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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Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

Space heaters and warm clothes are probably the easiest things to do to save money. Long term though, you should really look into sealing your house a little better. This will help lower both your winter heating bill and summer cooling bill.

There are several inexpensive and easy things anyone can do such as placing weather stripping around doors, sealing leaks around windows and other places with caulk, adding insulation to ductwork, sealing ducts with mastic or a metallic tape (not duct tape, it degrades over time!), and covering your windows with drapes or blankets at night.

Leslie
Leslie
12 years ago

I don’t know the specifics on this (someone else please weigh in) but it is possible that keeping your heat that low at night is actually not very energy efficient. It is very likely that it uses less energy to keep it a little warmer all night and warm it up a few degrees less in the morning than the amount of energy it uses to run it back up the whole 10 degrees in the morning. I discovered this using air conditioning in Atlanta during the summer. It was far more efficient to keep it in the mid to… Read more »

Wesley
Wesley
12 years ago

I don’t know what Kill-a-Watt would say about it, but our electric heating blanket is the greatest! I love getting into a pre-heated bed at night. Add some thicker quilts on top of it, and you’re good to go for the evening.

You could always go old-school and use the heated water bags in your bed at night. I’ve also heard of people heating up bricks and wrapping them in towels as personal heaters (that may be redneck engineering though).

Great post…I’m looking forward to hearing some additional ideas.

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

Another thing to try might be to build a couple of solar heaters. Check it out here:

http://lifehacker.com/software/video-demonstration/build-a-solar-heater-on-the-cheap-325275.php

You could probably modify it to make it much less ugly.

Ian
Ian
12 years ago

I too have an old drafty home. I embrace it somewhat because I believe it fosters a less toxic interior. Still… We too have many, many windows. I put seal-n-peal on all the windows that never get opened and then I put those shrink-wrap plastic sheets over the worst offenders. Without them you can feel cold jets of air shooting into the house. I will never replace the original windows because thay are beautiful and give my old house much of the charm that I love. Hopefully, I will one day get to upgrade the storm windows. This will cost… Read more »

JB
JB
12 years ago

I got one of these space heaters as a gift from my mom… I haven’t turned on our furnace yet, but it hasn’t gotten to cold here in Nebraska yet either. It can get quite (uncomfortably) warm if you have it anywhere above the medium setting and have the room sealed off. These are a great investment… or a great gift!

Dave Farquhar
Dave Farquhar
12 years ago

In addition to caulk and weatherstripping, get some of the foam backing for your electrical outlets and light switches and put them behind the outlet plates on any walls that face the outside of the house. At the hardware store where I buy them, they’re in the same aisle as the weatherstripping. I also use window insulating kits. They’re designed to be applied to the window frame and then removed and thrown out at the end of the heating season. Some people build wooden frames sized to each window and apply the kits to the frame so they can reuse… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

Wow, JD — you keep your temps lower than I do, and I’m always cold (and work from home) — we’re 68F during the day and 55F at night. I have a space heater around my workspace, lots of long underwear, fingerless gloves, and am working on my sweater/fleece collection. Just call me Bob Cratchit. I’ve heard people reason that keeping the temps higher is more efficient, but I dropped my thermodynamics class back in the day so I can’t explain WHY it’s cheaper to drop the temp, then heat the house back up later. So, here’s an article that… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

Hi JD,

Here are some tips I compiled for saving money on winter heating bills – the best part is, many of these will save you money on your summer AC bills as well (thanks for giving permission to link to them here):

free ways to save money on your heating bill

inexpensive ways to save money on your heating bill

I hope these tips help everyone stay warm and save money this winter!

snooz
snooz
12 years ago

I live in a drafty rental apartment in a cold climate. I’ve done all the cheap insulating tricks like sealing windows with foam and plastic sheeting, filling in doorjams &c but it comes down to not wanting to invest in new windows, insulation, or a more efficient heater (I pay for heat) for an otherwise cheap, large apartment in a great neighborhood. Warm clothes make a big difference, and definitely make sure to cover your extremities. Wool outer-socks, slippers and fingerless gloves in my case make a world of difference. I’m gradually accumulating tricks to accommodate cold (as in 50-55… Read more »

lulu
lulu
12 years ago

I use space heaters too…but I guess it is easier for me since I live in an apartment and don’t have roommates.

I run the heater in the bathroom before I go to take a shower. That way the room is nice and warm before I step in. This makes me bathe with the water not as hot as normal and I can take a shorter shower since i do not need to warm up under the water. This saves on the dry skin feeling from bathing with the water too hot.

Brandon Barkley
Brandon Barkley
12 years ago

Man oh man, am I glad I am not in your predicament. I hate for our apartment thermostat to get below 70… ever. Of course, the way our apartment is laid out, that means that the other side is probably in the mid-60s. We also do not adjust the heat at night, but of course we do not have a programmable thermostat, and we both hate being cold when we first wake up.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

JD said: “Tonight we’ll break out the electric blanket.” You might want to look into an electric mattress pad. We’ve got one and both of us greatly prefer it to an electric blanket. The newer ones have silent controls (they don’t click on and off) and adjust the heating based on your body weight pressing on them (so you don’t get burned laying an a hot element, but still get warmed). The wires are not noticeable to either of us. the best feature is the preheat setting. As we are getting ready for bed, we just turn it on to… Read more »

Sick of Debt
Sick of Debt
12 years ago

At our house we’ve had a war against the cold, I think I’m getting close to winning. Here’s some simple ways I stopped/slowed down the cold: – Storm Doors at each door, got 1 for $10 and 1 free during the summer. – Rubber flap attached to bottom of the door to prevent air coming in. – Sealed leaking ductwork with aluminum tape (was warming my basement, but not getting to the rest of the house). – Stuffed insulation into leaks where the ductwork met the basement ceiling. – Blew my own insulation into the attic to build up what… Read more »

Claire
Claire
12 years ago

I love my warm toasty house even though it’s small. I do have one window that needs the weather kit with plastic (big window in the living room) but the rest of the house is quite toasty. My problem, living in the Southern part of the US is the cooling. I need an attic fan, I think. Here we also use ceiling fans to force the warm air from the ceiling to the floor by running it backwards. I don’t do that much because my house is toasty. Weatherstripping and caulking are very important as so is attic and basement… Read more »

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

I live in the Rockies and endure single digit winters in a drafty old townhouse built in the early 1900’s. Personally, I’d say the electric blanket is a luxury. Flannel sheets and a nice wool Pendleton blanket will keep you toasty all winter long. The trick I’ve done this year is at night I put insulated blankets over the north facing windows. They’re typically the drafty culprits with the coldest air. All you need is a good insulated blanket (got mine for cheap at Big Lots) and some velcro. No drafts. It takes only a few minutes to put them… Read more »

SR
SR
12 years ago

I live in a large house, and my landlord prefers to use thermostatically-controlled heat as little as possible. I’ve actually been thinking about making an argument for using space heaters (he’s adamant in his dislike for them), because I think it would be far better to heat an area than all the rooms when people aren’t in all the rooms. Also, something I’ve noticed (as someone who works from home), is that the longer you are in a room, the more your body heat will warm it up. To wit, my room is fairly small, and if I’m in my… Read more »

Kurt
Kurt
12 years ago

I know this will come as no comfort to those of you in colder climates, but living in Houston, I love it when I can set the thermostat for 65 and actually have the heater come on! Sure beats setting it at 75 with non-stop air conditioning. Cheaper too (by far).

Money Blue Book
Money Blue Book
12 years ago

Energy efficient windows and insulation is the way to go – definitely pays for itself in the long run. Here in DC it gets very cold during the winter but I seldom run the heater in winter (I keep it at 70). The insulation is my new leased condo is that good!
-Raymond

Marty
Marty
12 years ago

I have a ~3000sf 5 year old house and really don’t pay that much more than you do each month in the Chicago area. We have a 94% efficient furnace though and newer building methods. Generally the heat is 70-71 during the day and 67 at night. As others have pointed out. Seal the windows with 3M window sheeting. Helps tremendously and doesn’t cost that much. You can barely tell it’s even on the window after shrinking it. Get blow-in insulation in the attic if you can. Again cheap and you can do it yourselves. If it’s a really old… Read more »

Pril
Pril
12 years ago

Hi JD! Haven’t said Hi in a while.. anyway, it really gets cold up here in KFalls this time of year. Here’s how the Smart Half and I manage it. First, we’re warm climate people.. and we keep our gas furnace at about 70 this time of year. It’s in the living room and with the bathroom and bedroom doors closed, it’s not on all that much. We live in a “mill house” (originally built for mill workers) that was built in the ’20s, with a 10-year-old add-on with newer vinyl windows. About 1000 sq feet all together. We have… Read more »

Jeff S
Jeff S
12 years ago

If you’re renting an apartment or buying a condo, try to get a top floor south-facing unit. Our thermostat has never dropped below 60 because we absorb the heat from our neighbors below.

Andrew
Andrew
12 years ago

When I lived in GA I turned off the furnace and got a blanket and thick socks, then used a small electric heater for my room for the coldest nights. When everyone around me was complaining about their gas/electric bills being in the hundreds, my gas never went above $45/mo and my electric never above $60/mo. Now that I’m in KS, it’s the same principle, just with more space heaters. My furnace is on enough to keep the pipes from freezing, and only goes up when company is over. Yeah it gets cold, especially in my drafty house, but that’s… Read more »

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

When we got home last night, the place was freezing, after having the heat off for 4 days! But then my parents had their house way cooler than they used to. We just used lots of quilts and socks!

Faculties
Faculties
12 years ago

Are there big rugs on all the floors? I lived for two years in a house in England heated only by fireplace. (The word “heated” isn’t even accurate — the heat was negligible.) When someone lent me a huge rug to put down on the wood floor, the average temperature went up about 5 degrees. This is literally why rugs were invented. Put them on all floors!

Sandy
Sandy
12 years ago

Too bad you’ll never get hot flashes! They’ll keep you warm–day and night!! 0 Cost too!

brad
brad
12 years ago

@Leslie and others: This has already been pointed out at least once in the comments but it is definitely more cost-effective to drop your heat dramatically at night; heating it by 10 degrees in the morning uses much less energy than keeping your thermostat set 5 degrees warmer all night long. I remember reading about some definitive studies on this topic on the Energy Star site (www.energystar.gov), which has a lot of good advice, tools, and calculators on how to save energy and money in your home.

lou
lou
12 years ago

Two words for you: Sheepskin slippers. Ugg makes a nice slipper with a closed heel (scuff romeo) that is like heaven. They are instantly warm and keep your feet toasty from the time you step out of bed until the time you get back in. That’s the worst time in a cold house for me: getting out of bed in the morning and into bed at night because my feet are always blocks of ice. It’s always cheaper to adapt yourself to your environment than to modify your house to be warmer. Also, love the hot water bottle idea.

Matt Schonert
Matt Schonert
12 years ago

When I was in college in Michigan, we held the thermostat at 55, and my running desktop computer kept my bedroom comfortable while I was covered in bed. In the evenings I would occasionally flip on the space heater. For most people, it would no doubt be cheaper to turn off the computer when it is not in use, using the furnace instead. But if you have a computer which already runs 24/7, relocating that unit to a room where people can benefit from its heat may be a good move. It’s probably not the wisest way to heat, but… Read more »

Kay
Kay
12 years ago

To feel warmer at a lower temperature, try adding some humidity. My husband and stepson are more sensitive to cold than I am; even when I’m home and performing sedentary work during the day, I rarely set the thermostat above 62. They’re happier near 68. Simmering a pot of water with a cinnamon stick in it for a couple of hours before they come home not only adds a nice aroma to the house, but also makes the place seem cozier. I can usually keep the thermostat at 64 and hear no complaints on those days. My fellows are adjusting… Read more »

Amy
Amy
12 years ago

This works only if you have recessed windows: one that is flush with the wall can’t use this trick. As an alternative to window shrink-wrap, I discovered no-sew fun-fleece “window blankets” a couple years ago. They work best in addition to curtains, and you can take them down at a moment’s notice. Basically, you get a couple yards of fleece (enough to cover your window, at least), cut an odd number of slits in the top, run a rod thorugh the slits, and hang the whole thing up in the window’s recessed box. I used an expandable shower rod at… Read more »

billspaced
billspaced
12 years ago

You need insulation. Plain and simple.

Other than that, if you have central heating, you’ll need to refrain from closing off rooms, as the central heating system depends on airflow.

Plus, if you have kids, you really ought to think about keeping the house at 68 degrees at all times. Little bodies aren’t very adept at regulating their temps. They rely, somewhat like reptiles :), on their environment.

Darren Meyer
Darren Meyer
12 years ago

@Leslie: Heating and air-conditioning are very different beasts when it comes to energy consumption. A/C has a lot of “overhead” while running the condenser to remove heat and humidity from a warm room — a furnace has no such problem. As a result, keeping your house a fairly consistent temperature when *cooling* can be more energy efficient than turning off the A/C every day. But, with heat, it’s best to keep the heat on only minimal when it’s not being used. In our house, we keep things set to 53F at night (we both like sleeping cool) and while we’re… Read more »

Josh
Josh
12 years ago

Space heaters can make a difference, especially if spots in your house are colder than others, like my bedroom. (Faces North)

I’ve been looking at getting one of those flat panel space heaters that Chanpory highlighted on his blog:

http://www.lifeclever.com/finally-a-stylish-heater-for-your-home/

You can also wire it (or more than one) up to programmable thermostats as well.

Corrie
Corrie
12 years ago

Funny – I just posted a tip at my own blog. I work at home and feel bad running the heat all day “just for me,” but I’m cold most of the time (especially in the office which gets no sun). My latest stay-warm trick, in addition to drinking lots of hot beverages, is to microwave a ziplock bag of rice for 2 minutes and enjoy the warmth in my lap for a few hours! I’m sure the energy I expend to run the microwave for 4-6 minutes a day is much less than what it would be if I… Read more »

Interwebhunt
Interwebhunt
12 years ago

Living in New England we are constantly barraged by cold weather for long periods of time. The space heater is definitely a useful, and cheap way of heating a specific room. Most families that live in this area try and heat only the rooms that are being used. Doesn’t make much sense to heat the whole house, trying to limit yourself to direct heating is always better in my mind.

debtheaven
debtheaven
12 years ago

I don’t know if those are old windows or new windows. I’m guessing old.

We live in an old house too. If I were you, I’d be tempted to stick with my job for just one more year and try to replace as many of those 30 windows as I could. You’re young, hopefully you’re going to be cold or less cold for many more winters to come, lol.

db
db
12 years ago

To second the comment regarding rugs, I have another novel idea to help boost your warmth. You’ll probably think I’m nuts though! Discover the joys of hanging big tapestries on the walls — the medievals used them to help insulate those big drafty (or is that draughty?) stone castles. If for aesthetic reasons you don’t want to reinsulate the farmhouse, some good sized tapestries on outer facing walls could help along with those thermal curtains on the windows. If tapestries aren’t your thing you could even try just hanging some of those thermal curtains on the walls somehow. OK, yes… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! Here are a couple of notes: We have a new high-efficiency gas furnace. We installed it three years ago when we moved into the house. We had the ducts cleaned at that time. Also when we moved in, we had the house insulated. (There was no insulation before.) This was a nightmare process, and probably didn’t do a thing. (We don’t know what it was like before insulating.) Downstairs, there’s almost as much window space as wall space on the outside of the building. One of our problems is that we like our windows, and… Read more »

debtheaven
debtheaven
12 years ago

“Downstairs, there’s almost as much window space as wall space on the outside of the building.”

We have the same issue. We too kept the original windows downstairs, so I understand. But the upstairs was an extension, so we put matching windows with double glazing upstairs (bedrooms).

Do you have any blind walls? We have one, and we added outside insulation three years ago. It helped significantly.

We also have thick lined curtains in the LR and DR (open plan). In winter we close them at sundown.

Kai Jones
Kai Jones
12 years ago

When I’m cold at home, I wear a knitted or fleece hat and scarf-it’s amazing how much warmer you are, just by adding a scarf.

Also, wearing wool socks to bed helps a lot.

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

I’m a huge fan of the space heater I bought a few years ago. It’s a ceramic electric heater from Bonair that comes with a thermostat remote – you set the temp and then put it down as close or as far away from the heater as you like. I love being able to fall asleep with it on.

Other than that… plastic over the windows or close the curtains in the rooms you’re not in, I guess.

AnnieJ
AnnieJ
12 years ago

I may have missed it, but it doesn’t look like anyone here has mentioned EdenPure space heaters. They are quite costly upfront, but amazing compared to other space heaters in their ability to heat and they are safe to use anywhere, even around children, pets, draperies, etc. My FIL bought three and let us use one one winter. We were hooked and bought it from him. It is a good supplemental heat source in any home or shop, and depending on the layout of your home, it could be the ONLY source of heat. Having hypothyroidism, I often feel cold… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

JD — Lots of windows are a necessity to me — you can find different styles of thermal backed drapes that could really help out.

I am not a fan of plasticing windows since whenever there is a warm enough winter day I like to open the windows and refresh the air in the house.

However, I’ve tried the thermal curtains (and a cheap alternative, tacking up a fleece blanket over the window) with great success.

Best of luck. And don’t forget the wall tapestries! 😉

Ellen Summerhays
Ellen Summerhays
12 years ago

Please do so some research on the costs of keeping the heat on at a more middle setting. It usually costs much more to bring a huge area up to temp than to maintain it. BE CAREFUL!!! We used the oil filled heaters and generally love them. One developed issues that we were unaware of until we got an electric bill for $400 . for JUST ONE MONTH. Look into radiant floor using a Hot water heater. Also DIY blown in insulation. You can get the equipment for free or cheap depending where you get the material. Check non chain… Read more »

Frugal Bachelor
Frugal Bachelor
12 years ago

Frugal Bachelor grew up in a very large and very old house (built in 1890’s) in Chicago, with little insulation and an unreliable old furnace. He had the cheapest parents in the world who refused to let the heat run more than it needed to stop the pipes from freezing, and Frugal Bachelor’s youth was catheterized by his teeth chattering while he hid a space heater under a blanket with him to try stay warm. Nowadays he lives in Texas, which is a little warmer. But over Thanksgiving he went back to the old house and it was cold. But… Read more »

Thomas Brownback
Thomas Brownback
12 years ago

I’ve heard geothermal heat pumps can save money as well, but haven’t found many price breakdowns on the initial investment.

Maybe a second post could weigh all the “high up-front investment” ways to save energy and heat homes?

Frugal Redneck
Frugal Redneck
12 years ago

Heat with wood. Both my family and my parents use wood burners. My parents have an old farm house, and I have an old drafty house. I cut and split my own wood. My house stays between 70-80 degrees. I have an oil furnace for backup heat if we are not here to run the wood stove. I bought 250 gallons of heating oil and that will last me all winter and then some. Once people find out you heat with wood, they will be willing to give you wood for cutting up a tree that fell down or something.… Read more »

WereBear
WereBear
12 years ago

Until you try it, you won’t believe how much warmer you feel with a hat on. I love fleece cats that are lightweight, easy to wash, and come in fun colors. A sweatshirt with a hoodie is another way to go. Just a warning about sleeping under an electric blanket… the electrical fields aren’t doing you any favors being so close to your body. Use it for warming up the bed before getting in, then shut it off. With good blankets, you won’t miss it being on. And there’s nothing like a cat to warm up your feet or your… Read more »

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

For your windows, you might consider a product called Warm Window. The system includes an insulating fabric that is sewn into fabric window shades, and magnets that also go on the shades and on the window frame to seal the windows. The benefit is that you can use any fabric you like for the shades, and the insulation is totally hidden–they look just like regular roman shades. You or your wife can sew them yourselves, or you can hire a seamstress to do it. You may also be able to keep your original windows, but have them restored to be… Read more »

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