Keeping warm in Bulgaria at affordable cost is a never-ending task. Energy provisioning in Sofia lacks the seamlessness that one can expect in cities. I am sitting in Lili’s kitchen where she is enthusiastically showing me the places where her son has taken tiles out of the wall to expose the pipes through which hot water runs through the apartments and the whole building. She sits with her back against them during the day, she tells me, so that they keep her warm and she doesn’t have to switch on the radiator in the kitchen. In her son’s bedroom there are more exposed pipes in opposite sides of the room and two single beds backed against them, so that her son and his wife can keep warm during the night. They all go to bed after dinner in the winter, she says, and watch TV, everyone from their respective place under the duvet. That way they don’t even need to keep the lights on.
Lili, her son, his wife and their teenage daughter all live together in a two bed apartment on the second floor of an apartment building in Ljulin. Lili is retired, her son and his wife both work full time. Maya, Lili’s granddaughter is in school. The apartment has district heating but the only radiator that is on is in Lili’s bedroom. Everywhere in the flat the exposed pipes provide direct heat. The living room which doubles as the husband and wife’s bedroom is also fitted with an air conditioner and is switched on for an hour in the morning while they are getting ready for work, when they have guests or for cooling in the summer when the temperatures rise above 30C. Lili has a small electric fan heater that she keeps at her feet when it gets really cold. She sleeps in the kitchen and thinks it is one of the warmer rooms in the flat because it is nearest to the bathroom (where there are three hot water pipes) and because of all the cooking. They are not struggling financially. They just need to be careful with the bills in the winter.
Multiple and overlapping ways of provisioning heat is a common place in Sofia. Wood burning stoves coexist with electric radiators, central heating and air-conditioning. Sometimes in the same room. Subject to a complex web of practices and obligations. It seems that people in Sofia go to great lengths to make sure that they have control over where the heat comes from, how much they use and at what cost. This complexity of energy provisioning is not limited to heat, but also characterizes other energy practices. Households often have a portable gas hob, an electric hob and an oven, as well as access to a wood stove, usually in a property outside of the city. Cooking, as much as heating, is an assemblage of overlapping and intertwined energy practices and infrastructures. Lili, like many others believes that different sources of energy are needed in order to save on the cost. Cooking in the summer is almost predominantly on the gas hob, while in the winter on the electric hob “to warm up the room”. Lili usually cooks once a day in the summer, getting up early in the morning when the air is still cool. In the winter she cooks three times a day as a way to keep bodies and the flat warmer.
Affordability is an obligation which underpins most energy practices. The apartment was retrofitted with double glazed windows and insulation 5 years ago but they are not convinced that it makes any difference in the bills. All electrical items not in use are religiously switched off and unplugged: TV, radio, kettle and wifi router. Even the fridge is switched off during the winter and any perishables moved outside to the terrace. Investing in energy efficient lightbulbs and equipment is often considered impractical. In many neighborhoods in Sofia there is variation in the electricity supply, a material unevenness, which means that lightbulbs, fridges and TVs often short-circuit. Lili, for example, can go through a lightbulb in a matter of weeks. It is the material requirement of the built environment that enables taking control at the point of usage, through creating choice (e.g. gas, electricity or wood) and preempts the practice of energy conservation through other means, like energy efficient lightbulbs.
The creation of choice emerges as another key obligation of practices, which in the case energy can be traced to a deeply embedded lack of choice. Many of the participants feel trapped in the way they access water and energy. During socialism most buildings were fitted with district heating, making it very hard to disconnect from that infrastructure. Entire block disconnections require agreement from everyone in the building and costs money. Instead many practice partial disconnection, where they disconnect the radiators and use the hot water, but are still obliged to pay service and heat transfer taxes, some of which are individually calculated and some of which are a share of the total. Effectively many lack freedom to make the cheapest choice of what energy to use. Material requirements beyond the energy system can also play an important role. For example, cooking on gas is often cheaper than electricity but requires means of transporting 10-25 liter bottles.
This unevenness of quality in provisioning is also experienced with regards to water. In buildings with district heating hot water can be lukewarm or piping hot. Just like the heat from the radiators. In buildings with old aluminum pipes hot water from the tap can run brown, while cold water can run yellow. Even in places where the old pipes have been replaced with PVC ones, residents don’t trust the quality of water that comes from the tap. Many drink boiled water and tea, in addition to buying bottled water. Tap water is used for cooking and washing only. Often water is boiled on the gas hob rather than in a kettle, and drank through the day. The quality of water does have a direct impact on the use of energy. With the cost of energy higher than the cost of water, many attempt to reduce energy use by using the washing machine only occasionally for bedding and larger items of clothing, while washing underwear by hand.
But unlike the heating, the hot water is always on, all year around, says Lili with pride. Maya calls Lili the “hot water patrol” because she monitors how long everyone spends in the shower. If someone takes longer than 5 minutes, she knocks on the door and shouts: “Come out, there is no one to pay.”
The complex assemblages of multiple and uneven provisionings of water and energy in Sofia underpin many nexus vulnerabilities at an individual, household and buildings level, leading to nexus aggravations. They make up the environment (millue)within which practices of sustenance come into being, thrive and die.