The issue of how to heat a Maltese house to ambient room temperature never quite gets resolved. I’ve tried most forms of heating. What I need is a level of warmth that means I don’t have to wear fingerless gloves, two fleeces and a hat indoors – and still feel chill. It is often warmer outside than in. Maltese houses are built to resist sunlight.
We’ve had several queries from those abroad thinking of relocating to Malta about how we heat our houses for those crucial months – Jan to March; it’s chill, chill, chill right now in my place, but from past experience, I often find February is the really bitter month indoors. The house has had by then three months to chill down since last autumn’s last rays of warmth.
How you heat and how well you keep warm relate largely to your type of flat or house – stone, concrete, top floor, lower floor, thickness of stone, layout of rooms, number of windows and so on. Structure plays a large part in the choice and effectiveness of heating. Few people have central (oil-fired) heating as that requires planning while building or renovating. Fewer still use alternative bio-fuels or have photo-voltaic panels installed. And I haven’t heard of anyone with an Aga or fuel-fired cooking range in Malta, let alone one that can run heating as well.
Clearly, if you are renting, you have fewer choices. If you are house or flat hunting in the summer, do think about the heating issue!
The short answer to ‘how we heat’ is most of us don’t (effectively). We just wear more clothes. For the longer answer and the regular heating options, read on. No solutions promised though, even with modern technologies available!
I installed one three winters ago in my metre-thick walled lounge. The pipe goes up the stairwell and just heats my bedroom above.
Pros: it looks nice, is a focal point, and provides comfortable warmth in one room at least.
Cons: It gobbles wood (one bag @ €8 lasts two nights for five hours of heating depending on the type of wood). Can be messy to clean. Needs to be on a couple of hours to really feel heat. Pipe drips liquid tar when it rains (chimney and piping badly installed!). Some possibility of flu clinker catching fire (not heard of chimney sweeps here, but probably a do-it-yourself job if you’ve a stone chimney breast not piping).
Verdict: I like it for atmosphere and can make room cosy if lit for long enough. Not efficient and can’t hope to heat more than one room.
I had a digital, very effective Japanese-make kerosene heater that gave central heating equivalent ambient warmth – until it went wrong three years ago and no one here can mend it! It would cut out if oxygen in the room was low and had a child safety lock button. About two years ago, the price of Kerosene more than doubled, making it very expensive a form of heating.
A few years back you’d hear a lot of praise for Potez heaters. Estate agents still advertise homes with a Potez kerosene heater in glowing terms:”…a homely living room with a Potez Heater,” was how one put it recently. People now are trying to see if they can find alternative fuels – lighting oil – to use in these heaters. Anyone who was child in the 1960s and 70s in the UK would remember a Potez heater in classrooms. I’ve heard that a Potez heater can heat an entire Maltese farmhouse; shame about the kerosene price. I would recommend getting expert advice on anything to do with kerosene heaters!
Pros: does give great heat – if a modern type of heater. Centrally located, it may heat the whole house.
Cons: kerosene prohibitively expensive. Heater needs care and attention and they can be a hazard for pets and kids, and fiddly to operate. Need to ventilate rooms frequently.
Verdict: If you inherit one, use it in the really cold periods as it is effective, though costly to run.
My very friendly gas man called this morning (not to be greeted as Rik Mayall did his in that infamous episode of the BBC’s comedy, ‘Bottom‘.) Malta’s gas men deliver bottles, not check meters. They call in my street twice a week, delivering yellow bottles we can’t do without – for cooking and heating. Portable gas heaters on wheels are the main source of heating for most of us. I hate them, but can’t live without them come winter.
Pros: Easy to obtain (if you have a bottle already). Delivered to door. Instant heating. Easy to light. Can move from room to room as you please.
Cons: Heaters can smell (both mine do, even with adapter and piping changed). Bottles heavy to heave around – my back’s had it this year. Metal casing ugly. Won’t last that long in peak winter. Safety concerns: eats oxygen and you need to ventilate rooms often. Produces moisture. The price doubles each year it seems; I checked back 2 years or so and found it was €10.50 a bottle; now it’s around €20.
Verdict: I’d really freeze without them, but don’t like them on safety grounds. So an evil necessity.
Some of my rooms have them to cope with summer heat, so why don’t I use them in winter? Well, with electricity prices what they are, it can prove very costly. I abandoned using aircons as heating ages ago, and resorted to gas heaters. If you’ve a more modern flat, fully airconned, you are more likely to use them, swear by them for heating and not worry about the cost. Older houses rarely heat up well with them, and always cool down the minute they are switched off – warmth from a solid fuel stove can linger till next day.
Pros: Easy to use. Safe. Instant heat.
Cons: Costly to install and in older houses, rarely placed in all rooms. Expensive to run. Heat dissipates immediately they are switched off. Dry eyes and skin out.
No heating at all
Yes, this is an option. We won’t have frost on the inside of windows here, though hail storms and temperatures around 3-4°C at night are quite possible in wet periods. So a first line of defence is to put on more clothes, including thermals! I know someone who won’t bother with any heating at all in their old house – apart from a rare open fire. Their mantra is that if people lived in the 1700s in it without heating, then they can too. I could just about live without room heating but not without an electric blanket to remove the damp, cold feel of my bed.
Less a heating method and more heat loss prevention. The foam layer on top of the roof can be costly to install and may not do the business in winter. People I know say it can cut out summer heat but that it makes only a subliminal difference to room temperatures when it has to keep warmth in. (I am waiting for per metre costs so will add these soon).
This has been quite popular in recent years as it’s become less costly to import the technology. It’s best to install when you are renovating or building afresh as it’s too disruptive to dig up floors later. It runs off electricity, so in theory is expensive. A friend put in in his old farmhouse a year back so has trialled it for one full winter. Here are his views:
Pros: Quiet, efficient [low voltage so, in theory, also low cost]. No big impact on our energy bill – but we’ve only had one winter so far so hard to quantify. But we do use it judiciously – we keep two rooms on consistently [study and main bedroom] and it kicks in for about 10 – 15 mins per hour. It’s silent, cuts out humidity, offers even heat and kills dampness at source. In use with a de-humidifier, we maintain a temp around 18 degrees.
Cons: Needs planning to install. The only thing I’m not yet sure about is the relative cost.
Oil-fired Central Heating
Very few people have this installed, but it does work when it is! Can be ugly and expensive, and you need space to house an oil tank and few people in Malta have that. It’s rare to find here and thought of as a real luxury as it would only need to run around one month a year in reality. I am tracking down more details from the only friend I know with it. I remember her saying she didn’t put it on unless she had to!
Solar & Alternative Energies
Clearly, with all the sun Malta gets, solar energies have come to the fore in recent years, and a lot of people are making use of government subsidies to install solar panels primarily for water heaters. Fewer install photovoltaic systems that generate domestic electricity. You need a good deal of roof space for that I understand. I get a flyer a day through my letter box from local firms offering all manner of solar, eco-friendly, power systems. If you want some unbiased information about the practicalities in Malta of alternative energy supplies in the home, try contacting the Institute for Sustainable Energies at the University of Malta. See also the Malta Resources Authority for background info and about subsidies.
We will be updating this article as we’re sure to get comments in. Heating a Maltese house is a hot topic of conversation in winter – every winter!
Photo: Brandi Sims