Electric living in Hambledon by Dr John Thornton for Hambledon Greening.
In 1987 we were thrilled to be moving to Hambledon: a beautiful village, wonderful country walks, great sense of community and three village pubs, all on our doorstep. Less thrilling was the prospect of living in an all-electric house. We’d always cooked on gas (what could be better?) and storage heaters had a reputation for being expensive and inadequate. But we had little choice other than to learn to live with it.
In the spirit of making the best of a bad job, we ordered an oven with the latest technology - a halogen hob - from the Electricity Showroom. (Anyone else remember them?) We quickly discovered it wasn’t half bad. Not quite as responsive as gas, but far better than the old cast-iron electric hobs. And when it comes to cleaning, a hands-down winner! Just a single sheet of glass to wipe over. None of the messing with pan supports and trying to clean round gas burners. We were soon sold on electric hobs. The newer halogen hobs are even better, and I’m told induction hobs are better still, though I haven’t felt the need to investigate.
So what about the heating? It was mainly night storage heaters. I’d call them second generation. The first generation were huge things, about a foot deep, and consequently had a wood-effect finish to try to look like a piece of furniture. What we had were off-white or pale cream and only six inches deep; not much more than a wet radiator. There were definite benefits over our previous gas central heating: the house was cosy and warm most of the day and night, and it was utterly reliable with no annual service required. The downside was that the heat had sometimes run out by the evening, leaving the main rooms a couple of degrees colder than ideal. But it wasn’t that important as cooking would help to heat the kitchen and it was a good excuse to have an open fire blazing in the sitting room. The controls were a bit crude too, one knob for “input” (how much heat would be stored overnight) and a “boost” control which opened a vent at the top to let more air flow through the heated bricks. The boost wasn’t very effective because by the time you needed it there wasn’t much heat left in the bricks anyway.
Over three decades later storage heaters have moved on another two generations and, like everything else in the house nowadays, are computer controlled. The room temperature is set with a thermostat much like central heating. It automatically calculates how much heat to take in overnight in order to maintain the desired daytime temperature. They are much better insulated, so heat is saved for when you want it. The timer can be set just for morning and evening (on the days you are out at work) or for all day (weekend, or all week if you are at home all day). When you go away you can set a lower temperature for the duration with normal temperature restored the day you return.
The comparative effectiveness can best be illustrated with a real-life example. Our kitchen was north facing and unheated on two sides. A second generation, 18kWh storage heater wasn’t quite adequate - there sometimes wasn’t enough heat left in the evening. A third generation heater, also 18kWh capacity, was fine. The kitchen is now twice its original size but otherwise unchanged in all important respects. A single 23kWh, fourth generation heater keeps it warm all day long in all but the coldest weather.
A comparison of costs is difficult. Our original house, at about 1100 square feet, was probably similar to the “average” two or three bedroom house (and probably larger than the “average” modern house). That includes a cellar and an attic room, both of which are used and heated; the cellar all year round with a storage heater and the attic with an electric panel heater. Solid, un- insulated walls and very little double glazing in comparison to most 20th century and later houses with at a minimum cavity wall construction and most likely insulated cavities and double glazing throughout. And yet ten years or so ago I compared our annual electricity cost to the “average” dual fuel bill and they turned out to be much the same; about £1200 per annum I seem to recall.
At one time, having the house heated twenty four hours a day seemed cosy but extravagant, and not very green. Now - with all the criticism of heating and power generation by oil, coal and gas - and buying electricity from a “green” supplier, it’s starting to feel like a comparatively virtuous way to live. Heat pumps might be even greener, but I understand they are not suitable for old houses like ours. I’m comfortable with what we’ve got, in both senses.
Case Study - Modern Night Storage Heaters