Monday, September 17, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 21 -Keep the Heat Down - or Off!

I'd planned to write this post sometime in early October, but the cold front that brought temps down to the 20s and 30s in the north and frosted out some of my tomatoes made me think that it was time to talk about how to reduce energy costs and usage while keeping cozy.

The first goal is to wait as long as possible to heat the house at all. Now my house is divided into two parts - a well insulated newer addition (small) and a large, old drafty farmhouse (big). But even in the drafty farmhouse, we haven't felt any need for the heat these last few days. Yes, it is quite chilly in the am, but with daytime temps in the 50s or higher and sun striking the house, we can count on warming things up during the day, opening the windows when the outside air is warm enough, and sealing the air in when it gets chilly. We simply dress warmly and cuddle up together - it is actually quite pleasant. We play "heater chicken" all fall, and try and see if we can go longer this year than last year. The goal is to reduce the heating season from Nov. 1 to April 1 - we usually end up fudging on one end or another, but we try to get closer each year.

We also don't heat the bedrooms. The temps here in the hills of upstate NY have dropped to minus 30 degrees a few years ago, and routinely get to minus 20, but we've never heated our bedrooms. Ambient heat from the stoves and household drift upstairs through a couple of vents in the floor, and our bedrooms have been reinsulated so that even at their coldest, the temps are in the high 40s. We dress the children for bed in double layers - warm long johns covered with footed fleece pajamas (Lands End makes these up to size 14 kids and Big Feet Pajamas makes these in adult sizes, if you care - my crazy-tall 7 year old son is now almost ready for the smallest adult size), and have plenty of warm blankets. When we had young babies, they slept in the warmest room in the house (never dropped below 50), in the same outfits plus sleeper blankets. Even an infant over 10lbs (the weight at which they can maintain their own body temperature) can sleep in a cool room, and in fact, rooms in the low sixties or below have been found to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Our goal is to use the oil heat (mix of forced air and radiant floor) as little as possible and to use as little wood as possible. We do this by mostly living in the well insulated apartment during the winter, except when we have guests, keeping the heat low (50 (lower when the woodstove is going), 55 when we have guests), and by dressing appropriately. That means layers, long johns or tights under pants or skirts, t shirts under turtlenecks, under sweaters. In the early fall, after acclimating to summer, even 60 feels quite chilly. After a winter of shovelling snow and hauling water jugs to the poultry, 55 inside feels pleasantly toasty. The key is to acclimate.

We are in the process of reinsulating the older part of the house but this is an expensive proposition, so we've chosen cheap ways of dealing with this, including heavy curtains (you can make your own out of blankets or pretty quilts, or buy insulated curtains - we have a mix of both - there's a great article here on window quilts: We also have used free bubble wrap from packages on windows, and I've heard of people stapling the bubble wrap into wooden frames so it can be reused year after year.

If your walls are leaky, consider "tapestries" - they were the classic insulation of the past. Either make quilts or hang blankets. If you are cold at night, create an enclosed space that can be heated by your bodies - a four poster bed was not a mere decoration - the top and curtains meant that your body heated the space to a cozy warmth and kept the heat in.

Keep blankets around the house for when you sit, and a shawl is not a mere nicety, but a truly useful thing. Keep spares for guests, and perhaps extra warm slippers and a few sweaters to share. Drink hot beverages - my kids think a cup of herbal tea under a blanket with Mom while we read stories is a huge treat. Even a guest who isn't used to the low-heat house will find themselves comfortable when offered a lap blanket, a warm sweater and a cup of hot chai.

Insulation doesn't have to be expensive, if you do it a bit at a time. Replace old windows when you can, fill in cracks and otherwise, keep the house comparatively tight, while still allowing for good ventilation. But mostly, it is easier in many ways to acclimate and insulate yourself than to keep your house perfectly warm. A nightcap on your head, or a hat in the house will keep a good bit of your body heat in.

Most of us will find that we can tolerate a lot more cold than we've become accustomed to - it will take time and practice, but it is well within the realm of possibility. If we keep our houses heated to 70 or more, we'll never allow our bodies to acclimate fully, and thus, we'll never really appreciate how warm and cozy a fire in the stove can be, even in a cool house, as long as you are busy and working or playing.



Amelia said...

Last winter we were "lucky" in that taking the scary '70s paneling out of the addition revealed a mold problem, from the roof that hadn't been kept in repair before we bought the house: we had to gut both rooms down to the studs and subflooring, so it was easy to upgrade the insulation and windows (the new windows were installed during one of last winter's snowiest weeks!), if not cheap.

This week I should hear from our plumber, who'll be replacing the 50-year-old boiler that powers our hot water radiators (and the defunct forced air furnace that used to heat the addition, and our water heater) with an Energy Star combination unit that will deliver heat and hot water; our neighbors will be helping us with insulating the basement and the water pipes that run through it.

The attic was insulated to R-50 two years ago, and last year a neighbor with a carpentry shop in his garage built custom storm windows for the windows in the original part of the house (built in 1912). I made window quilts for use at night and portieres to isolate the entryway from the living room. It's taken us almost 7 years to get this far (and the interior cosmetic renovations have suffered as a result), but we've made the house as tight as we can.

I'd love to have a wood stove -- there is a fireplace here in the living room, but it was designed to burn coal -- as I grew up with one; my father and brother's homes are built near state parkland in Pennsylvania, and I wasn't the only girl at my high school who was proficient with a splitting maul! Sadly, the air quality in the Valley is so poor sometimes in winter that we have regular "red burn" days: essentially, unless it's your only source of heat, you can't use a wood-burning heat source and people are strongly discouraged from driving.

LimeSarah said...

We're soon going to talk to the landlord about fixing the living room wall (it leaks) and insulating the boiler. We're also going to ask about turning off some of the radiators. It apparantly makes the system upset and is not recommended. I have a genuine practical reason to want a four-poster bed. When I was little, my dad ran a curtain rod around my bed so that I could have a curtained bed. Now I have this giant leaf from IKEA as a tiny canopy, but I don't think it would support the weight of having any kind of heavy cloth draped over it.

When you put up quilts/tapestries, what do you put them up *with*? Is this something that's going to leave permanent holes in the walls that will annoy the landlord?

Anonymous said...

Last winter, the air intake for my multi-unit building froze shut, causing all of the furnaces attached to it to shut off. Thanks to great insulation, a south-facing brick wall and my penchant for using sweaters and blankets in the house, I didn't really notice until it dropped below 50 degrees and I started feeling uncomfortable. This really freaked me out until a neighbor on the condo's building and maintenance committee told me the fix.

My interim solutions were:

*Bake bread, roast a chicken and make stock, thus taking advantage of the "waste" heat from the oven

*Move my chair as far away from the window as practical so that I was not sitting in the coldest part of the room

*Use the "decorative" fireplace

*Sleep under lots of extra blankets

*Hang out longer at the office, in coffee shops, the library, etc to delay doing the above

*Figure out how to fix the furnace

Sue said...

I wore those flannel footy one-piece pajamas most of my childhood and well into my teens. Heck, if I could only get DH to think they were sexy, I'd *still* be wearing them at age 45! :)

Our tiny house heats up quickly with a woodstove fire in the morning -- we do this even when it's not really cold, since the thermosiphon to the water tank is how we heat our shower water. And as long as the woodstove's going anyway, we also heat our dishwater and coffee water there (though we have a propane range and a sun-shower tank for those *really* hot days when a fire would be stifling). But most days, DH just *needs* to build a fire in the mornings. I think it's his version of caffeine -- he just doesn't feel right on the days he doesn't get to build a fire...

I'm proud of my woodsplitting abilities now! We had lots of fun on my birthday with our little staged conversation for friends:

Me: Guess what he got me for my birthday?
Friends: What?
Me: Well, I told him it had been SOOO long since we'd been mall-shopping...
DH: So, we went maul-shopping!

Then we show off the 14-pound fathead maul that was my gift :D


Els said...

Sweaters, blankets, shivers, glowing cheeks and cold hands; bliss!
Me and my husband have been living on Curaçao for two years now, and on our tiny tropical island we also strive to keep the heat down as much as possible, but in our case this means not turning on the airconditioning or fans. It has been quite a struggle adapting to 28*C at night (or 32*C during the day, for that matter), but we are now sleeping without either fan or AC and very proud of it.

But both I and my husband long for the colder (Dutch) climate again: without revealing too much I can say that nights are much nicer when you don't have to keep away from each other as far as possible because it's almost too hot to sleep together. (Both meanings apply ;-) )

Heather G said...

On tapestries/wall-hangings....

Most folks would probably put up hooks/nails/pegs to hang the fabric on. For apartments, I'd suggest putting any tall furniture you have (bookcases for instance) against the outer walls, and hanging the fabric off the back of those. Or if you have large picture frames/canvas frames/freestanding room dividers, you can layer fabric/blankets over them and lean them against the wall.

I've done all of the above. I've also done this with shorter things like folded up card tables, because insulating half a wall is better than nothing. Plus, if you have drafty windows (we don't, but I know other folks do), you can block the draft at the bottom of the window with the table (or large picture frame) as well -- and still have light come in from the rest of the window during the day.

I've also taken extra fabric, comforters, wool, etc., and put it against the base of wind-exposed walls; you can usually stack it up a foot or two, and a foot or so thick (our wind-exposed walls are in a bay -- the fabric was behind furniture so it wasn't messy-looking). I sew, weave, and spin, so I have a lot of stuff to use.... but you can probably acquire comforters and such through freecycle or cheaply at Goodwill/Salvation Army types of stores. You could also bag/contain your off-season clothing and use that for insulation.

Insulation's good in the summer too, of course -- the windy walls are also the sunny walls, so most of the base insulation stayed there this summer.

BoysMom said...

Hats and scarves. Having my head covered is as good as a sweater.

Our landlord's done new windows and he's adding insulation and a new roof to part of the house that was previously uninsulated.

Anyone have tips on heating with a fireplace? It was intended for the house heat source, part of its system (fan) is now non-functional, though.

Christina said...

We play "heater chicken" too. LOL! We have a pellets stove thats heats our house and our water and a fireplace in the living room. And we wait as long as possible before turning on the heat!

I want a wood stove in the kitchen VERY much!! Every winter we have several days without electricity because of snow storms and it should be really nice to be able to cook on something better than a small camping stove. Not to mention how nice it is to come down to a cold kitchen in the morning, light a fire and feel it slowly warm up from the hot stove!

Anyway, we have not turned on the heating yet. We usually hold out until sometime in October... This morning we had ca 17C/62F in the house. Not warm but it's OK.

Anonymous said...

Tip I got from a friend who does winter SCA camping, though I've never tried it, is to wrap a bit a fleece (the stuff make out of coke bottles, not from the sheep) around your feet. I don't mean bind your feet with strips of the stuff, just fold a piece around them.


Oh, another thing, once my older child has fallen asleep under 5 blankets, I have to remove one or two least she feel hot in the night and toss them off, only to wake up a bit later becuase she's cold.

Anonymous said...

We rarely heated our bedrooms - if we did the kids would kick off the covers at night and get sick. No heat - they stayed under the blankets !

Anonymous said...

Large (dry) cobblestones warmed on top of the woodstove, wrapped in towel and put down at the foot of the bed...

Someone also told me a garbage bag of composting horse manure under the bed works really well, but I don't intend to try that.

Rosa said...

You know, we do the same 55 for family 60 for visitors settings on our thermostat.

It's like the hanky thing (I always buy Kleenex when my mother is coming to visit, too). Why do we feel the need to accomodate visitors' lifestyles so much? They certainly don't turn off their excessive air conditioning when we go visit, or walk/bike with us.

stream said...

check this out:

"These pages describe a solar heating scheme I use to heat my house. The solar heating collectors are mounted on our new garden storage shed. The collectors are integrated with the south wall of the shed, which is oriented for best collection. Heat is stored in a 500 gallon insulated water tank. Hot water from the tank is pumped to the house radiant floor heating system as the house needs heat."

"I should mention that we live in SW Montana at 46 degrees north latitude. Winters are chilly -- 8000 degree-days and down to -30F once in a great while -- with typical mid-winter highs in the 30F's. But, a fair number of sunny days that are a pleasant indeed."

This guy isn't me, but I'm going to build one of these myself...

stream said...

here's the non-truncated link:

Amelia said...

I've used stoneware bread warmers to take the edge off a chilly bed: I cook on a '40s Wedgewood stove with two ovens (it was in the basement when we bought the house: the nightmare of getting it out was worth it, as restoring it was cheaper than buying a new stove. Plus, two ovens and a center griddle!), so on cold days I'll put the warmers in the oven I'm not using, pull them out and wrap them in a teatowel and slip them in at the foot of the bed before I brush my teeth.

Jenni said...

I've come to prefer the cooler temps inside and get rather uncomfortable at homes that keep the heat in the 70's. We seem to much healthier too:)

Ethan said...

I love your book! Thank you. This post inspired me to look at what I could do RIGHT NOW to reduce our heat loss. We started just closing the blinds and curtains at night and the effect is amazing. Black body radiant heat loss through open windows at night is tremendous! Thanks for the encouragement.

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