Coal no more: wellbeing study assesses impact of free central heating upgrades for fuel poor homes

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HOUSEHOLDS relying on coal and wood fires to heat their homes have been given free central heating upgrades as part of a year long trial looking at the health impact of warmer homes.

More than 100 households in County Durham and Sunderland are taking part in the wellbeing study, with the aim to find out if warmer homes can ease the burden on the NHS.

Northern Gas Networks (NGN) is running the trial in partnership with fuel poverty charity National Energy Action (NEA)

Before the trial, the majority of participating homes were not connected to the gas grid, and none had gas central heating installed.

NGN has installed free gas connections in each eligible home. Gas central heating systems were installed by partner organisation Yorkshire Energy Solutions, with funding from the Warm Home Discount Industry Initiatives scheme.

Meanwhile, NEA advice workers also provided support to householders on how to use their new heating systems and take other steps to reduce their energy bills.

The impact will be monitored over the next 12 months – to see if health and wellbeing improve.

“Families living in cold homes, with no central heating, can face a wide range of mental and physical challenges,” said Jill Walker, NGN’s social strategy project manager.

“As a gas distributor, we are given funding to install free gas connections to certain homes, as a way of tackling fuel poverty.

“Unfortunately, the current criteria for providing these free connections does not take account of the health status of households – so this project intends to fill this crucial evidence gap.

“As well as improving quality of life, the knock-on savings to the NHS could be enormous.”

Many of the residents in the trial had previously relied on wood fires – even coal — to stay warm.

One of the participants said: “It was so warm last week there were a couple of days when I turned the fire off. It took us nearly seven days to really get the room back to temperature after that. I’m sitting here now and I’m freezing, my hands are freezing. I’ll put another jumper on in a minute.”

Another said: “If I do sit in my bedroom, it’s like cold water running down my back.”

While another participant added: “Half the time I’ve got to sit with the fire guard up because there’s so much stone in the coal. I mean, it actually burns my wooden floor and my three-piece. The embers are hot, and they throw out like bullets. It’s so dangerous now.”

Following the move to central heating, one resident said: “I can set the heating to come on at a certain time. I won’t have to worry about getting up and ‘oh we’ve got to lay the fire’, ‘oh, we’ve got to go and get some wood’, ‘oh, we’ve got to order some in.’ Everything about it is going to make our lives easier.

“With my disability it means if my husband has to go out, I haven’t got to worry about saying to him ‘make sure there’s coal in’, ‘make sure there’s wood in’. He’s not going to have to worry about things like that.”

“I can’t tell you what a change it made me feel. I can’t put it into words what I feel like. It feels like a lottery win.”

Dr Jamie-Leigh Ruse, the NEA’s senior research and policy officer, said: “Around four million UK households are currently living in fuel poverty. This is an incredibly important trial, which could help to change the way we allocate funding to households struggling with no central heating.

“We will be working with Northern Gas Networks to monitor the impact of the trial over the next 12 months, before publishing a final report, with recommendations.”



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