Keeping warm with minimal heating: small-scale solutions

November 19, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

This is the third post of a four-post series on how to keep reasonably comfortable in a minimally-heated residence. It’s based on my and my husband Mike’s personal experience with a residence heated to 60-63F (16-17C) when we are awake, 50F (10C) when we are sleeping, in a place where winter lows can get as cold as 0F (-18C) and where the heating season lasts for close to 6 months. Some of you have colder winters, some warmer, thus some of what I say may not apply to your situation. But I think most of you who aren’t already successfully living in a minimally-heated residence will find something useful in at least one of these posts.

The first two posts considered ways to keep our body’s internal heat in and near our body for as long as possible. In this post we’ll widen our gaze out to our residence. I’ll discuss relatively low-cost, small-scale solutions (some very cheap, others less so).

Now that we are looking more at your residence, a divide opens up between what a renter can do and what an owner can do. While renters will find some of these solutions cheap and easy enough and with a short enough payback time that it makes sense to implement them, others may be out of reach. However, what you can do may be more than you think depending on the details of your relationship with your landlord. If you do not expect to be where you are for long, only the cheapest, fastest-payback options make sense. I’ll note those as we go along. On the other hand, if you rent half of a duplex, are on good terms with the property owner who lives in the other half, and you both expect to be there for several years, consider the possibility of asking the landlord to implement certain solutions that interest you but are beyond your ability as a renter to do. You might point out that, for instance, sealing air leaks will reduce utility bills, making the property more valuable over time.

Before I start, let me note that in a blog post, all I can do is touch on the various possibilities. You’ll need to do research to learn how to make them happen in your residence. Two books that go into much more depth than I can are Homemade Money by Richard Heede and Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer. You’ll also find how-to books at your nearby hardware store.

The three ways that heat leaves us

To explain how the solutions work to reduce your discomfort level in a cold dwelling, we need to look at the three ways that heat leaves you and yours. They are called conduction, convection, and radiation, for those of you who like to name your problems.

To understand conduction, grab a piece of cold metal. If your hand is like mine, it will immediately feel cold. The way that heat is leaving in this case is called conduction. In conduction, two materials at different temperatures touch each other; when they do, heat flows out of the warmer material into the colder one. In this case, it was out of our warm hand into the cold metal. To stop this form of heat loss, separate the two materials (drop the metal, but make sure your toes are out of the way first!).

If you notice that a cold draft is flowing around your feet, you are feeling the effects of convection. Convection is when one part of a fluid (a liquid or gas) at a certain temperature encounters another portion of the fluid at a different temperature and starts heat moving from the warmer to the cooler portion. The cold air that is leaking in around your doors or windows causes the warmer air around your body to cool down when the two encounter each other. The reason it’s your feet that feel coldest is because cooler air is more dense (heavier, in ordinary language) than warmer air, so the cold air tends to hang around near the floor, where your feet are.

Convective heat loss happens by another means as well. When the warm air inside your dwelling hits cold outer walls or windows, it loses heat to them by conduction. Once it does, the now colder air starts to sink down to the floor, pushing warmer air up towards the ceiling and cooling it down as they flow past each other and the warmer air flows past the cooler wall. If the warmer air is up close to the ceiling because of convection while you are sitting in your recliner closer to the floor, you’ll feel colder than you would if convection were not occurring.

To understand radiation, imagine facing a hot outdoor fire on a cold night. The front of you feels warm and toasty, but the back of you feels rather chilly. That’s because one of the ways that the fire warms you is by radiation: heat traveling directly from a hotter body (the fire) to a colder body (yours) without anything needed in the middle to carry it. In order for heat to transfer by radiation, the hotter body must be facing the colder body. Your back end isn’t facing the fire. Instead, it’s facing the night sky, dribbling its heat out to the cold night sky by radiation. Eventually you turn your back end to the fire to warm it up, till your front end feels cold. You can spend a long time doing this.

Inside a dwelling, you are most likely to notice radiative heat loss when you are in front of a window, because the outside is much colder than the inside. Few of us enjoy standing in front of a window on a cold night for this reason. But you are also radiating out heat to any surface in your residence that is colder than you are and in your line of sight, like the walls, ceiling, and floor.

Now that we know all this, let’s imagine how we can reduce heat loss by all of these means as much as possible. First, we’ll want to seal off all the ways that cold air can leak directly into wherever we happen to be. Since we’ll need at least one door to get into our residence and probably want at least one window, we’ll want to seat the door(s) and windows(s) as tightly against their frames as we can and seal the window and door frames to their surroundings. We’ll also want as few holes through the walls, floor, and ceiling as possible, and those we must have to be sealed to what surrounds them. Next, we’ll want to keep the walls, floor, and ceiling as warm as we can, to reduce heat radiating off our body to them and to reduce the temperature difference between them and the air in the room that starts the rising of hot air and sinking of cold air. We’ll want to make any windows as small as is compatible with a good view and as warm as possible, or have a means to cover the window when we don’t need it. We’ll want to keep the ceiling as low as possible so we can keep more of the heat where we are instead of where we aren’t. And, finally, making this space as small as possible will make achieving all these goals easier and cheaper. All we have to do now is look at the particulars of how to accomplish these objectives.

The energy woes of big rooms, high ceilings, and lots of windows

You may be wincing now if you live in a place with a large open living area with high ceilings and lots of windows (or you wince whenever you pay your heating bill). This is exactly the wrong way to set up a living space that you want to be comfortable under minimal-heating conditions. The high ceiling means the air you’ve paid to heat winds up there instead of near the floor where you are. The many windows leak more cold air than a small window or two would, plus they allow much more conductive and radiative heat loss than a well-insulated wall does. And the large size means that much more air you have to pay to heat.

Before fossil fuels hit the heating scene, large rooms with high ceilings were a rarity, reserved to only the richest folks. If you have been in a residence built in the 1800s or earlier in a temperate climate, you may have noticed that they usually consist of small rooms with low ceilings. People with more money had larger residences with more rooms, but for the most part those rooms remained small and often had a door that could be closed off to the rest of the house. Before central heating plants became common, some or all of those small rooms had their own fireplace. During heating season, the residents would gather in one room, start a fire, and close off that room to the rest of the house. This was a sensible adaptation to the lower heat energy available from wood than from fossil fuels. It was only when fossil fuels and the central heating plants that they supply became cheap and widely available that energy-wasteful designs like open floor plans, vaulted ceilings, and banks of windows could be incorporated into residences for the less-than-rich. It’s no coincidence that the vacation from energy reality of the last 30 years or so featured the widespread adoption of these energy inefficient features into new construction. While that may not have mattered when high-grade fossil fuels were cheap and plentiful, residences with these features are not well adapted to the poorer, lower-energy world that is taking over.

If you live in a residence like this, you have a few options. You could move to a place without these features, for instance. If you don’t want to or cannot do that, consider the possibility of not using that part of the house during all or part of heating season. Do you have a more sensibly designed room that is large enough to hold you and yours during heating season, such as a spare bedroom, den or office, or media room? Remember that houses not all that long ago, in the 1950s, made do with living or family rooms of under 200 square feet for larger families than most today. I have been in many newer houses that have bedrooms larger than this. If your family can gather in that room for the winter, you can drop the thermostat down to minimal-heating levels and then apply other strategies from this series of posts as well as good furniture choice and placement to make this room a comfortable living space. If you can’t do that either, applying the other strategies in this series of posts should help at least a little to make your large open space feel a little warmer than it otherwise would.

Locking out cold air

Cold air is constantly trying to force its way into your residence without so much as asking permission. Your job is to lock up as best you can against its efforts. Lesson 20 in Greer’s book offers a clear discussion on why to begin with sealing air leaks and where to look for them. Heede’s book has some drawings to help you find them as well. No doubt you can find videos covering this topic someplace on the Internet.

The best place to begin this work is at the door(s) leading into your residence from outside. Check to see if weather-stripping (the material that should be attached to the side, top, and bottom edges of the door) is present, and if it is, if it is in good shape. If not, it makes sense for everyone, even short-term renters, to install it. Payback time is probably a few months on this item, so if you do it at the start of heating season, you should have saved more on your heating bill than it cost you by the end. You’ll likely find a range of materials for the purpose at the nearby hardware store, along with books to explain how to install them.

Now that you’ve weather-stripped the door, take a look at your windows. Check for weather-stripping along the edges of the moving parts; if it’s not there or not in good shape, install some. Like weather-stripping on doors, this makes sense even for a short-term renters.

Now search for other places where cold air might be leaking directly into your residence, such as around the door or window frames, around the pipes and wires that pass through the various surfaces, through cracks and crevices, or between the ceiling and what is above it or the floor and what is below it. Caulk, along with pieces of foam for wider openings, will fix these leaks.

The effort level and cost for caulking will likely be larger than for weather-stripping. You can reduce the cost, as always, by doing the work yourself. I would use a lit stick of incense rather than a candle to find air leaks. Or you can hire a home energy auditor to do this work for you. This is a more expensive option that I’ll discuss more fully in the last post of the series.

Covering your windows

You’ll recall that windows don’t just leak cold air into your house; they also cause conductive heat loss (cold air outside cools the glass, which then cools off the inside air next to it) and radiative heat loss. The way to stop both of these is by covering the glass and sealing the cover.

One way to cover the glass is with shrinkable plastic films that you can apply to your window frame. Generally a heat gun, or perhaps a blow dryer, aimed onto the film will shrink it over the entire window frame. If you already have the blow dryer or heat gun and you don’t want to open the window during heating season, this is a quick way to reduce conductive heat loss, since the air between the glass and plastic doesn’t conduct heat well.

A better way to accomplish the purpose is with an insulated window covering of some sort. I direct you to Lesson 22 of Greer’s book for a fine discussion of various ways to cover windows. A handy resident can make either the hardboard version, for windows not to be used during heating season, or the fabric version for windows meant to be used during the day but covered at night. If you aren’t inclined to do it yourself and you have some money, you can check into commercially available window coverings that fit the criteria in Greer’s book, if you can find them. I haven’t yet added window coverings to any of our windows in our house but it is on my to-do list.

Failing that, if you already have drapes on your windows you could seal off the top, side, and bottom of the drapes to reduce heat loss by conduction and radiation; see Greer’s discussion for more details. If you have blinds but are neglecting to use them, closing the blinds at night should cut down on radiative heat loss through the windows.

Hats for your ceiling

Back in the first post in this series I pointed out that putting a hat on your head will make your feet warmer. The same principle applies to your living space: the equivalent of a hat on your ceiling will help to slow down the tendency of heat to rise up and out through the ceiling, making you, down there near the floor, feel warmer than you would otherwise. If you live on one of the lower floors of a multistory building, the warmer dwelling above you is the equivalent of a hat. If, however, your ceiling has an attic above it, the hat is insulation on the floor of the attic. If you don’t have any, or you don’t have enough, adding enough attic insulation is cost-effective, although with a longer payback time than the other modifications I’ve discussed so far. In Lesson 21 Greer suggests R-60 is not too much insulation if your winters are cold or summers are hot. I’d guess very few of you have that much attic insulation, even if you’ve added it since you moved in. When we had attic insulation added in 2005, it was the equivalent of R-44. I’d recommend at least that much for people in the St. Louis region and other places with similar climates. You can do the work yourself with minimal tools if you don’t have much money to spend, or hire it out if you have more money than time.

Renters might find it difficult to add attic insulation unless they are on good terms with real-person landlords. If you are, and you plan to stay in your rental for a few years or more, consider offering to do the work yourself. Perhaps the landlord could buy the material if you provide the labor. You could, of course, first ask the landlord to do the work, pointing out that it will increase the value of the space, but it might well be worth doing even if you have to do it yourself at your own cost.

Socks for your floor

Just as putting a hat on your head keeps your feet warmer, thick warm socks also help to keep your feet warmer. The residence equivalent of socks is insulation on the underside of your floor. Because gravity wants to pull it down off the underside of the floor, it isn’t as easy to install and keep in place as attic insulation. If you have a crawl space under your floor rather than a basement, you’ll have to endure doing the work in other than a standing position. And if your residence sits directly on a slab foundation or you live in a multistory building with a dwelling directly underneath, it won’t be possible to install floor insulation. However, if you can add it, it is also cost-effective. Greer suggests R-19 as a good level of insulation under the floor. A nearby hardware store should carry how-to books on adding insulation, or you can see what the Internet has to offer. See the discussion of ceiling insulation if you rent but would like to do this.

Clothes for your walls

Walls also benefit from added insulation, though because this is not a low-cost, fast-payback option, I’ll defer further discussion to the final post in this series. However, Greer suggests a different, low-cost means to cut down on heat loss through walls: fabric hangings. We can do better than the tapestries on the walls of medieval castles: we can make a larger version of an insulated window covering, including the vapor barrier, and hang it it from floor to ceiling, a few inches away from the walls. Lesson 22 in Greer’s book should give you an idea of what to do.

Long underwear for your pipes and ducts

If your hot water pipes or forced air furnace ducts run through an unheated space, such as a basement or crawl space, you can wrap them with insulation to keep the heat put into the water or air from leaking out into a place where it does no good. For more information, see Lesson 23 in Greer’s book and the how-to books in your local hardware store.

Space heating

Lots of different kinds of space heaters for supplemental heating are available, some of which are heavily advertised as allowing you to keep most of your house cool except for the room you are currently using. Whether it makes financial or environmental sense to use a space heater depends on the particulars of your situation. If your central heating plant is a forced air electric furnace and you do reduce the thermostat setting when you use an efficient electric space heater in a small space, you should save some money and cause a little less coal or oil to be burned. If, on the other hand, you have a natural gas forced air furnace and your electricity comes primarily from coal-fired plants, as is the case for us, you may not save much money by using a space heater and you may cause more pollution than you would have by keeping the whole house a bit warmer. This is a complex subject, not something I can do justice to in a blog post. But I suspect that space heaters are not the universal boon that their promoters suggest they are. If you use a space heater, be sure to follow all safety precautions appropriate to your heater!

In the final post of this series, we’ll look at a few worthwhile options for those of you who can afford to sink some money into work that will take several years or longer to pay back in the form of lower heating bills. It will, however, pay off in increased comfort at the same thermostat setting as soon as it’s completed.

Claire Schosser

My husband Mike and I began our practice of voluntary simplicity in 1994. It has prepared us well for the current predicament brought about by the end of cheap energy and the resulting economic and environmental difficulties. Perhaps some of the things we've learned will be helpful to you as well.

Tags: energy efficiency, home heating