The following content is created in partnership with the Washington Area Fuel Fund (WAFF). It does not reflect the work or opinions of NBC Washington's editorial staff. Click here to learn about WAFF.
When you picture people living without heat, you no doubt see them stuck indoors bundled in coats. What a huge inconvenience, you think.
It can be so much worse, though.
A heatless home can disrupt on countless fronts—even to the point of endangering life, health, and safety. And it’s been a growing problem: In 2013, 72 Washington D.C. households reported their landlords for failing to provide heat; that statistic more than quadrupled to 305 households by 2017, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). Of course, that’s not including all the homes stranded in the cold because residents couldn’t afford to pay heating bills.
To fully grasp the gravity of the situation, it’s important to picture the daily conditions of those living without heat. Specifically, people living without heat are . . .
Wearing coats, hats, gloves, and more all day long: As you imagined, living in a frigid home means wearing more—lots more. But really picture it: Wearing many layers, a coat, a hat—maybe even gloves and a scarf—all day long, every day. Imagine how that makes everything more difficult—even normally straightforward tasks like washing dishes.
More at risk for house fires: When you can’t count on conventional heating, you’re apt to jerry-rig an alternative. That means you might use your stove for warmth. Or you may use an electric heater. And that means increased danger of fire: According to the National Fire Protection Association, unattended ranges count for 58 percent of house fires; space heaters are behind 43 percent of U.S. home heating fires.
Unable to cook: While some people are starting housefires with their stoves, others can’t use their stoves at all. For them, the same electricity or gas used to heat their homes may also be used to power their stoves. This can result in hungry residents, along with kids whose only meals are at school. Long term, this can cause nutritional deficiencies.
Dependent on fireplaces: Some living without heat may at least be lucky in one way: They have working fireplaces. Still, the hearth may be the only warm place in the whole house. Plus, keeping a fire going comes with a whole other set of issues.
Susceptible to flooding: When home temperatures drop too low, pipes can freeze. And frozen pipes can burst, causing flooding. And one of the few things worse than a freezing house is a freezing, flooded house.
Possibly living without other utilities too: As mentioned earlier, sometimes, people have no heat because they can’t afford their heating bills. And if they can’t afford their heating bills, they probably can’t afford other utilities, such as electricity or water. Some people may go without more than one utility at a time; others may alternate: this month, they’ll pay the gas bill; next month, electricity.
Wearing out their welcome: With no heat at home, residents may find themselves imposing on friends, neighbors, and family members. Or, they may have to spend time in public spaces, like libraries and coffee shops.
Taking cold showers: Having no heat means you may also lack hot water. Except for those who like taking the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day, cold water showers in unheated homes can be insufferable. Of course, there are other options: imposing on those aforementioned friends/family/neighbors for a shower; using communal showers—like at the gym or school; just not showering.
Challenged to wash and/or dry clothes: No heat in the home can mean no hot water, which means cold-water washing only. And no gas can make gas-operated clothes dryers useless. Of course, if the person’s home heating is electric, neither of these machines will work at all.
Feeling embarrassed: Going without heat long-term can have a stigma. Some may take it as an indicator of poverty.
Having a tough time studying: Even if it’s only the heat that’s gone (as opposed to electricity too), kids can have a harder time with their studies. Focusing can be tough when you’re uncomfortable.
Suffering developmental delays: Speaking of children, those growing up in energy-insecure homes can be more prone to developmental issues.
More prone to illness: People forced to live in the cold can get sick more.
Wasting time: Heatless residents may have to spend a great deal of time contacting the parties necessary to bring back the heat—anyone from landlords to the local housing department to a lawyer.
Spending money: Working to get the heat turned back on can come with expenses—like hiring that lawyer.
Late to work: Faced with the types of obstacles logged here, people may find it hard to get to work on time. Just trying to resolve their heating situation can rob people of valuable time.
Own suffering pets: Let’s not forget the animals. Keeping them warm brings about a whole other set of challenges.
So now that you have the whole picture, how can you help people with no heat? One easy course of action: Donate to the Washington Area Fuel Fund (sponsor of this article). Formed more than 35 years ago by Washington Gas and The Salvation Army, WAFF helps families in need pay their heating bills.
Because Washington Gas pays all administrative fees, 100 percent of all donations go directly to heating assistance. For 2020, the organization aims to raise $170,000 through the WAFF Ice House event (they’re up to $160,303 so far, already surpassing the 2019 total of $150,000). Beyond the event itself, the organization looks to raise $800,000 in 2020.
One fun way to support WAFF, visit the organization at D.C.’s annual Fire and Ice Festival, January 17th and 18th. There you’ll get to hang out in WAFF’s Ice House, a temporary bungalow made completely of—you guessed it—ice! Specifically, it’s a 10-foot by 20-foot structure made from 88 ice blocks, each weighing 300 pounds. Here, you’ll find fun and games (including face-painting and a thermal photo booth) and you may even run into a football Hall-of-Famer (specifically, Brian Mitchell, formerly of the Washington Redskins). You can see the building of the Ice House here.
Want to help D.C.-area residents without heat? Visit the Washington Area Fuel Fund to learn more.