Is it too early to put the central heating on?

Hand on thermostat

While temperatures drop, homes across the UK are gradually firing up the central heating. But why do some people feel the chill much earlier than others?

Each autumn - or earlier, if summer is particularly disappointing - there's an argument that sunders households up and down the country.

Can we crank up the thermostat yet? Or should we save cash by keeping the heating switched off for as long as possible?

For many people - especially those on low incomes - it's an acute financial conundrum. Energy bills have risen by 28% over the past three years, according to regulator Ofgem, putting pressure on family budgets.

But what often exacerbates these domestic rows is that, for a variety of reasons, some people are simply better at tolerating drops in temperature than others.

Factors such as age, physiology, gender, geography and even hair colour will affect how much each individual feels the cold, say experts.

For some people, however, turning on the heating is a symbolic ritual marking the changing of the seasons - and despite an unusually warm British summer coming to an abrupt halt, many are stubbornly determined to delay it as long as possible.

When temperatures fell on 9 September, novelist John Niven, author of Straight White Male, mentioned to his social media followers that he had switched on his central heating.

Tweet from John Niven: "Anyone else considering putting the heating on?"

The feedback was overwhelmingly disparaging. "The reaction on Twitter was: 'Man up, put a sweater on'," he says.

But perhaps his critics should have been more sympathetic. Scientists agree that some people are physically better equipped than others to endure a drop in the mercury.

For instance, there is a significant gender divide when it comes to feeling the cold, according to Mike Tipton, professor of physiology at the University of Portsmouth,

In low temperatures, he says, the body reacts by diverting blood to the vital organs, and makes the extremities - the head, hands and feet - feel chillier. Oestrogen makes the vessels that shut down blood flow to the skin more sensitive.

Jogger runs through snowy forest Staying fit can keep you warmer...

As a result, he says, "it tends to be females that complain of cold hands and feet". While a woman's core body temperature may be the same as a man's, her skin is likely to feel cooler.

But there are other physical factors that make a difference, too.

People who are physically fit have better circulation, which makes them feel warmer, says Tipton.

Before you switch up the dial...

  • Invest in loft and - where possible - wall insulation
  • Double-glazed windows keep in more heat - if it can't be fitted, heavy-lined curtains can help
  • Check round windows and doors for draughts

Conversely, he says, excess fat insulates the deep body temperature of overweight individuals. Fatter people also tend to have lower skin temperatures, meaning they are used to the cold.

There are some medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism and Raynaud's syndrome, that cause people to feel colder.

Age is a factor, too. Studies have shown that older people tend to have lower body temperatures, and people's circulation can grow weaker over time.

Genetics can also play a role, scientists believe.

A 2005 study by researchers at Louisville University in Kentucky suggested that people with ginger hair may be more sensitive to the cold than brunettes - somewhat confounding the stereotype of the redhead as a hardy Celt.

Rupert Grint; Lily Cole ...but having red hair may make you feel colder

Of course, it's not just about how well-equipped or otherwise is your body.

Where people live will make a huge difference, too. Inhabitants of windswept Aberdeen could be forgiven for cranking up their radiators well in advance of those on England's relatively balmy south coast.

It appears that tolerance of low temperatures can be learned. Studies have suggested that the bodies of workers who are regularly exposed to the cold adapt over time to accommodate their environment, according to Tipton.

Similarly, it appears people feel the cold more in the autumn than in March or April.

Get cheaper energy bills

  • Get an eco-shower head. Some water companies are giving them away free; could save you up to £75 a year
  • Insulate your hot water cylinder. Could save up to £60 a year
  • Swap halogen spot lights with new LED bulbs. Replacing all traditional bulbs with energy saving versions can save £60 a year

Source: Energy Saving Trust

"There is evidence that there is seasonal adaptation - you get used to the weather," Tipton says. "That works nicely in the spring, but at this time of year where you might see a six or seven degree temperature drop it's not so pleasant."

Also of huge significance is the type of home an individual inhabits. A new-build property, constructed under 21st Century building regulations, will keep the heat in more effectively than a ramshackle period building.

Rambling Victorian houses are notoriously difficult to keep warm, says sustainable design expert Claire Potter. The fashion for lifting up carpets to expose original floorboards means many inhabitants of such buildings will need to switch on the heating sooner.

"People really underestimate how much of a difference a well-insulated house can make," she says.

The UK's ageing housing stock means this is a common problem. Anti-fuel poverty campaigners and environmentalists alike have called for action, but a wide-ranging solution has proved elusive.

In June it was reported that only four people had signed up to the Green Deal, a flagship government policy launched six months earlier to help householders make energy efficiency improvements.

Queen meeting Australian High Commissioner and his wife in March 2013 This March 2013 photo drew attention to the fact that the Queen heats her private rooms with a simple electric heater (in fireplace, right)

For many, however, delaying putting on the heating is a matter of financial necessity as energy costs soar.

A ComRes survey for BBC Radio 5 live earlier this month found 25% of people had put up with an "unacceptably cold" house during the past year to keep their bills down.

Some 63% of the 1,035 adults interviewed said they had reduced their energy use due to rising costs.

But it isn't just because of poverty or desperation that some people prefer to shiver rather than turn on their radiators. There's a certain type of person who takes pride in keeping the boiler out of action for as long as possible.

The Magazine turns up the heating

Cat on a radiator
  • Tom Geoghegan looks at how the rise of central heating changed the design of our homes - What central heating has done for us (October 2009)
  • Megan Lane asks what exactly is room temperature, and how long before people are forced to turn their thermostats down - How warm is your home? (March 2011)

Niven says plenty of those who berated him for switching on his heating in early September were far from impoverished. Indeed, the Ayrshire-raised writer recalls once sharing a flat with an old Etonian who as a point of principle refused to countenance putting on the heating before December.

"A lot of public schoolboys grow up in these cold dorms," he adds. "It's a bit of a badge of honour for them."

For his part, Niven associates unheated buildings with the house in which his troubled brother Gary lived before taking his own life in 2010.

Until his electricity was eventually cut off, Gary relied on a pay-as-you-go meter and rationed his heating. "The unit cost was phenomenally high, because of course the poorest people who can't get credit pay the most," says Niven.

As a result, the writer has little patience for those who can afford to turn up their thermostats but boast about putting on extra layers instead.

"If you know you can afford to put the heating on, it becomes this fun game," he says. "But if you're poor, living in an unheated house is just miserable."

Whatever people's reasons for tolerating what others would regard as freezing conditions, another autumn of conflict about what is a comfortable temperature is as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I am naturally seriously underweight and tall. The large surface area and thin body makes me to loose heat very fast. The cold causes my lower spine to ache in cold months. Government gives indiscriminately its winter fuel support checks to people like alcoholics and drug users. Instead of warming their apartments they cash the cheques to feed on their addictions. Instead, they steal the heat from me as none of my neighbours heat flats but just use drugs. In order to survive financially, I have started to insulate also walls against neighbours with rockwool and celex as they just suck up heat from my bedsit. My December heating bill for a very small bedsit at Southern Housing Group was £450 to keep temperatures 25C which prevents my back from starting to ache. I tried to keep pullovers but as skin does not breathe if I sleep outdoor clothes on, I developed skin conditions and had to rely on my bedsit being warmed. I also work in a school and the sick pupils often pass illnesses and therefore I also need a bit extra heat.

Veli Albert Kallio, Bracknell, Berkshire

I rarely if ever turn on the heat. In fact, I'm one of those people that walks around in winter in short pants and T-Shirts because I generate a great deal of heat through NEAT (non-exercise adaptive thermogenesis). When I lived in York, I would often go outside after cooking (for example) to cool off and my flatmates who were outside smoking would watch steam pour off of me. Come winter - I'm more likely to have my windows open than the heating on, but my girlfriends don't care because they are usually snuggled up to the mini-furnace which is me.

Robin Dahling, Beijing, China

We've just moved into a new flat. It's top floor and could do with a little more roof insulation. We also have a 5 month old son who, after the first night sleeping in his new room, had slightly blue hands and feet. For his age the optimum room temperature is 18 degrees so we now have the thermostat set to stop the temperature dropping too low in the night. His room is on a corner and can get blasted by the wind which also drops the heat. We intend to get him a grow bag as he kicks off his blankets, but until then the central heating is our only option. My wife and I can handle it but we don't wish to affect our son's wellbeing.

Luke Cranenburgh, Biggin Hill, Kent

My wife has Lupus and Raynaud's / Scleroderma so feels the cold intensely, particularly any drop in temperature. "Putting on another jumper" is not the answer for her and many others. The room temperature has got to be comfortably warm for her. Unlike a century or so ago when "room temperature" was recognised as much lower than nowadays.

Jonathan Allcock, Angmering, West Sussex

Every year my husband and I have the same old rows about the heating and it has nothing to do with the cost. He feels comfortable with the temperature around 18c, I feel comfortable with it around 22c. So for me the central heating goes on now for him he would like to leave it a while. Guess who wins! I tell him to strip off, he tells me to put on more layers!

Tarel Lavelle, London, UK

A major reason why my marriage is failing. I've had Parkinson's for 11 years, yet my younger, cherubic, Mediterranean born wife insists the heating doesn't need to be on through most of the winter, even when the indoor temperature is as low as 8C. She's not open to compromise. I survive with a small convection heater in my box room.

Bert P., London, UK

I never turn mine off. That's what thermostats are for. If it gets cold enough for the thermostat to click in, it's cold enough to be on. Yes, I have a fancy three range thermostat which switches to lower temperatures overnight and during the day when no-one's home, but I don't see the point in second-guessing a device which works quite well at keeping things comfortable.

Alan Brown, Leatherhead

Surely, if one just left the room thermostat on say 19 degrees Celsius, then in a cold spell it would turn the heating on automatically, and in a hot spell it would go off? If not, why not? This has always puzzled me.

Angela Clark, Chatham Kent

Mine's never been off - I have it on all the time but the thermostat is set at 16 degrees so it only comes on if it gets colder than that - I have found over the years that it costs less to keep the house at a constant temperature than it does to keep heating it up from very cold after letting it cool down twice a day.

Jon, Leicester UK

I agree that money is the biggest factor, but it also depends how much control you have over your bills. When I was a university student a couple of years ago, our rent was charged inclusive of gas and electricity, so we kept the house at a toasty 25C. Now that I'm working I have more money but also see the difference that lowering the thermostat makes - so my flat is around 17C unless I have visitors.

Michael Greenhalgh, Slough, UK

I've turned on the heating but left the thermostat set at 10 C. If the heating comes on - as it did last night - we have the comfort of knowing it's not an extravagance!

Rosemary Shipley, Buxton Derbyshire

There are still way too many people that think leaving the heating and hot water on all the time uses less power than using it in short bursts only when it's required. My power bills are around half the UK 'average' bill yet my home is heated adequately. If only people could be educated that their houses and hot water tanks should be unheated whilst they are out at work then most of the problem would go away. The huge reduction in power and gas usage would have the knock-on effect of lowering the fuel price which means that everyone benefits from more sensible fuel use.

Chris, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

Heating? I have a wood-burner, but being on a very fixed income, it will be lit in October, I have budgeted for fuel for 4 months, I hope the winter will not be too harsh, otherwise I will be sitting in a cold house... When the evenings get cold, I layer with clothes and sit on the sofa under blankets. The cat acts as a hot water bottle... Happy days.

Lind, Norfolk

You should try some of the South American countries that are southerly enough, or have higher altitudes so as to get very cold temperatures in the winter. The houses are designed to be airy and cool in summer, the idea of wind proof or weather proof anything is unheard of and there is simply no central heating of any sort. This means: 9 degrees Celsius outside, with a sharp wind and high humidity translates to 12 degrees inside, with heavy drafts and high humidity. Only blankets, coats, tea and each other to keep warm too. No thermostats to speak of, or heating, except in perhaps more modern dwellings or if the country in question gets snow for more than a day at a time. I come from a Scandinavian country where insulation, weatherproofing and heating is king. Could be minus 40 outside, but inside it is plus 20. One adapts, eventually.

Rain, South America

Living with a disability and as a wheelchair user I have little control over when my storage heating (nothing else allowed) is switched on or off. It happens when I need it and I would cut down on other things if I had to make a choice due to cost. (One heater has been on for a week already). Even when heating is at its maximum I often have a rug over my legs and wear gloves too. I have to be practical!

Elizabeth, Stratford upon Avon, England

Raised by immigrant parents who grew up without central heating, I earned no sympathy for saying "The house is cold". I learned early my mother's response..."The house isn't cold. You're cold. Put on a sweater." My daughter heard the same from me.

Liz, Ontario, Canada

I manage our heating as well as I can, I'm 6 months pregnant with a 5 year old child and my husband works 30 hours so we are not rich. We cannot afford hot water so just boil a kettle now and then and use the shower. We have electric storage heaters which are meant to be cheaper on economy 7 but this is not the case, I have them on standard so I can actually turn them on when I need them, we use one downstairs and a portable oil heater in my daughter's room, I manage it well turning them off when hot and the residual heat lasts well but we have to be careful. To have heating on all over the house and hot water would cost in excess of £10 a day which we just can't manage.

Helen Mawson, Menai Bridge, UK

My wife and I are in our eighties, and yes, we probably do feel the cold more than when we were younger. But when we were first married, NOBODY had central heating, so we all took it for granted that when Winter came we were going to feel cold. Consequently we put on more layers of clothing, and concentrated on moving about more crisply. With no TV there was no desire to sit back on a chair for an hour or so - with no fire available you are then going to get even colder. One recommendation I would give to anyone who feels the cold: if you can afford it get a good quality electric bed-cover. Yes, this does use fuel, but it's localised, and not nearly as expensive as a three-bar electric fire. It's absolute heaven then to get into a really warm bed. (At a pinch you can even do it to warm up on a particularly cold mid-day - we have!) I must confess that we have put on our central heating - ONCE, and only because we had visitors and we didn't want them to feel cold.

Brian Davis, Swansea, S. Wales

I save a lot of money by having a gas wall heater in the lounge [kept at 20C] and allowing the heat from that to warm the rest of the house. My house is well insulated but in very cold weather the bedroom upstairs will only reach about 13C so I then boost that at bedtime with electric fan heater a couple of deg. By the way I have long observed that most peoples' thermometers are wildly inaccurate [by as much as 2 or 3C] so that all the talk of temperature is rather pointless. If you feel cold put on another jumper and do something physical!

Tim, Colchester Essex

It's cold so it's gone on. It's no real conundrum, it's that simple. Can I afford it? No. Does anyone care that I can't afford it? No. Do I care that nobody else cares? Again, no. It's not about what I think, or what you think, or what the next door neighbours think. It's not even about what the bailiffs think. This is about staying alive.

Steve Bell, Nottingham

It was Solzehenitsyn in 'One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich' who wrote that it is impossible for a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold.

M Todd, London

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