This is the first post in a short series on ways to stay as comfortable as possible in a minimally-heated residence. For the last several years Mike and I have heated our residence to 60F / 16C during the day (63F /17C for 5 hours in the evening) and 50F / 10C at night for economic and environmental reasons. We even set it as low as 55F / 13C one winter and managed, though I prefer to keep our house a little warmer than that to keep my spirits and activity level a little higher during cold weather.
My toes and fingers turn white and become numb if they get too cold. This can happen in an excessively air conditioned environment in the summer but it happens much more frequently during the winter if I do not take care to prevent it. While I haven’t been formally diagnosed, my symptoms are consistent with Raynaud’s disease, and it isn’t pleasant when it occurs. So the fact that I can manage in a house whose warmest portion is 60F most of the winter means that most all of you can put my tips to good use.
Who am I aiming this information toward? Everyone who lives in a place where it gets cold enough to add heat indoors at some point during the year and who have some control over how much heat is added. I will provide some tips appropriate for both renters and owners and some that are only possible for owners. We have done almost everything I mention, so as always what I share reflects personal experience. If I have only read about it but not tried it myself, I will say so.
Why should I care about this, some of you might be thinking; I can afford to heat my place as much as I want to! Natural gas prices are lower now than they were 10 or 15 years ago, before the fracking process became widespread. But one of the dirty little secrets of fracking is that fracked wells deplete very rapidly, so frackers must find new fields faster than the current ones deplete. So far they have been able to do that, but the folks with the best data and most realistic thinking on the issue suggest that within a decade the pace of new wells being brought online won’t be able to offset the depletion of old wells. We’ll likely see a period of volatile pricing around that time, maybe earlier. In addition, oil has its own depletion issues and may not be keeping pace with demand within a decade or so as well, which may affect those of you who heat with electricity if your utility burns oil to produce electricity and those of you who burn oil directly for heat. Since it takes fossil fuels to grow the economy, once fossil fuel supplies can no longer keep up with demand, economic growth must stop too. When that happens, more people will find themselves without jobs, perhaps with reduced pensions or other aid. They will have to choose what they spend money on, and that may mean they choose to heat less, or not at all, during winter. I’d like for everyone to know how to keep themselves as close to comfortable as they can in such a world. Folks have done this during lean times in the past and some are doing it now; most of what I write here is what I’ve learned from them, and I’ll include a list of references at the end of the final post. I think more of us will be facing lean times in the next five or ten years. So even if you can afford to heat your residence as much as you want, you might want to bookmark this post, or print it out and put it someplace you can find it later if you should need it. And for those of you who are already enduring being colder in the winter than you’d like to be, I hope that you’ll find a tip you can make use of in one or more of the upcoming posts.
Layers are not just for cakes
Whether you rent or own, the easiest way to improve your comfort is to keep your body’s internal heat in and around your body as long as possible. Clothing yourself in several well-chosen layers will go a long way toward accomplishing this purpose. I’ll describe the layering system I’ve worked out over the years that enables me to stay comfortable in our minimally heated house. Even if you don’t need as many layers as I do to be comfortable, you might find that adding another layer or two of the right sort increases your comfort level enough to lower the heating temperature, saving you more money than you spent on the clothing if you pay for your heat. And you can take the clothing with you should you move.
The innermost layer: long underwear
If you aren’t already wearing long underwear, I suggest getting a pair and trying it under what you usually wear. Some of you may find that it is the only extra layer you need. For me, it is the first layer of defense against cold air.
The cotton thermal weave type is readily available and is the cheapest, but it is not the best choice if you can afford something warmer. While the thermal weave helps to trap and hold warm air around you as long as it is dry, wet cotton clothing will make you feel colder rather than warmer. (That’s why cotton clothing is popular in summer in temperate climates and all year long where it is hot all year.) You might think you won’t sweat in the house, but then you might start doing some housework or you might have a hot flash, and all of a sudden you are sweating. You could change to a dry pair of long underwear when needed, but as many layers as I’m wearing, I’d much rather not have to do that. Thus I suggest choosing a fabric that keeps you warm even if it gets damp from sweating. A number of retailers sell this kind of long underwear, marketed to people who engage in outdoor activities during the winter. The most affordable versions are made of a single layer of synthetic fabrics such as polyester. I find Polartec versions to feel a bit itchy so I choose smooth fabrics instead. Long underwear that clings to me feels colder than looser-fitting styles, so I choose the latter. Some more-expensive fabric choices exist among this kind of long underwear, including silk and wool; I have not tried either so far. The single-layer synthetic long underwear I have is several years old and still in good condition. If you can’t or don’t want to spend that much money, go with old-fashioned cotton thermal underwear. I’d suggest buying multiple pairs so you can change out of them if they begin to feel cold and clammy.
The second layer above the waist: turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater
Unless you have an unconventional fashion sense, you’ll want to cover up the long underwear with something more conventional-looking. A turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater does a good job of this. They are easy to find at stores and online. If you need to look professional, you’ll probably choose a button-down shirt for this layer.
For several years I wore cotton mock turtleneck shirts, until I learned about the superior warmth of wool. It happened that cashmere turtleneck sweaters made their way to upscale used clothing stores like ScholarShop here in St. Louis by that time. I now own three of them, none of which cost me more than $20, all bought since 2009 but not in the past couple of years, so I am not sure if you can still find them or not. At a different upscale used clothing store I found a white crewneck cashmere sweater for $35. These have become my second layer of choice. They are warm, lightweight, and good-looking. They do need to be hand-washed and line-dried, however. That’s why I own multiple such sweaters. I minimize how often I need to wash them by allowing the one I had previously worn to air out for a day to a few days before I put it back in the closet. Doing that, I can get several wearings out of it before it needs to be washed. To cut down on insect problems, I use cedar blocks that hang on either side of my collection of cashmere sweaters. I have mended holes in some of the sweaters, using cotton thread that is a close match in color. The cashmere layer made enough of a difference for me to recommend it if you can afford it. If you’d like to try it, check out upscale used clothing stores to see if you can find them there. I’ve yet to see one in the more common thrift stores, although they are good places to find other good used clothing, and you might get lucky. However, you can get by with a cotton shirt for this layer as long as you wear warmer, looser layers on top of it and change it if it gets damp from sweat.
The third layer: a heavy sweater or sweatshirt
For this layer I choose a wool or acrylic sweater. I used to use a cotton sweater for this layer, but once I tried a wool sweater instead, I found it kept me warmer than a cotton sweater did. I found the three wool sweaters I have at ScholarShop, but because this layer is of a more readily available wool than cashmere, you may have more luck finding them at thrift stores. You can find these easily new (some of them claim to be machine-washable) but those you find in thrift stores will be much more affordable. If you’re layering it over long underwear and a shirt like I am, you’ll want to buy a size larger than you would if you were wearing it over just one layer. The larger size will slip over the rest of the layers and trap some more warm air closer to your body. If you don’t like wool, I have found that acrylic sweaters are almost as warm. If the second layer you chose is cotton, it’s best to choose acrylic or wool for this layer, in my experience. Most of the time I choose for this and the layer beneath it to be wool for maximum warmth. But if all you have or can get for this layer is a fleecy sweatshirt, hooded or not, it will serve.
The fourth layer: a fleece-lined vest
Once the inside temperature drops under 65F, I’m ready to add another layer to the three layers above. Several years ago my mother-in-law gave me a fleece-lined quilted cotton vest, and it has become the fourth layer of my five-layer system. It’s large enough to go over the three layers below it, and it keeps more warmth in my trunk, which helps warm up the blood as it returns from my extremities. It’s still in very good shape and I should get many more years of use out of it. I found different versions of fleece and down lined vests at L. L. Bean’s website, which I mention only because it suggests that different styles of vests should be widely available. If I find a wool vest in a thrift store I might buy it, but the fleece-lined cotton vest I have seems to be good enough at this point.
The fifth layer: a large hooded sweatshirt or fleecy hooded shirt
Major requirements for this layer are that it be large enough to fit over all the other layers and that it have a hood to keep my head warm. The other thing I hope to find in this layer is that it’s free or very cheap, to offset the cost of the other layers. My mom gave me two sweatshirts she didn’t want, and I found a fleecy zippered jacket with a hood at ScholarShop that I use for this layer. I’ve seen plenty of sweatshirts at thrift stores that should work fine. A fleece-lined flannel shirt or heavy wool shirt would also work for this layer.
Below the waist: long underwear and fleece-lined jeans
Jeans that aren’t lined just don’t cut it for me in a 60F house, even with long underwear worn underneath them. Thick, warm sweatpants worn over the long underwear are warm enough but don’t fit my sense of style if someone other than Mike will see them. I’ve found that lined jeans worn over long underwear keep my legs acceptably warm, and jeans wear well in most places I go. I find fleece-lined jeans to be warmer than flannel-lined jeans. I always buy them from L. L. Bean, which gives you an idea of my fashion sense, but experience shows that they fit me well and last for several years, so they are in my opinion worth the price. I use older pairs for gardening and other grubby work so the younger pairs stay good-looking longer. Wool pants might also work for this layer, but I haven’t seen them in thrift stores and they cost more than I want to spend to buy new.
On my head: one or more hats
The people who told you that a hat will keep your feet warm weren’t kidding, even though you may have thought they lacked fashion sense (who likes hat hair? Not me). However, even though hat hair offends my fashion sense, the rest of me wants that hat on when it’s cold in the house! Brains suck up a lot of blood for their volume. While hair has some insulating value, it isn’t insulating enough for me when it’s cold, and some of you may not have any hair to help insulate your brain against heat loss. Heat lost out of your head translates to cold hands and feet. The solution: a hat, or more than one. That’s why the fifth layer in my winter clothing system is hooded and I wear that hood in the house. When the house is only 60F, I like to have another hat underneath the hood for extra warmth. The one I use is an alpaca wool cap, but a cotton or wool watch-style cap is readily available and cheaper. Mike usually wears a watch cap, often one he’s found while walking, under the hood of his sweatshirt in the winter. (We often wonder how the clothing we find in the streets got there. But maybe it’s better not to ask.)
On my hands: fingerless gloves and/or mittens
Wool mittens would be the best choice to keep my hands warm in a cold house, but they cut down on dexterity too much, as do full-fingered gloves (ever try to turn the pages of a book while you are wearing mittens or gloves?). So I wear fingerless cotton knit gloves that a friend of mine found at a dollar store and gave me as a gift. My hands still get cold, but not as cold as they would without the gloves. When I saw a pair of wool fingerless mittens in a catalog I bought them, hoping that by layering them over the fingerless gloves I could keep my hands warmer. But it turned out that cold air could still flow through the opening for my fingers. Of all the aspects of my winter dressing system, this layer is the least satisfactory. I’ll keep searching for a better solution as I do the best I can with the fingerless gloves and mittens.
On my feet: wool socks and over-the-ankle slippers
Since my feet are farther from my heart than any other part of my body, they are the coldest part of my body in the winter. Keeping a hat on keeps my feet a little less cold, but they still need extra help. Luckily they are easier to find proper clothing for and still keep their essential functions than are my hands.
Wool socks are my friends in the winter. But not just any old wool sock. I have two pairs of single-layer wool socks that I wear in spring and fall for a little extra warmth. However, in the winter I need the equivalent of a layer of insulation inside my socks. The socks I now have and like very much are the Killington Hiker socks from Maggie’s Organics. You may be able to find similar socks at sporting-goods retailers. On top of these I wear bootie-style insulated fleece slippers so I can pull my jeans down over the booties, keeping cold air from falling down into the slippers. This combination is better than anything I’ve yet found for keeping my feet reasonably warm in a cold house at a price I am willing to pay.
In the next post, we’ll start moving away from our clothing to consider other ways to keep ourselves tolerably warm in a minimally-heated residence.
Cashmere sweater image via shutterstock. Reproduced on Resilience.org with permission.