The cost of living

We had a bit of a shock last week when we received our first winter gas bill. In the past 12 weeks, it has cost us nearly $2,200 (or £1,100) to heat our house. A few days later, the electricity bill arrived, adding a further $500 to the damage.

A quick phone call to our energy supplier, ActewAGL, revealed that, for the same period last year, this house was billed $2,400. For the year before, also $2,200. A bit of checking with friends and neighbours showed us that nobody was surprised at this, and that high energy bills are something of the norm, certainly in Canberra, and perhaps across Australia.

In truth, our energy bills so far this year work out roughly similar to what we paid in Denmark in our last years there, but with a couple of notable differences.

Firstly, and I’ve mentioned this before, thanks to the poor build quality of Australian homes, we managed to accumulate a heating bill of $2,200 without ever actually managing to be warm. All that heat leached out of the windows, door-frames and ceilings so that we were forced to supplement it with electric heaters in the lounge and electric blankets in the bedrooms.

Secondly, it’s fair to say that while the heating bills in Copenhagen and Canberra are comparable, there are very few people who would say that the climates of both cities are similar. So, while our Danish bill was gained in defence against night-time temperatures that could touch minus-20 degrees celsius, and in a place where six-to-eight weeks of sustained sub-zero temperatures are the norm, Canberra has no such mitigating conditions.

Which brings me to the only Canberra friends who thought our bill was excessive. As fellow migrants, they rented here before building a new home on the new northern suburb of Crace.

Wisely, they went through the proposed specifications for their home and upgraded them in several important places — wall and roof insulation were added, single-glazed windows were replaced with heat-reflective double-glazing, and so on. Such features would be standard practice in Europe; not so here.

As a result, while the rest of us shiver through winter and shudder at the thought of the cost, our friends are toasty and saving money at the same time.

It seems odd to me that in a land where natural resources are so plentiful — coal and gas if you don’t mind the environmental cost; sunlight, wind and wave power if you do — should a) have such high energy costs and b) be so accepting of energy-inefficient building practices.

But more than that, it’s provided us with a stark lesson in planning. As new migrants, we are currently renting a house while contemplating whether to buy and where and what type of house we should choose.

This first year as renters has helped us to decide that, if we buy, there are certain prerequisites for the type of house we would want. Should we choose to build, we’ve gained some important tips about what to pay extra for before it’s too late.

Canberra may be a great place, but its winters deserve to be taken seriously, as does the likelihood of ever-rising energy prices. Whether it’s down to lax regulation, shoddy building or the fact that a sellers’ market does little to encourage higher standards, the fact remains that finding a permanent home that won’t be cold, expensive to heat or, in our case, both, is no small challenge.

10 thoughts on “The cost of living

  1. Zultan says:

    Seems excessive to me too.. Ours was $800 for a family of four, in a four bedder in Belco (built approx 1974). No double glazing, or insulation to speak of.


    • I thought so, but it seems normal for the house, which took the wind out of my sails a bit — I’d imagined perhaps a boiler that needed servicing or similar. It doesn’t seem like we can do much until we move, except perhaps issue the kids with mittens.


  2. Zultan says:

    $800 was a still a shock for us in our first year, coupled with $400 for Elec and $300 for Water in the same week. I fondly remember only paying 60GBP per month for Electricity and Gas combined back in the UK (albeit a much smaller house) circa 2011.


    • Be careful, you’ll have a UK energy company onto you, wanting you to do PR for them. But yes, when you move to a warmer country, you never think that your heating bills will double!


  3. What aspect is the house? Our leaky windowed three bedder is saved only by the fact that it’s north facing, which means that in winter we get a lot of natural heat from the sun.

    We have two things in our house for heat. One is undertile heating. It’s not particularly economic and I expect this year the whole of the winter will be about $1800 – so that’s from end April through end Sept when we pretty much turn it off. The half way bill was just under $800. That’s all electric by the way – we have no gas, which strangely these days is vastly more expensive. Consider also that we run a beast of an oven and hot water for that amount and I suppose it’s not that bad.

    The other thing we have is a system in the roof which recycles hot or cold air and either evacuates it or pushes it into the house. It’s certainly not heating but on those days when you don’t need the heater on but still can feel the pinch of the cool it’s quite good. A shoulder season heater. It comes into its own when it’s really not and it turns the cool outside air into ‘air conditioning lite’ – when you need it aroun 9.30 or 10 at night on those odd days when it is uncomfortable – undoubtedly of which we will experience more.

    Have you considered getting Actew out to give you some help? They do have a service like that which helps with making efficiencies. It may or may not help with your residence.

    Unfortunately though I think you may have to build as it’s the only way you will get a house that deals with the extremes of Canberra and won’t go up like a match in a bush fire either!! I haven’t yet worked out why in a fire prone country the standard way to build a house is with materials that burn like billy-o!!

    I do believe that some new standards have crept into the building code here such as double glazing. Nothing such as mandatory water tanks, or maximisation of the solar aspect yet. And yes, it is just so disappointing.


    • Hmm, I never considered the aspect. According to my smartphone, the front of the house and garage are north facing, which means the garden (and most of the glass) is south facing. The house is a 1990s build and, although a 5-bed, has a hot water tank that is only good for one and a half showers, so we have to draw lots for the first, hot shower. If it were our own, I think we’d be looking at an overhaul of the whole setup. Yes, we have reverse-cycle aircon, but I hadn’t considered using it for heat. When we just need to take the chill off, or heat one room (while I work from home), we use a couple of electric heaters in the relevant rooms. In the meantime, we’ve asked the landlord if we can get the boiler looked at to see if it’s running efficiently (in the UK, I think an annual gas boiler check is mandatory for rented properties. I’m not sure about here). But I think you’re right — a new build to our own spec might be the only long-term solution. We’ve missed the boat for a few of the areas we like — development in Crace and Casey seems to have finished now — so it looks like Moncrieff or Denman Prospect, both of which are a bit far for the kids’ schools but it may be that or compromise in another way. As an additional complication, the tendency to use ducted heating here has induced asthma for the first time in 30 years. I never had it with radiators or underfloor heating, so that’s another consideration that may force us towards building. Thanks for the tips though — I hadn’t even thought about bush-fire resistance, but clearly that needs to be a factor too.


  4. Failing finding a good block…you could move to Coober Pedy and live underground! The problem with development here (and I really can’t comment on the UK having been here so long), is that you MUST build almost to the boundary…so natural sunlight is going to find it hard to get in or out if it does find a way in, unless it’s through other means if you see what I mean – as in better ventilation. And the block sizes are so small that you will have no option but to go up, which is absurd in a hot country.

    Every time I visit Lanyon Homestead which is near us I wonder what went wrong in home building!! Double brick and a never ending covered balcony. You have pinpointed something Australia does really badly and it is so expensive to build that doing something energy efficient is going to be even more costly. As usual…good luck.

    BTW, I write this from Merimbula, and it’s beautiful as always.


    • Thanks for those thoughts. And yes, you are right about the size of the building almost exactly matching the size of the plot, especially in the newest houses here — up in Moncrieff. The good news is, if we decide to build, we probably have time to find a specialist builder and try and construct something that is more eco-friendly than the standard offerings. I’d consider a more rural location if there was anything approaching decent broadband connectivity, but there we hit another area where investment and higher standards are desperately needed.


  5. Oh dear! I set my bill payments out to come out fortnightly – so I don’t get that scary moment when you open the bill.

    I lived in an old house in Campbell last year for about four months and our bill was close to $2,500 for the winter – we used to leave the heating on from 4pm to 12am…and then on again at 6am to 10am. It’s our own fault really – but the house was old and cold.


    • Thanks Erin. You know, I think I was hoping that we’d done something wrong, that there was a billing error, or that we had a faulty boiler. To learn that our experience is common is scant comfort really and makes me feel even more for my fellow Canberrans. This stuff shouldn’t be difficult and smacks of short-term gain (by the builders) for long term pain (by house owners). And, given our current environmental predicament, is incredibly wasteful.

      Liked by 1 person

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