Canberra is about 150 kilometres from the coast, and about 600 metres above sea level. And it’s notoriously cold.
As Australia’s only inland capital city, Canberra takes the crown as the coldest of the states and territories. And with a relatively large transient population in the form of young public servants, and politicians and their staff, Canberra often finds itself home to underprepared non-natives caught out by, and complaining about, the bitterly cold winter.
Last year, the average top temperature for July was 13 degrees, and the average overnight temperature was minus 1.1 degrees. There are an average of eight fog days over the month – and sometimes, as seen last week, the fog will stick around long into the day, keeping the mercury in single digits.
It’s not quite time for hibernation, but there are a few things you can do to make the next freezing morning, and the rest of the freezing Canberra winter a little more bearable.
Whether you’re renting, owning, in a house, an apartment, or a small room under the stairs, there’s a good chance you can make your home at more winter-proof with little more than a bit of sealant.
Matthew Ruffin, who runs Progressive Sustainability and recently conducted winter workshops for ActewAGL, said Canberra’s homes were notoriously draughty, and warned every opening to the outside world let cold in and warmth out.
“Moving air can cool you by up to 4 degrees, so basically, what you don’t want in winter is moving air inside your house. That’s going to make you feel colder than what you are,” he said.
“We have very leaky buildings, and the biggest bang for buck actually in home improvement in terms of energy efficiency is going around and sealing up all the gaps in the house.”
He said the best way to find the cracks is with some incense on a windy day – close windows and doors, watch the smoke for hints of breeze, and get creative with plugging the holes. Sealant works in most cases, and he said for $20-$30 you could pick up a draft excluder (like an automatic door snake) for the bottom of your doors.
The next step is to check insulation. If you poke your head up in the ceiling, and see batts that are less than 20centimetres thick, you could be in for a cold winter. Mr Ruffin said windows and even walls could and should be insulated wherever possible.
“It’s a moderate investment for a big payoff in terms of ongoing comfort and for bills,” he said.
When it comes to heating your house, there are three main factors where you can reduce your bills – the size of the space, the time spent with the heater on, and your thermostat settings. Minimise those, and your bill will go down.
Mr Ruffin said setting up zones or blocking off areas of your house would help, and warned against leaving heaters on for long periods.
“There’s a myth going around, for instance, that you should leave your heater on low all the time. It’s absolute rubbish,” he said. “It’s a total waste in a place like the ACT. What you really should be doing is using timers to turn the heater on just before you get home from work, for instance, or just before you get up. But the heaters should be turning off when you go to bed…and also during the day.”
He also said that for every 1 degree you turned your thermostat down, you’d cut 5 to 10 per cent from your bill. So turning the temperature dial down to 18 or even 20 degrees and putting on a jumper instead could save you lots of money.
When it comes to choosing your heater, Mr Ruffin said there were essentially two types of electric heaters – radiant heaters and heat pumps.
Radiant heaters included anything that radiates heat – be it your old column heater filled with oil, to the fan heater with an electric element – and generally ran at about one unit of electricity to a little less than one unit of heat.
Heat pumps, or reverse-cycle air conditioners, on the other hand, could give up to three units of warmth for every one unit of power, and tended to be more efficient in temperatures ranging from 5 degrees to 35 degrees.
But with many newcomers to Canberra more likely to rent, and hence less likely to install a reverse-cycle system themselves, he said you could get by using a radiant heater in a single room for as little as an hour a night, provided the room was well sealed and insulated.
“If you have to go with an electric radiant heater, something like a column heater or a radiant heater, just make sure you’re heating a small space with it, and don’t leave it on when you’re not there,” he said.