I posted last week on ways to keep yourself warm in cool temperatures. Today I want to talk about ways of warming the house without cranking up the heat. There are lots of little things that generate heat around our homes. Frugality dictates that we capture these incidental and free sources of heat, so as to reduce expenses, and conserve the heat we generate where we will get the most benefit from it.
I've divided these tips into short-term and long-term situations. The short-term tips can be used by renters or homeowners, with little to no financial outlay. The long-term tips will be of more interest to those who own a home and are likely to remain in it for several years at least.
Hot water This will fall into the category of tiny tips for most people. All the more so if you have a very large home. Both heat and moisture are welcome additions to many homes in cold weather. When you heat water for any reason, think twice before you dump it straight down your drain, effectively throwing away good heat. Whether you're boiling water for pasta or some other food, consider letting that hot water cool to room temperature before discarding it. This may take a little creativity when it comes to getting pasta out of a pot of boiling water, but some chefs actually recommend using a pasta spoon, tongs, or a hand-held strainer to do just that. It's a little easier to scoop out boiled potatoes or eggs. I usually dump the water I use to preheat my tea mug into any dish that needs washing or soaking. The same goes for baths. If you indulge in a bath during cold weather, let the bath water sit in the tub to gently heat and humidify the air. Hot water is stored heat, and you've paid for that heat. So you might as well get the maximum benefit out of it. Remember to have faith in the little things.
The oven Winter is a great time for baking. There are several good ways to optimize the use of the oven. First, bake a lot at one time. Overloading your oven is not a good idea, because it can affect the way in which things bake and the time it takes to bake them. But you can fire up the oven once and then bake a couple of dishes together and/or several items sequentially. This takes some planning, as you need to get things ready to go in the oven one after another.
Potatoes are also good to add to the oven when it's hot, because they don't take up much space. So sneaking in a few at a time won't throw off the other items in the oven. They also aren't too picky about what temperature they're cooked at. They can be stored in the fridge for a few days before you use them, and they make great hash browns or soup.
When you're done using the oven, open it up so the hot air comes into the room. Most ovens are backed up to a wall, often an external wall. No sense letting some of the heat slowly leak outside that way. And if your oven door will stay slightly cracked, you can drape any damp kitchen towels on the inner part of the door. Drying your hands with a warmed towel is luxurious in winter.
The dishwasher Even if you aren't using the heated drying cycle, there's a lot of heat in a dishwasher when it finishes cleaning. The dishes themselves are quite hot, and obviously they're damp too. So I try to catch the end of the wash cycle so that I can open up the machine and let the humidity and heat into the kitchen. Otherwise, the heat seeps into the under-counter cabinets on either side of the dishwasher. I'd rather warm those parts of the kitchen I walk around in.
Partitioning your home and the heat If you're able to heat just part of your home at a time, there are several things you can do to conserve the heat you're paying for. Closing off extra rooms that aren't much used is the first, obvious step. If the rooms have doors, close them. If there's no door, hang a blanket or a sheet in the doorway. If you have a door to the attic, check for air leaks around the door. Remember that heat rises, so the air you've paid to heat is trying to get up into your attic and escape. You might want to hang a sheet or a curtain over such a door for the winter months. If there's a whole section of your home that's not used much in winter, think about what you might do to isolate it from the part of your home you use on a daily basis. The old towel at the bottom of the door trick isn't an aesthetic wonder, but it works. If you don't have the money or motivation to get a better sealing door, you can at least work on keeping the cold air in the cold room, and the warm air in the warm room.
A caveat: Don't go overboard with this idea. You want to maintain a safety margin with a temperature of at least 45F in any any room with water pipes in the walls. One burst water pipe could cost you much more than you could possibly save by trimming your heating bill. Also, I haven't been able to find a reliable source for this claim, but conventional wisdom says that paint on walls can crack and flake if temperatures fall too low. I don't know if this is an old wives' tale, or whether newer paints have eliminated this problem. Readers? Any definite information on this issue?
Wall outlets When you've dealt with the major heat leaks around your home, it's time to consider the minor ones. Take a screw driver and remove the face plate from a few light switches and electrical outlets on external walls of your home. What do you see under there? If you live in a cold climate, you should see an insulating foam pad that fits neatly under the face plate, without obstructing the outlet or the switch itself. If you don't see one, you're looking at a small but steady heat leak. Fortunately, these pads are sold very cheaply at hardware stores. If you plan to be in your current home for even one more winter, you'll probably break even on the cost of adding these to your outlets and switches. Count up the number of each on your external walls, and head to the hardware store to buy as many as you need. It'll take you probably no more than an hour to install the pads, and your savings begin immediately.
Solar energy You don't need an expensive PV panel to use solar energy. Sunlight is free warmth. Any windows with good exposure to sunlight during the winter months should be clean and uncovered. All others should have curtains that help keep the heat in and the cold out. If some of your windows get sunlight for only a few hours each day, then open the curtains during those hours and close them as soon as the sunlight has shifted away from them.
I have heard of people taking the passive solar energy thing further. Dark colored bricks will soak up the heat if they get hours of sunlight each day, and release that heat slowly when it gets dark. If you happen to have some dark bricks, they can be placed on sunny window sills or even on the floor if it's sunny enough. You might want to protect your flooring with a piece of cardboard if you wish to try this.
If you own your home and don't plan to resell it soon, consider the return on investment for some of these options. Remember that return on investment can come in the form of savings to you, or in a higher value for your home if you plan to sell eventually.
Insulation Almost every house could use more of it, especially older homes. Yes, it'll cost you some money, some hassle, and possibly create a mess. But insulation is the single best return on investment when it comes to conserving heat. Find out how much insulation you have in your attic, roof and walls. Consider adding at least as much as required to meet the Department of Energy recommendations on insulation and R-values.
Better windows After the attic and roof, windows are the biggest heat leaks in the average home, and they're expensive to replace. As fuel prices rise, however, window replacement becomes a more and more attractive option to conserve heat and money. If replacing windows would put a strain on your budget, then prioritize the windows in those rooms where you spend the most time during the day. If you're building a new home, or even an addition to your existing home, buy the best insulated windows you can afford. The return on your investment will be substantial over the life of the building.
Trees can help shade a house, or screen it from strong prevailing winds. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) are a good choice for planting relatively close to a house to shade it during the hot months. When the leaves are shed in the winter such a tree will shade the house very little. On the other hand, evergreen trees shouldn't be planted close to a house unless you live where it is hot all year. They provide shade all the time, whether you want it or not. But they can serve as excellent windscreens if you have strong winds during winter. Plant staggered rows of fir or pine trees far enough from the house so that they will not shade the house even when full grown. Traditionally, mature trees have raised property values. Given the current slump in real estate prices, this may now be less reliable. But in any case, a healthy, mature shade tree will certainly not hurt the value of any property.
Please add your heat conservation tips in the comments!
Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low
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