Cheap Ways to Stay Warm this Winter

Winter weather has arrived in Oregon — it's rainy and cold. This time of year, Kris and I search for ways to keep warm. A lot of guides to saving money on heating contain impractical advice: “consider heating with solar energy!”. They offer good suggestions for the long-term, but they aren't useful if you want to save money now. Here are some frugal ways we stay warm in our drafty old house.

  • Let in some light. Open blinds on south-facing windows during the day to let in the sun. Close them in the evening to add a bit more insulation. This provides just enough mid-day warmth that we don't need the heater.
  • Use rugs on bare floors. We have hardwood floors above a poorly-insulated basement. These floors are cold in the morning and the late afternoon. An area rug does a fine job of keeping my feet warmer.
  • Block drafts. This is best done with weather-stripping or other forms of insulation, but even a blanket in front of a door helps. Because our house is so old, nothing is level. This makes it difficult to install weather stripping. The bottom of our mudroom door, for example, has a one-inch gap on one end but is flush with the floor near the hinge. By laying a blanket in front of the door, we can mitigate some of the heat loss.
  • Use space heaters. According to Michael Bluejay's energy guide, this is the single best way to save money on electricity. As I learned from my tests with the Kill-a-Watt, a portable radiator-type oil heater uses a lot of power, but not nearly as much as a furnace. We have a couple of these heaters. They take a while to get warm, but once they're going, the can heat a small space cheaply.
  • Bundle up. I love cold-weather clothes: long underwear, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves. Some days we simply bundle up and turn down the heat. It's cozy. And don't forget: house slippers go a long way to keeping you warm!
  • Install a programmable thermostat. My sister-in-law just received her first big heating bill at her new home. “It was $100!” she said. (She had been leaving her thermostat at 68-degrees around the clock.) Her heating bill was more than she had budgeted, and made it easy to justify the cost of a new programmable thermostat. They're easy to install and an excellent way to cut your heating costs. We set ours for 54 at night and when we're gone during the day. (Reader Adam G. reviewed his programmable thermostat last August.)
  • Use an electric blanket. There's no need to heat the entire house when you're asleep. There's no need to even heat the bedroom. An electric blanket is cheaper and cozier. (A blanket with dual-controls is best.)
  • Change the furnace filter. A dirty filter forces the furnace to work harder, decreasing its efficiency, increasing heating costs. We change the furnace filter at the start of the season, and once every month or two thereafter.
  • Close unused rooms. Do not heat them. This winter, we closed off our guest room and shut the heater vent. That room is now separate from the rest of the house. It stays cold, but there's no reason to keep it warm.

These steps can reduce your heating costs immediately. In the long term, your best bet is to make sure your home is properly insulated. You should also check that your heat source is efficient, and that you're not losing heat in unintended locations.

For example, I went down to the cellar last night to pull out some Christmas lights. I was startled to find that the basement was actually warm. It shouldn't be. It's uninsulated, below-ground, and exposed to the cold. The furnace was pumping away, doing its thing, heating the house. But it was apparently heating the cellar, too. It took only a moment to find the problem — our ductwork is not insulated. As the hot air blows through the pipes, the metal is heating, and the warmth is dissipating into the basement. We need to fix that.

Reportedly, insulating your water heater is another good way to save money. Since ours lives in the uninsulated mudroom, we should probably look into that.

For a detailed analysis of how your home can be heated most efficiently, set up an appointment for an energy audit. Many large cities have free programs for assessing home energy use. In Oregon, for example, the Energy Trust is a non-profit coalition of energy companies. A representative will tour your home and give you advice on how to save money on utilities. It's free. (In fact, when we did it, they gave us several compact fluorescent bulbs and told us about rebates we qualified for. It was better than free.)

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brad
brad
13 years ago

Even better than an electric blanket: try a down comforter and flannel bottom sheet. I bought my down comforter 20 years ago and it’s still toasty warm. I keep it in a flannel duvet cover, and with that and a flannel bottom sheet we’re warm enough to keep the heat off at night in our room, and even crack the window slightly for fresh air, even when its 30 below zero outside. Plus, making the bed is a snap–you just shake the comforter and that’s it. No sheets or blankets to muss with, just the comforter and a bottom fitted… Read more »

Diffus
Diffus
13 years ago

The house we recently bought has mechanical timers inserted into the connections for both electric water heaters. The timers turn off the power to the water heaters at 8 a.m. and turn it on again at 5 p.m.

Waldo Jaquith
Waldo Jaquith
13 years ago

Do not close off vents in unused rooms if you have an HVAC. Heat pumps are sized for your house’s entire footage. If you shut down one room you’ll make your HVAC run very inefficiently.

Do close off vents in unused rooms if you have a furnace. There’s no reason why not to.

William Mize
William Mize
13 years ago

…and please, people, be careful with the space heaters.
Every cold snap that comes through Florida, you hear of at least one house/apartment/condo fire being started by someone who fell asleep with the thing on, and one thing led to another and whooosh! Up in flames.

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

I second the advice about flannel sheets and a down comforter. I throw on an extra lightweight quilt for my half of the bed and I sleep really well. My husband claimed he “hated” flannel sheets. Turns out he had never tried them. 🙂 Once he tried them, he was totally hooked.

Lea
Lea
13 years ago

We combine the flannel, the down comforter, AND the electric blanket. The electric blanket is turned on one hour before we hit the sack so the bed is extra toasty. It is a rare night that we leave the electric blanket on, but it is nice to know it is there if we need the overnight heat.

Charles
Charles
13 years ago

Warning about kerosene space heaters: they are a carbon monoxide risk. If you use them in a tightly sealed space or an unventilated basement, you can easily poison everyone with carbon monoxide buildup.

anne
anne
13 years ago

To combine a couple of those hints, and avoid the tragedy William Mize mentioned, look for the ceramic space heaters with remote thermostats. These cost about $50 at Target or Costco and do a wonderful job of heating a room without overheating.

Neil
Neil
13 years ago

I’ve heard closing vents is not a good idea. http://www.staywarmnh.org/safety.htm says:
Do not close off more than 20% of the registers in your house. This can cause high resistance and unnecessary heat build-up in the furnace.

In my house, several windows don’t seal well (they weren’t installed properly). I use rope caulk and then cover them with the shrinkwrap plastic. This really helps.

54 at night! My Malamute dog shows signs of being uncomfortable at 62. So, I set my thermostat at 62.

Jen
Jen
13 years ago

Instead of area rug, wear fuzzy slippers around the house. Your feet stay warm regardless of which part of the house you happen to be standing on.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

wear fuzzy slippers around the house

Yes, this is an excellent idea if you don’t lose them all the time like I do. 🙂

Amy Jo
Amy Jo
13 years ago

Another note on portable electric heaters . . . I spoke with an elecrician over the summer and he warned against using portable electric heaters in houses that still use knob and tube wiring. He said that they pull a lot of energy and can lead to fires if you have any brittle/broken wire coverings. He said that the covering for knob and tube tends to get brittle over time, especially in attics where there are greater temperature extremes. Also, we had to use a couple space heaters last winter when our furnace went kaput and our electric bill for… Read more »

bakeliteTM
bakeliteTM
13 years ago

54 at night? That’s a little too crazy for us and we’re Canadian. With toddlers that throw off their blankets at night, we can’t bring the thermostat below 68.

dimes
dimes
13 years ago

54 at night would probably result in getting fired from work by virtue of being too cold to get out of bed! They say 66 is optimum sleeping temp, so that’s where we put it.

brad
brad
13 years ago

Wow, 66 is way too warm for me…I don’t even keep the temperature that high when I’m awake! I work at home, and am most comfortable in winter when it’s around 65 in my office. It keeps me alert and energized (and yes, I wear a sweater and warm socks). At night our bedroom drops into the low 50s or even upper 40s, and I love it…I sleep like a rock when it’s chilly. I have a really hard time in summer when it’s hot at night. I spent a January in Scotland once, doing a shorebird census, and we… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Yes, 54 is cold. Sometimes it seems too cold. But mostly I find it refreshing. When I was in college, I had a room to myself. During the winter when it was freezing outside, I’d often sleep with the window open. You won’t catch me doing that now when I have to foot the heating bill, though!

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

I wouldn’t shut the register in an unused room since every room would have a cold air return. Then you are heating cold air that you don’t use.

Matt

Flora
Flora
13 years ago

I’m with bakeliteTM about toddlers. Ours always kicks off her blanket. We do turn the heat down, but not that far.

How far? Hard to say. We live in an old apartment and the thermostat’s installed crooked. We never quite know what the temp is, but we suspect it’s higher than the thermostat reads.

Which reminds me, a lot of these ideas are great, but renters can’t implement them. Bummer!

brad
brad
13 years ago

Flora wrote “Which reminds me, a lot of these ideas are great, but renters can’t implement them.” Not true, unless you have an ultra-strict lease! I’ve implemented all of these ideas as a renter (except for the energy audit), even changing the furnace filter. When I lived in Vermont I bought a programmable thermostat to replace the one that came with my apartment, and when I moved I just switched out the thermostat to the old one. I did the same with the shower and kitchen faucet fixtures, replacing the wasteful ones that came with my apartment with super-efficient ones… Read more »

Buhyina
Buhyina
13 years ago

It’s been 40-something degrees at night, here in “sunny California” (I live in Huntington Beach). This crappy rental has neither thermostat nor efficient heating, nor is it well insulated. So I get by with either flannel or fleece, warm slippers, and winter socks. When we sleep, the chihuahua and I huddle under a down blanket with a heavy duvet. Afternoons are alright.

schizo
schizo
13 years ago

I’ve heard that running ceiling fans backwards in the winter (so the air blows up instead of down) can help spread the warm air collecting near the ceiling. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it makes sense to me.

If it IS true, I have questions: I keep ours at the lowest setting, is that the best setting to use? Does it depend on the size of the room? Should they be set higher?

Jarett
Jarett
13 years ago

Way better than an electric blanket is an electric mattress pad. The heat rises, and gets trapped between the sheets and your (ta-da!) down comforter.

brad
brad
13 years ago

@schizo:

Yes, it’s true that you can save energy by running your ceiling fan backwards in winter, and yes you should keep it at the lowest setting. The ENERGY STAR program mentions this on their Winter Tips page, which has a lot of other useful advice.

Jen
Jen
13 years ago

If you have a partner who steals the covers at night (mine rolls up, burrito-style!), an electric blanket is less than ideal so we use a down comforter and a heated mattress pad with dual controls instead. We turn it on when we go upstairs to brush our teeth, and by the time we jump in bed, it’s warm. Most nights, we set it on low (it’s on a scale from 1-10), and end up turning it off by morning. And that’s with the thermostat going down to the low 60s. Even when we were renting and having heating problems… Read more »

Draka
Draka
13 years ago

Also, insulate the windows of your house – more than 30% of the heat loss in an average house is through the windows (they help save not only on heating but also on cooling bills too). (Lowes has a If you have a water heater, insulate it (go to HomeDepot or Sears to get the tubing insulation as well as the heater insulation). As mentioned earlier, drafts are a big heat sink too..
The electric blanket idea was great..

jmco
jmco
13 years ago

THE single best year round way to immediately save on electric bills: Convert EVERY bulb you can to compact flourescent. IKEA sells a number of hard to find sizes or look on the web. My bill dropped about $14 a month which over a few years really adds up. But I am really light efficient and turn lights off when not using them, etc. I imagine a family with people who don’t turn lights off would save even more money. Note: CFs are hard to take at first but, leave them for a week. They have gotten a lot better… Read more »

brad
brad
13 years ago

@jmco: Switching from incandescents to compact fluorescents is indeed a great thing to do, both for your wallet and for the environment, but I’d offer three important caveats: 1. Most compact fluorescents don’t work on dimmer switches — if you have lights on dimmers (i.e., that you use to make a light brighter or lower) stick with incandescents in those fixtures or look for one of the compact fluorescent models that do work with dimmers. 2. It makes no sense to switch out rarely used bulbs, like closet lights, to compact fluorescents. Those lights are on for such a short… Read more »

BrianB
BrianB
13 years ago

I keep an electric blanket on the bed, but only long enough to take the chill out of the bed before I get in. I tend to put off a lot of my own heat at night, so I rarely get cold. This has worked best for me since I’m highly allergic to feathers and can’t even have a down comforter in the house. I have hot water, radiant baseboard heat and it keeps the house fairly comfortable at 68. During the day, when I’m inside, I wear wool lined slippers because my toes get cold, otherwise I tend to… Read more »

gotrootdude
gotrootdude
13 years ago

Two of the largest money savers are:
1. If you have an attic, insulate it. If you have a stairwell to it, make sure you have the special insulation for the stairwell installed. It’s commonly missed, yet the R value of insulation is only as high as it’s weakest spot.

2. Tint the windows with AET film. It will lower the cost in summer as well as winter.

danielle charlotte abi & shannon
danielle charlotte abi & shannon
13 years ago

put your slippers in the microwave

Ellie
Ellie
12 years ago

I live in a 140 year old farm house with 1 1/2 thick rock walls. We have no Central Air or Heat and never will. (there is no way to install it). In the summer we have 2 window units that we use but for the winter we have a wood burning stove in the living room, a gas heater in the downstairs bedroom and one in the kitchen. That and two electric space heaters. 54 in your bed room at night try about 35. I actually did a test to find out how cold it was, we had a… Read more »

Brenda
Brenda
12 years ago

Hello, I was wondering, a Gas company has given me and my family a HUGE hassle in the past and made us pay for a new meter that they billed us over 3,000 dollars for and we were renting at that time, the charges should have rightfully went to the Owner of the house. including This Gas Company threatened to cut off off the gas if we did not pay the monthly payment and I have 2 children. And we paid that. We paid that chumped up charge that was being made by this Natural Gas Company. We no longer… Read more »

kevin w, Ohio
kevin w, Ohio
12 years ago

Don’t forget to monitor humidity. Raise your humidity a bit at the 65 degree F area and you will “feel” warmer. Not too high to promote molds in the house, but keep it above dry and not above 50%. Some experts out there can help explain the thresholds and combinations to work best. This is why some of you can keep the house cooler and still feel warm. I will be working on this in the future after I get my programmable thermostat.

Elaine
Elaine
12 years ago

This is what I do to stay warm when I’m sleeping. I wear underpants, wool socks, longjohns, flannel pajamas and a cotton nightshirt to bed. A fitted flannel sheet, one flat flannel sheet, two pillows in flannel pillow cases, seven blankets and two comforters are on my bed. When I’m awake, I like to wear either snow skiing pants or a pair of blue jeans that have a flannel lining on the inside of the pants. I also wear either a sweater or a sweatshirt over my flannel shirt. My cotton night shirt and my housecoat are also worn. If… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

We bought a Rinnaie 22,000 BTU direct vent gas heater which runs at 84% efficiency. The problem is that it’s way too much heat for the one room, but it will not heat the entire house. I do think that it is enough heat for the house, but getting it to transfer around the corners is the problem. I was thinking about using the existing A/C vents to run a flex duct in the attic from the room with the heater to our living room which is very cold, with an inline fan, but not sure if this will be… Read more »

Seafire
Seafire
12 years ago

If you like to burn candles you can use a candle heater space heater to add the warmth of the candle into your room as dry radiant space heat. The candle heater is a radiator assembly that sits above the flame and concentrates the thermal energy into a ceramic radiant heat source. There is also an “electric candle” option. Makes an excellent night light, both heat and light from the same source, and if the power goes out, you can always put a candly under it. Lots of info on the website, http://www.heatstick.com

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

We painted all our walls and ceilings plus our outside house foundation with paint that has insuladd powder added and it helps keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Go to http://www.insuladd.com to find out about this product. Excellent product. It really helps cut our energy costs. Of course, we do other things to cut down on drafts, etc. We use a humidifier which helps make the temperature in the house feel so much warmer. We keep our thermostat at 62 degrees when we are home and we drop it down to 50 degrees when… Read more »

is
is
11 years ago

Two thoughts. 1) fleece clothing (from head to toes) is incredibly warm, easy to wash, and dries so fast that the dryer isn’t needed. 2)Keeping the thermostat lower is working for us because we have a few “hot” spots where we can hibernate. They are created by _keeping doors closed_ to smaller, frequently used rooms. The kitchen, with a small sitting area, gets its warmth from cooking, appliance output, and south sun. My study and adjacent bathroom are small and get some extra warmth from my computer’s heat output and shower/tub water which I set to drain slowly. This is… Read more »

jared
jared
11 years ago

hi so I bought my first house this year @ the end of winter last year and thought everything would bwe good but found out my water pipes are run through my walls and the backside walls are poorly constructed and my thermostat is in my bedroom. well my water pipes froze and burst last week they blew water though my kitchen and laundry room. my laundry room is not heated so now I have two gaping holes in the kitchen and laundry room. my living room stays about 45 degrees in my living room and 70 in my bedroom…… Read more »

El Cheapster
El Cheapster
10 years ago

I’ve saved a lot of money by heating with wood. There’s a lot of scrap wood around. There are some necessary prerequisites:
1) Must have stove, outdoor boiler, furnace, etc. to burn the wood.
2) Wood must be dry and seasoned.
3) Must have wood to burn.

If you’re one of the greenies, you’ll like the fact that wood is one of the “carbon-neutral” fuels.

It’s the best way to heat until the luddites permit nuke power. 🙂

Jo-Anne
Jo-Anne
10 years ago

I can hardly believe that the lady’s heating bill was only $100. In the UK, if I were to heat my small one and a half bedroomed house (no central heating either), it would cost me about £500 (about $1000). My house is 3 degrees, and I am freezing my bits and bobs off!

Jan-Lynn
Jan-Lynn
10 years ago

Some of the tips are good, but 54 degrees at nite and during the day when you are gone is TOO low.
Especially if you have babies or toddlers….
It takes longer to bring that heat back up too if you get the house so cold all the time.
Set it at 65.

Jill
Jill
10 years ago

We’ve done the shutting off temporarily unused rooms thing – but today I discovered that there was ICE between the sofa and the wall (which is an external wall)in the office/guestroom. NOT a good thing, and getting moldy walls fixed will cost more than the heating – we opened the door up again.

Lee
Lee
10 years ago

For toddlers, try blanket sleepers. I put the fleece sleepers over their regular pj’s. We all slept better – the kids because they were snug and warm, and me because I didn’t have to worry about them kicking their blankets off.

VIV
VIV
10 years ago

TO BRENDA AND EVERYONE , putting plastic over windows is advocated but then you have to find out where to buy it ,get to the town / shop, know measurements or maybe go on a wild goose chase looking for it so instead or meantime get an easy to find ,inexpensive pretty or plain shower curtain and slot it over your curtains ot more than one – optional whether to stick down at sides , best if no double glazing i think . I saw incidentally on tv t hat ladies of the night use silver foil on their windows… Read more »

gracie
gracie
9 years ago

My best strategies to stay warm so far this winter: A piece of a mylar sheet big enough to cover the front and back of my torso with a hole in the middle for head (reinforced with tape). I wear this like a poncho under my sweater. Makes a very noticeable difference. (Yes, it crackles…the reassuring sound of warmth.) Two layers of long underwear (like to wear silk long underwear next to skin and the synthetic type on top of that). Exercise. Taking two brisk walks/day gets my circulation going enough that I don’t get so chilled in house. Just… Read more »

susan
susan
8 years ago

I bought a 60 dollar -15 below sleeping blanket and it’s even more efficient than an electric one my sister bought. I bought another for -30 fahrenheit, doesn’t cling to me, so feels colder, but you can feel the difference in thickness, both worked amazingly well! The only problem is my breath is cold, I can’t sleep if my breath is freezing. I live in a house with wood heat and the coals are all gone by early morning, so its extremely cold, like the other persons Scotland adventure cold. Water never froze in my room though, but I could… Read more »

dawn
dawn
8 years ago

Hi
We have found using eco logs on our two woodburners very economical compared to the extortionate heating bills we were enduring. As an alternative to wood they are efficient as they store less moisture and have a higher caloriic value, are carbon neutral, made from recycled materials are easy to use and take up less storage than wood. A good environmentally friendly way of heating your home and avoiding those dreaded energy bills.

Tanya Bethay
Tanya Bethay
5 years ago

when I was stilling living at home with my parents, we used to use the laundry tub. First of all, it’s nice and big for leaning into, and secondly, my dad had attached about 2 feet of old hose onto the end of the spout. Made it SO easy to rinse the back of your head! I still miss that laundry tub!

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