits are in roof insulation. And British traditional building was two layers of brick walls. You can usually insulate with foam injection. But yes, its a damp cold. I remember coming back from a -20C Moscow to a 0 C London, getting off the plane and thinking “god its cold here”.

    I just insulated one of my multi-families using the Mass Save program. Cost to me will end up about 6k. Cost to Mass Save will be 14k. Benefit will accrue to me and tenants via lower energy costs to tenants allowing higher rents over time cet par (maybe). The building in question was old and the project was a giant pain in the ass. But it got done in the end. I still have a squirrel trapped in the attic which is a pain for the tenant. Any advice on how to address would be very welcome!

    Before I could insulate I had to address the chronic dampness in the basement. Sump pump and more guttering seems to have fixed most of the problem but ground water levels are surprisingly high. We will find out how well I did after this Nor-Easter. If you have a damp problem you probably have to install dehumidifiers before you fully insulate. Otherwise you will get mold problems. They tell me its cheaper than you might think, but then the sellers of insulation would say that wouldnt they? I now have a problem disposing of sump pump water.

    I suppose its true that in an ideal world you wouldnt start with so many small buildings. But there are improvements that can be made and perhaps in more prosperous areas those improvements will be made to older buildings. I dont know what will happen in less prosperous areas but it doesn’t make sense to improve housing stocks when rents and prices are too low. I suppose the problem is the benefits will stall out quite quickly. I have now done what can be done.

    Heat pumps are not fully mature. We are still seeing the minimum temperatures they work at go down. And from what I see there are few qualified installers right now. So margins for installations are still quite high in the US. In the UK this point is even more valid. But Im not sure how big these gains will be. So you are probably more right than wrong. However the big benefit of heat pumps in the US are in lower cooling costs. So I would really question the advantages in the UK, where you only need airconditioning for a month at best.

    1. Another Scott

      Heat pumps lower cooling costs? Color me skeptical. Although they are more efficient than traditional window units, the increased efficiency is often dwarfed by increased usage of cooling. I know countless people who think, “it’s so cheap with the heat pump and the solar on my rooftop, I’ll turn it on.” Their energy consumption and sometimes their bills then increased.

      1. JE

        I had an air source heat pump installed in Minnesota 12 years ago. At the time, i could only find two installers with experience and not much at that. As i speak the pump is running great but as pointed out above, the technology is improving. The key figure of merit is the so called COP, or coefficient of performance with the achievable temperature rise/fall as a related, practical limitation of system design. The COP is the ratio of energy expended to move (pump) a given amount of heat energy. Meaning that at COP 2 the pump uses 1kW of power to move 2kW of heat into (or out) of my house. It’s 200 percent efficient in other words. So as long as electricity costs less than twice gas on a BTU basis I’m coming out ahead financially. On a carbon basis it depends on electrical generation mix and transmission efficiency. For reference, at milder temps (50F e.g) the COP can be North of 5, or 500 percent efficient. These are amazing technologies.

        COP of 2 is generally near the point you’d switch from the heat pump to your backup heat source which in my case is a gas furnace but can be electric heat elements. 2 is where the diminishing returns are starting to be apparent, where the heat pump is running a lot and the air (in a forced air system) is coming out of the vents with a small temperature rise which is perceived as a cool breeze by home dwellers near the vents. Uncomfortable. My older heat pump has it’s COP of 2 around 20F but the latest ones available now are down to 0F or maybe lower. It’s still not a technology ready for heating stand alone in cold climates like Minnesota but possible for the UK. In places like Minnesota where the heating degree days vastly outweigh the cooling degree days (for now) you end up sizing the heat pump for heat load and it is vastly over capacity for cooling. Meaning I could keep my house at 50F all summer if I wanted to. Long story short, heat pumps are great and should be the norm but system design changes with climate. Enough rambling.

    2. Samuel Conner

      re: the attic squirrel:

      In my (US) experience, squirrels find peanut butter to be irresistible; try baiting a live capture trap with it. Havahart has models well sized for squirrels. My garden pests generally are trapped within hours of setting out traps, which I need to do again as they are digging up potted plants.

    3. anon y'mouse

      squirrels in attics require skinny youths who like climbing and have their rabies shots up-to-date.

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      Even if you can’t raise the rent eventually to take up the tenants’ eventual savings on heating energy, you may well still gain by having happier tenants, less likely to move away to be replaced by who-knows-what, less likely to get angry and vandalistic, more likely to keep paying their same rent as before if they become poorer otherwise, etc.

      Of course that’s just speculative thinking on my part.

  3. BillS

    Another thing to consider is the inflationary effect that government contributions have on installation costs. Italy has a system of tax rebates and discounts for improving energy efficiency (usually 50%, 65% or 110% depending of the level of bureaucracy you want to subject yourself to) . We changed our heating system from LPG to a heat pump using the 65% rebate system in our house in Italy. Basically, the government reimburses you 65% of the costs involved in upgrading the energy efficiency of your home through tax rebates or direct payments to contractors. Boy were we surprised when we saw the bill!
    1) Contractors inflated labor costs up to the reimbursement cutoff point.
    2) Material costs were also inflated accordingly. (There were also effects from material shortages causing price increases).
    3) The bureaucratic load is not to be underestimated. Societal costs are huge.

    In effect, we paid the nearly the full expected installation price in the absence of the subsidy. This was confirmed in discussions with the painting contractor, who we decided to pay outside of the subsidy program. The bill was 1/2. This blows Wright’s Law right out of the water. In theory, I can understand how subsidies like this benefit society by improving energy efficiency, but in practice, they end up being wealth transfers from taxpayers to those already well-off (mostly contracting businesses, banks and building material providers). Any system of contributions needs to be well thought out to prevent this type of exploitation. I am not even sure it can be done.

  4. Anonymous 2

    On the subject of UK incompetence, the House of Commons report on the UK’s early response to the Coronavirus paints a picture of a UK government organisation completely bereft of anyone at all who knew what they were doing. Politicians, political advisers, scientific advisers, civil servants, not one of them (literally) seems to have had a clue what they were doing or the wit or guts to challenge what is recognised to have been a disastrous few weeks of appalling decision making, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. How one can reform a system which is clearly totally broken in such a situation? Obviously one has to start at the top by getting rid of Johnson but there is little prospect of that at present and where do you find anyone competent to replace him when the higher ranks of both political parties seem stuffed with people who are hardly any better?

    I do not know whether North’s views on heating have any validity but the idea that the UK government machine is now totally incompetent chimes very much with the picture painted by the HoC.

    This is what happens when a country is run by its media barons (Murdoch and friends).

    1. Harry

      Surely Johnson, Gove et all, are a symptom not the disease? Perhaps a symptom of the same disease which has corrupted the quality of governance beneath them.

      1. KiWeTO

        Why can’t the current symptoms also be a continuing cause for new and worse symptoms? There were numpties before Boris, and it is likely there will be even more numpties after Boris with their efforts to disengage the remaining experts in their civil service.

    2. Mike

      RE: “This is what happens when a country is run by its media barons.”
      Thank you for pointing out a First Cause.

  5. Brooklin Bridge

    I agree there is no technical reason why Great Brittan’s housing stock can’t be brought within or close to the limits currently defined as net zero including acceptable resolution of the issue of humidity. On the other hand, it seems more and more like there is not enough money or hoardable riches in the universe to save one single planet from the greed and corruption witnessed on planet Earth.

    Gaius Publius once wrote a compelling article posted at NC, the gist of which was that it would take something like Miami sinking overnight by floodwaters to get people to really take action on climate change. And that, if I remember correctly, was meant as local action that might produce some awareness of the problem on a wider scale. Given the fires in California this past summer, I wonder if even that would do much of anything. Joe Biden and our venal congress have been particularly eloquent in making clear such doubts are better described as facts.

  6. BrianM

    I replaced the boiler in my Edinburgh flat last year. Its stone built, with 3m high ceilings (which I love for space but acknowledge aren’t that environmentally friendly). I’m top floor and while half my roof has an attic like space which I have stuffed with insulation, the back half is flat and I have no access to to add insulation without ripping it up which is prohibitively expensive. When replacing the boiler I looked at heat pumps, but £5000 wouldn’t cover half the gap in cost. Installing the box outside a 3rd floor flat means I would have additional scaffolding costs. I’d need new radiators throughout (heat pumps run at lower temperatures than gas boilers so need bigger radiators). Plus added insulation requirements (some of which I’m doing anyway to be fair) And, at the end of the day, running costs won’t be that much cheaper if at all. I want to be environmentally friendly, but the cost from where I’m starting is prohibitive. Anecdotal, but illustrates the points being made elsewhere.

    But the meaningful point I wanted to make was about new builds. Old stock is a problem and needs addressed, but when you’re in a hole then stop digging. Until heat pumps are used instead of boilers in new-builds and appropriate insulation requirements put in place I won’t believe the government is really serious about it.

    1. paul

      Facing similar problems in the same area.
      Heat pumps just are not suitable for our house and most likely never will be.

      You can mandate new builds to be efficient, but the replacement rate is so anemic it will not make much of a dent.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      My experience with heat pumps (mini ductless systems) has been very poor. The hype is always exactly the same year after year. The technology is just now (always just now) at the point where heating at below zero Fahrenheit (-17.7 C) is cost effective

      And from my own experience and that of the admittedly few people I’ve meet who have had them installed in this temperature zone (5), it remains more accurate to say that heating anything below 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.2 C) gets closer and closer to the same energy consumption (and cost) as simple electric baseboards. Also, looking at the inside of those compressors isn’t awe inspiring in terms of quality and confidence that the overpriced contraption will continue to work for years. The simplicity of the compressors is a real positive, but it also – I suspect – leads manufacturers to cut corners on quality meaning eventual small but cumulative gas leaks and performance reduction.

      In my case, when I tried to purchase a new compressor (outside unit) to replace the leaky old one, I was told I also had to replace all the inside units as they were not compatible with the newer heat pump (compressor). A little bit of a lot of planned obsolescence. That was Mitsubishi about 10 years ago; don’t know if it still applies, but I would make sure to get something in writing before going that route again.

      New England temperatures may be considerably colder than the average in Brittan, so heat pumps are perhaps more viable there. Quality of heat pump internals would be my major concern. Also, if companies there are anything like those here, warranties don’t mean much after 10 years or so.

      1. chris

        It’s not planned obsolescence as much as the conditions of operation change significantly. Everything from the diameter of the tubing that the refrigerant travels through on its loop through the heat pump to the choice of refrigerant can change over a short period of time. Most of manufacturers of these devices have little control over which regulations in the different countries they sell product in change at what time. HVAC equipment is expensive and needs to be maintained.

        You’d think that would be a good driver for public programs to help citizens with that but I guess not :/

      2. gc54

        The other hit is that a ducted, forced air HP produces a cool breeze when heating (output is not 98 F), not the pleasant warm blast you get from a properly sized gas fired system. That and the fragile compressor drove me from electricity back to gas furnace with separate AC. But I did have to battle with the installer who wanted to oversize the furnace.

        Our neighbor has a ground-source HP with deep vertical well drilled noisily/laboriously but it has never operated properly. Moisture problems and mold galore.

        1. juno mas

          …that is why hydronic (baseboard) heating systems are the preferred option. In cold climates they are combined with a focused heat source (heat stove) to reheat cold bodies (yours) when coming in from the blizzard :).

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Don’t these refrigerant chemicals used in heat pumps become more powerful heat trappers than methane once they mix into the atmosphere? And if heat-pumps are slow refrigerant leakers as described in your comment, then the global super-warming refrigerant will leak into the atmosphere.

        If so, then what is even the point of having heat pumps?

  7. vlade

    UK insulation is horrible, new builds or old builds. North has a sort of a point that old UK builds are harder to insulate, especially as most of the normal methods will either shrink your living space, or potentially break the external aesthetic of the house. Roof insulation, as mentioned by Harry, is probably the easiest, and usually good bang for the buck.

    On heat pumps.

    On one hand, heat pumps are good for the UK climate where temperatures don’t drop below 0C too often (heat pumps efficiency drops dramatically at certain temperaturs, for may of them it’s -2C, for better ones say -5C, below that they need to work together with another heat source – or operate with a heat source, such as underground water, where temperatures don’t drop so much, but it makes the install much more expensive). On the other hand, they tend to generate relatively low temperatures, say 50C or so. Which may not be enough for your cast-iron heaters. Heat pumps work best with underfloor heating (where they can happily produce 30-40C and heat the house), but that is a massive investment, and may not be possible in some places at all.

    Mind you, if the current gas prices persists, heat pump becomes an option for me even (at the gas prices of the last two years, the payback time would have been 20+ years, it’s now less than 10). The only problem would be to find a good place for the the heat pump. I would really want ground-water drilled, but drilling here may be a big issue, so most likely would end up with air-water HP.

    1. Geoff

      My air source heat pump is extremely efficient at -5 to -20C, temperatures which we hit for sustained periods every winter here in inland Sweden. Electricity costs in Scandinavia are a third or a quarter of those in the UK, granted, but my electrical bill is a rounding error now, and would still be very low even at UK rates. I was spending upwards of $5,000 in heating oil before installing the heat pump (which cost $12,000, labor included). It’s just a matter of getting the right equipment and making sure it’s installed correctly (which might not be an option in other countries).

    2. Greg

      If you can get roof and underfloor insulation done, you can make a huge dent in heat waste without getting to the wall insulation. Particularly if you also focus effort on sealing/double glazing windows.

      I havent read the detail, but I’d hope Bojo is pushing insulation subsidies before the heating subsidies (less waste = less energy required, cuts before the heating efficiency calcs kick in).

      1. juno mas

        Yes, sealing windows and doors from air infiltration is essential to maintaining an energy efficient home. Conservation first!

    3. PlutoniumKun

      I haven’t worked or lived in the UK for 20 years, but the impression I get is that the entire building industry has gone backwards in that time. I’ve been quite shocked on regular visits to see just how bad some new build is. There are all sorts of reasons for tthis, but I think the deliberate crapification of building regulations and the defunding of planning departments is a key issue. There is very little to prevent buildings being essentially value engineered downwards, often with unproven cheap fabrication techniques. The contrast with new build in most of continental Europe is really stark (although I do have a particular loathing for those French cheap hotel chains which seem to make their buildings out of plywood).

  8. fjallstrom

    Sweden by and large retrofitted it’s housing stock between mid 90ies and 2010, from oil to heat pumps or wood pellets (Sweden has a massive lumber and paper mill industry, pellets are mostly done from their waste). A government grant of 30% of the cost, up to about 3 000 pounds was made availble for a limited time. In combination with high oil prices and oil taxes switching was profitable over time, the government grant lowered investement cost and gave a nudge to do it now.

    So it can be done. Quite possible that UK will mess it up anyway.

    1. JohnA

      Sweden also has far more communal district heating systems that supply homes and businesses, and where it is easier to switch to different energy sources. Britain is very much each house/apartment has its own individual heating system, most of which are natural gas.

      1. Geoff

        Far more, but not most.

        I only know one other person here whose home is connected to district heating, and he’s actually declined subscribing to it because he could get a better price with an independent solution for his home.

        The transition of Swedish housing stock has been as complete in single-family homes as in medium-rise and high-rise apartments, mostly without district heating. And, I’d add, with far more need for heating, given the climate.

  9. T_Reg

    I suppose scattershot programs like what North derides can be somewhat helpful, but I’m convinced that far more progress will be achieved with a carbon tax (at the source) whose revenues are distributed in equal portions to all. Starting with a high tax that continually increases will, I expect, result in a laser focus on carbon consumption among the general population. The people who consume less than the average will receive a boon, while the (carbon) profligate will face inceasingly higher bills.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      This sounds like the Hansen FeeTax and Dividend plan against fossil carbon at the mine mouth and well head.

      If a country were to apply it, that country would have to protectionize itself against carbon dumping by its trading enemies who won’t adopt the Hansen FeeTax Dividend. At the very least it would have to adopt savagely punitive tarriffs against every country which failed to implement an exactly-the-very-same Hansen FeeTax Dividend plan.

  10. Bob


    While the comfort and efficiency of residences in the UK is very important a more profitable approach to reducing carbon emissions might be to focus on the largest carbon emitters.

    Then the question becomes what are the largest emitters ? And what will it take to reduce emissions at those large emitters.

    In the US (and I suspect the UK has a similar site) the go to source is The Energy Information Agency (EIA) which through its various data sets clearly sets out where the energy is used,
    The site is not that easy to use however it is a good start at a factual understanding of energy use in the US.

    Interesting fact – one of the largest energy users / emitters for the US is the DOD.

    So let’s use the existing facts to define the focus and then proceed.

  11. chris

    For what it’s worth…

    Current heat pump designs require back up heat sources if the temperatures drop below zero Fahrenheit as their coefficient of performance (COP) drops to 1 and then less than one. So you’re still going to need an alternate source of heat to handle things in extreme events and in times of cold weather. It’s different for cooling. The efficient range for cooling with a heat pump covers most of what the northern hemisphere considers hot weather. Heat pumps cool well until you reach about 115 F.

    The winter average temperatures for most of the UK are right at the limit of where heat pumps work efficiently. There’s also the problem of defrosting the heat pump coils in cold weather. If the heat pumps aren’t maintained correctly, you can freeze over the outdoor coil and any heating ability is lost. And all of this still doesn’t address indoor air quality or how you get the conditioned air from its source to where it’s needed. That can be especially problematic in older retrofits where you need to thread ducts throughout the house or rely or other solutions for properties that weren’t designed with a central HVAC system.

    Heat pumps are great. I’m waiting to install one at our house. But we also have a wood pellet stove AND an efficient wood burning fireplace AND we have increased the insulation in our house dramatically from the original design condition. So we’ll be OK if if we get hit with a surprise winter storm or a heat pump ices over.

    I’m not so sure about other people though. Especially with the types of challenges I think a lot of buildings in the UK will have with mass adoption of this technology.

    1. Ignacio

      Nope. It well may be the case in the north slopes in Scotland in winter by night. You program these to do most of the job at midday when temperatures are usually well above 0 Farenheit in Britain and the heated water is stored till needed by night. Good marriage with photovoltaic also, even in rainy Britain.

      1. chris

        Not sure what you mean? Design temperatures and winter averages for HVAC purposes tend to be quite a bit cooler than what people experience on average. In the US, it’s not unusual to have an average January winter temperature of 25 F but the design temperature be 5 F for the heating system and building envelope. Heat pumps start to become ineffective at temps below freezing, which defeats the point of switching to heat pumps in order to save energy, right? And even if really cold temps are rare, you still need the back up heat source for when it happens.

        Also, if you’re asserting that in addition to heating all the water necessary to run a radiant system using a heat pump you’re also going to be storing it on site so that you could take advantage of solar type systems… we’re talking a lot of money here. Maybe that’s something you could do with new buildings. You’re going to have a hard time doing it with existing buildings and single houses. In large apartment buildings you’re talking about a system of fairly large tanks to accommodate that. Which means you need structural changes in addition to everything else. Not cheap.

        There are lots of challenges with photovoltaic and solar heating in his context too. If you’re going to use solar heating you have a whole new set of pipes that can leak and systems that need to be maintained. My favorite solar heating option uses the mass of walls and special coatings to create a heat battery during the day which radiates inside the building envelope at night. Completely passive and very comforting. But not something easily added in many circumstances.

        1. Ignacio

          You are confusing photovoltaic solar with thermal solar. I wrote ‘photovoltaic’ to supply electricity. No pipes, no extra water circuits.

  12. Edward H Jones

    The overall understanding of building science is quite poor. This is as true in the US as it is in the UK. The Germans and Swiss are way ahead in terms of understanding and developed technology. New construction can be well insulated and well ventilated so that energy consumption is almost nill. The problem with these homes is finding heating and cooling equipment for small scale applications.

    European housing is different than US housing. Europeans use gas or oil or electric boilers that deliver heated water through radiators to the house. This causes little air movement and there is a small delta between the air and the pipes. This leaves the moisture in the air. In the US we primarily use forced air heating which is causes the air to move and to interact with the warm air. This drys the air in US homes.

    The moisture exists because the homes are filled with cracks. Any combustion requires fresh air so a gas burner is sucking on the walls of the house to bring in more moist air.

    The UK is in a unique problem. As with the rest of Europe they use small scale wall hung boilers and water heaters that take up little space. These items are generally poorly made, low in cost and are replaced as throw away items. Gas boilers can be replaced with electric boilers and the electricity can come from the renewable grid. The best thing to do with the homes is to replace the windows and seal them properly, if you have a clear shot at the attic then insulate that. In truth there will be few if any average builders who will know how to use vapor barriers and how to properly install a window that will not leak. There needs to be a lot of training or things will get worse. Air to water heat pumps will require different baseboards. Air to air heat pumps that circulate coolant to individual room units would work well in the UK. They work well in the US.

    The best resource to understand this issue is Building Science Corporation here in the US. They have been preaching on this subject for a long time and are finally gaining a following in the US. Progressive US builders are using totally new techniques using a lot of German and Swiss products to produce new types of building envelopes. American companies are just catching on.

    Buildings can be very tight and use very little energy and use highly efficient air to air heat exchangers to bring in fresh air on a constant basis. The good builders in the US are catching on to this. Again a 50 year old technology coming into its own.

    Air to air heat exchangers are an important tool for fighting the spread of virus’s in the future.

    1. T_Reg

      “The best thing to do with the homes is to replace the windows and seal them properly”. Is replacement really necessary? Here’s my (admittedly miseducated) take: Sealing the windows is much cheaper and therefore more likely, while replacement will, in addition to the sealing, at most increase your r-value from 1 to 3.

      As the owner of a 100-year-old house (with 30 windows), I recognize that I’m biased, but I’ve read many pieces touting the benefits of restoration vs replacement. I wonder if replacement is only the better option for newer windows.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Agree. I think windows are generally the last or near the last on the list of improvements for energy efficiency. However, a leaky window gives off the feeling of letting in cold because it is drafty and even a small draft directly on a person can be quite uncomfortable though it doesn’t proportionally result in heat loss as much as it feels cold. I have to admit, the windows I have changed out have made a significant difference in the way one feels sitting or being next to them for any length of time.

        1. Edward Jones

          25 year old windows have more heat loss than the wall where they sit. Modern windows are much better made with numerous layers of glass very well sealed glass to glass. By replacing the window completely you can properly redo the sealing area. It is the biggest bang for the buck.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            Not generally. To my knowledge, 80% of heat loss occurs through the attic and roof, then upward through the floors, due to a chimney effect throughout the house, then the walls. Finally the windows largely because even with 3 panes of glass they typically provide an R value of less than 10 whereas the walls of a comparatively well insulated house can have an R value of 20 or 30 (higher with blown in closed cell foam). Some very new window technology that has not had the test of time may get up to an R value of 20 which with solar gain may put it on a par with the walls, but it would still be a close call.

            I would be very interested if you have information (besides my link above) to the contrary that also takes weight into consideration.

            1. Brooklin Bridge

              I should add that these estimates are biased toward wooden housing in North America zone 5 or 6. I doubt they work out exactly the same with stone, brick, concrete or other materials, but I suspect generally walls have a higher R value than windows, and the chimney effect of heat rising in a house remains the principle avenue of energy loss, thus being greatest in the last thermal barrier of conditioned space; the attic itself, such as attic roof (hot roof) or more commonly the attic floor which is now required to have an R value of 49 or more.

            2. EoH

              The UK has little insulated wooden frame construction, and hasn’t since the Great Fire of London in 1666 persuaded Parliament to mandate stone or brick construction. The latter is still the most common building material. It is not often well-insulated. Window quality is generally poor; multi-pane windows are becoming more common, but probably do not represent a majority.

              1. PlutoniumKun

                You’d be surprised how much timber construction is used in the UK. A lot of modern ‘brick’ houses use lightweight timber framing. In the 1980’s this caused a huge problem because attempts to seal the framing resulting in dampness building up which proved very difficult to prevent. In a coastal climate, wood absolutely must be allowed to breathe, otherwise even the toughest of timbers will rot very quickly.

                1. EoH

                  The art of the damp course has been lost. I suspect that building style did not include credible insulation, nor much used breathable membranes like Tyvek, common in better residential construction in the US.

            3. PlutoniumKun

              Heat rises. Rooflights are probably the absolute worst thing for losing heat in any climate. In most climates, roof or ceiling insulation is by far the most cost effective first step in reducing energy use.

              The simplest approach to assessing heat loss in any building is to take an infra red photograph on a winter evening. You will see exactly where the primary heat loss is occurring. It will also show you which of your neighbours is growing cannabis in his attic or garage.

          2. EoH

            Window quality in the UK is generally poor, which means more heat loss. Sealing without replacing them would be hard work, owing to the predominance of brick and stone construction. Retrofitted new windows are not often a great improvement, except for the first few years or for expensive, high-end products that few homeowners purchase.

            I think Yves’s comment is right: the Johnson government is manipulating symbols rather than addressing substance. Programs for retrofitting existing housing would be worthwhile, but only if properly designed and funded. Based on his handling of Brexit and Covid, Johnson is incapable of either.

            As for its narrow focus on residential heat pumps, its program is miserly and aimed at voters rather than the problem. It should probably refocus by mandating improved building standards for new and renovated commercial buildings and single and multi-family construction. That would require taking on large party donors, who would be loathe to increase their costs. Johnson has not previously shown a willingness to do that, either.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          In my NYC apartment, which had two large casement windows in the LR and BR, the windows leaked like crazy. And the LR was big enough that the chilling effect wasn’t due mainly to feeling a draft but the degree of leakage. But these were very old windows (from 1915) and they were even a bit loose in the frame. If the wind hit right, it would suck all the heat out of the room even with the radiators going full blast. I had to use a space heater regularly and I’d still be cold!

          So I suspect “it depends” more than most think.

          1. EoH

            Years ago, I lived in a single room in a converted, stone-built, 19th century mansion. Ground floor; twelve-foot ceiling; one large and one small, single-glazed lead windows; gas-fired heater insert in fireplace. In winter, the room had its own weather system. Draughts circulated to and from the heater and ceiling. With the bed parallel to the heater, you rotated every so often, burning one side while chilling the other. I hope things have improved.

  13. Mickey Hickey

    In England where I went to school and worked for a few years in the 1950s’ coal was cheap and plentiful. Every room in the house had a coal fireplace except larger luxurious homes or apartment high rises which had cast iron radiators and piping with coal fired hot water or steam boilers. In Ireland they used turf (peat) or wood during the war and up to the end of the Korean war due to having had our sea going merchant navy (all 36 ships) sunk by the English during the war. In Canada gas fired forced air furnaces dominate the low rise market with electric baseboard heating dominating the high rise market. In Northern Europe which includes the UK there is little need for air conditioning (cooling) where summer highs rarely exceed 24 C and nightime lows are often below 18 C. Fired bricks date from 3500 B.C. and were ideally suited as a building material in warmer climates like around the Mediterranean and Middle East. After wood was depleted stone was used in Northern Europe which was in turn displaced by fired brick due to the higher insulation value of brick in wintertime. A big breakthrough over solid concrete walls were cavity concrete blocks which although not as good as fired brick were widely used because they were cheap. In Canadian inland cities summertime highs over 30 C and nightime lows higher than 20 C are common. This makes airconditioning and good insulation absolutely essential especially for older and very young people. I was in Kronberg, Germany about ten years ago where a house was under construction next door to where I was staying. I was astounded by the high quality of the construction and particularly by the quality of the fired bricks they were using. These were 25 cm wide with multiple complex cavities, I could not even begin to imagine how they could manufacture such bricks in large quantities. While North America uses Styrofoam, Fibre Glass and plastic vapour barriers Germany is building houses that will last over 200 years. In Canada houses are built in 90 days in Germany over two years is not unusual. The cost of lots for housing in Germany has been kept low so the price one pays is for good construction not to compensate landowners of the Rentier class. I must admit that Merkel took her eye off the cost of housing ball and housing as cash box will become normal in Germany over the next decade.

    1. Susan the other

      North America has a heat problem and a plastic problem. Synergy would be good. Styrofoam as a building material is probably a good idea because all that styrofoam, already in existence, cannot be recycled into anything useful. But it is good insulation and it is also strong. I saw big blocks of it go in (maybe 8ft by 4ft) to hold up a hillside that also supported a city street. And there’s a vast treasure of discarded plastic that nobody seems able to get under control. First, stop producing it. Then recycle it into building material. There’s enough of it for centuries to come and it will last forever. It is strong and it will be put into things like foundations and outside walls that we don’t want to look at anyway. And when the rest of the building gets old and is deconstructed this block plastic will again be recyclable. With hydrogen fueled furnaces.

  14. The Rev Kev

    After reading through these comments I began to wonder about how the Romans lived in Britain 2,000 years ago. Certainly places can feel damp in winter and I have felt this in one place I stayed when in the UK. And I believe that the dampness rises from the bottom up. But I know that wealthier Romans used a hypocaust system in their homes which heated the floors from below it but I am now wondering if this method lent itself to solving the problem of dampness in their homes. It would be nice if a version could be adopted for modern homes-

    1. BillS

      Heated floors are quite common in newer Italian homes and retrofitted older houses. Usually warm water (at around 30 deg C) is circulated through a serpentine tube network under the floor (embedded in the underlying concrete slab). You also gain the benefit of the thermal mass of the floor which provides a very comfortable constant room temperature with no air convection currents that can be uncomfortable. Often 18 degrees C is sufficient, instead of the usual 20 deg. C. The drawback, of course, is that you cannot change room temperature quickly. It takes 24-48h for temperature to stabilize if you change it. These systems are ideal for heat-pump installations because the low delta T (Twater – Toutside) permits decent coefficient of performance for the heat-pump’s refrigeration system for outside temperatures above -10 deg C.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      “After reading through these comments I began to wonder about how the Romans lived in Britain 2,000 years ago. ”

      Probably with no little discomfort, but I had the same thoughts on native Americans though it turns out some of their communal huts (don’t remember the exact term) in Massachusetts maintained a winter heat of 70 to 80 degrees. That said, life-spans were what, 45, 50 years on average until fairly recent times?

      1. Bazarov

        “That said, life-spans were what, 45, 50 years on average until fairly recent times?”

        This is a very interesting question, one touched on during my graduate studies. I was in a seminar about ancient Sparta, about which, I soon learned, we know very little–what we do know from the sources raises more questions than answers. Much of modern scholarship debates the nature of Spartan government, which the sources tell us was divided into four main parts:

        1.) The two Kings (who also were part of the Gerousia–I know, it’s weird)
        2.) The general assembly of Spartan nobles
        3.) The Ephors (who often opposed the kings)
        4.) The Gerousia

        My interest was in the Gerousia or “Council of Old People.” The sources indicate to sit on the Gerousia, you had to be at least 60 years of age (except for the two kings). The council had veto powers over the acts of the assembly. How powerful was the Gerousia? Some believe it was mostly ceremonial, that the real action was elsewhere in the government; others assert that it was decisive during conflicts between the Ephors and the Kings.

        Anyway, I surmised during one session of the seminar that considering the rareity of someone who managed to live beyond the age of 60 in the ancient world, and considering the rigor of the Spartan way of life, couldn’t we assume that Gerousia was too doddering to play much of an active part in Spartan government? Doesn’t that imply the Gerousia was weak?

        This in turn led the professor to suggest that I was underestimating lifespans generally in the ancient world. He contended that, if a man made it out of adulthood, if he survived war, that he could expect to live to an age roughly comparable to that of a modern. There were plenty of 70 year old people, and the sources suggest that the aged often led active lives. Socrates, after all, lived to about 71 (and he died an unnatural death).

        All that’s to say, lots of ancient people who made it out of childhood lived to be gray haired elders. There were plenty of elderly candidates for the Gerousia, and its members were probably among the most honored and capable of them. So my thesis about the “doddering” council was likely wrong, though it did lead to stimulating discussion.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Interesting indeed. I wonder how local or general this was. Did it have to do with a milder Mediterranean climate? With goats cheese and olives and salads? AND a mild climate? :-)

          Conditions in Brittian were harsher particularly in winter and I imagine with humidity plus cold there may have been higher levels of disease, wear and tear, but this may be conventional thinking and research could prove these assumptions of shorter lifespans false.

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        My father’s genealogy found that all of his ancestors in the 1700s lived to be at least 80. Every one of them. Quite a few over 90. He had gravestones and church records confirming the births and deaths.

        So it seems if you survived childhood diseases and accidents and lasted long enough to reproduce AND had an adequate diet, you had good odds of living to a hardy old age.

        His ancestors’ lifespans shortened on average in the 1800s. He didn’t have a theory as to why. Could have been anything, like longer fishing trips = more deaths, or bad luck with childbirth among the women.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Its amazingly hard to find real data on lifespans, but it is clear that there have been huge variations over time and even within cultures. My fathers side of the family lived generally into their 80’s or 90’s as far back as I can trace to the early 19th Century. Old rural graveyards in Ireland show lots of people in their 80’s and 90’s, but also a distressing number of late teens and early 20’s (probably TB I would guess). My mothers family though tended to die much earlier, possibly because they were mostly urban. Going back to the 17th and 18th Century in Ireland, there is significant evidence that the poorer may have lived longer than the rich, mostly because their fairly plain grain and root veg diet was healthier than the meat and luxury pastries of the rich. Even Jonathan Swift wrote about this in some detail.

          Archaeological evidence can be very hard to interpret, as there is a lot of bias in which types of remains gets preserved. In medieval cities, for example, the poor were often not interred or recorded. Neolithic and bronze age peoples practiced all sorts of differentiated burial techniques which makes it hard to be sure that analyses based on bone survival are accurate.

          For ancient romans, it would seem that the parasitic load they carried through life was one of the main reducer in life span, so to that extent it may have been healthier for them to move north to damp climates like Britain. It seems that parasite load and associated inflammation is the main reason why some societies with apparently very healthy diets (such as in India) have very reduced lifespans.

          The ideal would seem to be to have a mediteranean or east Asian type diet in a northerly, dry climate. Cold winters I suspect may help with reducing many endemic parasites and infections.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Most of that low life-span average was achieved by many people dying at or before age 5. What would have been the further life-span of people who had already reached age 30?

  15. Joe Well

    The only winter I lived in London, one of my first purchases was an electric mattress pad which saved me a ton on heating, which seemed really expensive. (There was actually a coin-operated heating meter and we were constantly shoveling pounds into it! Big shock coming from Boston, USA where home heat cannot legally be turned off from November to March.)

    My point: we shouldn’t still be focused on heating and cooling buildings rather than people when it is 2021 and the technology has long existed to do just that (yes, there are battery-heated jackets/sweaters and directional heating and cooling systems that direct the current of air toward people using heat or motion sensors).

    1. Joe Well

      Edit to above: it actually may have been mag-stripe card operated, where you top up the card at the off-license. I can’t remember now.

      I wonder if those still exist.

      1. Joan Wucher King

        They still do, especially in places rented by the less well off. They are more costly to run, as well.

  16. Guy Hooper

    Richard North is a climate denier. On any related issue, North is a prime example of motivated reasoning to support his denial and he invariably concludes that there is no alternative to business as usual.

    The Tory government is not “operational”. They are invested in gaining and maintaining power as an end to itself. Allergic to strategic planning, they apparently live 24/7 in the current day’s news cycle. No surprise that their green plan is a shambles as is everything else.

    I have a heat pump system and it works fine, although I don’t experience UK weather. I also have a heat pump water heater and that works as well as the previous electric element heater at much lower energy costs. North’s contention that heat pumps are somehow an immature technology that can’t fight damp UK homes because the owners have to leave the windows open in the winter strains credulity.

    NC brought North to my attention and I read him every day. He seems OK on Brexit, but is pretty extreme on just about everything else. Regarding Brexit, which he very much supported, he and his son have gone to the usual refuge of “Brexit was a great idea but the Tories have ruined it.” This is dishonest as Brexit cannot result in a better quality of life for UK citizens due to the economic consequences of losing access to the EU market.

    Entertaining to watch Boris Johnson serially throw Business, Fishermen, and now Farmers under the bus as Brexit defects become reality (and that reality is just beginning).

    1. Susan the other

      I’m still under the impression that Brexit can be a good decision for the UK because the economy of the world is changing. And climate change, along with too-large populations, will be the driver. The “old” economy that the EU practices – something like ordo-liberalism – does not account for a penny saved (invested) is a penny earned. They prefer a penny not spent is a penny earned. But now the UK is in a position to avoid economic sanctions over sovereign debt levels and spend as necessary to both adapt for climate change and other necessities. It’s not “how much will it indebt us” but, as Stephanie says, how do we resource it? Which is a much more effective way at looking at a crisis. (Think recycled plastics and other synergies.) If what is effectively spent today saves money tomorrow, or “saves” the economy tomorrow, then that’s also what the EU should be doing. Not to even get started with the twits in the US Congress.

  17. Mickey Hickey

    In Ireland the ground water level is too high to have liveable basements. When I was digging tunnels to China in our back yard in Ireland as a 3 or 4 year old we hit water at 3″ to 12 “. My children in Canada were digging for treasure and there was no sign of moisture at 3 feet (1 Metre) where I stopped them for safety reasons. What they do have in Ireland are foundations of Concrete or Stone. Capillary action can raise moisture (dampness) 100 feet in concrete. This means that a few inches above ground level tar or plastic has to be applied liberally to the top of the foundation to break the capillary action. In the house my father built in 1947 the foundation was stone capped with concrete in addition to the barrier at the top of the concrete foundation the surface within the foundation walls had 8″ of 1″ to 3″ river (rounded) stones and 16″ air cavity over the stones. There were passive metal vents every 8 feet around the perimeter above stone level and below house floor level. The floor of the house was concrete with the 16” air cavity underneath. The walls of the house were actually poured concrete, we lived near the Atlantic where November winds over 150 mph are not uncommon. I have looked at houses under construction in Ireland recently and standards are high. I have shown my relatives visiting Canada building sites and they have difficulty understanding why we build with +30 C to -25 C uppermost in our minds as opposed to Ireland where +150 mph winds dominate their thinking. In case you need to dig a foundation in Ireland you must dig past the yellow (pronounced yallah) layer and 6 inches into the blue mud layer and even then over fifty years the house will sink a few inches. Test for firmness using 3/4 inch rebar and a heavy hammer.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      In general ground water levels in Ireland are far higher than in most of North America, although that water you encountered was much more likely to be perched water from poor downwards percolation than the ‘real’ groundwater level. Its not uncommon to find water levels varying enormously within just a few metres in a small site in Ireland. Blame all that horrible moraine till left by the glaciers.

      Basements work quite well in Ireland – many were built in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Century in Dublin, and many are prefectly dry. Although they usually, very sensibly built on a ‘cut and cover’ basis rather than tunnelling, resulting in that unique dublin housing style where the basement at front elevation is at ground level in the rear. It actually works very well, its resulted in great housing that has lasted a couple of centuries.

      1. Mickey Hickey

        The dry basements in Dublin or anywhere have floors above ground water level. This means that drains surrounding the houses are sloped to streams at a level lower than the basement floor. In the North Kerry fertile plain the beds of streams are usually 1 to 2 metres deep. Wells which were dug beside every house had water levels usually 6 inches to 12 inches below the ground surface in winter. In Aug.- Sept. the water level could be as low as 6 to 15 feet down. Our house in Kerry was 80 ft. above sea level and about 1200 metres from a large river that at that point was 15 ft above sea level. The 3ft deep stream across the road from us did not flow East 1200 metres it flowed south over 4 Km. to the same river. The impervious mud level was 6 to 8 ft below the surface of the ground. London and most European cities are a good example of cities that are surfaced and drained in a way that little or no rain percolates into the ground in the heavily built up areas. Where I live now is on a moraine with earth and gravel over 300 feet deep sloping to a lake that is over 600 ft above sea level, ground water is not a problem. I have the benefit of a Hydrogeologist daughter in law who has widened my eyes considerably.

  18. Bazarov

    How much warmer will the UK get over the coming decades?

    According to one source, UK winters could be 4 degrees celsius warmer (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2070. My guess, since the global warming mantras of late are “faster” and “worse” than expected, it may well be hotter.

    Projections seem also to indicate wetter UK winters as the climate warms.

    So, in the coming decades, with hotter winters, will there be less demand for heating? Is this falling demand factored into the “green new deal” style programs?

    I suppose there’s also the possibility the Atlantic current could slow dramatically or shut down entirely due to ice melt making the ocean less saline. If I recall correctly, this could result in dramatic *cooling* in the UK (and Western Europe)? Is this catastrophic possibility accounted for in these programs?

    The more I really ponder these green plans, the more inadequate and fragile they seem. Perhaps the real plan is to throw the vast majority of people to the climate wolves and let the rich inherit (what’s left of) the Earth?

    1. synoia

      We need to recognize that Climate Change is probably a Life Extinguishing Event, We, the human race, have about 300 years of increasingly living beyond our means, by over consuming.

      1. T_Reg

        That’s why I use the term Environmental Apocalypse. “Climate Change” is to the current situation as acne is to smallpox.

    2. EoH

      London’s latitude is about 51 degrees, Ottawa’s is about 45. I wonder how a large change in the Gulf Stream, owing to the Climate Crisis, would affect the UK’s average temperatures.

    3. Susan the other

      Considering that the Atlantic current could well cool western Europe because it has done so in the past, including the UK, and other still not understood consequences of climate change, we ought to be looking at the Sun. The Sun is a constant. We live many millions of miles away and we have an axis, a spin and a rotation that gives us our “weather” and our climate. We have a magnetic field shielding us from sunbursts (so far). So hypothetically, we should arrange the alignment of all of our architecture to some maximum advantage from the sun. Passive solar could go a long way toward making other supplemental things like heat pumps and solar panels work in conjunction. Like the winter side of the house and the summer side of the house. If you like to sleep in a cold room with a good blanket you have a permanent bedroom on the winter side of the house. The exterior winter side could have a dark finish; the summer side a light one. Same for the roof. Smaller windows; larger windows. Etc. As well as all sorts of other synergies. That’s expensive if we do it one by one; but if we organize it so it is standardized for builders and suppliers then not so much. And if we go on a building boom for subsidized affordable housing complexes all of these techniques could be organized into effective climate control, both inside and outside. It’s a good idea to go with the sun rather make up for having not done so with things that don’t work as well as advertised and certainly cannot take the whole load of CO2 off the books – an impossible task. Unless we go with the Sun.

  19. synoia

    British Houses are cold an drafty.

    The British solution is more personal insulation – layers of clothes.

    We’d wear 3 or 4 layers: under vest, shirt and jacket and a top coat for outdoors.

    While British home construction is based on cavity wally, the cavity is there to to prevent damp percolating through the brick because brick is porous. Filling up a cavity in a cavity wall must take into account water percolation and the water’s drainage through weep holes at the base of the wall.

    Most English buildings relay on open windows for ventilation. Consequently insulation efforts must also address ventilation.

    I can clearly remember sitting in my bedroom leaning back onto a plugged in convection heater in winter.

    Electric heat in the UK has a reputation of causing very high electric bills.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      If you look at old paintings of interiors of houses and people in pre 20th century UK and Ireland, people usually seemed to have accepted that houses in general would not be warm – they would sit around the fire, often in heavy chairs that themselves provided insulation from draughts. Bedrooms were cold in winter, but people used hot water bottles/pans and lots of blankets, and so seemed perfectly snug.

      The first time I travelled in the Himalaya and central asian region, I was shocked to see that houses often had gaps under the door a few inches high. I wondered how on earth they kept themselves warm in the freezing winters. The answer, when I stayed in various homes, was obvious. They didn’t keep them warm. People slept on high benches/ beds above any draught, they were sometimes heated underneath. People spent the evenings around the fire, as close as needed to be warm. The focus was on keeping their bodies warm, not the houses. They slept under mountains of wool blankets (I can honestly say that the best sleeps I’ve ever had were in unheated Tibetan homes when it was -20C outside). It works perfectly fine for them.

      1. The Rev Kev

        ‘The focus was on keeping their bodies warm, not the houses.’

        That turned up in comments some time ago. That you can either warm your home or you can warm your body. And people tended to wear layered clothing in earlier times so if it got too hot, they would remove a layer of clothing.

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