That Cold Spell and Your Privilege

Boston winter, just one weekend:

This year, it seems like winter said to winter’s self, “I have been too wimpy; I need to have a mid-season crisis.” Instead of buying a yellow sports car, it drove the temperatures down below zero just to show that winter still has some street cred. Temperatures in Greater Boston fell to about -7 F on Friday night and were back into the 40’s by Sunday afternoon.

How does privilege show during a cold snap?

If you are housed in a place where the heating system kept your living space comfortable, you are privileged. If you can afford the bill that is coming, you are more privileged. (If you own the property, even more so.)

If the property you live in did not sustain damage during the cold snap, you are privileged. Whether you rent or own the space.

If you own the space and it sustained damage from broken pipes, you are privileged if you can afford to make speedy repairs. If you rent and your landlord can make those speedy repairs, you are also privileged.

Some good news for privileged people:

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in properties that use split system heat pumps for heating and air conditioning. This heating and air conditioning system has a big fat rebate, but it costs a homeowner in excess of $10,000 to make the change, even with rebates that are currently being offered.

Massachusetts has taken its climate goals seriously. There has been a huge push for property owners to convert to mini-split heat pumps instead of gas boilers or gas furnaces for heat. The programs change all the time, so check with MassSave for details.

Heat pump systems are tried and true for air conditioning. They were sorely tested last weekend for heating and they fared better than expected. These heat pumps are not expected to keep up once the temperature drops below -10F. The Boston area got pretty darn close. According to a Boston Globe survey, the heating systems generally kept room temperatures comfortable during the -7F night. People living in northern New England had even colder temperatures, and some had their systems not able to keep up.

Nonetheless, if you can afford to convert your home to more efficient, more eco-friendly heat pumps, you are privileged. If you live in a rental with efficient heat and air conditioning, you are privileged.

Who was cold? And how cold for how long?

Fully housed, but cold: Inflation and the end of pandemic support funds has made it harder to make ends meet. At the same time, heating rates have increased. No matter how efficient your heating system is, heating will cost more this winter.

National Grid previously warned residential heating customers that they could see their bills increase 22% or 24% from last winter, depending on whether they fall under Boston Gas or Colonial Gas. [source]

There are people living close enough to the edge of their budget who did not have the option to turn up their heat last weekend.

Anyone who needed an emergency repair last weekend faced not only expense, but a wait for service. Companies who repair heating systems were working all weekend. Not only did people need ready cash for repairs, they also needed the social capital to get onto the line for service. Most companies will service their ongoing clients first. If you needed a repair and got it quickly, you were cold, but are privileged.

Essential workers: Remember those essential workers? They were cold. Big buildings were harder to keep warm, so workers within them donned sweaters and sometimes gloves. The buses still ran, the subway ran as well as usual, and trucks still unloaded into grocery stores. Someone was outside making that happen. People were waiting outside for their buses and trains.

Homeless people: Those were nights for warming shelters or life-threatening cold. Homeless services stepped up, both government and non-profits.


We were all lucky that the very cold weather was short-lived. I wish you the best for the second half of winter. 

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