I live in Durham Riding, a small hamlet of seven houses. It’s a close community and although we have different backgrounds we get on extremely well – it’s never a problem to borrow a mug of sugar from one of the other residents if I run short.

One day in the middle of Winter it occurred to me that we all spend quite a significant amount of money on our individual heating systems. Wouldn’t it be better to pool our resources and create one big heating system. This would allow us to order the oil in bulk – in addition I had heard that the bigger boilers were also more efficient.

Wolfgang, my neighbour from Germany, was the first person I mentioned it to. He was enthusiastic, as was Henri from France. Clearly the idea had some merit so we called a meeting of Durham Riding residents. In the warmth of Wolfgang’s home, over a glass of Glühwein, we set out the idea of creating the Durham Riding Heating System (DRHS). Geert, from the Netherlands, was the most enthusiastic, “clearly it’s the way of the future – let’s aim to have it in place by next Winter”. So we set about creating a committee that would manage the project. Romano, from Italy, was elected as chairman. He is an accountant by training and we were all sure that he would do a good job.

A couple of months passed. The committee sourced some quotes for the system. It looked as if the changeover cost would be £1700 per household. This would be an excellent investment in the long run due to the savings that could be made. By Romano’s initial estimates we would save at least 5% on fuel prices and there would be some additional gains due to the larger boiler.

Steen, one of the committee member from Denmark, also made some insightful observation. He pointed out that we would need to carry out a full review of heating usage so that the most appropriate system can be chosen as it’s not clear if all the residents use the same amount of oil. He also brought to light the fact that each house in Durham Riding has a different amount of insulation. He rightly suggested that the committee should draw up some ‘Insulation Convergence Criteria’. This would set out the minimum insulation requirements for being part of the DRHS.

It was now summer in Durham Riding and Steen called another meeting of the residents. We brought some meat and met in Wolfgang’s back garden for a barbecue. Steen revealed the finding of the committee. Everyone would need to have 10 cm of loft insulation as well as full door insulation to reduce draughts. Steen was fair but firm, “Nobody will be allowed to be part of the DRHS project until they complied with this committee directive!”. We all agreed.

Wolfgang was quite happy as he already complied with the directive; in fact most people had at least 10 cm of loft insulation. The only exceptions were Jean-Claud, from Belgium, who only had 3 cm and Romano who said he wasn’t sure how much he had. Both Jean-Claud and Romano assured the rest of the residents that they would sort the situation out.

By October the new boiler had been ordered and the group gathered for the latest update. Romano was pleased to announce that he actually does have 10 cm of loft insulation; “well sort of”, he said. “It isn’t 10 cm all over but if I measure the insulation around the edges it is indeed 10 cm and I think that’s where it really matters”. Jean-Claud was also unusually slippery, “I’m ever so sorry I still haven’t managed to get the loft insulated but it is on order”. It was clear from Steen’s face that he was disappointed with his neighbours. It was of course a bit late to exclude Jean-Claud and Romano since the boiler has been ordered; in addition everyone did accept that they had tried to comply. So it was decided that they could be part of the DRHS after all. The 5th November was set as changeover day.

The weather was mild in October which was just as well since the installation didn’t run too smoothly. In fact it was at about this time that I started to wonder if the hassle of the project was worthwhile. The problem was that the size of the pipe ordered was too small. Romano had ordered ordinary domestic size pipe – he hadn’t realised that thicker pipe was required for use with such a large boiler. To be fair neither he nor the contractors had carried out such a conversion before so, as he pointed out, it wasn’t really his fault. New pipe was ordered. This added an extra £300 to each household’s bill.

By the 29th November it was all complete and the switchover occurred. We all gathered at Jean-Claud’s for a glass of bubbly to congratulate ourselves on the achievement.

At last we would start to reap some of the benefits – at least that’s what we thought. It was clear after only two days that not everyone agreed on exactly how the heating system should run. Wolfgang is keen on keeping fit – he likes to get up at 6 am, shower and go for a run. He made it quite obvious that he wanted the heating system to start at 5 am so as to heat the house before he gets up. Henri is retired and doesn’t get up before 9 am so he complained that he didn’t really want the house heated before 8 am. Things really looked quite bleak when we realised that Steen works night shifts and would require the heating to be on though the day. It looked as if we were going to end up running the heating system at least 19 hours a day, which wouldn’t be good.

A meeting was called. Steen succinctly outlined the problem, “we would seem to have different heating requirements”, he stated. “The only way to move towards a solution is to ask for tighter control on heat loss. As a result we are imposing the ‘Working Door Directive'”. This was a plan by which we would only be allowed two outside doors. In addition it would be recommended that people only opened an outside door four times a day. I didn’t like the idea as I knew it was going to be difficult to implement and thought it was a bit heavy handed.

That was six months ago and things have not improved. In fact Wolfgang and Henri are not on speaking terms after Henri installed a set of glass patio door. Wolfgang accused Henri of being in breach of the Working Door Directive but Henri insisted that the patio doors were classed as windows and therefore fell outside of the Directive – they haven’t spoken since. As regards our heating bills they haven’t reduced – in fact I would say mine has increased. In addition it certainly wouldn’t be easy to go back to the old system – in fact I’m not sure I would be able to since the DRHS owns the pipes and the system so I can’t really remove it without their permission.

Never mind I’ve invested so much now I might as well carry on for a bit longer…

© 2000 Steve Maughan (inspired by John Elliott)