Making Do In An Old House
After a chilly, outdoors work day doing construction on the Colorado plains, my husband and I often come home to a house that is between 35* and 40* F. The first thing we do is light the wood and/or coal stoves. These are our main sources of heat, and we have one for each half of our bi-level, 1,100-square-foot house. Usually within an hour or two (depending on the severity of the winds), the temperature has risen 40*. Meanwhile, we cook supper on the wood cookstove, wearing our insulated work coveralls, which we often do not bother removing until bedtime. Our children help what they can with the supper preparations, and otherwise play in the kitchen, as we shut the uninsulated front rooms off when possible.
I realize we do not live a normal, modern lifestyle, and, due to the poor condition of our home, we expect to spend an average local amount on heating. This winter (2008), we expect our monthly heating bill to come to $200. This is what it will probably cost us to prepare enough wood (or barter for coal) for each month of truly cold winter.
We are improving our situation one window at a time, and hope to have the resources to blow in cellulose insulation in the living room, by next winter (cold weather has already hit here, in mid-September). We also need to fix a multitude of cracks in the walls (an ongoing process, as the ground shifts frequently, due to sink-holes and a high water table). After all repairs, we anticipate our heating bills dropping by 50%. In the meanwhile, we’ll live somewhat like our settler ancestors. We still feel fortunate as compared to six years ago, before we installed wood stoves, and could not afford to turn the thermostat up above 55* F. Luckily, I had a baby due in November that year, and didn’t notice the cold so much.
So, what can an average family do to reduce heating bills, short of living like pioneers or depression-era dreamers? Supposing you have already done your homework on local utility companies, and are getting the best deal you can there, take stock of the condition of your home. Could your windows stand to be replaced, or, at the least, be covered with heavy plastic sheeting, on the outside, to reduce drafts? What kind of insulation do you have in your walls, floors, and ceilings? Improperly laid carpets and floors can wick heat out and cold in. Are there places around doors and windows, or in your walls (check inside and out), that need caulked or otherwise sealed? Drafts can really take a toll on your comfort and budget. Invest in heavy shades, drapes, or the like, over windows and possibly doorways. Where aesthetics don’t matter, such as the entry to our sometimes-windy wood room in the unfinished basement, we use the same plastic we install over the outsides of our windows. Be sure to shut doors to rooms you don’t often use.
If you rely on, or are considering using, wood heat or another, similar alternative, calculate where you may need to install grates or vents, to allow for maximum air flow. Also, experiment with fans to direct warm air to specific areas.
Space heaters can save the day, providing warmth just where you need it. Strategically placed in bedrooms, offices, and bathrooms, they can thaw frozen tootsies, or keep your children from growing icicles in their hair after a bath.
Candles, too, can be helpful. Large ones, with three or more wicks, can provide enough extra heat on a desk or counter to keep from having to turn the thermostat up. Besides, they are good for the soul.
Keep a comfortable, warm pair of shoes or slippers for indoor use. Also, use area or throw rugs as appropriate- against doors beneath which drafts creep, and in front of sinks or other places in which both leg comfort and extra warmth are desirable. Remember, too, that walls retain warmth and cold a long time, and that decorative hangings, such as tapestries or quilts, can make a home more comfortable both physically and psychologically.
Don’t underestimate the effects of color on warmth. A cold mind can translate quickly to a cold body. There are too many angles to consider in the subject of decorating to give any hard and fast rules here, but try to analyze the effects of wall colors, decorating schemes, and furniture arrangements, and alter as prudent.
Poor blood circulation can make the best heating systems ineffective. Regularly eating cayenne, either on food or in capsules, can improve circulation, and overall health. If you must work in the cold, sprinkle a little in the bottoms of your boots, and it will almost certainly help warm you. Be warned, though, that it does stain socks.
There are several things you may be able to change in your family’s daily practices.
Wool blankets and traditional quilts are still good stand-bys. Flannel sheets can mean the difference between a frigid bed and bad dreams, and a pleasant night.
Be sure you and your family understand proper layering of clothing. Teach children early why you dress them the way you do, even if they insist on trying skating in the yard in sandals. Give wool shirts and sweaters a try, too. You may be pleasantly surprised at how they compare to acrylics and other fabrics in comfort, and hygienic properties.
Consider sleeping more than one child to a bed, and don’t otherwise underestimate the effects of body heat. Cuddle your toddler (or pet) on your lap while you attend to paperwork or some other sit-down task.
Serve hearty foods, with satisfying ingredients. Follow your gut (not necessarily your habits) when choosing ingredients and recipes, and don’t underestimate the value of animal-based fats (including butter), and appropriate, whole-grains. As always, choose drinks that sustain health without hijacking your systems with sugar. Cambric tea has never quite gone out of style in chilly households, but in exceptionally chilly moments, well-made hot cocoa also has its place.
If you just can’t seem to warm your hands up, try doing a load of dishes by hand.
And finally, a couple of thoughts from my husband:
1) Get an extremely obese husband or wife. A 600 pounder can emit more radiant heat than a small propane furnace.
2) Build your home on top of an active volcano.
(He feels he can say these things, as, at a muscular 5’8″, he has never topped 135 lbs.)