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Myth: airing cupboards need to be warm... don't they?

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The UK has some sort of love affair with airing cupboards that actually doesn't make sense.

While they aren't as warm as they used to be, they are still far warmer than they need to be, and chucking away money.

Avoiding this waste is really easy, as this article shows.

There are lots of tips at the end.


Even if they didn't have central heating systems, most homes in the UK have had a hot water tank lurking in a cupboard upstairs at some point in their life, stuffed with clean towels and sheets and oozing heat.

The popularity of combi boilers has led the number to drop by half, but many still have their place as laundry cupboards, often with some nice warm plumbing keeping us 'happy that the sheets are happy'.

In the early years they used to ooze oodles of heat, as originally they weren't insulated at all.

Along came insulated jackets (the puffy quilted red things). But these were really fitted to keep the water hot, rather than save money, as energy used to be pretty cheap. These cosy-looking jackets were a big step forward (when fitted properly with no gaps!), but for many years the pipework around the tank remained uninsulated, a problem which still remains today in many houses.

For decades we have been used to having toasty-warm hot airing cupboards, and are brought up to think that towels and sheets need to be 'cosy and warm' and 'aired'.

It has often been the warmest place in the house....and often still is, and we never spend any time in them...

However, the definition of 'aired' in this situation is to 'give access to the open air; ventilate', which is a bit odd, given that most things in an airing cupboard are folded and stacked up, and definitely not out in the open.

I can understand why we have this emotional attachment to airing cupboard warmth. In the days before central heating, we had centuries of cold houses where damp and condensation issues were common. Then, along came electricity and hot water tanks, and suddenly there was a strong attraction to have laundry items stored somewhere where they would keep dry. Is it any surprise that opening an airing cupboard door in an unheated home generated a heart-warming 'Ahhh...' moment? The hot air cupboard was obviously extremely attractive to store sheets and towels in, especially when it was next to the bedrooms and bathroom.

A hot water tank must certainly have been a 'happy days' development!

The fact is that damp and condensation only form on pretty cold surfaces in a home, generally on surfaces on the exterior of a home such as walls, windows and ceilings.

The reality is, that for all those years prior to central heating, if towels or sheets were simply kept in a drawer, they would have been just fine! After all, it hasn't been a tradition in this country (at least not that I am aware!) that we keep our clothes in the airing cupboard, so why do we give sheets and towels special treatment? Clothes have always survived perfectly well in drawers and wardrobes, with no heating at all.

Yes, there are many things that still need to be done to improve the heat loss of UK homes, but most of our houses are a great deal better than they were 50 years ago. 95% of them have some form of central heating too, and while modern homes can obviously still have damp issues, these are pretty unlikely in an airing cupboard, unless an airing cupboard is against an outside poorly insulated wall, there are draughts such as through to a loft, or in a house that has insufficient ventilation.

So, we have grown up having lovely warm airing cupboards for a purpose that doesn't have any strong logic, especially in the era of modern homes.

Even if you DO still want to store laundry in an airing cupboard, for 99% of homes I would argue it doesn't need ANY special heating. It doesn't actually need to be any warmer than 20C.

We have, of course, gradually moved over to hot water tanks with solid insulation skins around them which hold their temperature impressively well (I have actually measured mine!).

But, even so, they DO leak heat (and therefore waste money!), not so much from the tank itself, but from pipework connected to them, as the thermal camera image below shows.

Any uninsulated pipe, however small, can cause needless heat loss from your hot water tank, leaking away money every minute it remains warm.


Energy saving tips

The mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get your airing cupboard to the stage where, when you open the door, it doesn't feel any warmer inside the cupboard than outside it.

I recognise, though, that there are people who want a warm cupboard to proof bread (even though this is a costly way of doing so) or for homebrewing (for which there are other solutions). But if you aren't a bread or beer maker, then I heartily suggest the following:

  • If you've no insulation on your tank at all, you can buy a red-quilted jacket for around £20 from places such as here.

  • If you ALREADY have a red-quilted jacket over a simple copper tank and have no plans to replace your tank, then, given the cost of energy now, it almost certainly makes sense to put another layer over the top, if you have enough space. I have done this on the tank on my canal boat, and it has made a very noticeable difference to how long the water stays hot.

  • If any of the exposed metalwork gets warm to touch, it's costing you, so insulate it.

  • Always use the thickest insulation you can physically fit. It is barely any more expensive. 'Economy' insulation means 'thin' insulation, which simply means you won't save as much money!

Pipe insulation
Cheap as chips and incredibly versatile
  • If you want to wrap insulation around complicated bits of plumbing hardware, these felt products are incredibly versatile and very inexpensive, typically around £5

  • Double-check that any loft space immediately above the cupboard is properly insulated. The air above an airing cupboard is probably the warmest in a home, so if the ceiling isn't well-insulated it'll just soak that heat up like a sponge and it'll end up in the loft.

  • Look up at the ceiling in your airing cupboard. Are there any gaps or holes around the pipes or wiring going into the loft? If so, they need plugging up pretty pronto. They will be leaking heat and money continually into the loft. See my other article here all about this.

  • If you have clunky, hot hardware in your airing cupboard, such as pumps or valves, these should also be insulated too. You CAN buy insulated jackets for central heating pumps, but they aren't cheap. The simplest and easiest solution with any of these lumpy or complicated bits of hardware is to wrap them in plenty of the felt stuff shown above. This is exactly what I've done.

  • And if you are in any doubt about damp in your airing cupboard, do get a humidity meter. They cost less than £10. Just put it in the coolest corner of your airing cupboard. If it shows the humidity going anywhere near 100%, then you have a potential damp situation. However, I think, even if you take all the above actions (unless you have damp coming into the airing cupboard from outside), it should still be warm enough in there to get nowhere near that.

  • Remember that a cooler airing cupboard will help your home keep cooler in hot weather too!


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Mark Thompson

Get Energy Savvy - simple practical home energy efficiency information

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