Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low

Winter approaches in the northern hemisphere. I'm invariably ready for the next season by the time we're most of the way through the current one. I like the significant changes of season where I live. I've lived in several places without four "real" seasons, and I always felt slightly ripped off. Still, winter is a tough sell when your region experiences prolonged months of cold and dark, and when heating is a major expense.

So, confession time. In wintertime, I keep the most popular room in the house at 64 F (less than 18 C) during the day. The rest of the house is cooler, some used areas as low as 56 F during the day. I crank the thermostat down to 52 F (just over 11 C) when we go to bed. I actually love sleeping in a really cold room with warm blankets. Sleep has never come easily for me, but a cold room helps considerably. Daytime is another story. Our house is not toasty, but we manage. So I thought I'd share some of the tips I've found useful.

Get used to it. Slowly. If you're trying to reduce your heating bills, don't crank your heat down from 72 to 60 from one day to the next. You can accustom yourself to significantly cooler house temperatures, but you're less likely to succeed if you attempt an abrupt change. So adjust the house temperature by a few degrees every other day or so. You'll find the going much easier.

Layer Up. Fleece clothing is a godsend in winter. So are a few pairs of long underwear and sweatpants. No, it's not sexy. But it'll save you money if you use it to compensate for 5-10 degrees of heating for three or more months. Invest in a really warm pair of slippers, and the best thermal underwear you can afford. Camping stores have good options for very thin, layerable clothing that can keep you very warm. Keep an eye out for sales on these in late spring.

Really Layer Up. Plenty of people have given me crap for this, but I don't care. I wear fingerless gloves and a comfy fleece hat for most of the winter. I'm cheap and I'm a wuss. I don't want to suffer too much in pursuit of saving money. Remember your mother's admonition that you lose more body heat through your head than through any other part of your body. Find yourself a comfy hat that you can wear indoors for warmth. If you're crafty, you can make pairs of these knitted fingerless gloves for yourself and other family members.

Activities I know winter is hibernation time for many people. The temptation to hunker down and become sedentary is always there for me. But I've found that having small activities spread throughout a winter day helps keep me pretty warm. Even five minutes of vigorous movement will make you feel warm for quite a while, especially when you're layered up. If a part of your day requires you to be sedentary, then try to break it up with some of these activities:
  • Handwash some dishes. The water will warm up your hands nicely. This is a nice excuse for not tackling all the dirty dishes right after dinner, too.
  • Vacuum one room at a time. Rather than cleaning the whole house all at once, break up the chore so that you get your blood moving several times during the day. If your rooms are small or few, then do the details, like using the brush attachment to get the cobwebs, clean the trim, and vacuum under the couch cushions.
  • Shovel some snow or rake some leaves. Do a little yard work, whatever you've got. This will warm you up with aerobic exercise, and when it's cold out, the house will seem warm by comparison when you come back inside. Again, when your goal is to warm yourself up, working in 15-minute increments is totally legit. No yard work of your own? Offer to help an elderly neighbor or nearby relatives. You'll earn good karma and maybe a warm cookie.
  • Shake that cosmic thang. No productive chores to tackle? Then just put on some music that makes you want to boogie. It's hard for frugalites, who won't pay for gym memberships, to get enough exercise in winter. A few minutes of dancing around your house like a lunatic is good for you in more ways than one.
Have a hot cup of tea. The igloo-dwelling Eskimos have a theory of warming up that differs from our own. Obviously, heating their homes is not the best option. So they warm themselves directly, from the inside out, most often by drinking warm liquids. You might be surprised how well this works, and the cup will heat your hands as well as the rest of you. Keep a supply of herbal tea on hand so that you don't need to overcaffeinate to use this trick.

Bake something. Wintertime is a great time to use your oven. Not only does it warm up your kitchen, but the smell of something freshly baked, whether it's bread or brownies, is just incomparable in a winter house. Consider stocking up on homemade goodies now if you have the freezer space to store them. That way you won't have to heat up the house in the summer months. Pot roast, casseroles, and meatloaf are great choices for oven dinners too. (While you've got the oven going, throw in a head of garlic, some beets, a winter squash, or a few potatoes to maximize the value of the energy you're using to heat the oven. There are lots of good uses for leftover baked potatoes.)

Cuddle up with a loved one or a (mammalian) pet. Body heat is the best blanket, in my opinion. Get cozy with someone you love for a reading session, a movie, or something more interesting.

Go to the library, or somewhere else that's heated, preferably where you won't be tempted to spend money. Make a day of it; hang out for hours. Hey, I'm not above mooching heat off someplace that's funded by my tax dollars anyway. The library is one of my favorite places: cool in summer, warm in winter. It's a great way to save money on books, magazines, movies, music, and heating or cooling costs. You're paying for it, so you might as well get your money's worth. Before you leave, turn down the thermostat halfway to your overnight setting.

Devices The old standbys are old standbys for good reason: they work well and cheaply. A hot water bottle will warm your lap during the day or your bed at night. When I was a poor student, I rested my feet on a hot water bottle while I studied and read for hours each night. Hot water bottles are cheap enough to replace on a regular basis, and they do need replacing every so often. Eventually the rubber breaks down and makes a catastrophic high-temperature leak a real possibility. Check your rubber hot water bottle carefully each winter before you begin using it. Or make your own substitute with a one-liter plastic bottle stuffed into an old sock. Old tube socks can also be used to make the "bed buddy," which is just a cloth tube half filled with whole grain barley or rice. Sew up the opening and any holes or just tie off both ends of the tube sock to prevent the grain from coming out. Then microwave for 2-3 minutes and enjoy the steamy warmth for 30 minutes or more. This project is easy enough for kids to make one for themselves.

Eat hot foods, especially soups. I remember reading an account of an obscure part of World War II, the Russo-Finnish theater. The border between Russia and Finland is a rather chilly part of the world in wintertime, which is when most of those battles took place. The history book I read said that a hot meal often meant the difference between life and death for those soldiers, which occasionally played out in tragic ways. No joke. Warm foods affect our body temperature powerfully. Include a soup in your weekly meal plans for the winter months. You can make great soups with beans or potatoes, two extremely economical staples.

Did I miss anything? Sound off in the comments if you've got a good way of staying warm when the heat is set low.

Related post: Stop Wasting That Heat!

Wrong season for you? Check out Stay Cool Without Touching That Thermostat


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list! We're planning on keeping our heat pretty low this winter, so these hints will come in handy. Not too cold here yet - we've been into the 30s overnight, but the coldest inside has been 64 - but it's definitely coming...

Wendy said...

I like all of your tips, and for the past few weeks, as the temperatures have been dipping really low, and we've been waiting for our woodstove to be installed, we've been employing most of them. My favorite is the food-related ones. I drink a lot of tea, and soup/stew and homemade bread are my two favorite cold weather meals ;).

One thing I do when I get cold and can't get warm is take a shower. I usually save my shower for later in the day (and because I work from home, I have that luxury) so that it comes at just the time I really do need to be warmed up a bit ;).

I'm working on making some finger-less gloves. I don't knit, but I'm repurposing some wool socks ;).

Kate said...

Thanks for stopping by, Claire and Wendy. I will sometimes succumb to the allure of an afternoon bath in winter time, Wendy. It's a luxury, but hard to resist during the chilly months of the year. Good idea on turning socks into fingerless gloves.

It's me said...

Ohmigoshyes... a hot bath. I have a terrible habit of taking a hot bath every night. And wait... I don't mean "let's get clean". That's done in a shower in the morning. I mean a "gee, I'm a bit chilly, why don't I waste say... 30 gallons of water and the energy to heat the stuff simply to soak in hot water for a while" kinda bath.

We are one of those families that actually would benefit from a hot tub.

Anonymous said...

Another suggestion that is a bit more long term is that if you live an apartment complex (especially an older one) try to live on one of the upper floors. Heat rises, and in our third floor apartment we could tell when our neighbors below turned on their heat. Our apartment went from chilly to balmy without us having to turn our heat on.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this list. If it were just my husband and me, we would do most of these, as we used to. But, we have a 15-month-old daughter and I'm less eager to crank down the heat with her in the house. We all sleep in the same bed, so a nighttime chilly house is okay, but what about during the day? Do you think a space heater is worth it? Also, I'm always unsure if turning down the heat while we're out for a couple of hours is worth it. Does it make the furnace work harder when you come back and turn it back up?

Kate said...

Meadowlark, we were thrilled when we bought our home, which came with an outdoor hottub. We loved using our friends' tub when we lived in a warm climate. But we were shocked at how much it cost to keep it hot outdoors in winter, when we'd be most likely to use it. We'd have to use it an *awful* lot to justify the expense. Our electric bill dropped by two thirds when we emptied it and turned it off.

Nicole, that's a really good point. Thanks for mentioning it here. Nice money saver if you can get it.

Kelly, just my opinion, but I think a space heater could be a good option if the only other recourse is to heat the entire house. I think babies can probably be kept pretty warm by bundling them up as well or better than we bundle ourselves up as adults. Think hats! The human species survives in some pretty cold places. We keep our homes a lot warmer than is strictly necessary, but I understand your concerns.

Anonymous said...

Totally love your list! (Alot like mine... ) The cuddling must be contagious!


Kate said...

I like yours too, Linsey!

Anonymous said...

This is a good list. Even though we live in Southern California, I'm a complete wimp and am always cold. We have a very cold house and I'm going to be spending a lot of time in it this winter. These tips will come in handy. (Just found your blog--noticed your comments at Fast Grow the Weeds--and have been reading through the archives. Lots of good information.)

Kate said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jeri. I appreciate you letting me know you found something of use here.

Anonymous said...

Re those hot meals: Make some of them SPICY. Hot food, well-seasoned -- mmmmm....
If you have a bread machine, set the timer so that you come home to the smell of freshly baked bread. Your slow cooker should get a workout, too; if they don't make programmable crockpots (do they? mine is the cheapest one on the market so I wouldn't know), then plug it in to one of those timers. Oh, and use the slow cooker even when you're home -- the smell of slowly simmering stew or soup is very warming. Hot soup, hot bread...
Go outside even if you don't have yard work: After even a short walk in the cold, your house feels so warm and cozy.

Anonymous said...

Good tips!
If you use a clothes dryer, look for a dryer vent diverter to enable you to keep that heat and moisture in the house in winter. (Moisture is usually scarce in a heated house in the high desert.) Use a knee-high nylon sock for a final filter on the vent.

Anonymous said...

Very good 'make sense' ideas! I also have a few more that work well for me (I hope these weren't already mentioned):
1) when showering say in the last minute or two set the water a bit warmer (or even hot as you can stand) this will make you feel much warmer when you are done. Also have your clothing in the bathroom to put on right away. I stay warmer for longer just from this alone more than anything else I've tried. Also consider leaving the bathroom door open a bit during your shower to let the warmer humid air into your adjacent rooms (plus you don't have to run your fan to 'clear the room' thus saving on electricity!)
2) once your furnace 'kicks off' turn the manual blower switch to on(if you have one)- this will take whatever extra heat is left in your ducts and push it out into your house - monitor the temp of the air coming out and shut it off when the air gets cooler. Also make sure your ducts are well insolated and you install an electronic/programmable thermostat.
3) open your oven door after cooking and leave it open for a while to release extra heat into your house. Also if cooking multiple items try to cook them at the same time or right after each other to minimize operating costs.
4) If you know you are going to bed shortly then turn the heat down then - surely you can sit for a half hour or even a few hours and bear it under a blanket.
5) Set the thermostat at say 60 degrees at night - why? - because when your snuggled in bed in your LJ's or PJ's your are already warm. If you have a programmable thermostat you can simply have you heat come on shortly before getting up so the house is warm when you get up.

Sissy said...

I've enjoyed reading your blog muchly...a few thoughts...

Carefully consider snuggling and body heat as sources for warmth as there is also the potential to these leading to an extra mouth to feed. ;-)

I've found that wearing a scarf helps to keep me warmer. I also close off non-essential the guest room. We close the door and close the vent and simply don't heat that room. I took up crochet and it's wonderful for keeping warm! It keeps the hands busy and if you have chosen the right project (like an afghan) it will keep you warm while you make it! Can't go wrong with that!

Wretha said...

Get a down comforter, 100% down, no feathers. You'd be surprised how warm you will stay at night. In our off grid cabin, we use a wood stove to keep warm, we just received a down comforter as a Christmas gift. We have slept 2 nights now with no heat and stayed toasty warm, the temp inside the cabin got down to 38, you could see your breath.

This will save lots of wood!


Anonymous said...

I live in Florida, so we rarely have the problem of heating, however...we had a recent run of very cold weather (for Florida), and to keep the kitchen warm and the house humidified, I kept a slow cooker filled with water and a sprinkle of cinnamon plugged in throughout the day. When my hands felt unbearably cold, I would warm them over the slow cooker!

Anonymous said...

I feel very cold at night. I actually do the opposite of most people: I turn up the thermostat at night from about 68 to 72 otherwise I wake up cold during the night. I also feel colder in morning. A tiny bit of exercise later (it can be just moving around the place) and I'm feeling very warm (I'm a muscular person and it seems my muscles generate a lot of heat).

So basically the lack of movement at night makes me cold and I don't understand how people can be able to lower their thermostat by that much.

Anonymous said...

great Ideas!

Anonymous said...

One BIG task that i do not see people addressing. i am SUPER frugal. there are cold air returns on your gas furnace. i live in a large house, and do not heat the second floor at all when i do not have company. so.... i bought sheets of magnets. (dollar store magnetic calendars meant for the fridge... told you i am frugal!) i place those onto the cold air returns in the unheated space. with adding them to the cold air returns, i am not pulling the super cold air into my furnace to warn to the rest of the house. it has made a big, big difference on the heat bill. the magnets make it simple to pull off or replace as i have company coming and going.