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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