Portsmouth is taking the lead in electricity

But not the way you’d hoped.

(Tips towards the bottom of this page.)


(At the bottom of this post are some tips, by the way.)

What is going on here? Yes, we have the densest population of the UK (some say except London), but that cannot be the whole story. Then again, maybe it is.

(We also need percentages, dear Guardian. For Portsmouth, over 120,000 would be more than half of the population, if you take this forecast of around 217,000 as the current value. Census data say that there were around 208,000 people living in Portsmouth in 2021.)

For a comparison, the population of Leeds is around 800,000. Birmingham’s a little bigger, even.

What this likely reflects is that people in Portsmouth may struggle more than people elsewhere – or that the power companies are less lenient here – but manage to pay off their debt in time before the prepaid meter gets installed. A few months later, the same thing happens again. And again.

What this could reflect in addition is that there are relatively few smart meters in Portsmouth. Energy companies don’t need a court warrant to put people on prepaid power if they use a smart meter.

Some companies won’t shut off your power on Sundays. Some won’t shut it off on Saturdays and Sundays.

Some companies will shut off your power at 8am, others at 11am, if your power ran out overnight.

Some won’t shut it off after 6 pm, whereas others won’t shut it off after 8 pm.

Some will shut it off when your emergency credit’s used up. Others will shut it off shortly before the emergency credit runs out.

(Oh, waiting for those wretched beeps and the click when the power finally goes off!)

The power companies have such a monopoly that they no longer seem to inform their prepaid customers about between which times they’ll shut off the power and on which days they won’t.

Did you know that you function less well in a cold home?

That’s because there is much less blood flow to the brain when you’re sitting in a cold room. This difference is far from negligible. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-63602501

(That said, the health risks of being in a far too hot home as a result of climate change are worse and are still largely overlooked. It’s why I do not support slogans like “Insulate Britain”, as it expresses the wish to turn our homes into freezers and ovens. We need to build and think smarter, become much more flexible.)

A few stupid but effective tips

  • Wear warm fluffy bed socks, like these: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Josnown-Fluffy-Winter-Fleece-Sleeping/dp/B09CPRGSZN/ I learned this through a friend. Helps a lot!
  • Wear a loose-knit turtleneck to bed to keep your neck warm. Or tuck yourself in really well or place something – such as a bulky pullover – close to your neck, behind your head. (Don’t wear a scarf to bed unless it’s a circular one.)
  • When the weather is cold, you can often use a cold windowsill instead of your fridge. (Buy food wisely.)
  • Store salt and matches in a tin or plastic container so that moisture from cold air gets no grip on them.
  • Keep airing your home once a day by opening windows for 10 minutes. Unless it’s storming and/or pouring.
  • Don’t starve yourself. Remember that eating food helps keep you warm too! (So can exercise, for some of you.)
  • Men, remember that women’s blood vessels tend to contract (shut down) in the hands and feet (and arms and legs) when it’s cold, to preserve heat in the trunk of the body. Thank you. (But not all women tend to feel cold more quickly than men and not all the time either.)
  • Don’t run your central heating; most landlord-installed central heating (and storage heaters) gobble up power like crazy.
  • Use a halogen heater instead. Place one next to you (not too close!).
  • Wrap yourself in a (fleece or regular) blanket and use a 7-Watt heating mat for reptiles (for vivariums) to keep yourself warm when you’re sitting on the sofa. They only use 7 Watts! (Pay attention when you purchase them: some use more and some use less.) They seem to be selling like hot cakes, though. Some may not feel warm at all at first, but heat up when you keep our hands on them. Use them wisely. Do not wrap them in fabric. Do not cut them or fold them and do not dump them in a tub filled with water. (Should the latter ever happen accidentally, then throw that mat out, to be on the safe side.) Here is an example: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lucky-Farm-Vivarium-Adjustable-Amphibian/dp/B0817VP88T/ (This one has an off/on switch. Many don’t. Either is fine.)
    (For if there is an actual power outage: I think that you can run these things off USB or the like. Power banks? Batteries? Something like that. Probably not really cheap.)
  • Have power? Have a hot-water bottle? (I have two!) You can take a hot-water bottle to bed too. You can also use it while you’re sitting on the sofa, but you may have forgotten you have one of those things tucked away behind a box in a cupboard.
  • A flower-pot heater is not a heater. It stops the heat from the candles from rising up to the ceiling right away, and that may make it seem a little warmer when you’re close to it, but it’s a lot of fuss and it’s also a fire risk because you can easily accidentally knock it over.
  • When the power is off, you can, however, use unscented tea candles to heat up a tin of beans or soup in a dish or mug. Takes a while (maybe 30 minutes, depending on circumstances), but certainly does the job. If you don’t have a contraption with a fancy name to use the tea candles in, use a glass (see-through) heat-proof casserole dish. Like Pyrex? Place three or four tea candles in them – AT A DISTANCE FROM ONE ANOTHER of maybe about 5 to 10 cm – and use a stainless steel oven grid or oven rack to place on top of the dish. You can place your mug with soup on top of the grid. Careful. It will eventually get HOT. Place all of this on a clear area of your kitchen counter or, heck, in your kitchen sink, if the grid fits and you want to minimize any risks.
  • If you often have sweaty feet that go cold, change socks and shoes during the day to keep you feet feeling warm.
  • Find out where can you top up. Some places may only let you top up with cash. Others will let you use your debit card but require you to make a purchase, such as of a snack. A few places will let you pay any way you want, quibble-free.
  • Boiling water in the kettle for doing the dishes is cheaper than letting the boiler run all day.
  • Those of us who live alone usually run the boiler for 15 to 45 minutes (depending on the weather) before taking a shower. If you have a weekend grace period and you run out of credit, that means that they’ll shut off the power on Monday. If you let your boiler run from Saturday evening, you will run up a small debt on your meter, but you’ll have hot water for a while. Depending on the weather, leaving the boiler run in your weekend grace period until the power goes off will give you one or more days of warm water. Being able to shower can be so wonderful.
  • How to switch off the damned beeping after the power’s gone off and you’re unable to top up? I don’t know. There are various “tips” on the internet, but they all seem to be for smart meters. (I can’t have a smart meter because my meter is in a location that I cannot reach and so I wouldn’t be able to operate a smart meter. Inserting a key is all I can do and that requires the use of a high folding stool. If I need to report data, I step on the folding stool and use a stick to press the blue button and I then usually take photos of what it says on the meter’s screen.)
  • And last but not least, let your power go off once or twice to find out when your power company shuts off the power. What times? And does it also shut the power off on Sundays or on Saturdays? Knowing that will give you a lot of peace of mind.

If the power goes off, turn it into a camping or survival adventure to keep your spirits up? Sitting in the dark can really suck. It makes you feel pretty powerless (pun intended). If you turn it into an adventure, you may feel less frustrated.

The diminished light can also affect your mood (make you sleepy and mellow) if it lasts for some time (weeks). It’s a bit like hibernation. Similarly, when the power goes on again, the sudden high dose of light can make you stay up late that first day before you realize it.

Oh, and dear UK government, I saw your commercial with energy-saving tips. Tenants’ boilers usually have no thermostats (and no timing options either, by the way).

Replacing the light bulbs and switching the lights off does not free up enough capital to pay for people’s heating. The rebates and vouchers, however, do help a lot.

Explanation for people in other countries: The UK has a prepaid energy system for its many millions of poor people (those with bad credit or with active energy debts, which are two very different things) and for those without credit history, such as foreigners. If you don’t have enough money to top up, the power goes off. In the cost of living crisis that we’re experiencing, this is happening a lot.

Amsterdam had such a system after WWII, so I understand. It was coin-operated. The UK system comes with a dongle or a card that you can take to post offices and to many small shops to top up with cash or a bank card.

(So-called smart meters work a little differently.)

When I moved to the US, I was required to pay a deposit to my power company. That deposit is returned to you after a certain period of having paid your bills on time. I think that period was one year.

By the way, what’s also very different in the UK than in the Netherlands is that you can can get evicted from your home for no reason (meaning that is not your fault). Recently, lots of people have been told to leave because landlords (huisbazen) can earn a lot more money if they list the property on AirBnB, for example.

In the UK, if you’re poor, you often have little agency (power to act). Agency tends to be taken away from them because the poor are seen as defective, not as simply in need of a better income so that they can cover the basics. (The prepaid power system is not an example of that, though I haven’t been able to find out if it can also be forced on you if you are operating a shop.) An example is that if you get housing benefits (huursubsidie), it gets paid to the landlord if you have arrears. It means that you have no overview of what gets paid o whom and when and puts all power in the hands of the landlords.

(I am obviously not talking about my own situation here.)

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