Frugality in practice: Keeping warm in winter

Cold cold cold — I am cold.

Remember George Bailey's “drafty old barn” in It's a Wonderful Life? Our place is like that. This 100-year-old farmhouse is cold all winter long. There are drafts at the doors, there's inadequate insulation, and we have 30 windows in 1800 square feet. (Our old house had eight windows in 1400 square feet.) Every year, we do a little more to make this place energy efficient, but it's a losing battle. In order to stay warm, we surrender to our heating bill.

(Our house is so drafty, in fact, that the previous owners had a separate furnace in the kitchen. During the winter, they sealed off that room and basically just lived there.)

The Cost of Comfort

Yesterday I decided to calculate how much we actually spend to stay warm.

Between November and February of last year, we paid $675 to the gas company. That's an average of $167.20 during each of those four winter months, or about $5.53 per day. According to the gas company's web site, about 61% of the typical home's gas usage goes to space heating. Our home is not typical. I think it's safe to estimate that about 75% of our gas usage goes to space heating, especially during the winter. That means we're paying $4.15/day for heat.

As part of our effort to keep costs down, we use a programmable thermostat to automate the furnace. When we're away (or asleep), we keep the temperature at 54 degrees Fahrenheit. When we're home and awake, the thermostat defaults to 64 degrees — though we often bump it to 66 or 68 (or even higher, if we're really cold).

What this means in practice is that:

  • Every weekday morning, the furnace kicks on for about an hour.
  • On weekday afternoons, the furnace runs from 5pm until 8pm.
  • On weekends, the furnace is programmed to run from 8am until 12 noon, and then from 4pm until 8pm.
  • In total, the furnace runs about 36 hours per week, or about 5.15 hours per day.

Since we pay $4.15/day to run the furnace, and we run it for 5.15 hours per day, it costs about $0.80 per hour to heat our house.

A Little Warmth

“Yeah, but most of the time we're cold,” Kris said, after I showed her my calculations. “It's not even worth it.” She has a point. But neither one of us is willing to pay more for heat, so we pull on long underwear and warm sweaters and curl up beneath fleece blankets.

This winter, we're trying something new. When we moved into this house, we inherited a pair of oil-filled radiator-style space heaters. We experimented with them at the end of last winter, and found they did an excellent job of heating a single room. Plus they're cost-effective.

Using my handy Kill-a-Watt electricity usage monitor [my review], I determined that one of these heaters uses about 820 watts on its medium setting, which provides ample heat. This costs roughly 10 cents per hour. When I'm working in my office, sitting next to the heater, it's very cozy. It's localized warmth.

As I begin to work from home, this is going to be a Big Deal. I could run the furnace all day, or I could just use a space heater. At a cost difference of about 70 cents per hour, I think I'll stick with the space heater. (And besides: my office gets much warmer from the space heater than from the furnace.)

Meanwhile, Kris and I will continue to employ other cheap weapons against the cold. Tonight we'll break out the electric blanket. Based on my calculations, this only costs us a nickel a night, a cost I'm happy to pay.

I'm open to other suggestions, though — I'd love to hear about other cheap ways to keep warm during the winter.

More about...Frugality, Home & Garden

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