Wednesday, December 12, 2007

With the Thermostat Set to 63, These are a Few of My Favorite Things

About four years ago, when our coldest winter months' heating bills were pushing $1000, we started experimenting with turning the thermostat of our ~4000 square foot house down to 63 degrees. We gradually bought electric room heaters for the rooms we frequent, but in truth, it was pretty miserable. I had cold hands and cold feet the whole winter.
We then started investing in energy upgrades for our home and for ourselves, partly for efficiency, partly for comfort. These all require outlays, but if they allow you to keep your thermostat down, they pay back pretty quickly. (Especially in our era of ever higher energy rates.) I was less aware of carbon emissions and climate chaos when we started this project, but I recently noted that as a result of all these changes we have lowered our fossil heating fuel consumption by nearly 50%. Our Monster House heating bills are still high, because the cost of natural gas just keeps on escalating, but had we not embarked on this, our bills would now be $2000 a month! I have learned two basic principals:

  • If you're not comfortable, you will not stick with this.
  • It's much more efficient to keep yourself warm than to heat the whole house!
In terms of house comfort, a major investment was insulating the stone walls of our coldest rooms and under the dining room bay window. We also insulated our attic and the roofs of two rooms which are extensions. This has made an enormous difference in comfort, all year round. We replaced an ancient boiler with a more modern, efficient model. We added humidifiers in rooms we use the most. We did ***some*** window stripping, but it's so tedious we have not gotten far on that project. We added a gas fireplace which requires no ventilation and no work to use - just flick the switch. We rarely use our living room except for company, so now we sit with guests around a beautiful, inviting fire which warms that space. We also have a few afghans around; people are happy to snuggle under them. As a result of these changes, it is rare for me to notice the discomforts of 63 degrees.
On the personal front, I have discovered silk long johns. I particularly like WinterSilks offerings. They add warmth without bulk. Another great product is CuddleDuds; they are smooth on the outside and fuzzy on the inside. I gradually bought enough of all these items so that I always have clean ones! The right socks help, too - I hate super bulky ones, they remind me of ice skating in below zero Fargo winters. My favorites are Wyoming Wear, also smooth on the outside and soft on the inside.
But the all time top luxury which is worth it is - ta dah! - a heated mattress pad! It's the same principal as an electric blanket, but underneath you. Just like in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, where Almanzo's family heated the beds with hot pans from the fireplace, you can turn it on ahead of bedtime to preheat the sheets. We also experimented with microfleece sheets, which are amazingly warm, but I haven't found any more like them.
Lastly, sometimes you have to take off all the warm layers in a cold bathroom. Since our house is old, there is no built-in bathroom heater. This was the most dreaded part of the whole new regime. Eventually it dawned on my to buy a room heater for the bathroom. If I am really organized, I turn it on an hour or so before showering and the room is noticeably warmer. It seems extravagant, but it's only relatively extravagant, since it's just extra heating in one room, not the whole house. For awhile I set the bathroom heater on a timer so it would go on an hour or so before I woke up in the morning, but I dropped that eventually.

Another obvious solution to this challenge, of course, is to buy a smaller house!

Please share any of your strategies for keeping comfortable with lowered thermostats in cold climates.


Anonymous said...

Do you mind sharing a little more about your housing situation? I'm surprised, given the focus of your blog, that you're living in a 4,000 sq ft home. I'm also surprised by a $1-2K/month heating bill - what region of the country are you in?

I really like your blog and your focus on responsible consumption. So many of the money-oriented sites out there ignore the good that can be done with accumulated wealth.

Betsy Teutsch said...

I live in Philadelphia, in a great neighborhood called Mt. Airy, which has many huge stone houses. We bought ours 21 years ago and have slowly nursed it back to health.
I have an at-home business so I use about 3 rooms for that. My husband is an academic who also works at home about 2/3 time. We raised two children here, but are now empty nesters, which has made the house feel mighty big. However we love the 'hood and if we downsized we'd need to move my business off-site (ick!), and deal with my husband's immense library, so for the forseable future we are staying put. Doing the energy efficiency upgrades on the house was part of that decision not to downsize.
So glad you like my focus on how to spend the money wisely, not just accumulate it!

Betsy Teutsch said...

It's a 3-story 6-bedroom house with a den and office. Fairly normal for our neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, my low-thermostat tricks.

I pre-heat my bed with a rubber hot water bottle. Just fill it with hot tap water and put it down where your feet will be. It's a great feeling.

Also: slippers. Lots of people will walk around in socks only, which is certainly better than bare feet, but slippers are much warmer--great return on investment.

For a bigger commitment, I'm hoping some day to live in a place with radient heat from the floors instead of cast-iron radiators under the windows. My son's newly-built day care center has heated floors and it's always toasty in there, with less expenditure of money and fuel both.

Alicia said...

This summer my boyfriend and I spent almost $4K on traditional wooden storm windows to replace the flimsy modern vinyl ones a previous owner had installed.

The difference is amazing. We used 40% less natural gas this November than last November. And the house somehow feels warmer even though the thermostat is still at 64 like it was last year.

We did this partly for energy efficiency and partly to improve the facade of our house (a 1924 Chicago bungalow). I knew we'd eventually recoup the investment, but I'm surprised by how fast.

green said...

I love this post! We lived in Boston (in a house over 100 years ole) and always kept our heat on 63. 63 took some getting used to!! I got addicted to wearing long underwear. I like the kind from the sporting goods stores, spandex stretchy kind rather than silk or cuddle duds. The thing is that you get used wearing them and then want to wear them every day until spring. I also liked wearing sweatshirts with a hood...even though I'm sure I looked funny...but it is true about keeping the heat from going out the top of your head.
Thanks for the fun post!

Anonymous said...

We keep our thermostat at 62 degrees. We have good storm windows put on last year that really made it feel much warmer. There were a few windows before that you could see curtains move a little during bad storms- even with the plastic seal over them.

Our home is only 1200 sq feet with lower ceilings and our winter bills are now $300/month. We did not opt for averaged bills because we are conservative power users and the power company's estimates of use were way more expensive than we'd ever use.

We always have shoes or slippers on, sweaters or sweatshirts and kidlets wear footed pjs to bed at night. We have cotton knit hats we wear around the house. We pile quilts on our beds and kids use microwave rice bags to help warm the bed when they go in at night. We have a heated mattress pad we use to warm up our bed- then turn it off upon going to bed.

And yet, its cozy.

Frugal Rosie's tips and chat said...

Love your blog! I live in a 900 sq.ft. home and our electric/gas budget bill is $178 a month. We live in Wisconsin. We keep our heat on 63 degrees and layer our clothes. I love cuddleduds too! We have an extra bedroom ( 1 of 3) that we just use for storage now so i have shut the heat vent in that room and keep the door closed. A nice cold room comes in handy for when my Hot flashes kick in too!!

ladygoat said...

I don't understand how some people keep their houses at 72 just to sit around in shorts.

We keep it at 62, and drink a lot of hot tea. It warms you up on the inside, and is very cozy.

Anonymous said...

it is hard to take you seriously if you live in such an enormous house.

ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

I just wanted to say a hearty THANK YOU for the heated mattress pad recommendation! I ordered one for guests who have been sleeping on an air mattress downstairs over the Christmas holiday and they have really appreciated having it (there's a major temperature difference between our upstairs and downstairs, so if we turned on the heat so our guests were comfortable, my young sons would be sweating ... not acceptable). I had been considering a space heater but was concerned about safety - seeing that the mattress pad was made specifically for the Aerobed was reassuring. Thanks again!