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Home » News » Security, practicality and sticking to “what is natural”: Behavioural patterns related to household-heating practices in Serbia

Security, practicality and sticking to “what is natural”: Behavioural patterns related to household-heating practices in Serbia

Author: Darko Stojilović, Psychology MA

In the Western Balkans, the use of wood, coal or other solid fuels is excessively high. Two-thirds of all households in the region use solid fuels or fuelwood for heating, while at least 3 million households operate wood or coal stoves and furnaces as the primary heating devices. Even when new, these devices are inefficient, consuming disproportionally high amounts of fuel and emitting large quantities of polluting substances in the air. Over a million households in Serbia use such stoves and furnaces as the main heating appliances in their homes.

By replacing the old stoves and furnaces with new, standardised devices, it is possible to double the efficiency and reduce emissions by more than five times. However, to be able to carry out a successful transition from traditional fuels to modern, cleaner and more efficient energy sources, it is essential to understand behavioural patterns, attitudes and social norms related to household heating practices. What affects people’s choices regarding energy sources? Why do they opt for particular household heating devices? How do they feel about alternative heating technologies?

In order to examine the importance of numerous factors (such as psychological, cultural and social), and to answer the question of whether a fuel and stove diversification can be observed in the specific Serbian context, we conducted four focus groups with participants who use solid fuel for household heating, partitioned based on the area (urban, rural) and gender (male, female).

Factors affecting household-heating practices in Serbia

A literature review of studies mostly done in Africa and India shows several potential factors that can influence people’s decision-making regarding the choice of fuel heating. Income is often shown to be one of the crucial factors. According to some research, the influence of the family and the community on the choice of heating can be substantial, as well as fuel availability and the importance of using solid fuels and traditional stoves for cooking.

Two main theories are suggested to describe the behaviour of people regarding fuel and stove use, as well as energy transition from one source to another. According to the energy ladder model, people have ranked preferences for different fuels based on several factors, such as cost, ease of use and efficiency. Thus, they are able to make an informed calculation, opt for the best heating option, and make a complete transition from one fuel to another.

According to the multiple fuel use model, people often diversify their fuel use and do not make a complete transition to one fuel source. Although new and improved heating devices can be added, traditional ones are rarely abandoned. Based on different tasks and needs, people may use different fuel or stove options.

For people in our focus groups, although finances are the most significant factor influencing the decision-making and attitudes about different ways of heating, increasing revenue does not necessarily lead to better energy sources in a linear manner as the energy ladder model assumes. In reality, people often use several different heating sources, especially if they are in a bad financial situation, both for security and for different reasons and needs.

Furthermore, results of the study show that using wood stoves or furnaces on biomass serves several different psychological functions. First, it provides people with comfort and warmth, reminds them of childhood, and allows them to get closer to other household members and create a sense of intimacy. Second, it provides people with (energy) security because external factors (e.g. energy shortage or malfunction) do not affect firewood and wood stoves. Practicality is also deemed important, since the stove enables cooking multiple meals simultaneously and thus saves energy, which is especially important for making traditional preserved food. Cooking has an additional function because it serves as another factor that gathers the household and, according to the respondents – using firewood even makes the food taste better.

The difference between men and women is primarily reflected in the fact that women much more often emphasise the importance of the stove for cooking and talk about the emotional connection they have with their appliance. In contrast, men emphasise the usefulness and usability of the stove for its primary function – heating.

Attitudes towards alternative heating technologies

Both people from urban and rural areas are very satisfied with using firewood. People from rural areas, which were on average less educated and had significantly lower income, do not have the opportunity to invest in new technologies, and the condition of their houses, especially the insulation and doors and windows, is very bad. Unlike citizens from urban areas,  respondents from rural areas often do not even have enough thermal comfort because they have to save on fuel use. Because some respondents cannot afford better and more modern ways of heating, they are rationalising some of their decisions and attitudes because they believe the appliances they currently use are good enough or even ideal. As the most tempting option of alternative technologies, respondents from rural areas choose pellet heating, as it is most similar to their experience of heating a stove or a furnace.

Citizens living in urban areas can afford certain investments and would ideally like to heat with electricity. However, although they are satisfied with wood heating, the respondents pointed out some disadvantages of this heating method. Namely, stoves and wood require much work around preparation, maintenance and cleaning, which is not the case with some alternative types of heating that sound tempting to them.

A positive feature of modern appliances that would be worth emphasising in communication to users considering change is the ease of use, especially temperature optimisation via remote or mobile phones. Respondents liked this aspect the most, although some were sceptical, primarily because they cannot imagine precisely how it works.

People who have no experience with modern technologies, whether when it comes to carpentry or heating appliances, are generally sceptical about such technologies. When they cannot rely on information and experience in a situation like this, people tend to be guided by intuitive thinking that “natural is better”. In choosing between modern and traditional technologies, people rely on what is natural (e.g. wood), while they reject what seems artificial to them as worse alternatives (e.g. gas), but also less healthy (PVC).

These findings indicate that when creating a communication strategy in support of heating modernisation strategies, it should be taken into account that different groups of people are to be approached in different ways. A successful strategy for influencing behaviour change would probably need to include several alternatives to traditional stoves and firewood. Presenting people with the opportunity of free trials, payments in instalments or similarly designed promotions can increase the adoption of new technologies by reducing the sense of risk-taking and allowing users to develop familiarity with new technologies and their benefits.