Six Ways to Stay Warm and Reduce the Heating Bill

by Xin Lu on 4 February 2008 40 comments
Photo: Weembles

Last month our heating bill shot up from around $60 to more than $120 and my husband was not pleased. After receiving that bill we had a moratorium on using the heater. After two weeks of enduring chilly nights we gave up and started using the heater again. Actually there are many things we can do to save money on our heating bill and still stay warm. Here are some of the things I learned.

1. Make sure the heater is turned off when noone is in the house - We suspect that our increased bill is due to a few careless days when we forgot to turn off the heater and went to work. One of our friends did the same thing and now she has a note on the back of the door that says, "Is the heater turned off?" I think that is a good way to remind yourself to conserve energy.

2. Wear more clothing and wrap up in blankets
- Puffy down jackets, fuzzy slippers, and blankets are all great weapons against the winter chill. We got some throw blankets for $10 and my husband said that little purchase has enabled him to play in the living room without feeling cold.

3. Utilize hot water - When I lived in China we used rubber hot water bottles to heat up the bed. These contraptions are quite safe as long as you don't intentionally pull out the plug. The energy used to heat up a bottle of water is much less than the energy required to run the heater on all night. Afterall, sometimes we turn on the heater at night just because it is hard to fall asleep in the cold.

4. Let the sun in - When the weather is not foul it is possible to warm up the house with the energy of the sun. All that has to be done is to lift the blinds and let the sun in. It does cool down later in the night, but depending on your home's insulation it is possible to keep the heat for a while.

5. Consider biomass fuels - We actually have a wood burning fireplace that we did not use because we have never used a fireplace before. I have been doing some reading and apparently it is not very hard. It is also possible to get free firewood from craigslist if we just pick them up. When I was young I heard that people in the countryside used cow patties for heating. I am not sure if that is true, but cow patties are good sources of energy. Linsey also had a great article on biomass heating sources here.

6. Move to a warmer place - When I lived in Hawaii we never had heaters. The winters there are just a bit below 70 degrees. Of course then you run into the problem of cooling in the summers, but that is the tradeoff.

Anyway, some of you readers must think we are wimps for feeling cold in Northern California where there are about 10 days a year with freezing temperatures. What are your tips for staying warm and not be gouged by the energy company?

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Myscha Theriault's picture

As much as we are enjoying certain aspects of winter, the cold and snow removal are exhausting. For years we haven't had to deal with this.

For now, we are enjoying an electric blanket as well as our pellet stove. It's funny you mention the trick of leaving yourself a note. As much as we try to remember, we have forgotten a time or two ourselves.

Guest's picture
Sean

When we bought a house in Oct, it had a programmable thermostat installed. This little thing has made a world of difference in our gas bill and comfort level this winter.

Having it automatically switch from the 60s to low fifties during the day when we are at work/school, and then warm up before we get home, and then cool down while we sleep has been great.

I would highly recommend them as opposed to trying to remember to turn the heat up and down manually.

Guest's picture
Guest

Good post. Some more ideas from Vermont in February:

1. More energy-efficient AND warmer than a electric blanket is an electric mattress pad. Toasty and wonderful.

2. Windows seem to wick the cold. Cover them with plastic. Or use bubble wrap if you just need light from a particular window but not a view. (I have "frosted glass" in the 24-pane window in my bathroom--just sheets of bubble wrap cut to fit. Spray the window lightly with water and the stuff sticks like a lamprey.)
Drapes really can keep the heat in if you have a lot of windows. Open them during the day to get the solar heat.

3. If you have a ceiling fan, turn it so it goes counter-clockwise, driving heated air (hot air rises, remember?) back down into the room.

4. Bake something. A casserole or bread in the oven can make my whole kitchen cosy.

With insulation, plugging leaks, wrapping windows, the woodstove, ceiling fan, bread in the oven, a kettle on the woodstove, heated mattress pad, and a very large cat to sit on my feet, I hope to make it to spring without needing a second mortgage just to cover the oil bill.

Guest's picture
f.f.

We plug our electric space heater into a programmable lamp timer. We've programmed it to go on an hour or so before we normally go to bed, so the bedroom is nice and warm, and to turn off in the morning shortly before we leave for work, because I tend to lounge around in bed much longer than I should if my other option is getting up and dressed in a freezing cold room. It keeps the bedroom warm when we need it to be, and it's programmed to turn itself off during the times we're not usually around. It's been a huge help.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Who knew?

 

Guest's picture

A wheat bag is safer than a hot water bottle. There's no risk of scalding hot water. It's basically a bag filled with wheat that you microwave for a couple of minutes.

Guest's picture
Iron-deficient Guest

This problem is common among women, and I am always colder than my son, husband, brother, father, etc. - checking anemia and hypothyroidism at the docs might help. Meds cost money too, but being iron or thyroid hormone deficient (if I forget to take them for a few days) makes me freeze my butt off and crank up the heat!

Guest's picture
Lucille

We are taking #6 to heart. Right now were working on some home improvements geared at making the house more sellable and waiting for the markets to hopefully recover next year. But we decided not only were we just sick of dealing with northern weather but sick of the heating and cooling bills. So our goal is to move to one of about four cities or areas we have targeted that have a more moderate climate both high and low. Here we go from 100 highs in the summer to 50 below zero before the wind chill in the winter. The areas were looking at tend more toward 80 degree highs and 20 degree lows (as averages). If we find a place with decent insulation and possibly some back up heating source we should be able to lower our utility bills cutting our overall expenses. We also looked for places that had a similar or better cost of living.

Guest's picture
Guest

Want to buy a house in Illinois?

Guest's picture
Barbara

In my city, you can get on a budget plan with the utilities company and it's really easy and quick. There isn't any type of qualification program so anybody can do it. They take the average of your past year, and apply something like 5% to it and that's what you pay every month.

The advantage to this is that during the summer, your bills are really low, so they help bring down the average. The disadvantage is that during the summer, you pay more than you normally would. As long as you don't miss a payment there are no penalties.

And the particular area where I live, gas (heating) bills always spike during the January and Feb months. Last year I paid over $200 more than any other month in Feb. When I called to complain (or route out a potential gas leak) they told me that because the weather had dropped suddenly for this one particular night everyone's gas bills spiked. Crazy.

Anyways, it's always an option you can check into.

Guest's picture
Guest

We reuse shower water to flush our toilet. In the winter a tubful of hot water also heats the air (for a little while, at least).

Guest's picture
Ginny

This sounds really minor, but you'd be surprised what a difference it makes: Granny house shoes, the kind that are like little fuzzy boots. I have found that when my ankles and shoulders are warm, the rest of me is a whole lot more comfortable. I keep my heat set at 64, wear a sweater and those house shoes, and I'm fine. (Other people complain that it's freezing in my house, but they're not wearing my house shoes)

Guest's picture
Mary

Oh, I hate to admit this, but cleaning the house will warm you up in no time! I'm the only one in my house that feels the cold, but mopping the kitchen floor, sweeping the living room, or scrubbing a bath tub has me peeling off one or two of my three or four layers of clothes.

On nights I don't clean, I am in that bath tub, with a stack of books, magazines and notebooks for a few hours. A hot bath at 7 can keep me warm until I crawl under my electric blanket, which I only use to preheat the bed.

And I certainly don't think you're a wimp, but I live in San Diego, so my opinion probably doesn't hold much weight:)

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Kathryn

Be forewarned about using a standard woodburning fireplace as a heat source. Fireplaces burn by drawing air from the house (that you've spent money to heat with your furnace) across the logs and up the chimney. They produce a lot of radiant heat in the immediate area when burning strongly will actually make the rest of your house colder--especially as they die down to the point that they're not putting out much heat but not yet cold enough to close the flue damper.

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Jim and Loretta

A small (1 gal per min minimum)electric pump at your water heater, delivering water to the hot water faucet furthest from the heater will result in nice warm water to each faucet in the house. No more washing your hands in cold water or waiting for the water to get hot. The initial installation will cost around $100.00 depending on how much of the installation you do yourself. The side benefit is the water doesn't go down the drain while waiting for the shower or sink water to get hot. We use a low amp timer in series with the pump so it shuts off at night and comes back on in the a m before the hot water is needed. The lamp timer available at the hardware store ($5.00) works fine.

Guest's picture
Deb

It really makes a difference where you live! My bill is about $400 a month! I've covered the windows with plastic and heavy curtains, added 14 inches of insulation to the attic, new front and back doors, 5 new windows, a new furnace, keep the thermostat at 68 when I"m home, 60 when I'm not...... and I"m still cold and broke!

Guest's picture
Guest

Ceiling fans - they push down the hot air, especially important if you have high ceilings.

Attic insulation. - pretty much a no-brainer. Heat rises. If you have a good quality insulation then you will loose less heat making it easier to warm your home.

Plastic over the windows - this works well for old windows. A roll of shrink film, double stick tape, and a hairdryer.

Insulating house paint - for those that paint the outside there's a type of paint that uses several coats (a type of primer, one being a ceramic paint, and the outside color being a paint /rubber mix) that can reduce heat loss by 10-15%, and as a plus the vendor that I saw guaranteed the paint for 25 years. Theres also paint for the inside of the house for the ceiling.

Guest's picture
b

Some really good things are to use that plastic wrap that covers the windows and for added effect enforce with some duct tape or other. This reduced some major drafts coming into my house dramatically! In places where it may be unsitely caulk around the windows as much as possible. Go to hardware store and get some foam to tape under windows so when you close them you get a tight seal.
Utilize dryer heat as much as possible if equiptted with an electric dryer(gas is unsafe.)
Being that oil is unrealistically expensive, your gas or oil burner should be tuned up before the season starts and all hot pipes should be insulated and taped with duct tape. With my oil burner I used high heat paint and painted most of the heat pipes coming off of the heater and THaT seemed to reduce the oil consumption.
This I have knowledge in(from school)but my shower heat was pathetic(tankless oil heater) so I drained all the water out (black and Icky) and cut the pipes going thru the potable hot water coil and backflushed it with CLR and a air compressor. This was some work but definately worth the time and effort because much junk came out and now I get great showers at a very low boiler temp. and then put CLR in system and ran it thru the house pipes for a while, drain and refill. THis has DRAMATICALLY reduced oil consumption, one other thing to do is take the covers off the boiler and you will see the blast tubes, get a wire brush for a drill and some extensions to equal length of tubes and get those cleaned out, soot, white buildup etc. this will allow the heat to better transfer to your water. There is one other idea I thought of but have not tried is to put bricks or something in where the water for heat pipes is to reduce the amount of water that needs to be heated (theory being,, just like boiling small amount of water takes less time and less energy to accomplish. My thinking is that 14 years ago when my heater was put in oil consumption and cost was not a big issue, not today. good luck,,, I did this and was able to turn my boiler down to 140-120 high and low limit and acheive the same if not better results.

Guest's picture
Jenny

We went and bought one of those electric radiant heaters that are filled with water, we plug that in and then place a fan behind it to blow the heat out. It has reduced our heating bill tons. We are in Colorado in the mountains and we hardly use any propane anymore. We used to pay about $120 for propane, we have reduced that to about $40 for the cost of about $20 more in electricity. Well worth it.

Guest's picture
Nerys

Word of Caution they take a bit more than $20 in E :-) at 600 watts the lowest setting they will set you back $58 in electricity PER month if run 24 hours (and they only work well if you run them 24 hours)

Most medium and up homes need at least 3 to keep from being horribly frigid. Thats $180 a month in E (still cheaper than gas or propane but not nearly as warm)

Crank them upto 1500 watts like we had to a few times and now your talking $146 a month in E PER heater.

Guest's picture
Guest

If you have a fireplace but do not use it you should figure out a way to seal it up so that the heat in your home doesn't get sucked out of the chimney. The other option is to get a wood stove fireplace insert, if you have the money to do so. Once you learn how to build a proper fire in a wood stove you can load the logs once in the morning and once, maybe twice (in two smaller loads) in the evening so that the stove is constantly producing heat. The downside to an insert though is that you will use electricity to power the fan that is necessary to get the heat into the room.

The best option is a freestanding wood stove stuck in the fireplace , with insulation sealing up the chimney flue. The stove has it's own exhaust liner, so the insulation won't interfere with that. A freestanding stove is best because the radiant heat does not require a fan to move it into the room, although you can purchase fans that are powered by the heat that the stove gives off.

If you buy firewood the cost per BTU is substantially less than oil, propane, or electricity. If you get your firewood for free then you're even better off.

Used wood stoves aren't hard to find. An older model that's in good condition shouldn't be a problem so long as the firebricks are in decent shape and the metal doesn't show any signs of warping.

Guest's picture
Dan

Fireplaces feel very warm, but in general, they're a terrible idea. Most fireplaces built after ~1900 are not built for heating, they're built to look and feel cozy. The air that you've paid so dearly to heat with traditional fuels gets sucked up through the chimney, and the heat that's given off by the fuels (which you paid for in gasoline and time to pick up) isn't enough to make up for it.

Unless you invest in something like a frankline stove or a proper wood/biofuel fired heater, you're likely to have a net loss of heat by using a fireplace. Unless you have a very old house : ).

Guest's picture
Guest

If you use an electric room heater in your bedroom at night, you can then turn the heat WAY DOWN for the entire rest of the house at night.

Guest's picture
Guest

Raise the humidity in the house, and you'll feel just as comfortable with the thermostat set several degrees lower.

Combine this with dressing up a bit warmer, and you might comfortably drop the temperature a good eight degrees or more.

(Hello from Minnesota!)

Guest's picture
Guest

Fireplaces aren't very efficient, even though you can improve them with ventilated grates (made of tubes with an attached fan to circulate the heat into the room. When you're not using the fireplace, some of your heat goes right up the chimney even when the flue is closed. Fireplaces are nice decorations, but not so great for heating.

Wood-burning stoves are far more efficient... they really get good and hot, and will radiate significant heat into the room even from the stove pipe. You'll get far more heat from every log if you burn it in a stove.

Guest's picture
Guest

Raising the humidity WILL make you feel much warmer, in high heat situations (exactly when you do not want to feel warmer). In cold situations this just makes you feel colder.

If you get a dehumidifier then you will feel warmer in the cold. Many people get humidifiers and dehumidifiers mixed up.

Guest's picture
G. Hamilto

Hi folks People that mentioned using ceiling fans to push heat back down are on the same track, but I have yet to note anyone that mentioned running their furnace fans continuously (those that use forced air heat, anyway). I was very surprised when I tried it on the advice of my retired neighbour, who used to be a burner mechanic for a major Atlantic Canada heating oil distributer. No cold spots in the house and the burner actually runs *less*. So much less that we leave the thermostat set at 70F/20C day and night all winter long, and are still saving money. We can now get by for about 300.00/month - about 2/3 what most of my neighbours pay. We are very well insulated, too. We're the last house on the street to melt the snow off of our roof, so that doesn't hurt. One caveat, though. The third horsepower fan motors are not really up to the task. They run a little hot, so have to cool down for about 15 minutes before they will restart after a power outage. They actually are fine for continuous run and last a proper lifetime - it's just in the case of the furnace losing power. If the motor is too hot, the excitor circuit (which starts it) drops out on an internal limiter until the thing cools down a bit. Like I said, about 15 minutes. But spending $30.00 more (i.e. $110.00 vs. $80.00) gets you a 1/2 horsepower motor that won't kick out its starter circuit. Why does it matter, you ask, if it doesn't actually affect the life of the motor (and doesn't even suck any more current)? Because when the power comes back on, there can be a call for heat (if the power outage hits just about when the thermostat was going to kick in the burner anyway - if it's a power outage longer than 15 minutes, then it doesn't matter), and even with a burner limiter, you don't really want it running with the circulatory fan unable to start. Can you say cracked firebox?

Guest's picture
Beverly

Comment No. 23 was correct.
HUMIDITY is the water vapor within a given space. RELATIVE HUMIDITY simply is the amount of moisture in a cubic foot of air at a certain temperature. The warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold.
Water is more effective heat transfer agent than air...when you add water to the air it makes it more effective at either heating or cooling your skin.
Since our skin temperature is 74 degrees, and most of us set our thermostats below 74 in the winter to economize, the air in our homes can feel cold. If you raise the humidity in your home, your skin won't evaporate as much moisture, and you'll feel warmer without changing the thermostat.

Guest's picture
Marrach

The most painful part of winter heating is the $$$ cost. It cannot be avoided. And it hits like a Budget Buster every time.
If you use oil-- you may have to pay for EACH delivery IN FULL to the tune of Hundreds of dollars. If it's Gas, you can spread it out over the entire year-- but then you're still paying for winter in the middle of the summer when you need a coupla hundred to pay for the AC.

This is a trick my mother told me-- and it's easier now with internet access. Add up your current Winter bill, let say your Oil bills. Let's say it about $2500. Divide by 52 and add about $5.
Then create a separate acct-- go for a HIGH interest SAVINGS acct like E-Trade or ING direct. Transfer $55 every week the the requisite amount every paycheck and learn NOT TO TOUCH it. No Vacation. NO Car. No New HDTV.
Global Warming aside, WINTER will STILL come around again, but it will be less predictable. Except now, when the bill comes, you pop the cork on the oil bill acct you created and pay the bill from there. If the Winter is MILDER than the previous one, you may use less and have some money left over plus interest. Start Over.
If you have the financial room-- do the same for AC costs. But remember-- we CAN sweat through heat in the summer if you really have to. But when it's cold-- the HEAT MUST STAY ON.

Guest's picture
lxmorj

Absolutely use your fireplace, its amazing how entertaining sitting around a fire can be. Keep in mind, 65 is a healthier room temperature than 72. The lower the temperature, the more calories you burn to keep warm internally. Don't freeze yourself, as thats not very healthy either, but keep it in mind.

Guest's picture
lxmorj

Absolutely use your fireplace, its amazing how entertaining sitting around a fire can be. Keep in mind, 65 is a healthier room temperature than 72. The lower the temperature, the more calories you burn to keep warm internally. Don't freeze yourself, as thats not very healthy either.

Guest's picture
qtaro

Wasn't there a public announcement in the radio (on either AM 740 or 810 in bay area) that tells people not to burn wood? it pollutes air quality for everyone in the neighborhood and also could cause global warming..

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm a college student in a very cold winter climate. I live on the second story of a two-story apartment building and my roommates and I didn't have to turn on our heat once during the winter. If you can, I highly recommend looking for an apartment or duplex that is on an upper floor with someone living below you. Heat rises, and luckily the couple who live below us are from Pheonix, so they like to keep it nice and toasty. Just something to think about!

Guest's picture
Gnimsh

I think the best way that I saved on my heating costs was simply by having my apartment be on the top floor. All the heat wafted up into my apartment which meant it was hot all the time. I would end up with windows open all day and night and still having to walk around in my underwear...

But that was last year. This year I've been living abroad in Austria, where almost all of the buildings are made of stone, not wood, which means they don't insulate well at all. My roommate told me that his room, where the thermostat is located, is the coldest room in the house, so he kept the temp low there so the heat would go on if it ever dipped below that temp. I still disagree with him. To stay warm in my bedroom this winter was a real challenge. I ended up wearing 2 pairs of wool socks, slippers, long underwear, sweat pants, a tshirt, a sweater, and a hoody over that just to stay warm. The worst part is my hands, as I can't sit at the computer and type if I'm wearing gloves, so then my hands still got cold. It was horrible.

I found that sitting in my bed with the blanket over me and my laptop on top of the blanket was also a great way to warm up. And oh ya, my roommates got me one of those water bottles too, and I would boil water and dump it in about twice a day and keep it in the bed to fall asleep more easily too.

Guest's picture
cam

Fingerless gloves will resolve your issue with using your computer. They are normal gloves but the fingers are open ended and generally stop before the first nuckle. Surely they can be found on the internet. If nothing else, you could purchase cotton work gloves and cut the fingers off.

Maybe this is a new opportunity for you - learn to knit. Knitting warm wool also keeps you warm - wool, activity, etc.

Link to free pattern http://greasy.com/nittineedles/fingerless_gloves_needles_free.html

Good Luck. We would be lost without our computers.

C.

Guest's picture

A simple way to save money on your heating bills is by using a system like this one.

Heating save http://heatingsave.co.uk/

Over 98% of central heating systems use a time clock, boiler and room thermostat to control the heating. A hopelessly inefficient system based on technology that was around 100 year ago! None of this much mattered when oil was $10 a barrel - it's now between $120 and $147 and its still summer!

Replacing your central heating clock with a HeatingSave controller can save you 100's if not 1,000's off your heating bill! Usually paying for itself in less than a year!

Guest's picture
Guest

with the credit crunch ive been most of the above but i have to say my boyfriend bought me a intelex soft bear for christmas which you microwave four 2 mins and its lovely, cant beat hugging a warm soft bear with a hot chocolate under a duvet, try it!

Guest's picture
NorCal is Cold!

I live in Northern Cali also and I came across your page because I am cold and want to heat my house without spending a fortune! Thanks for the tips!

Guest's picture
joy2b

Adjustable thermostats are a very affordable way of saving time, money and comfort, I love having the heat come on an hour before I get up. I've used them in apartments and in homes, and they pay for themselves in the first month.

Quick and cheap insulation tricks are immediately helpful. Window plastic is cheap, easy, and effective, partially because it contains tiny air leaks around the window as well. Don't forget to look for other drafty spots to cover too. (we have a house fan and an attic access).

Dressing well makes a big difference. Layers are key. Fleece and wool can both keep you warm (or even hot). Slippers and couch blankets are both effective, as is a good robe in the morning. If you really like to keep it cold, silk gloves will keep typing hands warm, though fingerless gloves are better for some touch screens.

Heating a small area up to 70 while the rest of the house is cool can really work. (Using space heaters to heat the whole house misses the point.) Use your common sense (or some math on electricity costs) to decide which space heaters are smart. Cooking food with an oven can be clever because a warm treat makes you feel warm and happy, but it wouldn't be safe or efficient to use it as a space heater.

A warm bed is the key for saving money. You want to be able to turn down the temperature down at night without getting cold yourself. If you don't want to invest in a wool or down blanket, go cotton for the bottom layers, and a really fluffy top layer (captured air insulates very well). If you put your fluffy bathrobe over the top, that doesn't hurt either.

If you are careful about efficiency, or willing to invest a lot of time, burning pellets or wood can be effective. I've had friends and family try quite a variety of solutions. Thus far, the pellet stove set the record for the cheapest, and the wood stove was vaguely decent (assuming that you value the time spent getting and chopping wood at about minimum wage). A fireplace is fun for holiday parties, but isn't for heating the house.

I haven't noticed any difference in temperature from humidity, but a little humidifier can make a huge difference in the way you feel during the winter, particularly if you get a cold or stuffy sinuses.

By the way, it's really important to keep your house above freezing. In summer cottages around here, people normally turn off the water, drain the pipes to the extent they can, then set the thermostat to 50 before they leave. Frozen pipes cause incredibly expensive damage.

Guest's picture
Amanda-Beth Crowther

It isn't much but it dose help tuck your pants into socks and make sure first layer of clothes hugs you tight as tight as it can so you can still move. Buy inexepensve leotard and some shorts shorts as small as you can stand to wear that don't give you wedge. If can only find decent tank leo you will want an under shirt. Put shorts over leo if shorts make you uncomfortable tight capri pants over leo. Thermal shirt and pants over that and then normal outfit. I lost some weigbt recently so time for smaller base layers which gets intresting with long inseam and wide shoulders in womens clothes