Updated on 10.28.07

Eight Frugal Ways To Face An Iowa Winter

Trent Hamm

The northern Midwest often faces some very rough winters, often including periods of many days with temperatures below zero Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius). Since I’m about to face my first winter as a homeowner, I spent some time contacting many of the homeowners I know in the area and asking for tips on reducing winter heating bills, and I collected eight of the best.

Use a programmable thermostat Your house doesn’t need to be as warm at night as it does during the day, so install a programmable thermostat and use it to drop that temperature during the time when you’re asleep and when you’re not at home.

Wear clothes in layers This is extremely effective. Just wear lots of layers of clothes. I often wear a tee shirt, a long underwear/insulation shirt, a long-sleeved tee shirt, and a sweatshirt, and just peel off layers or add them as needed, and you can re-wear the outer shirts a few times without washing them.

Keep lots of blankets around Just keep a few blankets in each living room and bedroom so that you can cover up with them. Generally, I only really get cold when I sit still, and thus blankets help with that.

Air seal your home If the temperature difference between the inside of your house and the outside is seventy degrees, even a small air leak can make a huge difference in the amount of time your furnace has to run. Sometime in the fall (or even early in the winter), air seal your home. Go around your house looking for places where you can feel a draft or feel cold air leaking into your home, locate the source, and seal it. Here’s a guide for getting started.

Install EnergyStar windows When you replace your windows, spend a little extra and buy energy efficient windows that minimize the loss of heat through the windows. This also helps during the summer, where the efficient windows slow down the heat from entering your home from outside.

Cook at home Seriously, firing up your oven and baking a casserole makes for a cheaper meal than eating out, plus that heat spills over and helps with the heating of your home. While it’s not hugely efficient, you’re basically just taking advantage of the synergy between your oven and your furnace to your benefit.

Place a “solar collector” in your windows that collect sunlight. If you have windows that receive significant sunlight in the winter, put a simple “solar energy collector” in them to draw some of the heat. Just get some aluminum foil, some cardboard for backing, some black paint, and a bit of duct tape. Paint a big sheet of aluminum foil black, tape the black foil to the cardboard, then put this in the window with the black side facing out, leaving an inch at the top and bottom for air flow, by taping it to the window frame. This can generate some impressive heat, actually, and can help quite a bit for keeping rooms warm in the winter.

Don’t close off unused rooms. If you try to close off unused rooms in your house to save on heating, you’ll often find that the “cool” room isn’t that much cooler than before and your bill probably won’t change at all (and may even go up). Why? Your home’s heating system was designed to heat your whole house, for starters, and you’re also trying to leave a cold room inside your exterior walls, meaning it will draw heat from other rooms and cause them to chill quicker.

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  1. Ms. Clear says:

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by leaving an inch at the top and bottom for air flow with regard to the window solar collector.

    Does that mean that the solar collector must be the same size as the window?

    I was thinking of putting one in my glass patio doors, but I didn’t want to make it the entire length of the door.

    Thanks in advance if you can clarify.

  2. That’s pretty wild. It’s 90 degrees here today in Southern Arizona. Any tips for cooling off in the winter? :)

    The cold and snow sounds like fun to me, but I’m sure it can make things difficult too. Good luck with your winter!

  3. EP says:

    Remember that ventilation and heating is very important during the winter time to ensure a good indoor climate that prevents allergic reactions, “bad” particles and lowers the risk of diseases.

    I’m allergic to dust mites and a way to keep them down is to make sure humidity doesn’t get too high. A way of reaching that goal is to warm up the room as warm air can contain more water (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_humidity#Other_important_facts).

    I used to wear clothes in layers a lot during the winter time to save on heating and I hope that it isn’t what triggered my allergy.

  4. lorax says:

    Place a “solar collector” in your windows that collect sunlight.

    Sounds fun! Have you done this? It might make an excellent photo blog.

    Winter is also a great time to exercise indoors. Those calories you are burning are heating yourself and the house.

  5. Mary says:

    For folks that live in warmer (ie not freezing) climates electric blankets are great and cost way less that continuously heating the house all through the night. Also plugging the drain when you use hot water for showers can be helpful, since the temperatures of the water and air come to an equilibrium over time. Just wait for the temperature of the water to reach room temperature. Obviously you wouldn’t do this if you have young children or pets, but why let all that heat literally go down the drain?

  6. Mary says:

    Oh, and having someone to snuggle with helps too!

  7. Margaret says:

    WAH HAH HAH — come on Canadians (except you guys from Toronto), let’s all laugh at the Americans toughing out the -18Cs. Seriously, we wouldn’t even consider -18 a cold snap. That’s when it gets into the -30s or -40s.

  8. Not so fast! says:

    I don’t claim to know a whole lot about thermodynamics, but reading your first tip brought a twinge of memory to mind.

    A few years go, I roomed with a Architectural Engineering student who had a big energy-conservation interest. I remember a talk we had where he shared two things he had learned that had surprised him:

    1) Fireplaces, thought quite homely, are horribly inefficient for heating.

    2) It can often cost more to re-heat an area that you allow to cool-down than it would cost to just maintain the heat you already have.

    Of course, I don’t know the thermodynamics involved, how big the difference is, exceptional cases, etc. – I just know you might want to look into it further (e.g. ask a HVAC expert) before actually implementing that fancy thermostat plan.

  9. Mrs. Micah says:

    I think the Alaskans would probably laugh right back, Margaret. ;-)

  10. Ginger says:

    If you can’t afford new windows (which can be incredibly expensive), the window sealing kits (essentially a plastic wrap that you blow dry to tighten across the window frame) do a great job at reducing heat loss and drafts.

  11. Margaret says:

    Mrs. Micah — no doubt. My cousin married someone from the Yukon, and when I got stuck in her driveway, he and his brother came to tow me out, and they didn’t even bother putting on coats, because it was only in the -20s. Brrrr.

  12. Marcy says:

    I don’t get the point of Margie putting down us silly Americans. Like she’s any better than us (because she lives in a colder climate)? That’s great Marge. Since we are infereior, you might want to tell us how cold that is in degress ferinheit. We don’t comprehend celcius. Most of us know that 0 is freezing but, especially for me, involving math is never a good thing. Then we have to take out the calculators and high school text book. I live in the tippy top of the norteast, practically in Canada. I have noticed that after it gets to a certain point, it really doesn’t matter how cold the temp is. It all feels the same.

    I like the idea of the getto solar heater. I am going to make one this morning. I hope it’s just the thing I need for my living room. Half of my apartment is too hot and the other is too cold! I have the worst landlord in recorded history who, among other things, refuses to put weather stripping around my door. I could actually see into my hallway thru the craks. I took newspaper, folded it into thin strips and taped them to the frame. It took some experimenting to find the exact thickness, but it worked (best part of all:the cost was next to nothing!) It works for windows too.

    I’m not sure how much it costs, but there is this plastic wrap-like stuff that seals windows. You use a blow-dryer and it adheres itself tothe window annd is really strong. Wearing a hat can help too. While I’m waiting for the heat to kick on, I’ll wear my hat and wander around, doing my chores and I’ll get hot. Knitting/crocheting a blanket is a good way to keep warm too.

  13. Optimus says:

    >>Most of us know that 0 is freezing but, especially for me, involving math is never a good thing. Then we have to take out the calculators and high school text book.

    Google it. For example, input -30C to F and hit enter. Google will return the answer at the top of the search result. Have fun :)

  14. Eternal Optimist says:


    I guess rather than laughing because it is not as cold in “America” as it is in Canada we should commend the guy for trying to think of some great ideas to stretch his new homeowner dollar!!
    Thanks for the ideas…..

  15. Marcy says:

    I made a solar heat pane and now the sun’s gone! I used a cereal box, cut out the front and cut the middle of the flaps off. this makes it stand up like a table.

    I put tape on the flaps, bent them perpendicular to the panel, and taped it so it’s not directly touching the window. I think this is what Trent meant, it needs that space to create heat and vent it out. That would be a great invention if it had a little fan blowing it out, maybe even a small solar panel to power the fan.

    I think it is easier to cover it with foil first and cover the whole side, taping the edges of the foil to the back side.

    The foil got wrinkled in the process so I smoothed it out with a zippo. I noticed the paint didn’t cover the wrinkled surface as well took more paint to cover.

    I used an old bottle of black nail pollish and it’l probably be $0.50 after haloween. It spread easier after I diluted it w/some pollish remover, stretched too. 1 bottle covered a lg. cereal box.

    Even though it’s overcast, I feel some heat being generated. It’s a neat idea.

  16. Marcy says:

    Good idea Optimus. I use Google all the time, I even do that for zip codes. I could look on my thermostat too. It just bugs me when people have that ‘you don’t know___ like I do’ attitude. It was a little sarcastic. I know, I know, it’s not nice and I feel a twinge of guilt. It wasn’t nice. I just don’t think it would hurt all of us to be a little more humble in our interactions. So, I’m sorry I was sarcastic. I would like to add that, everyone’s perceptions and interpretations of their environment and the world are different, at least to some extent. Making such absolute statements is not exacly accurate. We need to learn to be more tollerant and respect the opinions of others because we all have em.

  17. Elizabeth says:

    I actually had an energy auditor tell me that it’s not particularly frugal to replace windows — it may make your house more comfortable, but you won’t make back the huge cost of the new windows over any kind of reasonable time frame. The frugal thing to do, he argued, is to make sure windows are well-sealed against air leaks, and to put plastic over any single-pane windows. We’ve actually left our plastic up year-round on some of the single-pane windows that a) we never need to open and b) have curtains around them that distract from the fact they’ve got plastic wrap on them.

    From an environmental point of view I haven’t seen the exact numbers of how much extra energy brand new windows would save vs. plastic covers, if we were willing to spend the extra money.

    I have to admit I was biased to take this advice because my house was built pre-1900 and at this point it’s a pretty special thing to still have original windows. Maybe I wouldn’t be so attached to old 1950’s windows.

  18. Wendy Huff says:

    Thank-you for the tip about not closing off rooms. I’ve tried a plethora of solutions with varied results to cut back on my heating bill. I have had some luck with tinted plastic on my deck doors. They block the glare and hold in heat.

  19. Macinac says:

    I’m unconvinced about not closing off rooms. My house has zone heating, with the basement being one zone. I fail to understand (intuitively) how heating the basement would bring down the total bill. I suppose I should read the gas meter and do an experiment.

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